Interest in the concept of mindfulness has skyrocketed in the last 15 years. The ability to be aware of and at peace with one’s current state is a skill that is useful in virtually any context. In mindfulness therapy (also called mindfulness-based therapy), clients can learn how to use these skills to address thought and behavior patterns that have caused dysfunction.
Mindfulness therapy can take place with an individual therapist or in a mindful therapy group. Both approaches can lead a client to a deeply satisfying and sustainable way of handling everyday situations.
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What Is Mindfulness?
The concept of mindfulness has become popular in our culture for many reasons, but what is mindfulness, exactly? Does it require living a simple life on a mountaintop, meditation in a lotus position by a peaceful stream or maintaining a yoga pose on a mat? While those situations can certainly promote it, mindfulness can be utilized in everyday thought and behavior. One mindfulness definition states:
“Mindfulness allows you to establish life in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.”
The quote comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who introduced mindfulness concepts to many Western audiences in the 1970s. One of his students, clinical psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, integrated these teachings with research findings to help pioneer mindfulness therapy. According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, one mindfulness definition is:
“… the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to things as they are.”
How Mindfulness Is Used in Therapy
In mindfulness, participants are asked to practice being aware of their current environments — their surroundings, their thoughts, their feelings — in an accepting and non-judgmental way. Mindfulness therapy uses the concept of mindfulness to increase overall psychological and physical well-being.
Teaching mindfulness in therapy can be both challenging and rewarding. It may be difficult for clients to shift their thoughts away from past mistakes or future worries. However, the freedom clients can feel by accepting their thoughts without judgment is invaluable.
Types of Mindfulness-Based Interventions
Because of their ability to treat many health conditions, mindfulness-based interventions have become widely utilized. In the field of psychotherapy, mindfulness is the central concept in a variety of treatment options.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
In the early 1980s, Dr. Kabat-Zinn adapted the mindfulness teachings he had learned and created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Originally designed to help hospitalized patients reduce blood pressure and anxiety, MBSR was found to help in many other ways. Now, MBSR programs can be found in corporate offices, sports clubhouses and high school classrooms.
Most MBSR programs are group workshops which focus on “acquisition of mindful awareness.” Workshops usually last for eight weeks, with groups meeting weekly for 2.5-hour sessions. In MBSR programs, trained therapists teach clients how to
- Practice mindfulness meditation
- Be in touch with body sensations
- Accept and be at peace with body sensations
- Execute basic yoga postures
The primary goal of an MBSR program is to teach mindfulness practices well enough to integrate them into everyday thoughts and activities. As participants experience the substantial benefits of MBSR programs, an increasing number of people are now willing to practice mindful meditation.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Students of Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR programs developed a therapy that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness techniques. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help those with depressive disorders.
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (also called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or MBCT) helps people develop an awareness of the state of their bodies and minds as they experience their moods. By practicing mindfulness in everyday activities like eating or cleaning, clients learn how to manage natural shifts in mood, including feelings of sadness or depression. Over time, participants develop strategies for understanding and managing their current feelings.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Another therapeutic approach which pairs mindfulness with cognitive behavioral therapy is dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT. This therapy was developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan at the University of Washington in the 1980s to treat borderline personality and other patients prone to chronically suicidal thoughts. Dialectical behavioral therapy asks the therapist to develop non-judgmental acceptance of the patient and asks the patient to develop non-judgmental acceptance of feelings.
The term “dialectical” refers to the search for resolution between two contradictions or conflicting opinions. Dialectical behavioral therapy is performed in groups and limited individual sessions, which help therapists and clients identify unhealthy behaviors and set appropriate limits around them.
Dialectical behavioral therapy aims to help patients accomplish several goals:
- Establish the therapist as an ally
- Experience emotions without critique or attachment
- Tolerate emotional extremes with more balance
- Teach patients how to live in the present
- Improve communication with others
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
The primary feature of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is the goal of accepting one’s emotions and behaviors rather than avoiding or being in conflict with them. By using their personal value system, a person can commit to changing behaviors that don’t align with their values.
To achieve these goals, ACT-trained therapists help clients look for ways to come to terms with feelings and work on building the skills which can create lasting changes. Acceptance and commitment therapy is succinctly embodied by a staple of 12-step programs called the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Mindfulness Therapy in Addiction and Mental Health Treatment
Mindfulness therapies have particularly effective applications in the treatment of addictive disorders and mental health conditions. In addition to the mindfulness mental health treatments DBT and MBCT, addictive disorders are remarkably responsive to mindfulness-based therapy.
In addiction, behaviors often lack mindfulness. Hallmarks of addiction include cravings that create an urgency to act without thinking, excessive consumption and patterns of unconscious behavior. Since not being conscious of one’s behavior is the very opposite of mindfulness, treatment and relapse prevention strategies often ask clients to develop greater consciousness around their emotional lives and behavior.
In 12-step programs, steps 10 and 11 calls for participants to be mindful of potentially destructive behavior and improve conscious contact with the divine through prayer and meditation. Because of this, there is a natural synergy between mindfulness and addiction treatment.
If you struggle with addiction or a co-occurring mental health disorder, mindfulness-based therapy can be a powerful tool on the path toward recovery. Our extensive network of experienced and caring therapists utilize mindfulness techniques in many treatment programs. Contact The Recovery Village today to begin treatment for addiction and mental health conditions.
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Greater Good Magazine. “Mindfulness Definition.” 2019. Accessed May 16. 2019.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S. and Walach, H. “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: a meta-analysis.” Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, June 14, 2010. Accessed May 16, 2019.
Sibe, Walter and Eisendrath, Stuart. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: theory and practice.” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, February 1, 2012. Accessed May 16. 2019.
Psychology Today. “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” (n.d.). Accessed May 16, 2019.
Behavioral Tech. “What is DBT?” (n.d.). Accessed May 16. 2019.
Plum Village. “Dharma Talks by Thich Nhat Hanh.” (n.d.). Accessed May 16, 2019.