Teaching medical and psychology students to increase their awareness of habitual patterns of thought can have enduring positive effects on mental distress and coping strategies, according to new research published in the journal Mindfulness.
In the study, 288 students from two Norwegian universities were randomly assigned to either a 7-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program or an inactive control condition.
The mindfulness training program consisted of six weekly sessions of 1.5 hours each, a 6-hour session in week seven, and a recommended 30 minutes of daily home mindfulness practice. The program included physical and mental exercises, didactic teaching on mindfulness, stress management and mindful communication, and group discussions on practicing mindfulness.
The researchers assessed the participants’ general levels of mental distress, subjective well-being, coping, and mindfulness prior to the training program and again 1 month and 2 and 4 years after the intervention.
The study found evidence that the mindfulness-based stress reduction program “reduced mental distress and enhanced coping in a small but enduring fashion.”
The mindfulness training was associated with positive improvements in mental distress, mindfulness, avoidance coping and problem-focused coping 4 years after participating in the program.
“The observation of long-term improvements in mindfulness and coping was encouraging considering the considerable workload and stress expected in students’ future professional careers, and the detrimental consequences of stress for the quality of patient care,” the researchers said. “Therefore, our findings make a case for the value of mindfulness training as a curricular tool.”
The program was also associated with improvements in subjective well-being and coping by seeking social support. However, these effects were only short-term and were not maintained 4 years later.
The study — like all research — includes some caveats.
The “participants were self-selected, young, predominantly white medical and psychology students. Therefore, the results might not be generalizable to other age or ethnic groups, individuals with less education or those less motivated to undertake a mindfulness course,” the researchers said.
A number of participants also dropped out of study over the course of 4 years, which could have influenced the results.
Participants who dropped out “showed lower adherence to mindfulness practice at post-intervention, and higher levels of mental distress and lower levels of dispositional mindfulness,” the researchers explained. “Therefore, longitudinal results might not be generalizable to students less motivated to practise mindfulness exercises and who develop higher levels of mental distress.”
The study, “Long-term Mental Health Effects of Mindfulness Training: a 4-Year Follow-up Study“, was authored by Ida Solhaug, Michael de Vibe, Oddgeir Friborg, Tore Sørlie, Reidar Tyssen, Arild Bjørndal, and Jan H. Rosenvinge.