We sat in the cool, calm and peaceful surroundings of The (Breast Cancer) Haven in Fulham, London. We closed our eyes and listened to Dr. Caroline Hoffman take us through a Mindfulness experience. This form of meditation was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in the 1970’s and has become hugely popular with all sorts of unlikely participants. We were there to see and hear how it might benefit not only those with breast cancer, but almost everyone. We concentrated on our breathing, trying to be “in the moment”, focusing on the five senses and, all the time, returning our busy minds to the here and now.
Explaining the technique, Dr. Hoffman used the much-quoted – and mostly misquoted – line from James Joyce’s “A Painful Case”. “He (Mr. James Duffy) lived at a little distance from his body …”. I have seen this line used by all those involved in meditation, yoga and all forms of somatics to illustrate why we would benefit from their particular therapy. It might be better to quote from the rest of Mr Joyce’s description “He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense”.
Whether we are to blame for our own high stress levels – trying to pack too much into our lives, aided by constantly developing technology – or whether they are put upon us through illness, there is no doubt that we all need to de-stress ourselves and the Mindfulness technique allows us to quell our “monkey minds”, stop them jumping from past to future and bring them back to our centre.
Last year, I visited Dr. Hoffman at The Haven, when she was in the throes of a large and rigorous study to investigate the impact of MBSR on women with breast cancer (I wrote a blog post about it here).
Earlier this year, Dr. Hoffman’s study was published online by the Journal of Oncology and the results show, for the first time, that the use of Mindfulness offers a “statistically significant improvement in physical and emotional wellbeing”. Since then Mindfulness has been in the news – from The Today Programme’s “Thought for the Day” to a BBC Breakfast’s item on how Mindfulness has helped a woman patient deal with the pain from lupus. She said: “It doesn’t take away the pain but it puts it in its place – down a notch or two”. Brain scans showed obvious changes when she used the technique and it has been clinically proven to thicken the brain’s grey matter and change the brain’s euro pathways – thus increasing cognitive ability, concentration, emotional resilience and enhancing awareness.
Nice has approved Mindfulness for treatment of mental health issues, including obesity and anorexia. Consequently, companies are setting up “Mindfulness meal breaks” where food is not eaten accompanied by a blackberry, iPad or laptop, but slowly, noticing what is being eaten – the flavour, colour, smell and texture. It works, no over-eating occurs because, after 20 minutes, the brain registers a full stomach and stops eating.
Companies like Apple and Google have been offering classes in Mindfulness to their employees for years and, astonishingly (to me, at least) Transport for London’s tube drivers have found enormous help from the technique. Turning up for a two hour session once a week for six weeks at the end of their shift. Tfl pays for this, and you can see why: stress-related absenteeism has dropped by 70 percent.
Next will come the nurses. Mindfulness at Work has just received accreditation from the Royal College of Nursing – which means that nurses, osteopaths and any other health professionals under the RCN can sign up for a 45 minute session each week for four weeks, which will count towards their Continual Professional Development hours.
The cost to the NHS is £25 per person – a very good deal, particularly if it helps nurses to better observe, listen and understand their patients. This is important because stress is always cited as the cause of nursing failure. Imagine how many problems could be prevented if nurses were better able to keep their emotions in check.
Caroline Hopkins from Mindfulness at Work told me of the success she has had with members of a particularly notorious gang in Birmingham. The gang members embraced the technique and, by practicing regularly and keeping “cue” cards in their pockets, their neural pathways are changing from reacting to responding and they are learning to become aware of the effect of their actions on the recipients.
It is compelling stuff and it does make me wonder what would happen to the number of cancer cases if we all learned Mindfulness from a young age. What do you think?
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