Mindfulness training relieves depressive symptoms
A new study presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium found that training young women diagnosed with breast cancer in mindfulness practices can reduce symptoms of depression.
The Pathways to Wellness trial found that courses in mindfulness awareness and in practical survivorship information improved scores on a questionnaire measuring depressive symptoms. But people in the mindfulness course continued to show that benefit 6 months after the course ended. People in the mindfulness course also saw improvement in fatigue, sleep problems, and hot flashes, effects that also lasted 6 months after the course ended.
About 20 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed in women under the age of 50, and previous research has shown that these women are at higher risk for negative side effects and for symptoms of depression that last for months. Complementary and integrative therapies, such as mindfulness practices, can help manage some side effects.
Mindfulness awareness practices take different forms but generally involve clearing your mind of distractions and focusing on something simple, such as your breath or sensations in your body. Past studies have found mindfulness practices to have a positive impact on mental health and to lower the levels of hormones related to stress.
Pathways to Wellness trial
The Pathways to Wellness trial looked at two different programs designed to reduce depression in women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer before age 50.
- Mindfulness awareness practices
- Survivorship education addressing genetics and breast cancer, work-life balance, body image, and other practical and emotional concerns
Both interventions were 6-week, group-based educational programs that met for 2-hour meetings each week. The programs had standard curriculums and were run at multiple centers. A control group was put on a wait list and did not participate in either program.
The study randomized 247 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer before the age of 50 and joined the trial between 6 months and 5 years after diagnosis. None of the participants had been practicing meditation when they joined the trial and they were found to have symptoms of at least mild depression.
Participants went through four assessments that included a comprehensive questionnaire, weight and height measurements, and a blood test for inflammatory markers:
- Baseline, taken before being randomized to a group
- After completing the 6-week program (or 6 weeks without a program for the control group)
- 3 months after finishing the program
- 6 months after finishing the program
The primary interest of the study was the state of depressive symptoms after finishing the program. Secondary interests included status of fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, hot flashes, and insomnia.
All three study groups showed mild depression in the baseline results. After their respective 6-week programs, the mindfulness group and the survivorship education group experienced a lessening of depression that held through the 3-month evaluation. But at the 6-month follow-up, only the mindfulness group continued to show less depression compared to the control group.
Both the mindfulness and the survivorship education programs lessened anxiety for participants, but the effect went away for both these groups by the 3-month follow-up.
The study measured three other symptoms:
- Fatigue severity
- Hot flashes
- Sleep problems
For each of these symptoms, only the group that participated in the mindfulness program had improved symptoms that sustained or improved at the 3-month and 6-month follow-ups.
What this means for you
These findings support what we already know about the benefits of mindfulness practices for mental health. This study found that practical education can lessen depression, but the effects did not last as long as they did for people who went through the mindfulness program. The mindfulness program also lessened fatigue, sleep problems, and hot flashes, with effects that persisted months after the program ended.
Mindfulness practices can be easy and low-cost to start. You can look for in-person program or work online with a coach or guide in real-time if you find that helpful, but it is also easy to start a practice on your own using free or low-cost resources online. Once you learn the skills, you can maintain a mindfulness practice on your own and use it as a tool to deal with other stressful situations.