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Why Mindfulness Needs To Be Part Of Mainstream Healthcare

09/02/2017 4:05 PM IST | Updated 16/02/2017 8:44 AM IST
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It was in February 1968 that The Beatles stayed at an ashram in Rishikesh to learn transcendental meditation. The retreat is at the foothills of the Himalayas, across the river Ganges. Today it's totally abandoned. In ruins. Part of a jungle.

Sitting inside John Lennon's dilapidated stone cottage last summer, I stared at chunky yellow-black graffiti: When you look up at the sky and see a cloud think of me—Lennon to Yoko.

The Beatles were hyper-productive during their inward journey. Thirty songs. Their visit singularly generated worldwide interest in meditation. It became hip and cool.

Rishikesh is now the Silicon Valley of yoga and meditation, attracting seekers from everywhere.

If you didn't know it already, meditation is a billion dollar industry.

There are 1000+ mindfulness apps available. Headspace raised $30 million. Fidelity Investments says the percentage of employers offering mindfulness training at work will double in 2017 from the 22% last year.

Meditation is going the yoga way. It'll soon be mainstream.

That's a good thing for healthcare.

Many diseases are self-inflicted

Marlynn Wei, MD, JD from Harvard Medical School notes the link between stress and disease: stress-related health problems are responsible for up to 80% of doctor visits, behind only heart disease and cancer. But as few as 3% of doctors actually talk to patients about how to reduce stress.

We pick up habits that can sometimes make that bad feeling go way momentarily. Chocolate. Pizza. Fries. Cola. Donuts. Caffeine. Alcohol. Cigarette. Drugs.

Millions of people undergo cardiac catheterisation (cath in short). 1.2 million (60%) of those are elective procedures—by choice.

Some of these choices extend to angioplasties, stents, and bypass surgeries—to unclog dirty arteries, keep them unclogged for a bit longer, or to bypass them altogether.

Author of the book Overtreated, Shannon Brownlee says heart surgery by itself is a $100 billion industry.

The slow and deadly path towards the cath table

A series of triggers propel you towards the cath table. One leads to the next. Quietly.

Stressed with our careers/money/relationships/health/appearance, we hop on a spiral that's sucks our being steadily.

It starts with feeling bad.

Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Hate. Fear. Contempt. Disappointment. Boredom. Self-pity. Loneliness.

We pick up habits that can sometimes make that bad feeling go way momentarily. Chocolate. Pizza. Fries. Cola. Donuts. Caffeine. Alcohol. Cigarette. Drugs.

We seek solace in patterns that edge on the excessive. Road rage. Facebook. Porn. Chat. Email. Anger at politics, society, media... anyone we can blame. Workplace gossip. Mindless TV. Video games. Bingeing of various kinds.

One day, our unhealthy patterns—from sedentary lifestyle to emotional outbursts to smoking—come together in the form a clear physical symptom like chest pain.

Any exit to take us away from ourselves.

Eventually, these habits and patterns become so hardwired that we just can't seem to get unstuck. They become us.

One day, our unhealthy patterns—from sedentary lifestyle to emotional outbursts to smoking—come together in the form a clear physical symptom like chest pain.

That symptom is the trigger for your doctor to suggest a cath as a preventive measure. By then, what choice do you really have?

And that's just heart disease. There's more. Chronic back pain. Headaches. Anxiety disorders. Irritable bowel syndrome. Sleeplessness. Depression. It's endless.

A hack called mindfulness

If we really want to curb disease downstream at our hospitals, reduce burden on our specialists, avoid expensive procedures and drugs, prevent people from pointlessly and prematurely dying, and reduce the trillions of dollars we spend on healthcare, then we need to go upstream. Way upstream.

Start close to where it begins.

Dr. James Stahl, section chief of general internal medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and his group studied a mind-body program at Massachusetts General Hospital—four years of data from 4400 people.

They found that the control group used 43% fewer medical services than in the previous year. They estimate that relaxation interventions can save $640-$25,500/year/patient.

Mindfulness helps us become more aware of our behaviours, our patterns that hide quietly behind many diseases.

As you meditate regularly, slowly you will become mindful of the patterns that rule you... minimising those that lead you in the direction of disease.

When you use Headspace, you will hear the app's founder and former monk Andy Puddicombe speaking. Asking you to slowly breathe in and out.

Slowly becoming aware of your body.

Slowly observing your mind—drifting in and out. Slowly settling.

As you meditate regularly, slowly you will become mindful of the patterns that rule you.

Your mind already knows the right things to do. Slowly, you will begin minimising patterns that lead you in the direction of disease.

For 36 years, the UMass Medical School's Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society has tested and developed Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs and found them to be "scientifically proven to improve patient care and wellbeing."

They even run a clinic startup, focused on hospitals and clinicians who wish to get started with mindfulness programs for their populations.

So, where do you begin the conversation?

Do you ask your doctor? Or, do they ask you? Do you go to Rishikesh like John Lennon did? You could if you wanted to—it's a magical place.

However, the conversation, mindfulness says, must always begin within.

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