There has been a lot of buzz recently in the medical and mental health realms about mindfulness, or bringing self-awareness to emotions and body sensations. The practice of mindful meditation with the goal of cultivating awareness has been part of the Buddhist culture for thousands of years. This concept is now being used in the treatment of depression, anxiety, addictions, and many other mental illnesses.
There has also been a lot of recent evidence supporting its benefits for a broad range of medical conditions and populations, including cancer patients and pain disorders. In one controlled study of ninety cancer patients who did mindfulness meditation for 7 weeks, 31% had fewer symptoms of stress and 65% has fewer episodes of mood disturbance than those who did not meditate. People suffering from chronic pain often find some relief with mindfulness-based practices. When anyone experiences physical discomfort, their mind often spins with stressful emotions and thoughts which can exacerbate their perceptions of pain. These studies bring to light mechanisms of how mindfulness meditation may work in the body and provide support for its effects on health and well-being.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been internationally known since the 1970’s for his work with mindfulness-based stress reduction. He defines mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are; in other words, when we practice mindfulness, it must be intentional, experiential and non-judgmental.
What I tell patients is that people who are depressed usually reminisce about the past. Individuals who are anxious usually worry about the future. Being mindful involves being in the present, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. By learning skills to cultivate awareness, we are able to pull ourselves out of the vicious cycle that can lead to worsening depression or uncontrolled anxiety.
Actually, we have all probably practiced mindfulness at some point, even without being aware of it. If you have ever tried counting sheep at night to fall asleep, this could be considered being mindful. Your mind was probably running all over the place, preventing the body from getting the signal to fall asleep. When you count sheep, you ground your mind to the present moment and this allows the body to initiate sleep.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) involves learning skills to get back in touch with your body and mind. Remember that our body gives us instant feedback about our emotional state. As an example, 80% of depressed patients consult with their primary care physician because of aches and pains.
One of the basic exercises that I try to teach my patients is mindful breathing. No matter what is going on in your life, you are always breathing. By focusing on the breath, we can learn to respond to emotions and feelings intentionally rather than to react. We become more in tune with how we feel, how we react to thoughts, and what our body is trying to tell us. The goal of the exercise is not to change the rate you are taking breaths but to just focus on the breath and clear your mind of all other thoughts. By doing so, you become more aware of the actual current physical and mental messages that your body is trying to send you.
Another more advanced exercise (once you are able to practice mindful breathing) is the body scan. The body scan is a lying-down meditation practice which starts with the breath and then carries our attention to each part of the body. The objective is to bring awareness to the body as it is, freeing us from suffering and mental anguish and teaching us to be present with whatever we are feeling at this moment.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness and its treatment options, I would start by reading the book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn co-authored. The text comes with a CD on which he explains the many exercises including mindful breathing and the body scan.
Other resources and references:
- Ledesma D, Kumano H: Mindfulness-based stress reduction and cancer: A meta-analysis. Psychooncology 18(6):571–579, 2009.
- Smith JE, Richardson J, Hoffman C, Pilkington K. Mindfulness-based stress reduction as supportive therapy in cancer care: systematic review. J Adv Nurs. 2005;52:315-327.
- Information about mindfulness, research and a list of teachers in your area trained to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be found at The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society