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Using Mindfulness in Therapy

Recent studies show that people today spend nearly half their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are currently doing.[1] We are all familiar with the experiences of driving to work and not remembering the drive, watching television and forgetting what program we were watching once the commercials start, or not be able to recall if we locked the house after we left this morning. These common experiences demonstrate the mindless state we so easily slip into during our everyday lives. Our minds are so distracted with thoughts of the past and worries about the future that we often forget about the present. Dwelling on the past can lead to feelings of depression and worrying about the future can cause anxiety; given how much time we spend doing these things, it is not surprising that rates of depression, anxiety, and stress have reached astounding highs in recent years.[2] Stress can cause a wide-range of health problems and has been plaguing our society with a variety of physical and emotional disorders.[3] Our ability to think of past and future events is part of what defines us as human, but this type of thinking often traps us outside of the present and distracts us from living our daily lives.[4] We need a better solution for managing our stress and eliminating wasted hours spent on unproductive, cyclic, and habitual thinking. One possible solution is mindfulness, which has been quickly gathering empirical evidence in support of its numerous benefits and effectiveness in therapy sessions.

Simply put, mindfulness is both a state and practice of being fully present in the moment by means of emptying our minds and focusing solely on the immediate experience. This enables us to authentically feel the magnitude and nuance of each experience in our lives by giving it our complete and undivided attention. Journalist, author, and tutor of personal and career development at the University of Sussex, Gill Hassan, writes that the key aspects of mindfulness are awareness, acknowledgement, acceptance, non-judgment, letting go, focus and engagement, beginner’s mind, and patience and trust. [5] Each of these qualities helps the individual disengage from distractions and focus their energy and attention to the present moment. Most of these aspects seem self-explanatory, yet by “beginner’s mind” Hassan means allowing for preconceived expectations and beliefs to be at least temporarily suspended so that we approach each experience with fresh eyes, and “patience and trust” refers to the understanding that all events will come to be in their own time.

Some people may be wary of the word “mindfulness” because they associate the idea with rigorous meditation or a seemingly impossible state of perfect calmness. To clarify, Hasson differentiates between formal and informal mindfulness.[6] Formal mindfulness is indeed a strict meditation practice, but informal mindfulness (the form Hasson recommends) is simply bringing awareness to our daily life. Unlike formal practices of mindfulness, informal mindfulness is actually a flexible practice that can easily fit into anyone’s schedule. Though bringing awareness to our life is not always easy, anyone can accomplish it if they practice some of the behaviors outlined below.

Another common misconception about mindfulness is the belief that it involves emptying our minds completely. Instead, mindfulness is about observing the patterns of our thoughts and noticing how they form and develop without judging or evaluating them.[7] The goal is not to change the current state, but rather to observe and process it.[8]

People spend a vast amount of time and cognition on preparing for possible events or imagining how past events could have been different. Not only is this a waste of time that causes us to miss out on the here and now, but these ideas also consume so much of our minds that we often let these false realties alter our beliefs and behaviors.[9] For example, most people often imagine conversations they wish had occurred or hope will occur. If a woman is experiencing tension in her relationship with her mother, she may think of what she would like to say to her mother and how that conversation might go. The way this conversation plays out in her mind, as it distracts her from whatever is currently happening in her present reality, may actually influence how she will interact with her mother going forward. If in her mind-conversation she explained her feelings to her mother and her mother took full responsibility and apologized, she may feel better and proceed to change her behavior in the relationship accordingly. This could be a problem, though, if her mother is still upset and waiting for her daughter to apologize. Spending too much time running over events in our minds not only takes us out of the present, but it can also lead to miscommunications and an out-of-touch sense with reality. Allowing our minds to obsessively analyze and worry over past, future, and alternate events is often exhausting and rarely productive.[10]

There are numerous simple ways to begin practicing mindfulness that can fit into anyone’s schedule and bring about positive effects. One of the simplest is to sit quietly and bring awareness to each of the senses by directing all attention towards noticing and observing what can be seen, smelled, heard, tasted, and felt.[11] Many individuals often find this practice opens them to sensory experiences they had never noticed before such as a beautiful flower they pass every day or the feeling of a soft pillow against their cheek in the morning. Another way to draw attention to the present is to focus on breathing.[12] Both of these practices can be done while waiting a red-light or standing in line, because as mentioned above, mindfulness can be done at any time. Author and practicing therapist Eric E. McCollum recalls that one of his teachers refers to the “sacred breath,” which grounds us in our bodies and anchors us to the present moment. [13] Other methods include body-scanning, where we gradually draw our attention to each part of the body and observe what is felt, and mantras, which are repeated phrases that break the cycle of habitual thought processes.[14]

Lastly, mindfulness is meant to be used as a long-term practice; it is not a quick-fix to relieve stress and other ailments.[15] Just like anything else that we attempt to turn into a habit, mindfulness requires regular practice and patience.[16] It is not easy to break patterns that have been enforced nearly our entire lives and it takes a conscious decision to bring ourselves out of futile worries and into a state of mindfulness. The rewards for such discipline, however, are great.

The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to promote a happier and more fulfilled life through increased engagement in the present and connection with others. Like most meditative practices (yoga, prayer, etc.) mindfulness offers a variety of health benefits, many of which are specifically relevant for clinical psychology.[17] Hasson writes that mindfulness gives the constantly working mind a much needed rest. [18] Additionally, she explains how mindfulness allows us to move beyond judgment so that thinking is more flexible and relaxed. An individual that is fully present is able to release unhelpful thoughts or cyclic cognitions and enjoy a more authentic state of mind. This can be particularly useful in therapeutic practices. With mindfulness we become more aware of their thoughts, which enables us to stop negative patterns of thinking and respond more appropriately to situations in our life. Greater presence and attention to detail enables us to focus our limited mind capacity on what is most important to us, such as relationships and self-care. Still even more benefits come from mindfulness practices in assisting with emotion management and improving connection with others.[19] Mindfulness can reduce depression, anxiety, pain, stress, and addictive behaviors; while improving mood, sensory sensations, connection with others, concentration, memory, and physical stamina.[20]

In terms of therapy, however, the primary goals for the use of mindfulness are to reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress; as well as encourage positive coping skills. Practicing mindfulness does not totally relieve these negative emotions at first, but it does offer a useful way of framing and dealing with these states so that they do not consume us.[21] Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction have both been used and proven effective in treating a variety of emotional disorders and chronic pain.[22] The primary use of mindfulness in this setting seems to be allowing the individual to think more broadly about themselves and their life in addition to breaking them of unconstructive emotional, cognitive, or behavioral patterns, which opens up new possibilities for healing.

The use of mindfulness practice in therapy aims to improve psychological health by allowing the individual to get out of negative thinking patterns and experience their life with a new perspective. While this field of study is still new, the science and research largely supports the health benefits of practicing mindfulness, particularly in reducing negative emotional/psychological states such as anxiety and depression. Thus, there is great potential in therapists using mindfulness-based practices to help their clients lead healthier and happier lives. If nothing else, mindfulness teaches self-discipline and self-care, which is always important for individuals suffering either psychologically or physically. Mindfulness practices require that we free ourselves of old thoughts and patterns and focus solely on the feelings and needs of the moment. This simple practice can bring great comfort to many and will only continue to demonstrate its therapeutic efficacy and benefits.

[1] Gill Hasson, Mindfulness: Be Mindful, Live in the Moment (Sussex: Capstone, 2013), 7.
[2] Hasson, 13.
[3] Caroline Sweet, The Mindfulness Journal: Exercises to Help You Find Peace and Calm Wherever You Are (Oxfrod: Boxtree, 2014),  21.
[4] Hasson, 25.
[5] Hasson, 22.
[6] Hasson, 18.
[7] Hasson, 24.
[8] Eric E. McCollum, Mindfulness for therapists: Practice for the heart (Sussex: Routledge, 2015), 17.
[9] McCollum, 23.
[10] Hasson, 16.
[11] Hasson, 20.
[12] McCollum, 27.
[13] McCollum, 28.
[14] McCollum, 31.
[15] McCollum, 23.
[16] Sweet, 8.
[17] Hasson, 27.
[18] Hasson, 18.
[19] Hasson, 22.
[20] Sweet, 12.
[21] Sweet, 35.
[22] Sweet, 17.
Hasson, Gill. Mindfulness: Be Mindful, Live in the Moment. Sussex: Capstone, 2013.
McCollum, Eric. E. Mindfulness for Therapists: Practice for the Heart. Sussex: Routledge, 2015.
Sweet, Caroline. The Mindfulness Journal: Exercises to Help You Find Peace and Calm Wherever You Are. Oxfrod: Boxtree, 2014.