Skip to content

Mindfulness in Therapy

The term “mindfulness” has entered our vernacular. I hear more people talk about being “mindful” and it usually means that they are trying to not to forget something, or they want to pay attention to an activity. “I must be mindful of my children’s schedule and not forget dance class again.” We are all living in more hectic times. When we tell ourselves be mindful, we are calling on some innate capacity to be present. It may even work sometimes. Awareness of each unfolding moment brings a greater ease and appreciation for things as they are. This is truly a radical concept. Accepting things as they are is both challenging and liberating. But often, we judge ourselves if we aren’t aware, make a mistake, or fail at something. This adds to the pain. We suffer in busy lives, or unhappy relationships and we continue to feel a deep dissatisfaction. Our relationships to our thoughts and feelings harden and add to our uneasiness. Freeing oneself from chronic unhappiness or stress requires an approach that radically shifts perspective. Mindfulness is something that must be nourished and established as a mode of being that can help us shift our perspective. It is true that mindfulness means remembering to pay attention. The best definition of the term mindfulness is: paying attention to the present moment without judgment, and there are many methods that promote this mode of being: yoga, tai chi, contemplative prayer and meditation. Research shows what many people have known for centuries, that bringing attention to the present improves one’s sense of well-being. The journey to incorporate mindfulness in therapy is just beginning and it is garnering much more attention as science catches up to these ancient practices.

Back in the 1970’s, Jon Kabat Zinn, a psychologist at the University of Massachusets, pioneered the use of Mindfulness practices in a medical setting, treating patients suffering from a wide range of chronic problems that had not responded to usual forms of treatment. He developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). His program demonstrated that MBSR could reduce a patient’s subjective sense of suffering, improve immune function and increase a person’s over-all sense of well being. His program has been adopted in medical settings throughout the world and has helped thousands of people. The field of mental health has truly benefited from an acceptance of Mindfulness in therapeutic practices as well. More recent studies have shown it has tremendous power to help in the treatment of eating disorders, substance abuse treatment, and reduce relapse from depression.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is an outgrowth of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s highly effective Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. Drs Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale designed a program that incorporates mediation and western psychological principles. MBCT is an empirically validated treatment program designed to prevent relapse in people who have recovered from depression. It is an innovative, 8week, group treatment program aimed at developing an awareness of the problems associated with depression. Meditation techniques are actively taught. These skills help patients develop a calm way to observe the psychological problems associated with depression in a less judgmental and reactive way. This also encourages their ability to see depressive symptoms more clearly and be able to choose skillful ways to deal with whatever is needed to address their condition. This is an exciting new approach to treating chronic and recurring depression.Empirical studies on the effectiveness of this program have shown impressive results. Research studies, for the 12 month periods following program completion, found that for patients with 3 or more episodes of major depression, MBCT significantly reduced relapse to 37%, compared to 66% for those who had follow-up treatment as usual. The risk of relapse was reduced by almost half.

Mindfulness in mental health treatment helps people to recognize how downward spirals begin. Negative states of mind are noticed and patients are taught how to intentionally change the focus of attention and cultivate a non-judgmental and open state of being. Mindfulness practices focus on the process. Each moment a person wakes up to the negative pattern, there is an opportunity to change perspective. Mindfulness is both the action and the result of paying attention, allowing a person to choose to disengage from dysfunctional patterns. When incorporated into psychotherapy, it becomes an invaluable tool to help others. It alleviates suffering, provides inspiration, promoting resilience and hope when facing life challenges.