Once dismissed as pretentious but now brain scans prove Eastern philosophies can be effective in treating mental illness
Meditation is sitting around trying to think about nothing and letting out the occasional ‘ommmm’. They do lots of it in India and in parts of Islington where they eat granola, too. OK, those are sweeping statements but you catch my drift.
I’m open-minded, but if you had asked me a few years ago whether I believed meditation could be an effective treatment for serious mental illness, I would have laughed. However, that is exactly what some of Britain’s mental health experts now believe.
It has been almost a decade since I was first diagnosed with paranoid psychosis, a type of schizophrenia. It’s not as dramatic it sounds – I’ve seen a psychiatrist about once every three months since I became ill, and my medication is managed by the GP.
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I needed to go into hospital once, for a week. I take an anti-psychotic drug called amisulpride. I’d rather not be dependent on tablets but if I stop taking them, I feel unwell again.
It happened just recently. I ran out of pills before the weekend and thought I would be fine to wait to see my doctor on Monday. /02/18/article-2103095-11CD08B2000005DC-42_468x351.jpg” width=”468″ height=”351″ alt=”Eria visualises her feelings with therapist Sally Stubbs” class=”blkBorder” />
Eria visualises her feelings with therapist Sally Stubbs
Prof Williams’s colleagues in the US and Canada have been able to pinpoint the parts of the brain that undergo changes during meditation. The results are astonishing.
‘Meditation helps to reduce the activity of part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs feelings of stress. Those who are more stressed and anxious have an amygdala that is overactive. Meditating reduces this.
‘And there is an effect on the insula, the part of the brain involved in deep emotions, including love,’ he says. ‘We know from other studies that the insula allows us to feel emotions, so when we are heartbroken we really do experience a kind of pain.
‘Normally activity in this area is closely linked to the part of the brain involved in analytical thought. So if we have a fight with our partner, we not only feel dreadful but we start to think about why, what this says about our relationship and what might happen if we don’t put it right.’
In those with mental illness, this loop becomes overactive – the thinking feeds the emotions, which feeds more thinking until it becomes overwhelming.
While DBT did not resolve my false
beliefs, it minimised feelings of terror that came with believing
everyone was out to get me. I’m not the only one who found it helpful
Prof Williams adds: ‘Meditating breaks this cycle by reducing the links between the insula and the parts of the brain that analyse, as we have seen on brain scans.
‘It doesn’t stop a person from feeling or thinking but it uncouples these two parts of the brain, giving the patient more control.
‘Further to that, we’ve discovered in clinical trials that mindfulness works as well as antidepressants in preventing relapse of depression. It can also be used alongside drugs.’
I first tried dialectical behaviour
therapy (DBT) – one of the variants of mindfulness – as a patient at
Royal South Hants Department of Psychiatry (now called Antelope House)
in Southampton in April 2010. While I was there, a nurse would bring
together a group of about 12 inpatients all attending on a voluntary
basis, about twice a week.
At the time, because of my illness, I believed I was Britain’s most wanted. It seemed like a completely real and rational thought.
Vivia Cowdrill, a consultant psychologist at Antelope House, says:
‘Mental illness often causes intrusive thoughts, such as “I feel bad
about myself” and “I am a bad person”. There is a tendency towards
brooding. Mindfulness teaches patients a new attitude, that we don’t
have to follow every thought that pops into our heads.
‘Some people find medicines stop them from feeling anything at all – that they become numb, emotionally. And that is how they work, by switching off parts of the brain that feel and think. Mindfulness gives a way to control response to feelings. Many people find that it’s a more delicate tool than drugs. It is also a skill that after eight weeks of sessions can be practised at home.’
While DBT did not resolve my false beliefs, it minimised feelings of terror that came with believing everyone was out to get me. I’m not the only one who found it helpful.
Janet Jones, 48, was diagnosed with severe depression 10 years ago. The mother of two, who was introduced to mindfulness in 2008, says: ‘I was very sceptical at first. But gradually it became part of my everyday life.
‘I would find it difficult to get out of bed and when I got to work, I would feel miserable. Once I committed to mindfulness, my approach changed and my life improved. Mindfulness has given me more control over my life. I now know that no matter how painful something is, it will pass.’
Interested to experience more for myself, I went to see psychotherapist Sally Stubbs. Sally has her own brand of the practice she calls ‘Rapha therapy’. She offers three or seven-day one- on-one courses from her Lake District clinic and is happy to treat anything from poor self-confidence to addiction, or other diagnosed mental illnesses.
Sally charges 150 for a one-to-one session and three-day courses start at 1,650, but she’s at the expensive end of the scale. Other sessions with a mindfulness therapist cost from 100 per hour. Although medication keeps me on an even keel, I have mood swings, get anxious, find it hard to sleep and have periods of feeling low.
Meditation can help improve mental illnesses and brain scans prove it
Sally asks me the first moment when I can remember feeling anxious the way I do now, and I recall times during childhood when my mother was unwell. This is all similar to conventional psychotherapy, which I’ve never had.
Then the Rapha therapy starts. I sit down, close my eyes and relax. Sally tells me to cast my mind back to those moments in childhood and to try to feel the way I felt then. She asks me to visualise that feeling. I see molten lava, and we talk about this.
Later, she gets me to draw the feeling, which is difficult – I manage to scribble a sort of red and yellow egg. Each day, I have three 90-minute sessions and they all follow a similar pattern. A lot of time is spent in silence as I try to visualise or come up with metaphors for feelings.
With each of these objects, Sally gives me a new way of looking at them. Instead of lava being damaging, she asks me to imagine it forming a wall to protect me. The sessions allow me to take control of those thoughts that I – and most of those with a mental illness – often feel so unable to handle.
I leave feeling more confident. For me, and for most of those with serious mental illness, the allure of being able to discard our medicines is strong. I’ve tried it in the past and ended up back at square one.
Dr Tamara Russell, a psychologist and mindfulness expert who works with Clinical-partners.co.uk, says: ‘I know people with bipolar disorder who have gone medication-free, but that is after years of mindfulness practice.
‘An eight-week programme is just a stepping stone to learning how to think and feel differently to your experiences.’
Prof Williams warns: ‘For many medication is a lifeline and mindfulness can be used alongside it so it’s not either or.’
I feel my experiences with DBT and with Sally all have their uses in minimising mental anguish long-term. I am not about to ditch the medication, but any therapy that assists with the feelgood factor is worth a try.
Patient names have been changed. oxfordmindfulness.org