Health: Can meditation ease the stress epidemic?

Dr Elliot Cohen leading a mindfulness and meditation workshop at Headingley Carnegie Stadium. Picture by James Hardisty.

Dr Elliot Cohen leading a mindfulness and meditation workshop at Headingley Carnegie Stadium. Picture by James Hardisty.

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The pressures of modern life are leading more of us to declare ourselves stressed.

Long hours, finances, family life and the recession are among the issues that have led the World Health Organization to deem stress “the health epidemic of the 21st Century”.

Reporter Jonathan Brown taking part in the mindfulness meditation workshop. Picture by James Hardisty.

Reporter Jonathan Brown taking part in the mindfulness meditation workshop. Picture by James Hardisty.

Just last week YouGov and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) reported that 29 per cent of people in the UK are stressed according to a poll of 2,000 adults, and nearly half of workers struggle to switch off from their jobs.

The MHF has deemed mindfulness as a ray of hope in treating stress, but is a practice with roots in ancient Buddhism really applicable today?

Leeds Beckett University certainly thinks so. In 2011 it became the first university in the UK to run modules in mindfulness meditation in psychology undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Dr Elliot Cohen, chartered psychologist and lecturer at Leeds Beckett, says the practice has helped him to maintain the “work-life balance” over 20 years, having first written about it as a student in 1998.

Dr Elliot Cohen leading the workshop. Picture James Hardisty.

Dr Elliot Cohen leading the workshop. Picture James Hardisty.

“It allows you to become more aware of the mind and aware of the emotions and the body, and that emotion and awareness allows people a little bit more control of their minds and lives,” he said.

“We are told your mind can be your best friend and your worst enemy, particularly when you come across destructive thoughts, and meditation can make you aware and see past them. It helps maintain and generate a sense of calm.”

In spreading this message, Dr Cohen started leading open-to-all workshops on mindfulness meditation at Headingley Carnegie Stadium in January.

I don’t claim to be crippled by stress but zoning out is not one of my strengths, so I took a seat in a workshop with others citing everything from work-related insomnia to headaches.

The ‘Hold and Release’ practice, which is based on theory from ancient Tai Chi and Qigung, was my introduction. Seated cross-legged on bean bag cushions, we grasped our shoulders with opposing hands. We leant forward and then back over five minutes, concentrating on posture, breathing and thoughts.

Beforehand I thought I was relatively calm, but it wasn’t until I emerged from the narrated exercise that I realised just how tense I was, it genuinely set me up for the day.

MHF chief executive Jenny Edwards CBE said last week that “mindfulness is one of the most encouraging practices to support good mental health”. The emergence of mindfulness apps like Headspace, which has been downloaded in 150 countries, seems to suggest there is foundation to that.

There is no magic wand that will solve society’s stress issues but becoming more self aware and finding the time to relax could certainly help.

SPREADING THE WORD ON MEDITATION

Leeds Beckett University has been running its British Psychological Society-accredited workshops since January.

The sessions are a mixture of practical elements and theory, with information on the original Buddhist teachings to the latest findings from neuroscience.

The mindfulness workshops are led by Dr Elliot Cohen, a senior lecturer in psychology at the institution.

For information email hss-cpd@leedsbeckett.ac.uk or visit www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk.

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