Mindfulness, Part 1: Why mindfulness?
Where does mindfulness show up?
Mindfulness is at the core of all therapy, no matter the issue. For therapies based on a cognitive-behavioral approach, you first must be able to observe those unhelpful thoughts and behaviors before changing them. More psychodynamic? This model requires being present to unconscious defenses and transference in the therapeutic relationship.
How is it used in trauma therapy?
EMDR and Trauma-Focused CBT, both evidence-based treatments for PTSD uses mindfulness as a key component of the work. Both EMDR and Somatic Experiencing emphasize an awareness of one’s body and practicing being present to one’s experience, and TFCBT teaches grounding and breathing to children to help them cope with their symptoms.
What’s the evidence say?
There has been a lot of research in mindfulness meditation in the last decade. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been shown to be extremely effective for anxiety, stress and depression, as well as helpful for people living with chronic illness in a relatively short period of time. I mention it because it’s basically an 8 week overview of lots of ways to experience mindfulness formally and informally to help people develop a regular practice, so it’s a nice introduction to the method that I personally found life changing and use with clients on a regular basis.
The neurobiology information is particularly compelling. In people who meditated about half an hour a day for 8 weeks saw a change in several brain structures, notably the hippocampus and amygdala, which are related to learning, memory, emotion, and the fear response. What’s exciting is that these are same parts of the brain that we see after someone develops PTSD.
The crash course
Mindfulness just means being present. If as you are reading this, you are able to focus on what you are reading and your general surroundings, you are being mindful. When we are texting as we walk, daydreaming in class, planning our response while someone else it talking, we are not being mindful.
There are two ways to practice mindfulness: formal and informal. Informal practice basically involves what I described above: paying attention while you are doing what you are doing. Formal practice means that you are actually doing some sort of mindful meditation, which we will talk about in other posts, and that is all you are doing.
Please understand that it is very normal to have difficulty focusing, even if you don’t have some sort of mental health issue that interferes. A misconception of meditation is that people doing it are able to keep their minds clear and this can be really discouraging for the rest of us. The reality is that the act of observing that your attention drifted and then bringing it back to your present is the act of being mindful, even if you have to do it 20 times a minute. Self disclosure: most of my formal meditation involves noticing my mind wandering and then redirecting it back. And then doing that again. And again.