Mindfulness has shown a lot of promise in reducing stress and improving overall mood. Therapies that connect the mind and body allow an individual to be more cognizant of present experiences, such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings. The practice of mindfulness focuses on increasing a person’s awareness of the present moment in a manner that is free from judgment, self-evaluation and distraction. But how exactly does mindfulness work? How can someone use it inside and outside of therapy?
What is mindfulness?
The concept of mindfulness comes from meditation and spiritual practices. DBT defines mindfulness as intentionally living with awareness in the present moment, without judgment and without attachment (Dietz 2012). This means that you are fully aware of what is happening and what you are doing, observing what is going on and participating fully in what is occurring around you without getting overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings.
I find that the best way to understand mindfulness is to describe what is it not. Have you ever been snacking in front of the TV? Maybe you are so consumed by the show you are watching that you are not aware of how much you are eating. Suddenly you look down at your empty snack bag and you realize you ate the entire thing! In this moment, you were not being mindful. Had you been mindful (by doing one thing in the present moment), you would have focused on eating your snack and all the sensations that come with eating—the taste of the food, the way it excites your taste buds, the sensation of swallowing and digesting, and feeling full. In a mindful moment, you would be more likely to enjoy the snack and stop eating when satisfied.
How to use mindfulness?
Mindfulness-based approaches are often delivered through mindfulness meditation. As a therapist, I will ask my clients to zone into a particular phenomenon or stimuli to anchor their self-awareness. Examples of anchors include, breathing exercises, body awareness or guided imagery. If the individual becomes aware of distracting thoughts or feelings, she is encouraged to take notice of these sensations and pull her mind back to the present moment, without reaction or judgment.
In the five to ten-minute exercise, your mind will give you distractions. Unlike meditation where the goal is to make your mind a complete blank, the exercise of mindfulness is bringing your mind back to the present moment—even if this occurs many times.
When I first started practicing mindfulness, I would often have the distracting thought of “boredom”. I would think: Did I set the timer correctly? Has it been time yet? This feels like a long five-minutes. If I allowed the urge of being “bored” to overwhelm me so much that I stopped mid-exercise and checked the time, I would not be sitting with my present feelings. Instead, I use mindfulness to notice of distractions, let go of the sensation and with intention bring my mind back. While this example of “boredom” may not be detrimental, giving into a thought like self-harm or an emotion like anxiety could be.
Mindfulness inside & outside of therapy
Mindfulness in therapy is aimed at alleviating symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, physical pain and suicidal ideation. It can also be used to treat chronic pain, compulsive eating patterns, substance abuse, and self-harming behaviors. A person, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, can use mindfulness to be more aware of what is going on in her body (i.e., increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tightening of chest). She can observe and describe these sensations as they are occurring (i.e., “I feel that my heart racing, my breathing is becoming shallow, and I feel a tightening session in my chest.”). She can then implement coping mechanisms: focus on breathing, begin to regulate heart beat, take deeper breaths and release tightening in the chest). By remaining present and self-aware, she may not feel as overwhelmed by these anxious-feelings and can stop herself from losing control.
Once the knowledge of mindfulness is developed, individuals are encouraged to integrate this into their everyday lives. Mindfulness is practiced when an individual fully participates in the present moment. It can be especially important during emotional experiences in order to maintain a sense of control. The combination of observation and examination can become a tool for changes in behavior and thought patterns.
Next time, you are doing something (cooking, cleaning, walking, riding the subway) try to be fully present with yourself and see what happens. You may not mind being more mindful.
Dietz, L. (2003-2012). DBT Self-Help: Mindfulness States. Retrieved from: www.dbtselfhelp.comhtml/mind_states.html
Mindfulness-Based Interventions (last updated: January 27, 2017). Retrieved from: www.goodtherapy.org