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Written by the BBC: Who, What, Why: What is mindfulness?

Written by the BBC: Scientists investigate some of the profound benefits of meditation on the brain

Bill Moyers video that popularised mindfulness (on Vimeo)

The Mental Health Foundation’s campaign to make mindfulness practices available to everyone:  www.bemindful.co.uk

What is the evidence that MBCT – part meditation, part CBT – works? Should-we-be-mindful-of-mindfulness? It has been prescribed by the NHS for depression since 2004 but recently mindfulness has spawned a whole industry of evening classes and smartphone apps. What is the evidence that the practice – part meditation, part CBT – works?

Mindfulness in Education Debate in the House of Commons 

The Mindfulness Information website: www.mindfulnet.org

Salma’s training Mindfulness Approaches at Bangor University

Drop-in yoga and mindfulness Wednesdays 6-7.15pm at Brighton Buddhist Centre

 

Dance Movement Psychotherapy professional accreditation organisation

Brighton Yoga Festival

Books on Mindfulness Shambhala BooksKarnac Books

 

Why Practice Mindfulness?

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits, which extend across many different settings.

• Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.

• Mindfulness is good for our minds: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. Indeed, at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.

• Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.

• Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.

• Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.

• Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.

• Mindfulness is good for parents and parents-to-be: Studies suggest it may reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents. Parents who practice mindfulness report being happier with their parenting skills and their relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills.

• Mindfulness helps schools: There’s scientific evidence that teaching mindfulness in the classroom reduces behavior problems and aggression among students, and improves their happiness levels and ability to pay attentionTeachers trained in mindfulness also show lower blood pressure, less negative emotion and symptoms of depression, and greater compassion and empathy.

• Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their general quality of life. It also helps mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion.

• Mindfulness helps prisons: Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions, helping with their rehabilitation and reintegration.

• Mindfulness helps veterans: Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.

• Mindfulness fights obesity: Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them savor the food they do eat.

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Several mindfulness-based interventions have been scientifically tested to determine their utility in improving health outcomes. Below are reviews that examine the evidence base for these interventions

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

Bohlmeijer, E., Prenger, R., Taal, E., & Cuijpers, P. (2010). The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy on mental health of adults with a chronic medical disease: A meta-analysis.Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68(6), 539. [link]

Chiesa, A. & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5), 593. [link]

de Vibe, M., Bjørndal, A., Tipton, E.,… Kowalski, K. (2012). Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) for improving health, quality of life, and social functioning in adults. The Campbell Collaboration, 3. [link]

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35. [link]

Ledesma, D. & Kumano, H. (2008). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and cancer: A meta-analysis. Psycho-oncology, 18(6), 571. [link]

Winbush, N. Y., Gross, C. R., & Kreitzer, M. J. (2007). The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on sleep disturbance: A systematic review. Explore, 3(6), 585. [link]

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T.,… Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-Based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. [link]

 

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

Chiesa, A. & Serretti, A. (2011). Mindfulness based cognitive therapy for psychiatric disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 187(3), 441. [link]

Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ornbøl, E.,… Walach, H. (2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 124(2):102. [link]

Marchand, W. R. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18(4), 233. [link]

Piet, J. & Hougaard, E. (2011). The effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis.Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6):1032. [link]

Scherer-Dickson, N. (2004). Current developments of metacognitive concepts and their clinical implications: Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression.Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 17(2), 223. [link]

Galante, J., Iribarren, S. J., & Pearce, P. F. (2012). Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on mental disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Journal of Research in Nursing. [link]

How Mindfulness Can Save Your Relationship

In my recent blog, “The Many Benefits of Mindfulness,” I outlined how a mindfulness practice has been scientifically proven toimprove our mental and physical health. The win-win effects of incorporating mindfulness into your life just seem to keep growing and expanding, interweaving into every area of our lives. Mindfulness practice doesn’t just enhance our individual well-being. In fact, it’s now being shown to have a positive impact on interpersonal relationships. A 2004 University of North Carolina study of “relative happy, nondistressed couples” showed that couples who practiced mindfulness saw improvements to their “relationship happiness.” In addition, they experienced healthier levels of “relationship stress, stress coping efficacy, and overall stress.”

Mindfulness is a skill we can acquire, a compassionate practice we can integrate into our lives, allowing us to have an easy, always available, method to calm ourselves down when distressed. Mindfulness increases our awareness of what we are experiencing and allows us the space to decide how we want to act in our daily lives. It is easy to picture how enhancing these abilities within ourselves would lead to better outcomes in our relationships.

Imagine, for example, being triggered by your partner. Picture yourself in that heated moment when everything just feels overwhelmingly wrong: anger is bubbling over inside you, combined with intense distress. Now imagine being able to feel your emotions without reacting in the moment. Imagine observing the emotions and thoughts that are arising without getting caught up in them — being able to keep your emotional balance. This allows you to think about how you would like to respond in the situation vs. how you would instinctively react. Mindfulness is a means by which we can get to know our thoughts and stay connected to our feelings without falling victim to inappropriate, intense reactions based on unresolved issues from our past.

When it comes to leftover emotional pain from our earliest relationships, no one will trigger us like our romantic partner. How many times have you found yourself saying something in a moment of distress that you later deeply regret? How is it we find ourselves lashing out at the person we value the most? Ironically, our closest relationships tend to present us with the biggest challenges in our lives. New connections stir up old feelings from our past. Relationships test us in many ways, redefining how we see ourselves and the world around us. In addition to bringing us joy, finding love can cause us a great deal of anxiety and sadness. In romantic relationships, we make ourselves vulnerable to the good will of our relationship partner. Our fears of being hurt in this vulnerable state can make us more reactive, and we run the risk of self-sabotaging, not acting in our best interest in relation to the ones we love.

Mindfulness presents a valuable tool for facing the daily challenges of staying close to our partner. It allows us to become more centered and calm, so we can talk things out instead of spiraling into a screaming match. When we are on the defensive with our partner, overreacting to every word they say, we fail to really hear what’s going on with them. What are they experiencing? What has triggered their upset? What are they really saying to us or asking of us?

A typical conversation between a couple may involve one partner remarking, “You used to be up for anything. You were so lively when we met.” This may spark a defensive response in the other partner: “What? You’re saying I’m not spontaneous anymore? You think I’m boring? What about you? You never get off the couch!” This type of angry and accusatory response tends to have a snowball effect. “I never said you were boring, and now you’re calling me lazy? I work day and night to make you happy. You’re so ungrateful.”

Couples tend to key off each other when they are triggered. In that “flipped lid” state, their resentments toward each other start to spill out. At this point, the higher functions of their brain are offline and the emotional centers are firing out of control. Strong, exaggerated, hostile statements fly back and forth. Yet, if either could be more mindful in the interaction, they would take pause before responding. They could notice that they are triggered and angry and then choose to do something else, take a break and do an activity that will help them calm down. This may mean taking a few deep breaths or a long walk.

This will allow them to get their “lid” back on and react in a more constructive manner. It’s important to take time to reflect, to notice the feelings but to consciously choose how we deal with them. This frees us to take actions in our own self-interest and to not cause our partner unnecessary hurt. Once we have centered ourselves and calmed down, we can communicate clearly and from the heart.

Mindfulness isn’t about denying or burying our emotions. It’s simply about cultivating a different relationship to our feelings and experiences, in which we are in the driver’s seat. We can see our feelings and thoughts like a passing train roaring through the station, but we alone choose if we want to get on board.

When we learn to observe our experiences in this manner, our thoughts and feelings start to flow through us like waves, but as mindfulness expert Dr. Donna Rockwellpoints out, we can feel solid like a mountain in who we are and how we respond. As Dr. Rockwell said in her recent interview for PsychAlive.org, “What mindfulness does is it creates this space; it takes us out of the catastrophe. And as a couple working together in a mindfulness way … there’s a lot more heart available. There’s a lot more understanding possible than this need to defend.”

Meditation is an extremely effective way to get to know our thoughts by slowing down and paying attention. It helps us become familiar with our mind. Ultimately, it allows us to recognize the many “critical inner voices” that, without us even knowing it, we would typically allow to rule our lives. As we get to know these “voices,” we can start to act against them, not permitting them to color our perceptions of ourselves or our partner.

When we know ourselves, we become stronger in our relationships. As mindfulness expert Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn notes, mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment. If we stay in the moment with our partners, we are far less likely to build a case against them, to catalog their flaws or turn against them at the drop of a hat. Instead, we can take each moment as it comes. We can cultivate empathy, insight, and morality within ourselves and extend these compassionate attitudes to those we love.

As we become more mindful, we achieve a greater sense of inner peace that is beneficial to us and the world around us, especially the people close to us. We alleviate the unhealthy levels of stress and tension that we carry with us in our daily lives. In addition, as we exercise the muscle of putting our attention where we want it, we gain more power over our thoughts, but even more so over our actions.

When we find someone we care for, a person with whom we know that, whatever each of us brings to the table, our relationship is worth working on, then half the battle is won. Mindfulness practices will better enable you to truly go after what you want, not only in your relationship, but in your personal goals. It’s an ongoing practice that can help you to become the person you want to be every day for the rest of your life.

Dr. Lisa Firestone

Mindfulness Training May Assuage Early-Life Trauma

We live in an increasingly stressful world. There’s an aspirational sense things should improve with time, witness the U.S. War on Poverty or the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.  But in the last 50 years, many risks, perceived and real, have grown worse: extreme weather, violent conflict, economic dislocation, poverty (especially for children), abuse and domestic violence. Traumatic and chronic stress affects millions. Many become sick and marginalized because of it; others manage to survive and thrive. What explains the difference?

“Resilience” is a popular answer these days. But it’s a buzzword in danger of losing its meaning through overuse. As the need for resilience grows, it’s important to be specific about the term. A new white paper, “The Human Dimensions of Resilience,”of which I’m a co-author, reviews relevant research and proposes evidence-based ways of defining and building resilience. Published by the Garrison Institute, a non-profit that promotes “contemplative” solutions to social and environmental concerns, the paper is intended to advance conversations about our wellbeing.

Science views resilience as part of the response to stress. Not all stress is bad; short stressors can inspire outstanding performance. But extreme or acute stress can be traumatizing and damaging. When physiological responses to stress like cortisol, adrenaline and inflammation persist even after a stressor has ended, they can undermine mental and physical health. Unchecked behavioral responses to stress can lead to sleep and diet problems. Besides PTSD, exposure to chronic and/or traumatic stress can also lead to other serious conditions including heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression and cognitive problems – maybe even DNA damage.

Traumatic stress can undermine and shorten peoples’ lives, especially if they’re exposed before age 18. They’re more likely to have lower achievement and wellness, and experience more illness. “Early life adversity”—experiencing abuse or household dysfunction during childhood—correlates not only with more psychological problems, but also with elevated inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein or higher insulin levels that persist into adulthood. Studies show a strong, graded relationship between early life adversity and risk factors for the leading causes of death in adults.

Resilience can mitigate those effects. Extraordinarily resilient people can thrive in adversity and use difficult experiences as opportunities for growth. But resilience isn’t an inscrutable, innate personality trait you’re either born with or not.  It’s likely a spectrum of qualities that people possess in varying degrees that help them survive challenges, shut off aspects of stress response when they’re no longer needed, and return to a pre-stressor, baseline state. As such, resilience is something we should be able to analyze and teach, and anyone should be able to learn.

Studies show contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation, compassion training, yoga, etc. can reduce harmful impacts of stress, and they can be helpful in building resilience. However, recent media coverage gushing over how contemplative practices like mindfulness make you happier, healthier, sharper and richer spreads confusion about how those practices work.

Contemplative practices weren’t invented to fight cancer or boost performance, but rather to tackle big issues like living purposefully and facing death with equanimity. One fundamental skill they build is attention, the simple act of consciously choosing what to focus on instead of letting the mind wander. Having strong attention is an important component of resilience, because it develops a sense of agency and choice in directing one’s thoughts and influencing one’s inner landscape – a powerful counterweight to the sense of helplessness or passivity that traumatic stress can produce.

Colleagues and I recently studied teenagers in foster care in Georgia who were exposed to early life adversity. They were taught a form of meditation called Cognitively Based Compassion Training. After six weeks, the kids who really practiced not only reported feeling better and coping better with anger and stress (“At school, someone threw M&M’s at me and I ignored him. Normally I would have thrown things back and been negative.”). Pre- and post- saliva testing also showed their C-reactive protein levels dropped, which means they actually had less inflammation in their bodies. That suggests increased resilience, because it shows some better functioning and movement back toward baseline.

We recently launched a similar Cognitively Based Compassion Training program in Arizona. The next horizon for research is determining whether kids in such programs perform better in school and generally thrive. Failure to thrive—not taking advantage of the opportunities that arise in life and work—is a symptom of traumatization. Effective resilience building should be able to ameliorate it.

If contemplative practice can help accomplish that for these kids, imagine what it might do for people working in fields with high trauma exposure and burnout risk, like first responders or humanitarian aid and relief workers. For example the Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program designs trainings for aid workers that incorporate meditation, yoga and other contemplative techniques to help them cope with stress, avoid burnout, and thrive in their work.

Thaddeus PaceAbout the Author: Thaddeus Pace, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona. He is also Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine at Arizona and Director of the Arizona Stress and Health Collaboratory. His research explores stress, health, wellness and nonpharmacological, contemplative-based ways to limit stress responses and improve health.

Why Practice Mindfulness?

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits, which extend across many different settings.

• Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.

• Mindfulness is good for our minds: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. Indeed, at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.

• Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.

• Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.

• Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.

• Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.

• Mindfulness is good for parents and parents-to-be: Studies suggest it may reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents. Parents who practice mindfulness report being happier with their parenting skills and their relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills.

Mindfulness helps schools: There’s scientific evidence that teaching mindfulness in the classroom reduces behavior problems and aggression among students, and improves their happiness levels and ability to pay attention. Teachers trained in mindfulness also show lower blood pressure, less negative emotion and symptoms of depression, and greater compassion and empathy.

• Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their general quality of life. It also helps mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion.

Mindfulness helps prisons: Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions, helping with their rehabilitation and reintegration.

• Mindfulness helps veterans: Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.

• Mindfulness fights obesity: Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them savor the food they do eat.

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Mindfulness and Chronic Pain & Illness

Lets face it, pain and chronic illness are not pleasant. If the pain itself isn’t enough, the mind often starts adding commentary to try to find a way of escaping, such as “What will happen if I don’t recover? What if it gets worse? I can’t cope with this . . . Please, I just want it to stop. . . “ This just adds to the suffering we are already experiencing.

It’s natural to want to fight back against pain and illness, but what if this struggle actually made your suffering worse? What if it was more effective to explore the sensations of pain and illness as they arise and pass in your body? This might seem counter-intuitive, but recent scientific studies show that it can be more powerful than the most commonly prescribed painkillers.

Such an approach forms the core of a new treatment for chronic pain and illness that is based on ancient form of meditation, the key aspect of which is ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness has been shown in clinical trials to reduce chronic pain by 57 percent.

Imaging studies show that mindfulness can soothe brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes can take root and alter the structure of the brain itself, so that patients no longer feel pain with the same intensity.

Hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (plus the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. It is also used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia, coeliac disease, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and even multiple sclerosis.

A typical mindfulness practice involves simply observing what you find in the felt sense of the body and in the mind. This allows you to experience your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they arise, and to let go of struggling with them. This teaches us the difference between ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’, and more about our ourselves and our relationship with our body, mind and heart.

When you do this, whether the illness remains or lessens, something remarkable happens: your suffering begins to melt away of its own accord.

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