What is Mindfulness Therapy, and How Can You Use it in Your Life?
As researchers start to better understand the benefits of mindfulness for mental health, many psychological interventions have begun to incorporate it in their programs.
Mindfulness therapies allow you to focus on being in the present without judging your thoughts and feelings so you can learn to be aware of yourself and your surroundings in order to start healing negative self-beliefs and spiralling destructive thoughts.
While many people opt to take individual or group sessions with a therapist to access mindful therapies, there are many exercises that you can adapt at home to start your mindfulness journey today.
History of Mindfulness Therapy
Throughout history, psychologists have developed many different interventions to deal with various mental health issues. However, it wasn’t until Jon Kabat-Zinn brought the mindfulness practices he learned through Buddhist teachings and married them with psychology that we got our first glimpse of mindfulness interventions. Kabat-Zinn created the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program to help patients in the west deal with the stress-induced illnesses they were facing.
From there, mindfulness has found its way into mainstream psychology. In 1976, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzburg opened the Insight Meditation Centre to allow people to understand the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Building on Kabat-Zinn’s original work, Teasdale, Segal, and Williams created the MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy). This was the first time mindfulness was adopted by existing interventions known for their positive effects in the psychology community.
Nowadays, mindfulness is often adopted into CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), DBT (Dialectal Behavioural Therapy), and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). When mindfulness is used in these practices or with any other established therapy, they are collectively referred to as MBI’s (Mindfulness-Based Interventions).
And it must be working, as many famous professional athletes and CEO’s regularly access this type of therapy and speak highly of the positive changes they’ve seen in their selves and their performance as a result.
Benefits of Mindfulness Therapy
The benefits of adding mindfulness into therapy are overwhelmingly positive.
Firstly, MBCT is effective in treating depression and preventing patients from relapsing.
Secondly, according to Galla et al., mindfulness-awareness practices have a lot of potential for public health programs, meaning they can have a broad and lasting effect on communities.
Mindfulness therapy can help those suffering from anxiety by teaching them how to stay focused in the present and by non-judgemental of their thoughts, allowing for a healthier, kinder mindset to be developed.
A lesser-known application of mindfulness therapy is in treating eating disorders, with a big emphasis on binge eating, emotional eating and binge-purge eating. Mindfulness has proved promising in reducing symptoms of eating disorders and allowing patients to build a healthier relationship with food.
For those that feel stressed often, mindfulness therapy is an excellent practice to help you stay focused on the things you can control and allow you to let go of the things you can’t by focusing on the moment you are in and taking life one step at a time as it comes.
Finally, mindfulness therapy has been effective in improving mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and low mood, which is great news for those who feel trapped and limited by their mood and emotion.
Mindfulness Therapy techniques you can incorporate in your life
Body scans are most commonly performed as part of guided meditation practice. However, once you get used to performing a body scan, you may find you are able to do it without the need for guidance.
Body scans work by mentally drawing attention to the different parts of your body, one at a time. For each part you focus on, you are going to zone in on how that part of the body feels. Is it holding tension? Does it feel relaxed? Is it weight-bearing?
Once you’ve noticed how it feels, you will then attempt to soften and relax it to help get rid of some of the physical tension that can encourage mental health issues such as anxious thoughts or low mood to occur.
And while this can sound quite time-consuming, even just one minute of body scan meditation is enough to feel the strong positive effects of mindfulness.
Once again, this practice is commonly part of a guided meditation. However, unlike a body scan, it is much harder to do independently, so it’s important to use a teacher or recording to help guide you through the process.
During visualisation, you will be asked to imagine a scenario. Depending on the type of therapy you are doing, this could include imagining yourself in a stressful environment and overcoming and improving it or picturing a happy, peaceful place that you can use as a base when you feel anxious or low.
The benefit of this exercise is that you are practising imagining scenarios while learning to let negative thoughts and emotions drift past you. This intervention can then be used in practice by using this skill to understand that negative thoughts come and go, and that’s ok; you don’t need to avoid them or engage in them.
A common version of guided visualisation is the mindfulness garden, which encourages you to picture a garden growing. The plants are your hopes, happiness, and dreams. The weeds are the negative thoughts and fears plaguing your joy. While you can’t get rid of the weeds, the idea is that it doesn’t make your garden any less beautiful; you can choose to simply focus on watering the flowers and helping them flourish further.
Yoga has been a popular practice in mindfulness for centuries. It has its roots in Eastern cultures and religions, predominantly with Buddhism.
Yoga is such an effective mindfulness therapy tool because it really encourages you to be fully present while moving and stretching your body. While challenging for some, the simple positions focus on the alignment of the mind with the body.
In doing so, much like the body scan, you are able to be present in the sensations of your body, once again allowing thoughts to drift in and out of your mind, always bringing your focus back to your body.
Some yoga teachers like to encourage students to set an intention for their day during a session. For example, I will treat myself with kindness and show others that same kindness.
This addition to therapy Is perfect for those who want to feel the benefits of mindfulness but struggle to stay still.
This interesting exercise is taken straight from “Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology”.
Have you ever heard the American declaration:
“I hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Well, it turns out, we’re all guilty of declaring this about ourselves. When we have negative thoughts about ourselves or events in our lives, we are inclined to believe that the thought is a fact rather than investigate further.
This is even more evident when you are feeling strong emotions. The brain doesn’t like to feel fear or other negative emotions without understanding why – it’s a fundamental part of the fight or flight system that our brain uses to keep us safe. That’s why we often believe the negative thoughts in our heads as a way to explain painful emotions.
So, next time you are feeling anxious, scared, or sad, take a moment and listen to your thoughts. Write them down in your journal or on a piece of paper. Can you find evidence to support this as a fact, or is it just your brain attempting to interpret your emotion by creating a false narrative?
The more you do this exercise, the more you will come to realise that while everyone has thoughts, not all your thoughts are facts, and you don’t have to believe them. This will allow you to gain self-confidence and a better awareness of how you respond to situations, allowing you to make necessary changes.
Breathing is one of the most underutilised therapy tools in our arsenal. But, unfortunately, when life gets stressful, things can get away from us, and you may notice that with negative thought spirals comes uneven, often shallow breathing.
By practising breathing, not only will you be able to calm your body down and give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts instead of reacting on pure emotion, but you will also be able to ground yourself to the present moment.
This is because practising your breathing involves paying attention to your breath and body instead of whatever is going on inside your head.
There are some great breathing exercises on YouTube that you can try at home if you don’t want to go to a class.
A staple in any mindful lifestyle, writing gratitude lists helps take you from a scarcity mentality to one of abundance. What that means is filling your present moment with thoughts of the things that bring you joy, rather than focusing on the past or future and all the ways you feel about it or wish you could change it.
Aim to write three-five things you are grateful for every day to help cultivate the benefits of this practice.
Writing can be a fundamental mindfulness practice for dealing with negative thoughts.
At times, we can feel trapped in a ‘thought loop’ where negative thoughts go around and around in our heads, causing us to feel more anxious, scared, or sad. And it can feel challenging to get those thoughts out of your head or rationalise them.
Journaling is great for both of those.
When you write your thoughts out into your journal – a safe, secure space where you can be 100% open and honest about how you feel – you are essentially unburdening your brain of the thoughts and providing a place for the thoughts to go. Think of it as your negative thoughts becoming the ink of your pen and being trapped on the page once you’ve written them. It’s liberating.
It can also help you rationalise your thoughts by using a method similar to the ‘given’ exercise earlier in this list. When you can see the thought written in front of you, it can be easier to work out if it is fact or feeling. It also helps to pinpoint triggers and how they made you feel so you can develop coping strategies that will combat them.
People with eating disorders often feel no control over food. There is a disruption between the mental and physical indicators of hunger that can stop you from being able to recognise your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.
As such, more and more research has been done into how mindful eating can help treat such disorders.
The premise of mindful eating is that you pay attention with your five senses at every stage of the food journey. Starting with when you buy your groceries, think about where your food came from and the journey it took to get to your table. Often, it is better to opt for foods that haven’t gone through an immense number of processes to reach the shop floor.
Next, create a mindful kitchen layout by having things stored in a logical order that helps make the cooking process seamless and not distract you from your task.
Finally, when you get to the table, savour every bite with that delicious food on your plate. Notice the smells, the tastes, and the textures of each bite. Chew for at least 20 seconds each time you put food in your mouth. And create a distraction-free environment by not watching TV or multi-tasking. If you live with friends or family, try and have a sit-down meal where everyone is talking – being present in the moment together.
Final thoughts on Mindfulness Therapy
Mindfulness has been adapted into mainstream therapies because it works. And while you should always seek professional help before embarking on a therapy journey, the exercises above will give you a fundamental basis to start practising mindfulness at home by yourself.
Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So start slow and be kind to yourself on the way. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, just a multitude of learning opportunities.
So, embrace the journey, and allow mindfulness to become a staple in your daily routine.