MED­I­TAT­ING ON MIND­FUL­NESS

It’s tempt­ing to de­bunk al­ter­na­tive medicines, but this fad has some sub­stance

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Recreation & Investment Properties - TOM CHIVERS

The trou­ble with be­ing skep­ti­cal about quack­ish health-care fads is that it’s some­times easy to throw out the use­ful baby with the non­sense bath­wa­ter. If you’ve spent much time over the years wearily ex­plain­ing to people that home­opa­thy doesn’t work, that reiki and re­flex­ol­ogy and natur­opa­thy and acupunc­ture and chi­ro­prac­tic are snake-oil, you be­come wary.

Cer­tain buzz­words act as warn­ing signs; your ears prick up when you hear “nat­u­ral reme­dies,” or “Chi­nese medicine,” or “al­ter­na­tive ther­apy.” Any­thing men­tion­ing “Ayurvedic” or “chakras” is right out.

All of which is a per­fectly sen­si­ble labour-sav­ing ex­er­cise to weed out ob­vi­ous quack­ery. But ev­ery so of­ten, an in­ter­ven­tion that ac­tu­ally works can set off the alarm bells.

Pow­dered rhino horn ob­vi­ously doesn’t cure im­po­tence, but cur­cumin, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in turmeric, re­ally does have an anti-in­flam­ma­tory ef­fect in some lab tri­als.

One such false alarm could be set off by news that record num­bers of Bri­tons are us­ing “mind­ful­ness tech­niques” to com­bat men­tal health con­cerns, in­clud­ing de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

It’s easy to be skep­ti­cal of a pur­ported med­i­cal tech­nique that claims to be based on a 2,500-yearold tra­di­tion of Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion, es­pe­cially one that leaps un­ex­pect­edly into the news, sug­gest­ing sud­den fash­ion­abil­ity. But mind­ful­ness, the process of al­low­ing yourself sim­ply to ex­pe­ri­ence your sur­round­ings with­out judg­ing it or think­ing about the past or the fu­ture, re­ally does, it seems, have ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fits.

There’s no dis­guis­ing the fact that it has a deeply hip­py­ish feel. Mind­ful­ness in­volves “prac­tis­ing fo­cused at­ten­tion to sen­sa­tions from the body,” ac­cord­ing to one paper in the Cana­dian Jour­nal of Psy­chi­a­try; “mo­ment-to-mo­ment aware­ness of one’s ex­pe­ri­ence with­out judg­ment,” ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion.

The idea is that you con­cen­trate on the here and now: the sound of the car horn that is honk­ing be­hind you, the feel­ing of the tight­ness in your chest that it evokes; fo­cus­ing on the sen­sa­tions them­selves, not what the sen­sa­tions mean, is meant to re­duce stress.

All of which sounds very nice, but what might be sur­pris­ing is that ac­tual, sci­en­tific ev­i­dence sug­gests it can make you health­ier. The U.K.’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Health and Clin­i­cal Ex­cel­lence (Nice) rec­om­mends that “mind­ful­ness-based cog­ni­tive ther­apy” can re­duce the risk of re­lapse in pa­tients who have suf­fered de­pres­sion in the past, and should be avail­able on the NHS.

A 2010 meta-anal­y­sis of 39 stud­ies found that mind­ful­ness is an ef­fec­tive treat­ment for anx­i­ety and mood dis­or­ders, sig­nif­i­cantly more ef­fec­tive than a placebo.

People with de­pres­sion tend to ru­mi­nate on the past, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist friend of mine ex­plains; people with anx­i­ety dis­or­ders tend to worry about the fu­ture. Help­ing people who have suf­fered from these things to fo­cus on the mo­ment can help stave off fu­ture at­tacks, and to be­come aware of and in con­trol of neg­a­tive emo­tions.

S ke p t i c i s m i s n’ t c o mpletely un­war­ranted. There is a bright-eyed evan­gel­i­cal zeal to some pro­po­nents of mind­ful­ness, which you might ex­pect, since the med­i­ta­tive tech­niques it pro­motes have their ba­sis in re­li­gion; web­sites sell­ing cour­ses in it are all bright pri­mary colours and ex­cla­ma­tion marks.

As we re­ported re­cently, some f i nan­cial f i rms are now of­fer­ing it to their staff, and some schools to pupils. Whether it has pos­i­tive ef­fects on psy­cho­log­i­cally healthy people is less clear, al­though my psy­chol­o­gist con­tact says it’s likely to be help­ful. And, for be­havioural in­ter­ven­tions like this, it is harder to carry out top-qual­ity ex­peri- ments.

While you can do ran­dom­ized con­trol tri­als, it’s hard to pre­scribe placebo med­i­ta­tion. Re­searchers can try to min­i­mize the ef­fects of this lim­i­ta­tion, but it makes good ev­i­dence harder to come by.

The big­gest rea­son to be skep­ti­cal, of course, is grandiose claims that mind­ful­ness can treat things that it can’t. This is a prob­lem for sev­eral kinds of “al­ter­na­tive” medicines: chi­ro­prac­tic can be per­fectly use­ful for back pain; if a chi­ro­prac­tor claims she can cure your blad­der in­fec­tion, she’s a quack.

Mind­ful­ness may be able to help you avoid a re­lapse of your de­pres­sion, or re­duce your stress lev­els, but any bolder claims than that should be treated with a sig­nif­i­cant pinch of salt.

But al t hough t hey can come wrapped up in a cer­tain amount of mys­ti­cism, mind­ful­ness tech­niques are not home­opa­thy-style non­sense. The co­me­dian Tim Minchin says: “You know what they call al­ter­na­tive medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” Mind­ful­ness, it is fair to say, is no longer “al­ter­na­tive.”

Manuel Valdes/The As­so­ci­ated Press

The essence of mind­ful­ness is that you con­cen­trate on the here and now.

Brent Fos­ter /Postmedia News

Mind­ful­ness is based on Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion tra­di­tion.

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