How mindfulness research has been affected by COVID-19

Aug 28, 2020 — Steven Yorke
How mindfulness research has been affected by COVID-19

The worldwide pandemic has affected us all, and the scientific community is no exception. Here are just a few examples of current mindfulness research projects and how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic.

University of Cambridge, UK

During lockdown, Dr Julieta Galante and her team at the University of Cambridge have focused on analysing already collected data and writing up results for publication. Their main project, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, was a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis of in-person mindfulness based programmes for mental health promotion in non-clinical settings.

Dr Galante explains: “Including data from over 130 trials, our meta-analysis aimed to not only to look at their average effectiveness, but also to explore whether benefits are to be expected in any non-clinical setting. The resulting manuscript is currently under peer-review. Hopefully, results will be out there soon, and will help to make mindfulness courses safer and more effective in what will probably be a very demanding post-COVID era”.

Another strand of work focused on analysing one-year follow-up trial data from their Mindful Student Study; their paper has just been accepted for publication by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Bath University, UK

At the Bath Centre for Mindfulness and Compassion, Dr. Ben Ainsworth is working on a project exploring how to provide mindfulness to help people with chronic respiratory disease (like asthma). Ben and his team have interviewed patients with asthma, as well as conducting randomised controlled trials to find out whether they can use digital technology to help patients access mindfulness resources in a way that suits them (and their busy lifestyles).

The need to support access to these resources has become really apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Dr. Ainsworth said “While some of our ‘in person’ research has ground to a halt, our work with digital technology has actually been moving even faster. People have started to realise that although apps and websites are quite different to an in-person therapy, the support they can offer is invaluable during times when attending a group class is difficult or impossible”.

City University of London, UK

When the lock-down started, Dr. Jutta Tobias Mortlock, co-director of City’s Centre for Excellence in Mindfulness Research (CEMR), was about to conduct face-to-face interviews with Royal Marine recruits to explore potential links between mindfulness and resilience.

“We had to redo our research protocol, because remote interviewing requires additional safeguarding, which delayed our study”, Tobias Mortlock explains. However, public interest in mindfulness may never have been higher. “We’ve been running online lunchtime mindfulness sessions at City since March”, she relates, “and our mindfulness community has grown substantially – because of the pandemic.”

University of Derby, UK

At the University of Derby, there has been a change of focus for Dr. William Van Gordon such that part of his research is now concerned with what role mindfulness can play to assist with efforts to minimise the impact of the pandemic.

Dr. Van Gordon says, “I'm conducting a series of studies investigating how a mindfulness intervention known as Meditation Awareness Training can help frontline healthcare workers cope with the mental health challenges of working during the pandemic.

“Due to social distancing requirements and uncertainty regarding reverting to stricter lockdown measures, I am having to factor in contingency plans during the research design stage. A consequence of this is that I'm conducting more research via remote means, including delivering mindfulness training and interventions over the internet as opposed via a face-to-face format”.

Brown University, USA

Many people are trying out mindfulness apps to help them cope with the stress of the pandemic. For many this will be a life-improving new skill. For others, the ones that Dr. Willoughby Britton researches and supports at Brown University, mindfulness will lead to further destabilization.

Dr. Britton explains, “Some will find that focusing on the breath during a respiratory virus pandemic is more likely to induce anxiety and panic than relaxation and calm. Others may follow instructions to focus attention on their bodies, and by doing so unlocking traumas that are hiding there. For all these cases of meditation-induced problems, they can find evidence-based information and support at Cheetah House. During the pandemic, we have increased support groups to twice per week to accommodate the increased volume of meditators-in-distress (about 15-20 per week)”.

Cardiff University, University of Brighton and University of Kent, UK

We are currently witnessing an exponential growth in the provision and practice of mindfulness, but our understanding remains limited to studies concerning its therapeutic efficacy, rather than its wider social significance.

‘Mapping Mindfulness’ is a landmark study led by Dr Steven Stanley, Dr Alp Arat, Dr Peter Hemming, Professor Richard King, and Dr Elena Hailwood, for which Cardiff University was awarded funding from the Leverhulme Trust in collaboration with University of Brighton and University of Kent. By investigating the people, places and practices comprising the field of mindfulness through survey, interviews, focus groups and observations, the 3-year project aims to provide the first large-scale social study of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ of mindfulness provision in the UK. Read more about Mapping Mindfulness

The research team report: “We are making good progress and have collected approximately 800 survey responses and conducted interviews and focus groups with around 100 teachers and leaders of mindfulness. We have also carried out over 400 hours of case-study observations of mindfulness provision across the health and well-being, work, education, politics, and religion sectors, and are now in the middle of analysing our data”.

They go on to say: “COVID-19 has presented considerable challenges for the project, resulting in one of the case-study courses moving online along with our associated observations, and delays to analysis due to the impacts of online working and related challenges encountered by members of the research team. As a result, the project has been granted a 3.5-month extension and we expect to be in a position to disseminate initial findings to our stakeholders towards the middle of 2021.”

San Francisco State University, USA

At San Francisco State University, Dr. Jennifer Daubenmier gives an example of a mindfulness research project that hasn't been impacted by the pandemic.

Dr. Daubenmier is exploring whether the benefits of mindfulness extend to people from diverse backgrounds. The majority of the most rigorous studies of mindfulness and randomized controlled trials, have been conducted among white participants and those with higher educational backgrounds. Little is known about whether such benefits extend to people of color and those without a 4-year college degree.

To address these questions, Dr. Daubenmier is examining how the race/ethnicity and educational background of participants in a randomized controlled trial of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention impacts their success with long-term weight loss maintenance. Data are being analyzed from a trial that ended several years ago, and so this research fortunately is not impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Daubenmier explains, “This research is particularly meaningful and relevant given increased awareness of racism and renewed calls for racial justice. In a recent paper accepted for publication in Psychosomatic Medicine, we are beginning to find some evidence that mindfulness meditation and mindful eating combined with a diet and exercise weight loss program may help to improve weight loss among the more vulnerable of our population”.


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