Mindfulness for Depression and Anxiety

Jon Kabat Zinn is said to be the forefather of modern mindfulness. He is the man responsible for bringing this Eastern practice to the West. He defines mindfulness as:

“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”

One of the first studies that Kabat-Zinn performed was in 1979 where he recruited chronically ill patients who were not responding to mainstream treatments for mental ill health. Kabat-Zinn’s study allowed for participants to participate in his eight-week stress reduction program, which he called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This proved successful and has since seen a substantial body of research providing more evidence of its efficacy. The research shows that mindfulness can improve mental and physical health comparably to other psychological interventions. Furthermore, mindfulness offers clients the ability to self-teach and use the tools anytime anywhere.

Everyone will experience restless nights and lack of sleep on occasion. However, if sleep is disrupted for weeks or months, insomnia can become a nightmare. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea require medical attention as they can really reduce the quality of life of the individual suffering, but for those suffering from insomnia, anxiety can be the root cause.

There are different types of insomnia. Chronic insomnia is where there is disturbed sleep for at least 3 days a week for more than 3 months and it affects around 7-13% of the population. Genetics, environmental issues, and long-term stress can be the cause of chronic insomnia. Primarily older people, “worriers”, and females, tend to be more at risk. Also, those with health complications such as obesity can be at further risk. The above factors, plus a stressful situation may be enough to cause a good sleeper to develop insomnia. Similarly, adrenaline pumping events can also influence sleep.

Once a sleep problem has begun, a person may worry about being unable to fall asleep which can cause the cycle to continue. The more a person is worrying about not sleeping, the worse their problem gets. Rather than counting sheep, mindfulness can help with insomnia by breeding an awareness of what comes into mind from paying attention to the present moment and being nonjudgemental of thoughts.

Mindfulness can help us let go of the past and stop worrying about the future. It is essentially embracing the thought, showing compassion to it, and letting it go. Jon Kabat-Zinn noticed a marked improvement in sleep quality for those that participated in mindfulness-based interventions. Mindfulness can improve sleep by breaking the cycle of rumination- unhelpful worrying-and worrying about not sleeping or having enough sleep. By letting go, clients can embrace the fact that sleep will come at its own time.

Practising relaxation in bed through mindfulness-based interventions can also be very beneficial, promoting both sleep, and energy for the following day. Mindfulness also reduces stress and anxiety and can break the vicious cycle whereby clients read electronic devices or watch TV before bed. This blue light interferes with the sleep-awake cycle by affecting the hormone, melatonin, and keeps people awake longer than they should be. Mindfulness and Chronic Pain and Depression Kabat-Zinn’s work also focused on how mindfulness can help those with chronic pain and depression.

Alongside his colleagues, Segal and others, Kabat-Zinn wrote the book The Mindful Way Through Depression, and states that by not focusing on the pain, worrying about it, or trying to eliminate it, chronic pain sufferers open up space to enjoy other happier and joyous life moments. Those with chronic pain will often agonise and worry about their health and suffering, often to the point that the stress and worry exacerbates symptoms. By opening up room where the patient does not focus solely on their pain and suffering, clients can then begin to enjoy small moments within the day and gradually more as they work their way through practising mindfulness.

In those that suffer from depression, Kabat-Zinn argues to start small and focus on breathing. They can eventually work their way up to tackling their negative emotions. What the focus is on is for clients to anchor themselves and so when a negative emotion comes to the surface it doesn’t automatically trigger a whole heap of associations for the person. These can render a person helpless and ruminate in their trauma. When the person is anchored and negative thoughts can leave easily, the person can mindfully choose a response to deal with the thoughts. They move from reactive to responsive and are in a much more controlled state.

Segal, a colleague of Kabat-Zinn, argues that when a person has received mindfulness training, their responses to sadness change. When someone without mindfulness training experiences sadness, a part of the brain that seeks to diagnose is activated. This causes the person to become overwhelmed because they feel far more than just allowing themselves to feel the feeling. In those that have received mindfulness training, the two parts of the brain are able to balance each other out and the person can respond in a more responsive, controlled manner. Research into the effectiveness of MBCT for those with chronic or potentially recurring depression have shown that MBCT is 43% effective in reducing relapse in sufferers of depression and is seen to be as effective as antidepressants. Furthermore, those that have done mindfulness training begin to see if as a way of life as opposed to a treatment.

Acknowledgement Of Country

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.