Mindfulness is a popular technique for dealing with everyday stress. It is also becoming a more widely used tool in therapy as research begins to accumulate indicating mindfulness can be as effective as medicine in some cases.
Mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way—on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.
Much of the recent interest in mindfulness is “fueled by results from scientific and clinical studies that are increasing our understanding of how the practice of mindfulness can help with stress, chronic illnesses, and specific mental health issues such as depression, prolonged periods of sadness, or sustained levels of anxiety,” according to mindfulness-based psychotherapist Susan Woods.
And it’s health benefits tend to be systemic, meaning they affect the whole body, according to Michael Baime, associate professor of medicine and head of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Training in mindfulness is associated with a wide variety of physical changes that include improved immune function, decreased pain, and even resistance to respiratory illnesses and colds,” he said in an interview about the trend of mindfulness. “The most significant benefits though, and the reason why it’s become so widely popular, are the psychological benefits.”
Here are some of the top approaches being used in a therapeutic setting.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
What it is: The seed, if you will, of all the therapies below, MBSR is an educational approach that uses relatively intensive training in mindfulness meditation as the core of a program to teach people how to take better care of themselves and live healthier and more adaptive lives. The program is often delivered as an 8-week group series, but can be modified for different environments.
Developed by: Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School
Best for: MBSR is recommended for those looking for additional support for a number of medical and psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, sleep issues, high blood pressure, cancer, and those facing work, family, or financial stress. To teach MBSR requires a multi-step certification process.
Research shows: A large body of evidence has accumulated since the program first launched in 1979. The first peer-reviewed paper on mindfulness was released in 1982 and demonstrated MBSR helped those dealing with chronic pain.
Learn More: Center for Mindfulness
Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT)
What it is: Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training teaches professionals to combine mindfulness practices with the principles of food intake regulation and science-based nutrition to help people develop a more positive relationship to their bodies, make healthier food choices, and savor their food. The mindfulness practices include meditation, body awareness, mindful eating exercises, and a half-day silent retreat.
Developed by: Clinical psychologist Jean Kristeller
Best for: The training is for professionals who work with clients dealing with obesity, diabetes, and/or food issues, such as stress-related eating, overeating, and binge eating.
Research shows: NIH-supported trials have shown that the program is highly effective in helping both men and women shift their eating experiences and manage their weight.
Learn More: The Center for Mindful Eating
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
What it is: A therapy designed to help people free themselves from depression and emotional distress. It’s particularly geared toward those who have recovered from depression and would like to prevent a relapse. MBCT blends cognitive therapy techniques with the practice of mindfulness meditation and is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Developed by: Doctors Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale
Best for: People who struggle with recurring depression and clinicians who work with them.
Research shows: A number of studies have demonstrated the success of this program, including two randomized clinical trials that suggest MBCT can reduce rates of relapse by 50 percent among patients who suffer from recurrent depression.
Learn more: mbct.com; Zindel Segal's Tedx Talk; find an MBCT program
Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC)
What it is: Mindful Self-Compassion is "the practice of repeatedly evoking good will toward ourselves, especially when we’re suffering,” according to the program’s website. MSC trainings are designed to help you be kinder to yourself, find positive sources of motivation, and build your resilience through the interrelated practices of mindfulness and self-compassion.
Developed by: Psychologists Christopher K. Germer and Kristin Neff
Best for: Health-care professionals and laypeople who would like to dive deep into the practice of Mindful Self-Compassion.
Research shows: Self-compassion helps boost happiness and life satisfaction and decrease depression, anxiety, and stress, especially when practiced daily, according to the research.
Learn more: Center for Mindful Self-Compassion; self-compassion.org
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP)
What it is: Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) is a treatment approach designed to help people in addiction recovery stay on the path to wellness via a blend of mindfulness practices with cognitive and behavioral strategies.
Developed by: Research scientists and therapists Sarah Bowen, Neha Chawla, and Alan Marlatt
Best for: People in recovery from substance abuse, although some MBRP programs now welcome people who are struggling with other addictions as well, such as gambling or food. Also: Clinicians, mental health professionals, and others who work with patients who are recovering from addiction.
Research shows: Studies show that MBRP helps reduce relapse risk of drug use and heavy drinking and supports long-term wellness by strengthening the ability to cope with cravings.
Learn more: Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention; find an MBRP therapist
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)
What it is: This evidence-based approach brings together the tools of mindfulness, acceptance, and behavior change to help people live more present lives and let go of painful feelings and experiences.
Developed by: Clinical psychologist John P. Forsyth
Best for: People with chronic pain or illness, like diabetes, epilepsy, or cancer, or who are dealing with severe mental illness or have more than one disorder or problem (such as anxiety and depression), and the professionals who treat them. The Veteran's Administration has also started training psychotherapists in ACT to help with post-traumatic stress.
Research shows: ACT is listed as an empirically supported treatment for many problems by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. The American Psychological Association has listed ACT as an empirically supported treatment for depression.
Learn more: Association for Contextual Behavioral Science; find an ACT therapist