A meta-analysis by University of Oxford has looked into the effectiveness of mindfulness as a treatment for depression, and found that the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) prevented people relapsing back into depression withing 5 months as well as anti-depressants. However, what does this mean? And what even is mindfulness? And are you even aware that you’re reading my blog….read on to make sense of it all.
Have you ever began drinking your cup of tea only to realise you’ve already drank it all? Ever gone to discuss your day with your partner, friend, whatever, and can’t even remember what you had for breakfast? Have you ever driven somewhere, got to the destination, and you can’t even remember half the journey? (This is a dodgy one, i’m surprised I haven’t been in a car crash yet because this happens to me more often than it probably should.) I’d be surprised if you didn’t answer yes to at least one of these, or if you can’t think of an example where you’ve done something but can’t reallyyyyy remember doing it.
This, I believe, is a side-effect of living in the 21st century. Everyone is in a rush, everyone is just doing things as part of their routine, everyone is on auto-pilot. Everyone is more connected to their phone than their family, to what’s happening in the soaps than to what’s happening in their own lives; we all have so many friends on facebook but we know hardly any of them, we work to live and live to work. You drank that cup of tea without realising it, and you probably had cereal for breakfast just like you always do, and you drove to that place because you’ve done the journey so often, perhaps everyday. This is where mindfulness comes in.
The simplest definition of mindfulness is to be aware. Being mindful of something, is to be aware that it is there and it is happening and it is existing. The ABC of mindfulness is as follows:
A: Awareness. Being aware of your mind and your body, and being aware of what is going on.
B: Being with your experience, and avoiding the dreaded auto-pilot
C: Seeing things, and responding to these more wisely. Acknowledging the experience, then responding to it, rather than reacting automatically.
Therefore if someone were to be in a state of mindfulness, they would have remembered drinking their cup of tea because they were aware of drinking it whilst doing so, they wouldn’t just pick up an empty mug because they would acknowledge they had an empty mug and react to it by probably sticking the kettle on again. They would remember having cereal for breakfast, and remember that car journey, because they were in a state of total awareness whilst doing so rather than being on auto-pilot.
Seems simple, right? And we’d all like to think that we’re always aware of the things we do during the day, but the fact is that we’re not. Just because we’re awake and conscious (or once I’ve had a coffee, in my case) it does not mean that we are aware, and it does not mean that we are mindful.
Mindfulness can also be applied to being aware of not only your physical state and being, but as mentioned in the ABC, your psychological one, your mind. This involves being aware of the thoughts you are having and your feelings. Ew, I know right, what are those and who the hell wants them? But seriously, I’m not gonna get soppy, but just being aware of the way you feel can do yourself a whole lot of good, no matter how much we all want to block feelings out every now and then. (There’s plenty of research behind how blocking out and ignoring how we feel is extremley unhealthy for us, but that’s a blog post for another time…)
This is where mindfulness has been used in therapy, and lead to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. MBCT has been used to combat depression and anxiety. It has been described as being a combination of “ancient wisdom and 21st century science.” It involves a series of meditation techniques in order to help the individual acknowledge and accept their negative thoughts and feelings, without letting them alter their whole emotional state. It means an individual can accept that they are particularly worried about something, but they do not let this worry take over the entirety of their thoughts because they are aware that it is a worry and not necessarily a fact.
For example, a student may be severley depressed and anxious about failing an upcoming exam. Mindfulness can help them accept that their anxieties are logical because it is normal to be nervous for an exam, but can also help them see that failure is not the only option. This can help to control and manage the anxiety, and in turn help them to cope with their upcoming exam by taking more time to revise and work for it and spend less time worrying about it. (And will probably lead to them having a higher mark because of this than what they would have recieved beforehand. This end result isn’t scientifically proven of course, mindfulness doesn’t create miracles and full marks on exams, this is just a hypothetical example based on my experiences whilst at uni.) Mindfulness allows individuals to take the time to accept and acknowledge their thoughts rather than either ignoring them or letting them consume their mind, but stops them from negatively affecting their emotional state and therefore their mental health.
It is, in part, inspired by Buddhist philosophy. This is probably one of the reasons why it has been shunnned for so long, or not taken seriously, because people assume that their is a lack of “science” and “logic” behind their methods. Just like most mental health research, people seem to just sack it off because it’s all happening in the mind and cannot be physically measured.
In 2015, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre published research claiming that a course of MBCT (which usually lasts for 8 weeks) reduced the risk of relapse into depression by 44% – that means that the risk of slipping back into a depressive state after treatment was almost halved!
More recently, Oxford University has completed a meta-analysis (a review of already existing research on a particular topic) into the effectiveness of mindfulness as a treatment of depression compared to drugs – anti-depressants. They found that out of those individuals who had participated in MBCT, only 38% of them relapsed back into depression within 5 months. They compared this to those individuals who had not participated in any MBCT therapy, and 49% of those had relapsed. On top of this, MCBT patients were 23% less likely to become depressed again within 5 months – even if they stopped their medication, compared to those who only continued on their medication.
Overall, this is good news. However it should be taken cautiously. Mindfulness has research supporting it’s use in those with depression, anxiety, and the related thoughts and feelings that come with these illnesses, however it may not be as effective in other mental health problems such as those related with psychosis (bipolar type I disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder etc.) More research would need to take place in order to verify or deny this.
Furthermore, Richard Byng (the co-author of the meta-analysis) has stated how this information should not be taken out of context, and MCBT shouldn’t be used as a globally alternative treatment; meaning those on anti-depressants should not suddenley come off their medication and rely on MCBT as a sole treatment. It is just, he said, “encouraging to have another option”.
It can be used as an alternate therapy perhaps when more research has been completed on the topic, as for now it only reduces the relapse rate rather than abolishes it. Byng also states that all patients should be treated as individuals, as treatment effectiveness differs from patient to patient. Of course this is true, everyone I know who is on anti-depressants is on either a different medication or a different dosage to me. So if drugs can affect people differently, then so will mindfulness.
For some people with depression and anxiety, they may not need mindfulness. Their depression may be a chemical imbalance, which can be managed with the drugs, and this is all they need. For others, drugs may not be an option due to adverse side-effects (and these side effects, speaking from experience, can be worse than the depression itself), therefore mindfulness can be used as another option. For others, the combination of both the drug affecting any chemical imbalance and mindfulness helping to manage negative thoughts can be exactly what they need to get onto the road of recovery.
The important thing to remember about mindfulness, is that it’s not just for the ill. One of the possible reasons behind why it reduces the relapse rate is that it teaches the individuals skills to stay well in the long term. If mindfulness can be used to teach “healthy” individuals these skills, perhaps this can help prevent depression and anxiety in the first place. If an individuals is more aware of how they are feeling, and more aware of how things may be affecting them and their mental health, then they may be more likely to seek help for this earlier, and before they slip into a state where they are struggling to live with a depression or anxiety disorder. It’s something that, once more research has been done and it gains more acceptance and momentum within the health care sector, would be good to see available in schools, colleges and universities for this very reason.
People should be taught the skills needed to cope with their mental health to help them later in life, or whenever they need the help. Whether this is help with a diagnosed mental health problem, healthy mental health, or just help when they’re having a really shitty week. Lets be honest, mental health illness or not, we all have shitty days/weeks/months more often than we want, and I’m sure that life would be boring otherwise, but i’m also sure that we’d all agree it would be nice to be able to cope with it a little better.
I believe that Mindfulness could possibly be the way forward for this.
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