East Meets West on Stress Reduction

The relief of stress is a multi-billion euro industry. A cough, a cold, a headache, a stomach-ache sends the sufferer scurrying to the medicine cabinet or pharmacy in search of ‘a cure.’ There are over-counter medications that either lead to the digestive tract slowing down or speeding up, others to relieve heartburn or neutralise excess stomach acid. There are prescription drugs available to reduce anxiety – Valium, Xanax. There are multiple pain killers available and Tagamet and Zantac that decrease the secretion of stomach acid are frequently prescribed. There are anti-depressants available for alterations in mood. The problem with the widespread use of many such medications is that, even though the symptoms are temporarily alleviated, the underlying issues – physical or psychological or social or spiritual – that are producing the symptoms may not be getting addressed. Symptoms arise to tell us something is out of balance. If we ignore these messages or, more alarmingly, suppress them, it may only lead to more severe symptoms and a deepening of the unresolved underlying issues. What is more disturbing about people’s reliance on medication is that they become dependent on them and do not learn how to listen and trust their bodies. An alternative approach to drug cures is direly needed; such an approach is available. Fifteen years ago a stress-reduction clinic was set up at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is an eight week programme and consists of eight two hour classes plus a one-day workshop. The course is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and is based on the essential teaching of well-know Buddhist figures such as Tich Nath Hahn and Echart Tolle. Mindfulness is more than a meditation practice that can have profound medical and psychological benefits; it is also a way of life that reveals the tender and loving wholeness that lies at the heart of our being, even in times of great pain and suffering. The MBSR course is a unique synthesis of East and West – of meditation and yoga with science and mainstream medicine.

The individuals who attended the courses over the last fifteen years were referred by their doctors for a wide range of medical conditions – headaches, high blood pressure, back pain, heart disease, cancer and AIDS. What these people learned during the course was the how of taking care of themselves, not a replacement for their medical treatment, but a vitally important complement to it. A particularly helpful part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme is that attendees on taught body consciousness and a body scan method that enables them to get to know their own bodies. The course emphasises that in training people to listen to their bodies that they make intelligent decisions about obtaining medical attention for any identified pain or discomfort. The work of mindfulness is always carried out in conjunction with all the medical treatments that may be required to relieve pain. It is not meant to be a substitute for but it can be a vital complement to medical treatment.

The question that needs to be asked regarding the MBSR course is: does it work? The evidence to date suggests quite a dramatic therapeutic effect. Before individuals begin the programme they fill out a questionnaire in which they identify from a list of over one hundred common physical and emotional symptoms. The symptoms they have experienced in the preceding month. They repeat this exercise at the end of the course. The average number of symptoms out of 100 possible ones is 22. When people finish the course the average drops to 14 – showing an average of 36 per cent fewer symptoms. This is a dramatic change in a short period of time, especially for people who have had these symptoms over a long period of time. What is even more reassuring is that several follow-up studies indicate that the improvements gained were maintained. Indeed, most participants rate their training as very important to their improved wellbeing. All in all, the course has considerable therapeutic effects on such conditions as stress, chronic pain, anxiety and panic, headaches, back pain, high blood pressure, psoriasis, acne, insomnia, fatigue.

The good news is that the MBSR course is now available in Ireland and is being offered by several highly trained practitioners throughout the country. I am aware of two courses being offered in Cork and the contact numbers are John, 087-2139076 and Shane, 085-1488634.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.