Can meditation cure mental illness

Self-healing through meditation and self-awareness: Overcoming depression, chronic pain, obsessive-compulsive feelings

The new trends in psychotherapy are based on meditation and self-awareness. Scientific studies empirically prove the effectiveness of the millennia-old method for a wide variety of clinical pictures. With his manual "Meditation", the qualified psychologist Helmut Brenner offers laypeople an overview of the wide range of possibilities and invites them: Everyone can choose the optimal meditation form for themselves according to their own ideas.

You will get used to the pictures: colleagues in the canteen who smell their bratwurst sensually as if they were tasting a fine Barolo. People who fold up their umbrellas to feel the rain on their skin. Drivers sitting behind the wheel smiling - and enjoying the peace and quiet of the traffic jam. And to doctors who not only operate on their patients, but also prescribe breathing exercises for them.

A real hype has arisen around mindfulness meditation and its many variants. Coaches teach stressed managers how to switch off with the method, self-appointed experts do business with mindfulness diets. In their books, guidebook authors provide instructions on how to cook mindfully, mindfully raise children or mindfully argue with your partner.

Mindfulness meditation has arrived in the masses as an all-purpose weapon for optimizing all areas of life. At the same time, however, it is being taken more and more seriously: Doctors and psychotherapists are constantly discovering new areas of application - such as chronic pain, depression, addictions, eating disorders and even cancer. But what can mindfulness meditation really do? And which fashionable variants no longer have anything to do with the original idea?

This form of meditation originally comes from Buddhism, but medicine professor Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a western variant called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s. During the eight-week training, meditation students usually begin by focusing on physical sensations. This is how they perceive that the neck is tense or the stomach is pinching. You learn to notice such conditions, but not to evaluate them. Later they transfer this to emotions - perhaps they observe that they are afraid, but neither increase into fear nor try to suppress it. In doing so, they switch a step between stimulus and reaction. Anyone who is afraid of a presentation at work or meets a particularly long-legged spider in the basement will not panic immediately once they have mastered the new posture.

A few years ago, meditation was mostly ridiculed as esoteric. "When I started silent meditation in the mid-1980s, I preferred not to talk about it," says Hamburg psychotherapist and mindfulness trainer Susanne Kersig. People often reacted with skepticism, and their father even feared they would be brainwashed. "When giving lectures to a professional audience, I always explained right at the beginning that mindfulness meditation is not esoteric and you don't have to accept belief in order to practice it."

Mindfulness meditation was also not recognized for a long time among scientists. "I actually wanted to write my diploma thesis on it at the end of the 1990s," says the psychology professor Matthias Berking from the University of Marburg. "But at that time one would have buried oneself scientifically with such a topic." As recently as eight years ago it did not even come up at conferences. "Now, especially at congresses of clinical psychology, one sometimes has the impression that every second lecture relates to mindfulness-based intervention procedures, especially in the USA the colleagues are very euphoric in this regard," says Berking.

Studies have now even shown how meditation changes brain activity: With the help of electroencephalography (EEG), scientists found that during deep meditation, for example, the waves in the beta and gamma range are more strongly and more widely synchronized than in the active waking state - a sign of intense Focus and attention. Imaging methods show that the orbitofrontal cortex, for example, is stimulated. This area of ​​the brain is important for dealing with emotions.

More and more scientific studies also prove positive effects on health. For a current meta-study, Danish researchers from the University Hospital in Aarhus undertook 21 examinations on MBSR, i.e. on the anti-stress program according to Kabat-Zinn, as well as on so-called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a variant for depressives. It was shown: MBSR strengthens mental health, relaxes the stressed and calms anxious patients. The method also improves the quality of life for many patients with physical complaints. Even if the symptoms do not diminish themselves, they are less tormenting.

The meta study also proves the benefits of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, which combines elements from mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy. Accordingly, it prevents many former depression patients from relapsing. However, it is criticized that it is hardly possible to make any statements about the long-term effect because the study authors usually only observed the patients briefly.

Since studies have shown the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, health insurance companies have also been interested in it. Most of them now pay a subsidy for MBSR courses as part of prevention. Some psychotherapists and medical professionals also use mindfulness meditation for therapy. Doctors cannot prescribe it, but patients can do behavioral therapy that is paid for by the health insurance fund and find a therapist who works with meditation.

The behavior therapist and mindfulness trainer Eva Sperger also uses the method. "It is especially important for burn-out patients to be aware of themselves again," says Sperger. Many rush through the working day at such a fast pace that they don't even feel when they need a break, want to move or are thirsty. “After a while they get so jittery that they can't stand just sitting down and doing nothing. “Sperger asks patients to concentrate only on their breath or body for a few minutes. "Many find it uncomfortable, but afterwards they are more with themselves and the lesson becomes more intense."

A positive effect of mindfulness meditation has already been well documented for chronic pain, depression and stress. And it seems like it can help with OCD too. This is suggested by a small pilot study by the University of Freiburg, for which twelve participants completed a course in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

One of them was Martin Baumann *. He suffers from aggressive obsessions. "When I hold a knife in my hand, I sometimes just imagine for a second that I could hurt someone with it," he says. "And that's far from my mind, I'm a very good-natured person, almost too good-natured." The thoughts frightened him, he feared deep down that he was a bad person. So he tried with all his might to suppress the ideas. But that made them even more intense, and he got panic attacks. In cognitive behavioral therapy, he learned to confront the thoughts and keep spinning them until he saw himself walking the streets as a mass murderer. "So the ideas became absurd and lost their horror," he says.

For him it was a good preparation for the course in mindfulness meditation, says Baumann. During the training he learned to first notice the obsessive-compulsive thoughts. For years he had tried to suppress it. In the next step he succeeded in accepting the images and making them disappear again. "It was particularly difficult because these ideas made me feel extremely high," he says. "But now I can let them move on because I know that one bad thought is just one of the thousands that go through your head all the time."

Other patients in the group had control compulsions, such as the recurring urge to make sure that they had switched something off. "The mindfulness training gave them a greater inner distance from their stubborn ideas and no longer condemned themselves so harshly for them," says study director Anne Kathrin Külz. If the test persons then felt the urge to check electrical appliances again, they did not automatically give in, but had the feeling of being able to choose between several possible courses of action. Külz is planning another study with more subjects to check the results.

Some doctors now even let patients with serious physical illnesses meditate. In the Essen-Mitte clinics, doctors treat people with chronic pain, organ diseases or even life-threatening conditions such as cancer. Those who come here are primarily treated with conventional medicine, but can take advantage of additional offers such as nutritional advice or meditation. "We use mindfulness meditation with all patients, because this way they learn to deal better with the disease, which increases their chances of recovery," says health educator Anna Paul. »In the long run, stress can weaken the immune system. Conversely, it is strengthened when the patient is relaxed. "

Studies actually suggest that MBSR can boost the immune system. Physicians at the University of Chicago divided 75 breast cancer patients into two groups: one group did mindfulness meditation after the operation, the other did not. Before the start of the program, all women had weak cells related to the immune system. In the patients who meditated regularly, their function normalized during the study period, but not in the others.

At the Essen-Mitte Clinic, patients can use the training before and after operations as well as during chemotherapy. As a result, they often changed their attitude towards chemotherapy - "and they hold out better," says Anna Paul.But she makes it clear: “Meditation can never be the means by which one treats a physical illness. We use them to accompany therapy. "

Mindfulness-based practices are now being used in more and more areas. "They seem to be just as versatile as broad-spectrum antibiotics," says psychologist Ulrich Ott, who researches the effects of meditation at the University of Giessen. His explanation: "Many mental disorders are associated with restlessness and fears, and mindfulness meditation helps against this." In principle, Ott regards the fuss surrounding the method with goodwill: "When scientists at universities open up new areas of application, they usually will too examine in the context of studies. «He is skeptical, however, of providers who only use meditation because it is currently in demand and who may mix it up with other methods. "The benefit is questionable."

Susanne Kersig is also critical of the hype. "Everyone wants to be there, even if they have little experience." She talks about therapists who book a weekend course with her in order to pass on what they have learned to patients. "Mindfulness meditation is not a technique that can be quickly learned and passed on, but an attitude and form of being." Those who want to get involved should practice long and seriously before teaching.

There are now attempts at quality assurance. Meditation researchers at the University of Massachusetts have established guidelines for mindfulness trainers. You should have many years of experience both in meditation according to the Buddhist tradition and in Western methods such as MBSR.

Presumably, the researchers want to prevent what the British Shamash Alidina, author of the book Mindfulness for Dummies, does with the method. He describes himself as a "professional mindfulness advisor" and, as he writes, had an awakening experience after just five minutes of mindfulness training. Those who want to experience something similar can book the “Spa for the Soul” workshop with him. Or the correspondence course via Skype, for which there is even a guarantee: "You will get all your money back if you are not happy after the first lesson."