Therapeutic mindfulness

One of the most exciting developments in mindfulness over the past four decades has been its increasing use for therapeutic aims – to support people who are dealing with chronic health issues, life-threatening illnesses, depression, anxiety, trauma and a range of other physical and mental challenges. There are thousands of studies which validate the use of therapeutic mindfulness, and countless people have been helped by learning mindfulness as part of their treatment plan. From better pain management, improved immunity and decreased inflammatory response to improved mood, lower anxiety and improved relationships, there is clear evidence that mindfulness can be used therapeutically. It’s not a replacement for medical treatments, counselling or medication, but it can support these other therapies and enhance their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, this is also an area where mindfulness can do more harm than good, if it is taught by inexperienced practitioners to people with certain vulnerabilities. Learning mindfulness can initially increase our experience of pain, difficult thoughts and negative emotions, as we slow down enough to really become aware of them, and this can be unsettling. Even people who are not dealing with major difficulties are often quite dismayed when they start to meditate and realise just how frantically busy their mind always is, and how little, if any, time they actually spend in the present moment. With the right support and guidance from an experienced and trained practitioner, these early stages can be worked with and can lead to increased affect tolerance, personal growth and resilience. Often people learn mindfulness while also supported by counselling and/or medication, and this can be very effective. Yet, at the moment, anyone can call themselves a mindfulness teacher, whether they’re highly qualified, or whether they simply like the sound of it and are making it up as they go along (I’ve met a few people in the second category!). Mindfulness may also be contra-indicated for people who are experiencing psychosis, schizophrenia, or other conditions where dissociation may be present.

When taught by someone suitably qualified, therapeutic mindfulness has the potential to significantly shift our relationship to the difficulties of our lives. As we practise non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, beginner’s mind, letting go, we slowly and gradually learn to become less caught up in emotional reactiveness and unhelpful thought patterns. I’ve been teaching the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for eight years now, and consistently, by week four or five, participants report significant shifts in how they are approaching the challenges of their lives. They describe being more calm, less reactive, less caught up in painful emotions, being able to see the bigger picture. They find they often have a choice of how to respond to difficulties, and they talk about exploring new and better options, which is very empowering.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten to twenty minutes to sit somewhere quiet and notice your breath coming and going. When the mind wanders off, gently bring it back to the breath. What do you notice in your thoughts, your body sensations, your emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Accentuate the Positive

‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between’.

This song was written in 1944, during a time of wars across the world. With its rousing lyrics and upbeat tune, it no doubt helped to lift the spirits of many who were living through that time. A particularly exuberant version is by Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters – even those of us who didn’t grow up in that era, and who don’t normally listen to music from the 40s, can enjoy the energy of their performance. And while mindfulness emphasises being with life as it is, non-judgementally and without trying to deny our negative experiences, there is a wisdom in also ‘accentuating the positive’ in our lives.

Our brains are hard-wired for survival rather than happiness, which means we are more likely to worry about what might conceivably go wrong in the future than enjoy what’s going well for us right now. Because of this, for many people, anxiety rather than joy can become the soundtrack of their lives. While serious anxiety disorders require professional treatment, the kind of low-level anxiety many of us live with often responds well to efforts to lift our mood.

What can be difficult, however, is making the time to cultivate positive experiences for ourselves. It might feel selfish, or unimportant, to accentuate the positive. Or we could feel we’re resting on our laurels, rather than ‘getting on with things’, if we’re enjoying ourselves. Through my work as a music therapist, I’ve seen the deep joy and meaning which people can get from sharing positive experiences, for example by singing together. People who have every reason to be depressed – because they’ve suffered a serious permanent injury, perhaps, or because they’ve had to sell their home to move into a nursing home – can beam with joy as they sing along to songs they love. These positive experiences are important for recovery, or to minimise the risk of depression, but they’re also an important part of our lives in general. As the song goes on to say:

‘You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum

Bring gloom down to the minimum

Have faith or pandemonium

Liable to walk upon the scene.’

Weekly practice idea:

This week, listen to an uplifting song – perhaps even ‘Accentuate the Positive’, and allow its magic to lift your mood and bring a smile to your face.

Anja Tanhane