1. A tag or sheath, as of plastic, on the end of a lace, cord, or ribbon to facilitate its passing through eyelet holes.
2. A similar device used for an ornament.
[Middle English, from Old French aguillette, diminutive of aguille,needle, from Vulgar Latin *acūcula, from Late Latin acucula, diminutive of Latin acus, needle; see ak- in Indo-European roots.]
Mindfulness and meditation have been around for thousands of years. It is only relatively recently that they have started to appear on the radar as potential treatments for physical and mental health difficulties.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has played a significant role in the move away from a view of meditation as the realm of the hippie, searching for the self in the Himalayas, or black clad Zen monks, looking inscrutable and sitting cross-legged in neat rows.
The introduction of his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, along with the accompanying research, has resulted in the benefits of mindful living becoming more accepted by mainstream medicine as effective treatments that help both physical disorders, and mental health. Others researchers and teachers, such as Professor Mark WIlliams in Oxford, Craig Hassed and Stephen McKenzie in Australia, or Vidyamala Burch, with her Breathworks programmes, are just a few of the people who have helped to spread this effective practice beyond its traditional environment.
Many claims are made for the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, some outrageous, some fanciful, and others that are gaining increased support from well conducted clinical research. There are now, quite literally, thousands of studies that provide the evidence for the benefits of this practice.
So, what does the research show?
1. Mindfulness provides a robust antidote to the effects of stress. This is seen in a reduction in the accompanying difficulties with anxiety, depression, grumpiness and irritability, and fatigue. Studies show positive effects on meditators to include, increased happiness, reduced psychological distress, and a general feeling of greater contentment with their lives.
2. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is a demonstrably effective treatment for people who suffer with depression. This includes those whose disorder is severe enough to interfere with their ability to live their lives normally. The evidence is so convincing, that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, based in the UK, includes it in its guidance on the treatment of depression, as a first line treatment, alongside cognitive behavioural therapy. Both are placed ahead of medication, which is only recommended for those who fit the criteria for Severe Major Depressive Disorder
3. There is good evidence for efficacy in other conditions that are regarded as Mental Health problems. These include, helping to reduce addictive behaviours in those who abuse recreational and prescription medications, and reductions in the occurrence of self-destructive behaviours.
4. It is not only for psychological problems that mindful living has demonstrated positive effects. There is an improvement in mood problems – both for anxiety and depression – and significant changes to the general quality of life of those who suffer from chronic medical disorders. These include such conditions as, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, lower back pain, regional pain syndromes, as well as having beneficial effects for patients with Multiple Sclerosis and cancer.
5. The body’s immune system also works more efficiently in those who meditate regularly. This group suffers from lower rates of several significant disorders, including several types of cancer, heart disease and infectious illnesses. One notable finding is that mindfulness practitioners have lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health when compared to non meditators. This is seen in lower rates of clinically significant raised blood pressure, with secondary positive benefits on the occurrence of both heart disease and stroke. Interestingly, the evidence also shows that when these diseases do occur, they appear to be less severe.
6. Another effect of the increased calm and relaxation that mindfulness produces, is seen in the lower blood sugar levels of those of us who have type 2 diabetes.
7. Regular meditation produces structural changes in the brain. Some areas of grey matter (the parts of the brain where nerve cell bodies are found), such as those associated with self-control, empathy and focussed attention, show increased cell numbers, while others areas of grey matter, those that are more involved with our fight or flight response, show a reduction in cell numbers. This reflects the changed activity in these areas, with less reactivity and more relaxation.
The changes that are seen in brain structure, are nearly the exact opposite of those produced by complex trauma, early child abuse, or neglect. Theoretically, mindfulness should be able to help produce beneficial changes in the areas of the brain that have been “hard-wired” by early experiences.
8. It goes without saying that pain is unpleasant, having both physical and emotional components. Mindfulness, even for relatively short periods, can reduce the unpleasant perception of these sensations by over 50%. Those who have meditated for longer periods, have been reported to produce reductions in the unpleasant nature of their pain that approach 90% or more. The main benefits seem to come from the experience of pain as being impermanent, and the generation of a less reactive mental state.
9. The United Kingdom government is so convinced by the evidence for the benefits of mindfulness, both on general health and the effects that are seen on academic skills, that it believes it is time for these skills to be taught in schools.
The demonstrated academic benefits include, improved attention span, better working memory, faster reaction times, and greater resilience and stamina. This also contributes to the development of Emotional Intelligence. Areas of the brain that are involved with learning, show structural changes in both the number of cells, and the levels of connection to other cells. Both duration and quality of sleep show positive changes, with subsequent positive effects on nearly all aspects of daily functioning.
10. Mindfulness produces a reduction in our allostatic load. Allostatic load is the term used to describe the long-term effects of chronic stress on the body. It is mediated by prolonged and excessive secretion of stress hormones and other chemical mediators, such as adrenaline. This long-term stress response has significant consequences for our general physical and mental health. Chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, and the associated hormonal changes can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other inflammatory and degenerative diseases.
11. Many sportsmen and sports teams, now include mindfulness in their training. From Super Bowl winners such as the Seattle Seahawks, to professional basketball stars such as Michael Jordan, and athletes across a broad spectrum of other sports. The French Institute of Sports has demonstrated that including mindfulness practice into sports training programmes, leads to improved performance and results. Similar findings have been provided by Cricket Australia’s work on training and performance. The main outcomes have been a reduction in negative thinking, less physical and mental fatigue, heightened focus and concentration, and improved accuracy in skills performance.
12. My personal favourite bit of research concerns our telomeres. These are apparently “junk” portions of the human genome, and are to be found at the end of our chromosomes. They were discovered by Australian Nobel Prize winner, Elizabeth Blackburn, who demonstrated their importance in the ageing process. Telomeres act like the plastic bits on the end of our shoelaces, however, they get shorter with each cell division. An enzyme, called telomerase, tries to repair these aglet-like portions of our chromosomes. The shorter the telomere gets, the older we are genetically. At a certain point, we become more prone to the diseases of ageing, such as heart disease, arthritis, or cancer. When they get too short, our cells die.
Childhood trauma, and institutional care in the middle part of childhood, are associated with rapid loss of telomere length and consequent early mortality. Exposure to adversity early in life can have dramatic consequences for both the quality and duration of life.(see above)
The good news here, is that there are things that we can do to slow the rate at which our telomeres get shorter. Regular physical exercise can help to minimise this shortening. Sedentary people show a fifteen fold increase in the rate at which this happens compared to those who exercise regularly, while stress increases the rate of telomere shortening. Early results suggest that altering our mental state through mindful practice can slow the rate of telomere shortening. It appears to do this by increasing the efficiency of telomerase in repairing the telomeres.
The current message from the research highlights the benefits of mindfulness across most aspects of our lives, even allowing us to do our own genetic engineering.
Further studies are needed to clarify this, not only in providing more robust evidence for these positive effects, but also to search for any unforeseen effects that have might be present.