Friday, November 23, 2012

Why Mindfulness??

One of my first clients was a young man, entering his junior year. Slender, wearing glasses, soft-spoken, intelligent, this young man suffered with depression, sometimes with suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and a relatively unusual symptom called trichotillomania; he pulled hair out of his head creating large gaps. He identified depression as part of his experience from about age 12 but I suspected symptoms far earlier based on his history. Because of his depression and anxiety he was unable to achieve a GPA greater than 2.7 during his first two years in college. I listened to his story and quickly concluded that a referral for a medication would be prudent. I surmised that serotonin must be sorely lacking. He, however said, “I don’t want any meds.” To this I replied, “Cool, would you be willing to experiment with me?” He was and we did. I introduced him to what I knew about the practice of mindfulness and the research behind it. I encouraged him to practice mindfulness 30 minutes per day while sitting with his attention focusing and refocusing on the breath (actually a single-pointed meditation exercise and way too much to expect at the beginning). He returned the next week saying that he had only practiced a couple of times for 5-10 minutes. By this time I had learned far more about the practice and showed him how he could use mindfulness at any place, time and activity. He eagerly began to practice while eating, walking, driving, eating, showering, sitting in class, etc. We continued to see each other weekly and sometimes twice weekly for the semester. We saw each other weekly afterwards as well enhancing his meditation practice and using some cognitive therapy interventions and have kept up with each other over the years. What were the results? They were far more than either of us expected as it turned out. The most dramatic result was that his GPA began to climb. That first semester it rose to 3.25, the next, 3.5, the next 3.75, the next 4.0, and his last semester it was 3.75. Furthermore, while the situations about which he reacted with depression and anxiety had not changed he was no longer depressed about them, sad, concerned, and frustrated at times, yes, but not depressed. And he reported that he “hardly ever pulled a hair out of his head.” All of this occurred without medication. The psychological and behavioral changes had apparently resulted in neurophysiological changes as well. These results, as you may expect, aroused my curiosity further so I attended a conference on mindfulness sponsored by Harvard Medical School at which some extraordinary presentations were given by some extraordinary scientists and practitioners. I was sold and now these eight years since, over 1,000 research studies later, and a dozen or so pleased patients I am more "sold" than ever. Submitted by: Kenneth "Neal" Hughes, LPE, practicing at Healthy Mind Counseling Services.