Therapists are finding that helping clients learn to pay attention to the moment through mindfulness practices can help heal problems like anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other common diagnoses.
Complex mental health issues don’t disappear in day or a week, but there’s a rising tide of mindfulness being used by therapists to complement other therapies and help clients get a few steps ahead in healing an expansive range of issues.
Ronald Siegel, an assistant professor psychology at Harvard Medical School, is the author of The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. Siegel says life can be better with the use of some step-by-step action plans to help people become more efficient in daily life and to cope with anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance abuse and challenging relationships.
Siegel suggests mindfulness strategies can be used while driving to work, doing the dishes or walking the dog.
Many people, perhaps even most people, tend to worry about endless negative possibilities or concerns all day long. Siegel suggests that worrisome outlook may be a long-standing hangover from the time when life was about survival of the fittest. Joy was not a necessity in ages past when people struggled to find food and to stay alive. Today, in some places, that struggle is very much a reality and whether or not that’s our life, we are part of the human family and often share the pain of those who face difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, lives.
Even for those who live in comfort and enjoy relative peace and good health, being thoughtful people, we understand that we may become sick or run out of money or lose the ones we love. We know that life itself is transient.
Advocates of mindfulness believe it can guide us to a more peaceful, balanced, even joyful outlook because being mindful means focusing the present moment, apart from the pain of the past, worry about the future, or judgment about what may be happening in the relative present.
“Mindfulness is a particular attitude toward experience, or way of relating to life, that holds the promise of both alleviating our suffering and making our lives rich and meaningful,” says Siegel in his book about mindfulness practices. “It does this by attuning us to our moment-to-moment experience and giving us direct insight into how our minds create unnecessary anguish. When our minds topple forward into worries about being attacked or running out of food, mindfulness practice helps bring us back to the relative safety of the present moment.”
Therapists are not just assisting clients in developing the habit of mindfulness. Mental health professionals in countries around the global are developing consistent mindfulness practices of their own. They report benefits in their personal and professional lives.
“Most patients discuss difficult experiences of illness, loss, failure and disappointment.” says Susan Pollack, an instructor in clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School. “We may find ourselves overwhelmed by the pain and sadness we experience simply because we empathize with our patients. Mindfulness practices can be powerful tools to increase our tolerance for painful emotions, enhancing our ability to remain attentive while sitting with suffering.”
“Befriending the Changes,” “Breath Awareness Meditation” and “Body Scan Meditation” are some of the guided mindfulness meditations Siegel offers as a complement to his book. You can try some of them here.
While these may be an introduction, if psychological issues are consistent, or urgent, it is best to contact a mental health professional for an individual diagnosis and treatment options.
Siegel, Ronald, The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, Guilford Press, New York, 2010.
Pollak, Susan, Siegel, Ronald and Pedulla,Thomas, Three Ways to Bring Mindfulness into Therapy, Greater Good Science Center, University of California Berkeley, Sept. 8, 2014.