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When Mindfulness Doesn't Work

Mindfulness is not a basic skill. This piece was originally published by EFT International in July 2022.


Last week a flurry of pieces were published in major news outlets relating to the findings of the MY Resilience In ADolescence (MYRIAD) study programme conducted by researchers from Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Kings College London, University College London and Pennsylvania State University on the effectiveness of school-based Mindfulness training (SBMT).


Meditation and other mindfulness techniques are NOT basic skills.


Somewhat unexpectedly, their results did not “support the universal roll-out of SBMT” (Montero-Marin et al, 2022) as a way of improving the mental health of adolescents in the 11-14 age group. The primary drawback with the programme related to student engagement which was described as “strikingly low” (Montero-Marin et al, 2022). In fact, most of the students involved described the practices as “boring”. Moreover, not only did SBMT not work to improve mental health, it “may be contraindicated” (Montero-Marin et al, 2022) for young people with mental health needs.


Honestly, a lot of these findings make total sense based on my training in neuroscience, psychotherapy, yoga and psycho-sensory techniques (techniques that use sensory input to shift your neurochemistry) as well as on my experience of working in secondary schools (and co-creating and running the Mindfulness programme for a school of about 1000 students) for over a decade.


At the risk of this sounding obvious, a vital aspect of making any well-being programme a success relies on the programme’s ability to satisfy the most fundamental, basic, primal human need: safety.


A person’s ability to remain open and receptive to new interventions depends on it.


From the moment you’re born, your limbic system or your emotional brain is constantly scanning your environment for cues of safety and for cues of danger. Think of it as your personal security system: it acts as data gatherer, gatekeeper and it deals with potential threats.


Anyone who remembers their experience of high school will recall that within the context of the school environment, there are no shortage of threats


Anyone who remembers their experience of high school will recall that within the context of the school environment, there are no shortage of threats; be they physical (If I take part in this exercise I’ll be bullied), emotional (This makes me feel awkward) or social (If I take part in this exercise they won’t think I’m cool). Threats can also arise internally as in the case in overwhelm (This is too much, I can’t cope with it).


Before I continue with this line of argument, however, I also feel it’s necessary to address the issue of trauma. For the record, everyone has experienced trauma of some kind. It’s an existential given. In addition to the more obvious traumatic experiences like living through a natural disaster, a physical attack or the sudden death of a loved one trauma can also be the threat of abandonment and rejection, the loss of reputation, having parents with mental health issues and even being exposed to novel experiences.


With this in mind, I’d like to speak to the issue of low engagement from another perspective by addressing the elephant in the room:


Meditation and other mindfulness techniques are NOT basic skills.


Accessible, yes. Foundational, no.


A practitioner and teacher of Yoga and meditation for close to two decades, meditation still kicks my ass. When you begin to calm the turbulent waters of your mind, it gives you access to what lies beneath; to the stuff that’s below conscious awareness for a reason. This is where you’ll find: pain, shame, suffering, inadequacy, sadness, anger, fear and, ultimately, trauma (or what I refer to as emotional turds).


As part of my Yoga training we were taught the Eightfold Path of Yoga; a highly structured 8-step framework including the study of ethical considerations, movement and breathing practices. Within this framework, breath work is Step 4, concentration (read mindfulness) is Step 6 and meditation is Step 7.


In light of this, offering meditation and mindfulness to most 11-year-olds before ensuring their nervous system is in a state of regulation and without giving them the tools to deal with what may come up as a result of their practice is like encouraging someone to take up tennis by inviting them to square-off against Serena Williams on their first go: of course the experience is going to suck.


“This is boring” can be translated as “I don’t feel safe to engage in this practice”


From this perspective, the students’ lack of engagement in the Mindfulness programme can be read as a protective mechanism where “This is boring” can be translated as “I don’t feel safe to engage in this practice” while effectively shifting the focus away from the fears they don’t yet have the tools to face and onto the teacher or mode of teaching.


Moreover, “This is boring” protects them from the vulnerability of being judged by another member of the class, it shields them from ridicule and it insulates them from shame. The cool kids have a reputation to uphold and the last thing those in the out-group want to do is give the in-group a reason to further marginalise them.


Having said this, it’s also vital that the training providers engage directly with the students’ feedback to find out more about what they would like to see as part of their programme and what works for them and what doesn’t.


So researchers are spot-on when they say they need to reconsider how to run the programme.


In the meantime, though, what can be done to help young people? How can we bring them into their window of tolerance - the optimum level of functioning of their nervous system - so that they can they deal with their emotional turds in a way that feels do-able?


This is where The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or, as it’s commonly known, Tapping comes in. I absolutely couldn’t be without EFT in my practice. When people ask me what it is, I usually say it’s like psychological acupuncture. It draws from Traditional Chinese Medicine and its understanding of the body’s meridians as well as on concepts from Behaviourism. EFT incorporates the use of the stress scale that was developed by South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe, on elements of Exposure Therapy (Feinstein, 2010) and on Cognitive Restructuring.


It’s like having magic at the tips of your fingers - only this magic is supported by a raft of scientific research.


Upon first inspection, it looks deceptively simple. However, it’s incredibly powerful. EFT is clinically proven to reduce cortisol (one of the main stress hormones) by up to 43% in an hour (Stapleton, Crighton and O’Neill, 2020). By lowering cortisol levels you can flip the switch of the nervous system, taking you out of the alarm response and into your safe, social, rejuvenate and regenerate system giving you more control over your nervous system, your behaviours and, ultimately, your life.


In 2019, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) found EFT to be clinically- and cost-effective for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it is widely used in treating trauma (Craig, 2009). From the research conducted by Harvard University, it appears to clear trauma in the following way: the client is instructed to bring to mind an emotional trigger. This activates the amygdala, arousing a threat response. Through the stimulation of certain acupoints, the client simultaneously begins to send deactivating signals to the amygdala. The pendulation between activation and deactivation of the amygdala minimises the threat response while the trigger is mentally engaged. Then, the hippocampus records that the memory or trigger can be safely engaged without a stress response, and the neural pathways connected to that trigger stress are permanently altered. Thus, the client is able to recall the memory or trigger without feeling dysregulated (Feinstein, 2012).


This makes EFT remarkably effective in dealing with triggers as they arise. As you tune into an issue while you tap on selected acupoints, your perception and experience of the trigger shifts. The result is that you can go from feeling intense anger or sadness to feeling quite neutral in a relatively short period of time. My clients often respond in shock at how quickly they can go from feeling highly activated to feeling peaceful and accepting. It’s like having magic at the tips of your fingers - only this magic is supported by a raft of scientific research.


Given the links between chronically elevated stress hormones in the body and both mental and physical health problems, creating greater capacity to experience the state of safety is one of the most powerful gifts we can give anyone regardless of their age. When our lives are no longer dictated by the hormones of stress we are able to become responsive to life as opposed to reactive, we have an increased ability to experience states of playfulness, peace and joy and, by letting go of patterns of the past, we can create new and preferred futures for ourselves. It’s truly life-changing stuff.


So let’s get EFT into schools and let’s do it sooner rather than later.


Anne Marie Morello, 2022





References:


Burke-Harris, N. (2015). How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. TED Conferences.


Craig, G., Bach, D., Groesbeck, G., & Benor, D. (2009). Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) for traumatic brain injury. [Electronic journal article]. International Journal of Healing and Caring, 9(2).


Feinstein, D. (2012). Acupoint stimulation in treating psychological disorders: evidence of efficacy. Review of General Psychology.


Montero-Marin, J., Allwood, M., Ball, S. et al. School-based mindfulness training in early adolescence: what works, for whom and how in the MYRIAD trial? Evidence-Based Mental Health Published Online First: 12 July 2022. doi: 10.1136/ebmental-2022-300439


Stapleton, P., Crighton, G., Sabot, D., & O’Neill, H. M. (2020). Reexamining the effect of emotional freedom techniques on stress biochemistry: A randomized controlled trial. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000563




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