Sit down. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. Observe your thoughts objectively as if you were a scientist.
There, you’ve achieved it: mindfulness, a heightened awareness and acceptance of the present moment without judgment.
As simple as it seems, mindfulness, with its origins in the 2,500-year-old Buddhist practices of meditation and yoga, has become the latest buzzword in wellness, as study after study confirms its power to relieve anxiety and improve mood when combined with Western therapies.
Last month University of Toronto researchers reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which mixes mindfulness meditation with cognitive behavioral therapy, is as effective as antidepressants for preventing relapses in depression.
Dr. Zindel Segal, head of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues gathered 84 participants who had all recuperated from at least two spells of depression.
Participants were then divided into three groups. One group underwent weekly group therapy. Another received an antidepressant. The third took a placebo.
Over the span of one and a half years, 70 percent of the participants who had taken the placebo had one or more relapses of depression. Only 30 percent of those who received the therapy or the antidepressant suffered from another relapse.
Segal believes the therapy is so effective because it teaches patients how to observe and correct the destructive ways of thinking that typically lead to depression.
“People may get criticized at work or face rejection, but this therapy teaches skills,” he said. “They can watch those negative thoughts and feelings come and go in their mind without having to engage in them. Patients can then decide to take some action which is more adaptive."
In Chicago hospitals and private practices, mindfulness-based therapies often cater to specific conditions. Integrative Health Partners in the Loop, for example, offers mindfulness classes for those suffering specifically from anxiety, depression, physical pain and compulsive overeating.
These therapies are offered not only in one-on-one sessions, but also in couples therapy and group classes.
Chicago writer Betsy Storm completed a mindfulness-based stress reduction class last summer at Rush University Medical Center. She has continued to meditate ever since because it improved her chronic sleep problems.
“I told somebody that it was one of the best things that happened to me in 2010—adding meditation in my life,” Storm said. “I feel more alert. I’m able to relax more.”
NorthShore Evanston Hospital and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago offer mindfulness programming as well. Researchers are conducting studies at various universities in the area including Rush, Loyola and Northwestern.
Dr. David Victorson, assistant professor in Northwestern's the department of medical social sciences, studies the effects that mindfulness meditation has on patients in the early stages of prostate cancer. He also runs a nonprofit called True North Treks to bring young cancer survivors together on mindfulness wilderness trips.
Many of the area’s mindfulness professionals meet monthly for networking opportunities, and annually for a teacher’s retreat. The group, called The Chicago Area Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Teacher's Sangha, has about 30 members, according to founder Holly Nelson-Johnson.
She said several of the group's members were the first to bring mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy to Chicago in the mid-90s after training with the therapy’s founder Jon Kabat-Zinn. The group later opened the first mindfulness-based stress reduction clinic in Illinois at Cook County Hospital in 1996.
Today, the group helps Chicagoans suffering from sleep deprivation, stress and anxiety. The Amsterdam-based Philips Center for Health and Well-Being recently found that Americans could use the help. In a global survey, the center found that about 49 percent of Americans reported they were too worried or stressed out to sleep.
For some, this figure may indicate that cultural values are responsible for the anxiety and stress that mindfulness-based therapies help to reduce.
“My two-year-old knows his alphabet, numbers and colors, all because of a computer,” said Vered Hankin, a mindfulness-based stress reduction therapist in Chicago. “That’s great, but you’ll learn all that eventually. But will you learn to tap into your intuition and creativity? Not if your TV or phone is always on. That’s important to remember in our society. After running around and information gathering, do we really know how to come back to the self?”