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Mindfulness and Mental Health

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Tara Dunham MA, LMHC Family Counseling Associates of Andover



Most of you have heard of it: Mindfulness. What the heck is being mindful? The term is everywhere nowadays. I first heard of mindfulness in one of my classes at Lesley University over 10 years ago. We watched a video showing Jon Kabat Zinn helping a group of people in severe pain. These people had gone to multiple pain clinics and doctors, and hadn’t received any relief. The study enrolled 51 patients in a 10 week Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program that used mindfulness meditation. The video showed Jon Kabat Zinn teaching them to sit with the pain using the meditation/mindfulness. The results were incredible. At 10 weeks, 65% of the patients showed a reduction of greater than or equal to 33% in the mean total Pain Rating Index (Melzack) and 50% showed a reduction of greater than or equal to 50%. Similar decreases were recorded on other pain indices and in the number of medical symptoms reported. Large and significant reductions in mood disturbance and psychiatric symptomatology were also reported. I was so impressed after watching this video, immediately went out and bought Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living”, and was on my way to enlightenment.

You are probably wondering, how do I practice this mindfulness? Mindfulness is being “in the moment”. You are not one minute behind or one minute ahead, you are there. Think of child around the age of 3. Children this age are automatically mindful. Imagine you are leaving the house and walking out the door. A butterfly flies by. You are thinking, “What are we going to have for dinner? I need to pick up the dry cleaning, etc”. A child in this situation would say out loud “Look at the butterfly”. THIS is mindfulness. Being present and aware in the moment. But we have so many responsibilities, shouldn’t we be thinking of those things? Well, when you go over what you are going to have for dinner for the 50th time, ask yourself, “is this helpful?”. I am not saying it is 100 percent. Who knows if even the Dalai Lama is mindful every minute of every day, but we can learn to use the tools and apply them to our life. Ready to try it? Choose something you do every day that is mindless like brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, etc. You are going to complete this task using all of your senses: what you see, feel, hear, smell, taste. So for an example if you are brushing your teeth: “I see the brush”, “I feel the bristles”…. that is probably as far as you are going to get when that voice will pop in your head “I need to……”, “what am I going to do….”, “what if”….., you get the picture. When one of those annoying thoughts pops in, notice it, then gently push it aside and go back to the task at hand, brushing your teeth: “I feel the bristles”, “I am brushing my teeth”. Easy, right? So why not give it a try? It definitely can’t hurt, and you will only get better with practice. The brain is a muscle and we can train it to keep us in the moment so we don’t miss out on some of the most important ones. You can’t go to the gym and expect to lift 50 pounds, the same holds true for mindfulness. With each day you will get better and better and it only takes 10 minutes out of your busy day.

Mindfulness has been shown to decrease the cognitive symptoms of depression, anxiety and even ADHD. Cognitive symptoms can impair all areas of a person’s life. Poor concentration can interfere with your job or schoolwork and negative thoughts can lead to negative emotions, deepening depression. Focusing on the here and now helps people become aware of their negative thoughts and acknowledge them without judgment. Through mindfulness people begin to see their thoughts as less powerful and they can begin to detach from their distorted and negative thoughts thus reducing stress, depression and anxiety. Mindfulness also teaches people to focus on one thing at a time which is extremely helpful for ADHD and anxiety based diagnoses.

If you would like to learn more about mindfulness there are many books out here. A few of my favorites are “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress” Jon Kabat­ Zinn.

Family Counseling Associates clinicians can also support you in developing mindfulness strategies to manage stress, anxiety, and depression.