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.

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

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Mindfulness for Childbirth

In the previous post, I discussed mindfulness for postpartum depression and shared the story of Kristi Pahr and a range of relevant mindfulness resources.  In this post, I want to focus on the research that has been conducted on the use of mindfulness in preparation for childbirth.

Research in the area of mindfulness for mothers suggests that developing mindfulness during pregnancy can assist the mother not only during the perinatal period but also during the birth of a child and the postnatal period.  The benefits of mindfulness practice before birth can flow over to the postnatal period and help to prevent or alleviate the effects of postnatal depression.

Research on Mindfulness for Childbirth

Both pregnancy and childbirth challenge the resilience of a mother and the postnatal period brings its own stressors with the need to care for a newborn baby.   Mindfulness, in concert with social support, can help to ward off postnatal depression and assist in keeping both mother and baby healthy and happy.

Fear associated with expecting the worst in labour and the graphic sharing, both orally and in writing, of difficulties experienced by other mothers, compounds the natural anxiety of expectant mothers.  This, in turn, can make labour more difficult and prolonged and lead to other undesirable outcomes such as increased need for pain relief or other medical intervention and increased possibility that the mother will experience postnatal depression.

The Guardian in June 2017 carried a report of research conducted by Dr. Larissa Duncan and her colleagues based on the 2.5 days, weekend workshop, Mind in Labor (MIL) – developed and conducted by experienced midwife Nancy Bardacke, author of Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond.

The focus of the Guardian article was on the question, Can mindfulness reduce the fear of labour and postpartum depression?  The reported research involved a randomised group (with some participants randomly assigned to complete the mindfulness course, while others [the control group] did not undertake the mindfulness training).  The research group covered 30 expectant, first-time mothers in their 3rd trimester of pregnancy.

Participants in the mindfulness training were given specific coping skills for birthing including learning to reframe the experience of pain, learning how to decouple pain sensations from negative thoughts and emotions, and developing personalised strategies with their partners to cope with the birthing process and beyond.  They were also exposed experientially to a range of mindfulness practices such as mindful walking, mindful breathing, body scan, sitting meditation, mindful eating and coping with pain through experiencing pain mindfully (holding ice blocks in their hands).

The conclusions reported in the research project by Dr. Duncan and her colleagues were stated as follows:

This study suggests mindfulness training carefully tailored to address fear and pain of childbirth may lead to important maternal mental health benefits, including improvements in childbirth-related appraisals and the prevention of postpartum depression symptoms. There is also some indication that MIL participants may use mindfulness coping in lieu of systemic opioid pain medication. 

Translated this means that the mindfulness training participants had increased belief in their capacity to handle the pain of birthing (self-efficacy), better ability to manage the pain through mindfulness techniques, greater body awareness, more positive perception of their experience of childbirth and less symptoms of postnatal depression.

As expectant mothers grow in mindfulness through tailored mindfulness training and practice, they are better able to manage the pain associated with childbirth and at the same time are less likely to suffer postnatal depression.

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

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Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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

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The Power of Awareness

In an interview with Tami Simon, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach share their insights on The Power of Awareness to Change Your Life.   In exploring these ideas, I will be building on my previous post based on Albert Flynn DeSilver’s ideas about developing mindfulness and awakening through writing.

Jack & Tara have developed together an online course on The Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training.   They each bring to the training discussion and resources, more than 40 years of experience in mindfulness and awareness practice and training .

The first question that exercises your mind when you hear about what Jack and Tara offer is, “What is awareness?”  It is not something that can be accessed by definition or thought alone, because it is an experience of a stillness within, a quiet place that precedes thought and sensation.  It’s that realisation that you, the whole person – not a part of you – is aware of your thoughts and sensations as you are experiencing them.  As Tara explains:

Awareness is the silence that’s listening to the thoughts or listening to the sound; it’s more prior to any of the felt experience through our senses…And you can begin to intuit that there is a space of knowing that is always here and that we are not always aware of it, but it’s here.

That is why The Awareness Training is highly experiential with guided exercises and personal journaling to make explicit the learning and develop deeper insights.

In summarising the ideas presented in this interview, I have identified two key areas that manifest the power of awareness.

Sense of self – changing the narrative

Both Jack and Tara shared what was happening for them prior to awareness training.  They discussed their negative thoughts and the stories they told themselves which served to diminish who they actually were and what they were capable of.   They spoke of the constraints of their own narrative and the expectation entrapment that locked them into particular patterns of thinking and behaviour.

They see awareness as creating freedom from habituated denigration of self and the realisation of a real sense of self and creative capacity.   They maintain that through developing awareness, we can change our self-deprecating narrative, as we step back from our thoughts and perceptions and allow our true selves to emerge.

Relationship building

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are better able to identify and manage the space between stimulus and response.  We gain a deep insight into what we bring to a relationship and the associated conflicts – we become more aware of our habituated responses in a conflict situation.  We gain a clearer realisation of our self-talk, our tendency to defensiveness, our self-protection born of childhood experiences and our inattentiveness when experiencing conflicted emotions.

Added to this self-awareness, is a clarity about our projections and assumptions about the other person and their behaviour, increased capacity to pay attention to the other person and an openness to their needs and perceptions.

Awareness enables us to deepen our relationships, as it frees us from habituated thoughts and responses and opens up the capacity to listen empathetically and respond creatively.

So, as we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we discover our true self and its potentiality and are able to deepen our relationships through a stronger sense of self and a heightened sensitivity towards the other person in the relationship.

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

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Why Kids Need Mindfulness

In her interview with Tami Simon, Goldie Hawn explained in depth why children need mindfulness training and what led her to develop and conduct MindUP™.

At one level, it concerned Goldie that American children rarely smiled – a stark contrast to children in Third World countries who smiled a lot despite experiencing incredible deprivations.

Goldie was also concerned about school-age children needing psychological help to deal with anxiety and stress.

School-age children have their own direct sources of anxiety – such as performance expectations of parents and teachers, peer acceptance and sibling rivalry.  Performance expectations can relate to academic performance, achievement in a sporting arena or meeting career expectations.

Self-generated anxiety in children can be compounded by parental anxiety and stress – generated by economic downturn and associated job losses, the threat of terrorism and career stresses.

Anxiety in parents is contagious and can contaminate  the emotional life of children.  They, in turn, carry their accumulated anxiety and stress to school and bring home anxieties from school experiences, including bullying.

The recent suicide death of 14 year old, Dolly Everett, because of online bullying, highlights the pressures that kids are under from peers.  Dolly was a bright, happy and caring child who was subjected to cruel, cyber bullying.

This form of devastating peer presure carried out via mobile phones and social media, is one of the many stresses that school children today have to deal with.

What Goldie has done through her MindUP™ program is expose children to brain science and enable them to understand their own emotions and reactions.  She has also given them a common language to express themselves via metaphors, e.g  the amygdala as a “dog barking”.

Another key feature of the program is “mind breaks” – a simple process focused on breathing that enables the children to learn how to calm themselves.  As they grow in mindfulness through mindful practice, they are able to attain calmness and clarity and better manage their lives at home and school.

As Goldie points out, she is giving  school children the tools to be positive and caring leaders of the future:

They are going to be able to manage their emotional construct, their reactivity, to become better listeners, ideate better, problem solve better, and have some dignity, some level of humanity that they have learned through their early education.

Children need mindfulness to equip them to better manage the stresses of day-to-day living and to have the resilience to handle bullying behaviour.

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

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Mental Illness in the Workplace

There are two compounding trends that, in concert, are beginning to increase the issues associated with mental illness in the workplace.  They are the incidence of narcissistic managers and the growth in the number of people in the workforce who have a mental illness.  I will deal with each of these trends in turn and link the issues to the offsetting influence of mindfulness.

The Incidence of Narcissistic Managers

Many significant publications such as Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review,, and, have recently discussed the incidence of narcissistic bosses and ways to self-manage in the workplace to protect yourself from psychological damage caused by these bosses.  It is suggested that most people will encounter at least one narcissistic manager in their working life – I have experienced three that I can recall.

What are the characteristics of narcissistic managers that contribute to mental illness in the workplace?  Well the characteristics of these managers have been summarised by the underlying philosophy of “me, myself, I” – that is  I “first and foremost”.

Characteristics of Narcissistic Managers

There are many characteristics of narcissistic managers described in the articles and in research. Some of the more common traits described (and confirmed by my own experience) are:

  • Self-aggrandisement – believe they are more capable, competent or efficient than they actually are (believe they create high performance teams when the reverse is true)
  • Obsession with self advancement – their careers come before anything or anybody else
  • Over-concern with visibility and being seen in a good light
  • Blame others when mistakes occur (to deflect blame from themselves) – always looking for a “scapegoat”
  • Will lie to save their projected image
  • Take credit for other’s work if it advances their own positive visibility
  • Insensitive to the needs of others, especially their own staff
  • Will constantly change priorities depending on what advantages them, without regard for the impact of such constant change on others
  • Will have an in-group, but any member can become part of the out-group at anytime if they cause embarrassment
  • Create unrealistic time pressures for staff to try to show that their area is highly productive
  • Will publically criticise their own managers in front of the manager’s own staff
  •  Will micromanage to try to ensure that mistakes do not occur and that what they want to occur will actually happen.

The Impact of Narcissistic Managers on Mental Health

The reality is that these managers do not achieve control. In fact, their situation becomes progressively out of control  and they experience high levels of stress as a result, on top of their self-induced stress caused by self-obsession.  They may gain compliance through fear, but lose commitment because people physically or psychologically withdraw to protect themselves – no longer caring about the work, unwilling to offer suggestions for improvement, avoiding contact with the manager or engaging in covert sabotage (to get back at the narcissistic manager). They also lose confidence and begin to question their own competence.

The narcissistic manager, then, not only creates an environment conducive to the development of mental illness in staff, they also potentially aggravate  the condition of staff who already have a mental illness before joining the narcissistic manager’s workgroup.  The compounding issue is that the narcissistic manager lacks the insight to see how they contribute to the conditions creating, or aggravating, mental illness; nor are they overly concerned about the individuals negatively impacted by the highly stressful workplaces they create.

People in the Workplace with a Mental Illness

Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of all Australians, estimates that there are 3 million people in Australia suffering from anxiety or depression and eight people die each day from suicide.  This suggests that anxiety and depression are an issue in the workplace.  Beyond Blue funds an extensive research program covering anxiety and suicide for all categories, including young people, women, men, aged people and the LGBT community.

The Black  Dog Institute also supports the development of mental health in the community.   They draw extensively on research to support their role.  From this research, they are able to maintain that:

Mental illness is very common. One in five (20%) Australians age 16-65 experience a mental illness in any year.  The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance  use disorders.

What is particularly concerning is that they report that suicide “is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 25-44 and second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24”.

This means that suicide is potentially prevalent among people who are in early-career or mid-career as well as those entering or about to enter the workforce.

The role of Mindfulness 

The narcissistic manager exhibits the characteristics that are the opposite of the mindful manager.  They particularly lack self-awareness and hence self-management. They are by nature lacking in empathy and compassion and are unable to communicate with insight as they are blinded by their own emotions and selfish-obsession.  Their only motivation is to advance themselves – they have no source of motivation beyond themselves and  are thus unable to engage committed individuals.

As we mentioned in recent posts, emotional intelligence skills can be learned through mindfulness.  The challenge is finding ways to engage narcissistic managers in mindfulness training when they have a “keep busy” mindset.  Offering mindfulness training as a means of stress reduction may provide the motivation for them to be involved – because it focuses on “where they are hurting”.

Hence, mindfulness has the potential to help narcissistic managers to manage their stress levels, change their management style and assist other individuals experiencing mental illness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has demonstrated over more than 30 years that his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training has very substantial benefits for people suffering different levels of stress and forms of mental illness.  His findings through his practice have been confirmed by neuroscience research.

As individuals in either group grow in mindfulness, they will experience the benefits, and contribute to the development of a more humane workplace.

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

Image source: courtesy of Maialisa on Pixabay

Creating a Workplace Culture of Well-Being Through Mindfulness

In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, the authors challenged what they call “neuromyths” – basically, misunderstandings arising from misguided interpretations of neuroscience findings.  They argued that many leadership development programs are based on these “neuromyths” and result in considerable waste of financial resources and employee time.

One of the myths that the authors challenge is the concept that the brain’s development is fixed at an early age and that little change in the brain’s structure can occur over a person’s lifetime.  However, recent neuroscience has shown that rather than being fixed in structure, the brain exhibits “plasticity” throughout our lives.  The research of this phenomenon has been described as follows:

Brain plasticity science is the study of a physical process. Gray matter can actually shrink or thicken; neural connections can be forged and refined or weakened and severed. Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities.

Research into the power of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction demonstrates, for example, that there is a real physical change in brain gray matter resulting in increased capacity in areas such as learning and memory processes and emotional self-regulation.

Health insurer, Aetna, has taken this research seriously and built their employee development programs around the ability of mindfulness practices to enhance mental capacity and reduce stress.  By 2015, more than twenty five percent of their 50,000 employees had participated in at least one form of mindfulness training.   Aetna’s aim was to reduce stress in the workplace and the associated loss of productivity and employee well-being, while simultaneously generating high performance.

As a result of realised benefits in the workplace, Aetna has increased their commitment to mindfulness training for employees.  In 2017, they created a Mindfulness Center with the explicit aim of “developing a workplace culture of well-being“.  The Center provides mindfulness activities a number of times each week and is designed to host future presentations and courses conducted by experts in the area of mindfulness.

Aetna has made this very substantial investment in mindfulness training because they have seen that their managers and staff, as they grow in mindfulness, reduce their stress, increase their resilience and develop high performance.

Aetna is certainly not alone in investing in mindfulness training for managers and employees – and in realising the associated benefits.  Google, for example, has trained more than 4,500 of their employees in mindfulness and emotional intelligence over the last 10 years.  The derivative program developed by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) is providing mindfulness training to leaders in thousands of organisations in the public and private sector on an ongoing global basis.

A recent Mindful Leaders Forum in Sydney was an extension of a forum that is contributing to the global development of mindfulness in the corporate world:

In three years, 1500 executives from more than 350 companies have come together to explore a new style of leadership.  It’s all about helping individuals, teams and organisations to thrive in the digital age.  It’s part of a global movement that’s sweeping across the corporate world where innovative companies such as Google, LinkedIn and the Harvard Business School are using evidence-based tools to unleash creativity, productivity and purpose-driven performance.

The Sydney-based forum included presentations by Marque Lawyers, Westpac Bank, e-Bay, Australian Army and Medibank.

Organisations world-wide are investing in the development of mindful leaders who can build a workplace well-being culture that generates the dual goals of employee wellness and high performance.

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

Image source: Courtesy of WolfBlur on Pixabay