Mindfulness in psychology

The concept of mindfulness in psychology has been around since the 1970’s and what started off as a Buddhist meditation has been applied in various therapies in modern psychology and psychiatry to address mental health conditions such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression to name only a few.

Mindfulness forms an essential part in the teaching of Buddhist ‘awareness’ meditation and is seen as a crucial step towards enlightenment. In Buddhism mindfulness is described as a calm state of awareness of one’s feelings, thoughts, body functions and/or consciousness. As such, it is an analytical approach with the aim of gaining wisdom.

Similarly, in the psychological domain mindfulness is defined as non judgemental awareness that focuses on the present experience. Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt and Walach (2004) define Mindfulness as follows:

“Mindfulness is characterized by dispassionate, nonevaluative and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. This includes continuous, immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts, and imagery. Mindfulness is nondeliberative: It merely implies sustained paying attention to ongoing mental content without thinking about, comparing or in other ways evaluating the ongoing mental phenomena that arise during periods of practice. Thus, mindfulness may be seen as a form of naturalistic observation, or participant-observation, in which the objects of observation are the perceptible mental phenomena that normally arise during waking consciousness.”

The most common approach to mindfulness is based on two steps.

1. Self regulation of attention. The practitioner focuses on the experience that comes to the fore of the mind at the present moment. Put differently, a practitioner controls his or her concentration (focus) in order to be ‘conscious’ of present moments feelings, thoughts and surroundings (being in the now/present).

2. Observation of mind. Using an attitude of curiosity and openness the practitioners’ orientation is directed towards accepting one’s stream of thoughts that will invariably arise from such focus without passing judgement. In other words, the practitioner takes the position of observer and acknowledges and accepts whatever comes to the fore of the mind without ‘getting involved’. For example if we are starting to think ”This meditation is a waste of time – it just doesn’t work for me”, or ” I don’t think I can do this” then we just need to continue observing these thoughts, and the emotions linked to these thoughts until we are fully aware that we are the one observing what happens before us, but we are also aware that we don’t have to react to any of what plays out before us.

Even though based on Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness techniques have been utilised as secular practices for centuries to address psychosomatic illnesses and mental health in general. The more recent discovery of mindfulness as a psychological tool to assist people to intentionally recognising each moment as it lay before them has led many who took up the practice to a richer, more expressive and less stressful life experience.

Although a relatively new psychological tool, mindfulness has been the subject of much research and a number of mindfulness measures have mainly been correlated with variables relating to the field of health and performance as well as general subjective well being. The results of such studies have shown that mindfulness meditation reduces ruminative and distractive thoughts and behaviours (Jain and Shapiro, 2007), induces declines in mood disturbances (Brown, 2003) and stress Garland (2009), protects against functional impairment due to high stress situations (Jha, 2010), as well as increases emotional regulation generally (Arch, 2006).

Furthermore, other researchers have found that mindfulness increases a practitioners purpose in live, brain and immune function, activation in the left-sided anterior, a rise in antibodies in response to influenza (Davidson, 2003), an increase in academic performance in women (Shao, 2009), an increase in subjective well-being through inducing a feeling of ‘having enough’ (Brown, 2009) as well as decreased symptoms of illness (Fredrickson, 2008).

It is unsurprising therefore that a multitude of mindfulness therapies have been developed in an attempt to bring the philosophy at its heart to those who are suffering from unwanted thoughts and feelings.

However, they all seem to be quite similar in essence and it is difficult to see which one of these approaches would yield the better outcomes. Hence, in order to define some of the similarities and differences to mindfulness a number of the more common therapy approaches to mindfulness have been outlined below:

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