Minding mindfulness can ease anxiety, depression
Helen Adamopoulos: First, get into a comfortable position. Keep your spine erect, but don’t get tense. Close your eyes. Now breathe. Concentrate on the air filling your lungs.
If your mind wanders, note the thought (with a label such as “last night’s dinner”) and then return your focus to your breathing.
That is how to practice basic mindfulness, a meditation technique that can help people cope with conditions including depression, anxiety and chronic pain, according to Chicago social worker Georgia Jones.
She teaches clinicians the fundamentals of mindfulness and its relevance to psychotherapy and covered the basics at a lecture Wednesday at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital.
Jones works for the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago and also has a private practice. She said she practices mindfulness meditation herself. She saw the lecture at the hospital as a good opportunity to spread the word about how it relates to psychotherapy.
“I’ve always been interested in how those two practices intersect and inform each other,” Jones said.
She defines mindfulness as “being where you are in the moment.” She said people are generally happier when they keep their minds on what they are currently doing instead of letting their thoughts wander.
Mindfulness has several components, aside from living in the moment, she said. One involves people who practice mindfulness creating a slight distance between themselves and the situation they are currently in by observing their thoughts and feelings.
“It gives you a little bit of space, a little bit of time,” she said. “The mindfulness allows that break in the automatic reactivity.”
This aspect of mindfulness can help people end negative behavior patterns.
Another key part of mindfulness is acceptance. Practitioners must approach their thoughts with a kind, compassionate and open attitude. They need to simply accept negative emotions and thoughts without seeking to change them, Jones said.
As an example of how that can help people in therapy, she described a client she saw on Tuesday night. The client had recently gone through a break-up and was anxious about being alone. She didn’t think she could live without her former significant other.
To calm the anxious woman down, Jones said she asked her to focus on the immediate moment: the state of her body, her feelings and her thoughts. This exercise in mindfulness made the client realize she was getting along just fine at that moment on her own.
“She could experience for herself that she could survive without that person,” Jones said.
Mindfulness also helps people cope with common annoyances, such as getting stuck in traffic, she said. Instead of trying to avoid those experiences, people should accept them as unavoidable and work to control how they react to these events.
“You can allow that experience to destroy you, or you can learn from that experience,” she said.
People suffering from depression can also benefit from mindfulness. Jones described another client who hated his job. He spent most of his time at work thinking about how he didn’t want to be there. Jones encouraged him to practice mindfulness while he worked, and he discovered that he actually enjoyed some aspects of the job, such as riding around in a van.
“He was able to experience a few moments of not being depressed on the job,” Jones said.
However, she noted that mindfulness may have drawbacks for some clients. Those recovering from traumatic physical experiences might have memories or flashbacks surface when they try to focus on their breathing. She said these individuals might benefit from concentrating on something outside their body, such as tactile sensations.
Jen Rude, a youth outreach minister who attended the lecture, said she intended on incorporating mindfulness into her work at The Night Ministry, a non-profit organization that offers supportive services to homeless and at-risk people in Chicago.
“I felt like there were some really practical ideas that you could use right away,” she said.
She said she intended on teaching the young adults she works with to concentrate on their breathing and note their feelings.
Tom Delegatto, hospital director of business development, said the psychiatric facility decided to address mindfulness because clinicians can use it to stay centered themselves as well as using it in therapy.
The lecture was part of the hospital’s Lunch-n-Learn series, which allows clinicians to learn more about behavioral health issues and earn continuing education units. For information about future programs, visit www.chicagolakeshorehospital.com/events.