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Meditation aims to raise spirits

By Victoria Owen, Oxford Mail, Feb 11, 2007

Oxford, UK -- Patients suffering from depression are being invited to chill out like Buddhist monks to prevent them from committing suicide.

<< Dr Thorsten Barnhofer attaches sensors to Dr Catherine Crane's head to monitor brain activity

Psychologists at Oxford University have started meditation and yoga classes for people in severely low moods, to see if it can help lift their emotions and stop their condition progressing to a point of self-harm.

The ancient relaxation techniques, similar to those used by Buddhist monks for hundreds of years, have already proved helpful at stopping patients prone to clinical depression from having relapses. Now researchers at the university's department of psychiatry, led by Prof Mark Williams and Dr Thorsten Barnhofer, want to find out whether the therapies are successful among people already feeling down.

Research psychologist Dr Caroline Crane said: "The therapy combines cognitive therapy with training in meditation and yoga.

"The meditation helps people learn to distance themselves from negative thoughts and also helps with relaxation. It helps them to stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future.

"The techniques have been used by people like Buddhist monks for years. They can open their minds to anything as a result. It's different from group therapy, because instead of talking about their problems, they're learning skills."

Although most people feel low at some stage in their lives, clinical depression leads to a complete lack of interest in anything, leaving sufferers feeling worthless and affecting sleep and eating.

It can get so bad that patients often feel life is not worth living, leaving them suicidal. Every year in the UK, 1,700 people attend hospital following deliberate self-harm and there are about 5,000 suicides.

As part of the meditation trials, the team, based at the Warneford Hospital, in Headington, is writing to Oxford GPs inviting patients who have contemplated suicide in the past, and still feel low, to take part.

Following initial meetings, volunteers join small groups for eight weekly classes and listen to CDs at home.

The team is also studying the biological affects of meditation, by looking at activity levels in the brain.

Positive-minded people show different brain activity to those feeling low, so the researchers want to find out whether the relaxation techniques can shift the balance.

Prof Williams said: "We're on the brink of discovering really important things about how to prevent depression and suicidal feelings.

"We're moving away from simply treating people's problems to helping people find a life worth living."

For more details, contact the research team in confidence by calling free on 0800 0836130 or send an email to stress.reduction@psych.ox.ac.uk

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