- Teaching mindfulness in schools has been shown to be ineffective and can increase symptoms.
- Mindfulness breaks up mental rigidity, allowing emotions to be experienced.
- People must also learn tools to tolerate mental discomfort.
- Mindfulness-based interventions should not be discarded but used as part of a comprehensive approach.
Mental rigidity is akin to suppressing thoughts in that you allow yourself only certain sets and types of thoughts and emotions. Your emotional/mental bandwidth is limited, and it is difficult to respond appropriately to social cues and signals from others. You may behave in a manner that hurts and damages others. Mental inflexibility (rigidity) is a trait that is common to many mental health diagnoses.1
A large prospective study done in the UK tracked mindfulness-based teaching to over 8,000 students and compared it to usual practices. The mean age of students was 12 years. The study reported that there was no significant benefit and actually caused more problems among many students with prior mental health issues. The researchers recommended that non-specific mindfulness interventions not be implemented in the school system.2
A 2023 paper extensively summarizing the literature on mental rigidity pointed out that the trait is characterized by automaticity and inflexibility and is centered around concepts of self. Patterns of thinking that may have been useful in the past remain fixed and often not relevant to the current situation. Rigidity can wreak havoc on relationships, quality of life, and ability to adapt to life’s challenges.1
Self is defined by dynamic interactions between various regions of the brain,. Lack of mental flexibility shows up on functional MRI brain scans as disruptions in connectivity between these areas.
Re-establishing flexibility seems to be important in the treatment of many health disorders, including major depression, complex psychological trauma, and substance use/addiction disorders. Mindfulness practices (MBIs) have been shown to lessen mental rigidity both clinically and on imaging studies.1
Increasing Mental Pain
The recommendation regarding mindfulness in schools overlooks an important fact— the conditions under which it is ineffective and can exacerbate mental symptoms. Part of the answer lies in looking at why rigidity exists in the first place.
One reason is that humans don't/can’t tolerate mental/emotional pain. Rigidity is one way of limiting exposure. to pain. As rigidity is broken up with mindfulness, what happens? You’ll feel even more emotional pain, which is often intolerable.3 It isn’t surprising that mindfulness increases symptoms in students with prior mental health diagnoses. People must also learn to feel safe in order to move forward. You would never cross a street unless you first felt it was safe to do so.
Used and tested alone as an approach to be implemented in the school system, mindfulness can’t work. What is also needed is teaching students how to also calm their threat physiology (flight or fight body chemistry) in order to feel safe.
Breaking up rigidity alone opens up the dam of suppressed thoughts and emotions, and it is predictable that those who are already struggling would experience a worsening of symptoms. For those without mental health issues, mindfulness alone won’t help one way or the other without further strategies to improve quality of life.
Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are effective in increasing the dynamic interactions and connectivity between regions of the brain that define self. The term is the “pattern theory of self," and mental flexibility is increased.3
Define Where MBI’s Fit
Chronic disease is complex and isolated interventions are usually ineffective. However, they should not be discarded, because they can fit into a larger treatment plan. MBIs may be an excellent entry point for many people suffering from major depression, complex trauma, and addiction/substance abuse. However, opening up the flood gates without showing them a way to feel safe is problematic. MBIs favorably alter the brain activity underlying these problems. Instead of discarding MBIs, we should be asking, “what are additional effective treatments?”
Learning to tolerate mental pain is at the core of addressing mental health, and it requires learning specific skills. Become a professional at living your life.
1. Giommi F, et al. The (in)flexible self: Psychopathology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology (2023); 23:100381. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2023.100381
2. Montero-Marin J, et al. School-based mindfulness training in early adolescence: what works, for whom, and how in the MYRIAD trial? Evidence Based Mental Health (2022); 25:117-124. doi:10.1136/ebmental-2022-300439
3. Frisch S, et al. Forgotten negative emotional memories increase pain unpleasantness. Submitted for publication, 2023.