Mindfulness and Acceptance Can Ease Your Emotional Distress

Mindfulness is a two thousand year old traditional meditation practice for easing suffering and emotional distress.  The Buddha attributed suffering to our natural tendency to become attached to positive experiences, to try to prolong them, and to push away or avoid direct, open, and unguarded contact with what is unpleasant.  He taught mindfulness as a way to awaken ourselves  – to “know things as they are” – by devoting purposeful attention, without judging, to the unfolding of present-moment experience in order to counteract the deep-seated distress that can fill our lives.

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Westerners became enthralled with meditation, Zen, and mindfulness right after the Second World War.  Psychologists, medical researchers, and neuroscientists have accumulated impressive evidence of the value of mindfulness approaches, including meditation, for a wide variety of health and mental health problems.  Mindfulness is now practiced and extoled by cognitive therapy originator Aaron Beck, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps, FORTUNE 500 titans, and pentagon chiefs.  On February 3, 2014 mindfulness made the cover of Time.

Mindfulness tradition has recently converged with psychological science to play a transformational role in contemporary therapies. Psychologists believe that mindfulness-enriched treatments facilitate a broader, more distanced or decentered perspective, which enables clients to overcome immobilization by sticky thinking and negativity and become more goal-directed and realistic. Training in mindfulness can help us overcome sticky thinking and empower us to counteract avoidance by focusing attention on what’s really happening and changing the quality of our experience.

Awareness and acceptance are the two ingredients of mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be thought of as consisting of two ingredients or processes.  Awareness means tuning in to all the mental events in our field of experience—thoughts, mental images, sensations, memories, and emotions – analogous to tuning a fine HD radio in to a magnificent concert.  Acceptance is the embracing of our experience in a nonjudgmental way, without shunning it, clinging to it, or pushing it away.

Think of mindfulness as an attitude of openness, freshness, and willingness to engage in the comings and goings of our thoughts, feelings, and other mental experiences at this very moment.  Mindfulness teaches us to experience mental events separately from taking action, focus on the present, and not attempt to shut down painful experiences or prolong pleasant experiences.  The practice of acceptance augments the benefits of mindfulness when aspects of our current situation aren’t immediately changeable, or when the costs of changing are too dear.   When fear, worry or sadness color our perceptions and interpretations, acceptance can help us reduce the suffering that results from continually telling ourselves that the situation shouldn’t be the way it is.

Overcoming Sticky Business:  Worry, Rumination, and Bad Moods

Many people with anxiety or depression can benefit from treatment with a therapist skilled in mindfulness- or acceptance-based treatment.  Although mindfulness does not in itself resolve emotional disorders, it can raise our awareness of the role of irrational thinking in our emotional distress and help us to alter the processes that feed our pain and confusion.  Utilizing mindfulness-based techniques, a skillful therapist can help you abide with disturbing feelings rather than getting drawn into negativity; “unstick” your persistent worry or rumination; prevent bad moods from materializing; and even change long-standing tendencies to worry or brood your way into anxiety or depression

By mastering mindfulness techniques as part of therapy, people often find they become more able to focus and concentrate so they can keep from getting caught up in cloudy thinking.  Their mental flexibility increases, and they can develop a fuller perspective as they become more aware and accepting of the flow of their emotional feelings and the movement of their minds.

Mindfulness-based therapy with Mellinger

I have studied meditation and Buddhist psychology for a very long time and practiced meditation since 2007.  I’ve had long-standing curiosity and a measure of frustration about “the mind going around in circles” which has been linked to the strong, elemental role of “sticky thinking” in anxiety and depression.   Blends of over-thinking and intense, negative feelings are often at the very core of anxiety, worry, depression, and panic.  As a result, I’ve developed and integrated potent, evidence-supported mindfulness- and acceptance-based strategies for overcoming sticky thinking into psychotherapy for my clients with anxiety and mood disorders. In fact, with Dr. Steven Lynn I’m writing a fascinating new book on cutting edge therapies for overcoming everyday worry, anxiety, and the tendency to worry yourself sick.

I’ve had training in both mindfulness-based treatment for anxiety disorders and MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) for depression and anxiety.  The intensive anxiety workshop I’ve developed and implemented at Kaiser Permanente Behavioral HealthCare in Reseda is a rich interweaving of traditional CBT with mindfulness- and acceptance-based techniques that has helped many people reduce their anxiety and engage more fully in what they care about the most.

Long-term mindfulness practice

To become skillful at mindfulness or insight meditation, engage in practice for at least 10 or 15 minutes a day over months or years. Consider learning meditation from a teacher.  Longer-term meditation can enable us to realize through direct experience that passing thoughts and feelings needn’t forever define us nor constrict our activities and joy of living.  In concert with compassion and wisdom, mindfulness is a powerful means of easing emotional distress by keeping different wholesome states of mind in balance and working in harmony, clearing our bouts with mental confusion, and contributing to thinking wisely (Goldstein, 2002).

Mindfulness-based self-help

If you prefer, you could learn the practice of “mindfulness-based self-help”, either by practicing breathing meditation (samatha) or open awareness (vipassana) meditation from a book or CDs or online instructions.  A couple of sources that I recommend are the Insight Meditation Society’s site, www.dharma.com or UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center site at marc.ucla.edu.  Another route is to utilize one of the excellent, evidenced-based mindfulness psychotherapy self- help books – The Mindful Way through Depression or The Mindful Way through Anxiety – both of which instruct readers in cognitive-behavioral therapy integrated with mindfulness meditation that’s aimed at coping with emotional distress.

References

“Knowing things as they are”.  A. Munindra, personal communication, cited in Joseph Goldstein (2002), One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.

Definition of mindfulness – Jon Kabat-Zinn ( 2005), Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.

Prevalence of meditators statistic, NCCAM (2007), Meditation: An Introduction: “Uses of Meditation for Health in the United States”. nccam.nih.gov.

Benefits of becoming skilled at mindfulness – Goldstein, 2002 – see above.

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