Clinical Partner - Dr Tamara Russell provides some insight into Mindfulness and the way that it can help us manage our anxiety, stress and depression.
Mindfulness is a mental training technique originating from Eastern contemplative traditions, specifically Buddhism. In the last twenty years there has been a proliferation of mindfulness-based interventions in both the physical and mental health settings.
Initially, an 8 week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was designed to help those individuals with chronic physical health conditions exacerbated by stress (for example eczema and irritable bowel syndrome) and have a better quality of life by learning to deal more skilfully with stressful situations.
Latterly, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been developed for use with those individuals with long-standing depressive illness. This latter program combines elements of mindfulness meditation practice, alongside cognitive techniques to allow individuals to work with and see more clearly patterns of thinking that may be unhelpful or unskillful. It has been adapted for use with many other different mental health conditions, including eating disorders and bipolar.
At the heart of the training is the ability to keep one’s attention focused on the present moment. This is achieved through different meditation practices but typically starts with paying attention to the breath or the body. It is by repeatedly and deliberately bringing attention (also referred to as awareness) to the breath and the body that we can literally train our brains – strengthening the attention networks in the frontal cortex of the brain.
Unlike the mind, which has a tendency to run forwards into the future or get stuck in the past, the breath and the body are our “anchors” to the present moment. We can only have a breath in this moment – not a breath from the past and certainly not one from the future. Learning to stay present, using the breath and the body is a key part of the training.
From the stability of this “present moment” position, it also becomes possible to explore the habits of the mind. This is where the real learning and illumination takes place. We can begin to observe the ways we react in different situations and with this growing awareness, consider how we might respond more skilfully in the future.
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At the heart of mindfulness training is the recognition that is it not the thoughts or emotions that we experience that cause our suffering, rather it is our unskilful attempts at dealing with these that create most of the problems. Thus we often find that we are fighting with ourselves (or our minds) as we struggle to make things different to how they really are and fail to accept the reality of the situation – the reality that we have a choice about how we can respond.
Mindfulness training also encourages us to pay attention in a particular way, or with a particular attitude. This is the attitude of acceptance and non-judgement. It is sometimes called “dispassionate awareness”. This does not mean that we have no passion. On the contrary, what we know from research is that mindfulness practitioners have a very full emotional life. What is different is that they are not reacting to emotions. They still experience them but are able to observe them in an accepting way – whether they are good or bad. Individuals with bipolar might find this particularly helpful as it is often “attachment” to the “good” feelings of hypomania that can lead things to spiral out of control. Mindfulness teaches us to welcome all the emotions we experience in the same way.