- Megan Strachan
Mindfulness for Mental Health
Can mindfulness improve my mental health?
By Megan Strachan
Over recent years, the idea of mindfulness has gained increasing attention in the mainstream media. It can be understood in a variety of different ways and there are many ways to pursue and integrate greater mindfulness into your life.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be conceptualized as “present attention awareness.” Mindfulness involves becoming attuned to what is occurring in the present moment, whether this be what is occurring inside your mind, your body, or your external surroundings. It is a state of “non-doing” in which judgments, agendas, and habitual thoughts are suspended.
In addition to awareness and acknowledgment of the present moment, whether that be internal or external, mindfulness is also associated with cultivating non-judgmental acceptance of those thoughts, emotions, sensations, and experiences. It is a “serene encounter with reality” where “one’s consciousness is alive to the present reality” (Nyanaponika Thera, 1972, pp. 60, 11). It can also be understood as a state of “psychological freedom,” as being in a mindful state enables you to observe and accept the present moment without attachment to a perspective.
This may sound simple, but in practice, it can be very difficult to focus all your attention on the present moment. It is easy to be distracted by thoughts, our to-do lists, our plans for the future, or replays of the past. We also operate on “auto-pilot” a lot of the time, where we perform routine functions without much attention or thought. We spend most of our time engaged in “doing” where we are taking care of tasks. While we can integrate mindfulness into the doing of tasks (such as mindful eating), we tend to perform these tasks in accordance with our habits.
What are the origins of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, and it does have its roots in Buddhist meditation. However, mindfulness as a secular practice has become common and features in many modern therapeutic approaches, which are discussed below.
Is mindfulness used in modern psychotherapy treatment?
Mindfulness is incorporated into many modern therapeutic approaches, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Compassion-Focused Therapy (also known as Compassionate Mind Training). Mindfulness practices also find their way into other therapeutic approaches as interventions, such as through grounding techniques, meditations, body scans, etc. These approaches are used in the treatment of mood disruptions such as anxiety and depression, intrusive thoughts, addictions, and interpersonal issues.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Over the last few decades, there has been an increase in research into mindfulness and its benefits. While this research is nuanced and addresses different populations in different places, utilizing different mindfulness interventions under varying conditions, research has indicated that practicing mindfulness can offer benefits in four primary areas: affective benefits, interpersonal benefits, intrapersonal benefits, and empathy. The summary below must be taken as a snapshot of some potential benefits of mindfulness. However, many factors contribute to the success of mindfulness interventions, including the presenting issues and the length of time that mindfulness is practiced for.
Affect refers to the emotions that are being felt in the moment. Affective benefits of mindfulness therefore relate to a greater ability to regulate our emotions and overall to improve our mood over time. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to experience emotions, such as negative emotions, less strongly or selectively. This greater ability to emotionally regulate (i.e., not to get swept up or swept away in tidal waves of emotion), contributes to a decrease in reactivity and rumination, as well as enhanced attention for cognitive tasks. Study outcomes have found that mindfulness meditation has increased positive feelings and reduced anxiety and negative mood in study participants. Mindfulness is therefore sometimes used to help treat anxiety and depression.
There is research as indicates that higher levels of mindfulness are associated with higher relationship satisfaction, lower stress, lower relationship conflict and negativity, and greater empathy. It is also associated with awareness and responsiveness in social situations. Cultivating mindfulness may therefore enhance social and intimate relationships.
Mindfulness has been shown to alter the brain through neuroplasticity (which is the brain’s ability to change and evolve). These changes may contribute to positive emotional, cognitive, and even immune system changes or decreases in pain.
Emotional benefits were discussed above, and cognitive benefits to these changes include higher information processing abilities, decreased effort required for tasks, and being less easily distracted.
Empathy and compassion
Mindfulness practices can increase empathy and compassion towards both oneself and others. This is theorized to be related to mindfulness practice that focus on accepting emotions, thoughts, and experiences without judgment or reactivity.
How do you practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally. An example of a formal mindfulness practice would include a meditation practice and an informal practice could be integrating mindfulness into an activity such as mindful eating. However, mindfulness is not a “quick fix” but a practice that can be integrated into your lifestyle on an ongoing basis to help meet your treatment goals and improve your overall psychological well-being.
There are a wide variety of ways to practice mindfulness. Meditation is one way, and there are, again, many kinds of meditation. Research suggests that different kinds of mediation impact the brain differently, such as concentrative meditation (focusing on a mantra, for example), focused attention mediation (such as a body scan), open monitoring meditation (observation of one’s experiences from moment to moment), and loving-kindness meditation (which can include focused compassion towards oneself and others). Meditation can be practicing sitting still, or while moving.
Grounding techniques are also a form of mindfulness, and these are targeted at bringing you back into your body when anxiety or stress are becoming overwhelming. Grounding techniques you can try out yourself, please see our blog post on this topic.
Contact Peaceful Minds Psychotherapy to book your free consultation with one of our team
At Peaceful Minds Psychotherapy, we utilize a variety of therapeutic approaches, including mindfulness, to address your specific needs and enhance your well-being. Our psychotherapists work with a range of clients to address concerns including anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, life transitions, and more. Fill out our contact form to book a free 15-minute consultation.