Stars’ meditation technique gains mental health experts’ approval

National Health Service departments are now offering the Buddhism-inspired method of ‘mindfulness meditation’ which is favoured by celebrities such as Goldie Hawn.

A form of meditation practised by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars is becoming a major growth area within British psychology, as evidence grows of its effectiveness in dealing with anxiety and depression.

“Mindfulness meditation” was pioneered in the United States during the 1970s as a tool for alleviating stress and is practised, among others, by Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn, who acts as an advocate for the technique. Drawing on ancient Buddhist principles to combat mental suffering, the technique encourages practitioners to slow down, “inhabit the moment” and become more accepting of their feelings. According to Ryan, “by simply refocusing our awareness, we reshape our experience”.

Although initially regarded with scepticism by mainstream psychologists, the practice has gained respectability thanks to…

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research indicating its clinical effectiveness. A new study in the American journal Archives of General Psychiatry found that the mindfulness technique was as effective as the use of anti-depressants among a controlled group in remission from major depression.

A study by researchers in Wales, Toronto and Cambridge found that in cases of recurring depression it reduced the risk of relapse by 50%. As a result, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) adopted it in its guidelines as a recommended intervention in cases of chronic depression. Recent studies have shown that the technique can have other significant benefits, including boosting the immune system and encouraging left-field brain activity – the side most associated with feelings of wellbeing.

The impressive experimental results have led to a surge in interest and increasing demand that the practice be made more widely available. Research centres have sprung up across the country and there has been an explosion of mindfulness courses in non-clinical settings.

The School of Life in central London offers a variety of classes applying mindfulness techniques, including “How to Face Death” and “How to Stay Calm”. The Mental Health Foundation has launched Be Mindful, a campaign geared to making the technique available to “everyone who wants it”, while the Mindfulness in Schools campaign has been established to encourage its adoption in classrooms.

Ed Halliwell, a teacher on mindfulness and co-author of a recent book, The Mindfulness Manifesto, attributed the popularity to the technique’s blending of age-old spirituality with modern convenience: “It’s based on thousands of years of wisdom. It is simple but not always easy to do. You don’t need any special equipment. It’s not expensive. And it seems to connect with a lot of people’s intuitive sense that slowing down, practising stillness, learning how to be with our body and mind are good things. These are ancient ways of working to develop wellbeing, but what’s happened now is that the science is catching up and showing us that this does actually work. It’s become very of the moment.”

However, some psychologists are cautious about overselling the benefits or applying mindfulness too zealously outside a clinical setting. Florian Ruths, who runs a mindfulness meditation programme at the Maudsley Hospital in south London, argues that the technique’s very success in becoming part of the psychological mainstream could lead people to view it as a quick-fix solution.

“I think we need to be cautious,” he said. “At the moment the enthusiasm is much higher than the evidence. Those who practise mindfulness meditation know it makes a huge difference to people’s lives. But there is a danger of saying it works in psychology so why not use it for almost anything in life? And suddenly having a bit of pleasure, or seeing something beautiful, becomes an act of mindfulness.

“We need to be careful that we don’t create an impression that we’ve got something proven to be effective for almost everything when we haven’t actually done the scientific work.”

According to Ruths, when practised properly in a clinical setting, mindfulness meditation has three key benefits. First, “it teaches us to immerse ourselves deeper in the present rather than worry about things we can’t control in the future – will I have a job? Will I be OK in five years’ time? – or dwell on something in the past that we can’t change either.”

Second, it “teaches us something about the validity of thoughts and emotions. When we are in a difficult state we believe several things: it will never end, it says something about us being flawed, and we need to get out of it now. Mindfulness helps us to see that emotions change and that if I have a thought, it is not necessarily the reality, it is just a thought.”

Third, he says, “mindfulness itself is an act of kindness, of compassion. It teaches us about directing the capacity for compassion that we all have at ourselves. That in itself is something new.”

One 37-year-old woman who attended a group course at the Maudsley last summer said she was encouraged to try the technique after more than 20 years of suffering acute depression, anxiety and fatigue, and more recently panic attacks. After experiencing the “recurrent corruptions of medication”, she was not hopeful that this technique would be any different. “I expected it to be merely another variation on the theme of cognitive hygiene. But I was wrong. There was no feeling of ideological imposition or the energetic tidying of my psyche. It felt respectful, gentle, patient, almost companionable.”

With time and regular practice, the techniques she learned started to make a difference. Her panic attacks ceased and she was able to cope without medication for the first time in more than two decades. One of the technique’s benefits, she said, is the ease with which she had been able to incorporate it within her busy life. “Since doing the course, I have tried to continue regularly with the various meditation practices I learned. It has made waiting, even on rowdy buses, a prized opportunity, for such practices do not rely on a quiet without, but a quiet within.”

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