Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said that, “Sickness might consist of not having symptoms when you should.” To expand upon Maslow’s observation, I would add that having symptoms might indicate psychological health and growth. Yet within the mental health field of today, psychological symptoms are often seen as an enemy that must be defeated and, if possible, eliminated. Like a cancer or virus, the symptoms are systematically targeted and neutralized. A treatment is considered therapeutically successful when the patient experiences a decline in symptoms that they consider acceptable.
Another trend within mental health practice today that corresponds with the above observations, is the tendency for physicians to prescribe psychotropic medications alone for the treatment of several psychiatric and psychological disorders. Though research informs us that medications are often most successful when used in combination with counselling, many patients are never referred to a counsellor or psychologist for treatment. To make matters worse, when physicians do refer their patients to a counsellor or psychologist, many patients fail to show up for therapy. With all the wonderful advances that we have made in science and medicine, we have unfortunately come to believe that a pill can erase all the hurt, pain, rejection, loss and trauma one experiences in life.
Furthermore, we seem to have forgotten the therapeutic effects of pain, loss, and suffering. To address this issue, some psychologists are researching what is now becoming known as Posttraumatic Growth. This important area of research forces us to remember that positive change and personal growth can occur after traumatic life events. Unfortunately however, this is not always the case. Some individuals do not experience personal growth after a traumatic event or loss. The question then for researchers is, “How do we increase the likelihood of Posttraumatic Growth for those who have experienced life-changing trauma?”
Fortunately, some areas of psychological research are providing us with answers to this question. Unfortunately, those answers are not currently aligned with today’s trend of quick, painless treatments.
In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn began to use mindfulness meditation in the treatment of chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In research he conducted, not only did patients report a decrease in the severity and intensity of their pain, but many endorsed a decrease in anxiety, depression, and an overall improvement of life in general. Since that time, mindfulness meditation has been shown to be an effective treatment for, or an adjunct treatment for, a variety of medical disorders such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, sleep disturbance disorders, Tinnitus, and chronic pain. Furthermore, mindfulness meditation has also been shown to be an effective treatment, or an adjunct treatment for a variety of psychological disorders including addiction/ substance abuse, ADHD, aggression/anger, anxiety disorders, depression and mood disorders, eating disorders, mental retardation and developmental disorders, certain personality disorders, psychosis, suicide and self-harm, as well as trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
So, what is mindfulness meditation and how does it work? Currently, there are varying definitions of mindfulness in the literature. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness has also been described as:
- an open and receptive attention to and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment
- an awareness that arises through intentionally attending in an open, accepting, and discerning way to whatever is arising in the present moment
- an attention that is receptive to the whole field of awareness and remains in an open state so that it can be directed to currently experienced sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories
- and waking up from a life lived on automatic pilot and based in habitual responding
While the concept of mindfulness may be difficult to operationally define, what is not difficult is the understanding that when using mindfulness meditation, one must move closer to one’s pain and suffering, instead of trying to move away from it. Ironically however, a patient’s symptoms are not actually the focus of mindfulness intervention. Instead, the therapist works to change the patient’s relationship to the symptoms. Indeed, the symptoms may even be used as a method of intervention. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, author, and poet describes this method in The Miracle of Being Awake when he states:
“The sadness or anxiety, hatred, or passion, under the gaze of our concentration and meditation, reveals its own nature. That revelation leads naturally to healing and emancipation. The sadness, or whatever, having been the cause of pain, can be used as a means of liberation from torment and suffering. We call this using a thorn to remove a thorn. We should treat our anxiety, our pain, our hatred and passion gently, respectfully, not resisting it, but living with it, making peace with it, penetrating into its nature by the meditation on interdependence.”
This approach changes the whole dynamic of the intervention process. From this approach, the patient’s mind and body are no longer a battlefield. Instead, a patient seeks to understand the nature of the symptoms in a caring and compassionate manner. The client and therapist meet the symptoms with the energy of mindfulness, transforming them into compost to be used to fuel growth. Through mindfulness and self-compassion, symptoms such as anger, jealousy, hatred, depression and anxiety can be transformed into compassion and loving-kindness, understanding, and patience for self and others. In short, the therapist and client use a thorn to remove a thorn.
For more information, visit Mindfulness Research Guide.