April 7, 2010
Science Daily/Virginia Tech
Mindfulness meditation helps students improve their ability to be emotionally present in therapy sessions with clients. It helps beginners, who can sometimes feel overwhelmed, stop focusing on themselves and think more about others.
Although most extensively described in the Buddhist tradition, McCollum teaches mindfulness as a secular practice, compatible with all religious beliefs. Mindfulness meditation involves deliberately focusing one's attention on present experience -- thoughts, physical sensations, emotions -- and doing one's best to stay present with those experiences without judging them or avoiding the difficult aspects.
Extensive research on mindfulness in health care points to benefits to be gained from the practice. For novice therapists, another advantage is that mindfulness meditation helps them to switch out of problem solving into being more present, more empathetic, and more compassionate, all important aspects of the therapeutic process, said McCollum. He has practiced mindfulness for over 20 years and began to introduce the practice into the Virginia Tech MFT curriculum about five years ago after seeing students struggle to be emotionally available to clients.
Among the study's findings:
Mindfulness helped students be present in their sessions. They were able to attend to their inner experience during what was happening with the clients in front of them, and further bring these two domains together in the therapist-client interaction. However, the students also made clear that this was not a process of becoming absorbed. They described instances where they were able to remain present with intense or difficult material in sessions without becoming "infected" with it; that is, in contact but not overwhelmed, a theme referred to as "centered."
The students credited several "effects" of their mindfulness practice with their ability to be present as therapists. They felt they were calmer in general and specifically in their therapy sessions; were more aware of their inner chatter and could either decrease or disconnect from it, and were able to slow down their perceived inner pace or sense of hurry. Finally, some of them used brief periods of formal practice to allow themselves to set aside thoughts and feelings associated with the previous session or with their lives outside of the clinic and focus their attention on what was happening in the current client session.
The students' experience of presence seems to have formed a foundation for them to shift their mode of being in the session. Being did not become their sole mode in therapy sessions but they appeared to reach more balance between the two modes. What helped them make this shift was seeing the positive effects on the clients of their changed presence. For most students, this came through interaction with clients in the session; some actually meditated with their clients and were encouraged when clients found this a useful experience.
The students reported explicitly experiencing a sense of compassion and acceptance. As they came to accept themselves in the therapist role, they were better able to accept their clients. Some students came to a stance of compassion that was consistent with the traditional meditation literature -- seeing commonality between their own struggles and their clients' struggles and recognizing their shared humanity.
"Our findings suggest that mindfulness meditation may be a useful addition to clinical training," said McCollum.
"When I first thought back about the mindfulness experience, I wasn't sure how much it still applied. I thought, 'I don't practice daily, and I don't use it as often as I should.' Then I realized that I was wrong. I do practice daily and I do use the experience often. However, it's no longer a conscience practice. It's something I've incorporated into who I am and how I deal with the struggles and frustrations I face every day. When I look back and who I was before the mindfulness experience, I realize how I 'became' the stress I experience. I would think about how stress had affected me in the past and how it would affect my future. I would get more frustrated and more irritated… Now, while I experience as much stress as I did before, I am more aware of my present experience and the stress seems outside of who I am. I worry less about how I have experienced it in the past and how it will impact my future. I am also not negative about the experience. I'm aware of it, I notice it, and for the most part, I'm able to let it go."