mindfulness in psychology

Mindfulness in Psychology

About twenty years ago psychology became  really interested in mindfulness. The main  psychological therapies that use mindfulness are :

  • Acceptance and Commitment therapy(ACT),
  • Dialectal Behavioral Therapy(DBT),
  • Mindful based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT),
  • Mindful Based Stress Reduction) (MBST), and
  • Mindful Self Compassion ( MSC). 

This  page is an attempt to break  down four processes that are at work in the offices of therapists and psychologists when we are using mindfulness based techniques in our therapy.

I’ll  keep using Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition of definition of mindfulness on this website it’s  “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4).
Any techniques that help a client do this are considered mindfulness techniques.

By the way, Jon Kabat Zin is a doctor who  founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the
University of Massachusetts Medical School , where he adapted the Buddhist teachings on mindfulness  and with them, developed the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. He later named this  Mindful Based Stress Reduction ( MBSR). These clinics are recreated all around the world and have phenomenal results. Often psychologists and therapists will uses these techniques with our clients. He is famous for taking mindfulness and  meditation mainstream into western medicine.

People with chronic pain and physical illness experience a dramatic reduction in their symptoms after completing this program.

So how does mindfulness work with psychology to help get effective change in our clients? Don’t worry, I will be working on writing and linking to pages so you can practice all these ideas yourself.

Here are the four components of mindfulness in psychology.


All forms of therapy that incorporate mindfulness use it to teach skills to be present with experiences previously thought to be intolerable. These may be the experiences of  thoughts, emotions physical sensations or actual real life events that you don’t want to have and so you avoid.

Practicing mindfulness strategies in therapy  helps you  gain the experience to tolerate what you  thought was intolerable.  It decreases your fear and increases your ability to cope and tolerate more
difficult emotional states and life situations.

In MBSR for example, individuals who are  afraid of their pain are taught to tolerate their pain through mindful meditation. Studies show this actually decreases how they experience the
level of their pain and also their fear. In ACT, people are taught skills to tolerate difficult thoughts and emotions so that they can do things they are afraid of despite fear , and live a more productive life. Exposure has been the gold standard in CBT therapy for things like anxiety.

Mindful and meditation practices outside of therapy that help you train your mind to concentrate on experiences can assist in helping you tolerate difficult and painful emotions. Some of these can be fun small experiences, such as the
eat the raisin exercise, and some can be more intense experiences, such as a daily sitting exercise.

Cognitive Change

Psychology also uses mindfulness practices to produce a change in thoughts and beliefs. Observing your mind and body in a non judgmental way may lead to the understanding that thoughts are not the truth and do not require you to run or
avoid them. Exploring your thoughts with curiosity, or as if you are a detective, allows for information that you would not expect possible when you are clouded by judgement and shame. Mindfulness allows emotional blocks to be cleared away, and better processing and problem solving to occur. Thoughts that are keeping your trapped in unhappiness ( depression or anxiety)  can also be interrupted by mindfulness strategies. One  such strategy cognitive diffusion, which gives you space and helps you unhook from your thoughts. Unhooking provides understanding that the stories you tell yourself  are not true, and helps you to see and dismantle the damaging unconscious beliefs you have. That’s one of the main thing psychologists and therapist aim for. We want our clients to think differently about their lives, so they can feel different
and behave different!


Autonomic arousal, racing thoughts, muscle tension, and other stress responses  are often decreased when mindfulness and meditation  are practiced even though this is not the goal or intention. When you are more relaxed, your  anxiety decreases  and you can think about your thoughts and behaviors more clearly. Although mindfulness helps  you  to tune in and tolerate the difficult, so does it help you to tune in to the positive that is right there along side of it, providing joyful and relaxing experiences in each  moment. Often these moments were hidden from you before you practiced  mindfulness skills.  Slowing down and savoring positive experiences,  gratitude, and self compassion practices  can really help amplify this  byproduct  of mindfulness.


Acceptance rather than resistance is now understood to be a concept associated with positive change in therapy (Hayes, Jacobsen, Follette, & Dougher, 1994).
Acceptance involves being present and experiencing events, emotions, and thoughts just as they are. In the past psychology overemphasized changing our thoughts  but we are now shifting to understanding the value of dropping that idea. My women clients in therapy will often struggle with fighting and  changing their “bad”thoughts of getting rid of their feelings. Mindfulness teaches you this is unnecessary!

Panic attacks are the best example of this.  We know that an individual is more likely to get better if we can get them to accept that they may have a panic attack and they will be fine, rather than feed their unwillingness to have one, which often just increases their anxiety level. So many clients come in and say their goal is to make their anxiety stop or go away. Mindfulness based therapies teach us that we can’t make it go away, but we can learn how to accept it and interact with it differently. Mindfulness strategies in therapy help us focus on accepting what is unchangeable, instead putting our energies where we can impact change.

Through exposure, cognitive change, relaxation and acceptance all mindfulness techniques have been integrated into western psychology and are being effectively used in therapist’s offices to help their clients live happier lives.

Here are some other pages on mindfulness on this site:

  1. Learn about the key components of mindfulness
  2. mindfulness and self compassion
  3. Learn about mindfulness in therapy
  4. Learn about mindful meditation

Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.

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