Mindfulness needs to take account of gender

New research suggests that mindfulness should be adapted to the different ways men and women process emotions. 

Mindfulness is the new buzzword in world of talking therapy. Its popularity has soared in the last few years and therapists and clients alike enthuse about its effectiveness. There have been several studies that show mindfulness helps to fight depression, fatigue, posture, and even disease by boosting health on a cellular level.

Mindfulness teaches people to focus their attention on their immediate sensations and emotions, let go of the past and future, and focus not just on the present, but on the now. It also teaches practitioners to acknowledge feelings but in a way that is neither judgmental nor self-critical.

But a new study conducted by Brown University has examined how its effects might be different for men and women, and the news is both good – and bad.

The Brown Study followed the progress of a group of male and female students as they received mindfulness training. They discovered that the women experienced a significant change in their emotional state, while the changes in men were minimal.

Analysing feedback from the volunteers, the researchers claim that mindfulness – as it is currently practiced – is ideal for women. Women are already known to be more likely seek help than men and women also tend to dwell on things more than men, who are, in general, already focused on the present. Men already have the ability to completely shut off past and future worries and so for most men, mindfulness is surplus to requirements.

There are two more studies in the pipeline that seem set to confirm this, but, the Brown study already shows a clear benefit for women, who can be more vulnerable to emotional problems and depression.

Emotional problems in early adulthood, including depression, are linked to a majority of negative behaviours that further disadvantage women, such as poor academic performance, early pregnancy and substance abuse.

Dr Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour and of behavioural and social sciences at Brown University, says that mindfulness sessions at college could potentially teach women skills to help them better manage negative feelings and emotions. To be given the opportunity to do so at this early age could have potentially far-reaching beneficial effects on women’s lives.

Mindfulness is becoming more popular on American college campuses as students and administrators alike view it as a way of helping students manage stress or depression.

The 77 student volunteers in the Brown study took part in more than 40 hours of training and meditation over 12 weeks. Both male and female students showed progress in practicing the skills that were taught as part of meditation and both gained in several specific mindfulness and self-compassion skills.

Overall, both male and female scores increased significantly. But when the researchers compared the results, they found that it was the women who had benefited the most.

The improvement in women was directly related to improved mindfulness and self-compassion skills involving specific techniques dealing with experience and emotions such as being less self-critical, being kinder to themselves, and being less susceptible to their emotions. They also improved their ability to identify, describe and differentiate their emotions.

The research suggests that mindfulness techniques might be adapted to address the ways that men and women typically process emotions.

People who are naturally to confront the difficulties life throws at them will get the most from mindfulness. On the other hand, people who habitually turn their attention away from difficulties and who are then suddenly forced to face them might not get as much benefit.

Facing one’s difficulties and facing one’s emotions may at first seem to be universally beneficial, but it does not take into account the different cultural and emotional expectations of both the sexes.

If this is correct, mindfulness strategies might in future be tailored to individual needs – something that hypnotherapy and other psychotherapeutic disciplines have been doing for decades. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ regime in psychotherapy – it’s all a matter of finding out from the client what their precise needs are. After all, everyone is different and everyone sees the world in different ways – and that is especially true when it comes to gender.


Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.