What is Mindfulness Therapy?
Mindfulness, as a general practice, is a way of becoming more fully aware of ourselves and our environment. Through mindfulness techniques, we learn to pay more attention to the present moment, where we can observe our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations – in a non-judgmental way.
Being mindful allows us to slow down and notice how our thoughts drive our emotions and behaviour. Through mindfulness practices, such as breathing exercises and meditation, we learn to observe the many ways that we get caught up in rumination, distraction and resistance – often running on ‘automatic pilot’. We can then learn how to free ourselves from any negative thought patterns and discover positive new perspectives and behaviours – improving our mental wellbeing and quality of life.
Whilst mindfulness is grounded in ancient Eastern philosophy and Buddhist teachings, it is not limited to any particular religion or philosophy. It is a quality that we all possess and can all learn to cultivate and increase through practice.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the introduction of mindfulness into Western medicine in the late 1970s, defines it as ‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to things as they are’.
Mindfulness Therapy, also called Mindfulness-Based Therapy, is a type of psychotherapy that uses this practice of mindfulness to promote good mental and physical health.
Guided by a therapist, mindfulness skills rebalance our neural networks, allowing us to move away from automatic negative responses towards an understanding that there are other ways to respond to situations. Once learned, mindfulness techniques provide long-term solutions that we can continue to use in our everyday lives, once treatment is complete.
It can be used by therapists of any theoretical orientation – psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal – in the treatment of many diagnoses, from depression and anxiety to trauma and addictions.
Mindfulness Therapy is now arguably one of the fastest-growing areas in mental health, and its benefits are supported by a growing empirical evidence base.
Types of therapy that incorporate Mindfulness Therapy
As a therapy, mindfulness is one of the most versatile and can be used both as a standalone treatment and/or to enrich other types of therapy, including Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
DBT is a cognitive-behaviour approach adapted for people struggling with emotional regulation, interpersonal conflict and self-destructive behaviours. It places emphasis on balancing acceptance with change. DBT utilises four key skills: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation.
ACT is an evidence-based approach that focuses on being open to what troubles us and then actively choosing a course of action for change. It can be very powerful because it places us in control of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. Mindfulness (awareness) is one of the key tools used in ACT to help us see these with greater clarity and without judgment.
MBCT was specifically adapted for people suffering repeated bouts of depression. It blends features of cognitive therapy with mindfulness practices. However, unlike cognitive therapy, MBCT involves accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment, rather than attempting to evaluate or change their content. Individuals can make a radical shift in their relationship to the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that contribute to depressive relapse and learn to respond more effectively to them.
MBSR was the first mindfulness program to be developed within a healthcare setting. Originally used to help people with chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, chronic pain and anxiety disorders, it is now much more widespread. It uses traditional Buddhist mindfulness meditation techniques (moving from a focus on the breathing to an expanded awareness of thoughts, sensations and feelings), gentle yoga and stretching exercises to incorporate mindfulness into daily life to reduce stress.
Other examples of therapies that apply mindfulness techniques include:
- Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement (MBRE) – teaches interpersonal practices for couples.
- Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) – a specific intervention for binge-eating disorder.
- Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT) – combines the benefits of mindfulness training within the structure of an art therapy framework.
- Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) – combines cognitive behaviour therapy with mindfulness practice to help with drug and alcohol addictions.
What is Mindfulness Therapy used to treat?
Although there is still much to learn about mindfulness within therapy settings, the current body of scientific research on its effects in psychotherapy is promising.
So far, research has shown that Mindfulness Therapy is effective in treating a wide range of mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Sleep disorders (including insomnia)
- Stress management.
Studies are also in progress to look at the efficacy of Mindfulness Therapy in treating physical health problems, such as asthma, breast cancer, chronic pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fibromyalgia, HIV/AIDS, menopause symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.
What does Mindfulness Therapy involve? / What can I expect?
Mindfulness Therapy can include individual and group therapy sessions, where we learn mindfulness skills and how to apply them to psychological problems.
The therapist will teach mindfulness techniques, as well as basic principles of cognition (such as the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour). They will also assign homework tasks designed to deepen our experience.
The ultimate goal is to help us establish our own regular, mindfulness practice that informs every part of our lives – through which we can find more balance, peace and fulfilment.
The number of different mindfulness techniques is virtually endless, but the four foundations are mindfulness of your body, feelings, mind (or consciousness) and how your mind operates.
Mindfulness techniques include:
- breathing techniques
- sitting meditations
- walking meditations
- body scanning
- therapeutic yoga
- creative visualisation/guided imagery
Through a combination of these techniques, we develop two core skills, which increase our self-regulation and self-management, creativity and cognitive, emotional and behavioural flexibility:
We learn to self-regulate our attention, so that it is focused and sustained in the present moment, freeing ourselves from habitual judgments and interpretations.
We develop a healthy attitude towards our own experiences, in the present moment, characterised by curiosity, openness, compassion and acceptance.
Being mindful in a weekly therapy session, with a trained professional, is a positive thing. One of the greatest benefits is that we are learning and practising mindfulness techniques until we develop a mindful attitude. We can then carry that beneficial attitude into our daily life, ensuring long-term recovery and wellbeing.
How effective is Mindfulness Therapy?
The practise of mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, but it is only more recently that it has become a discrete term within academic medicine and psychology. We now have the ability to see how mindfulness techniques can actually change the wiring and the makeup of our brains, which had not been possible before. They are one of the most effective ways to produce localised and specific biological changes in the brain. Through practice and time, it is actually possible to train our minds to be happy!
The growing empirical evidence base continues to provide support for the efficacy of Mindfulness Therapy as an intervention for a wide spectrum of mental and physical health issues. As a result, mindfulness is being incorporated into many aspects of life in Western societies, including education, business, prisons, sports and government.
Sustained beneficial effects include: reducing addictive behaviours, reducing stress and anxiety, reducing chronic physical pain, boosting the immune system, increasing our ability to cope with difficult life events and/or negative emotions, reducing insomnia, increasing self-awareness and increasing concentration.
If you, or a loved one, would like to find out more about Mindfulness Therapy please contact us for further information and support.