Home of Dr. Christine B. Whelan

Mindfulness Research in Practice

This summer I took a step away from dating and relationships to study the intersection of religion and science — specifically, the use of religious techniques to encourage weight loss and other sorts of behavior modification.

Put another way: I studied religious dieting groups. I researched ancient texts, interviewed self-help gurus and psychologists — and paused before each bite of dessert to ask myself whether God wanted me to eat that extra morsel of really yummy Heath Bar cheesecake. (Turns out the Big Guy wanted me to gain a couple pounds.)

Anyway, as a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism fellow I spent eight weeks thinking deep thoughts and then published pieces in USA Today and The Washington Post. I started out studying Christian diet self-help groups, but midway through the process I realized that the most interesting new research was happening with Buddhist mindfulness meditiation practices.

From my USA Today piece:

Jean Kristeller, professor of psychology at Indiana State University and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, has developed a program that incorporates meditation, forgiveness and inner-searching exercises into the eating process. Participants are taught to do “mini-meditations” several times a day and, before eating, to consider the difference between actual hunger and a signal of anxiety, boredom or other psychological triggers.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Kristeller’s studies have had promising results: Participants reported fewer eating binges and a greater sense of control over their eating and their life circumstances. Mindful eating seminars teach participants to break the “stress-food-stress” chain and avoid making emotional decisions about food.

Kim Book, a participant in a Duke University Integrative Medicine mindfulness program, said this was a breakthrough idea for her. Later in the week, instead of rewarding herself after a bad day with a milkshake, “an emotional decision about eating that had nothing to do with hunger or nutrition,” Book took a few moments to meditate. “Mindfulness gives you the space and time to make those wiser decisions.”

Mindfulness-based behavior modification is being used to help treat all sorts of other issues as well: Researchers at major universities are exploring the benefits of Buddhist mindfulness techniques to help families increase feelings of closeness and decrease relationship stress — and the results are promising.

Remember how the latest Hollywood incarnation of the Incredible Hulk keeps his green-hot anger under control with daily meditations? You can, too!

From my Washington Post piece:

In mental health terms, mindfulness is the awareness that emerges from focusing on the present and the ability to perceive — but not judge — your own emotions with detachment; it enables you to choose helpful responses to difficult situations rather than reacting out of habit. While Western thought separates religion and science, Buddhists see mindfulness as both a spiritual and psychological force. Mindfulness isn’t simply about calming down, and it’s certainly not about giving in.

It’s about recognizing that you’re tired as you go home on a crowded Metro train, so that when somebody bumps into you, you decide to say, “Excuse me!” instead of pushing back. It’s about picking an effective way to discipline your teenager for staying out until 3 a.m. rather than responding like an angry child yourself.

Mindfulness therapies for depression have had well-documented success: Depressed people focus on the negatives, locking themselves into a destructive thought cycle that makes the depression worse. Mindfulness training helps them become aware of this cycle and snap out of it.

I was thrilled to discover that the University of Iowa offers Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. So after all that research, I’m going to give it a shot. I’m not depressed, I don’t need to lose weight, but I certainly could use some help being “present” in the moment.

(NB: I was told in today’s information session that I shouldn’t be focused on the goal I want to achieve, but rather learn to experience what I feel without critique. So I’m already probably off to a bad start. But anyway.)


January 14, 2009 - Posted by | A Day in the Life, Self-Help

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