For the many who regularly practice yoga and various forms of meditation, these traditional methods of relaxation are the key to an holistic way of life-a means in which to treat the body, soul, and mind. While many use yoga as a form of exercise and meditation as a way to relax, there are theories emerging about the powers of these far eastern practices and their ability to clinically reduce stress.
Rachael Crowder believes there's real merit to these ancient physical and mental exercises, and she sees a real opportunity to harness their power to help the chronically ill and those who are suffering from mental distress. The assistant professor in the University of Calgary's Southern Alberta division of the Faculty of Social Work studies the area of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) and other mindfulness-based modalities, which she describes as "Third Wave mental health interventions."
For Crowder, the concept of using meditation as therapy came after she learned about the work of John Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School while working at the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre in the early 90's. Kabat-Zinn pioneered MBSR, which incorporates the concepts, theories and practice of yoga and meditation into conventional forms of therapy. Kabat-Zinn is also the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass, which, to date, has treated more than 18,000 people with an array of conditions, both mental and physical. Crowder received her MBSR professional training with Kabat-Zinn in 2006, followed quickly with professional training in MindfulnessBased Cognitive Therapy with Dr. Zindel Segal at the Omega Institute in New York.
"Mindfulness is based in Buddhist philosophy and psychology, and the genius of Jon Kabat Zinn was his ability to translate an Eastern approach to understanding the mind into language and a practice that was palatable to the Western mind and culture," explains Crowder. "He also introduced it into a medical setting, so as a result he had to constantly defend his approach with scientific evidence. Luckily, Kabat-Zinn has a PhD in molecular biology, so he is no slouch intellectually!"
So over the many decades since," she continues, "he and other well respected researchers have evaluated and investigated this approach and brain physiology in general. As a result, we have the scientific evidence that proves that what you think actually changes the structure of your brain, and that mindfulness harnesses that brain plasticity in a purposeful and positive way. When we practice mindfulness awareness generally, or mindfulness meditation, we gain skills to change the way we think and in turn we change our brain structure."
Mindfulness was originally brought to the UMass Medical Center to work with people with chronic pain, stress and other diagnoses including terminal illnesses. It has been proven to lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and speed the healing of psoriasis, and it also helps with the physical symptoms resulting from a chronically stressed body. Mindfulness has been integrated into other approaches to help people with other challenges and mental health issues, including cognitive therapies for the prevention of relapse for chronic depression, addiction and trauma.
Crowder, who has been with the U of C's Faculty of Social Work for just under two years is in the process of putting the finishing touches on her PhD thesis entitled, "Healing the Self: The Role of Self-Compassion and Empathy in a Mindfulness-based Modality for Women Who Have Experienced Interpersonal Violence". Crowder hopes her research will add to the growing understanding of how mindfulness helps women recover from post traumatic stress.
With a University of Calgary Research Grant awarded in the spring of 2010, Crowder has begun a study into mindfulness and its potential to ameliorate and prevent burnout in the social work profession; she hopes to have the results of her research completed by this fall. On May 4 and 5, she will facilitate a two-day workshop at the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work Centre for Professional Development, focusing on the integration of mindfulness into clinical practice. Integrating Mindfulness into Clinical Practice: An Introduction is open social workers and other health care professionals, including students. "This workshop provides an opportunity for professionals to hear and discuss mindfulness history, theory, ethics, philosophy and its applications for the therapeutic relationship; the neurophysiology of mindfulness; the use of mindfulness-based interventions; and mindfulness practice as self-care." Crowder explains, and she adds, "This experiential workshop is interspersed with formal and informal mindfulness practice, including guided meditation and gentle yoga."