What's the Buzz about Mindfulness?

Marian A. Smith, MA, RMT, RCC

Reprinted from "Wellness" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 7 (4), pp. 26-28

You’ve probably noticed that the word “mindfulness” is popping up everywhere. Even though mindfulness meditation has been around for millennia, the practice of mindfulness has been steadily gaining the attention of the medical and mental health community.

Over the last 30 years, there have been hundreds of studies showing that when people practise mindfulness regularly, they experience desirable changes in their sense of well-being, their relationships, their ability to concentrate, their experience of physical and emotional pain, and their capacity to enjoy life.1-2 Regular mindfulness practice has even been shown to prevent relapse of depression. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

What exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a practice that originated in Buddhism, but you don’t need to be a Buddhist or even religious to benefit from it.

Meditation teacher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”3 When I share this with clients, many respond that they are already hyperaware of their thoughts and emotions and want to be less aware. However, it often becomes apparent that they are seeing things through a biased and habitual filter, often one that is impatient, critical and fearful.

Mindful awareness is about befriending the moment-to-moment experience of our thoughts, perceptions, feelings and body sensations with openness, curiosity and acceptance. We can develop understanding and insight from repeatedly observing our experience in this way.

Meditation teacher Michele McDonald notes that when we are actually connected with our current experience with single-pointed attention, we are free from mental torment.4 And who couldn’t use that?

How does mindfulness help?

Kabat-Zinn saw the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice himself and developed a secular eight-week program to bring it into health care in the 1970s. The program, known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is now offered in more than 30 countries worldwide.5

When I first heard Kabat-Zinn speak 15 years ago, he was passionately describing a study on people with psoriasis, a disorder that affects skin. Participants who meditated during ultraviolet light treatment healed four times faster than those who only underwent light treatment.6

Mindfulness meditation been shown to benefit many health conditions that are affected by stress, including anxiety and depression.7 One of the effects of living with prolonged stress is that we can become chronically vigilant. This hypervigilance can lead to getting caught in a cycle of negative emotions and distorted ways of seeing. And when we have a hard time regulating our emotions, we’re at risk for depression and anxiety disorders.

The good news is that several researchers8-9 have shown that taking part in a mindfulness program decreases the habitual tendency to react emotionally and ruminate on thoughts and physical sensations. They believe that it is the skilful use of attention that helps people regulate their emotions in a positive way.

It has been thought that people have a certain “emotional set point,” that some people are naturally happier than others and there’s not much you can do about it. But a study, in which stressed employees at a biotechnology firm practised daily mindfulness with Kabat-Zinn for eight weeks, suggests that people can actually make changes in the brain and shift their emotional set point toward more positive mood states.10 Mindfulness helps people observe their moods and thoughts and consciously make choices that don’t feed the negative thoughts that lead them to feel distressed, anxious or depressed.

Mindfulness also seems to benefit people who have social anxiety issues. Goldin and Gross found that people with social anxiety disorder had improved anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as self-esteem, after eight weeks of MBSR.11 When study participants were asked to repeatedly read negative self-beliefs, they reacted with less negative emotion post-treatment, as they focused their attention on the breath. With mindfulness, individuals are not directed to challenge their thoughts, but to simply allow them to come and go without feeding them.

Goldin and Gross also looked at brain activity in the participants before and after the program. They found that after eight weeks of practising mindfulness, participants had less activity in the amygdala,11 the part of the brain that is active in the fight-flight-freeze response. People who experience panic attacks and social anxiety tend to have a larger amygdala.12 And it has been found recently that the amygdala actually shrinks with mindfulness practice, even after only eight weeks,13 with a corresponding decrease in anxiety.

Mixing mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural therapy

In the late 1990s, researchers8 added a cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) component to MBSR, creating the now-popular Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program. This program is geared toward those with major depressive disorder who are currently in remission.

In MBCT, as in an MBSR, participants practise mindfulness meditation for 45 minutes a day over eight weeks.

In addition, MBCT participants are assigned very short, structured periods of meditation throughout the day, to link formal mindfulness practice with informal mindfulness. They also learn about the signs and symptoms of depression and how these can change when depression changes. There are experiential exercises to help understand the interplay of mood and thought, and to develop a personalized relapse prevention plan.

People who have experienced depression tend to react to even small fluctuations in mood with large changes in negative thinking. For instance, when 25-year-old Peter* came to a Vancouver MBCT program taught by myself and my colleague Brett Peterson, he wasn’t experiencing an episode of major depression, but he constantly worried about going there again. He began to see that when he was feeling low, he would try to analyze why he was feeling this way, going over and over past events in an attempt to understand his emotions. However, it was clear that ruminating in this way just prolonged his sad feelings.

In CBT, clients are taught to note errors in their negative thinking and to challenge them. With mindfulness-based cognitive therapy training, clients learn to observe negative thought patterns and accept them for what they are: simply thoughts. There is no need to give them all that energy. As participants gradually identify less with their negative thoughts and feelings, they react to them less.

Peter gradually learned to simply acknowledge “analyzing” or “sticky thinking,” as well as the low feelings that accompanied it. He learned to purposefully shift his attention to body sensations. By bringing a friendly awareness to the way sadness feels in his body, he learned to accept that this was simply the way he was feeling in that moment. From that place, he could then decide to engage in an energizing activity (taking the dog for a brisk walk) or one that gave him a sense of accomplishment (answering those emails he had been putting off). Peter began to see that the feeling passed without much ado, and gradually his fear of feeling sad dissipated, and with it, his fear of becoming depressed.

Two researchers decided to review all of the studies on MBCT to date (2011). They found that MBCT, compared to other treatments, reduced the risk of depression recurring by 43% in people who’d had three or more previous episodes of depression.14 The researchers also found that MBCT was at least as effective as antidepressants for maintenance. This is promising for people who would like a drug-free alternative for preventing relapse of depression.

Simple and worth it, though not easy

These benefits, of course, only come with hard work on the part of the participants, who must commit to daily meditation whether they feel like it or not. It takes courage to sit with your own experience when you don’t like it—we prefer to distract ourselves with conversation, food, going to sleep or going online. And it takes discipline to commit to opening to our experience, over and over again—to practise day in and day out—when the benefits are not so obvious right away.

We ask people to set aside their judgment about whether mindfulness is worthwhile, until the end of the course. As many teachers will tell you, “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” Yet, judging from the research and the feedback from participants, it seems to be well worth it.

Participants report that they gradually become kinder to themselves and like themselves and others more. One 40-year-old mother who couldn’t make it to a weekly evening program but came for individual MBCT counselling reported after three weeks:, “My thoughts are less nasty toward myself. I am usually very nasty to myself.”

Clients are less fearful of their own thoughts and emotions because they have sat with them and seen them through, they know how to work with them and they take them less personally. They can access more ease in their minds and bodies.

The ability to repeatedly observe thoughts as simply thoughts, without buying into them, brings a freedom from the tyranny of the incessant inner critic. For many, these mindfulness programs are “life-changing.”


About the author

Marian is a registered clinical counsellor in private practice at Mindful-Living, Vancouver. She began practising mindfulness meditation in 1984 and has taught mindfulness-based programs in stress reduction and cognitive therapy since 2002. Marian has worked in addictions and trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and in Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. Visit www.mindful-living.ca

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