Mindfulness is an invaluable skill that can be very effective in therapy. Being mindful means being aware of the present moment—on purpose. It may be common for a client to think, “Well this is silly, I am always aware of the present moment!” Research demonstrates however that most of us operate on autopilot.
Typically our experiences are distorted by our wandering minds and our biases to the degree that we essentially become a bundle of perceptions. The art of mindfulness involves objectively observing our mind and body and recognizing the inevitable thoughts and feelings as just that—thoughts and feelings that do not dictate or define who we actually are underneath the distortions. Just as the ocean produces endless waves, so too does the mind produce countless thoughts and feelings. With the power of mindfulness, we simply observe without adding our own distortions or storylines.
Mindfulness is a skill that has been practiced for thousands of years in the East. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the founding pioneers who, along with Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, helped introduce this art to the West. Research shows that continued and persistent training in mindfulness creates structural changes within the brain. The most significant area of change lies within the prefrontal cortex, which is an area responsible for judgment, planning, rationalizing and overall feelings of well-being. Also, the amygdala, which is an area of the brain responsible for heightened feelings of anxiety and stress, typically shows less activation with prolonged mindfulness training. This engagement of the prefrontal cortex coupled with the quieting of the amygdala typically produces higher feelings of peace, relaxation and enjoyment while simultaneously producing lower feelings of anxiety, panic, worry and stress.
While there are numerous forms of mindfulness and mindfulness-meditation trainings that stem from formal guided imagery to chanting positive mantras, the most basic form of this skill rests in the breath. As we breathe deep into our bellies, we become consciously aware of our breathing in. As we exhale the air back out of our bellies, we are aware of our breathing out. As Thich Nhat Hanh has shown us, we may do well in saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in; breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” This simple yet powerful exercise is a wonderful and intuitive way to track breathing, regardless of our experience of it. We are watching the flow of the breath and watching the mind and body with curiosity and objectivity.
Mindfulness is important in psychotherapy because it allows both therapists and clients to reflect on intense emotions that can result in regretful behavior. For example, if a therapist is experiencing counter-transference from a particular client in which feelings of anger and frustration are running rampant, the therapist can follow her breath in and out before responding. She may do well in silently saying, “Breathing in, I am aware of the anger and frustration in me, breathing out, I release the tension and continue observing the mind and body.” The goal is for the therapist to then respond to her client rather than react to her.
The average emotion lasts around 90 seconds. Our continued experience of negative emotions like anger and frustration is usually the result of our perception of the emotion which then can cause more arousal. When we attempt to objectively observe these emotions rather than judge them, we are in a better position to let them pass through the mind and/or body in a way where we can better regain our composure. If we can do this, our response to our clients is then typically associated with increased feelings of empathy, compassion and kindness.
When we take the time to respond rather than react, we are again engaging our prefrontal cortex, which then gives us a better chance of responding in a more positive, therapeutic way rather than in a negative, condescending or irrational way. Similarly, if the therapist reminds the client of his estranged father and transference is activated within him, consciously breathing in and breathing out, followed by watching the thoughts and emotions as just feelings stopping by to say hello, puts the client in a better position to again respond more favorably toward the therapist.
Mindfulness is a very tough skill and its mastering comes with much, much devoted practice. While there are a multitude of formal mindfulness-meditation practices, one can informally practice mindfulness in any situation. Where there is the breath, there is the ability to cultivate mindfulness. The hopeful outcome that comes with the beauty of mindfulness is that we make each moment a masterpiece, not only for the sake of our therapeutic alliances with clients, but for our personal lives as well.
Mental Health Associate & MSW Intern