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How Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Can Work Together

dannyford's picture
on Tue, 02/07/2017 - 17:25

How a Combination of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Can Help You Heal


Thirty years ago, introducing meditation practices during psychotherapy may have raised some eyebrows. But more recently, people are starting to view the integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy in a different way, and are seeing positive results when the two approaches are used in conjunction.


These days, meditation is used frequently as a tool in therapy, and there are a growing number of practitioners who are cross-trained in both modalities (including yours truly!)

During a 2007 survey of 2,600 therapists, 41.4 percent of respondents reported that they were practising some form of “mindfulness therapy” with their clients. Mindfulness-based treatments are now part of the curriculum at numerous psychotherapy graduate programs, and are often discussed at academic conferences.


Researchers have even found that having mindfulness practice can increase a psychotherapist’s skill levels when working with clients. In a recent research paper, researchers from the Pennsylvania State University said:


“In a 4-year qualitative study, counselling students reported considerable positive effects on their counselling skills and therapeutic relationships, including being more attentive to the therapy process, more comfortable with silence, and more attuned with oneself and clients, after taking a 15-week course that included mindfulness meditation.”


So what are the advantages to using therapy and mindfulness together as an individual? How can a dual-pronged approach help you heal?


4 Reasons Psychotherapy and Mindfulness Work Well Together


1. They complement each other well.


Mindfulness and psychotherapy can be complementary practices. Therapy primary examines “self in relationship to other”, and mindfulness primarily examines “self in relationship to self.”


“Mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term “sati,” which originally meant "to remember," "to recollect," or "to bear in mind." Mindfulness teacher Christopher Germer defines mindfulness (sati) as ‘awareness of present experience with acceptance’.  


Mindfulness can help increase awareness of inner experiences (including thoughts and feelings), which can help you identify and understand unhelpful thoughts as they occur in your everyday life. Mindfulness may also help create a little bit of distance between you and your intrusive thoughts and feelings, which can help during conversations with your therapist.


Counsellor and Psychotherapist Lynn Barnes explains:


“Mindfulness is increasingly used in counselling and psychotherapy to help clients become more curious about their body sensations, behaviour, thoughts and feelings. However, psychotherapy and counselling are also relationship-based processes, so incorporating the concept of ‘embedded relational mindfulness’ is important….embedded relational mindfulness helps the client and the therapist become aware of the client’s internal processes.”


I meditate daily, usually for about 30 minutes, and meet weekly with my meditation teacher to explore my life and practice. I chose the name “Mindfulness & Psychotherapy” for my website because mindfulness and psychotherapy (in conjunction) have been essential for me on my own path of healing the wounds of complex trauma.


Psychotherapy helped me explore difficult and painful issues with a safe “Other” with whom I developed trust – and I also experienced myself as being cared about by someone. Meditation helped me to develop a different relationship with my body, heart and mind, becoming more loving and kind towards myself, and undoing the habits of chronic self-judgment.


Both mindfulness practice and psychotherapy are concerned with our ongoing processes of healing, cultivating our attention, strengthening our capacity for caring and non-judgmental presence, and lessening the power of our inner critic, inner bully, or super-ego.  They complement each well because both practices are both about suffering less and nourishing our hearts and souls with loving and wise presence.  


2. The healing process in therapy requires endurance, and meditation can help you cultivate that.


The impacts and symptoms of complex trauma can be insidious and all-pervasive, and you’ll need endurance to help you during the therapy process.


The healing process is nonlinear, and is also an ongoing, lifelong practice. It requires endurance, persistence and love. Our culture and society tells us to heal within the parameters of an arbitrary timeline, like 6 sessions of CBT, but often the path of healing is more winding and fluid. It’s often more of a marathon than a sprint. Practising mindfulness can help you improve your endurance for dealing with difficult things, and help you learn that you have practices to fall back on when things get difficult.


3. They both help you cultivate connections.

The two practices in conjunction can help you create important connections – with others, and with yourself.

Mindfulness practice fosters connection with yourself, with your own body, and can help you become more able to regulate your nervous system. Nervous system regulation is particularly important for trauma survivors, as we can have PTSD-like symptoms, in which our nervous systems get overstimulated and hypersensitive to our environments (including being around other people!)

Psychotherapy fosters connection with a trusted and safe other, helping us to get to know “ourselves-in-relation.”  

Mindfulness and psychotherapy both support growth of openness, empathy, and connection.  In meditation, we move towards greater empathy for ourselves by cultivating mindful awareness. In psychotherapy, we move toward empathy for ourselves by experiencing our therapist’s care for us, their empathy for us and all the experiences we have been through, and their compassion for how those experiences are impacting us today.


Connection is critically important for trauma survivors, because we often feel profoundly disconnected and lonely – and it’s important to build connections with others and with ourselves in order to continue along our path of healing.


4. Both psychotherapy and mindfulness encourage us to give caring and consistent attention to our experiences.


Psychotherapy and mindfulness help us create a deeper understanding of ourselves. In both therapy and mindfulness, we pay caring, curious and sustained attention to something – and when our attention wanders, we return again to the object of our attention.


We are taking time to step out of “doing” and constantly being productive, and we’re taking time to simply be – either by resting in awareness solo (during meditation) or in relationship (in psychotherapy).


Both meditation and therapy are like learning to be good parents to ourselves, and to hold the earliest, youngest aspects of our being with love, patience, presence and understanding.


We live in a culture where we are discouraged from even feeling our pain, let alone talking about it authentically and exploring it.  Yet, the pain is compounded and festers when we refuse to face it, don’t acknowledge it and suppress it. We often put on a brave face and operate inauthentically in order to satisfy the demands of our culture that we stay positive and appear invulnerable.


Paradoxically, my own path has shown me that it is the process of being willing to face the full enormity of our most painful experiences, that we find true strength, relational confidence, wisdom and expansive qualities of inner peace.  


We need to care for how things are right now, and mindfulness and psychotherapy can be powerful practices for deeply tending to ourselves in this way.  


Are psychotherapy and mindfulness for you?


If you’re going to use mindfulness and psychotherapy in conjunction, it’s important that you find qualified practitioners/teachers who can guide you. It’s my calling to help others as they walk their path, just as I have been helped by others – so if you’d like to discuss how I can help you by using psychotherapy or mindfulness, I invite you to get in touch to set up a free consultation.


A dual-pronged approach of psychotherapy and mindfulness can work well for helping you heal the wounds of emotional trauma, and working with a teacher or a therapist can be incredibly supportive. As always, you should focus on creating a path of healing that’s unique, and works for you.