Learning about Mindfulness in Therapy, Exercises and Techniques

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Mar 26, 2024

We live in a world of distractions. At any moment, most of us can reach into our pockets and, within seconds, have our attention pulled into friends, work, news, or entertainment. It’s as quick as a finger snap to take us away from our current and present moment.

While smartphones are not the only outlet taking our attention, data showing when and why we use our phones is staggering—one-third of teens bring their phones to bed, 25% of adults wake up to use their phones at night, and 85% of smartphone users reported checking their phones while talking to friends or family. 

Checking your phone while doing something else is not actually productive, as recent studies show humans are not very good at multitasking. But more to the point, some examples (such as feeling compelled to check your phone in the middle of the night) show clearly that we lean on these gadgets to help us avoid what’s going on inside our minds.

It’s not surprising that our gadgets are so effective at distracting us. People tend to be very uncomfortable being alone with themselves. Across 11 studies, researchers found that healthy adults did not enjoy spending as little as six minutes in a room with nothing but their thoughts, preferring mundane tasks or even mild electric shocks.

Why are we uncomfortable with our thoughts?

Some studies have shown that when participants were given time to let their minds wander, some people were able to find creativity and inspiration, while others fell into cycles of negative thinking. When we have time to be with just ourselves, our thoughts can easily become self-critical, we might start to worry about the future or ruminate about our stressors. We prefer options to suppress these discomforts. 

This has a connection to mental health issues like depression, or anxiety—something we see during the COVID-19 pandemic as mental health deteriorated while people were at home isolated.

The ultimate problem is that distractions don’t rid us of negative thoughts nor resolve why we’re having them. Distractions don’t eliminate the impacts of negative experiences or get rid of our stressors. They just prevent us from getting better at coping.

“What happens is the numbing and the distracting and the avoiding of the discomfort or the intolerable experience or the pain provides us like temporary relief, which feels so good. Sometimes we need that temporary relief, but over time, there's a cost to that—we start to miss out on certain aspects of life. Bringing in mindfulness or awareness, or this capacity to not necessarily go right to your distractions can lead to you living a little bit more of the life that you hope for yourself.” - Ashley Brodeur, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), Toronto, ON

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about being aware of your present moment, including how your body is feeling, sensations, the environment around you, and your thoughts in a non-judgemental way. 

Mindfulness is not new, it’s been practiced within religious and non-religious traditions for thousands of years. Today, we see mindfulness incorporated into western culture through meditation apps, western yoga practice, or mindfulness retreats. It’s also an effective modality (therapy technique) in psychotherapy or counselling therapy.

During mindfulness therapy or mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), feelings and thoughts don’t need to be managed or changed, they just are. Mindfulness motivates a sense of openness and acceptance and is shown to counteract worry and rumination.  

Learning to be comfortable while you’re idle is a valuable skill that can improve your overall mental health and wellbeing, and motivate positive outcomes from your internal thoughts.

“Mindfulness, which is present moment awareness, being nonjudgmental of yourself, but being really focused in the present moment is actually a mental skill where you practice attention. And that's brilliant because you're learning firstly, that you're not your thoughts.” - Kim Foster Yardley, Psychologist, Toronto, ON

How does mindfulness work in therapy?

Mindfulness can be a standalone technique or approach, or it can be incorporated into other therapy techniques. The aim of mindfulness in therapy is to move you out of reacting to unpleasant internal thoughts and feelings to instead reflect on them and accept them—this shift can have positive psychological outcomes.

Two major categories of mindfulness include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

As the name suggests, MBSR was designed primarily to tackle stress management, but is now shown to be effective for depression, anxiety, and even chronic pain or illness. This usually takes place over the course of eight weekly sessions that teach body awareness (scanning and recognizing sensations), meditation and yoga. These techniques teach us to acknowledge unconscious (and conscious) thoughts and feelings, combined with meditation and body awareness practices to learn to cope with them. 

By comparison, MBCT was developed to treat those with recurrent bouts of depression, but also has now been shown to be beneficial for other conditions like addiction, pain and illness. MBCT draws from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but differs because CBT asks us to challenge and change distorted thoughts to guide new emotions and behaviour, and mindfulness-based approaches only ask you to recognize thoughts, feelings and sensations without meaning. With MBCT, you learn to see yourself as separate or disconnected from thoughts and emotions, which can help disarm our feelings of helplessness or despair. 

MBSR and MBCT are similar in a lot of ways: both take place over the course of eight weekly sessions that teach us to be in the present moment and accept our internal and external experiences without judgement. However, MBSR is usually a bit more general in approach and outcomes in dealing with stress and learning to be present, whereas MBCT usually targets specific issues or challenges and asks participants to directly turn toward negative thoughts and emotions right away.

“Mindfulness is a way to connect and start becoming curious about the body. So, with the breath, I can start regulating and becoming aware of, ‘I'm breathing quite heavily and quite shallow.’ So, that tells me that I'm having a stress response. With my clients, what I do is build awareness of their body so they can support themselves. When they're not here in therapy, ‘oh, my breath is short. I'm anxious and so, okay, I need to breathe deeper.’ And so they practice deeper breathing to start regulating themselves.” - Moin Subhani, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), Toronto, ON

Mindfulness can also be incorporated as a component of other therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Mindfulness can be a key component of dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), a therapy approach that is centred on living in the moment and accepting difficult truths (or many truths at once) without self judgement or self invalidation. DBT is about managing intense emotional responses in life, and mindfulness techniques help to keep us in the present moment to achieve this.

The component of mindfulness therapy that is about being in the present moment is also a major part of Gestalt therapy—you might find therapists on First Session who list Gestalt under their modalities, they will be able to incorporate mindfulness practices in your work together. 

Mindfulness is a technique that can be applied to individual therapy, couples therapy, group therapy, child therapy or to help with specific mental health challenges. For example, learning how to focus, even on your own breathing or heartbeat, while at the same time allowing your thoughts and feelings to exist without judgement has also shown to be effective for treating those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to help support confronting fears and triggers that lead to compulsions.

Mindfulness exercises

When using mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in therapy, you might focus on your emotions and become aware of what they are without being controlled by them. To accomplish this, you might work with your therapist on exercises that involve naming each of your negative emotions as they arise (hurt, angry, scared) and you might add some awareness of how your body is physically feeling at that time (tingling, hot, tense shoulders, shallow breathing). By allowing yourself to have these feelings and learn how your body is reacting, it becomes easier to start processing those stressors.

Other common exercises in MBIs, MBSR or MBCT therapies and programs include:

  • Body scans: Lying on your back on the floor, you can start at your toes and work your way up, paying attention to each part of your body: toes, bottom of feed, calves, knees, etc. You can also start at a place where you feel soreness or in pain then focus your breath into that area, or use a visualization such as a hot ball of liquid melting into and warming the spot.

  • Walking: On a regular or familiar walking route to you, just observe your pace, if your lower back or shoulders are carrying tightness, how your hips are moving with each stride, or try to match your breath with each footstep.

  • Mindful listening: This can be applied effectively in group therapy settings. Everyone might take a few moments to write down a couple of thoughts or feelings, and then share with the group. Each participant is guided to observe their thoughts, feelings and body sensations when speaking and when listening, as well as observing if their minds wandered at all during someone else’s turn.

You can also incorporate small mindfulness exercises easily into your day. For example, next time you eat something, try slowing down and observing each bite, the textures, aromas, and flavours. 

You could also just take a few moments to check in on your breathing—taking a few deep breaths, feeling the air go into your lungs, letting your belly expand and exhaling. Not only is breathing a way to quickly increase calm, you’re paying attention to the present moment and action of what you’re doing with this exercise.

When you’re browsing therapists on First Session, try filtering by mindfulness under the Specializations section. Watch intro videos to get to know each therapist before booking or, if available, try a free 15-minute consultation to assess therapist fit.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.