What Is Mindfulness Therapy, And What Does It Accomplish?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban
Updated November 9, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Mindfulness therapy is a versatile approach that can be used alongside many other therapy types for an eclectic mix or by itself as a standalone therapy. Based on Eastern practices, mindfulness is used in hospitals, schools, the military, and psychotherapy. Learning more about this technique can help you decide if it would be adequate for your needs. 

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What Is Mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is a method of becoming more aware of yourself and your environment through sensory focus, structured thinking, breathing exercises, and other techniques. You can observe your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations nonjudgmentally through mindfulness. Mindfulness is set in the present moment, where you can consciously direct your awareness as it occurs. 

For centuries, mindfulness has been used in Eastern medicine, religious practices, and daily life. More recently, it has been incorporated into Western treatment and therapy as a relaxation and anxiety relief tool, among other purposes. 

What Is Mindfulness Therapy?

While mindfulness can be used in many ways, mindfulness therapy is a unique style of psychotherapy. This type of counseling is psychotherapy that uses mindfulness to promote mental and physical health.

Mindfulness therapy can be used by anyone, including those who are new to the practice of mindfulness. It can effectively treat mental health conditions, stress, or life challenges. You can also try mindfulness therapy for chronic pain or as a way to learn new methods of connecting with yourself. You don’t have to have a mental illness to use this form of treatment. 

Types Of Therapy That Incorporate Mindfulness Techniques

Many types of therapy can use mindfulness as a tool, but some rely more heavily on mindfulness techniques than others. These include mindfulness-based stress reduction, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).  

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, pioneered mindfulness in hospital settings. He worked with high blood pressure and pain, psoriasis, anxiety, immune response, and other stress-related physical ailments. MBSR has also been used for relationship problems, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease.

Out of his experiences teaching mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn developed mindfulness-based stress reduction treatment. Programs for MBSR can take place in several settings, from hospitals to wilderness retreats. Patients are taught how to practice mindfulness meditation while guided through mindfulness exercises such as mindful walking or mindful eating. The goal is for clients to learn and practice mindfulness well enough to incorporate it into their daily lives to reduce physical and emotional distress symptoms.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) 

Dialectical behavior therapy is a therapeutic modality that teaches clients to learn and use new skills during sessions focused on four principles: mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal skills, and emotional regulation. DBT can be done in groups, individually, or as a couple. The founder of DBT, Marsha Linehan, was inspired by Buddhist principles surrounding meditation and how it has benefited mental health for centuries. 

A few types of mindfulness practices in DBT include the following: 

  • Loving-kindness meditation 
  • Self-soothing mindfulness (soothing each of the five senses) 
  • Mindful eating 
  • Observing
  • Describing
  • Participating 

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy

In acceptance and commitment therapy, you may learn to practice mindfulness in exercises designed to foster a more significant awareness of your emotions in each moment. Practices focused on accepting what cannot be changed may be used. 

ACT sessions can also help you manage emotional pain by allowing you to detach from the thoughts surrounding it. When the thoughts are separated from the emotions, the feelings can subside. You may be able to assess your situation more rationally and make healthier choices. 

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) 

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a later development of Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction treatment. MBCT was pioneered by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale as a therapy for people experiencing severe depression. 

MBCT uses mindfulness meditation to teach people about the different modes of mind related to moods. You may also learn how to change your attitudes toward these modes of thinking. The process starts with mindfulness instructions, like eating or walking mindfully. Eventually, mindfulness exercises focused on unwanted moods promote self-care by giving you insight into your present situation. 

Mindfulness Therapy Techniques

Hundreds, if not thousands, of mindfulness techniques can be used. You can do many daily activities mindfully, as mindfulness is a mindset. Mindfulness therapy aims to help you develop an attitude of mindfulness that informs every part of your life. Below are a few practices you can try. 

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindful meditation for anxiety and stress is a method of sitting still and noticing whatever comes to your mind nonjudgmentally and in the present moment. You may notice feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations. Memories may come up for you, too.

Try not to dwell on these thoughts, feelings, or memories during the meditation. Instead, notice them, name them, and let them pass. You might also focus on what thoughts accompany your feelings and what physical sensations pass through you during an unwanted emotion. You can ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Where do I feel the emotion in my body? 
  • Is the sensation dull, sharp, fuzzy, or irritating? 
  • Am I feeling any physical pain, and where is it? 
  • What emotion am I feeling? 
  • Am I comfortable in this position? 
  • What would happen if my emotion changed right now? 

Mindful Body Scanning 

One type of mindfulness meditation is the mindful body scan. This exercise is often done lying down but can also be done sitting or standing. You start the scan by focusing your awareness on your feet. You notice how your feet feel physically, any concerns about your feet, which foot you like the best, and any other thoughts. Then, you continue moving up your body, one area at a time, until you reach the top of your head. You may feel more focused and in tune with your body by this time. You can practice a variation of this to help you sleep by trying the following exercise as well: 

  • Lay down in a comfortable position.
  • Pay attention to your body, starting at your toes.
  • Imagine your toes filling up with sleepy sand or progressively relaxing. Let go of any tension in your muscles you might be holding from your day.
  • Move to your ankles, legs, and knees, repeating the muscle relaxation and imagination exercise.
  • Repeat the exercise for every body part until you reach the top of your head. 

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can help you settle into a mindful state. By breathing deeply in a controlled way, you focus your attention on your bodily sensations and emotions. One commonly used breathing exercise is box breathing, which can be done in the following steps: 

  1. Breathe in for eight seconds. 
  2. Hold your breath for five seconds.
  3. Breathe out for eight seconds.
  4. Hold your breath for eight seconds.

You can modify the practice if you want to breathe in for more or less time. 

Physical Movement

Many types of physical movement can be done mindfully. For example, mindful walking means walking slowly, noticing every move you make while taking a step, and focusing on how walking feels. As you become more experienced with physical movement with mindfulness, your therapist might prompt you to notice other stimuli. For example, you can try a mindful jogging exercise like the following: 

  1. Go on a 30-minute run. Ensure you wear comfortable shoes and clothing for the temperature and location.
  2. As you run, notice five green objects within the first five minutes.
  3. Within the first ten minutes, try to spot at least three workers (it could be a mailman, delivery person, or police officer).
  4. Within the first twenty minutes, try to notice three different scenes (ex: kids playing, a mom talking to her child, or a couple on a date).
  5. Within the entire run, note five aspects of your environment that you find beautiful. 

Verbal Cues

In many mindfulness techniques, the therapist gives verbal cues to direct your awareness to specific aspects of your total experience. These directions may help you develop mindfulness skills you can use daily.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery can be used to enhance relaxation or to avoid unwanted thoughts during meditation. For example, you could imagine worrying thoughts as fluffy clouds in a blue sky. Whenever those clouds or ideas come into view, you can notice them and watch them as they sweep away across the sky, out of your mental picture. 

You can also imagine your worrying thoughts like leaves gliding down a river with the current. In your imagination, you place a worry leaf on the river as soon as it appears. Then, you watch as the river carries it away, allowing it to pass freely without trying to hold onto or recapture it.

This technique might not work for those experiencing aphantasia, a condition in which the brain cannot visualize thoughts or images. Instead, you may benefit from drawing these concepts or watching a guided mindfulness video. 

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Mindfulness Techniques For Couples

In joint therapy exercises, several techniques have been developed to help couples build their connection by being mindful of their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. One of these exercises is to look deeply into each other’s eyes and focus on sending love and affection through eye contact. Another involves looking into your partner’s eyes and concentrating on their needs and strengths. Specific forms of therapy, like sex therapy, may also teach ways to be physically and mindfully intimate, done outside of sessions without the therapist present. 

Benefits Of Mindfulness Therapy

Mindfulness therapy has many potential benefits, including the following. 

Stress And Anxiety Reduction

Because mindfulness is a calming practice, you can reduce the stress causing your physical and emotional symptoms through these practices. Committing to not judging or stigmatizing your thoughts can allow you to feel safe with yourself and grounded in your body. Studies show that techniques like labeling your emotions or mindfully focusing have multiple mental health benefits, as well. 

Depression Symptom Relapse Decrease 

Mindfulness therapy can help individuals living with depression avoid relapses of symptoms. Depression is often associated with particular thought patterns you might have throughout your day. If you are aware of these thoughts and in touch with your memories of past depressive episodes, you may work on changing those thought patterns to improve symptoms. 

Increased Awareness

The awareness that comes with mindfulness practice can be a benefit for those looking to foster a more profound connection with themselves. You can feel aware of the sensations in your body and what they are telling you. For example, emotions may accompany physical sensations, like stomach upset or shakiness. You can control your feelings when you are in tune with your body. 

Increased Flexibility 

No two situations may be completely identical. When you go about your life in an impulsive, unmindful way, you might rely on familiar behavior patterns. Mindfulness therapy gives you the tools to be aware of new options to become more flexible and respond more appropriately to each present situation.

Increased Clarity And Concentration

In all their varieties, mindfulness techniques increase your mental clarity and concentration. These exercises clear your mind of lingering thoughts, doubts, and feelings that are a part of the past. In addition, mindfulness meditation can grow the size of your hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for cognition and memory. 

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Improved Relationships

Mindfulness for couples can be used as much as in other forms. When you meet with a relationship therapist, they can offer you and your partner ways to connect emotionally, ground yourselves together, and increase intimacy. In addition, if you and your partner are often too busy to try therapy in person, you can partake in couples therapy online from two separate locations and still gain the benefits. 

Through a platform like Regain for couples or BetterHelp for individuals, you can try online therapy within 48 hours of signing up. You and your partner can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions and indicate that you want to meet with a mindfulness therapist. During your initial consultation, you and your therapist can set up treatment goals for future sessions. 

If you’re still feeling unsure about online therapy, note that studies have found that online mindfulness-based treatment for couples is as effective as in-person therapy as long as it is led by a licensed professional. Other studies on individual mindfulness-based cognitive therapy have found it effective in treating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. 

Takeaway

You can reach out to a mindfulness therapist anytime to learn unique mindfulness skills, participate in mindfulness activities, and take control of your healing. Couples can also try mindfulness therapy through an in-person or online therapist. Consider contacting a provider to gain further insight into these treatment formats to choose the most effective form for you.

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