I’m not trying to turn this into a science blog, but it seems like the field has had a lot to add to discussion of mindfulness as of late. I’ve always been a proponent of taking a scientific approach to the mindful state, so that we can learn as much about it as possible, but such research has been rare until recently. Now that it is actually happening I have to admit that I find myself to be a little giddy at the prospect of finally seeing the objective exploration of ideas that I could only theorize about in the past.
The most exciting parts of mindfulness-focused experiments are the potential benefits. Those of us who are already familiar with the practice are aware of some of these advantages. With the help of scientific methods, we can now study the intricacies of mindfulness to develop advanced techniques that maximize positive outcomes. More research will also increase the academic credibility of mindful practice, raising the potential for more people to take advantage of its benefits.
Mindfulness and Depression
Depression is one of the scourges of modern humanity. We live in depressing times, where money and power are valued more than compassion and common decency. As a result, we’ve seen a steady increase in the diagnosis of major depression and similar mood disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice of mindfulness can be valuable for people with such issues. It helps us to focus on the moment, and allows our perspective to separate from the negative influences of the mind (memories, expectations, etc.) that may lead us to experience the feeling of being depressed.
Until recently, the benefits of mindfulness remained largely hidden from the public because the practice was often stigmatized as being “pseudoscience”, or given some other derogatory and inaccurate categorization. Now that such small-minded opinions have fallen out of favor, we are seeing a rush of information being added to publicly available knowledge-bases, and the integration of mindful techniques with professional treatment strategies. The study we are about to discuss is an excellent example of the advances that are now possible thanks to the growing acceptance of mindfulness as a legitimate approach to improving mental health.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Recent research by an international group of health and academic professionals (1) explores the impact of a technique called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) on people with depression. The term “cognitive” refers to mental processes that underlie the acquisition and use of knowledge (ex: learning). Cognitive therapy can be understood as a form of clinical treatment that is intended to change our behavior by modifying the way we think about things, and MBCT is designed to achieve this goal by utilizing concepts and practices that are associated with mindfulness.
This particular piece of research is categorized as a meta-analysis, which just means that they looked at data from a group of existing studies, instead of completing new trials. In this case, the review included nine studies, with a total of 1258 patients, all of whom were previously diagnosed with major depression. In the original experiments, each person took part in either MBCT or another non-mindful treatment. They were then monitored for a period of time so that relapses could be accurately tracked.
The results were clear; MBCT was significantly more effective at preventing depressive relapses when compared to other treatments. This includes evaluations against individual types of non-MBCT, so we can be sure that it wasn’t simply one or two unproductive forms of treatment that were dragging down the rest. The effect was observable for up to 60 weeks following treatment, though it may have extended even longer (this was the maximum length of follow-up time included in the study). Perhaps most interestingly, they found that people with more severe forms of depression had even better results with MBCT than others.
Mindfulness, Cognition and You
A big problem with reports about academic studies is that they are often hard to translate into a practical application. Not this time. Mindfulness is something you can (and should) practice in all aspects of life, and this research tells us that it can be especially helpful for those who experience recurring periods of severe depression. Additionally, now that mindful practice is being accepted and utilized in psychological circles, it’s something that people can freely discuss with mental health professionals. This wasn’t really an option in the all-too-recent past.
It makes complete sense that mindful practice and cognitive therapy would find common ground, as they are both designed to alter the way that we think, as opposed to what we think. The mental processes studied by cognitive psychologists are the theoretical equivalent of the systems that bias our perceptions, as is discussed in earlier blogs. Gaining control over these influences is a key goal of both cognitive therapies and mindful training. The only major difference is that mindful approaches tend to focus more on ensuring that the person is aware of how the process works, while cognitive-behavioral therapies may often be performed “blind”, where the information given to the patient is limited to instructions. It will be interesting to see how the strategies evolve together.
If you suffer from recurring depression, then therapies based on mindfulness may be exactly what you need. But you don’t have to be mentally unsound to benefit from mindful practice, as we know, so I have another insight regarding this research that should be valuable for anyone interested in being mindful (including those with mood disorders). Learning about cognitive psychology will open up a new world of potential paths to rid yourself of the brain’s often corrupting influence on our interpretations. The field is constantly evolving, but already offers a wealth of information about the way the brain processes information. I suggest that we all take advantage of it.