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How Being Mindful Helps You Better Manage Anxiety and Depression

I’ve always been a bit of a teapot. Born in the UK I was weaned onto tea before I could walk. “One teaspoon of tea per person and one for the pot”, hot and strong. Lovely. I can’t start the day before I’ve had my first cuppa to get me going.

But tea, just like coffee contains caffeine albeit a little less around 30-60 mgs compared to 90-100+ mgs for coffee. The current recommendation is to keep our caffeine consumption to < 400 mgs per day. Not a problem, except I’ve been exceeding that, by quite a lot.

Isn’t it weird how when we’re stressed, we adopt certain ways of coping that aren’t always helpful…

One of mine is to drink more tea. Cup after cup after cup.

Now as someone prone to anxiety, you can imagine the impact all that extra caffeine has on my anxiety levels. It’s like supercharging the furnace. Not good.

Aware my tea drinking habits were in the red zone; the choice became to either quit and go cold turkey or choose a lower defined number of cups to consume each day.

Having endured the nasty headache, fatigue and extreme grumpiness after one day off caffeine, I decided in the interests of marital harmony the latter approach would be better.

Three weeks in and I’m sticking to my goal of 3 cups a day. Hurray!

But something else has changed in the process.

I’m now far more mindful of how each cup is consumed, carefully savouring and enjoying every drop with my own little tea ceremony. As Jamie Oliver would say “It’s a beautiful thing.”

And best of all, my level of anxiety has greatly diminished. I’m calmer, more relaxed and funnily enough getting more done.

Mindfulness meditation has been used as a tool to manage symptoms of anxiety for many years. Now the science is catching up to verify not only that it works, but also how mindfulness impacts and changes the brain.

This is important because high levels of stress, anxiety and depression are major health issues. The prevalence of mental illness has increased by one third in the last decade, and it’s not just due to too much tea or coffee.

Depression is now the leading cause of disability globally.

The results of Australia’s biggest mental health check-in run by Medibio reported 30% of the 3500 participants to have either depression (36%), anxiety (33%) or severe stress (31%).

The thing to note here is

  1. This is the first time the prevalence of depression has exceeded anxiety.
  2. It’s recognised many people are not always aware they even have a mental health issue.
  3. There is frequently a huge time lag (in some instances 10 years) between the onset of symptoms and seeking help. Some never do.

While we are getting better at raising awareness of mental health issues, talking more to reduce stigma and putting in place Mental Health First Aid Programs we’re missing the opportunity to get to grips with

  1. What it is about the way we lead our lives and go about our work that is contributing to these problems?
  2. How can we get better at eliminating or reducing the potential risk?

Effective stress management is about the daily routines we put in place to create our unique stress resilience toolkit, recognising what stress means to us can be vastly different. For some, the stress is the financial burden of not being able to pay the bills, or the worry about a family member dealing with a chronic or terminal illness, for others it’s overwork and exhaustion.

Does mindfulness meditation work to alleviate stress, anxiety and depression?

In a word, yes.

Mindfulness, whether a daily formal meditation practice, an informal act of “noticing” or mindful breathing keeps us in the present, calms the mind and allows stress hormone levels to fall.

In his book  “Being Peace” Thich Nhat Hahn describes mindful breathing this way.

“Breathing in I calm my body. Breathing out I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment”

What’s good to know is that even a single session of mindfulness meditation following an hour of instruction can reduce anxiety symptoms, while a brief intervention of mindfulness practice for 25 minutes over three days has been shown to alleviate psychological stress and enhance coping mechanisms. Other research has revealed mindfulness exerts its effect by lowering hormonal and inflammatory biomarkers of stress.

Harvard is currently running a research program examining how mindfulness meditation exerts its effect on depression using fMRI. The video below explains this a little more.

 

In addition, several metanalyses of the available research agree mindfulness is a useful strategy to substantially reduce symptoms of anxiety and comorbid depression.

What’s important is to determine what works for you.

Mindfulness is a far more useful technique for stress management than adopting risky behaviours such as excessive caffeine (who me?), alcohol or smoking.

If mindfulness is new to you, the best way to start is to attend a course run by an accredited mindfulness teacher. It’s not difficult to learn the technique and it’s nothing to do with emptying your mind or relaxing. It is a learned skill that helps you separate your emotions from your thoughts so you can see them for what they are and make the most appropriate response choice.

The challenge lies in making it a daily habit, ideally 10-20 minutes twice a day, but if that seems too hard, even five minutes has been shown to provide a cognitive benefit and there are a multitude of apps that can be used as a simple reminder to facilitate your new practice.

If stress, anxiety or depression is affecting your health, work or relationships have you tried mindfulness meditation?

How can you practice greater mindfulness across your day to notice more of what’s happening around you, to build greater self- awareness of when your body or mind is in trouble?

Does your workplace provide mindfulness mediation as part of its health and wellbeing program?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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