Becca Hirsch, M.A., AMFT
Therapists often use “mindfulness” as a technique to teach clients how to be more present-focused and ultimately learn to be more attuned to one’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment. Mindfulness is not a new concept; in fact, it has been around for centuries and is commonly associated with Buddhism and meditation. Studies tell us that practicing mindfulness can decrease the negative effects of stress; reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety; and can improve sleep, mood, and overall mental and physical health. Practicing mindfulness can not only improve one’s overall well-being, but it can also improve intimate relationships.
There are four basic steps to keep in mind when practicing mindfulness, or what The Gottman Institute calls “RAIN”: recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identification. The first step is to recognize what emotion you’re feeling and label it in your mind. The second is to then accept the experience you’re having, even if it’s uncomfortable. The third, investigate, is to be curious about this experience by asking yourself, “Where do I feel this emotion in my body?” and “What kind of thoughts am I having?” Lastly, non-identification: see the emotion as a passing event rather than who you actually are. For example, adopt the attitude of, “Anger is arising and will soon pass away” or “Sadness is coming up in me, and at some point will dissolve.”
Practicing mindfulness can improve your romantic relationships in two significant ways: by communicating more effectively and decreasing anxiety around physical intimacy. Practicing mindfulness can improve communication, especially with close relationships in your life, because it forces you to slow yourself down. Something that is said or done that triggers us can cause a reaction out of us in a matter of seconds, often times without realizing why we’ve been triggered or what it’s making us think and feel. By being more mindful, you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and therefore, can respond to a trigger rather than react to one. Rather than immediately becoming defensive or shutting down, you can better respond to your partner by being a more active listener and explaining your own perspective. Practicing mindfulness also makes you more emotionally attuned to your own thoughts and feelings, which can, therefore, allow you to be better at communicating them.
Mindfulness is also a necessary and helpful tool in sex therapy with couples or when someone is struggling with anxiety around physical touch. The important element of mindfulness that can improve physical intimacy and touch is that it is present-focused and non-judgmental of your thoughts and feelings. I often hear clients say in couples therapy that their mind wanders during sex to anything from a work e-mail they forgot to send to what they’re going to make for dinner to whether or not their body looks desirable from this angle. When our minds wander or are filled with self-critical thoughts, we aren’t connecting with our partners and we aren’t enjoying ourselves as much. During physical contact, focus on physical sensations and feelings and ask yourself, “Am I comfortable?”, “Does this feel good?”, and if not, give your partner feedback instead of shutting down or rejecting them.
Practicing mindfulness can improve many aspects of your life and overall wellbeing. If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness can improve your mental health and your relationship with your partner, contact Symmetry Counseling to be set up with one of our talented therapists.