Mindfulness appears to diminish depressive symptoms by reducing rumination

New research sheds light on the relationship between depression and mindfulness. The study found that people who exhibit more dispositional mindfulness tend to ruminate less about past events.

“I have long studied rumination, which is a counterproductive way that some people approach difficult situations and aversive emotions (e.g., anxiety, fear, and a self-defeated stance), and I have recently become interested in mindfulness, as it seems, in many ways, to be the opposite of rumination,” explained study author Paul Jose, a professor of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington.

“Ruminators tend to latch onto a negative emotion and repeatedly mull it over in their mind, whereas mindfulness teaches us to not to become entangled with our negative emotions. Instead, according to Buddhist teachings, one should be aware of one’s negative emotions, e.g., worrying about an upcoming event, but just let the negative emotions pass away without becoming unduly attached to them.”

For their study, which was published in the journal Mindfulness, the researchers surveyed 483 New Zealanders (ages 16 to 80 years) regarding their emotional functioning three times over nine months.

They found that three of the five facets of mindfulness (acting with awareness, non-judging, and non-reacting) were negatively related to depressive symptoms and that rumination mediated the relationship between mindfulness and depressive symptoms over time.

In other words, participants who scored higher these measures of mindfulness at the outset of the study were less likely to ruminate 3 months later, which in turn was associated with a reduction of depressive symptoms another 3 months later.

“Taking a mindful approach to the stresses and strains of everyday life will encourage a person to not get caught up in unhealthy perseverations of ruminative thought, and, as a result, one is more likely to avoid episodes of depressive thoughts,” Jose told PsyPost.

“A person who is mindful does not actively try to suppress negative emotions, which is usually a losing strategy, but instead a mindful person is aware of reality but does not give power and longevity to panicky thoughts and feelings.”

Unsurprisingly, the study also found that participants who practiced meditating reported higher levels of mindfulness.

But the researchers did encounter an unexpected finding. A subcomponent of mindfulness, known as observing, was positively related to rumination and depressive symptoms. Observing describes paying attention to sensations that occur within one’s own mind and body.

Like all research, the study includes some other caveats as well.

“Although we showed a ‘statistically significant’ temporal relationship among mindfulness, rumination, and depressive symptoms, the relationship was not large in size. This result should properly be viewed as saying that mindfulness can be helpful in avoiding becoming caught up in cycles of rumination and of avoiding depressive thoughts, but that there are many other pathways of human functioning that can have the same positive results,” Jose explained.

“Future work would usefully explain more precisely how mindfulness provides a protective resource for individuals coping with their problems. Perhaps the mindfulness facets of non-judging and non-reacting are associated with particularly helpful coping strategies, such as cognitive restructuring?”

“Mindfulness dynamics seem to provide protective influences for various people for various psychological difficulties: clearly the relationships among the multifaceted construct of mindfulness and various psychological and health outcomes will be many and complicated. Much work yet remains to fully understand how mindfulness can be beneficial for humans striving to lives in an optimal fashion,” Jose added.

The study, “Does Rumination Function as a Longitudinal Mediator Between Mindfulness and Depression?” was authored by Tasmin K. Jury and Paul E. Jose.