Gender is a potential factor in measuring the effectiveness of mindfulness but individual differences are equally as important, according to Rahil Rojiani, co-lead author of a Brown University study that tracked student outcomes in a 12-week scholarly course on mindfulness.
Data was collected over several semesters from 2008-2011, about 77 university students (36 women) enrolled in Brown’s mindfulness course that features experiential practice-based learning through meditation labs three times per week with contemplative practice from Buddhist or Daoist traditions.
Students also attend weekly seminars and take part in written reflection and question and answer periods.
Participants also completed questionnaires at the start and end of the course using the following tools: Positive and Negative Affect Scale, The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire and the Self Compassion Scale.
The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, show a clearer benefit in mood for women, who are more vulnerable to negative affect and depression.
“The fact that a college course could teach women skills to better manage negative affect at this early age could have potentially far reaching effects on women’s lives,” said co-lead author Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences at Brown.
Rojiani, now a third year medical student at Yale, noted that there was no significant difference in the degree of negative affect when both sexes entered the class and each gender practiced meditation in and outside of class for an average of 41 hours.
While women had an 11.6 percent decline on the standardized score, (a positive change to mood), men showed a non-significant 3.7 increase in their scores.
Women made greater gains in four of five areas of mindfulness including self-compassion skills. They demonstrated an ability to be less self-critical, more kind with themselves and over-identified less with emotions.
Men showed an improvement in their ability to identify, describe and differentiate their emotions, the research said.
Rojiani said it is an “over exaggeration” to say that women benefit from mindfulness and men do not.
Instead, he said men and women adopt different coping strategies with men likely to use more active or external means such as yoga, playing video games, watching TV or taking part in other physical activity to deal with stress.
In contrast, women are more prone to “internalize,” – writing or thinking about the negative event.
“As practitioners, you need to look at who is coming in with what strategy and base the meditation on that,” Rojiani said. “Gender is only a little bit of it. The message is to better frame and tailor the treatment to that individual. Let’s be innovative and tailor mindfulness to all sorts of folks.”
Although his medical studies are keeping him from further research in this area for the time being, Rojiani said that he would love a study of this kind to involve a larger, younger set of students. Introducing school children to mindfulness and broad coping strategies could help to prevent mental health issues before they start to develop, he said.
By Susan Gonsalves