Stress and anxiety all in the mind?

Tuesday 13th May

Stress and anxiety are an unwelcome part of modern life for millions of people.  Lesley Dobson considers whether we carry the worry cure within ourselves.

Many of us live our lives at a hectic pace, driven in part by increasing economic pressure and uncertainty about the future.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that there was a seven per cent year-on-year increase in NHS hospital admissions for stress in the 12 months to May 2012 – and this figure doesn’t include those who saw their GPs or turned to alternative therapies for help with managing stress.

But, while we can’t slow the world down, there are ways of finding calm in the midst of our busy routines. “Mindfulness” has grown in popularity as a meditation technique over the years. It has been the subject of considerable research and gained scientific backing, to the point where the NHS will refer patients for mindfulness training.

In 2004 the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommended mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for people who had experienced repeated episodes of depression. Although only 20 per cent of GPs have access to MBCT, the Mental Health Foundation’s 2010 “Be mindful” research report found that 72 per cent of GPs believed that such therapy would benefit their patients.

How to be mindful

Mindfulness is being aware of the moment – not thinking about whether it’s good or bad; simply being aware of what’s going on around you. It’s a simple form of meditation, which can include stretching exercises and focusing your attention on each breath you take. This can help you to become aware of the thoughts that drift into your consciousness without being taken over by them. One expert describes it as watching thoughts appear in your mind, like soap bubbles, and then watching them disappear.

The aim of this type of meditation is to help us see that we have thoughts all the time, but we don’t always have to be driven by them. When we have thoughts that might make us more stressed, we can learn to acknowledge them, rather than getting caught up in them.

Practising mindfulness is intended to help us reconnect with our bodies and put us back in control of our lives. Research has found that people who have been on mindfulness courses have reduced their stress and improved their mood. Some studies have even shown clear changes in the brain after meditation training – changes that could improve practitioners’ emotional stability and mental clarity. Others have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce their sensations of pain or discomfort by almost 50 per cent.

None of this is a surprise to Mark Leonard, from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (www.oxfordmindfulness.org/), who teaches mindfulness in the workplace. “It has been shown to be helpful with depression, anxiety and stress,” he says. “And it’s as effective as antidepressants and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for preventing the recurrence of depression. It helps us with all sorts of aspects of our lives, such as maintaining a good life-work balance, taking care of the people around us and learning how to handle difficult situations.

“A lot of the time the problem we have is worrying about problems that never happen. When we’re caught up in these thoughts, it means we’re missing out on the small pleasures of life, such as the colour of autumn leaves. Mindfulness can help to improve our wellbeing and quality of life.”

Tried and tested

Danny Butler (not his real name), a chef from Cambridge, struggled with anxiety for years. He took antidepressants for a while and tried CBT. Then he read an article on mindfulness, and signed up for the Mental Health Foundation’s four-week “Be mindful” course online (www.bemindful.co.uk/; £60). “It had a massive impact,” says Butler, 53. “I became more calm and less anxious. It’s like taking charge of my own mind. Once you change your mindset, you can disengage when you find yourself worrying about something. You realise that you don’t have to worry about these things; you can do something about it. I found it profoundly life changing.”

Linda Moore is a mother of three from Beckenham, Kent, who was treated for breast cancer last year. When she took an eight-week mindfulness-based programme to manage stress, she started noticing the benefits halfway through the course. “The aim of this course is to make you more aware of the moment. We learn meditation, breathing techniques and stretching exercises,” Moore explains. “Even after the course ends, it’s still a work in progress. But you can do it anywhere.

For example, I took my boys to a hockey match, sat in the car and just focused on the moment, listening to the rain coming down. I think it does work, because it calms you. It helps me to worry less about the future.”

Stressed out?

For more information about mindfulness online, visit the Mental Health Foundation at www.bemindful.co.uk/ or NHS Choices at www.nhs.uk/.

Any member of benenden health in need of support can call the Psychological Wellbeing 24/7 Helpline on 0800 414 8247*.

If your GP refers you to see a counsellor or psychologist and the NHS waiting time is too long, benenden health may be able to offer assistance on a discretionary basis.

How to boost your mental wellbeing

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