Mindful Treatment of Anxiety, Depression & PTSD
Mindfulness has gained a ton of momentum in recent years. I think it is safe to say it is HOT, HOT, HOT!! Nearly everywhere we turn these days, mindfulness is there. If you are in the check-out line at the grocery store there are at least 2 or more magazines with articles about mindfulness. More and more celebrities, athletes, and news programs are referring to the benefits of mindfulness, oftentimes, meditation specifically. It is true that mindfulness can bring many benefits to your emotional and physical health, as well as to the relationships in your life. Overall, mindfulness is an amazing tool to assist with stress management and overall wellness because it can be used virtually any time and can quickly bring lasting results. But, how and why has mindfulness become such a tool used as an adjunctive therapy for anxiety, depression and PTSD?
What is Mindfulness?
So exactly what is this amazing, life altering tool that everyone is talking about? The founder of the modern movement of mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness exercises include awareness of breath meditations or detailed and non-evaluative attention to body sensations through body scans, yoga, or walking meditations. Kabat-Zinn developed an 8-week group-based psychoeducational program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), based on the principles of mindfulness. MBSR was developed to reduce the risk for relapse in previously depressed individuals. Participants practice a variety of mindfulness exercises in a secular format that has shown to positively impact stress management, psychiatric symptoms, and quality of life across diverse populations, along with non-clinical populations. It incorporates exercises aimed specifically at enabling awareness of and disengagement from manifesting depressive symptoms.
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2016) estimates that depression effects an estimated 350 million people worldwide and classifies depression as one of the world’s most urgent health problems and the leading cause of disability. They further project that by the year 2030, depression will be the number one cause of the global disease burden. Depression and anxiety know no bounds of age, socio-economic status, professional background…it simply affects a variety of people, from various walks of life. Due to the variety of people who are affected by depression and/or anxiety, healthcare professionals and researchers have begun exploring and examining treatment options that reach beyond the traditional approaches of medication and cognitive behavior therapies. Alternative therapies, such as mindfulness-based therapy indicate promising results.
Recent studies focused on mindfulness techniques have resulted in significant decreases in anxiety and depressive symptoms. Smith, Metzker, Waite and Gerrity (2015) conducted a study on an inner-city, racial/ethnic minority population that attended a four-week long, group-based MBSR course. This study showed statistically significant decrease in anxiety. In 2015, a group of 322 well-educated Caucasian women, enrolled in an eight-week, community-based MBSR program. Approximately half of this group reported having experienced symptoms of depression. The study findings indicated statistically significant reductions in depressive symptoms regardless of religious affiliation, sense of spirituality, or gender (Greeson, Smoski, Suarez, Brantley, Ekblad, Lynch, & Wolever, 2015). Roche, Barrachina, & Fernandez (2016) studied mixed-gender participants in a yoga group. These participants showed a significant increase in mindfulness and decrease in both anxiety and depression symptoms.
College students are one of many populations that face high levels of stress and anxiety due to experiencing a transition adaptation process. The lack of parental support, culture shock, changes in lifestyle and thoughts that college students experience during this time can lead to students feeling inadequate, leading to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression (Falsafi, 2016). Falsafi explored the use of mindfulness-based interventions as an alternative to treatment to reduce the stigma associated with being diagnosed with a mental illness. After 8 weeks, those students assigned to the mindfulness and yoga groups showed a significant decrease in depression, anxiety, and stress.
One student, Nicole, said that “assignments consistently pile up with quickly approaching deadlines, social endeavors become more daunting, and success relies on the ability to manage time effectively. Each task individually adds extra stress to my life despite the seeming simplicity.” After the 8-week program, Nicole reported that, “I can focus on my assignments with a greater attentiveness than before. The awareness of breath meditation has been particularly significant in my college life as it takes my focus and pushes it inward, allowing me to calm myself and refocus my attention when I find my busy thoughts taking over. It also taught me how to view myself and my shortcomings with compassion instead of guilt.”
Similarly, Guillaumie, Boiral & Champagne (2016) conducted a study of the effects of mindfulness on work-related stress among nurses. The most frequent intervention that was used with this population was group relaxation meetings. Overall, the study indicated that nurses benefitted from a reduction in anxiety and depression and improved performance in well-being (inner state of calmness, awareness, and enthusiasm), improved work performance, better communication with colleagues and patients, higher sensitivity to patients’ experiences, clearer analysis of complex situations, and emotional regulation in stressful contexts. One of the nurse participants indicated that she gained skills to identify when she is distracted and tense, tools to remind herself to pay attention to breath. Those tools have increased a sense of relaxation and calmness, along with being less reactive to stressful situations.
Studies specific to trauma and PTSD are relatively new and have mixed results, however, in a review of studies it would certainly appear that practicing mindfulness can be an excellent way of coping with the symptoms of PTSD. People who experience PTSD may periodically feel as though they have a hard time getting any distance from unpleasant thoughts and memories. They report feeling preoccupied with and distracted by these thoughts. As a result, many people with PTSD find that they have a hard time focusing their attention on positive relationships with friends and family, or other activities they used to enjoy. The use of mindfulness may assist people to help them be in the present moment and reduce the feeling of being controlled by unpleasant thoughts and memories. Additionally, findings indicate that mindfulness can pull one out of the negative downward spiral that can be caused by too much daily stress, too many bad moods, or the habit of rumination. It is also reported that there exists an increase in resilience to stress so one feels less stressed in the future and able to shrug off present stress, ultimately transforming the experience of stress, enjoyment of life and quality of relationships.
The following mindfulness exercises are simple and convenient and can lead you to a deeper experience of mindfulness in your daily life.
1. Meditation:Meditation in and of itself brings many benefits. It has been one of the most popular and traditional ways to achieve mindfulness for centuries. Meditation is akin to training for a marathon…you start small and gain momentum with training. To begin, simply find a comfortable place, free of distractions, and focus on your breath to quiet your mind…60 seconds will provide benefit!
2. Deep Breathing:Because mindfulness is the act of being in the present moment, it can be as simple as breathing! Breathe from your belly rather than from your chest, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Focusing on the sound and rhythm of your breath, especially when you’re upset, can have a calming effect and help you stay grounded in the present moment. You can focus on your breathing as you go about your daily activities. Try focusing on your breath every time you go through a doorway…voila, you’re practicing mindfulness!
3. Listening to Music:Listening to music has many benefits—that’s part of why listening to music makes a great mindfulness exercise. You can play soothing new-age music, classical music, or another type of slow-tempo music to feel calming effects. Make it an exercise in mindfulness by really focusing on the sound and vibration of each note, the feelings that the music brings up within you, and other sensations that are happening “right now” as you listen. If other thoughts creep into your head, congratulate yourself for noticing, and gently bring your attention back to the current moment and the music you are hearing.
4. Cleaning House:The term “cleaning house” has a literal meaning (cleaning up your actual house) as well as a figurative one (getting rid of “emotional baggage,” letting go of things that no longer serve you), and both can be great stress relievers! Because clutter has several hidden costs and can be a subtle but significant stressor, cleaning house and de-cluttering as a mindfulness exercise can bring lasting benefits.
To bring mindfulness to cleaning, you first need to view it as a positive event, an exercise in self-understanding and stress relief, rather than simply as a chore. Then, as you clean, focus on what you are doing as you are doing it—and nothing else. Feel the warm, soapy water on your hands as you wash dishes; experience the vibrations of the vacuum cleaner as you cover the area of the floor; enjoy the warmth of the laundry as you fold it; feel the freedom of letting go of unneeded objects as you put them in the donations bag. It may sound a little silly, but if you approach cleaning as an exercise in mindfulness, it can become one. You may also add music to the equation.
5. Observing Your Thoughts:Many stressed and busy people find it difficult to stop focusing on the rapid stream of thoughts running through their mind, and the idea of sitting in meditation and holding off the onslaught of thought can actually cause more stress! If this sounds like you, the mindfulness exercise of observing your thoughts might be for you. Rather than working against the voice in your head, you sit back and “observe” your thoughts, rather than becoming involved in them. As you observe them, you might find your mind quieting, and the thoughts becoming less stressful. If not, you may benefit from journaling as a way of processing all those thoughts so you can decrease their intensity and try again.
6. Create Your Own!:You are probably now getting the idea that virtually any activity can be a mindfulness exercise, and in a way, you’re right. Walking, listening to music, eating chocolate, and many other activities can be “mindfulness activities” if you perform them with a sense of mindfulness. This means focusing on the present moment, focusing on physical sensations, being fully present in everything you do, letting go of thoughts of the future or anxiety over the past, and just being “there” with what you are doing. It helps to practice meditation or another exercise that really focuses on mindfulness, but you can bring mindfulness to anything you do, and find yourself less stressed and more grounded in the process.
Mindfulness takes practice. Some people may put aside time to formally practice mindfulness, such as devoting time to practice mindful awareness of their breath or thoughts or have a daily meditation practice. However, the good thing about mindfulness is that you can also practice it at any point throughout your day. For example, you can bring mindfulness awareness to a number of activities that we often do without thinking, such as eating (mindful eating), washing dishes, cooking, taking a shower or bath, walking, driving in the car, or listening to music.
As you go about your day, try to find as many opportunities as you can to practice mindfulness. The more you practice, the easier it will become to bring mindful awareness to your life experiences, which in the end may also help you cope with your PTSD symptoms. It can take a little practice and trial-and-error to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Seek out a therapist or a coach that can assist you with training and implementation of mindfulness techniques in your daily life. Most importantly…do it all with loving kindness towards yourself.
MJ Allen holds a B.A. in Forensic Psychology, a M.S. in Clinical Mental Health and Counseling from Southern New Hampshire University and a Certificate in Meditation Instruction from the University of Holistic Theology. MJ is currently a doctoral student obtaining her degree in Counselor Supervision and Education from Capella University. Her self-care practices include time with family; hiking a trail with her faithful companion, Grace, a lively black and white, 5 year old, English springer; or enjoying an evening gathered around a campfire with friends and family. MJ is dedicated to the works she does and is here to help inspire both you and your practice. For more information, visit: www.presenceofmindstudio.com.