A study shows that just a subjective awareness that we are doing something healthy causes actual improvements in our health. Does this give any clues about how therapy works?
Under the somewhat misleading title Mindful Exercise, the New York Times reports a fascinating study published in the journal Psychological Sciencein which a group of cleaners, whose fitness levels were as poor as the average person with a sedentary lifestyle, were told that their jobs provided enough exercise to meet the levels recommended for health while a control group were not given the same ‘information’. After a period of time the cleaners who had been given ‘information’ (false) about the amount of calories burnt by the tasks they performed had significantly improved results in health checks, with lower blood pressure and weight. While there were no reported differences in behaviour, just the subjective awareness that they were doing healthy exercise seemed to provoke genuine physical changes in the women studied.
I am not sure what these results mean — it doesn’t seem to be mindfulness which is the factor here. I would define mindfulness as being completely at one with the task in hand and simultaneously aware of being and doing it, a state which is the opposite of performing a task in order to achieve a goal.
We do not have enough information on the study here to say whether the cleaners were cleaning in a more mindful, conscious way, relaxing and concentrating, whether they were using the power of positive visualisation and seeing themselves as other than they were, as fit and abounding in health, or whether they were encouraged by having been given concrete information to attain their goal; maybe they felt that their work was valued, and so were they. To recap, mindful awareness, positive visualisation, motivation to achieve or raised self esteem may each have been at the heart of the matter, the catalyst for change. I’m sure the answer was different for each of them, but a study of their reported processes might have yielded some interesting results.
I personally liken the study to the process of therapy, in which changes occur within people, with effects on their lives. It is hard to say what exactly is the cause, but you could say that part of it is the therapist’s stating of what the client is doing now, who they are now, what resources they have, and that this has an intrinsic value. Maybe clients also need this to be measurable. Once they see where the value of what they already do lies, they can act in accordance with that, which automatically moves them forward.
When the researchers told the study participants false facts about their activities they turned out only to be a little ahead of the truth. Maybe therapists being with clients who are broken by various situations in their lives, are not lying or ‘being nice’ or manipulatively ’empowering’, but just seeing a little way ahead into the potential that is always sitting there right in front of us, right inside us.
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