Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

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Dying Mindfully

Lucy Kalanithi, in her Ted talk, What makes life worth living in the face of death, shared the story of her last 22 months with her husband who was suffering from terminal cancer.   Her husband, Paul, a young neurosurgeon, was able to continue his practice for a while after his cancer diagnosis owing to his oncologist’s management of his chemotherapy.

After Paul was unable to continue as a neurosurgeon, he turned to writing which he continued to do until the last months of his life.  Paul’s book is titled, When Breath Becomes Air.   The book is a reflection on the task of transitioning from doctor to patient.  It describes the challenge of facing his own death –  a challenge that both Paul and Lucy had assisted their patients to face.

Lucy explained in her talk that together they accepted that suffering and death were part of life – but this did not remove the pain and suffering involved.  When reflecting on life and its purpose she said:

Engaging in the full range of experience — living and dying, love and loss — is what we get to do.  

Lucy said that instead of fighting against fate, she and Paul learnt together how to deal with the here and now of suffering and loss – they worked together to help each other through.

Part of their approach to Paul’s dying was to talk with each other openly and honestly about their feelings and the difficult decisions that they faced progressively:

  • whether to have a child (with Paul’s uncertain life expectancy)
  • whether Lucy should remarry after Paul died
  • what level of medical intervention they would accept at different stages of Paul’s illness
  • when to turn off life support.

Lucy commented that talking through the options, helping each other make those decisions and accepting the pain and loss involved at each stage, gave her a new insight into the meaning of resilience – because it could not mean, in their circumstances, “bouncing back” to a prior state.  Paul had to redefine his identity throughout the illness as he lost physical and mental capacities and Lucy had to find a new meaning in her role as “caregiver”.  Together, though, they showed the resilience of facing dying mindfully, of being present to the current reality confronting them and not meeting it with denial.

Paul also used his final months to reflect on what he was experiencing in the hope that his written reflections could help other patients going through what he was experiencing and help clinicians to understand the dying patient’s journey from the inside.

In her final comment, Lucy stated that exercise and mindfulness meditation helped her a lot.  As we grow in midnfulness, we can help each other during the experience of dying and develop a new resilience in the face of an inevitable, changed reality.

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Mindfulness Lessons from Reported Near-Death Experiences

In the previous post, I introduced meditating on death, discussed its benefits and shared some examples of this meditation approach.  Here, I want to discuss the lessons we can learn about mindfulness from people who have reported a near-death experience (NDE).

The ground-breaking research in this area was conducted by Dr. Raymond A Moody who first published his book in 1975, Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon – Survival of Bodily Death.  This research in the USA led to people all over the world reporting near-death experiences and opened up a whole new arena of research which continues today.  A research foundation has been established by Jody and Jeffrey Long to collect individual NDE stories from around the world and share research about NDE experiences.

Some scientists challenged the NDE stories and their associated conclusion of an afterlife – they considered it to be some form of aberration of the brain.  However, neuroscientist, Dr. Eben Alexander – originally one of the strongest opponents of the meaning of the NDE experience – had a near death experience himself when he suffered a seven day coma and his pre-frontal cortex shut down.  His documented experience and conclusions have challenged the scientific community.   His recent book records his initial doubts, his own NDE experience, his new understanding of consciousness and his life transformation, Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness.

Mindfulness lessons from reported near-death experiences

One researcher decided to conduct research of NDEs in Australia as the focus of her doctoral research.  Dr. Cherie Sutherland PhD, interviewed 400 Australians who had a near death experience and published her results in a book, Transformed by the Light: Life After Near-Death Experiences.

Cherie defines a NDE experience as follows:

The near-death experience (NDE) is said to occur when a person is close to death (or in many cases actually clinically dead), and yet is resuscitated or somehow survives to recount an intense, meaningful experience.  (p.3)

Cherie found that most of the reported NDE experiences have some things in common – a compassionate life review, out-of-body experience, feelings of peace and well-being and a sense of timeliness.  This mirrors the NDE research results from elsewhere in the world.

The findings that were most common relate to the after-effects of an NDE experience, and these have particular relevance for mindfulness practice.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically have initial problems with “re-entry” into everyday life.  However, over time, they begin to reassess their values, the meaning of their lives and their priorities. They tend to transform themselves, and their life changes accord with mindfulness practice and the attendant growth in awareness.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically report:

  • profound self-awareness, equivalent to a series of in-depth psychoanalysis sessions with a therapist
  • increased sense of control over their lives and self-management
  • very strong desire to use their latent talents and abilities for the benefit of others
  • growth in self-concept, self-confidence and self-efficacy (belief in their capacity to achieve things)
  • increased patience and tolerance (not controlled by assumptions)
  • heightened appreciation and respect for nature
  • greater appreciation of others and “love for humanity”
  • greater understanding and insight
  • growth in compassion and a strong desire to work with those who are disadvantaged and “the grieving, the elderly and dying” – many made career changes including working in hospices for the dying
  • profound desire to learn – to gain self-knowledge, to develop their talents and to be a greater source of help to others
  • different attitudes to death and a loss of fear of death.

As we grow in mindfulness, we move closer to the life transformation displayed by people who have encountered a near-death experience and we begin to realise the benefits that come with sustaining mindfulness practice.

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Meditating on Death

This has been one of the hardest blog posts for me to write.  It is difficult to write about death when there are so many different views about death from various philosophical, spiritual and religious perspectives.  It is even more difficult to confront the reality of your own death – accepting its inevitability and the impermanence of life on earth.

Our concept of death develops as we grow older and its inevitability becomes part of our consciousness.  However, there is a real taboo about talking about, or thinking about, death.   We fear death and avoid it – but we cannot avoid its inevitability despite the stories we might tell ourselves to stave off the fear of death.

The benefits of meditating on death

One of the primary benefits of meditating on death is to overcome this fear.  Annie Robinson, for example, suggests that mindfulness can “ease our fear of death and dying” – it can also help to reduce the pain, anger, grief and denial that occurs with dying.  Other authors support this view and add that meditation on dying enables us to better assist those closest to us with the process of dying.

One of the really strong and lasting benefits of meditating on dying is appreciation for the life that we have to live – valuing each day as the first day of the rest of our life.  This encourages us to live mindfully in every aspect of our life – to value nature, our freedom, our friendships, our gifts and talents and our close relationships.  This was the very clear message of Holly Butcher as she confronted her imminent death from cancer.

What people value when dying

Mathew O’Reilly, a critical care, medical emergency technician, spoke during a TED talk about his experiences in helping people who were very near death as a result of an accident or a natural disaster.  In his early career, he felt that he needed to lie to these critically ill people who had moments to live to protect them from the fear of death.  Once he decided to tell the truth about their impending death, where there was nothing that he could do for them, he found that the majority of people faced their death with peace and acceptance.

What he found too was that three things were important to different people at the time of death:

  1. wanting forgiveness
  2. wanting to know that their life had meaning
  3. wanting to be remembered (even by Matthew and his team).

Meditating on death

Pursuing three questions

One form of meditation on death is to pursue the above three things for yourself.  You could ask yourself one or more of these following questions, thinking about how you would respond at the time of death, if you knew it was imminent:

  1. Who do I need forgiveness from – who have I neglected or caused suffering to?
  2. What meaning does my life have? What have I actually contributed to make this world a better place for others, near and far?
  3. What will I be remembered for?
Writing your own obituary

Some mindfulness experts suggest a form of meditation on death is to write your own obituary.  Lux Narayan, in his TED talk, shared his experience of reading 2,000 published obituaries of people who died.  What he found was that both the famous and not-so-famous did extraordinary things to help make society a better place – “they made a positive dent in the fabric of life”.  He asks that we consider how we are using our talents to help society so that our obituary will reflect the “positive dent” also.

Buddhism Nine Points Meditation
Buddhism  offers Nine Points Meditation on Death which reflects the foregoing discussion of what people value at death and what obituaries say about people who have lived a meaningful life:

It is vital that when we die, we will have as many positive imprints—which will bring good experience and as few negative imprints—which will bring suffering—on our mind as possible. Also, we should aim to die at peace with ourselves, feeling good about how we lived our life, and not leaving behind any unresolved conflicts with people.

The nine points meditation on death explores this rear-mirror perspective after helping us to confront both the inevitability of our death and the uncertainty about the timing or means of our death.  It concludes by reminding us that, as we live, we still have time to live a life that is “meaningful, beneficial and positive.”

Mindfulness of Death Meditation

WikiHow provides a detailed Mindfulness of Death Meditation that covers the potential distractions (in part, generated by discomfort with the topic of meditation), explores the reality of death and your feelings about it, and assist you to identify ways to improve the wellness of your life here and now.

A Death Meditation method

This is a detailed meditation on death that involves relaxing your body in the first instance, then imagining the dying process with energy progressively leaving all parts of your body, then identifying the real self that remains and following this with reintegrating with your body.  This can be a confronting meditation initially but lead to a sense of peace and relaxation.  The author suggests that you first read about preparing for the death meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death, we can achieve a level of peace and acceptance and, at the same time, increase our motivation to live our life in a positive, helpful and meaningful way.

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How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

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Mindfulness Practice for Overcoming Unhealthy Habits

Leo Babauta, creator of zenhabits.net, suggests that underpinning our unhealthy habits is a “craving for wholeness”.  In his view – whether we are obsessed with the news, shopping, food, sex, social media or partying – we are looking for something to redress our loneliness, sense of disconnection or feeling of incompleteness.

Mindfulness practice to overcome unhealthy habits

Leo advocates a mindfulness practice that incorporates four main steps:

  1. Pause and be still.  Don’t seek distractions or ways to entertain yourself.
  2. Feel the discomfort of loneliness, isolation or disconnection that is driving you.  Realise that unhappy habits can entrench your sense of loneliness.  Get in touch with your uncertainty and explore what makes your life meaningful.
  3. Notice the goodness in your heart.  You care about others and about yourself.  Recall moments when you have shown loving kindness or consideration towards others.
  4. Connect with a sense of wholeness both within and without (outside of yourself).  Marvel at the integration of your mind, body and spirit and the interconnectedness of nature.

Leo, author  of The Habit Guide Ebook, describes the mindfulness practice in more detail in an article on his Zen Habits blog, The Craving for Wholeness That Drives Our Activities.  He suggests that you can rest in the awareness of the sense of wholeness in everything, including nature.  Let nature be your ally in your search for wholeness.

The Interconnectedness of Nature

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and film director, reminds us that nature is a source of mindfulness because everything in nature is interconnected and we are connected to it.  He explains that every living thing is dependent on another living thing and illustrates this through his film, The Wings of Life, which was presented at a TED Talk, The Hidden Beauty of Pollination.

Louie Schwartzberg is currently working on a crowd-funded film, Fantastic Fungi, in collaboration with authors, artists, doctors (oncologists, integrative medicine experts) and scientists (mycologist, ecologists, philosoforager).

In a short teaser film for Fantastic Fungi, Louie Schwartzberg explains the interconnectedness of nature manifested through mushrooms:

Plants need soil. Where does soil come from? It comes from the largest organism on the planet that heals you, that can feed you, that can clean up a toxic oil spill, that can even shift your consciousness.  It’s mycelium.  Mycelium is the root structure under budding mushrooms.  It’s like the Internet – a vast underground exchange [intelligent & communication] network that transfers nutrients from one plant to another.

Louie Schwartzberg has spent his whole working life to show us, in living vibrant colour and film, how nature inspires wonder through its wholeness and interconnectedness.  Leo Babauta, through his mindfulness practice, encourages us to to reflect on this wholeness and our interconnection with everything.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise that we are not alone or disconnected – that we are connected to a vast wholeness manifested in nature and in the intricacy of the interconnection of our body, mind and spirit.  Mindful awareness of this connectedness is a pathway to overcoming unhealthy habits.

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Mindfulness and Yoga for Addiction Release

In a discussion of the interaction between mind, body and spirit, Surbhi Khanna & Jeffrey Greeson acknowledge the complementarity of yoga and meditation – both require paying attention to experiences and related emotions as they happen.

They suggest that the “loss-addiction cycle” arises from a number of sources:

Addictions are born as a result of ‘mindless’ states involving escapist attitudes, automatic thinking, emotional reactivity and social isolation.

Breaking the addiction cycle – using yoga and meditation together

The addicted person turns to a form of gratification to fill the void left by sadness and loss.  The void maybe filled by an addiction to smoking, drinking alcohol or using any other substance or activity in a repeated, mindless way.  The problem, of course, is that the addiction, whatever form it takes, fails to overcome the sense of loss, isolation or disconnection.  The addicted person then increases the use of the substance or activity and seeks to intensify the momentary pleasure they experience.  These further cement the “loss-addiction cycle”.

The authors assert that practices such as yoga and meditation improve attention and concentration and enhance the ability to self-observe and regulate emotions.  They maintain that optimal treatment and prevention of addiction and recovery from it, can be achieved by using yoga and meditation in concert.  They point out that further evidence-based research needs to be undertaken taking into account different kinds of addiction and differences in gender, demography and orientation (physical, mental or spiritual).

Khanna and Greeson, however, contend that the growing empirical research and conceptual development of the underpinnings of meditation and yoga, support the view that the combination of these two modalities can break the cycle of stress, negative thoughts and emotions and the resultant addictive behaviour.

Yoga and meditation are complementary and mutually reinforcing.  As you use these modalities together they can help you grow in mindfulness and reduce or avoid the mindless pursuit of addictions.  When used in concert, yoga and meditation can improve self-awareness and self-management.

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New Horizons: Beyond Postnatal Depression

Researchers in Iran established that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can help new mothers reduce the symptoms of postnatal depression.  They counselled, however, that “regular mindfulness practice is important in maintaining balance in life”.  Dr. Zindel Segal, a co-developer of MBCT, also cautions, “getting well is half the problem, staying well is the other half”.  MBCT was developed as a direct response to the need to prevent relapses after depression and enables participants to sustain meditation practice.

Gail Donnan’s story of relapse after postnatal depression

Many years after suffering postnatal depression, Gail Donnan experienced a range of symptoms which tended to mirror the symptoms of postnatal depression she had experienced previously.  At the time, she was having difficulty managing multiple (and sometimes conflicting) roles – mother, wife, part-time teacher of Holistic Therapies in further education.

The anxiety associated with the sense of overload brought back the symptoms she thought she had left behind – physical symptoms of lack of sleep and exhaustion; psychological symptoms of tearfulness, low self-esteem, anger, being negative and panic attacks, as everything got out of perspective.

Gail fortuitously recalled how meditation had helped her with postnatal depression and began meditating again, using her old meditation tapes.  She then advanced onto meditation apps and explored brain science and nutrition.

The real breakthrough came when Gail decided to study to become a qualified Meditation Teacher – she was already qualified as a Counsellor, Teacher and Assessor.  Her experience of the benefits of meditation for her own wellbeing served as a source of motivation.

New Horizons: Beyond Postnatal Depression

Gail then trained as a Mindfulness Practitioner and Coach.  In 2014, she conceived and established The Mindfulspace Wellbeing Company in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

Gail initially led Meditation Circles on a small scale and conducted Mindfulness workshops on a local scale for eighteen months.  In 2016, she opened The Mindfulspace Wellbeing Studios in Ripon.

She now offers a very wide range of holistic therapies and accredited courses, in association with other qualified practitioners, through two Wellbeing Studios and a Wellbeing Training Centre.  The offerings include meditation classes and mindfulness coaching along with accredited courses such as a Meditation Teacher Diploma and a Mindfulness Diploma.   Gail’s Facebook page details the very extensive services that are now provided.  In the meantime, Gail has qualified as a Reiki Master Teacher Practitioner.

Gail’s experience of meditation and its benefits for depression and her growing conviction through training others in meditation and mindfulness, have provided the foundation for her to explore these new horizons.  She is now in a position to help many other people through a wide range of related modalities.

From Depression to Creativity

Jon Kabat-Zinn, when talking about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness,  makes the point, “A lot of creativity comes out of the stillness of awareness, in not knowing”.  He suggests that if we explore what we don’t know we are at the cutting edge of new knowledge – this has certainly been attested in Gail’s case.  The calm, balance and clarity derived from meditation and mindfulness, as a practitioner and teacher, have opened up new vistas for her and created a thirst for knowledge and wisdom.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can move beyond the disabling bonds of depression and explore new horizons through new-found creativity, energy and insight.

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Research Study on Mindfulness for Postnatal Depression

The incidence of postpartum depression in Iran is reported to be in the range 30-40 percent of women giving birth to a child.  One suggested factor is the early age that Iranian girls become married and have children – understandably, placing them in a position where they are both physically and mentally under-prepared for the exhausting physical and emotional demands of birthing and for the care of their new-born babies.

Four researchers, motivated by these alarming statistics, established a research project with first-time mothers in Iran to explore the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing the incidence of postpartum depression.  The researchers – Hajieh Sheydaei, Azizreza Ghasemzadeh, Amir Lashkari and Parvaneh Ghorbani Kajani – published their results in an article titled, The effectiveness of mindfulness training on reducing the symptoms of postpartum depression.

Their research established that “mindfulness training was effective in reducing postpartum depression symptoms in new mothers”.  The researchers describe some of the symptoms of postnatal depression as:

…increase in appetite and overweightness. Irritability, aggressive behavior, panic attacks, seclusion, and uncontrolled crying … Maternity blues are the most outstanding symptom of postpartum depression which is considered the direct result of mothers’ anger and irritation.

The research group of new mothers who undertook the mindfulness training were exposed to a course involving 8 sessions and based on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – which entails combining mindfulness practices with cognitive therapy.  They were exposed to a range of mindfulness practices such as mindful eating, mindful breathing, sitting and walking meditations.  Some of the exercises were designed to challenge their negative thinking and emotions and to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of motherhood, while caring for themselves.

The MBCT approach helped the participating mothers to grow in self-awareness.  They were also able to enhance their self-management skills through an increased ability to identify the links between their thoughts and mood disorders and to develop new ways to deal with them (rather than the former strategies such as isolation, aggression and irritability).

As new mothers grow in mindfulness through meditative practices and exercises based on cognitive therapy, they can develop a different level of emotional intelligence which will equip them to deal with the challenges of motherhood and reduce symptoms of postnatal depression.

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Mindfulness and Meditation for Elite Athletes

Patrick Chan used mindfulness to excel at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  His first round performance for the team figure skating event was badly hampered by nerves and he did not score well.  However by talking to himself, confronting the expectations of his team and his own debilitating emotions, he was able to achieve the top score in his next round and help Canada win the Olympic Gold medal for the event.

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught meditation to the 1984 US Olympic rowing team – a team that went on to win 2 gold medals, 5 silver and 1 bronze.   Jon maintains that to get into the “zone” of peak performance on a regular basis you need to meditate to train yourself mentally.

Richmond Football Club – AFL Premiership Winners through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation training helped Richmond win the 2017 AFL premiership.   The initiative started in 2015 with Dylan Grimes, Richmond defender, who was very frustrated and dissatisfied with his ability to maintain his performance at an elite level.  He read a number of books about mindfulness and how it could enhance performance.  In particular, he was impressed with the idea of achieving “flow” proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

People who experience flow in their endeavours achieve optimal performance, increase their creativity and experience real joy and happiness.   The Richmond Football Club engaged Emma Murray, high performance and mindfulness coach, to help all team members achieve their optimal level.  She was able to help players develop self-awareness, build focus and concentration and to help each other when one of the team was becoming distracted or unfocused.  She successfully established new norms such as individual players openly admitting the impact of their thoughts on their performance, sharing doubts and concerns and, overall, being vulnerable – a counter-cultural position.

Richmond players readily acknowledged the role of Emma’s teaching in mindfulness and meditation in helping them win the premiership.  For example, Dean Martin, winner of the Brownlow Medal, mentioned Emma’s contribution to Richmond’s performance after the game.

Konrad Marshall, author of Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, also provided a detailed description of Emma’s work with the football players and the effectiveness of her mindfulness and meditation approach.

NBA Athletes

Laura Chang in an article for mindfulnessmuse.com reminds us of the mindfulness practice of top NBA athletes who before the start of a game focus internally to “get into the zone” and build attention and concentration.  She suggests that we can all learn from these elite athletes to increase our own focus and productivity and proposes a mindfulness practice for improved performance.

Mindfulness Exercise for Improved Performance

Laura offers a 5-step mindfulness exercise that is designed to improve attention during physical activities.  The process, explained in detail in her article, is discussed in terms of the acronym, B.A.S.I.C. :

  • Body – body awareness
  • Arousal Level – notice the nature of your arousal
  • Self-Talk – what are you saying to yourself and what impact is it having on your performance?
  • Imagery – what images are you entertaining and do they reinforce excellent performance?
  • Concentration – notice the nature and quality of your concentration and focus and its impact on your performance.

This process is designed to enhance self-awareness and self-management and, in the process, build the capacity to maintain attention and focus at a high level.

As elite athletes grow in mindfulness they are better able to manage their negative thoughts and images, to maintain concentration and focus, to be creative and to achieve optimal performance.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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