This morning’s post could easily be a rant – I have two hanging around. One is about wristbands, the other about the dentist. However, I am trying to live more along the lines of a saying that goes, ‘whatever angers you, owns you.’ In that spirit, I am working not to allow petty annoyances throw my day off kilter this early. Mindfulness practice is the route I take. This non-secular meditation practice also featured on this week’s Horizon programme…
For as long as humans have gone to work, they have suffered occupational accidents and diseases. From the Stone Age hunter who severed an artery making yet another flint-tipped arrow, to the high incidence of scrotal cancer in Victorian chimney sweeps, work has made us ill. Flicking through ‘Diseases of Workers’, published in 1700, shows that, notwithstanding industrial, technological and digital revolutions, certain work-related health issues have persisted, which led to the book’s author, Bernardini Ramazzini, to be dubbed the Father of Occupational Medicine. Take what we call repetitive strain injury: Ramozzini observed that clerks suffered from ‘incessant driving of the pen over paper.’ The unfortunate clerks were also, like many of us now, ‘chair workers’ and could not escape the ‘lumbago’ that he noted ‘afflicts all sedentary workers’. This is an example of 18th century occupational health advice – in Ramazzini’s prescription for a bad back
‘Take physical exercise, at any rate on holidays.’
Surely working conditions have improved over the intervening 313 years – isn’t that why elfin safety was invented? 21st century bakers no longer ‘become bow-legged’ and sewer workers are not completely blinded, so it appears we have reduced perilous working conditions and associated diseases. Modern work can still be physically hazardous, an extreme case being the Texas fertiliser plant explosion, but perhaps the most pernicious is in the invisible killer: stress. We know stress can play an underlying role in many chronic diseases. After bereavement and divorce, work is the third highest contributor to our stress levels and elevated stress levels, over a prolonged period, are seriously deleterious to health, and the nation’s coffers. Ramazzini’s lumbago now costs the UK £7 billion a year, mental health, an almost inconceivable, £100 billion plus. Only yesterday, I met a friend whose apparently fit and healthy husband, in his forties, had suffered a heart attack. The doctors attributed it to work stress. An economy in recession only exacerbates the situation and reducing stress levels should be a personal and political health priority.
Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, is sobering, ‘If you look at just children and young people and students, their stress and anxiety levels in the 1950s for example, and you track that carefully… what you find is that people by the ’80s and ’90s were now the average level of anxiety that was equivalent to clinical levels in the 1950s.’ And that’s before they get to work… How do we help ourselves? Relax more, certainly, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Goggling at screens might feel like stress reduction but, biologically, it’s not. There’s a more effective way of actually reducing your levels of the stress hormone cortisol: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the updated, secular take on the ancient practice of meditation and it doesn’t involve a hard floor whilst tying your legs in a knot. Instead of promising esoteric nirvana, mindfulness practice relies on a growing body of clinical evidence from practitioners like Professor Williams who, with others, has developed mindfulness techniques including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – approved by NICE in the UK as a treatment for recurring depression.
New research, published this March in ‘Health Psychology’ suggests regular practice in developing mindfulness techniques may measurably reduce cortisol levels in the body. The study, conducted by the University of California, Davis Centre for Mind and Brain, concluded that it had demonstrated a direct link between increased mindfulness and resting cortisol levels. 57 participants spent 3 months on a meditation retreat, being instructed in elements of mindfulness e.g. focusing on the present moment, mindful breathing and cultivating positive mental states and compassionate hearts. Researchers measured the cortisol levels in participants’ saliva and rated their mindfulness level at the beginning and end of the retreat.
The study reported, ‘At an individual level, there was a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol both before and after the retreat. Individuals whose mindfulness score increased after the retreat showed a decrease in cortisol.’ Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher on the project added, ‘The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol.’
Regrettably, there was no control group, so one cannot rule out the possibility that simply spending three months on retreat would have had the same effect on cortisol levels… But having tried mindfulness myself, I can subjectively report that its functional benefits don’t seem to be purely confined to the luxury of spending three months with one’s feet up in California. I really do feel less stressed by just keeping my focus in the present moment. Still, this latest finding joins existing research in suggesting that far from being helpless in the face of our stressful lives, reducing its effects might be as simple as where and how we direct our thoughts.