Mindfulness – The Science Bit

As a Psychologist, my non-psychologist friends and family have got to be one of my greatest resources in helping me become a more effective practitioner.  For example, I was chatting with a friend about the Mindfulness for Mums group at the clinic, to which she politely said she’s really not into that “airy-fairy stuff”.  “Nor am I” I said, “that’s why I like mindfulness”.  It dawned on me, as I sat with her in the midst of a children’s Science Party, that the science of mindfulness has been lost amidst the pretty colouring books adorning every magazine shelf purporting to promote mindfulness and a zen state of mind.  Don’t get me wrong, I love those colouring books, however, they are a prime example of how a therapeutic term has been over applied to give credibility to popular culture.  It has now become synonymous with relaxation and chilling out.  Ironically, as anyone who has experience of proper mindfulness knows, it can be far from relaxing at times.   

The original concept and practice of mindfulness are rooted in eastern philosophies and religion such as Buddhism.  It has been used as a way of connecting with the world around us for centuries.  John Kabat-Zinn, one of the main instigators of mindful practices in mainstream therapies, defined Mindfulness in 2003 as “Paying attention to something in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.  A friend of mine, Adam Thorogood of ANJ Counselling and Coaching, shared his analogy of mindfulness with me – “Your thoughts are like a train.  Mindfulness helps you to stand back from the platform, see the train and choose if you want to get on or not, instead of just dashing on in haste or out of panic and ending up God only knows where”.  Being mindful is purely about choosing to direct our attention to something in the present, without making any decision or criticising it.  By taking time to be mindful of where we are, what we are experiencing, how we are experiencing it, we can slow down our immediate impulses, focus, and not allow ourselves to be hijacked by our emotions in times of stress.

But why would we want to spend precious time becoming more aware of ourselves and the world around us?  And, for me as a Psychologist, why would I want that to be an essential part of someone’s therapy? 

As all good psychologists should do, I look to the scientific evidence to find the answers.  Research into the effectiveness of mindfulness based therapies has shown that regular practice is associated with a decrease in distress and an increase in a general sense of wellbeing.  It has been shown to be effective in treating certain mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, recurrent depression, emotionally unstable personality disorder and binge eating disorders.  There is also evidence that it is effective with improvements in ADHD symptoms, depression and anxiety in ADHD sufferers.  John Kabat-Zinn and others have produced research that consistently shows mindfulness based training reduces the symptoms of stress and physical illness associated with stress such as psoriasis, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and even Type 2 diabetes. 

Not satisfied with knowing that it IS effective, I want to know WHY it is effective.  Thankfully clever people like Richard Davidson and Dan Siegal have developed tests in which they can show how the brain reacts to mindfulness.  For example, in 2003 Richard Davidson and his team showed changes in the electrical activity of the front part of the brain (which is responsible for things like thinking, problem solving, language and creativity), consistent with the experience of pleasurable emotions such as joy and contentment.  Another study showed that after 8 weeks of mindfulness training there was an increase in brain activity in the areas associated with self-awareness i.e. the part of the brain that tells us about our subjective experience.

So, by stopping and focusing our attention on one thing in the here and now, the alarm centre in our brain that sends us into panic switches off and the rational bit of the brain takes over.  This stops us from becoming overwhelmed and resorting to the old fight/ flight/ freeze responses and helps us to feel calmer and more in control. Pretty amazing huh?  For anyone who has had that awful experience of feeling trapped by stress, anxiety, depression or chronic pain, the prospect of being able to regain control over the way we think and feel is wonderful. 

As a mum of 2 very energetic and strong-willed boys, knowing that I have a “Mental First Aid Kit” at my disposal that helps me regain focus and composure, is a massive relief.

If you would like to know more about how developing a mindful approach can help you, or if you are a Mum, or know of a Mum, who would benefit from learning more about how mindfulness can help with the daily pressures of being a mum, please contact me at louise@oakingtons.com or book an appointment at http://www.oakingtons.com.


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