How some of the world’s biggest companies are embracing mindfulness

The Financial Times is probably not the first paper that comes to mind if you were considering reading  about mindfulness. However, recently they ran a very good report on how meditation and mindfulness are  part of a huge change in some parts of corporate culture. Some of it is in response to the challenging economic climate we work in, as 25% of all large U.S. companies have launched stress reduction initiatives in recent years. However, some is due to a change in understanding, a recognition of the health needs of employees, and a belief that inner and outer life has to be balanced in a happy and productive employee.  What is encouraging is seeing how some companies are structuring this holistic balance into their environments. For example, General Mills, the company behind Cheerios cereal and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, have a meditation room in every building in their Campus, where employees can drop in to recharge batteries, renew focus or simply take a break from meetings or conference calls. A lot of the U.S and world’s leading companies are involved in this new dialogue, such as Google. Twitter, LinkedIn and Target, and the article goes on to show that, besides health benefits, it also seems to have an impact on cost savings, productivity and leadership quality.

It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected, says Janice Marturano, General Mills’ deputy general counsel, who founded the programme there. That compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us – our colleagues, customers – that’s what the training of mindfulness is really about.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in this article and the whole of it is worth a read. You can check it out here:

The mind business – (3)

More scientific evidence supporting health benefits of mindfulness meditation

Although meditation practices in different wisdom traditions and religions have been around for thousands of years, there has been an increasing amount of scientific interest in their effect over the last decade or so. It is true to say that for a good part of the last century, the psychological community had a low opinion of religious practices, as can be seen in Freud, who regarded them as an attempt to control the outside world and sometimes as a regressive infantile delusion. However, in more recent times,  a significant amount of attention and research has been conducted on both the medical  and psychological benefits of religious practice and on the health effects of secular meditation programmes such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)  and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT ).

One recent study, published just this week in the July 2012 Journal of Psychiatric Practice,  was conducted by Dr William R. Marchand of the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and found that there was “convincing evidence that such interventions are effective in the treatment of psychiatric symptoms and pain, when used in combination with more conventional therapies

Dr Marchand set out to review published studies evaluating the health benefits of mindfulness-based practices. His conclusion was that both MBSR and MBCT have “broad-spectrum” effects against depression and anxiety and can also decrease general psychological distress.

Based on the evidence, MBCT can be “strongly recommended” as an addition to conventional treatments (adjunctive treatment) for  depression. Both MBSR and MBCT were effective treatments for anxiety and Dr Marchand states that from a medical point of view the available evidence indicates their use is currently warranted in a variety of clinical situations”

Mindfulness in the news: BBC looks at brain scans and meditation

Following on from yesterday, here is a link to the next part of the BBC report which contains some material on brain scans, brain activity and meditation. One of the most exciting recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience is that the brain is quite plastic all through life, and that we can change its activity patterns depending on what we do. So if we practice calmness, the brain changes in response to that, in the same way as it responds to the occasions when we “practice” worrying or being anxious.

Mindfulness in the news: BBC report on the 8 weeks training

The BBC Breakfast Programme is running a series of reports these mornings on Mindfulness meditation and the MBSR course, which are a useful introduction to the whole area. Their researcher, David Sillito,  did the 8 weeks MBSR Course and reports on his findings over a number of days. You can follow the first report here:

A theoretical framework for mindfulness

There is a lot of anecdotal – spoken – evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation practice. Even from my own experience I can say that most people who attend the MBSR Course report feeling some benefits, from a some people having a sensation of greater calm,  to the participants who say that the practice was  “life-changing”. And it would seem that this is consistent with what is said all around the world as well as being suggested by the popularity of the Course. That being said, the MBSR Course is part of a growing field of evidence-based initiatives in Mind-Body medicine and,  although it difficult to measure all the outcomes, it has been accompanied by scientific research from the start. As I have reported from time to time on this blog, much of this – increasingly expanding – research concerns itself with small studies on the application of MBSR and other mindfulness programmes to particular conditions, such as anxiety, ability to focus, exam stress or irritable Bowel Syndrome. However, from time to time we get another type of research which focuses on trying to understand why mindfulness works and come up with a theoretical framework which can explain that.

The best of the studies to this point in time has been published recently, entitled, “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective“. The lead author, Britta Hölzel, of Justus Liebig University,  has been a part of Sara Lazar’s lab at Harvard Medical School and has worked on the studies there on the effects of meditation on the brain. This excellent, detailed,  study suggests perhaps the most comprehensive framework to date for the different aspects of the person that are impacted upon through ongoing mindfulness meditation. As Dr Hölzel states, the goal of the research was to  “unveil the conceptual and mechanistic complexity of mindfulness, providing the ‘big picture’ by arranging many findings like the pieces of a mosaic”  And what they suggest is that Mindfulness Meditation is a multi-faceted mental practice that involves several different mechanisms, producing effects in four areas, namely, focusing attention, greater awareness of the body, regulation of emotion and a changed perspective on the self. They examine the empirical research, including practitioners’ self-reports and experimental data, which give evidence of these effects as well as looking at brain imaging techniques which explore the neural processes implicated in the process.

This paper is the most satisfying  outline to date for those who wish to reflect on the underlying process of mindfulness and understand it in the context of wider psychological understandings and theories. I find that its more complex framework corresponds to my own experience in working with the MBSR Programme. The mosaic metaphor is also quite apt, as the different elements seem to me to be related. For example, the way we regulate emotion and deal with the fearful situations which threaten us can have a direct impact on our sense of self . Furthermore, a  greater ability to work with the felt sense of the body means that one relates to one emotions in a different way. Grasping the relationships between these components, and the brain mechanisms that underlie them, will allow clinicians to better tailor mindfulness interventions for their patients, says Dr Hölzel. The paper firstly goes into each component and looks at research in that area, but then goes on to suggest the areas of further research that is needed to move understanding in this area beyond the “infancy stage” it is currently in. The authors hope that this research will “enable a much broader spectrum of individuals to utilize mindfulness meditation as a versatile tool to facilitate change – both in psychotherapy and in everyday life.”

Hölzel, B.K. Lazar, S.W.,  Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D.R., Ott, U., (2011) “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6) 537– 559.

New Studies on the Effects of Mindfulness meditation 3

Sometimes the studies on MBSR can be quite small and therefore it is hard to make very solid claims based on the research. Different ways of doing research can be  used and this makes it sometimes difficult to compare results. In order to overcome this problem, a new study was conducted, looking at all the studies carried out on MBSR and MBCT in the past 30 years, but using only the more rigorous, randomized,  trials which used control groups,  and only those studies with a minimum of 33 participants.

The research team, led by Lone Fjorback,  who works at the Research Clinic for Functional Disorders and Psychosomatics, Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark,   performed a systematic review of all the articles published with these criteria. Using this type pf meta-analysis, they found that they showed that MBSR was beneficial for reducing stress and distress, alleviating depressive symptoms, and improving anxiety in both clinical and non-clinical populations.  Looking at MBCT, they found that it was shown to reduce the risk of relapse in depressive patients who had recovered from three or more previous episodes of depression.

The researchers concluded that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction has a significant evidence base for its approach towards improving mental health for both clinical and non-clinical populations.

Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ornbol, E., Fink, P., & Walach, H.  (2011).  Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – A systematic review of randomized controlled trials.  ACTA Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Volume 124, Issue 2, pages 102–119, August 2011