The number of people suffering from depression and anxiety is on the rise, and more and more people use medication, to treat it. On top of that – during the covid-19 pandemic those numbers, understandably, went through the roof.
If you’re like most people, you probably experience some heightened anxiety every now and then, and if you’ve ever tried meds, you know it’s not always a smooth ride. Side effects such as headaches, weight gain, drop in libido, mood swings, tiredness, dizziness, and even depression (sic!) – all these mean it’s not easy to find a pill that actually helps.
Pharmacological support is extremely important – with an understanding – that it’s used only when necessary. Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency to give people more medication because oftentimes it might seem like the only option – since psychotherapy is expensive and not accessible to everyone. The dark side of anti-anxiety medication is that too often people are prescribed benzodiazepines, which are the most addictive meds used to treat anxiety, with an even longer and more disturbing list of side effects.
Obviously, there are different situations, different people, and experiences, but a lot of the time what the pill does is makes some of the symptoms fade away. Without treating the underlying cause. Treating the underlying cause is something that therapy works best with, but again – it’s not always accessible.
IS THE ONLY CHOICE – PSYCHOTHERAPY OR PILL?
Of course, there’s no magic pill (pun intended) and while mindfulness might not be an option for everyone, the newest addition to the research pool proves to be great news for many people after all.
You must have heard the term before, – if not you can read more about it here. Nowadays mindfulness has become a buzzword. And for all the good reasons, too. In short (and I really mean as short as possible) the very basic but also incredibly on-point definition by Jon Kabat-Zinn is as follows:
“Mindfulness is an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
Mindfulness is not merely a theoretical construct – it’s a live practice – one might say the more alive it is – the more alive you feel.
SO WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
There’s been a growing number of solid, peer-reviewed research papers regarding the benefits of mindfulness for people coping with all sorts of medical conditions.*
And when I say “mindfulness” I don’t only mean sitting still or any other formal practice but also – everyday mindful living.
*(If you’re curious, I will attach the list of important research at the end of this article).
A week ago another one was published and it seems like good news.
The study was 8 weeks long (it’s exactly the length of the original MBSR – Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program). A group of roughly 300 people with untreated anxiety disorder were randomly divided into two groups. One group was taking Escitalopram – a drug used for treating depression and anxiety, and the other underwent the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). By the end of week 8, both groups experienced about a 20% reduction in their anxiety symptoms.
That’s excellent news because for millions of people it might mean no unnecessary chemistry put in their bodies, no side effects, and instead a long list of potential benefits.
BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS
There are a lot of benefits of mindfulness on your mind and body – and I’d say most of us would appreciate the list:
Better skills in managing anxiety and depression – decreasing the symptoms
Reduced medical symptoms
Loosening of the grip of negative habits and thinking
Burnout prevention and significantly reducing it
Improved sleep quality
Improved sense of well-being
Better connection with yourself and hence
WHAT’S THE CATCH?
Or is there a catch? Mindfulness is a practice and it requires commitment and effort.
Most of us will want nothing more but a quick fix, and mindfulness like so many things in life – is not that. Mindful practice requires you to spend some time on your meditation cushion – in stillness. Just being. It requires you to spend up to an hour a day (we’re talking about the MBSR program) engaging in mindful ‘activities’ that will, later on, translate into a more aware life. So the catch is – TIME & EFFORT.
Do you know this one zen story about meditation?
A student comes to his teacher and says - Roshi, I’m so tired, I’m so restless and my life turned into chaos. How long do I have to meditate for things to get better?
Roshi thought for a moment, looked at his student, and answered – an hour a day.
- But Roshi! I don’t have time, my life is crazy and I’m on a verge of losing it. I need it to work!
Roshi looked at him again with the wisdom of an old zen master and said – in that case – you need to meditate for 2 hours.
Yes, it’s just a story – a zen joke if you will, but it’s exactly on point when it comes to the time and effort part. The more hectic and unmanageable your life seems, the more important it is that you do in fact get intentional about the changes you make in the foundation of it. And mindfulness is a great way to go about it.
There’s no way being mindful will not change you, and it’s not 100% that it will make your depression or anxiety go away. But, the vast body of research tells us it’s a fair bet just try it.
WHO published the guide on how to deal with stress – and in the techniques section – you will find a lot of references to mindfulness. You can download it straight from the WHO website here. It even takes you through some of the exercises that help with experiencing that stillness and here-and-now moments.
Mindfulness is a way to start an incredible journey inwards and outwards – to become aware of who you are and form more meaningful relationships with the world outside.
Do you meditate? Have you? What’s something that becomes an obstacle for you?
*List of research on the impact of Mindfulness-Based Reduction Program on all sorts of medical conditions including anxiety:
Chronic pain (Reiner, Tibi, & Lipsitz, 2013)
Fibromyalgia (Schmidt, Grossman, Schwarzer, Jena, Naumann, & Walach, 2011)
High Blood Pressure (Hughes, Fresco, Myerscough, van Dulmen, Carlson, & Josephson, 2013)
Cancer Recovery (Carlson, Doll, Stephen, Faris, Tamagawa, Drysdale, & Speca, 2013)
Stress (Baer, Carmody, Hunsinger, 2012)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Zernicke, Campbell, Blustein, Fung, Johnson, Bacon, & Carlson, 2013)
Mood Disorders (Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010)
Eating Disorders (Levoy, Lazaridou, Brewer, Fulwiler, 2017)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (Hoge, Bui, Palitz, Schwarz, Owens, Johnston, Pollack, Simon, 2017)