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Mindfulness for Stress Relief, Pain Management and Wellbeing
The story :
In the late 1970's a young molecular biologist called Jon Kabat-Zinn working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who also happened to be a Buddhist, was wondering whether there was a way of using 'Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism' to help those patients who had either been through the full gamut of treatments available for their particular conditions and were still suffering, or those for whom there was no effective treatment. When he asked doctors how many of their patients they felt they were really able to help the response was typically 10-20%, and so Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) came into being. Three forward-thinking clinic directors agreed to refer patients to his first Stress Reduction programmes and within the year the programme became an integral part of the Centre's services. Since that time thousands of people have benefited and there is a constantly growing body of research backing up the anecdotal evidence for its benefits. While the original intention was to help people to cope better with their physical symptoms rather than change them, research shows that many people do also experience a reduction in symptoms.
Since those small beginnings, MBSR and a whole range of adaptations for different problems, both physical and mental, have spread to a wide range of settings across the world, including hospitals, hospices and care homes, workplace schemes, prisons and schools. It's been recommended by NICE for prevention of relapse of depression, promoted by the Mental Health Foundation and centres of excellence have been established at four UK universities. But availability of mindfulness training is still very patchy and this was why Penny McCarthy set up Mindfulness in the Community in 2012 to broaden access to mindfulness training in Northamptonshire. Having been a meditator for many years, when she developed a chronic pain condition in 2004 it was natural for her to turn to Mindfulness to help her manage her condition. Mindfulness transformed her ability to cope and has enabled her to significantly reduce the amount of pain relief medication she takes. She went on to train to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Pain Management (the Breathworks Living Well with Pain and Illness course, now known as Mindfulness for Health developed by Vidyamala Burch) and founded Mindfulness in the Community as a social enterprise a year ago.
The Benefits :
Some of the benefits backed up by the research are:
• Reduced levels of stress and increased ability to relax
• Lessening of depression and anxiety/improved self esteem
• Increased empathy, self-compassion and activity levels
• Reductions in perceptions of pain, use of pain relief drugs and GP visits
• Increased ability to manage / cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations, pain and illness
• Improved relationships, quality of life and feelings of well being
So what happens at a mindfulness course?
The course usually consists of 8 weekly 2½ hour sessions in a group of up to 12 participants, with an all-day session either towards the end of the course or as a follow-up. Participants also need to attend an orientation session before the course begins. Each session is a mix of guided meditations, gentle movement work, teaching and group discussions.
Over the 8 weeks, participants learn to focus their attention and become aware of the totality of their moment-by-moment experience, including their habitual negative thought patterns, without getting caught up in them. You might wonder why on earth that would help, especially if you suffer from chronic pain; we all have different minds and different bodies so everyone's experience is different, but one way of describing it is that gradually we develop a mental spaciousness which allows us to look our difficulties – physical or mental – in the face without being overwhelmed by them, and increase our awareness of the pleasurable aspects of our experience which can become blocked out when we are struggling to cope. Most people find they are able to make better choices about their wellbeing and discover an inner strength they didn't know they had.
Home practice is an important part of the course - it's one thing to be mindful when you're sitting quietly in a group of people all meditating, but another trying to remain mindful you're making dinner and the kids are arguing, or in the face of chronic pain or illness. So each week there are meditations and other exercises to practice which help people develop their new skills and learn to bring a mindful awareness to daily life
Which course is right for me?
It's a matter of what you feel your main difficulty is. The two courses have much in common but Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction focuses more on dealing with thoughts and emotions while Living Well with Pain and Illness (LWPI)/ Mindfulness for Health) focuses more on physical problems. In MBSR we learn to recognise the emotions which often accompany our thoughts but which may be below the level of conscious awareness and can lead to negative moods and reactions which seem to come from nowhere. We also learn to include pleasant experiences in our awareness even where there is pain or crisis, how we get stuck in habitual and often unhelpful ways of reacting, and dealing with stressful communications in a mindful way.
Much of the material in LWPI is similar to MBSR, but we also look at how, when we investigate our unpleasant symptoms and pain with a non-judgemental curiosity, they often turn out to be more fluid and less all-enveloping that we previously thought. We investigate how we tend to block out or become overwhelmed by chronic pain and other symptoms, ending up in a boom/bust cycle, often making our symptoms even worse and feeling at the mercy of our bodies. We also look at activity pacing from a mindful perspective.
What if my condition does not allow me to attend/commit to a course?
Some people are unable to either physically attend or commit to an 8 week course which is why Breathworks offers its courses both online and in Vidyamala Burch's award winning book Mindfulness for Health. This means you can benefit from the course from the comfort of your own home or surroundings.
I'd like to know more, where do I go?
Further information can be obtained from the following websites: