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Is Mindfulness Meditation Less Effective for Men?

That’s the unexpected implication of a small-scale study from Brown University.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Afonso Coutinho/Unsplash)

There’s been quite a bit of recent research pointing to the benefits of mindfulness meditation. The regular practice of watching one’s thoughts and emotions without judgment has been found to reduce stress, enhance resilience, and maybe even help with weight loss.

It’s perhaps inevitable, then, that further research has added an asterisk to all that success. A new study that measures a valuable potential benefit — reducing the intensity of negative emotions — suggests the technique, at least as it is currently caught, may be far more effective for women than for men.

Men “may require mindfulness interventions better matched to the particular coping styles that they tend to use,” reports a research team led by Rahil Rojiani of the Yale School of Medicine and Willoughby Britton of Brown University’s Contemplative Studies Initiative.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, featured 77 Brown University undergraduates who took a 12-week course in mindfulness training. It included weekly seminars and three hour-long lab sessions per week.

The labs “included approximately 30 minutes of a specific contemplative practice from Buddhist or Taoist traditions,” the researchers write. Participants reported meditating an average of 41-and-a-half hours over the 12 weeks, including practice sessions at home; on average, the men meditated over seven hours more than the women.

At the beginning and end of the course, the students filled out a series of surveys, including one that measured both positive emotions (the degree to which they were currently experiencing such feelings as interest, excitement, and enthusiasm) and negative ones (shame, distress, irritability). They also noted the extent to which they learned key mindfulness skills, reporting their level of agreement with such statements as “I watch my feelings without getting lost in them.”

“Both women and men improved significantly on most measures (of mindfulness),” the researchers report. But in terms of practical results, the results were far more mixed. Female students reported significant reductions in negative emotions, while the men recorded “slight but non-significant increases” in these unwanted feelings.

This was surprising, says Britton, who added that she has found the same pattern in two additional (yet-to-be-published) studies. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a widespread phenomenon,” she told the Brown University press office.

Britton and her colleagues suspect the results reflect the different ways men and women typically process negative emotions. “Women tend to ‘internalize’ by ruminating or engaging in self-critical behavior,” they write, “while men tend to ‘externalize’ by distracting themselves” or acting out in some way.

Mindfulness has been shown to decrease rumination, which would explain why the female students felt fewer negative emotions. But that same technique apparently prompted men to stop distracting themselves and focus on their unpleasant feelings — a valuable step toward self-awareness, but hardly one that would improve a person’s mood.

The researchers found preliminary evidence that one particular aspect of mindfulness training was useful to men: “the ability to identify, describe, and differentiate one’s emotions.” Becoming more emotionally literate has many practical benefits; this finding, which needs to be replicated and expanded upon, suggests men could benefit from “practices that emphasize this skill.”

“It is also possible that more active forms of mindfulness training, such as yoga or Tai Chi, may work better for men … given that they may better accommodate the external coping strategy more typical of men,” the researchers add.

This was a small study, and previous research finding mindfulness helps marines recover from battlefield stress suggests it can, in fact, produce positive results in men. But these nuanced findings are a reminder that mindfulness is much like any other psychological intervention in that one size does not necessarily fit all.