How Mindfulness Is Revolutionizing Mental Health Care

01/23/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated Feb 23, 2015
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More than 350 million people globally suffer from depression, and 1 in 13 people around the world have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Overall, the World Health Organization estimates that roughly 450 million people suffer from some form of mental or neurological disorder -- and that roughly one in four people will be affected at some point in their lives.

These numbers are staggering. With the rise of mental illness and the increasingly pressing need for effective treatments, there's never been a more important moment for mindfulness -- the ability to cultivate a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment. Research has shown mindfulness and meditation-based programs to hold promise for treating a number of psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As research has mounted in recent years, mindfulness has migrated from spiritual retreat centers to medical facilities. Now, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) -- the largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to research on the understanding and treatment of mental illness -- is getting serious about investigating mindfulness as a complementary treatment for a range of mental health conditions.

On Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson and NIMH director Tom Insel joined a conversation hosted by NPR science correspondent Joe Palca about how mindfulness affects the brain and might lead to improved clinical applications for the treatment of a range of mental health conditions.

So what exactly is mindfulness, and how can it improve psychological well-being?

"Mindfulness is about being fully aware in the present moment," said Davidson. "It's about bringing our attention back to the present moment and not getting carried away by our thoughts."

Attention is highly trainable through various mindfulness practices like meditation, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), according to Davidson. "We can actually educate our attention," he said.

Mindfulness helps to train individuals in bringing back the attention time and time again when it has wandered. And it is precisely through helping individuals to not get carried away by their thoughts that mindfulness has been shown to be so effective for conditions like anxiety and depression. In fact, a landmark recent study from researchers at Lund University showed a group mindfulness treatment to be as effective as traditional talk therapy for treating anxiety and depression.

Evidence of the efficacy of these mindfulness-based treatments continues to grow. According to Insel, there are now nearly 500 scientific studies on mindfulness/meditation and the brain in the National Institute of Health's PubMed database.

Mindfulness makes a whole lot of sense as a therapeutic intervention for these conditions.

"When they're depressed, people are locked in the past. They're ruminating about something that happened that they can't let go of," said Insel. "When they're anxious, they're ruminating about the future -- it's that anticipation of what they can't control."

In contrast, when we are mindful, we are focused on the here and now. Mindfulness trains individuals to turn their attention to what is happening in the present moment.

On a neurological level, we're beginning to have a better understanding of the brain changes that underlie the improvements in psychological well-being and reduction of mental health symptoms that have been documented with mindfulness trainings.

Importantly, research has shown mindfulness to increase activity in brain areas associated with attention and emotion regulation. Mindfulness also facilitates neuroplasticity -- the creation of new connections and neural pathways in the brain.

"What we call meta-cognitive learning -- learning to watch your own mind and to be introspective in that sense -- does have an impact on brain pathways long-term," said Insel.

This knowledge about the neurology of mindfulness could one day lead to improved clinical treatments.

But it's important to note that the beneficial effects of mindfulness also extend to non-clinical populations. Anyone can stand to benefit from learning to cultivate a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment -- particularly in our busy modern lifestyles that are often characterized by stress, sleep deprivation, multitasking and digital distractions.

Mindfulness research pioneer and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was in the audience at Davos, stood up at the end of the conversation to share his thoughts on the mindful revolution in mental healthcare, which he noted has been well underway for several decades. As Kabat-Zinn explained, research and testimonials from patients and clinicians suggest that we can turn "the medication down and the meditation up."

"We've seen this in the clinical domain for many years. People, in concert with their physicians... actually going off their medications for pain, for anxiety, for depression, as they begin to learn the self-regulatory elements of mindfulness," said Kabat-Zinn. "They discover that the things that used to be symptomatically problematic for them are no longer arising at the same level."

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