Online Mindfulness Program Helps Patients With Depression, Trial Finds

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by Lindsey Shapiro, PhD |

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Eight weeks of an online mindfulness program significantly lowered levels of depression and improved quality of life in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers in Australia report.

“This study adds to growing evidence on how wellness strategies can help people with MS to reduce symptoms and enable fuller participation in society,” the National MS Society stated in a press release.

The study, “A randomized controlled trial of a web-based mindfulness programme for people with MS with and without a history of recurrent depression,” was published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal.

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MS carries emotional challenges as well physical ones, and bouts of depression and anxiety can worsen disease symptoms as well as affect life quality.

Wellness strategies, such as exercise, dietary changes, stress management, and meditation are considered to be of help.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that guides a person in become more aware and accepting of their experiences, with the ultimate goal of turning negative reactions that could worsen pain and emotional distress toward positive thoughts.

Researchers at the University of Sydney developed an eight-week online mindfulness program for MS patients that consisted of five interactive modules: an introduction to mindfulness management and simple awareness, dealing with stress, dealing with difficult emotions and pain, dealing with thoughts, and mindful communication, compassion, and relapse prevention.

Each module, about 15–20 minutes long, included examples of how mindfulness techniques can be applied to life with MS. They were delivered once over the course of the program, with each module spaced one-to-two weeks apart, and accompanied by guided audio tapes.

To determine the online program’s effectiveness, the team conducted a clinical trial (ACTRN12618001260213) in 132 adult MS patients, randomly assigned to either the mindfulness program or no intervention (placed on a waiting list).

A psychologist also spoke with patients in the mindfulness group by telephone, generally once each week, offering guidance, resolving technical problems, and encouraging participation.

Participants were asked to watch the online modules and complete 30 minutes of individual mindfulness meditation each day using the audio tapes. They were also encouraged to keep “mindfulness logs” to track these activities.

The trial’s main goal was to determine if the program eased depressive symptoms. Secondary goals included changes in quality of life, anxiety, pain, and fatigue. These measures were evaluated at the study’s start and again at week nine, as well as three and six months after the program’s completion.

Patients given the mindfulness program reported a significant lessening in depression compared with those on the waiting list. People with a history of recurrent depression showed a significantly greater benefit.

Health-related quality of life also significantly improved with use of mindfulness, regardless of depression history, the researchers reported. No significant changes were evident in anxiety, pain severity, or fatigue.

Benefits seen were maintained in evaluations six months after the program’s end, and waitlist participants were subsequently offered access to this program.

These findings suggest that mindfulness may be an effective way to relieve depression and improve life quality in people with MS.

“The Internet-delivered MBI [mindfulness-based intervention] significantly improved depressive symptoms” and health-related quality of life, the researchers concluded.

Consistent with these findings, another recent study showed that mindfulness practices could help regulate emotional responses and ease depressive symptoms in MS patients.

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