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How mindfulness helps manage anxiety and depression

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For sufferers of anxiety and depression, it will likely be a relief to discover that mindfulness can help alleviate and manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. You can learn how at our Learn to Meditate course in Melbourne or Preston and at our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in Preston but for those unable to come along to a course, here’s a brief overview.

Mindfulness, with its emphasis on acceptance and non-judgement of emotional states, moods and thoughts, has an important role to play in the effective management, treatment and prevention of depression and anxiety. As highlighted by scientific research, anxiety and depression are typically triggered or exacerbated by reacting to emotional states and moods, as well as patterns of ruminative, negative thoughts (Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013: 30 – 34). More specifically, depressive relapse is associated with the reinstatement of negative modes of thinking and feeling that contribute to depressive relapse and recurrence and it is this ‘reactivated’ network of negative thoughts and feelings that can lead to a depressive episode (Kuyken et al, 2013: 2).

This reacting is the ‘doing’ mode of mind at work, the mode of mind that helps you to achieve goals (Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013: 68). While this mode of mind can be useful in some instances, its approach of not-allowing difficult thoughts and emotions and wanting to fix how you feel can result in exacerbating and increasing anxious thoughts and emotions as well as depressive symptoms. In doing mode, your thoughts and emotions are seen as a valid and accurate reflection of reality and are clearly linked to action ((Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013: 73). This action might take the form of self-focused rumination which can have the effect of transforming what might be just a passing sadness into a more persistent state of depression (Teasdale and Chaskalson, 2011: 99).

Rather than reacting to unwanted thoughts and emotions by trying to suppress them, push them away and/or thinking your way out of them (rumination), (Segal, Williams, Teasdale and Kabat-Zinn, 2007: 5), mindfulness invites you to shift into the ‘being’ mode of mind, a mode of mind that not only allows difficult thoughts and emotions to be present, but adopts towards these thoughts and emotions a kindly awareness rather than a ‘need to solve’ stance. In being mode, as evident in the meditation practices themselves, the relationship to thoughts and feelings is much the same as sounds and other aspects of moment-to-moment experience – events that arise in the mind, become objects of awareness and then pass away (Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013: 73). In this non-reactionary mode, you may come to understand that ‘thoughts and feelings are not you’ and are impermanent (Teasdale and Chaskalson, 2011: 119).

In the breath meditation practice, you are taught to accept and allow thoughts and emotions as they arise in awareness and then let them go. The instructions encourage you to gently bring your focus back to your breath when you become aware that you are lost in thought or are reacting to your emotions or mood (Kabat-Zinn, 2013: 66). Participants are explicitly encouraged to use their ‘attention switching’ skills to release themselves from thought patterns which might create emotional suffering and therefore interrupt ruminative thought patterns that might otherwise lead to depressive relapse (Teasdale and Chaskalson, 2011: 106). In addition, mindfulness of breathing can help to establish greater calmness in both the mind and body which means you will be better able to be aware of thoughts and feelings with greater objectivity and a more discerning eye (Kabat-Zinn, 2013: 49).

Practicing mindfulness of sounds and mind states can help you to develop a sense of openness towards thoughts. Rather than getting caught up in the narrative of thoughts as they come into your awareness, you might come to relate to them as you would relate to sounds – simply as an impermanent event resting in awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 2013: 167). This is best achieved when initially instructed to focus on sounds for a period of time, followed by thoughts; just as you would become aware of whatever sounds arise in your awareness – noticing their rising, lingering and passing away and impermanent nature, you can also notice how thoughts arise in the mind, linger in the space of the mind and eventually dissolve and dissipate (Kabat-Zinn, 2013: 167).  Relating to thoughts as you relate to sounds will help you to see thoughts as simply mental events in awareness, just as sounds are auditory events in awareness.

Given anxiety and depression can be caused and/or amplified by attempts to fix, repair or change thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations (the ‘doing’ mode of mind), the emphasis the mindfulness practices have on holding your experience or one aspect of your experience (for example, the breath, body, sounds, etc) in awareness can assist to prevent and manage anxious and depressive symptoms. When in being mode, the doing mode of mind is suspended which has the effect of breaking the habitual, automatic and pre-programmed routines that tend to perpetuate difficulties (Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013: 84) and help us to see more clearly how best to respond to situations (Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013: 93).

 If you are experiencing anxiety and/or depression, you might find one of our Learn to Meditate in Melbourne or Preston or mindfulness courses (namely the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)) course in Preston helpful. Register your interest in an upcoming course today. 

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