When you practice mindfulness as a way of life, over time you start to notice that your understanding of what it means will naturally deepen. You may find an increased capacity to respond more flexibly to the present moment both in your personal life and your clinical work. But even when you have intimately experienced and felt the depth of the practice, you may somehow still struggle to describe it or put it into words when necessary for client work.
When asked to describe their experience, people who suffer from anxiety more commonly cite a cluster of physical symptoms than emotional or mental sensations. Things like shortness of breath, muscle tension, hyperventilation, and palpitations are just a few examples of what people with anxiety may experience during a flare-up.
Mindfulness in the context of psychotherapy is more than just a technique or a theoretical perspective; it is a way of being with and relating to experience. Regardless of whether or not you choose to incorporate formal mindfulness practices in your sessions with clients, having your own mindfulness practice will positively inform your work.
Our lives revolve around our habits; studies show that almost half of our behaviors are habitual rather than intentional. Some, like brushing our teeth or putting on a seat belt in the car, are obviously helpful. Others, like eating or drinking unconsciously, driving aggressively, procrastinating, or spending hours online, can be much more of a problem.
When severe violations of safety, trust, or vulnerability occur, including outright threats to survival, humans are wired to shut down higher-order neural functions and fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive the threat. Clients suffering from post-traumatic stress are faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to carry negative personal history in the present moment without letting it dictate or control their behavior.
Mindfulness techniques are often thought of as being synonymous with present-moment-awareness interventions; however, while the two are clearly related, they are not one and the same. Mindfulness interventions are basically a form of attention control training, and, yes, clients have to be able to control their attention to make much headway in a present-moment-awareness intervention.
The core dilemma of post-traumatic stress is how to carry painful personal history forward in life. If clients use fragmented attention and avoidance to cope with what has happened, living a vital life is all but impossible. The alternative is to carry the objective reality of the trauma without the all-encompassing negative self-stories that result from the mind’s misguided sense-making operations.