Zindel Segal was in a Toronto bookstore a few weeks ago, when a title caught his eye. The book, The Mindful Investor, caused him a moment of shock and panic.
"I turned to someone and said, 'This is the beginning of the end,' " recalls Dr. Segal, who heads the cognitive behaviour therapy clinic at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The book, which purports to explain how a calm mind can help a person achieve financial security, is a sign that the concept of mindfulness is making a leap into mass popularity. But that doesn't mean people actually understand it, he says.
Mindfulness is a technique for slowing down and examining one's thought processes, and learning to be in the moment. Based on Buddhist principles, it became popular in the United States in the 1970s, and was taken up by celebs such as Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn. Today, researchers are studying its benefits for everything from depression to stress.
In a multi-year study, whose results were published last month in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. Segal and a group of colleagues found that mindfulness meditation - the term they use is "mindfulness-based cognitive therapy" - was just as effective as antidepressants when it came to preventing depression relapse.
Dr. Segal, who was one of the developers of the therapy, teaches it at CAMH in group treatment sessions with patients who have recovered from depression and are "trying to stay well."
"We're seeing a demand as people feel that it's more and more legitimate," Dr. Segal says. He defines mindfulness meditation as "a way of training yourself to pay attention in the present moment without judgment [as]to what your experience is."
Thanks to a similar U.K. study, which found the technique reduces the risk of depression relapse by 50 per cent, Britain's National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends mindfulness meditation in cases of chronic depression. The Mental Health Foundation, a U.K.-based charity, has recentlylaunched a campaign called Be Mindful, and offers an online program intended to make mindfulness more widely available.
"It's growing exponentially almost, in terms of there now being an evidence base," says Ed Halliwell, a British mindfulness teacher and co-author of The Mindfulness Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can help Us Thrive in a Stressed-out World. While the field is still relatively new, some 300 to 400 studies are published each year, Mr. Halliwell estimates.
The studies show benefits for many conditions, including anxiety and stress. A study published last year in the journal Neurology found that mindfulness could be used to help people with multiple sclerosis.
And just as it is becoming more popular among researchers, it is also increasingly being sought out by busy professionals.
"Life these days is these days so full of stress … so I think this offers some way of simplifying our life," says Marian Smith, founder of Mindful Living, a Vancouver-based clinic. Many clients, says Ms. Smith, are dealing with "the challenge of juggling full-time work, having a family, trying to make life meaningful to themselves and to be grounded."
Doug MacLean, a mindfulness meditation instructor and owner of Practical Wellbeing in Calgary, says there has been an "explosion" in interest, in large part because of the research being published on the topic.
But some experts worry that some people may think all they need to do to solve their problems is close their eyes and pay attention to what's going on in their heads.
"That can be a real danger, because people can go, 'All I need to do is be mindful.' And then perhaps they try meditation and discover it's not easy - it's simple, but it's not easy - and then that can create another level of beating yourself up," Mr. Halliwell says.
Dr. Segal says that people need to understand that mindfulness is much different than the popular idea of meditation.
"You think of the Beatles, you think of TM [transcendental meditation] you think of people achieving some kind of bliss state. And it's really different from what people who are going through mindfulness-based cognitive therapy get," he says. "If anything, what the meditation does is provide them with a way of staying grounded in the midst of very difficult emotions."