Mindfulness: Present-Centered, Non-Judgmental Attention
Mindfulness – the experiential practice of acceptance – is the primary acceptance strategy used in CBT. Mindfulness is a set of cognitive skills that strengthen your ability to step back from strong emotions, to slow down the chain of thoughts-feelings-sensations-urges that underlie emotional disorders. Mindfulness helps to reduce the intensity of the mental events that drive emotional distress and interfere with movement toward goals. You can think of mindfulness as stepping out of a fire – you will still feel the heat, but are no longer consumed by the flames.
At first glance, mindfulness may seem abstract and insubstantial. You may feel your time could be better spent on “meatier” change skills. But this is far from the truth. Mindfulness is like a “mental gymnasium”, where you strengthen many of the cognitive skills that form a foundation for change. It has been shown to reduce avoidance, rumination, and the believability of unreasonable thoughts, to increase urge tolerance, distress tolerance, and acceptance of strong emotions, and to improve the management of anxiety and depression. So we encourage you to reserve judgment, and to commit your time to regular, patient practice over the weeks to come.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Mindfulness practice is designed to help you accept and adjust to emotional events that you cannot directly control and change. But when you can’t change your emotions, you can change how you respond to the feelings, sensations, thoughts and urges that make up your emotions. Through patient practice, these new responses help to create a “buffer” between you and particular aspects of your experience (e.g., ruminative, worried thoughts). It’s as if “time slows down.” Your emotions become less intense, and you can more objectively observe your experience and the events that surround it (e.g., emotional exchanges with a significant other, urges to engage in destructive compulsions, urges to avoid or escape an anxiety-related situation). This additional “space” can be used to make better decisions about how to effectively respond (e.g., what to do, what to say), and to effectively apply other emotion regulation skills (e.g., cognitive restructuring).
Changing Your Relationship to Your Emotional Experience
The goal of mindfulness is to allow sensations, feelings, thoughts, urges, to occur without trying to change them or manage them, simply observing and noting them for what they are, as they come and go. This process can be broken down into:
Present-Focused Attention: You will practice attending to exactly what is happening in the present moment, that is, what sensations, feelings, thoughts and/or urges are arising in that moment. This frees you from the influence of past memories (e.g., regrets, ruminations) and future expectations (e.g., worries, catastrophic predictions), and brings to bear the full power of your attentional resources on the problem at hand.
Non-Judgmental Observation: You will practice attending to your experience without being distracted by automatic judgments. During mindfulness your experience is not “good” or “bad” – it is what it is.
Open and Accepting Relationship: You will practice having a new relationship to your experience, one that is open and accepting and allows your experience to unfold as it will, even if it doesn’t feel good and you don’t want it.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned and will improve through steady, patient practice. There may be times that mindfulness practice feels relaxing, but this is not the primary goal. The primary goal of mindfulness is to step back, slow down, and allow your experience to unfold as it will.
Your mind has a mind of its own! It is driven by automatic forces – sensations, feelings, thoughts, urges – that occur in your brain. These follow deeply worn grooves, etched over time, that are difficult, often impossible to control. During mindfulness practice, your brain may repeatedly draw your attention toward these grooves. You will find yourself lapsing into memories, worries, judgments, criticisms and simple idle thoughts. This provides you with repeated opportunities to practice catching unwanted mental events as they arise, attending to them with an open, accepting non-judgmental attitude, then returning your attention to your experience, however you find it, in the present moment. This simple cognitive exercise – noticing your attention slip, openly accepting where it’s gone, and gently guiding it back – is the essence of mindfulness. Through repeated practice it will strengthen your ability to manage destructive mental events that spontaneously arise in everyday life and on route to your goals.
Specific Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness is a tool to bring calm, accepting, alert attention to any aspect of your experience. The exercises are designed to provide practice responding mindfully to the full range of experience, to strengthen your skills over time, starting with neutral emotional events and progressing to the most challenging areas of emotional distress. Here are some examples of common mindfulness exercises.
- Mindfulness of Breath
- Mindful Body Scan
- Mindful Walking
- Mindful Yoga
- Mindfulness of Thoughts
- Mindfulness of Strong Emotion
- Mindfulness of Urges