Celebs, wellbeing gurus and even MPs are catching the mindfulness bug. Abi Jackson takes a deep breath and finds our more
LAST Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a busy working day, I closed my eyes to meditate. Only briefly - but sometimes just taking five minutes to slow down and connect with your breaths and centre your thoughts can work wonders for balancing stress levels. Tackling that to-do list becomes less overwhelming, negotiating those crowds on the commute home doesn't see your blood pressure soar so much - a couple of little everyday examples when I'm grateful for the sense of calm that follows.
There's nothing unusual about this of course. Mindfulness meditation is all the rage, and has been one of - if not the - biggest wellbeing buzzwords of the last few years, with countless books, apps and articles on the topic. Thousands of people from all walks of life have been taking it up and discovering a more steady, manageable and present way of being, even finding a life-changing way of coping with depression, anxiety and chronic pain.
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But what is very unusual about my particular little session, are the surroundings.
I'm in a small room off Westminster Hall in London's Houses of Parliament, along with a few other journalists, mental health charity bods and various MPs - all also sitting, eyes closed, hands on laps and breathing deeply, as Rebecca Crane of Bangor University's Centre for Mindfulness guides us through.
Never in a million years would I have imagined I'd be indulging in a spot of deep breathing in Westminster, with a panel of MPs - and yet here we are. And do you know what? It feels good.
We're here for the launch of the Mindful Nation UK interim report. The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, co-chaired by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, Labour MP Chris Ruane and Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt and in collaboration with The Mindfulness Initiative - which brings together a number of leaders in the field and key mindfulness training and research centres; Oxford, Exeter, Bangor and Sussex, as well as the Mental Health Foundation - have spent the last eight months looking at the benefits of mindfulness, evidence backing up these benefits, and how it might be incorporated across a range of UK services and institutions, mainly education, healthcare, work and criminal justice.
The hope, in a nutshell, is for the Government to recognise the importance of wellbeing in society, the role mindfulness could play, how this could follow through into policy, and how those holding the budget-strings could give it some funding.
For this to happen, as former Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell points out, it all boils down to strong, solid facts and figures.
"The way I see it, it should be about enhancing the wellbeing of the nation," says O'Donnell, a key advocate of wellbeing economics. "It would be great if all the political parties could say in their manifesto what it is they think government is for, what it is they're trying to achieve. It's not just about government, but they do play a part - and if we could just get it out there that it's to try and improve the wellbeing of the nation, as opposed to just maximise GDP."
Healthy GDP and a healthy nation, he believes, can go hand in hand, providing we look at it in the right way. O'Donnell stresses the importance of continuing to develop rigorous ways of measuring the impact of nurturing wellbeing and its economic worth, but accepts it's complicated, because it requires a shift in approach.
"One of the things we need to think about is how this works long-term, not just short-term, which is what governments tend to think about, and that is pays to focus on prevention rather than cure," he says. "Nearly all these interventions require spending by one department, and will see gains elsewhere, and that's the bit we need to crack."
A pound spent on mental health, he notes, is "at the margin, hugely more productive than a pound spent on physical health", and yet that isn't reflected in the current system.
If anecdotal evidence was all it took to convince the Treasury, then addressing this would be easy - there are loads of people (indeed, some of the MPs at the launch today) who can vouch for the effectiveness of mindfulness in managing depression, for instance - but the Treasury are going to want hefty, carefully analysed trials.
It could also mean a shift in what we measure.
For example, mindfulness in schools may or may not have a significant immediate impact on exam results - one of the key things currently used to measure success in education - but it could hugely improve harmony in classrooms, behavioural problems, stress among teachers, sickness rates, self-esteem - the list could go on and on. These things will then have a positive snowball effect through years to come, including, ultimately, less strain on the NHS and welfare budgets.
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Jenny Edwards agrees that "the big thing that will come out in the summer [when the complete report is published] is the weight of evidence".
She's heard there's something in the region of 250 studies already from the last year alone, and says it's "a very exciting time" to see mindfulness being discussed in this context.
For the charity, who've been advocating mindfulness since 2010 through their Be Mindful campaign (bemindful.co.uk), this is promising stuff, but Edwards is keen to ensure the benefits reach those who need them most.
"It's great that mindfulness is spreading, and people are bringing it into education and the health service and workplaces and so on, but it's not going to spread through those routes to the places where mental ill health is worst," she says.
There are already worrying shortfalls in mental health services ("the average waiting time for access to community mental health services is 25 weeks," notes Edwards), and focusing on mindfulness, of course, should not distract from the importance of addressing these issues.
"I think we have to be careful not to say it [mindfulness] is a panacea for everything, because that wouldn't be right, and nobody is particularly recommending it at present for people who are in the middle of serious mental illness, people will need more intensive therapies for that - the main problem is, we're not very good at providing them on the right timescales," Edwards explains. "That has to change.
"But it makes it all the more important that we do identify things that can help, both in a preventative sense, and also help prevent people relapsing, and the NICE guidance where it does mention mindfulness is about reducing the risk of relapse into depression, and quite significantly as well.
"So mindfulness is not the whole story, but it is a very important part of the story, and it will reduce the pressure [on services] - at the moment, all we're being offered is to go to our GP and be faced with this tremendous wait."
It is also, she adds, tremendously empowering that mindfulness offers something we can all tap into that can potentially improve and safeguard our wellbeing to such an extent.
"Because people are able to bring things into a manageable level, even when they're facing life's challenges," says Edwards. "A lot of us will have had those experiences where something very hurtful has happened to us, and we may get stuck with those thoughts being in our mind a long time, and our emotions, and if we can recognise that they're thoughts, and we create them and we are able to change them, and that changes our mood, then what a lot of stress that will save us? It doesn't take away the cause, of course, but does make it a lot easier to handle."