Washington - Imagine this scenario: you come home from work tired and frazzled and your little kids are running wild. Perhaps this doesn’t require much imagination. People in such situations may find solace in a popular meditative practice called mindfulness.
With mindfulness, you train your mind to focus on the present and respond with reason before emotion. It’s about taking a pause and guiding yourself to become “aware enough in the moment so before you react, you’re aware of how you’re responding”, says Ronald Epstein, a professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
“That gives you the choice to blow up or not to blow up. You say, ‘I’m about to lose my temper’, rather than losing your temper.”
In our high-stress culture, the idea has caught on. Mindfulness is being practiced not just by New Age types, celebrities and executives. Education leaders in many states have received training in how to incorporate mindfulness into curricula. Most medical schools now offer an optional course in mindfulness in medicine, Epstein says.
For the rest of us, a popular way to learn the technique is through eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction courses, says Kirk Warren Brown, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who has been studying and practising mindfulness for more than 20 years.
Courses are held in churches, schools, hospitals and community centres. A course in Washington costs about $550 (R5 970). For faster, less expensive options, you can find mindfulness courses online and tutorials on mobile device apps such as Buddhify.
Popularity is not necessarily a gauge of effectiveness, of course.
What’s the science behind mindfulness – is it really a powerful coping skill?
“It’s not a cure-all. It doesn’t take all the problems away,” says Luke Fortney, a family medicine doctor in Madison, Wisconsin, who has carried out clinical studies into the practice. “But it can help reframe our focus around how we approach these stresses.”
Research shows being mindful can have tangible benefits, such as alleviating chronic pain and helping to curb depression and anxiety. Studies have linked mindfulness practice to improvements in attention, eating and sleeping habits, weight management and recovery from substance abuse. Research also suggests mindfulness can help people cope better with heart disease, breast cancer, fibromyalgia, asthma and other conditions.
One way to assess the validity of studies is to undertake a comprehensive review of multiple studies. One such analysis, reported this year in Internal Medicine, found “moderate evidence” that mindfulness meditation programmes could have small but significant effects on anxiety, depression and pain. But the review did not find sufficient evidence that mindfulness could help with other health problems.
This doesn’t mean mindfulness can’t help people with other conditions, but that stronger study designs are needed to establish whether it is effective, says Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor of general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and lead author of the meta-analysis.
The important message from the study, in which the team evaluated thousands of people and studies, including patients with anxiety, fibromyalgia, low back pain, HIV and heart disease who completed about eight weeks of mindfulness training, is that there is “a consistent but small effect of improvement for anxiety, depression and pain”.
Brown points out that these moderate reductions are “nothing to sneeze at”. The meta-analysis demonstrates “the average person may be able to cut back on anti-anxiety, antidepressant or other medications, which is not insignificant, given the side effects and other issues, such as tolerance, that many psychotropic drugs have”.
As the authors note in their paper: “These small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population, but without the associated toxicities.”
Last year, Brown published one of the first studies to look at how mindfulness practice affects the early unfolding of emotional reactions.
By studying how brainwaves changed in response to emotional stimuli such as unpleasant images, he and his colleagues found individuals deemed to be more mindful had lower stress responses.
Mindfulness practice seems to alter how emotional centres in the brain are activated, Brown says.
“Rather than simply helping people cope better with negative emotions and stress – which is certainly important – mindfulness seems to help inoculate against the arising of stress in the first place.”
The beauty of mindfulness is that once it’s learnt, it can be done easily while one is doing other things like washing the dishes, caring for children and driving.
As the mother of three young children, I find this to be perhaps its greatest appeal. It is empowering to be able to step back, pause to assess the situation – however stressful it is – and recognise what I’m feeling. Then I can choose how to respond rather than letting my response happen to me. – Washington Post
For additional information to get you started on mindfulness, experts suggest the following online resources: