Mindfulness has been incorporated into several psychological interventions, either as a sole or core component of the intervention. A body of research has examined the effects of mindfulness on psychological health and has suggested that mindfulness training is associated with positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being and positive emotional states, reduced stress, improved regulation of behaviour, and lower levels of rumination (going over and over the same thoughts in your mind, which tends to worsen mood) (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011; Williams, 2008).

But how does it work?

Mindfulness-based interventions aim to help people to become more aware of, and relate differently to, their thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Through mindfulness practice, individuals are encouraged to recognise and accept discomfort from negative emotions, to detach from negative thoughts, and to disengage from unhelpful processes (such as rumination), by redirecting their attention to the present moment. A surge of studies has shown the positive association between mindfulness practice and letting-go of negative thoughts (i.e., more mindfulness practise is associated with greater ability to let go of negative thoughts) (Frewen, Evans, Maraj, Dozois, & Partridge, 2008).

Why can’t I just go along with my thoughts?

Well, you can, but it’s likely that it will only increase emotional suffering. Let’s say that you are upset because you went for a job interview, but you weren’t offered the job. Understandably, you may be feeling disappointed and sad (these are your primary emotions, as they derive from the circumstances you’re in). However, you then start (inadvertently) engaging in a stream of negative thoughts, such as “I’m such as loser”, “Things with me are always so difficult”, “Everyone else seems to manage to get the job they want but me”, etc. If you go along with these thoughts, by believing them and acting as if they were true, you are most likely to experience another stream of emotions- perhaps anger, shame or envy- these are secondary emotions, as they are not necessarily related to your particular circumstances (not getting the job you wanted), but instead are associated with your negative thoughts about your circumstances. It is as if you are adding “layers of emotions” that pile up and, in doing so, your emotional suffering only increases.  As you can deduce, the primary emotions you experienced in this situation were justified and, to some extent, unavoidable, as it’s part of the human condition to experience negative emotions when there is a gap between what we want and what we get; however, the secondary emotions were less justified and easier to avoid, as they derived from our unwillingness and difficulty to relate compassionately to our own pain.

Mindfulness, by bringing awareness to the present moment, fosters our ability to recognise our thoughts and feelings, to relate to them and to ourselves in a kind and non-judgemental way, and to disengage from adding those extra layers of negative emotions, thus reducing emotional suffering. You cannot go through life without pain (as it’s a part of being human), but you can go through life without suffering.

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