The Use of Mindfulness in Therapy
Increasing Self-Awareness through Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about noticing exactly that: when our minds are full. This article explores what mindfulness is, and how we can use it in everyday life, as well as in therapy in order to help ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
How many times have you driven somewhere and realised that you had absolutely no idea how you got there? You had no recollection of the drive, red lights, stop signs or pedestrians. Maybe you were running through the morning’s meeting or your shopping list? You were on autopilot and completely lost in thought. Or how many times have you acted on impulse and afterwards thought to yourself that you had no idea why or what on earth you were thinking, never mind feeling at the time?
Mindfulness encourages us to fully present in each moment, so that we spend less time ruminating on the past or present. Usually, the past is where depression dwells because we cannot go back and undo the decisions we’ve made, and the future can be where anxiety sits in wait.
We may ruminate about the past, metaphorically beating ourselves up about what we ‘should’ have done. Our internal voice or inner critic becomes loud, telling us that we are useless or worthless and before we know it we are spiraling down into a low mood or depression, which in turn makes our self-talk even worse. Or we become anxious or fearful of the unknown future, so that anything that we may have to do that takes us out of our comfort zones induces anxiety.
Mindfulness allows us to be present for moment-to-moment thoughts and emotions, giving us the opportunity to reflect more deeply on moment-to-moment awareness.
So, what is it?
Very simply, mindfulness is about focusing on each breath entering and leaving the body. We notice thoughts and feelings as they come, without attaching to them or pushing them away, free of judgment.
We develop an open, friendly, curiosity to our thoughts and feelings, allowing them to come and go. Almost as if we are bystanders to them instead of being carried along and lost in them.
And that’s it.
Sounds simple? Don’t be fooled.
As anyone who has tried it will tell you, those thoughts come and before you know it minutes have past and you have got lost in a story. Or you feel bored, restless and start thinking about that ‘To-Do’ list. But that is the point. That’s your ‘monkey mind’ doing what it does, telling you that you should be elsewhere or doing something different than what you are in this moment.
But do we always have to follow what our thoughts tell us? Notice how many times you get pulled away from just focusing on the breath and you will realise just how much of a monkey mind you have. One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that it strengthens every day concentration. Research has shown that improved attention can last for up to five years after developing a mindfulness based practice.
Neuroscience research has also discovered that meditation can also reduce activity in our amygdalas (the emotion center of our brains that fire up when we feel high emotions such as fear or anxiety).
Practicing mindfulness can strengthen the connection between our amygdala and pre-frontal cortex (the thinking, rational parts of our brain) The implications of this are very useful for treating anxiety and depression. With anxiety, our amygdala is constantly firing up signalling to us that there is a threat somewhere: the fight-flight-freeze response. If the threat is high, then the thinking part of our brains will shut down in order for us to go into the fight, flight or freeze response. However, if we practice mindfulness and help these parts of our brains become less reactive to stress then this in itself will be beneficial.
Use of mindfulness in counseling and psychotherapy has been found to help depression and anxiety.
It allows us to firstly notice what we are feeling and thinking. All too often we are not aware of how we’re feeling. We just know that we don’t feel right somehow. In my practice, I ask clients to become curious about what they are feeling. I guide them to notice any arising feelings, where that feeling sits inside the body, what it looks like, how it feels. Just becoming close to the feeling can be enough to shift the sensation. When we turn away from feelings or try to push them down, those ignored feelings often turn into anxiety or depression; how many times have you binged on something in order not to feel? Have you noticed that trying to numb the feelings in this way hasn’t helped?
In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach, the psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, writes:
“The key to awakening from the bonds of fear is to move from our mental stories into immediate contact with the sensations of fear…while the mind will continue to generate thoughts about what we fear, we recognize thoughts for what they are and drop under them again and again to connect with the feelings in the body.”
It may also be that other emotions that you never realised were there may surface, and that’s ok. We can explore that in counselling and find some answers to what is bothering you. Mindfulness allows us to calm our thoughts, slow down and notice. In this way, we can begin to deal with our worries and anxieties little by little.
References and Further Reading
Williams et al. (2007) The Mindful Way through Depression. Guilford Press
Brach, T (2003) Radical Acceptance. Bantam Books
Chodron. P (2007) When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Element Books
Originally published at http://stillirisetherapy.co.uk on November 1, 2019.