Mindfulness for Anxiety
Mindfulness has been practiced as part of meditative exercises for thousands of years, becoming renowned for its calming function and its ability to improve mental and spiritual well-being. Modern psychological research is beginning to reveal that it is an effective form of therapy for anxiety.
The adaptation of meditative practice to therapy
Mindfulness owes its origins to eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and to the practice of meditation. Its more recent application in therapy owes much to those traditions, but alongside an increasing popularity, it has now gained a robust and more scientific evidence base.
Mindfulness is a therapeutic approach that focuses on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It values and teaches acceptance of the moment as it is experienced now — and by extension, an acceptance of feelings and responses that may have been with us for decades.
Acceptance often involves a wholly different way of engaging with our minds and our bodies, and our own life history. When successful, the result is improved well-being and, crucially, reduced or even absent symptoms of a range of conditions and concerns, including anxiety.
There are different ‘varieties’ of mindfulness which borrow concepts and techniques from other therapies to form ‘hybrids’, but all with the common thread aim of enabling us to react less to whatever is happening to us, and to relate to experience in a new way.
You might stumble across ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) or Acceptance-based Therapy; MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) or MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). These are among a half dozen or so variations and adaptations listed in The Mindful Manifesto, a recent publication by Ed Haliwell, a Guardian journalist, and Dr Jonty Heaversedge, an inner city London GP.
Paying close attention to our experience
Practicing therapists see mindfulness as a skill which gets better, and more effective, with practice. Mindfulness teaches us to pay close attention to our experience and to heighten awareness, to ignore distractions and just to ‘be’. In therapy, it aims to bring new insights and a deeper wisdom.
Neuroscientific research indicates that the positive effects of mindfulness on mental well-being may be at least partly as result of the changes it brings in the brain: the parts of the brain associated with sensory processing, together with those used in the regulation of emotions, become more developed and increase in size.
Scans on the brains of people who practise mindfulness demonstrate their greater ability to activate the sensory, sensitive, experiential or ‘being’ areas and to switch comfortably and easily from the ‘doing’ areas more concerned with thinking and which focuses on narratives and future plans and analysis of past experience…those areas which are likely to support anxieties.
Research and convincing evidence
Increasingly, the research indicates it does. A meta-analysis published in 2010 looked at a total of 39 previously-published papers with a combined number of participants of 1140, who were receiving therapy for different emotional issues or medical conditions, including generalised anxiety disorder. Results showed anxiety and other mood related issues were reduced by mindfulness therapy, and importantly, the effect was maintained over the periods of follow up.
Another study looked at two groups of patients, all with anxiety; one group was formed of patients randomised to receive immediate therapy and the other patients had no therapy (the ‘waiting list controls’). The therapy was a mindfulness-like ABBT (acceptance-based behaviour therapy). Over a period of nine months, there were significant reductions in anxiety symptoms reported by the patients in the treatment group, and by their clinicians, compared with the non-treatment group.
Heaversedge and Halliwell point out the transformation effected by mindfulness is something that can’t easily be expressed in a scientific study — if someone’s feelings about anxiety change, have their overt symptoms really reduced, or is it ‘just’ the perception that’s different, and even if it is, then is this ok?
They argue for a different kind of investigation into the therapeutic and other effects, which involves a personal and ‘mindful’ look at individual experience, to be at least an equal partner in the scientific enquiry into mindfulness as a form of therapy.