Using Mindfulness in Therapy and Beyond

Chelsea Matson LCMHC is a staff therapist at Matone Counseling that works with adults ages 18 and up.

What is Mindfulness?

In recent decades, mindfulness philosophy has exploded in popularity. There is now an extensive body of research indicating the vast emotional and physical health benefits of having a consistent mindfulness practice. Some misconceptions accompany this popularity, including the goal of emptying one’s mind and the expectation that a mindfulness practice will fix our problems. Additionally, its benefits can seem elusive until experienced directly and consistently. This article outlines what mindfulness is and why it pays off to stick with it, either on your own or as an integral part of your therapy process.

Mindfulness can be defined as a state of conscious awareness in the present moment, without judgment. It is often accompanied by feelings of calmness and openness toward what is happening in the present. When trying this, many start to realize how automatically they impose assumptions and interpretations on their experiences. We constantly judge things as either right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or unacceptable. Being mindful also strengthens our ability to notice when our minds are focused on any timeline other than the present moment: the past, future, or hypothetical scenarios. Without realizing it, we are often navigating the present moment through a lens that is based in a totally different timeframe. 

We need to be able to use past experiences to inform future ones. It’s a large part of how we learn. However, problems arise when we do this subconsciously and on autopilot. When this is the case, we are less likely to see when adjustments or updates can be made. For someone struggling with social anxiety, this is why they can become flooded with anxiety in a social setting even while logically knowing the group is kind and welcoming. The anxiety is often rooted in past experiences and then projects itself into current situations that resemble the past. This greatly limits how the person can respond to the current situation, unless they’re able to examine their assumptions mindfully. 

Therapy can be a great setting in which to explore mindfulness if you believe you could benefit. If you have experienced any of the examples listed below, mindfulness could be a powerful investment in your mental health and life satisfaction.

Mindfulness can help if you’ve experienced:

● Zoning out during conversations or situations in which you want to be paying attention

● An intense emotional or behavioral reaction that seems disproportionate to the triggering situation

● Persistent anxiety or depression symptoms

● Being unable to make sustainable changes regardless of how hard you are on yourself

● Living in fear of past traumas repeating themselves in the present or future

● Feeling a lack of clarity as to what constitutes your identity, direction, or purpose in life

● The sense that you are holding yourself back or getting in your own way in life

● A nagging feeling that is something is missing, regardless of how much you have acquired or achieved

Applying Mindfulness in Therapy

Get a break from your inner critic

Self awareness of our patterns helps us identify the ways in which we would like to grow and change. The problem is that our awareness is usually quickly followed up by judgment of the quality as right or wrong, good or bad. Our inner critics are usually our most vocal champions for becoming the best versions of ourselves. The hope is that intense self judgment can motivate us to change. While these are noble intentions, constantly judging ourselves usually delays change. The unintended consequence of self-criticism is the emotional reaction of shame. Shame is that awful and debilitating feeling that says, “I’m not good enough. Something is wrong with me. I’ll never measure up.” Luckily, we don’t have to continue subjecting ourselves to this criticism/shame cycle. Mindfulness creates a gateway out of this self-defeating pattern.

Observing ourselves without judgment makes it possible to view our problems with fresh eyes and get curious about what is going on. Curious exploration opens up doors for gaining clarity on why we are the way we are. If we can continue to withhold judgment, we are much more likely to discover what we need in order to heal or change in the long term. Learning about ourselves can also become a more enjoyable and peaceful process when we realize we don’t have to beat ourselves up for all of our human flaws.

Face discomfort without getting overwhelmed

When dealing with emotions in therapy, it can initially feel like the only options are to control our emotions or drown in them. Mindfulness offers a way of accessing a middle ground.

Practicing mindfulness shows us what needs attention within ourselves, and simultaneously allows us to be aware of this without reacting. When we do this, we usually find that our emotions cannot overtake us. This is incredibly empowering and makes it possible to tolerate the discomfort that we are used to avoiding.

Rather than make the discomfort go away, being mindful simply makes us more aware of what is, including both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of our lives, and everything in between. A byproduct of practicing mindfulness is the ability to develop more effective responses to what happens inside and around us, which usually prevents unnecessary stress.

Acceptance paves the way for change

It’s difficult to be curious and work with something that feels like our definitive reality. Being mindful and present allows for a distance to exist between ourselves and our lived experience, meaning that we suddenly are not so identified with whatever thought or feeling is occurring at the moment. Using anxiety as an example, becoming the observer of our beliefs and emotions makes it possible to shift from “I am anxious” to “I’m noticing that anxiety is present.” In accepting the reality of feeling anxious, that does not mean that the beliefs associated with the anxiety are also real. Mindfully observing our anxiety means we are not identifying or agreeing with the anxiety, and we are also not rejecting or judging it. This opens up space for us to examine our anxiety with fresh eyes, navigating the emotion and underlying assumptions more effectively.

Next Steps

If you’re planning to begin therapy, consider looking for therapists who incorporate mindfulness in their approach. If you already work with a therapist, feel free to bring up the topic to see how it could be incorporated into sessions. There are many forms that mindfulness practice can take. You can explore different types of meditation, as well as less formal mindfulness practices that are not as structured. All life happens in the present moment, making mindfulness a relevant and worthy investment in your mental health!

Chelsea Matson, LCMHC

Chelsea Matson LCMHC is a staff therapist at Matone Counseling that works with adults ages 18 and up.