London: Mediation, an eastern philosophy which was once dismissed as pretentious, can be effective in treating mental illness, brain scans have proved.
The buzzword is mindfulness. Meditation, which is practised a lot in India and in parts of Islington, is an NHS-approved treatment that combines conventional psychotherapy with meditation techniques, breathing and yoga.
It is sitting around trying to think about nothing and letting out the occasional “ommmm”.
Meditation has been around since the Seventies, but in the past decade there has been growing evidence that it is highly effective. Researchers at Britain’s most respected medical centres have found that it can halve the risk of relapse for those with depression.
“Psychotherapy involves patients analysing thoughts and feelings, with the hope that by understanding them some kind of change can be made. Mindfulness has some of this but it also involves meditation,” the Daily Mail quoted Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry and co-developer of one of the many variants, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), said.
“Meditation, which is an ancient practice and part of Eastern spiritual philosophy, involves sitting, usually in silence, and focusing on one thing, such as the sensations of breathing in and out.
“The mind wanders, so you invite your attention to come back to the thing you are focusing on. People who do this regularly feel very calm. And due to modern scanning techniques that measure activity in the brain, we are beginning to understand why,” he said.
Williams’s colleagues in the US and Canada have been able to pinpoint the parts of the brain that undergo changes during meditation, and the results are astonishing.
“Meditation helps to reduce the activity of part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs feelings of stress. Those who are more stressed and anxious have an amygdala that is overactive. Meditating reduces this.
“And there is an effect on the insula, the part of the brain involved in deep emotions, including love.
“We know from other studies that the insula allows us to feel emotions, so when we are heartbroken we really do experience a kind of pain.
“Normally activity in this area is closely linked to the part of the brain involved in analytical thought. So if we have a fight with our partner, we not only feel dreadful but we start to think about why, what this says about our relationship and what might happen if we don’t put it right,” Williams said.
In those with mental illness, this loop becomes overactive – the thinking feeds the emotions, which feeds more thinking until it becomes overwhelming.
“Meditating breaks this cycle by reducing the links between the insula and the parts of the brain that analyse, as we have seen on brain scans.
“It doesn’t stop a person from feeling or thinking but it uncouples these two parts of the brain, giving the patient more control.
“Further to that, we’ve discovered in clinical trials that mindfulness works as well as antidepressants in preventing relapse of depression. It can also be used alongside drugs,” he said.
Janet Jones, 48, was diagnosed with severe depression 10 years ago. The mother of two was introduced to mindfulness in 2008.
“I was very sceptical at first. But gradually it became part of my everyday life,” she said.
“I would find it difficult to get out of bed and when I got to work, I would feel miserable. Once I committed to mindfulness, my approach changed and my life improved. Mindfulness has given me more control over my life. I now know that no matter how painful something is, it will pass,” Jones added.