Over recent decades, mindfulness has gone from being an alternative concept associated with incense and granola to becoming a scientifically validated therapeutic mental health tool. Analyzing the practice with rigorous scientific standards has resulted in some extraordinarily robust data proving mindfulness to be an effective therapeutic practice. Studies show mindfulness can significantly improve a variety of conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. Employing mindful practices has proven particularly successful in preventing relapses in cases of chronic depression and substance abuse.
All of the benefits of mindfulness for your brain ultimately come down to the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the capability of your brain to change in response to experience. Thinking mindfully changes the physical form and function of your brain because you are consistently altering the way you use your brain. Numerous beneficial changes occur, but it’s really about the part of your brain you allow to be in control. When practicing mindfulness, alterations can begin to happen in the brain almost immediately and become cumulative over time. Of course, results are going to vary per person and depend on individual factors. Even taking this into consideration, it isn’t inaccurate to say that mindfulness makes lasting changes to the brain pretty quickly.
If you’re not exactly sure what mindfulness is all about, read here for a full explanation of the meaning of mindfulness.
Currently, there are four recognized therapy models that are grounded in mindfulness which have been scientifically proven to change the brain’s physical form and function over time through neuroplasticity.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Probably the best known and certainly the most researched therapy thus far is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR has been shown to help people ease symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, lessen chronic pain, improve the quality of life for cancer patients, and more, such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and skin and immune disorders.
MBSR is a formal eight-week program initially designed to assist people in managing a range of conditions and life issues that were difficult to treat ongoing in a medical setting. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR incorporates mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga. MBSR has been adapted to workbooks and online formats and is in use in hospitals around the world.
The MBSR training helps a person become more aware of their habitual reactions and to interrupt their typical patterns of emoting, thinking, and behaving. The pause or space between stimulus and response lets people make conscious choices that change their lives. In doing the work of this program, individuals begin to understand they have control they have in their own lives. They can then use it to break through long-held patterns and fears that have held them back from living the lives they desired.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a form of cognitive therapy that incorporates mindfulness practices, such as meditation and breathing exercises particularly to prevent depression relapse. Using these tools, MBCT therapists teach people how to disengage from negative thought patterns that contribute to the downward spiral into depression. Research showed that MBCT reduced depression relapse by 43%.
Although it was developed for depression, MBCT has proven helpful in treating generalized anxiety disorder, addictions, anorexia and food issues, bipolar, panic attacks, psychosis, adult attention deficit hyperactivity, and post-traumatic stress, and more.
The primary goal of MBCT is to teach a person to relate to their emotions differently. Rather than trying to avoid or eliminate uncomfortable emotions, a person learns to change their relationship with their emotions by practicing meditation and other mindfulness exercises. When sadness occurs and begins the habitual negative thoughts and behaviors that trigger a relapse of depression, the person is equipped with tools that will help them maintain balance.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., in the 1980s. The therapy aims to provides clients with new skills to manage painful emotions and decrease conflict in relationships. As its name suggests, DBT teaches people how to hold opposite perspectives at once, promoting balance and avoiding black and white, all-or-nothing thinking. The dialectic at the heart of DBT is acceptance and change.
DBT was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder. However, research shows that DBT has been successful in treating depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. Specifically, the therapy focuses on providing skills in four key areas.
- Mindfulness practices focus on improving an individual’s ability to accept and be present in the current moment and circumstances.
- Distress tolerance is geared toward increasing a person’s ability to feel and process negative emotions, rather than trying to escape from unhealthy behaviors or ignore them.
- Emotional regulation covers strategies to manage and change intense emotions that are causing problems in a person’s life.
- Interpersonal effectiveness consists of techniques that allow a person to communicate with others in a way that is assertive, maintains self-respect, and strengthens relationships.
DBT treatment typically consists of individual therapy sessions and regular group sessions where participants support each other and try out new skills.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps a person accept the difficulties inherent in life by integrating both cognitive and behavioral therapies. The treatment has been proven effective for improving a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, substance dependence, chronic pain, psychosis, and people being treated for cancer.
The therapeutic approach used in ACT was originally called comprehensive distancing. Steven C. Hayes adapted the methodology and developed ACT in 1982. Essentially, ACT looks at a person’s character traits and behaviors to reduce avoidance coping styles. ACT also fosters a strong commitment to making changes and gives a person the tools to get back on track when they stray from their goal. It is a skill set that can be directed towards dealing with a specific situation or adapted for more general use.
Many situations, people, and emotions can be overwhelming and out of a person’s ability to control or even influence. In these cases, accepting it – whatever “it” is – can allow a person to move forward in a healthy way. Obsessing, worrying, and playing things over and over in their mind keeps them stuck. ACT teaches someone to accept the reality that is present and work with it for their best interest.
ACT focuses on three areas:
- Accept reactions and be present,
- Choose a valued direction, and
- Take action.