Monday, 11 November 2019

BRiC's Collective Voice. Mindfulness: Its benefits and drawbacks. Aug. 2, 2019

‘Many reported finding mindfulness helpful during periods of relative calm in their lives, but found it too hard to do when very stressed or sad.’

This week we discussed mindfulness, its benefits and drawbacks.
So what is mindfulness? Here is one dictionary definition:

‘a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’

Mindfulness has become a fashionable panacea for all trauma and distress, the modern antidote to frantic living. Courses are available in abundance, and it’s commonly taught in the workplace and even in schools. There is little research on how it actually works on the brain, and feedback is mixed on its efficacy, with some reports even finding it to be the opposite of helpful. Mindfulness is prevalent in the buddhist tradition and can include meditation and prayer. Some studies show it improves concentration, can help with a good night’s sleep, enhances quality of life.

Many of our women, all of whom have had a breast cancer diagnosis, some primary, some secondary, have found mindfulness very useful. It can be calming in stressful situations to breathe deeply and simply focus on the self or on our surroundings. However, focusing on our emotions can bring up all sorts of negativity and as a result, far from calming the mind, it can cause panic or upset. Accepting a flood of emotion in the moment, when what we are seeking is distraction from a difficult current situation, can be frightening. The idea that with practice we can actually control our thoughts and feelings is perhaps an attractive one, but it is difficult to master, and even more difficult to put into practice when most needed.

The link between body and mind is also the subject of much research, and it is undisputed that relaxing the body via breathing exercises can calm the mind. The vagus nerve is affected by controlled deep breathing and this has been shown to improve equilibrium. Acceptance is what mindfulness teaches, acceptance that the present moment is as it is, and that we are safe in that moment, despite what is going on inside us and outside us. It’s not resignation, a giving in type of acceptance, it’s an empowering peaceful way of keeping ourselves grounded. As one of our members put it, ‘(there are) subtle and not so subtle feelings that can emerge when we are focusing, and how in riding the waves of those feelings, we can drift safely back to shore.’

Visualising a calming scene when we’re feeling anxious can be a useful form of mindfulness - imagining being on a beach with the waves lapping against the shore can be helpful in counteracting the stress of a medical scan, for example.

Our women described many different ways of using mindfulness. Some of us have attended formal courses, some have used online apps, some have read books, some are self-taught. Some are using breathing techniques for relaxation without knowing much about mindfulness, others have taken elements of what we’ve learned, perhaps meditation or a body scan, and we use these to help them to calm our racing brains. Others have picked up on techniques of mindful eating and use these to address healthy eating issues. Yoga may be seen as a moving form of mindfulness, focusing as it does on proper breathing and fusing body and mind in relaxing movement.

Many of us probably practice a form of mindfulness unknowingly. Any focussed task that takes concentration can be done mindfully, and in a way that brings calm and relaxation. Crochet and knitting are a great example. This type of craft is both a distraction and a mindful activity, repetitive and calming.

For deep-seated trauma, such as may be caused by a breast cancer diagnosis, mindfulness may not be the right ‘therapy’ to address the issues. For some, mindfulness brings on sadness and panic, and this is a common reaction and often seen as failure. However this is perfectly normal and just means that mindfulness doesn’t suit everyone. It’s become so prevalent, everyone seems to be doing it. Mindfulness uses bodily sensations to connect to the present, through breathing or observing sensations in the body, and for those in pain or with scars and ‘broken bodies’ this means facing our trauma head on, which is just too much for many. Many reported finding mindfulness helpful during periods of relative calm in their lives, but found it too hard to do when very stressed or sad, for instance following a bereavement.

Perhaps instead of practising mindfulness we could consider slowing down our pace of life, so that we are naturally mindful of our own needs, the needs of others. For those with secondary breast cancer, this slowing down may be enforced by health needs, and for some it reveals a different way of living, a more mindful way of being. Would we actually be better off spending time with a good friend, really connecting, really listening to what’s going on in their lives, as opposed to taking time out alone to focus on ourselves? There is a lot to be said for mindful living.

Mindfulness has found a place in our world and its popularity speaks for its efficacy. However, it doesn’t take the place of talking therapies for deep issues and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) Perhaps the best use of it is to find what works for you and practice that.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group, please leave your name in the comments or send us a private message.


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