By Jessica Breton, MA, LMFT, Executive Director OPI
Mindfulness has become increasingly popular in the past decade, both in popular culture and in therapeutic practice. What, precisely, is mindfulness and how is it beneficial when used with treatment?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of purposefully focusing your energy and attention on the present moment and accepting it without any preconceived ideas or judgment. These techniques help shift your thoughts away from the usual preoccupations and concerns toward both an understanding and appreciation for the present, and a larger perspective on life.
The practice of mindfulness has moved from an obscure 2,600 Buddhist practice to mainstream medicine in the 1970s thanks to Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He helped to shed light on the fact that practicing mindfulness can bring drastic improvements in both psychological and physical symptoms, as well as positive changes in other areas of your life.
Mindfulness used within treatment is gaining traction as more scientific research shows us how beneficial it is in stress reduction, happiness, and healing. Several mindfulness-based interventions which are commonly used include dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
Mindfulness used within the context of therapy can be a great asset in treatment, as it can help patients learn to recognize and isolate negative or harmful thoughts and emotions before they become too overwhelming. Once this state of awareness is reached, other learned strategies can kick in and are easier to implement.
Empirically Supported Benefits of Mindfulness
There are many benefits associated with the practice of mindfulness in conjunction with therapy. Evidence supports the effectiveness of mindfulness for a variety of challenges, including anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, substance dependance, and suicide ideation.
More specifically, mindfulness practice has been shown to be especially beneficial in the following:
Stress Reduction: Several studies using mindfulness in the treatment of stress and anxiety have been very promising. One such study showed that by using mindfulness-based treatments, people were better able to manage stressful situations. Another found patients being treated for anxiety disorder had significantly reduced stress hormone responses after participating in a mindfulness course.
Less Emotional Reactivity: Along with less anxiety, mindfulness can reduce negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, uncontrolled emotions, and emotional volatility. Studies have shown improvement using DBT and other mindfulness-based therapies in the self- regulation of emotion in teens and young adults.
Focus: You might think this a natural bi-product of practicing mindfulness, and it is. People who regularly participate in mindfulness exercises do far better than those who don’t at focusing and suppressing distractions. In one study, the mindfulness group was better in all measures of attention, focus, cognitive flexibility, and mental performance.
Depression: a review of 39 clinical studies showed mindfulness to be a promising treatment option for depression and mood disorders. And a meta-analysis at Oxford University found that mindfulness therapies were as effective at controlling depression as medication alone (in this case, MCBT). While no one is advocating giving up medication in the treatment of depression, recognizing the impact of mindfulness within the context of treatment is a breakthrough.
Overall Well-Being: Using qualitative and quantitative measures, people in a number of studies report a better quality of life and a significant decrease in negative psychological symptoms following mindfulness-based therapies. Practicing mindfulness improves your general mood and supports many attitudes that contribute to a happy and satisfied life, such as being able to let go of the past, control negative emotions, focus on activities, and fully engage in the present. Even though “well-being” may be subjective and difficult to measure, the evidence is clear that being mindful contributes to whatever that definition is.
Within a clinical setting, or when practiced at home, mindfulness offers an empowering treatment choice. Although mindfulness practice is not a panacea, it does offer an exciting option to be used alongside other mainstay approaches, to ultimately help young people become healthier, happier, and better able to find their true potential.