April 17, 2024

Guided meditations were useful in decreasing emotional distress during COVID lockdowns, but the effect was not lasting

A study examined the effect of 30-minute guided meditations focused on enhancing mindfulness and self-compassion on symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns in Spain. The results demonstrated that the meditations reduced symptoms of emotional distress, but the benefits were short-lived. The study was published in the European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education.

Self-compassion is a psychological concept and practice that involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness, particularly in moments of struggle, failure, or suffering. It consists of three key elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness means being gentle and supportive toward oneself rather than overly critical or judgmental. Common humanity recognizes that suffering and challenges are part of the human experience. Mindfulness involves being aware of one’s emotions and thoughts without getting lost in them.

Studies have indicated that practicing self-compassion might have a protective role for one’s mental health, while its absence creates a mental health vulnerability. Due to this, both researchers and practitioners have been experimenting with programs aimed at developing self-compassion, particularly mindfulness, with an expectation that this will improve various adverse mental health symptoms.

When the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns started in Spain, study author María Elena Gutiérrez-Hernández and her colleagues set out to develop an intervention program based on mindfulness and self-compassion training that would help reduce emotional distress during these stressful events. Their program was delivered in the format of 30-minute meditation sessions, online. The format allowed participants to engage with it at different times of day. A follow-up was scheduled two months post-program.

Participants were sourced from social media during Spain’s 10-week lockdown initiated in 2020. They were randomly split into two groups: 74 in the meditation group and 65 in the control group. The latter was a “waitlist group,” informed they would commence the program later. After the primary intervention, this control group gained access to the online meditation program at no cost. Over 84% of participants in both groups were female, with an average age of 41.

The intervention group was further divided into a group that meditated in the morning and the group that meditating in the evening. The meditation sessions were taken from various mindfulness development protocols, self-compassion programs and Buddhist traditional meditation sessions. Each mediation period was followed by a 30-minute inquiry and discussion period.

At three points (the study’s beginning, post-meditation intervention, and two months thereafter) both groups underwent online evaluations for emotional distress (measured using the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale-21) and self-compassion (assessed with the Self-Compassion Scale-Short Form, which captures all three self-compassion elements).

The results showed that the overall self-compassion level and levels of all three elements remained more or less the same during the intervention in the waitlist group. However, they increased in the intervention group. The increase was the strongest on overall self-compassion and in self-kindness.

The intervention’s impact on emotional distress was more subtle. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress dipped post-intervention but aligned with the control group’s averages two months later. Enhanced self-compassion was closely tied to the alleviation of emotional distress symptoms.

“The main results showed that the program improved self-compassion levels and had a positive influence on its three components (i.e., self-kindness–self-judgment, common humanity–isolation, and mindfulness–over-identification). The program also had an immediate post-intervention effect, decreasing the level of anxiety, depression, and stress. However, this improvement was not maintained, even though the active intervention group received a guided meditation weekly at follow-up,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on the effects of self-compassion-based meditation programs on emotional distress. However, it should be noted that the study sample was mainly female and self-selected to a great extent. Also, the study was conducted during a short and unusual period in history (the COVID-19 lockdowns). The results of intervention might not be the same on male participants and outside the lockdown period.

The study, “The Effect of Daily Meditative Practices Based on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion on Emotional Distress under Stressful Conditions: A Randomized Controlled Trial”, was authored by María Elena Gutiérrez-Hernández, Luisa Fernanda Fanjul Rodríguez, Alicia Díaz Megolla, Cristián Oyanadel, and Wenceslao Peñate Castro.

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