As a clinician who regularly incorporates mindfulness into my sessions, I’ve learned over the years how not to bring it up with my clients. While some are completely on board at the first mention of the word mindfulness, for many others I sense an internal eye roll—if I don’t get an actual one.
And I don’t necessarily blame them. Practicing mindfulness is often portrayed as a quick and easy means to wellness. A lot of people have probably been told to try mindfulness is a way that just felt like slapping a bandaid on their pain.
Depressed? Have you tried practicing mindfulness? Anxious? But have you tried deep breathing? I once even had a close friend sarcastically remark, “I don’t think I can deep breathe my way out of this one.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from my clients over the years, which tells me that many of them were probably introduced to mindfulness in a way that felt like an oversimplified solution to their complicated experiences.
Common Misconceptions About Practicing Mindfulness
It’s likely our clients have already heard about the benefits of practicing mindfulness in some form from a previous provider, a friend, or their partner. But in many cases if they’re going to incorporate a mindfulness practice into their daily lives, they need to hear it differently. They need their doubts validated and addressed, and they need practical, science-backed reasons practicing mindfulness can help them.
When I open up this conversation with my clients, I often start by addressing a few common misconceptions about what practicing mindfulness really means.
Practicing Mindfulness Is a Cure-All
Mindfulness is a simple idea. It’s the practice of bringing your awareness to this present moment without judgment. However, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the course Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction describes, practicing mindfulness is simple—but not easy. Mindfulness is a practice that takes time and effort to build. I often compare it to starting a new workout routine, and how those muscles are not going to change overnight. It’s the same with our brains.
You See Results Right Away
It took me a little while to realize that the purpose of practicing mindfulness isn’t to make the present moment feel better. Even as I began to study mindfulness more in-depth, this was hard for me to understand. I struggled with my expectations around what was going to happen when I practiced being present. Surely I was going to feel more relaxed, balanced, healthier, and happier right away?
When my experience didn’t pan out that way, I thought I was doing it wrong. But the truth is, practicing mindfulness is about being present with whatever is happening. That might be stress, sadness, anger, frustration, hunger, or that itchy spot on your back. The point isn’t to stop any of those experiences. Rather, it’s to be present with them. (Unless you can reach that spot on your back. In that case, scratch away.)
Being Present Looks the Same for Everyone
Being present with our physical and mental states isn’t an equal task for everyone. A major part of that is traumatic stress responses. Asking someone who’s experienced trauma to be present in their body or tune in deeply to their emotions may be too overwhelming a task for them. When this happens with my own clients, I emphasize to them that this doesn’t mean anything is wrong with them, or that practicing mindfulness won’t ever work for them. It just means they may need different approaches and tools to make being present more tolerable, and we can work together to figure out what those are.
Practicing Mindfulness Means Having No Thoughts
Similar to believing that negative emotions will disappear, a common misconception is that having thoughts during mindfulness practice is bad. But this idea only furthers self-judgement and unrealistic expectations. I remind my clients that their brains will still fire off many thoughts—that’s just what the brain does. In fact, noticing that constant stream of thoughts is practicing mindfulness. With practice, the power that these thoughts have to pull you away from the present moment will diminish.
How to Help Your Clients Start Practicing Mindfulness
I know from personal experience and professional training just how valuable a tool practicing mindfulness can be. But I also know first-hand how difficult it can be to start those conversations in the therapy room. I’ve picked up some approaches over the years that have helped resistant clients feel like practicing mindfulness isn’t just a trend, or a simplification of their suffering. These approaches have helped clients in my practice open up to the idea of mindfulness, and can be used with your own clients as well.
1. Normalize the continuation of difficult feelings. Let your clients know that the goal of practicing mindfulness isn’t to get rid of negative emotions. This doesn’t just apply to mindfulness, but therapy in general. I’ve told my clients many times that we can never erase negative emotions from their lives, and that having this goal sets them up for failure. Instead, the goal is for us to be able to impact the client’s relationship with those negative emotions and their sense of resiliency when they do show up.
2. Give the exercise structure. Most people respond better to concrete, structured explanations than abstract ones, and practicing mindfulness can feel very abstract. Instead of simply instructing my clients to try deep breathing when they feel anxious, I may present it to them like this:
“When you notice stress or anxiety, take 3 minutes to breathe deeply. As you inhale through your nose, count to 7, then pause. On the exhale through your mouth, count to 11.”
These simple, digestible instructions give a lot more definition to the idea of deep breathing, and provide more concrete guidance that clients can use outside of the therapy room as well.
3. Provide education. This is important with any therapeutic approach, but I’ve found it especially helpful when talking to hesitant clients about practicing mindfulness. Simply discussing being present or the idea of grounding isn’t enough for most people. In my practice, I’ve been asked ”Why will that help? My present moment sucks right now.” And that’s a fair question! To help answer it, I incorporate the science that backs up mindfulness.
Discuss with your clients what happens in the brain when it’s in a state of trauma or continued stress:
“Your amygdala kicks in. The stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline are released, putting your body in survival mode. When your body is in this state, other functions that are related to long-term survival, like digestion, the immune system, and even human connection all decrease in activity.
You can go on to explain to them that mindfulness techniques, including deep breathing, practicing gratitude, placing a hand on your chest, present moment awareness, and various grounding exercises have shown to help shift your body from survival mode back into safety mode. In my experience, when clients understand the why behind the tools I give them, they become more open to trying them.
4. Always emphasize the client’s choice. Each of these tools have helped me have more effective conversations with my clients who are hesitant to try practicing mindfulness. But another important part of those conversations is the emphasis I place on client choice.
Throughout our conversations, I’m always trying to gauge how my client is feeling, as well as verbally checking in with them. Even if a client wants to incorporate mindfulness into our work together, I remind them that they can say at any point if it stops feeling like a good fit. This honors their autonomy, and creates safety in our therapeutic relationship.
Like I said before, mindfulness is simple, but not easy. Some clients are ready to do the work that mindfulness requires, and some won’t be as interested. These techniques have helped me broach mindfulness with some of my more resistant clients, and they might be able to help yours as well. You know your clients, and they know themselves—together, you’ll be able to tell when a mindfulness practice is the right choice.
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