Why “Mindfulness” May Only Work For Women

 

The rise in popularity of mindfulness has been rapid and widespread in recent years, and despite its slightly woo-woo name, studies are rolling in to support its efficacy: Forbes reports that according to a recent study, an eight-week course of mindfulness training yielded similar efficacy to cognitive behavior therapy--an important discovery if it holds up, considering the cost-effectiveness and accessibility of mindfulness as opposed to receiving treatment by a psychotherapist.

But in a separate study conducted by Brown University, another interesting development has emerged: the practice of “intentionally and non-judgmentally directing one’s attention to present sensations and feelings,” as it’s defined by Brown professor Willoughby Britton, is significantly less effective for men than it is for women.

The study examined 41 male students and 36 female students enrolled in a 12-week course on mindfulness that included 30-minute labs encompassing “contemplative practices” derived from Buddhist and Daoist traditions. At the end of the course, women showed a 11.6% decline in negative feelings, while the men showed a “nonsignificant” 3.7% increase. Both groups showed an increase in the actual skills associated with mindfulness and self-compassion, though women made greater gains.

Britton suspects the results have to do with how women and men access their emotions and societal standards:

“The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract,” Britton said. “So for people that tend to be willing to confront or expose themselves or turn toward the difficult, mindfulness is made for [improving] that. For people who have been largely turning their attention away from the difficult, to suddenly bring all their attention to their difficulties can be somewhat counterproductive. While facing one’s difficulties and feeling one’s emotions may seem to be universally beneficial, it does not take into account that there may be different cultural expectations for men and women around emotionality.”

The findings may eventually support the need for mindfulness curricula that caters separately to men and women, so that’s something to keep in mind if your partner or brother or friend seems to be struggling with the whole mindfulness thing. The silver lining? The efficacy of the practice for women is still great news, considering women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression.

-Deena Drewis