Hold that thought

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am

The steps seem simple enough - sniffing a bunch of mint or freshly brewed coffee, gazing at a bottle, listening to bell chimes, savouring a raisin. All are designed to engage the senses in an effort to attain mindfulness, a state of being mentally alert yet relaxed at the same time.

With exercises and concepts derived from Asian spiritual traditions, mindfulness can come across like so much New Age psychobabble. But the psychotherapeutic technique is now being embraced in areas from education and corporate training to marriage counselling.

'Mindfulness changes [people's] outlook on life,' says Doris Cheung Sheung-ying, a social worker with the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society. Couples locked in matrimonial disputes, stressed-out employees and harassed parents have benefited from its classes on mindfulness.

'Instead of allowing their thoughts to keep returning to painful or traumatic events of the past, they learn to relax and accept the negative experiences as part of their existence.'

A meditation-based practice, mindfulness teaches people to focus on their present experience, training their skills of concentration and heightening awareness of each sensation as it unfolds - in short, being in the moment.

Mindfulness meditation was first introduced by molecular biologist Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Having studied with Buddhist and Zen masters, Kabat-Zinn was inspired to adapt their meditative exercises for secular use as a stress-reduction technique.

Sceptics dismissed it as hippie hogwash, but over the years mindfulness training has gained a large following worldwide as neuroscience studies showed its effectiveness in helping people manage chronic pain, depression and anxiety.

At the Prince of Wales Hospital, in Sha Tin, clinical psychologist Doris Woo Mei-sum is introducing the technique to a group of stressed-out patients.

Sitting serenely on the floor, they focus on the rhythm of their own breathing, the silence punctuated by a bell struck at long intervals to keep stray thoughts at bay.

'Poor emotional health can lead to all kinds of physical problems,' Woo says. 'By learning to be aware of their sensations and to be present in the moment, patients understand the sources of their resentment, sadness and anger and learn to come to terms with their suffering without blaming themselves or getting resigned to it.'

People's tendency to worry about the future and dredge up the past makes them vulnerable, but the training provides them with a heightened sense of self-awareness to deal with challenging situations more calmly, says Woo, who is helping in a study of mindfulness conducted by Professor Samuel Wong Yeung-shan of Chinese University's School of Public Health and Primary Care.

'This especially helps the depressed ... the pain and apprehension they perceive are actually out of proportion to the situations that cause them,' Woo says. 'Mindfulness can get them out of the dead end that they place themselves in.

'People fail to notice that the feelings they are experiencing in the moment are actually affected by past events. Bad feelings from the past, like trauma or shame, are seared into the subconscious, which they may be ignorant of. Concentration and awareness exercises help them uncover and accept those feelings.'

The exercises are finding use in workplaces, too. Last year, the Hong Kong Christian Service launched a mindfulness programme to help employees who had been feeling under pressure from long working hours and lay-offs since the 2008 financial crisis.

Many suffered from chronic ailments like insomnia, stomach ache and muscle and back pain, which were induced by stress, says Alpha Lai Ka-yan, a consultant with the group's employee development service.

Staff were sent to offices to teach them breathing and concentration exercises that can be done at home, and 77 workers from four companies, including banks, signed up for the 90-minute sessions.

Electronics technician Brenda Tsang Kwai-ling, 48, credits mindfulness training with alleviating stress from work and home that had become so bad, she suffered acute stomach cramps and nausea.

'I used to have stomach pain and vomited severely. The cramps were so intense. I couldn't go to work and had to stay in hospital several times because of them. Doctors did all kinds of tests but found nothing wrong with me.

'I guessed the problem must be triggered by stress. My job repairing machinery does not allow for any mistakes. I need to be constantly on high alert.

'And when my son advanced to Form One in 2006, we frequently got into arguments . He didn't want to go to an elite school. He wanted to go to a leisurely one. The fights put me under a lot of stress.

'The symptoms lessened after I took a course on mindfulness. I changed my daily routine, waking up earlier each day to meditate [before leaving home] and doing stretching exercises after work.

'Confronted with a demanding task now, I will take deep breaths to help regain my composure, concentrate and handle the job well.'

Chinese University researcher Wong says studies overseas have shown that mindfulness can be as effective as treatment for people suffering from recurrent depression.

'It's a kind of cognitive training, where the swirling thoughts in the brain are put under control through stretching, breathing and concentration exercises,' he says.

'While the results of our research have yet to be finalised, we see that patients who have completed the eight-week training course have shown significant improvements [in their emotional well-being].'

It certainly seems to have helped housewife Michelle Chu, one of 100 people recruited for Wong's mindfulness programme. All suffered from generalised anxiety, with symptoms such as insomnia, restlessness and agitation.

The exercises are teaching Chu how to better address the emotional exhaustion from caring for her 85-year-old mother-in-law, who was paralysed after a stroke.

'She is suicidal and often asks me to push her off the roof of the house,' says Chu, 49.

'Seeing her immobile like that, I feel a lot of anguish. I have been living with her for over a decade, and we share a close bond.'

The strain at home was compounded three years ago when her husband suddenly died of a heart attack.

'The burden of keeping his death a secret from her weighs on me,' Chu says. 'The support given by my husband before was gone. I was in a daze and lost sleep sometimes.'

Chu says the training has helped her to stay calm.

'Once, my bad temper made it difficult to concentrate in a practice session. I had to calm down and get myself back. The breathing session allowed me to take note of the sensations in each part of my body.

'When I am upset now, I will go to the waterfront, do some contemplation and listen to the waves, which makes me happier.'

The exercises can even be useful in the classroom, says Roy Horan, a retired academic who conducts courses for teachers on how to teach creatively using mindfulness.

Mindfulness can lead to better performance by helping people attain a state of simultaneous high alertness and relaxation, Horan says.

'It might seem contradictory, but that's a state of being both relaxed and alert at the same time,' he says.

'Relaxation leads us to fall asleep. But for people who are alert but not relaxed, their reaction time is slower, and their ability to see opportunity not as good.

'For a race car driver going at 200 miles an hour to be good at what he does, he has to be alert and relaxed at the same time. This applies to all kinds of sports, like basketball and archery. An archer who focuses on the target, relaxes and releases the arrow will hit the centre. If he keeps looking at it and keeps thinking about whether he will hit it, he will probably miss.'


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