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Using Williams & Penman's book "Mindfulness: a practical guide" as a self-help resource (1st post) - introduction

This is the first in a series of intended posts about using Mark Williams & Danny Penman's excellent recent book "Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world" as a self-help training in mindfulness practice.  My hope is that these blog posts will provide some back-up resources to the many good things already present in the book, accompanying CD & linked website

Mindfulness is very much "in the news" at the moment.  This website's post "What is mindfulness?" gives some background and clicking on the tag "mindfulness" will bring up a dozen pages or so of linked posts.  One of the more recent - "Six recent research papers on mindfulness: outcome reviews, brain changes, self-compassion, current depression, and overview" - illustrates the emerging wealth of supportive research and Mark Williams & Danny Penman give a useful overview in their book (pp. 5 & 6) of numerous very good reasons for developing mindfulness - from increasing happiness & contentment, improving depression, anxiety, irritability & memory, helping relationships, coping better with stress & severe medical conditions (chronic pain, cancer, alcohol & substance abuse), and boosting the immune system.  Sounds dangerously like "snake oil"?  It is true that we're well up on a wave of pro-mindfulness publicity at the moment but, as illustrated in the notes section of this book, there are good research-based reasons for taking the encouraging health claims seriously.

If you want to learn more about mindfulness and try it out for yourself, the best plan is probably to join a class.  Ask around, try a trusty internet search, or - in the UK - go to the Mental Health Foundation's (MHF) useful map of available courses countrywide.  If this doesn't seem the most viable way forward for you, consider taking a course in a distance learning format.  The MHF itself advertises a brief four week training and on the UK countrywide map, you can search specifically for online courses.  Another option (and it's a good option) is to use guided or pure self-help.  In a major recent paper - "Self-help and Internet-guided interventions in depression and anxiety disorders: a systematic review of meta-analyses" - the authors reported "This article provides a systematic review of meta-analyses on the efficacy of self-help interventions, including internet-guided therapy, for depression and anxiety disorders ... 13 meta-analyses reported medium to large effect sizes for self-help interventions ... The meta-analyses indicate that self-help methods are effective in a range of different disorders, including depression and anxiety disorders. Most meta-analyses found relatively large effect sizes for self-help treatments, independent of the type of self-help, and comparable to effect sizes for face-to-face treatments."  Now this is encouraging.  There's very good reason to expect one can achieve benefits "comparable to ... face-to-face treatments" using self-help.  In fact, in an even more recent paper - "Is guided self-help as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy for depression and anxiety disorders? A systematic review and meta-analysis of comparative outcome studies" - which looked at direct head-to-head comparisons, if anything guided self-help did slightly better, at least initially, with the authors concluding "The overall effect size indicating the difference between guided self-help and face-to-face psychotherapy at post-test was d=-0.02, in favour of guided self-help. At follow-up (up to 1 year) no significant difference was found either. No significant difference was found between the drop-out rates in the two treatments formats. Conclusions: It seems safe to conclude that guided self-help and face-to-face treatments can have comparable effects. It is time to start thinking about implementation in routine care."

And this is where Mark Williams & Danny Penman's book "Mindfulness: a practical guide" can step in.  I think it's a fine book with an excellent accompanying CD of mindfulness exercises.  To really get good value from using it as a self-help resource, you're likely to need to be pretty committed and conscientious about working on the suggestions the book provides.  It's much like starting to exercise physically.  You may know what your training regime is supposed to involve, but unless you actually get active and sweaty it's armchair knowledge not genuine body change.  We know psychologically that conscientiousness & internal control build through regular practice.  In fact, in a direct parallel with exercising to get stronger and fitter, it has been shown that eight weeks of regular meditation practice actually increases brain cell concentrations - so in their 2011 paper "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density", the authors report "Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program ... Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking."

For more on using "Mindfulness: a practical guide" as a self-help resource, see next week's " ... (2nd post) - getting ready".

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