Ruby Wax swears by it, and there’s other widespread press interest in it too. However most of the positive news about mindfulness has come from the widespread use and success of an eight week program called mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This was developed based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction programme, which was undoubtedly a significant step forward in the treatment of mental health. It does thoughjust represent one way that mindfulness can be used to help those with depression. It was never intended as an approach for treating people who were in an episode of depression. It was designed to be a low-cost way of helping groups of people prevent relapses back into depression. This is because it’s not a therapy group, it’s a skills-based development workshop. It has a packed curriculum where the space is given to the delegates understanding and applying mindfulness. It’s not about people exploring the personal issues adversely affecting their lives.
The structure of the MBCT course assumes participants are sufficiently resourced to carry through the intensive daily homework program, as well as attending and participating in the weekly classes. Somebody who’s in the middle of a major episode of depression is unlikely to be able to full fill the demanding needs of the programme, so these people are filtered out and not accepted onto the courses until they are feeling better.
Most people don’t come to mindfulness as their first choice to deal with depression. Many people first turn to things like antidepressants, psychotherapy, distraction techniques, positive thinking, alcohol and even other recreational drugs.
For some people these common approaches are successful, and the evidences is that most people will go on and live the remainder of their lives without any further serious episodes of depression.
For those who have repeat episodes, these common techniques may become less effective with time. When this happens people tend to look further for a more permanent solution.
Oftentimes these common interventions for depression are inappropriate as they have a downside. For example for some people don’t like the emotional numbing that comes with some antidepressants. Others find the CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) approach of constantly challenging thoughts to be too emotionally draining, as their debilitating thoughts can seem to be endless. Sometimes people spend many years searching for a simple cure for their condition, never finding anything satisfactory. Only then will they turn to approaches like mindfulness that require more effort, and may not even deliver what they think they need.
People who turn to mindfulness as yet another technique frequently miss out on what it can do for them. The best way to think of it is as a skill and it’s a lifestyle. This means it’s something that people can begin to weave into their daily lives. Mindfulness is not a technique just to be applied when the depression strikes. A skill that’s developed and practised daily so that it’s ready for use when needed.
Mindfulness is about being aware of what we’re focusing on, and if necessary, changing our focus and putting our attention on something else. It is not a distraction technique, or about trying to change our experiences. Mindfulness is about changing how we relate to our experiences.
In many settings mindfulness is taught using meditation, often referred to as mindfulness meditation. Meditation just means concentrating your mind. Often objects are used to focus our attention on when meditating. For example, bodily sensations, or the process of breathing.
There are also many mindfulness exercises that do not use meditation. For example, ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy) is a relatively new discipline aimed at helping people live more rewarding lives using mindfulness at its core. Instead of using meditation, it uses a range of creative metaphors and skills exercises to help clients develop mindfulness.
MBCT uses mindfulness meditation because it is easier to teach this to a group. ACT tends towards mindfulness exercises where the therapist can give specific exercises to a client tailored to their needs at that moment in time. This would not be possible for an entire group at once.
(Note: for those who are interested both MBCT and ACT are referred to as ‘Third generation therapies’. An example of the second generation would be CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) both MBCT and ACT were developed and tested to remedy some of the shortfalls of the second generation approaches.)
One of the core concepts when using mindfulness with mental illnesses like depression is that it’s not about getting rid of, overcoming, battling with or defeating the condition. Many common approaches for getting rid of depression come from this angle, and often fail.
One of the significant ways mindfulness helps people is it allows them to pull away and step back from those repetitive endless depressive thoughts. Thoughts like “why me?” “What did I do to cause this?” “How do I get rid of it?” This endless repetitive thinking is often referred to as rumination. When somebody mindfully notices they are caught in this mental loop again, they then become aware they can make a choice. They can choose to let those ruminative thoughts go into the background of their awareness, then they can choose to place their attention on things that are going to be more useful and helpful to them.
So what things might be more helpful? One example would be activities that are important to that person, or things that they find rewarding. It’s tempting to want to leave off doing worthwhile activities until you feel better. However, It is quite possible to do activities that give value and meaning to their life, while still being depressed. There’s no need to wait until the depression is passed.
Many who’ve attended a mindfulness course, such as the eight week MBCT or other eight week courses, do report a reduction in symptoms. The objective of the course is not to reduce the symptoms however, it often does happen.
A second major benefit that many report is an improvement in the quality of life even, if their depression does not subside. For this to happen there usually needs to be a parallel programme of becoming engaged more in a meaningful and value-based life.
People are most likely to turn to mindfulness when they have decided to stop the hunt for that ever elusive ‘cure’. However, if someone is not prepared to put in the time to develop the skill, or is not prepared to choose a path of mindfulness then it’s probably not an effective approach for them. As already mentioned, a person needs to be mentally resourceful enough to take on the challenge of learning a major skill like mindfulness.
In our experience, people who practise mindfulness tend to be calmer, happier and more satisfied with their life. They tend to get their ’emotional buttons’ pressed less often, and can avoid some of the bad moods that used to take them unawares and hold them hostage from their life. We think the rewards more than outweigh the price of learning the skills.
If you want to explore more on your own there are many free and excellent mindfulness resources available on the internet, just do a search through YouTube or generally in a search engine and you’ll find plenty.
If you’ve done that and are ready to go further what next? For thousands of years mindfulness has always been taught from a teacher to pupil. Whether that be one-to-one or within groups. Nobody seems to have found a way round the need for this ‘human-connection’ approach.
Here at Mindfulness Mavericks we run introductory days, short and eight week courses. If appropriate, add yourself to the newsletter or follow us on social media, so you can be kept up to date when the next courses come up.
If you want something more personal then please call us on (0114) 299 8888. We’ll do our best to answer your questions and look forward to helping you move past depression and into living a more meaningful and satisfying life. You can also subscribe to our newsletter to hear about our new and user-friendly classes and workshops.