Mindfulness and Counseling
Mindfulness has become a popular topic in recent years, as Americans embrace a more holistic approach to self-care. So what exactly is mindfulness and how can it help you live a more centered, productive and happier life? Mindfulness has historically been used to refer to a psychological state of awareness. Essentially, mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness of what one is experiencing without placing judgment on that experience. It is thus, a state, not a trait. One can practice mindfulness in their daily life even when they are not engaged in a specific practice, so although mindfulness is often used to promote or highlight certain practices like meditation or yoga, it is synonymous with these practices alone. Mindfulness at its essence simply means being aware, attentive and remembering what is going on in the present moment with your mind and body without attachment or judgment (Davis & Hayes, 2011).
Mindfulness and Mental Health
Mindfulness in addition to positive psychology are terms that have had an uptick in interest by the masses in recent years, especially in counseling, but also in a wide variety of other fields, such as workplace health, personal coaching, and holistic wellness programs. Mindfulness is a cost effective way to potentially reduce stress, improve health and increase productivity in a variety of settings. Mindfulness has its origins in Easter Buddhist philosophy and has years of empirical research that study and affirm its usefulness in western societies. In the counseling field mindfulness includes being entirely open to present experiences, even if those experiences illicit some difficult emotional reactions such as pain, anger, or sadness. Mindfulness can be used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidenced based practice which teaches clients how to acknowledge and manage the connection between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Essentially mindfulness highlights for clients that they choose which thoughts to focus on. Thus allowing a negative experience or emotional response to dictate their behavior or take control of their lives is a choice. Since one thought is no truer than any other; it’s the person who gives meaning to the thought. The client is thus empowered to decide if a thought is useful at this particular time or for this particular situation, if it is not, the client is encouraged to abandon this maladaptive thinking pattern. A 2011 Harvard study on the practice of daily mindfulness practices and their significance on brain areas related to socioemotional function (the hippocampus and the amygdala) found that practicing mindfulness daily decreased the grey-matter density in the amydala. This is the area of the brain responsible for stimulating stress and fear responses. Participants also self-reported a decrease in stress. What this means in non-scientific language is that mindfulness, amongst other benefits, effectively reduces stress, boosts working memory, and increases the ability to focus. These are all common areas that are affected when clients are going through a different difficult time, crisis or are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Essentially, mindfulness can be a helpful addition to the therapeutic process for clients. For more information about research related to mindfulness see the APA practice review.
Benefits to Mindfulness
Now that we have defined mindfulness and addressed the natural marriage between counseling and mindfulness, let’s now focus on how individuals can practice and cultivate mindfulness in their lives. As discussed previously certain disciplines and practices can help cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga, tai chai and most popularly mindfulness that is developed through meditation. All these practices help individuals focus on self-regulation which increases training the mind to be attentive and aware in order to bring mental processes under greater control, which can foster general mental well-being, increase calmness, clarity and concentration (Davis & Hayes, 2011; Lancet 2015; 386: 63–73). The research suggests that mindfulness meditation specifically increases cognitive awareness, decreases rumination of thoughts (i.e. focusing on the same negative thought, emotion or scenario over and over again, even when the person doesn’t want to think about it anymore) and enhances working memory. Specifically, The American Psychological Association has highlighted research on mindfulness which identified these benefits:
Reduced Rumination: Mindfulness meditation can help ease rumination or intrusive negative thoughts, allowing people to experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Stress Reduction: A meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy showed that mindfulness based therapy can be helpful in reducing stress by changing the cognitive processes of clients. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation increases the ability of client’s to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain
Boosts to Working Memory: When comparing people that work in stressful situations, the research shows that individuals that practiced mindfulness meditation had increased working memory, while those that did not practice mindfulness meditation had a decrease in working memory.
Increased Focus: When comparting participants who practiced mindfulness meditation with a group who did not practice mindfulness meditation, a study found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention.
Less emotional reactivity: Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. They found that practicing mindfulness meditation helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and instead focus better on the cognitive task at hand, when compared to people who did not meditate
Relationship satisfaction: Mindfulness even has a positive effect on relationship satisfaction. Researchers found that people who meditate had a greater ability to respond well to relationship stress and had better communication about their emotions with their partners. Thus mindfulness can help people respond better to conflict in a relationship.
Essentially utilizing meditation as a method to cultivate mindfulness can help decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, increase working memory, improve focus, and improve interpersonal relationships. If you are interested in utilizing mindfulness within your own life as a method to improve your overall functioning and well-being mention it to your mental health provider or simply seek out more information on the web. There is a plethora of information available on how to increase mindfulness which in turn can positively impact your life in many significant ways.
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