Mindfulness meditation is a deceptively simple technique with a wide range of benefits and a growing body of research support. It's become the basis for popular psychotherapies like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
General Benefits of Meditation
From a neurological perspective, regular meditation practice has been associated with structural changes in the brain -- long-time meditators experience a thickening of the cortical tissue (which manages executive functions like attention and concentration), and an increase in the functional connectivity between adjacent cortical regions (meaning that important parts of your higher brain have stronger, faster lines of communication.)
Meditation has been shown to relieve stress and inflammation, thereby reducing risk of a whole host of diseases and improving overall quality of life. I think the evidence is more than sufficient to say that there is a general benefit to meditating, and would recommend it to pretty much anyone.
But as a therapist, I'm interested in helping people get what they want out of therapy -- achieving specific treatment effects -- in a reasonable amount of time. And for that reason, I incorporate mindfulness meditation into psychotherapy where it's appropriate for a particular patient, and in a way that supports other parts of the work.
Benefits of Using Mindfulness in Therapy
The clinical benefits of mindfulness practice fall under two related umbrellas: cognition, and emotion.
For cognitive control, think about problems like Adult ADHD, age-related cognitive decline, mild dementias, or even just problems focusing at work. Mindfulness meditation is all about learning to concentrate, and it works like exercise -- the more you use your ability to focus your attention, the stronger that ability becomes.
However, in each of the scenarios I mentioned, it's important to note that there is likely to be a contextual component to the problem, where your social environment and inner emotional life come into play. Oftentimes patients suffering from anxiety disorders or addictions complain of problems focusing, and it's necessary for the therapist to look very closely to see how that issue plays into the larger clinical picture. There are also many more cognitive rehabilitation techniques which can be utilized in therapy to achieve optimum results based on an individual patient's needs.
On the other end of the spectrum, people suffering from things like depression, bipolar disorder, or complex trauma are generally having difficulty regulating their emotions. They feel overwhelmed or find themselves acting in ways they're not satisfied with. As a framework for building up a calm, centered state of mind, mindfulness meditation can be very helpful in gaining more control over your emotional experience. Over time, you learn to accept emotions as they arise and continue on with your life in spite of them. There are a lot of ways to expedite that process in psychotherapy, and so I generally introduce meditation as just one component of an overall program for psychological health and well-being.
Varieties of Meditation Experience
It's also very important to consider the manner in which meditation practice is framed, as this will influence the way it's experienced and the types of benefits that are achieved. Anyone can listen to a guided meditation CD or read my tutorial on the subject and experience certain benefits. But who knows whether those benefits will be exactly what is needed for a particular individual to feel better? Depending on what a person is really looking for in therapy, I might help them develop a meditation practice focused on cultivating acceptance, forgiveness, compassion,or positive emotions. In other cases, it's more beneficial to concentrate on disconnecting from negative thoughts, memories, emotions, or experiences. Or to build up associations to positive experiences, like an improved relationship to the body, or to other people. Or for spiritual grounding.
Because so much of psychotherapy revolves around gaining control over mental states, I end up teaching most of my patients to use some form of relaxation, meditation, or self-hypnosis. But I think it's important to emphasize that those practices are not a one-size-fits-all cure. It's the way they're applied, and the purposes they're applied for, that make these techniques useful adjuncts to psychotherapy.