Mindfulness & Mental Health: Techniques and Therapies

Reviewed by Dr. Kirsten Davin, OTD, OTR/L, ATP, SMS

Practicing Mindfulness

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment without judgement or interpretation. As a type of meditation, the concept of mindfulness is grounded in feeling and sensing the moment, as opposed to being focused on the past or future. With mindfulness, you may notice your breathing, become more intimately aware of what is nearby, and observe what is happening with your body.

History of Mindfulness

Many mindfulness practices have their roots in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as secular forms of meditation. Many early Western practitioners of mindfulness learned about mindfulness in the far East and brought the practice back with them to the West. There is also a correlation between practices like yoga and mindfulness. 

In the early 1990s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), outlined the seven principles of mindfulness. These principles and attitudes form the foundation for mindfulness:

  • Non-judging
  • Patience
  • Beginner’s mind
  • Trust
  • Non-striving
  • Acceptance
  • Letting go

Using these principles in mindfulness practices can help calm the mind and bring forth the benefits of mindfulness.

Kabat-Zinn was a big influence on bringing mindfulness practices to Western audiences. Mindfulness has also been combined with therapeutic practices to form mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This therapy has been implemented successfully with those experiencing major depression

In more recent years, mindfulness has been combined with positive psychology to promote feelings of wellbeing and to help people become more aware of what they are feeling and responding to in a given moment.

Benefits of Mindfulness

The benefits of mindfulness are plenty. One of the immediate benefits of mindfulness is that it can help keep you from reacting to your environment out of impulse or instinct. For example, rather than reacting to a frustrating moment in your day, mindfulness can help you calm down and respond in a more productive way.

Mindfulness can also improve stress, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and pain. Studies on mindfulness have also found that it can help with insomnia1, high blood pressure2, and diabetes3. Being mindful can help you achieve your goals faster, reduce symptoms of burnout, improve attention and focus, and help promote quality sleep.

Mindfulness for Anxiety

Research4 suggests that mindfulness can be a helpful technique for those experiencing anxiety. It helps to create space between feelings of worry and subsequently may help reduce the anxiety you feel in that moment.

Mindfulness can also help you explore the cause of stress and worry, as well as help you acknowledge feeling certain emotions without judgment. By doing so, you may be able to help calm and center yourself as a result of being mindful of what you are experiencing. 

Mindfulness can also help you recognize the signs of stress or anxiety in your body. Intercepting these symptoms at lower levels can prevent anxiety from increasing. In addition, mindfulness may be helpful for some who experience panic attacks.

Mindfulness for Depression

There is also growing evidence that mindfulness can be useful in treating and managing depression. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and other mindfulness meditation programs have been shown to have a mild to moderate effect on depression5

Mindfulness may also be able to help prevent relapses of depression. Therapists aren’t sure why, but it’s possible that using mindfulness techniques helps reduce or interrupt the repetitive thought patterns that can be a symptom of depression.

Mindfulness Techniques

There are many different mindfulness techniques that may be used in therapy or as self-care to aid in relaxation, stress reduction, and the management of mental health disorders. These may include:

  • Meditation: Meditation includes a range of techniques that help you focus on an object, activity, or thought in order to become more aware of the present.
  • Mindful eating: This technique involves being fully present while you eat. You might appreciate the food you eat by focusing on how it tastes, smells, and feels while you chew slowly.
  • Breathing meditation: This technique focuses attention on the process of breathing. One simple way to do this is to attend to the rise and fall of your chest and stomach as you inhale and exhale.
  • Walking meditation: During a walking meditation, one deliberately thinks about the everyday action of walking. Focusing on each part of a step can help bring you into the present moment.
  • Mindful seeing: This technique involves consciously noticing what is in the field of vision. Start by focusing on one object and noticing all the details, colors, and shapes of that object.
  • Mindful listening: With mindful listening, the listener gives full attention to hear what is being said. This means turning off any judgmental or anxious internal thoughts that may be present in order to focus on the message being conveyed.

There are many other forms of mindfulness techniques that may be used. Other techniques may involve specific breathwork, use of the five senses, and focusing on your feelings or physical sensations.

Meditation

Meditation has a long history and can be useful for overall well-being. There are different forms of meditation, but all involve focusing attention on something to aid in relaxation.

Guided meditation may use imagery or visualization. Mantra meditation involves repeating a word or short phrase that is calming. Tai chi is a form of martial arts that involves deep breathing through a series of slow movements.

Meditation may be used alongside other forms of therapy for depression and anxiety to help people manage symptoms and reduce stress. The form of meditation or mindfulness used may differ from client to client depending on what is most useful and appropriate.

Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation helps release physical tensions. During a body scan, the individual focuses on each part of the body, typically moving from the head to the toes or vice-versa. Notice the physical sensations of each body part as it is scanned without judgment.

Mindfulness in Therapy

A therapist may use mindfulness techniques in therapy to help teach symptom management and help you become more aware of your feelings and emotions. In both mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness techniques are a core part of the therapy and program. 

MBCT, for example, is an eight-week program that is used to treat depression. Participants are taught how to do various mindfulness techniques during the program and to practice using them during their daily activities. The techniques are combined with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Mindfulness is also used in other therapies, including:

  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): This therapy encourages psychological flexibility, helping people accept what they cannot change and take action on what they can change. Mindfulness techniques, in particular, are used to help people accept without labels or judgement.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): This therapy helps teach emotional regulation and impulse control through the incorporation of  mindfulness techniques.

The Hakomi Method of somatic therapy: This therapy helps individuals become more aware of their core by combining somatic therapy with mindfulness.

How to Practice Mindfulness in Your Daily Life

If you are interested in how to practice mindfulness in your daily life to help manage mental health issues or to reduce stress, there are simple mindfulness techniques that you can use.

  • Slow down and pay attention: Focus on using your five senses to experience the present moment. If you are eating, take time to focus on the smell of the food, what it looks like, and how it tastes. If you are lying in bed, focus on the texture of the blanket, the sounds you can hear, or the sensations in different parts of your body.
  • Focus on your breath: Pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest. Concentrate on your respirations as the air moves in and out of your body.
  • Acknowledge your thoughts and emotions: Consider what you are feeling in the present moment. Allow the thoughts and emotions to be present without judging them.
  • Return to the present: When your mind wanders from the technique you are practicing, simply return it to the present without judgement. 

If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness techniques could help you manage mental health issues or reduce stress, consider making an appointment with a therapist who uses mindfulness techniques. A therapist can help you identify which mindfulness techniques might be best for you and help you use them to manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

  1. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998
  2. https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2013/10000/Randomized_Controlled_Trial_of_Mindfulness_Based.4.aspx
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954593/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20350028/
  5. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754