The obstacles to overcoming mental illness are numerous, as anyone suffering from anxiety, mood, and/or personality disorders can attest. There are many tools available to treat mental illnesses, including therapy, medication, diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene. One tool that has gained increased acceptance over the last five decades is mindfulness meditation. At its heart, mindfulness is the focus on breaths, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and body as they are in the moment. By focusing on the present and being aware of their breathing and bodily sensations, those suffering from anxiety and depression can escape the twin traps of ruminating on the past and worrying about the future.
Mindfulness meditation likely dates back to prehistoric times, and is at the heart of the teachings of Siddhartha Buddha, who lived more than 2500 years ago. As recent studies have shown, meditation can be an essential tool in overcoming such anxiety disorders as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and panic disorder, by helping to slow the train of negative thinking before it spirals out of control. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website states that “while the combination of therapy and medication is crucial to recovery, the addition of self-awareness tools and skills can also be beneficial.”
In his CD, Dr. Andrew Weil’s Mind-Body Tool Kit Workbook, Dr. Andrew Weil helps guide listeners through simple meditation exercises, breath work, guided imagery, and music therapy. One simple-yet-useful technique, espoused by Dr. Weil, involves inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, and exhaling for eight seconds, until every ounce of breath available has been released. This technique, which Dr. Weil describes as “a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system,” can be employed by anyone in nearly any situation. Called 4-7-8, it can be especially useful in helping to subdue panic attacks.
Where anxiety disorders are concerned, Weil contends that brain imaging studies have shown that a regular mindfulness mediation practice significantly increases activity on the left side of the brain’s frontal region, leading to lower anxiety levels and improved mood. Regular meditation practices also increase activity in the areas of the brain associated with happiness, which can be immensely beneficial to people diagnosed with mood disorders, such as clinical depression. Additionally, a recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada found that the relapse rate of patients treated for major depressive disorder were equal to those treated with antidepressants — about 30 percent.
Jon Kabat-Zin, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, states that “part of the virtue and the power of meditation is to reclaim the present moment. In the long term, meditation is not about sitting in the lotus position or like a statue at the museum; meditation is about your entire life. The real practice in meditation is living your life as if it really mattered moment by moment.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of all adult Americans report having a mental illness in the previous year.