Mindfulness and Psychology

A short history of psychology

The term “psychology” was first used in 1590, but it took three centuries for psychology to become a science. Back then, psychology was a subdomain under philosophy until the year 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt, a famous scientist, established an experimental psychology lab in Leipzig, and paved the way for psychology to become a scientific field.

When and how mindfulness has been represented in the field of psychology?

Mindfulness was first introduced to the psychology field and to the Western science in the 1970s, when Jonn Kabat-Zin founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and developed his famous program, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction.

How mindfulness in used psychology

When you look at the dates, you will realize that mindfulness is quite recent in the history of psychology. 50 years after meeting the Western world, mindfulness would probably say: “I have had the time of my life”. All Dirty Dancing references aside, mindfulness reached a peak point in science as well as in popular culture. There is a rapidly growing body of research that suggests that mindfulness has benefits on physical and mental health, such as better sleep, memory and focus, as well as reduction in anxiety, stress, depression, panic, and so on. It is often said that levels of mindfulness and well-being are strongly correlated.

Mindfulness practices and applications that benefit from mindfulness principles are often referred to as Mindfulness-based Interventions (MBIs), which most institutions have implemented in education, healthcare, and business life.

Mindfulness-based applications in clinical psychology

These are some of the MBIs that are used in psychology research and clinical treatment:

  • Sitting meditation
  • Mindful movement (walking meditation or gentle yoga practices)
  • Breathing exercises
  • Body Scan
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  • Daily mindfulness activities such as mindful cooking, mindful eating or mindful brushing of teeth
  • Gratitude journaling

There are several clinical therapeutic approaches that use mindfulness-based exercises and the foundations of mindfulness such as acceptance and staying in the present moment. There are vast majority of scientific studies which show that mindfulness based interventions are highly effective in treatment of anxiety and depression, as well as in treatment of cancer, diabetes or chronic pain when they are combined with psychotherapy and medical treatments.

Some approaches that use mindfulness

Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction is one such application that benefits from mindfulness practices, such as relaxation techniques and meditation. It is an intensive mindfulness training program, developed by Jonn Kabat-Zinn, a famous scientist, Buddhist, author, peace activist and meditation teacher, in 1979. It lasts approximately two months, consisting of eight different modules for each week. It is mostly used in treatment of anxiety, depression, and some chronic illnesses.

The main focus of the training is learning the principles of mindfulness and gaining basic knowledge on how the mind works. After getting informed on mindfulness, participants work on how they can apply those principles in their daily lives. Hopefully, after the program, trainees are better at balancing their lives with improved attentional skills and better emotion regulation.

These are some of the mindfulness exercises that are used in this intensive program:

  • Body Scanning
  • Breathing Exercises
  • Loving and Kindness Meditation
  • Raisin Exercise
  • Lying Down Yoga
  • Standing Up Yoga
  • 9-Dots Exercise (connecting up nine dots by making four straight lines without lifting your pencil and without retracing along any line)

Research suggests that MBSR is effective in treatment of depression and anxiety. MBSR is widely used in combination with medical treatment of illnesses such as hypertension, cancer, chronic pain, and diabetes. It is also associated with greater well-being, higher quality of life, and decreased stress levels among healthy populations.

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy is an evidence-based psychological intervention, designed by Segal, Teasdale, Williams in the very beginning of the 21st century. MBCT is used in prevention and treatment in depression and it is found effective especially in preventing relapse in major depressive disorder. Although they both apply mindfulness practices in their programs, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy differs from Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction in that it is more frequently used for relapse in depression, while Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction is more efficient in improving overall mental health.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a form of short-term and result-oriented psychotherapy which goes under the broader Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approaches. It was created by Steven Hayes, a researcher, psychologist, and therapist now at Nevada University in the early 2000s. ACT basically implements the principles of “accepting” difficult emotions, challenging life events by tuning into ourselves and learning to be self-compassionate. According to Hayes, practicing some action-based behavioral methods and eventually “committing” to make changes in our lives helps us feel less overwhelmed and more at peace. Although ACT is not completely based on mindfulness exercises, it overlaps quite a lot with mindfulness due to its emphasis on focusing on the present moment and accepting our feelings without judgment.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan, is also a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which combines the strategies that are frequently used in behavioral therapies with mindfulness practices such as bringing awareness to the present moment and non-judgemental observing of the self and the environment. The main goal is to help the patients to validate and accept their feelings and to guide them to make better decisions and  to gain healthier coping skills.

State mindfulness versus trait mindfulness

As mindfulness becomes a popular subject of scientific research and frequently used in clinical practice, the definition and foundations of mindfulness has been widely discussed by scholars and mental health practitioners. Since mindfulness has been largely integrated in various applied fields including clinical and nonclinical settings, researchers find it crucial for its theoretical foundations to be clear and supported by scientific findings. The two most prominent terms that emerge within these discussions and several research studies in the context of mindfulness and psychology are state mindfulness and trait mindfulness, which can be measured with valid and reliable scales.

State mindfulness can be defined very simply as the temporary status of the functioning of the brain and the way the brain works and makes connections on a neural level. It can be achieved by meditation practice or other mindfulness activities, but the thing is that mental states are not permanent by definition. You can think of state mindfulness as the current condition of your brain during your meditation practice.

Trait mindfulness, also known as dispositional mindfulness, on the other hand, is a more stable, coherent and consistent characteristic of a person. Personality traits or dispositions are features in our personalities and every person can have these traits in their personality at different rates. Traits can manifest themselves as dimensions of individual differences. They are not fully stable and unchanged over life, but rather they show a pattern and coherence throughout that person’s life. In fact, research shows that it is possible for personal traits to show changes in time with life experience and practice.

Like extraversion or conscientiousness, mindfulness is also thought to be a type of trait. Trait mindfulness, then, can be defined as the innate ability to focus on the present, to have a non-judgmental and acceptive approach. And since it is possible for traits to change with experience, a person can have a more mindful disposition in life and become more mindful in life as they practice mindfulness.

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