Thinking yourself back to health

April 1, 2016

A new study which shows mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) helped to significantly alleviate chronic back pain reminds me how useful this technique is proving to be for our health.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, asked patients to use a strategy that incorporated elements of yoga and meditation, over eight weeks. The benefits lasted longer than a year in some cases.

I know for myself, that using mindfulness – focusing entirely on the present, allowing thoughts, feelings and sensations to pass by or through ourselves like waves over the shore – is important. I use it when I need to find some personal space to make a decision or when those around me are becoming stressed. It helps me to stay centred and calm.

And I am not alone. Organisations ranging from Google to the United States Marine Corps use mindfulness training to improve workplace functioning, because when you are mindful, you can have a greater consciousness in the present. Put simply, it helps us to make better decisions when under stress.

But how does it work for our physical ailments? Research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, published in Biological Psychiatry, shows mindfulness meditation reduces inflammation. It doesn’t take much to imagine every small cell in the body being soothed from an agitated state, and that process of relaxation enhancing both our physical and mental state. Perhaps then mindfulness is the ultimate in holistic self-care.

Certainly I see no contradiction between augmenting medicine with spirituality and meditation. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh explains the connection like this: “Science and mindfulness complement each other in helping people to eat well and maintain their health and wellbeing.”

But perhaps the musician Mick Fleetwood of the band Fleetwood Mac puts it more accessibly when he says: “I keep fit, I work out, I eat pretty damn well, I don’t drink like a fish, and all of those things are tempered with a holistic mind-set that you need to damn well respect the vehicle that you’re walking around in.”

So we see that mindfulness is not about trying to control one’s mind or body, but about respecting them. We should allow ourselves the space and calm we need to work in the most optimal ways. And that applies to the reduction of stress as much as it does to the relief of chronic back pain.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation