Mindfulness & Your Clients
Mindfulness, positive psychology, and resilience are terms that received substantial interest within the recent years - not only in the field of counseling psychology. They have been picked up and integrated in a variety of other contexts, such as personal coaching or workplace health measures. Searching for “mindfulness psychology” yields more than 23 millions results on Google and that number is steadily increasing. This clearly exemplifies the growing interest and is reason enough to look at mindfulness a bit closer.
Mindfulness & Counseling Psychology
First of all, mindfulness is not a fluke. It is not something esoteric that somehow made its way to counseling psychology. Mindfulness has its origins in Eastern Buddhist psychology and is backed up by decades of empirical research and scientific findings. So when psychologists speak of mindfulness they refer to a certain state of moment-to-moment awareness that is nonjudgmental (Black, 2011). This definition has applied relevance on multiple levels. For example, it includes being entirely open to present experiences (even if they are negatives ones such as pain or sorrow) as much as it includes the process of cognitive defusion. The latter refers to cognitive distancing a method as old as cognitive therapy. In a nutshell: you are most probably having a million thoughts each day so why do you let one particular thought take control of your life? Essentially one thought is not truer than the other. They are merely two thoughts (out of those millions of thoughts you have having each day) with no initial truth or value by its own. You, as the one in charge on your mind, give meaning and you are the one deciding if a thought is useful in a certain situation or not.
A Harvard study recently proved, as first of its kind, that practicing mindfulness on a daily basis has significant effects on two brain areas related to socioemotional functioning—the hippocampus and the amygdala (Hölzel et al., 2011). They found a decrease in grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is responsible for stimulating stress and fear responses. The decrease in density correlated with a reduction in stress reported by the participants. Secondly, the Harvard researchers found an increase in grey-matter density in the hippocampus indicating elevated activities in this brain region. The hippocampus is significant for processes such as memory, learning, self-awareness, and compression.
This study confirms other findings showing that mindfulness, amongst other benefits, effectively reduces stress, boosts working memory, and increases the ability to focus. For more information and for a comprehensive overview of the current state of research see this APA practice review.
A Quick Exercise: Body Inventory
For this mindfulness exercise you should be sitting or lying comfortably. You may choose to close your eyes. Start by focusing your attention on your breath. Observe your breath without trying to breathe in a certain way. Let your body breathe to its very own tune and merely observe what is happening in the present moment. Feel how your chest is moving. Up and down. You will see that the process of breathing is happening without you having to put any effort into it. See what another expert has to say about self-care.
Now shift your focus away from your breath and to your body. Examine your body as a whole and in its parts. What do you feel? Does one part feel smaller, bigger, colder, warmer, heavier, lighter or different in any way than the other? Imagine writing your findings down on an inventory list. Point by point. Once your physical inventory is complete move on to your thoughts.
Observe the thoughts that are running through your mind. “Write” those thoughts down on your inventory list just as you wrote down your bodily perceptions. Should a certain thought be intensive or very persuasive, acknowledge that thought and its presence without getting invested in it and return your attention to your breath for a moment. Once you feel that you can be the observer again continue the exercise. When you inventoried your thoughts move on to your emotions. What emotions can you feel at that very moment? Do you feel satisfied, happy, fulfilled, anxious, or sad? Whatever emotions you are feeling add them to your inventory list. Last but not least, scan your body for any impulses. Do you feel pressured to do something? Is there an urge to get up? What impulses can you sense? Complete your inventory list by adding those impulses.
Now that you have inventoried your bodily perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and impulses you can once more return to your breath. Observe your breath as it is happening without trying to alter it in any way. Take as much time as you want. Once you are ready you can finish this exercise by opening your eyes.
Counselors, who are interested in integrating mindfulness into their psychotherapeutic approach, can start by reading about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a third wave behavioral therapy that heavily draws upon the principles and application of mindfulness.
Steven C. Hayes: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change
Jason Luoma: Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists
Black, D.S. (2011). A brief definition of mindfulness. Mindfulness Research Guide. Accessed from http://www.mindfulexperience.org
Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., Lazar, S.W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
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