“What happened when I took an NHS mindfulness course for my depression”

Posted by
Alice Purkiss

Mindfulness can be a powerful practise, and it’s now even prescribed by the NHS. Here, freelance writer Alice Purkiss checks in for a course of mindful cognitive behavioural therapy to treat her depression.

A few weeks ago, I was rushing across London in a flurry of absent mindedness. My brain was preoccupied with a mental checklist, stuffed full of things I had to do that evening and the next day. I was distracted by thoughts of the afternoon I was leaving behind me. Small worries were encroaching on my consciousness. I felt my mind whirring, taking me off in a direction I didn’t want to go.

And then I noticed the sky. I’ve always been captivated by the light and colour of the sky at this time of the year, but after recent events in my personal life, I’ve become obsessed. I stopped. I noticed the rich redness, weaved in with golden hues and glittering pinks, as the sun set behind classic London townhouses. I felt my breath as it filled my lungs, felt my feet on the ground beneath me and I took it all in. 

I must have stood there for five or six minutes concentrating on the feeling of my breath as it made its way through my body - from my nostrils, through my chest and into my abdomen. I concentrated on being entirely present, taking in the moment. I tried to quiet the flurry of thoughts that were running away with me. I set them to one side, so that I could fully enjoy the moment.

“I concentrated on being entirely present, taking in the moment.”     

I know how hippy dippy this sounds. But hear me out. My brain and I have not always been at one with each other. In fact, we’ve grappled with each other a lot throughout my adult life. I’ve been plagued by an often crippling depression, which usually comes hand-in-hand with an overwhelming anxiety. I swing violently from being unable to decide which pair of socks to put on in case I choose the “wrong” ones to feeling absolutely nothing at all, seeing the world in black and white and not even recognising my own face in the mirror. I’ve been taking antidepressants for over three years and have undergone 18 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to learn a range of coping strategies to deal with the thought patterns I experience, and stop them from taking over my mood. I’ve given my mental health a lot of attention over the last few years, and I don’t feel ready to stop. 

But when my CBT practitioner suggested I undertake an NHS course in Mindful CBT (MCBT), I was sceptical. I’d tried meditating before and found that, conversely, the practise often brought up more thoughts and feelings than it alleviated. While I knew that mindfulness had been proven to benefit those with anxiety and depression, I couldn’t fathom how it might help me deal with my own demons. The prospect of sitting with a group of people and talking about our issues filled me with dread, but willing to try anything once, I decided to go along to the course with an open mind and give it a go.

In the first session, I sat in a circle with ten strangers as we took over 10 minutes to eat a raisin, and wondered what on earth I had let myself in for. But when someone who had done the course before described it as “life changing”, I figured it was worth persevering.

Nearly nine weeks since that first session, I’ve learned a lot about being mindful, from how to use it in my everyday life to ways to help me sit with negative thoughts and feelings that my depression and anxiety bring up on a regular basis. Mindfulness and meditation doesn’t aim to get rid of the negative thoughts that we have, it aims to teach us how to feel them, to recognise and to process them. Every session starts with a 30-40 minute meditation and we’re given homework every week to expand on our practice. The course is designed particularly for people who have had experience of mental health issues, namely moderate to severe depression.

We’re being guided through the process of becoming more mindful whilst utilising some basic CBT tools developed by specialist psychiatrists. Our weekly homework varies from working with difficulty meditations to body scans, sitting meditations and what I’ve come to call an SOS “Breathing Space” - three minutes of meditation which I can turn to when things are getting a bit too much. 

 “Our homework includes SOS ‘Breathing Space’ - three minutes of meditation which I can turn to when things are getting a bit too much.”

During the course, I’ve realised just how much my brain has held me hostage in the past. Mindfulness has become the ransom that needed to be paid on order to set me free. I am so very, very grateful that my local NHS psychological service has offered me this incredible opportunity to tune back in with my life and take control of the way my brain has terrorised me in the past. 

It’s certainly far from an overnight fix - doing mindfulness in this way when you’re already predisposed to excessive rumination can make things worse before it makes things better, but there’s irrefutable evidence that mindfulness isn’t just a buzzword. According to recent research, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can help people just as much as commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs. Not only that, but the research found those who received MCBT were 31% less likely to experience a relapse of their depression.

And the sheer number of people using mindfulness in their day-to-day lives, regardless of their mental health statuses, speaks for itself. Popular meditation app Headspace has over 20 million users and is one of the top-rated health and fitness apps on iTunes. More people than ever are turning to the Buddhism-based technique to bring a little more calm and space to their lives.

For me, mindfulness and meditation has been a game-changer. I’m not under any illusions that I’ll never experience depression again. I know my brain well enough to understand that I could experience the feeling of my mind turning on me again in the future. But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that this course has given me more tools to deal with the demons if they come knocking. For that, I’m incredibly grateful to the NHS. And I hope that this feeling continues long after the course has finished.

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A beginner’s guide to meditation

● Find a quiet place to sit. Position yourself with your feet on the floor and your spine straight. Close your eyes if that feels comfortable. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be your nose, it might be your lungs or your abdomen. Concentrate on this area for a couple of minutes.

● Don’t beat yourself up if thoughts come and go while you’re meditating - that’s what minds do. Treat every exercise in mindfulness with kindness and curiosity. There’s no right or wrong way to be mindful. Even noticing that your mind is wandering means you’re being more mindful of what your thoughts are doing.

● Bring mindfulness into your every day by concentrating on the feeling of your feet on the floor as you walk, or the sensations in your body as you move. You can consider how the wind feels on your face or how your clothes feel on your skin.

● Add mindful moments into your day - try to do everyday things and concentrate on what you’re doing. Everything from cleaning your teeth to drying your hair, having a shower, cooking your lunch and even watching the TV can all be done in the spirit of mindfulness.

Images: Joshua Rawson Harris, Ela Defaria, iStock