Mindfulness in different forms has been practiced since the beginning of time. It’s derived from sati, an important element of Buddhist traditions, and is based on Zen, Vipassana and Tibetan meditation techniques. It refers to the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
Mindfulness has been defined as paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. Mindfulness is considered a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. It’s often used as a therapeutic technique in psychotherapy.
Mindfulness practices—such as mindfulness, yoga and breathwork— have come to the attention of neuroscientists investigating consciousness. Psychotherapists value these practices as tools to facilitate personal development and build interpersonal relationships.
Researchers have examined mindfulness as a potential way to help prevent and treat disease, increase ability to cope with pain and chronic illness, reduce stress in patients and practitioners, foster compassion, improve quality of care, and reduce medical errors. There are a number of psychological treatments that were developed based on the principles of mindfulness.
Since the 1970s, clinical psychology has developed therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for treating people experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Mindfulness practices have been employed to reduce symptoms of depression, manage stress and mitigate anxiety.
Interest in mindfulness meditation has led to treatments incorporating its principles into Western psychotherapeutic practice. Furthermore, researchers have found that mindfulness is a strong indicator of successful therapy outcomes, independent of theoretical orientation. This thinking has triggered the creation of specific mindfulness approaches associated with various therapeutic approaches.
In the past 30 years, interest in the therapeutic uses of mindfulness has increased substantially, along with a large body of research on the subject. As a result, numerous studies have shown the beneficial effects mindfulness has in treating anxiety disorders.
Research has shown that the development of mindfulness skills increases a person’s ability to adapt to new perspectives; allowing for detachment from ingrained habitual response patterns such as automatic thoughts and behaviors. Mindfulness skills are unique in that they allow the participant to experience body sensations from a perspective of detachment, which can be of great benefit in the case of anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, impulse control disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Almost every school of psychology has attempted to apply mindfulness to their method, most with great success. For example, the practice of mindfulness is one of the most effective adjuncts to psychodynamic therapy (PDT), the oldest of the modern therapies. Originating in the work of Sigmund Freud, PDT is also known as psychoanalysis and insight-oriented therapy, and focuses on unconscious processes as they are manifested in a person’s present behavior.
Mindfulness in PDT involves turning attention inward to notice—from a nonjudgmental point of view—the nature of our internal experience. While a number of contemporary therapies have embraced mindfulness as a means of calming down and reducing stress, it can also be used successfully in PDT.
There are commonalities between the psychodynamic exploration of the self and the self-discovery associated with a mindfulness practice. For one, both perspectives address the pain that comes from holding on too tightly to outdated beliefs about the self. Furthermore, a number of approaches to PDT emphasize the importance of the present moment. These include interpersonal, relational and dream analysis.
Psychodynamic perspectives focus on accepting past experiences and relationships unconditionally and unflinchingly. In this way, the analytic aspects of PDT make it a directive mindfulness practice. The acceptance that’s learned in PDT can foster compassion for the self and others, while diffusing feelings of anxiety.
Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.
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