Here and now: Mindfulness as a tool for healing.
Over the years, and with a growing knowledge of the brain’s plasticity, mindfulness as a therapeutic tool has become more of a staple in therapeutic practice. Mindfulness practice is now used in psychotherapy to address a range of mental health conditions.
Social worker Mary Smith of Sykesville, MD cheekily captured the adoption of mindfulness as a key therapeutic approach in the 2012 edition of the Psychotherapy Networker magazine.
B.C-1945 A.D.: It’s God.
1950: It’s your parents.
1960: It’s you.
1980: It’s them.
1990: It’s us.
2000: It is.
No time like the present
“Mindfulness teaches us to see our thoughts, but not be our thoughts,” says Michele Topel. A Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor at the Viva Center, she is also the founder of Mindful Living in DC. This is a community-based organization dedicated to the use of mindfulness as a tool for personal and societal transformation.
The impact of mindful attention to the present moment, adds Topel, is that it “allows us to observe patterned, recurring narratives [about self, relationships, the world, etc.] and realize we can choose them, or construct new ones.”
Michele has extensive experience as a meditation teacher, having trained with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. They are two U.S. pioneers in the mindfulness movement who helped introduce Buddhist meditation to western practitioners. Brach is also a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC. In addition, she has taught free classes in the area for years.
The growth in mindfulness practice in the US has been exponential over the past decade. Once the domain of yogis and alternative healers, mindfulness practice has expanded. You may see it included in medical programs, corporate wellness activities and, increasingly, psychotherapy practice. And it’s easy to see why if you look at the data.
Changing the brain’s experience
Mindfulness practice has shown to help with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, as well as physiological conditions such as pain, irritable bowel syndrome and heart disease.
Research on an eight-week meditation course at Harvard University showed that participants were able to reduce reactivity to a fear response by training their brains to more effectively recall a safety memory. Through functional MRIs, the study documented changes in neural activity in the brain that enable a change in response.
Michele Topel’s interest in meditation grew out of her personal experience with meditation to overcome her own addiction. Research suggests that by changing neural activity in the brain, and building distress tolerance, meditation can help reduce cravings and impulsivity, and prevent relapse. Of her own experience using meditation during recovery, Michele shares that it is instrumental in establishing stable long-term sobriety and preventing relapse, as well as increasing overall levels of happiness.
Meditation and Mindfulness in Practice
Topel has developed and leads meditation classes and retreats. Last year, she developed a class specifically for transgender and non-binary individuals exploring the nature of identity. Using the Buddhist concept of “no self or true self,” says Topel, helps participants to bring awareness to the activities of mind that create our fundamental sense of self. Understanding that we often include messages of internalized oppression from the dominant culture, as well as our families, can lead to self-compassion. Additionally, the realization of a more authentic self, ultimately leads to greater freedom and happiness.
Mindfulness is also a core component in Topel’s practice of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). DBT is mental health approach focusing on balancing both client self-acceptance as well as commitment to change. DBT promotes a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” outlook. The therapist both affirms the protective instincts that underlie client actions, even if at odds with the clients change goals, and gently points the client toward possible alternatives.
What Topel finds effective in DBT is the teaching of concrete skills for accepting distressing emotions. DBT can be also used to help clients with ADHD, eating disorders, suicidality, anxiety, trauma and substance use.
Topel has newly joined the Viva team of practitioners. To learn more about further working with her, please contact our Client Specialist at firstname.lastname@example.org.