More attention, less worry

It’s an understandable reaction when people are told they have cancer: they worry. But in half of all cancer patients, worry slides into depression or an anxiety disorder. That complication disrupts the healing process. Hospital stays are longer and mortality rates are higher among depressed cancer patients.


Mindfulness helps alleviate depression and anxiety disorders in these patients, according to a recent meta-analysis of 22 studies from Europe, Canada and the U.S., involving more than 1,400 patients. Meta-analyses are the top rung of the ladder of scientific evidence. “Mindfulness is experiencing the moment with attention and without judging your own thoughts and feelings,” says psychologist Jacob Piet, who earned his doctorate studying cancer and mindfulness at Aarhus University in Denmark.


Patients participated inmindfulness-based stress reduction(MBSR) andmindfulness-based cognitive therapy(MBCT, also called attention training), two forms of group therapy that are increasing in popularity. In eight weekly sessions lasting two and a half hours, participants learned attention and concentration techniques—yoga and meditation, among other things. They also completed 45 minutes of independent exercises each day. In every study, symptoms of anxiety and depression had decreased at the end of eight weeks. The effect is moderate, not drastic; mindfulness is no miracle cure, Piet cautions, but it is an effective tool for learning to recognize negative thought patterns.


Mindfulness has a positive effect on more than just cancer patients. In recent years, several studies have investigated its general effects. Some studies demonstrate lasting change in specific parts of the brain associated with regulating emotions. A 2003 study at the University of Wisconsin showed that mindfulness enhances the immune system. Participants who suffered from stress were given mindfulness training. After eight weeks, they were exposed to a strain of influenza, and their blood manufactured more antibodies than that of control group participants.


The evidence is so convincing that Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends mindfulness training as a therapy for depression. Many insurance plans in the U.S. will at least partially cover MBCT with a referral from a physician or psychologist.


Mindfulness is a recognized alternative to the use of antidepressants, Piet says. He emphasizes that it’s important to see a certified MBSR or MBCT therapist. “Picking the first online course you find isn’t good enough,” he says. “But science proves that it works. I’m convinced that it’s better to teach people skills that help them deal with their emotions than to prescribe them pills.” | Dewi Gigengack



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