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3 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Makes Therapy Work Better

When you meditate, you learn and practice important therapeutic skills.

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If you practice mindfulness meditation, you probably know that it can lower your stress level, reduce anxiety, and improve low moods. You might also be aware of its health-improving properties. According to the National Institutes of Health, mindfulness meditation may be able to reduce your blood pressure, help you cope with chronic pain, and even make it easier to fall asleep at night. But did you also know that by meditating, you’re also developing cognitive skills that can enhance the benefits of psychotherapy?

When you meditate — and by “meditate” I’m referring to mindfulness meditation, with no disrespect intended toward other forms of meditation — you probably focus on an ongoing, present stimulus such as your breathing. You might choose some other consistent sound in your environment, like street noise, wind through tree branches, or even the hum of an air conditioner. hat these stimuli have in common is that their presence continues from the immediate past into the present moment, and can help you draw your attention to the now. No matter what has distracted you, when you’re meditating and you catch your attention drifting away, you can always return to that ongoing, current stimulus because it’s always there to come back to.

And when you redirect your attention this way, you’ve probably learned to do it nonjudgmentally, with no particular frustration or sense of burden. No matter how many times you get distracted — no matter how often you need to bring your attention back to the present — you’ll need to do it without punishing yourself. This is part of the job of meditation: choosing not to be frustrated with minor diversions, but just catching your thoughts if they’ve wandered, and bringing them back to your focal point once again.

Learning to do this can take patience. It also requires the ability to stand back from your own thoughts and feelings, lest they overcome your intentions and sweep you away from your meditative focus. Perhaps the best analogy might be sitting on the bank of a river as boats and other objects float by. You’re not in the river; you’re watching it flow, just as you can watch your thoughts and feelings drift into, and then out of, your awareness. You know, even as you notice these items coming into view, that the river will soon carry them away again, and that you don’t need to take action at this moment. This sense of distance from your thoughts and feelings, no matter how strong they are, can help you avoid being swept up in the current of emotion caused by a passion or a frustration, or distracted by the thought of a pressing problem. When you notice that your meditative state has been disrupted by one of these ostensibly urgent thoughts or feelings, you simply recognize it and let it float away, down the river.

These skills and abilities — the ability to stay present, to gain distance on your thoughts and feelings, and to correct yourself non-judgmentally — can also accelerate the benefits of psychotherapy. For example, in therapy you may be confronted with difficult memories, turbulent feelings, or perspectives that challenge your outlook. You may be told you’re struggling with chronic, intrusive thoughts or critical self-judgments — possibly the introjected relics of a significant relationship in your past. You might even come to realize that you are contributing more to your own problems than you’ve previously understood. Challenging moments like this can be hard to accept, and difficult to comfortably sit through. But if you’ve developed your ability to stay present, and to tolerate the stimuli that intrude upon the present moment, you may be better at hearing your therapist’s interpretations without rejecting them. This meditation-therapy connection was identified in a 2007 study by Daniel Siegel, who found that the self-observation developed in meditation could change the brain, loosening the connections established by prior learning and allowing new input — that of the present moment — to be integrated in a new way. In other words, as Siegel sees it, being present gives you new tools to understand yourself and helps you to unlearn your prior, potentially mistaken assumptions.

Similarly, meditation skills can help you cope with the intrusive comments or interruptions posed in therapy by a person other than your therapist: yourself. People who habitually criticize themselves can have trouble hearing alternative interpretations, or thinking about themselves in ways other than the harsh ones they’ve learned. Now consider how much easier it might be to cope with this kind of regular self-criticism if you’ve developed the ability to gain distance on your own thoughts, as you do when you meditate. You’ll have learned to view these habitual, critical “voices” as something separate from yourself, and you’d be better able to protect your own self-esteem by recognizing the intruding thoughts as alien and unwanted, and responding to them in an appropriate, nonjudgmental way. In a 2012 article, Davis & Hayes referred to this process as “metacognitive awareness,” and linked it to improvements in emotion regulation and reductions in perseveration cognition. These changes, Davis & Hayes concluded, can help you build better emotion regulation skills.

I’ve often heard it said that there are three main goals of psychotherapy: to develop insights into yourself, to accept what you learn, and to regulate the emotions that you feel in response. If that’s true, then the skill-building inherent in regular mindfulness meditation practice can help your therapy succeed in all three ways.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J. A. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness. Monitor on Psychology, 43(7), 64-76.

Farb NA, Anderson AK, Mayberg H, Bean J, McKeon D, Segal ZV. (2010). Minding one's emotions: mindfulness training alters the neural expression of sadness. Emotion. 10(1):25-33.

Ortner, C.N.M., Kilner, S.J. & Zelazo, P.D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion, 31, 271–283

Siegel, D. J. (2007). Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2(4): 259–263.

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