The health benefits of medical meditation

Doctor-prescribed, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) gave this writer the tools to cope better.

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woman meditation, meditating on mat
Photo, Masterfile.

I’ve had a bit of a rough go of it over the past few years. After two bouts of postpartum depression, I wound up in a psychiatrist’s office to confess my constant feelings of sadness, guilt (caused by said sadness), frustration, anxiety and overall aura of unhappiness.

My prescribed treatment plan included a cocktail of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, as well as a prescription to work fewer hours, plan date nights with my husband and go on rousing, disorderly girls’ nights with friends. (Disclosure: My doctor didn’t use the words rousing and disorderly. But she did tell me to have fun.)

Three years and more than 3,300 pills later, I decided to expand my mental health regimen. Even so, I wasn’t keen when my shrink suggested a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. I joked about not wanting to put my excessive gloom in the hands of swamis or Zen masters. But she assured me the practice was medically legit — I’d be schooled in mindfulness by a psychiatrist trained in the discipline.

RISKS AND BENEFITS

The program doesn’t promise to cure all that ails you, so I dropped the notion that my Eeyore-like moods would suddenly cease, or that my migraines and degenerative disc disease would miraculously vanish. There were definitely some check marks on the plus side, however.

I was given a pamphlet outlining risks (including the possibility of experiencing feelings of joy — at least these mindful folks have a sense of humour) and benefits that included less mental anguish (yes, please), as well as a greater sense of well-being and balance in life overall. MBSR also could make me less likely to fight with my spouse — a big selling point for my better half.

HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN

I visited a Toronto hospital for three hours every Friday for eight weeks (in addition to six hours spent in total silence one Sunday — total silence). My fellow mindfulness seekers were a mixed bag, folks of all ages hoping to get help with everything from irritable bowel syndrome to anxiety. Together, we got a taste of what it actually feels like to do nothing and just be in the moment. It’s harder than it sounds and requires cultivating seven principles, including letting go, patience and a non-judgmental attitude.

Dr. Kathy Margittai, our leader, told us there was no destination; this experience would be the start of a journey — one that required us to spend an hour a day formally practising sitting meditations and standing yoga sequences, as well as informally practising during everyday tasks (eating mindfully, brushing our teeth mindfully, cleaning toilets mindfully). “It’s very challenging to do at first,” Margittai told us. “But after the first 10,000 hours, it’s a piece of cake.”

She explained we could control the counterproductive messages our brains sent us (“My back is aching!” “I’m so mad I could scream!”) with our breath. If we focused on inhaling and exhaling when our thoughts wandered, we’d be better able to understand and react to what was going on in our minds, or “recognize the spark before the flame,” as the Buddhists like to say.

BIGGEST EYE-OPENER

Following the waves of your breath in times of anguish and pain (or when you’re supremely ticked off at your boss) really does help. So does living in the now. “In this moment,” Margittai would say, “as long as you’re breathing, there is more right with you than wrong.” Yes, it sounds cliché, but it blew my mind. (Pun intended.)

FINAL VERDICT

I’m still anxious, I still have crummy days, and I still have degenerative disc disease. But I definitely feel as though I have the tools to cope better. The first Friday after the course finished, I felt a sense of loss. But I promised myself to continue my practice, so I sat down, closed my eyes and tried to think of nothing but my breathing. In and out. When my thoughts wandered to the laundry or the bills, I gently escorted them back to my breath. In and out. I could deal with that stuff later, but in that moment, I had a one-track mind.

WE TRIED IT

MEDICAL MEDITATION

WHAT IS IT?

Developed by Jon Kabat-Zin at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teaches mindfulness (a focus on living in the present) as a way to cope with stress, illness and mental health issues. It’s touted as the perfect accompaniment to how doctors treat what ails us today. Studies show mindful meditation, gentle hatha yoga and learning to be aware of both your breath and your body can boost your immune system, lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, and reduce stress and chronic pain.