Fred Shaykis

“Mindfulness” is a craze that is sweeping the world right now, and nowhere is it spreading faster than in Copenhagen, Denmark.  There, counseling psychologist Dr. Line Frederiksen is doing her best to prevent mindfulness from just being a fad.  What exactly is mindfulness?  Simply put, it is the process of bringing one’s full attention to the experience of the present moment in an accepting and nonjudgmental way.  While Dr. Frederiksen’s research focuses on the benefits of receiving mindfulness training for clinical therapists, she hopes that mindfulness will soon be widely accepted around the world, and not just practiced by her fellow therapists.

Sit in an upright position that you can maintain
for the duration of the exercise. One of the major goals of meditation is to calm
the mind.

To do so effectively, you must be comfortable.

Observe your thoughts individually. Cast them
away one by one.

Eventually, you should reach a state of peace
where you are free from distraction even by
your thoughts.

Mindfulness, a practice which stems from Buddhist philosophy, is most commonly practiced through meditation. It typically begins with a focus on breathing to ground oneself in the present moment. Love and kindness meditation, which fosters feelings of love and increases openness to oneself and others, and bodyscan meditation, which fosters relaxation by sequentially bringing awareness to each part of the body, are two of the most common forms.  Mindfulness, however, is not limited to meditation, and can be applied to everyday activities like exercising, driving, or eating.  Meditation is simply the “purest” form of mindfulness because it involves doing nothing other than focusing on the current experience.

Research on the effects of mindfulness meditation has been extensive, and the findings quite promising.  Mindfulness meditation training actually leads to a detectable thickening of the cerebral cortex in regions crucial to learning, memory, attention, emotional regulation, and perspective taking.  Furthermore, studies have shown differences in brain electrical activity, increased myelination, and improved immune system function after undergoing mindfulness training.  Amazingly, these changes are seen not after a lifetime devoted to meditation, but after only an 8-week mindfulness meditation course called Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  In this short but intensive course, a certified teacher leads students through meditations and other exercises that help develop the skills of mindfulness.  In addition, students are assigned homework exercises, such as meditating on their own or performing a specific activity mindfully.

meditation_benefits

While the majority of the scientific research illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness is quantitative, Dr. Frederiksen chose to perform a qualitative investigation of the effects of mindfulness training for therapists working in clinical psychology for her doctoral research.  As Dr. Frederiksen explains it, quantitative research can be useful for objectively determining “universal truths” but is constrained by measurement parameters, instead of being able to report the entire range of outcomes seen.  In addition, because mindfulness is such a personal experience, it can be difficult to study it in depth using quantitative methods.

In Dr. Frederiksen’s study, a group of practicing clinical therapists were taught the skills of mindfulness from an 8-week course similar to MSBR.  After the training was complete, Dr. Frederiksen closely examined the effects of the mindfulness training on the therapists through semi-structured inquiry and analysis of interview transcripts.  Open-ended questions aimed at understanding what the experience of mindfulness was like were posed to the participants, such as “Did you experience any new body sensations during or after the mindfulness training?”  While inherently subjective, Dr. Frederiksen’s intent was to identify some common themes in the experience and effects of mindfulness.

After scrutinizing the interview transcripts, Dr. Frederiksen identified six such themes among the participants, including increased openness to self and others; the “embodied experience” – increased bodily awareness, acceptance of bodily sensations, and calming effects of breathing; and improved attention towards thoughts and feelings.  While the above phenomena were all somewhat abstract, participants also reported that the training had helped them directly in their capacity as therapists because it reduced their anxiety and increased their awareness, empathy and connectedness to clients.  Furthermore, several participants even reported personal benefits from the training, such as being better able to bear the grief of bereavement and coping better with chronic back pain.

meditation_big

Dr. Frederiksen’s findings contribute to the great body of research on mindfulness, and she hopes that more psychotherapists will soon receive mindfulness training themselves and use it with their clients.  She already employs mindfulness in her Copenhagen clinic in one-on-one and group settings and she believes it has been quite helpful for many of her patients suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, addiction, and other psychological problems.  In addition, a significant proportion of psychotherapists around the world, particularly existential therapists, have begun to incorporate mindfulness into their therapeutic practice.  However, the uses of mindfulness extend far beyond the treatment of psychological disorders.  Convinced by the research, many organizations and schools are beginning to offer courses in mindfulness in order to reduce stress and increase well-being and productivity.

While she is optimistic about the future of mindfulness, Dr. Frederiksen acknowledges that widespread acceptance and practice of mindfulness will take a considerable amount of time, hard work, active promotion, and financial investment.  There are many people who mistakenly believe that mindfulness is a religious practice, are skeptical of its benefits, or doubt their own ability to meditate.  Furthermore, mindfulness is not easy or quick – it takes genuine effort and a good deal of practice for most people to learn and benefit from it.  Nevertheless, Dr. Frederiksen firmly believes that mindfulness can be a useful skill for everyone.  In this fast-paced world that we live in, learning how to slow down, de-stress, and be more present in our lives could do us all a great deal of good.

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