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Advice about mindfulness

Watch Craig and Richard chat about some of the things you should consider before you start practising mindfulness.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: Now, what we’re going to explore just briefly in this video is some of the caveats on mindfulness practise. So we’re entering into a mindfulness programme in this online programme. And so there are some cautions. And some of them, of course, have been in the media. And it’s important to just make a few notes about what they are. Now, mindfulness has been found to be helpful for a whole range of problems and improving performance, but certainly dealing with stress and depression and so on. And you’ll be exploring some of the studies that have looked at that and some of the evidence.
But when we are entering into mindfulness, like perhaps exercise, it’s good for everybody, but not everybody is going to get benefit from it. For example, some people may not be motivated or interested to practise it. Some people might have some incorrect notions about mindfulness, and therefore perhaps come into it with an attitude of bias. Some people might know that it’s going to be helpful for them, but won’t necessarily practise and they won’t get benefit from it either. And sometimes, too, we can be learning mindfulness, but not being well taught. And practising what we’re thinking is mindfulness in all good faith, but we’re not actually practising it. So we won’t not necessarily get any benefit from that as well.
But there are a couple of caveats, I think, that are probably worth noting. And perhaps we can divide these into very common things that happen when we’re learning mindfulness and perhaps some of the less common things, but of moreover concern. Perhaps, Richard, would you like to talk about some of the really common things that can be uncomfortable when learning mindfulness? DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Certainly. One of the most important things to recognise, Craig, is that mindfulness is actually about getting more in touch with what’s really going on in each moment. And so while that sometimes means that we get our attention out of all the busy stressful thoughts and into the present moment and therefore it means that we relax and calm down and feel good, which is actually quite a common consequence of practising mindfulness. Sometimes it means that we get in touch with things that we may not have been aware of or have may even been avoiding.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: So that stress can become more obvious to us? DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Absolutely. If we’re stressed, if we’re anxious, if we’ve got tension in the body or physical discomfort or pain.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: Notice that the mind is more distractable than we actually realised. DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s one of the first things that happens. People realise just how busy their mind is actually, and it almost seems like, oh, this might be making it worse. But it’s not. It’s just showing us what’s already happening.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: Turning the lights on to something that was happening in the dark kind of thing. DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s right. And certainly if there are experiences like certain thoughts or emotions that we have been sort of trying to avoid or not aware of, we actually become more aware of that. So early on that can be one of the really sort of common experiences of practising mindfulness.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: So it’s not always going to be comfortable or easy. DR.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: And if we come into it with an assumption that it’s meant to be, then we might be quite quickly disappointed. DR.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: But I dare say it’s learning how to work with those things that’s the learning of mindfulness. DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s exactly right. So we practise a non-judgmental awareness. And sometimes that non-judgment sort of lags a little bit behind the awareness. But the practise of mindfulness is to notice what’s happening, and just to be with it as it is and make space for it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: Yes. And those very common things are sometimes, I think, incorrectly labelled as adverse events. So it might be uncomfortable, like if we’re getting back to exercise after a long lay off. We might notice that we’ve got a few aching muscles the next day. And that’s not an adverse event. That’s just a sign that work is taking place and that comes with the territory. DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s right. There are, of course, some more serious adverse events that have been reported in the literature, so you might want to mention some of them.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: And they tend to be very uncommon, more anecdotal. You know, single case reports. For example, if somebody might have a disposition to, say, mental illness and does a very intensive retreat that they’re not practised for– like running a marathon when you’re not really properly trained up for it. Or perhaps it wouldn’t be appropriate for your state. Then sometimes that can trigger a real adverse event. DR.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CRAIG HASSED: Trigger an episode of mental health problem. Now that’s not what we’re going to be doing on this particular course. But it is important to note that if a person is going to consider doing a very intensive silent retreat that it needs to be appropriate and get some appropriate advice for that. And probably another couple of contraindications, as well, is if in an acute stage of severe depression or perhaps a background of psychosis, then you need to be getting some advice and close supervision from a well trained mental health professional that has significant experience in mindfulness. Mindfulness can help, but knowing how to guide one through that is very important.
And in the pits of a deep depression, for example, it’s not an easy time or necessarily appropriate to be learning mindfulness at that time. DR.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: No. There’s a study that’s being commonly talked about by Shapiro and some colleagues that sort of identified some adverse events when people doing mindfulness retreats. But actually if you look closely at the study, those adverse events were happening before the people actually started the retreat. So again, you know, it’s very important to proceed slowly. Not to do too much too quickly. To obviously seek professional medical advice if you’re not sure about your mental state before doing a longer retreat. And as you said, if anything uncomfortable happens that becomes persistent, you might want to seek out the advice of a very experienced meditation teacher or mindfulness teacher with mental health experience, and/or a mental health professional.

Before we get too far into the practice of mindfulness it is worth noting that although it has been demonstrated to be a very safe and effective intervention for a wide range of applications, challenges can arise while practising mindfulness.

Please take some time to watch Craig and Richard discuss some of these issues.

Find out more

The “Is mindfulness safe?” article by Oxford Mindfulness Centre discusses the research behind adverse events arising from mindfulness practice. It distinguishes between temporary discomfort and lasting harm, and provides hints about how to practise to ensure these risks are minimised.

Brown University’s “Study documents range of challenging meditation experiences” article discusses some of the challenging experiences that people occasionally have when practising mindfulness.

Don’t worry, you’re doing it right

The main message is that if you have experiences during meditation that are not pleasant and ‘positive’, this is not necessarily a sign that you are doing anything incorrectly.

Such experiences are actually normal and can be a sign of progress, although care should be taken not to do too much meditation practice or go on long silent retreats when facing mental health challenges like depression, severe anxiety or psychosis.

Always seek professional advice and support

If you have any significant concerns about your mental health, you may wish to seek professional advice and support. For example, you could ask your regular doctor/general practitioner for a referral to see a therapist or specialist doctor for your particular health concern.

Remember, mindfulness is safe and useful in general, as long as it is practised correctly. Like with physical exercise, some minor discomfort may be a sign of progress, and at the same time it is important to practise in a way that is sustainable and safe.

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Maintaining a Mindful Life

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