Both psychotherapy and a mindfulness practice can be powerful and effective ways to help us live more fulfilling, useful, and healthy lives. Moreover, being in therapy while having a consistent mindfulness practice can compound the benefits of both processes. How do these two benefit one another?
To define terms, mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. Contrast this with being lost in thoughts about the past, future, or fantasy. Studies have shown that staying in the present, even if the current moment isn’t ideal, enhances overall happiness even more than pleasant mental excursions into another “time zone”.
Mindfulness encompasses formal meditation but can take many forms. Many people find that they can most easily practice mindfulness with their eyes closed. However, some people tend to become sleepy and can more effectively utilize mindfulness principles with their eyes open. Similarly, while some people prefer to practice mindfulness while remaining still, other people can best practice when taking a mindful walk or doing slow movements (such as yoga or Tai Chi). It can be helpful to experiment with different techniques to see what’s best for you.
Mindfulness can help us slow down and focus enough to see the habitual thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that run through our bodies and minds.
Mindfulness can strengthen our ability to tolerate discomfort without acting out in destructive ways. For instance, if we tend to overindulge in alcohol or eating, the resultant hangover can interfere with our ability to function in life (including the psychotherapy process).
Mindfulness helps us to practice noticing or perceiving something without judging it.
Mindfulness thus helps to reduce reactivity and to promote emotional balance. We are then in a better position to apply other skills learned in psychotherapy.
Mindfulness can give us the opportunity to ask ourselves challenging questions and to listen for our deep truths, with a minimal amount of reactivity.
For instance, we can ask ourselves:
How am I not showing up for myself? In what areas of my life? How is this showing up in my physiology, emotions, depression, cognition?
How can I make space for myself as I am right now?
How can I take responsibility for myself and my experience?
Examples of mindfulness and self-affirmation which we can practice:
I don’t have to be a certain way to be okay.
I don’t want to have a headache/stomach pain – but I do.
I don’t like it this way – but it is what it is. What, if anything, can I do about this?
Approaching a particularly upsetting situation or realization with mindfulness can be akin to being a detective on a crime scene. We accept the situation as it is, rather than how we’d prefer that it is. We work with what we’re given. We don’t hold our happiness or contentment “hostage” until the circumstances conform to our expectations or demands.
Rather than giving into hysteria, we focus on clues and tangible evidence. We stay emotionally engaged but are not enmeshed with our emotions, so we can see things more clearly and thus be more able to determine appropriate next steps.
Many psychotherapists give clients mindfulness exercises and suggestions. Psychotherapeutic approaches that incorporate mindfulness include Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MCBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
As our mindfulness practice shows us with greater clarity some of our patterns and inner truths, psychotherapy can help us to process these new awarenesses in the presence of a skilled and compassionate helper. It can be comforting to have someone with/witness us on this sometimes difficult journey.
Psychotherapy can teach us tools to deal with and modify patterns and habits that stand in our way.
Psychotherapy can help us with improving impulse control, investigating destructive beliefs, developing self-compassion, and enhancing interpersonal effectiveness skills.
The idea is to eventually have mindfulness become a way of life, so that we are mentally and emotionally present for the majority of our lives, including our psychotherapy sessions.