Treating mental illness with mindfulness

At a time when iPhones are being used to replace the soother of an upset child, and more people are looking at phones during their morning commute than the view surrounding them, the disconnectedness of our world is more prevalent than ever.

In recent years, mindfulness and meditation have become mainstream in many parts of the world. But why is this practice once viewed as “hippie-dippie” gaining mainstream credibility?

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Tom Bauslaugh, youth and family clinical resource educator in Children’s Hospital’s eating disorder clinic. (Photo by Cass Lucke)

“From my perspective children are full of emotions and run on emotions and learning how to manage that is…such a big part – and it’s an important, big part – of growing up,” said Tom Bauslaugh who is the youth and family clinical resource educator in Children’s Hospital’s eating disorder clinic.

“It’s being able to kind of take that deep breathe and think about what your next thing is rather than just reacting to whatever the situation is.”

Although the efficiency of our daily tasks may be dropping due to enhanced 24/7 communication, the algorithms from our Facebook and Twitter feeds, phone apps and television commercials are having an impact, particularly on the mental health of those growing up with them.

Not only are people missing out on life, but they are constantly being programmed by the images, sounds and patterns on their screens, and the targets of these technological addictions are getting increasingly younger.

Jenny Choi was treated for an eating disorder at Children’s Hospital when she was in grade nine and is currently finishing her final year of highschool.

For me it was just all the doubts I had about myself and the future,” Choi said. “I think turning to restriction and over exercising and eating disorder things helped me distract from the feelings I was feeling, the thoughts I was having and it was more like a safety thing for me, like having control.”

Though she sees her illness as a part of her story and now considers herself recovered, Choi greatly credits her recovery to the meditative practices that were first introduced to her during her stay in the inpatient treatment unit; practices she still uses today.

 

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Jenny was like anyone else who was uneducated about eating disorders and mental illness. She got her information from online resources through the media. When her counsellors suggested it, she felt the same way about meditation – hesitant and in the dark.

What caused me to look toward mindfulness was.. to be honest I had no other option, it was kind of like, there was this life that I wanted to live and I just wanted to recover so badly that I just had to listen to my counsellors for once and just go through the grit of it,” Jenny said.

“Then I realized that I had it all wrong. I was so fixated on, ‘Oh this is so stupid I feel so weird doing this,’ but truly, it changed my perception and my life.

Mindfulness and meditation allow time to unplug and step away from the constant distraction of other people’s lives, giving the mind a chance to slow down and revert away from the anxiety and depression often derived from constant comparisons on social media and staying up late and up-to-date on all of the latest news.

A 2018 study by Mental Health America states that in a five year period, rates of severe youth depression have increased from 5.9 per cent to 8.2 per cent. Even with severe depression, findings from the studied showed that 76 per cent of youth are left with no or insufficient treatment.

I am a survivor of anorexia nervosa and still battle spurts of anxiety and depression today. Though I did not understand what mindfulness and meditation were when they were introduced to me during my second hospital stay in the Provincial Specialized Eating Disorder Program at B.C. Children’s Hospital, I greatly credit my survival to the consistent practices I have obtained over the past five years.

It was not until I started giving my mind time to breathe and appreciate my life in the present moment that I finally began to consistently regain my health. I’ve always wondered, though, if meditation was acting as a kind of placebo, fooling me into thinking, ‘If I just keep this up I’ll get better,’ or if my brain was physically changing along with my mindset.

 

Carl Birmingham has studied eating disorders for 40 years, helped initiate the specialized eating disorder treatment facility at St. Paul’s Hospital, and now uses neurofeedback to normalize the brainwaves of his patients.

Most of the patients I saw, about 50 per cent of them never got better and of the 50 per cent that did get better it took on average about 7 years,” Birmingham said. “I have found neurofeedback made a big difference usually in about 2.5 months, so it was very exciting to me.

Neurofeedback trains brainwaves to normalize when they are over or underactive, while meditation slows down the mind and allows people to step away from everyday stresses that might cause brain waves to be abnormal.

 

Birmingham was adamant the two serve different functions. That being said, though, many of the brains he sees need to be treated by neurofeedback because their have lost the ability to be meditative.

When we’re a child we’re supposed to learn about listening to things and feeling things and hot and cold and the wind in our face. Many of the patients I see have lost that to a large degree,” Birmingham said. “They are two dimensionally programmed to what’s in a computer.”

“Our brain is initially divided up by these sensations – your visual part, your hearing part etcetera – and these are not functional,”Birmingham said.

“It’s like you’re cut off, almost like you’re in the Matrix as it were. You’re plugged into the internet but you’re really not plugged into the Earth.”

Birmingham believes allowing ourselves to unplug may help decrease the way our brains have been rewired by our constant use of technology. But what is the legitimacy of that happening in a world that thrives off of connectivity?

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