Can mindfulness exercises by themselves help with symptoms of anxiety and depression? The answer is yes, according to a new meta-review of 18 studies on the topic.

In the meta-review, researchers looked to see whether mindfulness exercises in and of themselves have therapeutic potential. Mindfulness exercises are often researched as one part of a broader program of psychotherapy, so the researchers were curious whether “standalone mindfulness exercises” – those not performed as part of a wider treatment framework – were helpful.

The researchers found 18 studies addressing this question that involved a total of 1,150 participants. When they analyzed the results across all these studies, they found that regular mindfulness exercises done on their own had a modest but real ability to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

When doing a review of existing scientific research, one question researchers often look at is whether the results have been affected by “publication bias.” That is, it’s possible that editors more often accept papers with more striking results, which can lead to the impression that the effect is stronger than it actually is (because the studies showing smaller effects don’t get published!).

In this case, when the researchers accounted for the possibility of publication bias, the effect became less dramatic, but it was still statistically significant. Overall, there seems to be robust evidence that practicing mindfulness in and of itself can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

This study will likely add to researchers’ and clinicians’ interest in mindfulness as a tool for mental health. After all, previous psychology research has suggested that mindfulness exercises can be useful in everything from reducing substance use to treating chronic pain. With this latest meta-review, the evidence continues to accumulate that while mindfulness is not a cure-all or a replacement for other kinds of treatment, it’s certainly something that’s worth trying if you’re looking for habits that can nourish your mental health!

Image: Flickr/Heidi Forbes Öste