How The Cure To Your Illness Is All In Your Mindfulness

By Ed Halliwell and Dr Jonty Heaversedge

(NB Below is the original, unedited version of this article. This is the version published in the Times newspaper)

Stress has a huge impact on our society. Mental health problems cost the British economy around £100 billion a year, and seven million UK adults are so tense they'd qualify for a diagnosis of anxiety disorder. Many of the physical ailments that overwhelm our health services are also stress-related - whether we suffer from heart disease, headaches or high blood pressure, our fast-paced lives tend not to be good for us. We want to be happy and well, but despite all the technology of our modern world, not many people find real peace.

Perhaps that's why psychology and healthcare experts are turning to a strategy developed in a much earlier age. Mindfulness meditation has been around for over 2000 years, and courses which teach it are springing up everywhere. As we describe in our book The Mindful Manifesto, this is largely because a growing body of scientific research shows that mindfulness can make a real difference to people's quality of life. Studies have found that mindfulness training can protect people from depression, reduce their stress levels, help them manage chronic pain, let go of compulsive behaviours like smoking and over-eating, and even enable them to cope better with cancer and other serious illnesses. Mindfulness has also been shown to boost the immune system, and induce changes in the brain that are linked to better moods. Academic papers detailing its benefits are now published in their hundreds every year.

The practices taught in mindfulness courses have been adapted from Buddhism, but are presented in entirely secular terms, as a form of psychological aid. They have therefore escaped the religious, new-age or hippie connotations that sometimes put people off meditation. This is largely thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American medic who became convinced that mindfulness could help patients with chronic health problems, especially when they had come to the end of the road with conventional medicine. It wouldn't cure them, but might it help them deal better with their pain, and their stress?

Kabat-Zinn created a programme called mindfulness-based stress reduction, which teaches meditation without any 'religious' language or iconography. He then set about testing his course scientifically, proving that it could help with everything from pain to psoriasis. Above all, he showed that MBSR can indeed reduce people's stress - giving patients something they don't usually get from their doctors – a way to work with their minds.

The results can be dramatic – people who have battled with health problems for years find relief through accepting and working with their condition in a new way, dropping the desperate struggle to make things different from how they are. Mindfulness training makes it possible for a different kind of healing to take place, creating an open space of awareness from which people can start choosing to live well, as best they can, even with a serious illness.

From its beginnings in pain and stress management, MBSR has expanded to other areas of healthcare, and beyond. It is now taught in hundreds of American hospitals, as well as workplaces, schools and prisons – even the US military are pouring money into mindfulness research, to help soldiers cope with combat trauma. Here, The National Institute For Clinical Excellence recommends the use of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for people prone to recurrent depression, after studies showed it reduces the rate of relapse by 50% over 12 months.

All too aware that they often have little to offer their chronically-ill patients, GPs are on board. According to the Mental Health Foundation, which is running a campaign to promote the use of mindfulness for stress and depression, 68% of doctors think that their patients would benefit from learning mindfulness skills. Mindfulness has reached governmental ears too -the 2008 Foresight report on Mental Capital and Wellbeing recommended mindfulness ('taking notice') as one of the five ways that anyone can look after their mental health.

So how does it work? For starters, mindfulness shows us that our search for happiness can actually make us less content. We work hard to keep our bodies in shape, be successful in our jobs, and maintain good relationships with family and friends, but by constantly striving to make things better, we often get more stressed. Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention to the present moment, rather than fretting about the past or future – observing thoughts, feelings and events with a gentle curiosity. As we develop our practice, we don't get so caught up in the maelstrom of activity inside our heads and out in the world. We start to see that 'thoughts are not facts', and that we can relate differently to our minds – observing our negative thinking patterns with kindness.

One of the reasons mindfulness can be so effective for depression is that it helps people get some distance from their thoughts, rather than feeling overwhelmed with a constant churn of self-criticism. In our book, we describe the case of Dixon, who was referred to a mindfulness course by his GP. “Depression makes people focus on themselves and their problems to the point that they stop functioning,” he told us. “Mindfulness stops you from doing that – it stops you from allowing your mind to tie you up.” Dixon's mindfulness training became even more relevant when he was later diagnosed with bone cancer – he says the 'mental tools' he learned have helped him deal with the pain and worry of a life-threatening condition. “Meditation sets my mind up to crack on with life rather than sinking into a swamp of despondency.”

So, far from being a retreat from the world as it is sometimes characterised, meditation equips us to engage with the world more fully – even if we don't have any major heath problems, couldn't we all benefit from increased attention and emotional skills, improved relationships and reduced compulsive behaviours, all of which are proven effects of mindfulness practice? We all know that exercising our bodies is good for us – mindfulness is simply the mental equivalent.

The value of encouraging people to practise mindfulness could go beyond simple health benefits. If enough of us trained in doing less and noticing more, creating the beginnings of a more mindful culture, might we spare ourselves some of the suffering of boom and bust economic cycles, or the perils of runaway environmental destruction? Aren't these collective manifestations of the same mindless habits that cause us so much stress on a personal level?

Mindfulness won't instantly remove all our problems - it means letting go of the fantasy that there's a quick fix for all our difficulties, and instead being willing to keep returning our minds to the present moment, even when that feels unpleasant. Practising it takes effort, patience, and courage. But the rewards can be great - by developing the stillness to appreciate the wonder and richness of life as it is, we can discover well-being right where we are, rather than always desperately striving for future happiness, stuck in a whirlwind of counter-productive speed. So, maybe for a short while each day, don't just do something, sit there.

The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less And Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive In A Stressed-Out World, by Dr Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell, is published by Hay House, priced £10.99 (www.themindfulmanifesto.com). For more on the Mental Health Foundation mindfulness campaign, including an online taster course, visit www.bemindful.co.uk.

Cultivating mindfulness in daily life

A regular meditation practice is the best way to develop mindfulness. However, the mindful mode of being can also be cultivated in the midst of daily life...

Mindful waiting

Whether in a queue, stuck in traffic or at a bus stop, we all have moments when we have to stand still. Rather than fuelling your frustration, see if you can use the opportunity to practise mindful breathing. Bring your attention to each breath as it flows in and out of the body, noticing any sensations or thoughts that arise. Become alive to your sense perceptions – be curious about your environment. Don't judge what's happening, just be aware of it. Then when your wait is over, see if you can bring this level of conscious awareness to the rest of your day.

 Mindful eating

When we pay attention to our food rather than wolfing it down, we have a chance to let go of patterns of unhealthy eating. Start with one mindful meal a week – sit down quietly, and really savour every mouthful, paying attention to taste, touch and smell as you bring the food up to your mouth, chew, and swallow. Then pay attention to sensations as the meal reaches your stomach and is digested. Notice your reactions to eating in this way – is it pleasant or annoying? Do you just want to rush on to the next activity? Whatever your thoughts, see if you can watch them, like you might watch a film on a screen.

Mindful shopping

Do you sometimes buy stuff and later regret it? Sometimes we shop not because we need to, but because it gives us a short-lived burst of relief from loneliness, anger or sadness. When you get the urge to make an unwise purchase, see if you can ride the feeling with your mind, like a surfer rides a wave in the sea. Not fighting the urge, or trying to get away from it, but staying with it, perhaps until it subsides. Then ask yourself: 'Do I really want or need this item?' or would a different course of action (such as phoning a friend, or going for a walk) nourish me more?

 Mindful emailing

It's easy to get sucked into mindless communication online. See if you can stay connected to your mind and body as you click and type, perhaps taking your attention to the movement of your fingers on the keyboard or mouse. Then, before you hit the send button, take a moment to scan your whole body, especially noticing any emotions you're feeling. What are they telling you? If you still feel like your email is a skilful message, then go ahead and send. The same mindful approach can enhance any discussion or relationship.

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