How mindfulness helped a bunch of chronically anxious worriers

Australian employees want mental health at work taken seriously

How mindfulness helped a bunch of chronically anxious worriers.

Time magazine recently ran an article with the headline ‘how mindfulness helps you handle stress better’. So what you ask? Sounds like every second story spruiking mindfulness as a wonder cure these days, right?

Except that the article is about research done by someone who wanted to cut the crap and find out if mindfulness really does work. Or not.

At a personal level this article is it spoke to me – the writer of the story you are reading – deeply because it looked at the effects of mindfulness on a mental health problem I have suffered all my life, which at times overwhelmed me.

First, to Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “There’s been some real skepticism in the medical community about meditation and mindfulness meditation,” she said.

According to Time, Hoges he and her team wanted to deduce if people just felt better after meditating, or if doing meditating caused measurable changes in the body’s markers of stress.

So they ran people through a stress test that would give anyone rubber legs: “eight minutes of public speaking, followed by a round of videotaped mental math in front of an audience of people in white lab coats with clipboards.”

Then they made them do the stress test again, just to be sure. But first they split the group into two.

Half underwent mindfulness training (including breath awareness, body scan meditations and gentle yoga) and the other half did a stress management education course (including lectures on diet, exercise, sleep and time management).

Both groups did eight weeks training with the same amount of class time and homework.

The group that did the mindfulness training reported feeling less stressed, but blood tests showed they had lower levels of stress hormone ACTH.

The meditation group also may have been strengthening their immune systems via lower “pro-inflammatory cytokines”, alien-sounding molecules linked to depression and other neurological conditions.

On the second run of the stress test the meditation group outperformed the stress-management group by even greater margins.

“We have objective measures in the blood that they did better in a provoked situation,” says Hoge. “It really is strong evidence that mindfulness meditation not only makes them feel better, but helps them be more resilient to stress.”
Now back to me – the writer of this article – if you don’t mind.

After the death of my mother and redundancy from a 20 year career as a journalist I spent time receiving treatment for depression. To my confusion I left with a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder.

I felt dismayed and worried. How I felt was: ‘what on earth am I supposed to do with this?’

Generalised anxiety disorder, according to Way Ahead – Mental Health Association NSW, is “intense anxiety and worry about a variety of events and issues (for example, work, health, family), and the worry is out of proportion to the situation… [sufferers get] restless, easily tired, difficulty concentrating, easily annoyed, muscle tension, and/or difficulty sleeping.

While many people worry about things from time to time, people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder experience worry a large proportion of the time and it interrupts their lives. ”

Tick, tick, tick. It’s hard to admit, but this is me.

My beautiful late mother, Rosemary, may she rest in peace, worried incessantly. She worried so much it annoyed everyone around her – and mortified her teenage sons.

She worried every day until she knew she was going to die (from brain cancer) and then, quietly, she stopped worrying.

She also had trouble with anger, supressing it until she would rage. It’s even harder to admit, but this is also me. Taxi drivers who take me ‘the long way home’ have copped some fearful sprays from me over the years.

So I guess I ended up a bit like my mother, but I’d rather avoid the sad cure she found.

In the treatment centre I attended, South Pacific Private, I did a simple mindfulness meditation exercise most days – 10 minutes sitting still and concentrating on my breathing. I have done it around 70 times since leaving the centre in January, increasing the duration to 15 minutes a day. I also try to do micro sessions several times a day.

I haven’t had a blood test to show, so I don’t know how my stress hormones are or what my cytokines are up to, but I feel better. How? I worry less.
I still worry, but you have no idea how good the feeling behind that simple statement feels: I worry less.

There’s a lot more too. I am growing the ability to see my thoughts and feelings as separate from me – almost as passing storms across a blue sky – instead of experiencing them as a sort of nasty conjoined twin hissing at me.

I don’t see my thoughts as instructions, but just as thoughts.

I don’t have to let them define what I do next. If my thoughts tell me: ‘I feel down, I wonder if there’s any cheesecake left’, I can phone someone, listen to music or go for a bike ride instead. If my head sees someone smoking and wants one too, I can stop and say ‘no, that thought is not helpful’, and I do. I quit smoking in December and haven’t had a cigarette since.

I sleep better and have little muscle tension. Though am still restless, I have a level of awareness of this – and, interestingly, of how my behaviour affects others – way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I still get easily annoyed – although much less so. I am more patient. If I need to stay on hold for 45 minutes to the phone company I am more inclined to express healthy anger when I get through, then detach without flogging the poor person who answers the phone.

If I do get too angry, I can cool off much quicker and apologise expecting nothing in return.

I now get on with cab drivers, even if doing so costs me $5 more.
I’m sure if I was assessed again for generalised anxiety disorder I would still fit the bill. So I am not cured. But life for me, and those very close to me, is a lot easier.

Mindfulness meditation is not a cure and there have been questions about its real effectiveness. But I know it works, and I don’t need to ask my cytokines to prove it.

Good mental health a much bigger factor in happiness than money

Using mindfulness

Good mental health a much bigger factor in happiness than money.

Earlier this week Norway was named the happiest nation on earth, by the United Nations researchers, just ahead of Denmark.

Northern European countries dominated, with Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden also in the top 10; perhaps there really is something to the saying ‘cold hands, warm heart’.

Australia rated 9th happiest, the United States was 14th and the United Kingdom 19th.

The bottom five places were filled by Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

Why should we care about something that might be considered frivolous compared to harder-headed indicators like economic growth, interest rates and GDP? Because the world is changing and economics no longer rules unchallenged.

As the report points out: “In June 2016 the OECD committed itself ‘to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts’. Norway came first, it is pointed out, despite weak oil prices. The nation depends heavily on oil and gas resources, but in recent years has sunk profits from those industries into a transparent, ethical, future fund.

The UN team behind ‘The World Happiness Report’ used data from telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted by Gallup with around 1000 people from 155 countries over three years (2014-2016). Respondents were asked to rate their life on a scale of 0-10.

A key chapter of a report, ‘The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery’, included some fascinating insights for companies, policy-makers and individuals interested in what makes us happy and unhappy, and how we can go from one state to the other.

The chapter focused on deeper research done in four countries: the US, UK, Australia and Indonesia.

“In all three Western societies, diagnosed mental illness emerges as more important than income, employment or physical illness.” The reverse was true in Indonesia, although in all four countries mental illnesses were more significant to our happiness and misery than physical illnesses.

The research found our levels of income and education per se weren’t major factors in happiness. Our tendency to compare ourselves with others in these areas was a bigger problem.

“Household income per head explains under 2% of the variance of happiness in any country,” the authors wrote. “Moreover it is largely relative income that matters, so as countries have become richer, many have failed to experience any increase in their average happiness. A similar problem relates to education—people care largely about their education relative to that of others.

“In all countries the most powerful [improvements to misery] would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders, which are the main form of mental illness. This would also be the least costly way of reducing misery.”

The report made no mention of financial stress as a factor in misery experienced by adults, but it is worth pointing out that research shows clear links between money worries and those major mental health issues, anxiety and depression.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Southampton found people with unsecured debt (such as credit card debt, student and personal loans) were 3.24 times more likely to suffer “mental disorders” than those without unsecured debt and 2.77 times as likely to have depression. Tragically they were 7.9 times more likely to take their own lives.

It is no surprise then that the World Happiness Report’s researchers found addressing the emotional health of children was more important to set someone up for a happy life than academic qualifications. A child’s experiences at school were found to be more important than their test scores.

“What in turn affects the emotional health and behaviour of the child? Parental income is a good predictor of a child’s academic qualifications (as is well known), but it is a much weaker predictor of the child’s emotional health and behaviour.

The best predictor of these is the mental health of the child’s mother.” Disappointingly for dads, researchers found a father’s mental health wasn’t as important in determining happiness and misery as a mother’s.

Again, the report made no mention of mindfulness – this wasn’t the work to go into the array of potential solutions.

But with mental health such a huge factor in determining the happiness or misery of people in the US, UK and Australia, and other research showing money worries are linked with anxiety and depression, mindfulness around money is without doubt one important and useful tool in the search for happiness.

Through many years, Norway has been rated one of the happiest countries in the world
Through many years, Norway has been rated one of the happiest countries in the world

When mindfulness might not work

Australian employees want mental health at work taken seriously

When mindfulness might not work.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will know the word ‘mindfulness’ has quite a buzz about it.

CEOs are into it, so are talk show hosts, pop stars, famous actors, sports stars and lately it’s being rolled out in corporate wellness programs for thousands of stressed-out employees.

There are some compelling reasons why this is happening: a mountain of scientific research over the past two decades shows mindfulness practice has positive effects on a range of mental health issues and may even improve self-esteem and help people cope more effectively with stress.

But as a recent Australian Financial Review article pointed out, mindfulness is no magic pill. The newspaper ran a story based on a study of 189 men, aged on average 70-71 years with advanced prostate cancer, some of whom were exposed to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy over the phone for eight weeks. The Griffith University study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology.

One of the study’s co-authors, Suzanne K. Chambers, found: “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy did not improve the men’s well-being in comparison to their usual medical management… [furthermore the men it did not affect any] reduction in psychological distress [or] lessening of anxiety about testing for prostate specific antigen – a measure of tumour progression and response to treatment – and [or] lowering of distress related to their cancer.

“Men receiving [mindfulness] therapy also reported no improvement in quality of life nor post-traumatic growth, a term that encompasses positive psychological change as a result of their cancer.”

Chambers and Queensland Cancer Council CEO Jeff Dunn, in a co-authored article for did however acknowledge the study participants found mindfulness “helpful in terms of not feeling alone, learning meditation and breathing exercises, understanding the meaning of well-being and perceived control of thoughts and health.”

Dunn and Chambers did also acknowledge other research had shown mindfulness had positive affects in relation to cancer – a study of 325 women found “some evidence for the effectiveness of [mindfulness-based stress reduction programs” in improving psychological health in breast cancer patients”. The results were published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Current Oncology. They also acknowledged “influential health organisations” in the United States and the United Kingdom saw fit to recommend mindfulness as a tool to manage chronic illness.

It could be argued a mindfulness study based on terminally ill men in their 70s says little about how a younger physically healthy audience could benefit from mindfulness. But regardless, the principle it highlights is worthwhile: if facing reality won’t help your life in the long run, then mindfulness might not be for you.

Marc Richardson, a Sydney-based psychologist with Financial Mindfulness, who also works in private practice, said the results of the Griffith University study were “not surprising”.

“Any kind of denial these men, in the advanced stages of prostate cancer, were holding on to might be stripped away by mindfulness. It seems almost unkind to try and get them out of denial.”

Richardson added that people with serious mental illnesses, such as dissociative or psychotic disorders or those facing gravely stressful life events, should seek advice from a trained psychologist before embarking on a course of mindfulness.

Mindfulness could help a great many other people though, Richardson said, especially people facing financial stress – which is a leading cause of stress in the western world.

“Mindfulness gives people stressed about money a chance to slow down their thinking, ground themselves and an opportunity for a new perspective,” he said.

“When we are in an anxious state trying to perceive things clearly or to manage situations effectively is very difficult – we can get stuck ruminating on negative thoughts.

“Something about mindfulness acts as a circuit breaker and allow us time to slow down and rethink our position, potentially allowing us to then take more effective actions.”

A terminal illness is probably not the only limitation on mindfulness either. If you expect mindfulness to remove problems in your life you may be disappointed.

So let’s make a few things clear: sadly mindfulness will not make cancer go away. It also won’t get you a speedboat and it won’t make people like you if they didn’t before. It won’t make you a mind-reader and it won’t give you the patience of a saint. But if you do 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day, your thinking will probably become measurably clearer.

What you do with better cognitive processing is up to you.

It’s entirely possible that with cleaner, healthier thinking you could write a piece of music or even a book, start a business, learn to really listen to others, or even just finish or resolve something that has been a ‘block’ in your life for years.

It could also contribute to you stopping behaviours that would otherwise lead to serious illnesses – and let’s be clear, this is not a comment on the causes of prostate cancer, which are thought to be partly genetic, partly lifestyle.

So mindfulness is not be for everyone. But neither is swimming, playing a musical instrument, yoga or gardening – and few would argue those activities are not beneficial, let alone that they should be avoided.