Mindfulness practices can include a wide variety of different exercises and activities. Generally, they are intended to help you learn to observe yourself and the world around you in an open, nonjudgmental way. Mindfulness often focuses on increasing calm awareness of your own thoughts, emotions, and experiences in the moment.
Though it is based largely on Buddhist traditions and ideas, contemporary mindfulness is often practiced in secular contexts. The most common mental health treatment based on mindfulness practices is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
In therapy, mindfulness practices are often used in combination with other mental health treatments. You might learn mindfulness practices during individual sessions with a therapists, then practice using these techniques on your own between sessions. Mindfulness practices are also a common component of group therapy. You can even learn mindfulness practices in single sessions on an as-needed basis, such as yoga classes or meditation workshops.
What mindfulness practices can help with
Mindfulness practices are most often used as a technique for reducing stress and anxiety. Accordingly, mindfulness practices can be helpful for a broad range mental health concerns, including:
Some mindful therapy exercises are specifically designed with depression (and anxiety) in mind.
Additionally, mindfulness practices can be helpful for physiological symptoms related to stress, such as muscle tension (think headaches, stiffness, etc.) or digestive troubles.
However, you don’t need to have a mental health condition or symptoms to use mindfulness practices! You might benefit from incorporating mindfulness practices into your life even if you are simply interested in gaining perspective on your life and learning to manage stress effectively.
Ready to find a therapist who can help you incorporate mindfulness into your life? Find a certified therapist near you, below:
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Effectiveness of mindfulness practices
There is a broad base of evidence suggesting that mindfulness practices are helpful for many people.
- One review of several studies on mindfulness practices found that regular practice led to a range of improved psychological outcomes, including reduced anxiety and a greater sense of personal well-being. 
- Other studies have suggested that mindfulness-based meditation may even improve cognitive and immune system functioning. 
- Increasingly, research suggests that mindfulness practices may promote a wide variety of positive outcomes, from better relationships to reduced biases. [3, 4]
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that “mindfulness” has become a trendy label, applied even to practices that may not be based on solid evidence. When seeking treatment related to mindfulness practices, always make sure to investigate the practitioner’s credentials and look into the research behind the specific practices involved.
How mindfulness practices work
Mindfulness practices are generally thought to work by changing your brain’s responses to stress. The idea is that by reminding yourself to view the world with curiosity rather than judgment, you can strengthen the part of your brain that manages your emotions and decrease the neurological “fight or flight” response that can cause anxiety.
Though some studies have shown that mindfulness meditation does change literal structures in the brain, there’s not yet consensus about exactly how this change occurs.
Mindfulness may have other helpful physiological effects as well. Because mindful practices often involves breathing deeply and engaging in physical activity such as stretching or yoga, they can decrease bodily tension and physical stress.
Some people also view mindfulness through a spiritual lens and feel that it connects them to greater purpose and meaning in life.
Frequency of sessions for mindfulness practices
Frequency of sessions can vary widely in mindfulness practice. You might engage in mindfulness practices weekly in the context of psychotherapy sessions. Alternatively, you might attend single or ongoing group sessions for specific practices such as yoga or meditation.
Generally, consistent engagement is one of the most important factors in mindfulness practices. No matter how you learn these practices, you will likely need to practice them regularly on your own in order to see benefits.
Length of treatment for mindfulness practices
There is no set endpoint for mindfulness practices. In the context of therapy, you and your therapist will agree on treatment goals early on in the therapeutic process. This discussion should also include ways to measure progress based on your individual goals.
For example, you may wish to continue treatment until:
- You have resolved certain symptoms
- You have learned enough to continue practicing mindfulness techniques on your own,
- You feel that you have worked through the issues that brought you to therapy.
Because mindfulness practices are so varied and can be used even when no symptoms are present, many people continue to use mindfulness practices for many years or even a lifetime.
As with other wellness practices such as exercising and eating a balanced diet, there is no point at which mindfulness practices cease to be useful. The important thing is that you continue to feel that you’re benefiting from using them.
How sessions based on mindfulness practices are structured
- Check in: Mindfulness sessions often begin with a check-in about your current physical and emotional state.
- In group settings, sharing personal information at this point is optional, but can help the group work together to support each other and meet everyone’s needs.
- In long-term formats, this first phase of the session can also be a time to check your progress since the last session, and discuss how using mindfulness practices may have affected your life outside of sessions.
The practitioner will lead you through a series of exercises or activities, which can vary widely.
- Some mindfulness practices focus more on psychological exercises (e.g., meditation, visualization)
- Others focus more on physical exercises (e.g., yoga, mindful movement)
- Some sessions may include elements of both
If you’re using mindfulness practices as part of another psychotherapy treatment, they may be only one small component of the full session.
If you’re using them on your own, they can take as much or as little time as you choose.
Sometimes, you might even use mindfulness as a way to notice your breath for a couple of seconds. Mindfulness practices are very flexible, so there’s really no typical structure for use.
What happens in a session based on mindfulness practices
Again, mindfulness practices can vary widely, and they can be applied in countless ways. However, there are a several common activities that you might encounter in mindfulness practices, depending on the exact variety you pursue:
- Meditation. Meditation often the core mindfulness practice. While it can take many forms, one of the most common mindfulness meditations is loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on increasing compassion for yourself and others.
- Mindful breathing. Mindfulness practices often include simple breathing exercises designed to help you focus on your breath and reduce your body’s stress response.
- Visualization. Your mindfulness practice might include specific visualization exercises, such as imagining your thoughts as clouds or your breath as colorful light.
- Body scan. An especially common mindfulness meditation is the body scan, in which you carefully imagine each part of your body in order to gain awareness of your physical existence and sensory experience.
- Mindful movement. Mindful movement might include walking meditations, physical practices like qigong or yoga, or movement through specific spaces such as a labyrinth.
- Journaling. Writing is often a form of mindfulness practice in which you allow yourself to free-associate and observe your thoughts as they occur.
- Sensory exercises. Sensory activities like eating, listening to music, and washing the dishes can all be performed mindfully. These exercises can be especially helpful in connecting you to your existence in the present moment.
What to look for in a practitioner for mindfulness practices
Regardless of which kind of mindfulness practice you’re interested in pursuing, make sure you work with someone who has extensive training using mindfulness techniques.
Practitioners of various mindfulness practices will often have certifications and licenses to practice specific treatments, such as meditation, yoga, or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
If you’re dealing with a specific mental health concern, it may also be helpful to find someone with experience using mindfulness to treat your particular symptoms or condition.
Practitioners of mindfulness don’t always need to be psychotherapists. However, if you do expect psychotherapy to be part of your treatment, you should also make sure that your practitioner has advanced training in mental health and is licensed to practice in the state where you live.
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