Mindfulness meditation, a commonly used treatment for a broad spectrum of mental health disorders, shows significantly greater effects in reducing negative thinking patterns in women than men, new research shows.
A study conducted by investigators at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, found that women experienced significantly greater decreases in negative affect compared to their male counterparts.
“A key take-home message from this is that a one-size-fits-all approach to mindfulness training may not be most effective for everyone and that more tailored approaches may be worth looking into,” first author Rahil Rojiani, an MD candidate at Yale School of Medicine, told Medscape Medical News.
The study was published online April 20 Frontiers in Psychology.
Previous studies of mindfulness meditation, specifically for the treatment of addiction and substance abuse, have shown differences in responses in accordance with patients’ sex, with women showing greater preference for and benefits from the approach. However, there is a lack of research into sex differences in broader contexts.
The study included 77 university students (average age, 20 years; 36 women) who participated in 12-week courses that focused on mindfulness meditation training. There were no significant differences in baseline measures of positive or negative thought patterns, or affect, between men and women.
In addition to weekly seminars, the meditation training included experiential practice-based learning through meditation labs. Mindfulness practice included focusing on the present without judgment.
Self-report questionnaires regarding positive and negative affect, mindfulness, and self-compassion were administered before and after the course. Results showed that women reported greater decreases in negative affect, correlating with five factors of mindfulness and self-compassion (for each, P < .001).
“For women, decreases in negative affect were significantly correlated with improvements in mindfulness skills involving their tendency to notice thoughts and emotions without identifying with or judging them, and self-compassion skills involving increased self-kindness and reduced tendencies toward self-judgment and over-identification with emotions,” the authors write.
In contrast, there were no correlations between negative affect and men’s improvements on mindfulness and self-compassion.
“This suggests that the therapeutic mechanism of mindfulness for negative affect may be gender-specific,” the authors note.
Interestingly, on average, men meditated more than women by more than 7 hours during the course of the 12-week study, ruling out the possibility that women may have shown more improvement because they meditated more.
“When we initially discovered the gender difference, we thought that maybe women just had better compliance, they did their homework, but that wasn’t true either, since men meditated more, so that was a surprise,” Rojiani said.
The authors theorized that sex variances may relate to differences in how men and women respond to stress. Women, the investigators note, tend to internalize their response, whereas men tend to externalize. The known effect of mindfulness meditation in helping to mitigate rumination may be expected to be more pronounced in those who internalize distress.
“Drawing on other studies which suggest that mindfulness interventions decrease rumination, we propose the hypothesis that mindfulness interventions may produce better results for women by decreasing ruminative tendencies which targets women’s tendencies toward an internalized response to distress,” they write.
Even in light of that theory, Rojiani said it was a surprise to see no improvement in negative affect in men.
“Even with a gender difference, we did expect some improvement in men. We think this may be due to a socialized masculine tendency to distract in the face of stress,” he said.
“We suggest that the divergent effects we observed were caused primarily by gender-based mechanistic differences in emotion regulation techniques, which have also been reported in other contexts,” the authors write.
Importantly, regardless of the sex of the participants, there were no improvements in measures of positive affect with mindfulness meditation, in contrast to other studies that have shown improvements in both areas.
Rojiani noted that in the study, mindfulness meditation was conducted as part of an academic course participants took for college credit and not as a therapeutic intervention.
“The fact that an academic class with no therapeutic intent can have positive mental health benefits for anyone is quite novel and encouraging,” he said.
Previous studies supporting the findings include a study showing that mindfulness training reduces maladaptive rumination while increasing adaptive rumination, and a meta-analysis showing that women score higher than men in areas of rumination, brooding, and reflection (for all, P < .01).
The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
Front Psychol. Published online April 20, 2017. Full text