There is a lot of hype surrounding mindfulness at present. The NHS now sees it as a psychological intervention, and large corporations recognise that calm, happy employees are more productive. But how realistic is mindfulness, a secularised and stripped-down version of the Buddhist practice of meditation, as a long-term psychological intervention?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is essentially ‘awareness’; being able to remain aware of what we are experiencing without becoming attached to the thoughts, feelings and sensations that come and go.
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What are Some of the Touted Psychological Benefits?
Few in-depth academic studies have been carried out into the effects of mindfulness on psychological health. Even fewer have approached the question critically with a willingness to consider adverse effects. However, early indications from pilot studies are that mindfulness can be beneficial (more on this word shortly) for alleviating the symptoms of mild depression and anxiety.
And the Drawbacks?
Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk is one of the world’s leading authorities on PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as Childhood Developmental Trauma.) He states that mindfulness does not work for these patients, as they cannot feel.
What he means with this statement is that for traumatised people, the capacity to feel emotions has become compromised. This could be because their childhood experiences prohibited them developing a healthy relationship with their emotional world. Alternatively, this inability to feel emotions derives from massive emotional trauma in adulthood that the person has not been able to process. Traumatised people, in lieu of feeling, become overwhelmed and then dissociate. They split off their emotions from their experience in the ‘here-and-now’.
Clinically, early studies have shown that mindfulness, when not integrated into psychotherapy, can exacerbate symptoms in psychological illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder and in people with (C)PTSD. Further research strongly indicates that engaging in any practice of mindfulness can lead to a psychotic breakdown in patients with a history of psychotic episodes. Furthermore, particularly for children living under abusive conditions, mindfulness can strip them of their coping strategies and leave them more traumatised. This is a consideration that schools using this technique would do well to hold in mind.
Impermanence, Suffering and Not Self
These three experiences are what mindfulness can bring us into contact with. Located away from any spiritual context (Buddhism) and without adequate psychological holding, the silence and emptiness that so many crave through mindfulness can cause a psychological break in others.
What is Change?
In the world of psychotherapy, we look at two levels or orders of change – first and second order change.
First level change is about clients and patients accessing behaviours that enable them to stabilise emotionally. However, this level of change does nothing to resolve the underlying conflict and trauma that drives the lack of stability. First order change is a critical step to assisting clients and patients in stopping or managing damaging behaviour. This is an important step and can literally be life-changing for people. It is not, however, the goal of psychotherapy, as it does not address the problem. Managing symptoms is useful but it negates the critical fact that symptoms are already a way of the client/patient managing the problem. They are a form of self-coping, however malign they may seem.
Mindfulness works to bring about first order change but cannot address the underlying problem. Additionally, as traumatised people cannot feel, they may in fact be dissociated during their ‘practice.’ While they may appear calmer, they are unable to use their emotions and ego to make clear informed decisions for themselves.
Early studies have shown that first order change is only sustained as long as the practice is maintained. This kind of change is not structural on a psychological and emotional level.
Why do some Meditators Die Young?
This is a question (riddle) I was posed a few years ago when attending a conference snappily entitled ‘Neuroendocrinology for Psychotherapists’. What was lacking in the title was made up for in the content. A significant number of meditators with a traumatic past think they are meditating when they are, in fact, dissociating. Their emotional and endocrine systems are under immense stress. Long-term, this impacts on their immune system, leading to chronic illness and death.
Second Order Change, or Dealing with the Problem
Psychotherapy is about mind-body integration. It is about providing a therapeutic relationship with the traumatised, split-off, vacant parts of the client/patient which can be seen and related to by the psychotherapist.
Emotions are our compass. They tell us, moment by moment, whether we want more or less of something; whether we feel safe or a situation is dangerous. Where clients lack the ability to navigate using their emotional compass, they first need to learn to reside in their body – to become embodied. This is achieved through an ongoing stable and in-depth relationship with a psychotherapist who can give shape and form to our trauma through words. Language development is a social process, and so is becoming embodied.
Second order change impacts on our emotions, structure and personality and assists in resolving the problem. Our traumas have happened to us in relationship (with our caregivers or ourselves) and can therefore only be resolved in relationship.
Some Final Thoughts
I work extensively with trauma and actively integrate the body into my work. This, however, means first and foremost to teach a client to remain in the ‘here-and-now’ so that they do not become overwhelmed and dissociated. The first step in this is that any trauma work is processed with our eyes open, unlike most mindfulness practice. After all, we cannot be in relationship if we cannot see the other person.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP-registered psychotherapist working in private practice in Hove and Lewes, East Sussex. He is trained in relational psychotherapy and uses an integrative approach of psychodynamic, attachment and body psychotherapy to facilitate change with clients.