Mindfulness for young people
Mindfulness is no longer widely viewed as the preserve of hippies and monks. In recent years, it has gone mainstream, extending into secular settings including employment, men-
tal health, parenting, and education.
Mindfulness has roots in Buddhism although there is a tradition of contemplation within most religions, including Christianity. Its secularisation and growth in popularity is due in part to the work of people including Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme has been implemented worldwide, along with many variations in all sorts of settings.
We are living in times of unprecedented complexity, choice and change and our young people, of course, are not immune to what goes on around them. We are seeing rises in depression and anxiety, including among young people, and the growing evidence base for mindfulness indicates it has much to offer here. Mindfulness-based therapy is now recommended by the UK government body the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, as the go-to therapy for recurrent depression.
There is a burgeoning mass of research on mindfulness, including from neuroscience. There have been many evaluations carried out on MBSR and variations including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), as well as MBSR-informed programmes offered within education such as the Mindfulness in Schools Programme (MiSP).
The research points to an impressive array of benefits. Here are some: greater compassion to self and others; heightened emotional intelligence; boosted creativity; being more able to see the bigger picture, make better decisions and focus more; greater ability to manage stress and anxiety, and enhanced physical wellbeing (see Table 1).
Table 1. Impact of mindfulness-based interventions.
How mindfulness impacts the mind and body
• Increases grey-matter in brain regions, including those involved in the learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspectivetaking (Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton, Yerramsett, Gard & Lazar, 2011).
• Improves psychological functions of attention, compassion and empathy (Carter, Presti, Callistemon, Ungerer, Liu, et al., 2005; Tang, Ma, Wang, Fan, Feng, et al., 2007; Lazar, Kerr, Wasserman, Gray, Greve, et al., 2005; Lutz, Brefczynski-Lewis, Johnstone & Davidson, 2008).
• Activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the autonomic nervous system and decreasing cortisol (Tang, Ma, Wang, Fan, Feng,
et al., 2007).
• Boosts the immune system (Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schumacher, Rosenkranz, Muller, et al., 2003).
• Improves medical conditions including type II diabetes; cardiovascular disease; asthma; premenstrual syndrome and chronic pain (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
• Improves psychological conditions e.g anxiety, insomnia, phobias, eating disorders (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
What is mindfulness?
Kabat-Zinn (1994) defines mindfulness as paying attention in the present moment, but in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness offers a set of techniques to train the mind, but also includes paying attention to the body and the world around us, with compassion and curiosity.
In mindfulness, we practice bringing our attention to what arises in our field of experience again and again (the mind naturally wanders), with compassion and non-judgment. So we are enhancing our ability to:
• Control our attention, choosing our subject of focus and bringing our attention back again and again
• Attend to the present moment, to whatever arises
• Stay with difficult emotions/thoughts/feelings
• Be compassionate to ourselves and others
• Drop evaluation and judgment
• Reframe positively.