Why mindfulness works – The behavioral view

Photo @2005-2011 Juanita de Paola - http://www.juanita.it/

Experts have known since 500 BCE that mindfulness practice can lead to greater feelings of equanimity and contentment.  Mindfulness- based therapies have been part of western psychology at least since 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zinn opened the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Unlike many other “eastern” treatments, empirical studies have accumulated to support claims of effectiveness against depression[i] and anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder[ii], obsessive-compulsive disorder[iii], and even irritable bowel syndrome[iv].

What has been less well understood is how it works. Michael Treanor, of the University of Massachusetts published a meta-analysis[v] this February that suggests exposure is key. Since Joseph Wolpe’s time (and before), we’ve known if you expose yourself long enough to something that causes anxiety, your amygdala and sympathetic nervous system will (eventually) realize it’s not so dangerous. The difficulty has always been how to stay with the phobic object when every part of you wants to run. Treanor’s meta-analysis finds empirical support for the idea that mindfulness works as a conditioned inhibitor – meaning, in this case, it eases the urge to flee.

Treanor’s findings were anticipated in a 2005 article[vi] by Shapiro, Carlson et al. They defined mindfulness as choosing to focus one’s attention on the present moment, with an open, accepting attitude, and the intention of calming, exploring, or regulating oneself.  Marsha Linehan made it part of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy because it helped her chronically suicidal clients stay present with their emotions long enough to recognize and tolerate them.  For those overwhelmed by dysphoria, mindfulness can be like the difference between watching a football game from the 50-yard line, and being  tackled and trampled by players on the field.

Exposure, naturally, is the key intervention in Edna Foa’s prolonged exposure therapy, which is the U.S. military’s treatment of choice for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This article tells how Sgt. Richard Low, a veteran of 280 combat missions in Iraq, recovered from PTSD symptoms with help from Sudarshan Kriya yoga:

When he came back from the service, he didn’t think his experience affected him in any major way. He had nightmares, and he startled easily, but he chalked that up to just something veterans live with.

Then he enrolled in a study he initially wrote off as “just some hippie thing,” where he learned about yoga breathing and meditation. A year later, Low, 30, sums up his experience with two words: “It works.”

Heads-up to tough guys of the world: Mindfulness is not just a hippie thing. It’s also a Shaolin Monk thing.

 

@ 2011 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


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4 Comments

Filed under mindfulness, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

4 responses to “Why mindfulness works – The behavioral view

  1. Who teaches mindfulness meditation here in Ohio for both clients and psychotherapists? I know how to do meditation myself but would like some updated skills on teaching my clients. And for those clients who can afford to go to the training, they can attend themselves.

  2. Christina Scott, LISW

    You’re welcome, Jonathan. I agree with you; “Just relax” is similar to advice often given to children who are being teased by peers… i.e. “just ignore them.” Kinda hard for most people to do if they have not learned how to redirect their attention. Mindfulness training with children has proven to be very useful in this type of situation as well!

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