“Don’t mind the thought itself; instead, seek to change your relationship with the thought”

random psychology student, aka me

A Primer in Mindfulness

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founding father of mindfulness, defined the term as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. Mindfulness is therefore: 1) intentional (purposive); 2) non-judgmental; and 3) present-focused (what’s happening right now). In simpler terms, mindfulness is about noticing what’s happening in and around us without adding any additional subjective meaning to the experience. For example, if you were to sit in a rather uncomfy La-Z-Boy, instead of thinking “I’m so uncomfortable; this is awful”; rather, you might say to yourself: “I’m noticing a lot of feelings of discomfort right now”. By taking this non-judgmental approach, we take away the power of distressing thoughts and give ourselves psychological space from the thought. The thought and I are separate entities; the thought does not embody me.

In psychology, mindfulness-based therapies represent a new wave of therapies that involve changing our relationship with our thought. This is in contrast with more traditional cognitive therapies that focused on changing our ways of thinking. Mindfulness therefore embodies the concept of change through acceptance. Mindfulness has been used in a number of psychological disorders, such as anxiety, depression, substance use, sleep, eating, posttraumatic stress, among many other disorders.

Mindful Moment: Take a minute to really observe this flower. The colour, the detail, the petals; everything.
Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

How can mindfulness prevent future depressive episodes?

Research indicates that the best predictor of future depression is past depression. In fact, a study by Hardevelt et al. (2010) found that someone with a history of one episode of depression has a 50% chance of a second episode. This rate increases to 90% for people with three or more episodes.

But why is this? One theory is that people with past episodes of depression are particularly vulnerable (known as cognitive reactivity) to future depressogenic events – events that can induce low mood, such as failing an exam or losing a romantic relationship. When something crappy happens in life (as life inevitably throws at us), this activates sleeping negative beliefs that increase the likelihood that someone falls back into depression.

This is where mindfulness can be helpful. Mindfulness is a way for people to engage with negative thoughts in a non-judgmental manner and recognize that a thought is simply that – a thought. It does not mean the thought is true nor does it mean that there was a special reason why the thought popped up. Through having this additional psychological space, a person may become more resilient to negative thoughts.

To provide an example, let’s say Person A and Person B both experiences a negative event: failing a test. Person A, who does not practice mindfulness, has the thought “How could I have failed the test? I’m so stupid and worthless”. On the other hand, Person B, taking a more objective and mindful approach, thinks “I’m noticing I have a lot of thoughts about self-hatred right now”. As you might imagine, Person A is more vulnerable to experiencing a stronger emotional response to the situation and may be more likely to experience a relapse in depression. On the other hand, Person B effectively took away some of the power that the thought had by changing their relationship with the thought. Importantly, the psychological space provided by mindfulness may give Person B time to consider how to move towards their goal instead of falling into our automatic behaviours (e.g., being hard on ourself, withdrawing from our lives) when we are depressed. Specifically, Person B might think “my goal is to succeed in school, so I should figure out some ways to perform better next time“. On the other hand, Person A might fall into a depressive cycle and decide “why bother studying anymore, I’m just going to fail anyway because I’m stupid”. This is particularly important in breaking the cycle that maintains depression.

Research also supports the usefulness of mindfulness in relapse prevention for depression. For example, Kuyken et al. (2008) found that relapse rates for participants with depression were significantly less (47%) compared to people treated with antidepressant medication (60%).

“I’m noticing that the candle is extremely hot right now” – a person who’s perhaps a little too good at mindfulness
Photo by Fernando @cferdophotography on Unsplash

Resources for Mindfulness Practice

The definition of mindfulness can be quite elusive, and it is very possible that you may still be somewhat uncertain how to engage in mindfulness properly. For mindfulness, it’s easier to understand through practice rather than reading about it.

Fortunately, there are many resources for mindfulness online. One video by Dr. Kabat-Zinn I like to use for my patients is The Breathing Space, which I’ll link here. It embodies the idea of mindfulness well and only takes a few minutes!   

Tips for success!

1. Think of mindfulness like practicing an instrument! Mindfulness is something that comes with regular practice just like any other skill. The more you practice; the better you get.

2. There’s no right way to practice mindfulness. Oftentimes, I hear my patients saying that they did a ‘bad job’ because their mind was distracted or they did not feel better afterwards. Remember, the mind does what the mind does. Sometimes we are simply more agitated or less focused than usual – and that’s okay! The important part is to notice this is happening and to bring it back to the activity. The goal of mindfulness is also not to feel better in that very moment. That can happen or it might not. Again, the point is to be able to sit with our experiences. The more we can accept that life can be both pleasant and unpleasant; paradoxically, the more pleasant life gets.

3. Pick the mindfulness practices that work for you! Not every practice is going to resonate well with you, and some might not be something you can do consistently depending on your schedule. Try out a few but stick with the ones that feel right for you.

But what about evidence-based strategies to change your thoughts?

But wait, there’s another article where you tell us about cognitive strategies to change our thoughts. Now you’re telling us to sit with them and accept them? Yes that’s right! And here’s a shameless plug to that article on thought records! In all seriousness, however, both mindfulness and traditional cognitive approaches have been shown to be effective in improving our mental health. My advice would be to try them both out to see which one feels right for you. Some people love the idea of challenging their thoughts; others resonate more with living with them comfortably. You can use a mix of both too!

If you thought this was useful, or if you think this post would be helpful for others you know, please feel free to comment or share the post! Thanks for reading as always-

Best wishes,