Mental rigidity is a variation of suppressing thoughts in that you allow yourself only certain sets and types of thoughts and emotions. Your emotional/mental bandwidth is limited, and it is difficult to respond appropriatelyto social cues and signals from others. You may behave in a manner that hurts and damages others. Mental inflexibility (rigidity) is a trait that is common to many mental health diagnoses.1
A large prospective study done in the UK prospectively compared mindfulness-based teaching to over 8000 students and compared it to usual practices. The mean age was 12 years. They demonstrated that there was no significant benefit and actually caused many students with prior mental health issues to have more problems. They recommended that non-specific mindfulness interventions not be implemented in the school system.2
A 2023 paper extensively summarized the literature on the mental rigidity. They pointed out that the role of rigidity in mental health is well-known and is characterized by automaticity, inflexibility, and centered around concepts of self. Patterns of thinking that may have been useful in the past remain fixed and often not relevant to the current situation. Rigidity can wreak havoc on relationships, quality of life, and ability to adapt to life’s challenges.1
These changes have been documented clinically and now on fMRI’s (functional MRI) scans, which measure brain activity. Self is defined by dynamic interactions between various regions of the brain, and lack of mental flexibility shows up as disruptions between these areas. Re-establishing flexibility seems to be important in the treatment of many health disorders. The ones discussed were major depression, complex psychological trauma, and substance use/ addiction disorders. Mindfulness practices (MBI’s) have been shown to break up mental rigidity both clinically and on imaging studies.1
It must be combined with feeling safe
What is being missed with this recommendation regarding mindfulness in schools is why it’s ineffective and can exacerbate mental symptoms. Part of the answer is looking at why rigidity exists in the first place?
One reason is that humans don’t/can’t tolerate mental/emotional pain. Rigidity is one way of limiting your exposure. As you break up the rigidity with mindfulness, what happens? You’ll feel even more emotional pain, which is often intolerable.3 It isn’t surprising that mindfulness increases symptoms in students with prior mental health diagnoses. You must also learn to feel safe in order to move forward. You would never cross a street unless you first felt it was safe to do so.
By using and testing mindfulness alone as an approach to be implemented in the school system, can’t and won’t work without also teaching students how to also calm their threat physiology (flight or fight body chemistry) in order to feel safe. Breaking up rigidity alone, opens up the dam of suppressed thoughts and emotions, and you would expect those who are already struggling to have worsening symptoms. For those without mental health issues, mindfulness alone won’t help them one way or the other without further strategies to improve their quality of life.
Define where MBI’s fit
Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) are effective in increasing the dynamic interactions and connectivity between regions of the brain that define self. The term is the “Pattern Theory of Self, and mental flexibility is increased.3
Chronic disease is complex and isolated interventions are usually ineffective. However, they should not be discarded because they can fit into a larger treatment plan. MBI’s may be an excellent entry point for many people suffering from major depression, complex trauma, and addictions/ substance abuse. However, opening up the flood gates without showing them a place to feel safe is problematic. MBI’s favorably alter brain activity that characterize these problems. Instead of discarding them, the question is, “what are additional effective treatments?”
Learning to tolerate mental pain is at the core of addressing mental health, and requires learning specific skills. Become a “professional” at living your life.
- Giommi F, et al. The (in)flexible self: Psychopathology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology (2023); 23:100381. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2023.100381
- Montero-Marin J, et al. School-based mindfulness training in early adolescence: what works, for whom, and how in the MYRIAD trial? Evidence Based Mental Health (2022); 25:117-124.doi:10.1136/ebmental-2022-300439
- Frisch S, et al. Forgotten negative emotional memories increase pain unpleasantness. Submitted for publication, 2023.