Bringing Mindfulness Into Therapy: The Three-Pronged Approach

Bringing Mindfulness Into Therapy

Mindfulness has been heralded as one of the most powerful tools available to us in the struggle to achieve internal balance; described as being a state of “active, open attention to the present”, mindfulness is the process of observing one’s own thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as good or bad. This objective system of emotional assessment can be useful for patients and therapists alike, in all of the following ways:

Mindfulness can create an emotional refuge for the therapist
When one is by nature (and by profession) a helper of others, a problem solver, it is quite easy to forget one’s self. People—therapists included—can lose sight of the fact that therapists are human, too, with complex needs and emotions of their own. They are also people who undertake, on a daily basis, difficult and emotionally draining work.

Mindfulness is therefore of particular use to therapists, as it requires them to continually bring attention to their experience in the present moment. Regret, ruminations, worries, and future projections, all fall by the wayside as one focuses on the sounds and sensations around them: the intake of breath, the feeling of sitting in a chair, and so on—becoming entirely immersed in the world of the present.

This brings with it manifold benefits; as our attention aligns fully with the present, we become much more active listeners, and much less preoccupied with nagging anxieties, allowing us to project a calmer, more reassuring demeanor. Plus, research demonstrates that for therapists, practicing mindfulness results in lower perceived job stress and a lower risk of burnout. Therapists, like all people who engage in mindfulness, experience an increase in self-acceptance, self-compassion, and an improved sense of well-being.

Logically, a therapist who feels better is able to perform better; clinicians who practice mindfulness have reported improvements in their relationships with their patients, noting that they were better able to empathize, and to be present without becoming defensive or reactive—the mark of a true professional.

Therapy can, after all, be a disconcerting line of work; experiencing a patient who is suddenly angry with you, or who admits to be planning suicide despite one’s best efforts to prevent such, is invariably unsettling, and can provoke feelings of anxiety, fear, confusion, and even hopelessness. Plus, many therapists were drawn to their line of work in part due to being naturally empathic individuals; such people are “emotional sponges”, liable to soak up the feelings of others and deeply internalize them.

Practicing mindfulness encourages therapists to notice the initial signs that reactivity is brewing within them—a clenched jaw, tightened fists, strained posture—and stop the clock before it escalates, instead taking a moment to pause and return to his or her sensations of breathing, sitting, and listening. From this objective place, he or she may recalibrate, silently asking that both individuals in the room (the patient and the therapist) be allowed to live free from suffering, in a state of wisdom and compassion. This adjustment in focus reminds the therapist of his or her true mission and priorities, allowing the greater good to triumph healthily over momentary pain and confusion.

Mindfulness can strengthen the therapeutic relationship
The process of therapy is one that necessitates trust on the part of the patient; as such, it’s little surprise that studies show therapists who create successful treatment alliances are perceived as warm, understanding, open, and accepting.

Mindfulness can prove immensely useful in developing these qualities, as it helps the therapist maintain focused attention, not being easily thrown off track by a difficult session, his or her own worries, distractions within the environment, or simple tiredness at the end of a long day. This attention can also be maintained calmly and peacefully, as it does not rely on upping the intensity of the session to generate renewed interest, to refocus the attention of either the therapist or the patient.

Therapy has a way of arousing powerful and painful feelings, as patients frequently discuss difficult experiences (such as illness, loss, failure, and disappointment), and it’s easy to begin to contemplate the possibility of such things happening to us or those we care for. Likewise, as mentioned prior, many therapists have a tendency to empathize strongly, which can prove overwhelming.

Mindfulness allows the therapist to sit with painful emotions in a way that is calm, but caring and attentive. This is essential, as otherwise patients may begin to clam up or censor what they express; few people, after all, want to tell us more than what we are capable of handling. It’s also beneficial in that it instills confidence; if the therapist can sit calmly while the patient expresses his or her intense emotions, those emotions will often begin to feel more manageable and less dire to the patient.
Mindfulness is also an excellent tool for patients
There’s no debate that mindfulness is an excellent tool for those in therapy; the only question tends to be how to get the patient to effectively engage in it. Some patients may be skeptical of its value, as it may appear too simple, too easy, to be effective.

To get a patient who doubts the value of mindfulness on board, try presenting it as an experiment, and point out that others in similar circumstances have found it helpful. You may also find it useful to give the patient information derived from the various research studies that have been done on the benefits of mindfulness (and back it up with some anecdotal evidence, if you wish). Either way, one should keep the first experiment with mindfulness brief, no more than three to five minutes, and then ask the patient what he or she is noticing.

Depending on the patient, you may have to troubleshoot common issues and misconceptions in the early stages of attempting mindfulness; many patients mistakenly believe they must get their thoughts to “stop”, for example, when they do not in fact have to—they merely have to develop a kinder and more accepting relationship with them. If mindfulness appears to be surfacing painful memories, however, it may need to be set aside for a later time (also, one should note that trauma survivors may not benefit from putting a focus on their breathing, as this may prove to be a trigger).

And of course, ensure that the patient fully understands the goal of mindfulness: It is not to turn him or her into a dedicated meditation practitioner, but rather it is intended to help patients achieve balance, a sense of kindness toward themselves, and greater fulfillment in their lives.

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