Long before my search for mental health became a psychological one, it was a deeply spiritual one. I had no idea I had a mood disorder, and I sought out any principles, philosophies, or practices that could explain my unhappiness. In my search, I happened to stumble upon meditation and mindfulness.
I have been practicing (on and off) ever since.
What is Mindfulness?
I first encountered mindfulness and meditation in the context of Zen Buddhism. The practice is thousands of years old, but is still practiced today. Recently, the mental health community has been studying its effectiveness for the treatment of mood disorders.
It is simple in principle: “Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” (source).
There are a couple of points which make that definition appealing for the treatment of mood disorders.
- “Self-regulation of attention”
When you have a mood disorder, it can sometimes feel like you are spinning out of control. Your disorder has its hands glued to the wheel and you are strapped in the passenger seat, forced to be at its mercy.
Self-regulation is the act of taking that control back in the form of intentional attention.
You control where your attention lies (usually on the breath), and it allows you to realize that your mind really is yours, not your disorder’s. This can help you distance yourself from the emotional roller-coaster that comes with it.
- “Attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance”
The three emotions above may seem out of reach when you are in the worst of your pain, but they are worth striving for, and mindfulness can help you get closer.
Collectively, curiosity, openness and acceptance help you to let go of the victim mindset. Rather than things that are happening to you, you begin to see things happening around you, and you are open to what comes your way, curious as to what might come up, accepting it, whether “good” or “bad”.
Of course, this takes some practice.
Mindfulness in the Medical Community
One of the first mentions of mindfulness in medical literature was in 1982. At this time, the main area of interest was its use in pain reduction. That year, Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D. released a study looking at the treatment of 51 chronic pain outpatients using a treatment that he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
The patients engaged in meditation, breathing and relaxation exercises, and after 10 weeks, 50% of patients showed a 50% pain reduction with additional 15% reporting reductions of greater than 33%.
The researchers concluded that mindfulness was a viable treatment for chronic pain. They suggested that the detached observation used in meditation practice helped to “uncouple” the patients’ physical experience of pain from the psychological suffering resulting from that pain.
The pain didn’t go away, but their relationship to the pain had changed. (it’s important to note that the study admitted it was limited in scope)
Mindfulness and mood disorders
The mental health community took inspiration from the above medical studies and noticed that not only did the perception of pain decrease in patients, but in some instances such as the treatment ofheart patients, it also relieved some of the anxiety and depression that so often accompany chronic illness.
MBSR was soon joined by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and together they comprise what is known as Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs)
Psychologists began to experiment with the application of mindfulness for the treatment of depression. The concept was to teach non-judgmental attitudes achieved through mindfulness meditation in the hopes that it would trickle down into the notions of self, behavior and patients’ relationship to their depression.
MBCT utilizes group therapy, as well as meditation and traditional cognitive behavioral therapies. The goal, like with pain relief, is not to get rid of the depression, but to change your relationship to it. It works on the same principles of curiosity, openness and acceptance.
There seems to be a split of opinion on the efficacy of this treatment, with some studies suggesting absolutely no benefit over traditional CBT.
Mindfulness and me
As always, I stand in the middle (ooh, that came out very Zen). I’m not sure if it is actually effective, but then again, the jury is still out.
For my part, before I was diagnosed and medicated, it was the only thing that made me feel in control. So I can say from a personal standpoint, it did, and still does, help me immensely.
That said, I am nowhere near a “one-size-fits-all” thinker, so I’d advise you to try it yourself and see if it helps you like it helps me. The only thing you have to lose is some time, but lots to potentially gain, and maybe an unintentional nap.
Like eating a Reese’s, there’s no wrong way to practice mindfulness, but there are several resources you can use to get started.
You can also try to find a meditation class or a local MBCT group.
One thing you can do right now is take a deep breath. Now another. Now another.
I know I feel better.