Mindfulness gets talked about a lot these days, but it is more than a passing fad. As an ancient practice with science to support its numerous benefits, mindfulness as a practice is a powerful tool for navigating the many challenges of modern life.
“I use and practice mindfulness and mindful meditation exercises in therapy sessions as a way to help my clients engage fully in psychotherapy and also as a treatment modality for depression, anxiety, chronic pain and other concerns,” said Haley Boyle, PsyD, therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center.
Haley explained that being mindful — not distracted by the events of the past or by anxiety for the future — makes it much easier for someone to engage fully in the session, making that time more productive. Mindfulness helps both the therapist and the client stay focused on the topic at hand. To accomplish this, she starts each session with a mindfulness exercise, which might be a few minutes of deep breaths or a 5-minute mindfulness meditation. “This is an opportunity to recognize your thoughts and let them go by without them taking your attention,” she said.
Anxiety can be experienced with physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, butterflies, muscle tension, headache or other uncomfortable physical sensations. It may also include future-oriented thoughts or “what ifs.” For example, someone who is anxious about public speaking might be overwhelmed with thoughts about all the things that could go wrong. “What if I sweat too much?” “What if I forget what I’m supposed to say?” “What if they think I’m terrible?” “What if I make a mistake?” “What if I embarrass myself?” All of this is a distraction from what you are trying to do. The key is to let those thoughts pass by without stopping you from accomplishing what you are trying to do, to recognize the current experience without worrying about what could be.
“Mindfulness can be described as a moment-to-moment awareness of an experience without judgment. Being present in the moment, accepting an experience without avoidance or distraction, can allow an individual to more effectively understand and manage psychological symptoms,” said Haley.
Avoidance of negative emotions or situations perpetuates any concern; since it is not being addressed or resolved, it is still there, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. Increasing mindfulness can result in a decrease of depression and anxiety symptoms as well as improved concentration.
“Mindfulness that incorporates acceptance allows a concern to be dealt with judgment-free,” said Haley. “By avoiding anxiety you never get to try the thing that makes you uncomfortable, even though you want to.” Haley suggests practicing being uncomfortable while you are in a safe space. If you want to give a speech, but you’re worried that when you get nervous you get sweaty and your face flushes, imagine that happening. “Notice it, without telling yourself it’s impossible to go on. Move forward,” she added.
She also recommends finding a clinician that you feel comfortable and safe with to discuss the discomfort in your life. Then, practice this skill in session, as you build a rapport with your clinician in a safe space and eventually practice it outside the session.
Mindfulness works for getting satisfaction out of the things you do outside of therapy, as well. The ability to enjoy and experience what is happening in any given moment by eliminating the anxiety that comes from thoughts and feelings enhances your overall quality of life. Any time your mind is focused on thoughts of another place, time or circumstance other than what is in front of you, the present experience is diminished. Thinking about work while you are spending time with your family or vice versa is an example of this. “When this happens, you are not getting the most out of either situation,” Haley said.
Mindfulness practice has a positive impact on your physical well-being too. By encouraging more diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing) it has been shown to decrease heart rate and reduce tension. It lowers autonomic arousal (fight or flight response) and causes your body to release fewer stress hormones. A regular mindfulness practice has also been shown in multiple studies to reduce blood pressure.
Haley recommends several techniques a person can use to practice mindfulness:
- mindful meditation – practice quieting your mind, acknowledging thoughts as they come and letting them pass without giving them attention.
- breath practice – focus on your breath, take time to recognize the rhythm and use it as a point to come back to when your attention wanders. Because you are always breathing, this is a good way to stay in the moment.
- body scan – inventory of your body recognizing how various parts are feeling, and any stress or tension, as a way to engage your mind.
- tapping into all five senses – notice what you are experiencing in each of the 5 senses.
You can also use smartphone apps, you tube videos, and online practice to get started.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about incorporating mindfulness into your life or any other issues, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Haley Boyle, PsyD, for contributions to this blog.***