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Mindfulness gaining traction on Canadian campuses

Although it’s a relatively new field of research, results are “encouraging.”

By CATHERINE COUTURIER | MAR 14 2016

A master’s program in contemplative inquiry at Simon Fraser University, mandatory mindfulness programs for future physicians at McGill University, and mindfulness courses and workshops for students at Université de Montréal – after winning over the business community, mindfulness is playing a growing role on campuses. As well, “We’re seeing an explosion of research in the field,” says Andrea Grabovac, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.

Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist traditions and has been practised for 2,600 years. Practitioners of this form of meditation seek to “deliberately direct their attention towards what they are experiencing in the present moment . . ., in other words, regulate their attention to be alert and attentive to what is happening inside them and around them, moment by moment,” explain Alexandra Nedelcu and Simon Grégoire in their book La présence attentive (mindfulness), recently published by Les Presses de l’Université du Québec. “Being mindful also involves welcoming what you perceive with kindness and curiosity.”

Over the last 15 years or so, empirical research on the effects and benefits of mindfulness meditation has been on the rise. “The field of research is still young, not having fully matured, but the results are encouraging. We are realizing that its practice has all kinds of benefits for both clinical and non-clinical populations,” says Dr. Grégoire, a professor in the department of education and pedagogy at Université du Québec à Montréal and director of the Groupe de Recherche et d’Intervention sur la Présence Attentive (the mindfulness research and intervention group, or GRIPA).

Practising this form of meditation may help reduce anxiety and stress, says Diana Koszycki, a psychologist and professor in the faculties of education and medicine at the University of Ottawa. “But, we don’t know exactly how it works and who it works best for, who will benefit from it.”

Dr. Koszycki, along with Kieron O’Connor of Université de Montréal, is investigating the effects of mindfulness compared to more traditional therapy on patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. “We know that MBCT [mindfulness-based cognitive therapy] can prevent relapses in depressive patients, but is it better than other approaches? We still don’t know if it might be contraindicated for some patients,” said Dr. Koszycki, whose work is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

At UBC, Dr. Grabovac is trying to understand the mechanisms of mindfulness in order to improve the effectiveness of treatments. “The trend in research has moved from establishing efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions to investigating mechanisms of mindfulness, as well as developing more precise measurement tools of both subjective and objective experience,” she says. Dr. Grabovac is doing collaborative research for two CIHR-funded projects, including a comparative study of delivery models (in groups or individually, by phone or online) for mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Dr. Grégoire and two co-researchers from GRIPA published La présence attentive (mindfulness) to establish a common language and better define the meditation techniques and methods used in studies. “We don’t all agree on how to measure mindfulness,” says Dr. Grégoire. “Also, few randomized trials have been done so far, which limits research.”

There is no shortage of research angles — reducing pain, increasing empathy, preventing depression, boosting concentration – and Dr. Grégoire believes that certain areas, such as contemplative neuroscience, are particularly promising. “With magnetic resonance, we can see what happens neurologically when someone meditates by having them verbalize their experience. We’re combining a contemplative method with more objective research methods.”

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