Mindfulness is not some new age religion. We don’t have to sitting cross-legged on cushions in a darkened room with candles and incense sticks and chant mantras. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and at any time. It is essentially ‘awareness’; paying attention to our sensations, emotions and our thoughts as they occur, no matter what else we might be doing.
Mindfulness meditation has its origins in Buddhist practices of sati that are over 2500 years old. Prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, recommended mindfulness as a way of overcoming pain, sorrow, grief and anxiety and of realising happiness. Much later, it was popularised by Dr Jon Kabat –Zinn and his colleagues at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Hospital, in order to help people cope with their chronic medical conditions, which were frequently associated with anxiety and depression.
His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme proposed formal meditation practices such as yoga and self hypnosis, but also encouraged people to bring the same mindful approach to everyday activities, like washing, eating, walking or cooking. Mindfulness causes beneficial changes in pain perception, the immune system, and the way the brain deals with difficult emotion. Research has shown that mindfulness training exerts significant therapeutic effects on IBS symptoms by reducing patient’s reactivity to gut-focused anxiety and suppressing catastrophic appraisal of abdominal sensations. Attention is focussed onto bodily sensations and thoughts with less emotional interference. In these ways, mindfulness can relieve the symptoms of IBS.
When we are anxious or in pain, we ruminate about the cause all the time, going into a spin cycle of emotion and thought as we constantly replay what we perceive as catastrophe while we desperately hope for some relief. Our mind is totally preoccupied by our symptoms, but this cannot change what happened. Instead, it just winds us up and makes the anxiety and the pain much worse, preventing any insight or plan. Mindfulness helps us silence these preoccupations by paying attention what we are feeling, what emotions and what thoughts we are experiencing and silencing the emotional reactions. It gives us a moment of awareness to see how what happened is affecting us, to put it into context and to respond effectively. So if we have pain, we can either move closer to it, exploring what it feels like and what it means for us, what emotions and thoughts it induces, so that we may learn to calm and control it. Or we can focus instead on our breathing and see what this does to the pain. In these ways, we can explore the experience of the impulse without reacting to it.
Life changes like the weather. It is in constant flux. Modern life is reductionist and materialist. Much of our daily stress is made up of repeated occurrences of small events, like running late for an appointment, a misunderstanding at work or the internet going down. And if we have IBS and our gut is sensitive, then each of these can cause us anxiety and abdominal pain. Mindfulness helps us let go of the rumination and worry and allows us to use our mind creatively, to welcome and accept change with curiosity, patience, and lack of criticism or judgement. It helps us be the person we want to be.
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