Can Mindfulness Meditation Treat Anxiety Disorder?
Meditation, which was once a practice for few people who were attracted to oriental philosophy to find spiritual enlightenment, in recent years, has become a worldwide trend as a universal panacea for many ills. School and university students, business people, NFL players, Oprah, US marines and even prison inmates have practiced it as a way to ease stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation is a way to focus one’s mind on the present moment without emitting any judgment. Here is a simple mindfulness exercise called the 3-minute breathing space (TMBS):
- You spend one minute focusing on your body in a wide sense. The totality of your physical being. (Wide)
- In the second minute you focus on your breathing in a more specific and concentrated fashion. Focusing on your lungs, mouth or nostrils. (Narrow)
- During the third minute you observe your experience of your body and your breathing like in the first step, in a wider fashion. (Wide)
Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard J Davidson are two of the most well known promoters of meditation and mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He has created a program based on meditation to help people cope with stress, anxiety and pain. Davidson, an American psychologist, and his and his colleagues have led studies at the University of Wisconsin with several Buddhists monks who were master mediators. Both Kabat-Zinn and Davidson advocate that mindfulness can help lower people’s anxiety.
Mindfulness has become a hot trend and for some a fad to reap benefits from. Every year there is a new title published on mindfulness. Among these titles there are those claiming that this practice can help people with anxiety. Some publishers take advantage of the popularity of the terms “mindfulness” and “mindful” adding them to their book titles: Mindful work, Mindful Universe, Mindful Eating, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, etc.
Among all these titles, two in particular show you how a worthy topic, when pushed to its extreme, can become absurd: Mindfulness for Dogs, and Mindfulness for Cats. The book promises that you can “Learn from your canine” (or feline) “how to live in the present and approach every day with a calm and positive attitude.”
It is true that meditation is beneficial to your health. It helps you relax your body and calm your thoughts. Meditation and mindfulness are useful to improve your state of mind and maintain a serene attitude toward life. However, when you are suffering from anxiety disorder, meditation and mindfulness are not the right solutions.
The promoters of mindfulness are biased because they have become too fond of oriental wisdom and practices and have attributed an excessive beneficial power to what meditation can do. It is true that studies suggest that regular meditation has helped lowering anxiety among some individuals. However, mindfulness cannot stop an anxiety attack nor can it prevent or cure it as some suggest.
The confusion is the result of an error at the logical level. Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch explain this epistemological error in their book, Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution (1974), pp. 38-39. The authors make a distinction between the terms “difficulties” and “problems”. According to them, a difficulty is an “undesirable state of affairs” that can be solved with common sense and “no special problem solving skills are necessary”. However, they “…talk about problems when referring to impasses, deadlocks, knots…” In other words, a problem is a state of affairs that have resisted change despite all the efforts of people involved.
Meditation and mindfulness can be helpful with a difficulty. For example stress is a difficulty. You may have a tough day at work and come home stress out and angry. You can sit down, deep breathe and meditate to calm your thoughts and ease your emotions. The solution to this difficulty is common sense.
However, anxiety is not a difficulty that can be solved with common sense meditation and mindfulness. Anxiety is a major problem that requires problem-solving skills that are not necessarily common sense. On the contrary, the solution for anxiety must be counterintuitive!
It is possible for some individuals suffering from anxiety disorder to ease their symptoms with mindfulness practice over a long period of time. However, what if there is a more effective and efficient way to overcome anxiety that takes less efforts and less time? There is an efficacious method for anxiety disorder!