Meditation Methods Employed by Mental Health Professionals
- Guided Imagery
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Mindfulness Meditation
- Focused Breathing
Now is an exciting time to become a mental health professional! Increasingly, therapists are including meditation techniques in their treatment plans. Regular meditation helps clients achieve the goals of counseling. Here are five therapeutic methods and how to employ them in your future practice.
The Relaxation Response
All types of meditation share the same objective – prompting a relaxation response. This is a deeply serene state, induced by the release of calming hormones. In a quiet setting, by fixing one’s attention on a single object, a person receives immense benefit.
The mind grows still, muscles relax, and blood pressure gradually drops. Breathing and heart rate slow. Neurons in the brain forge new connections.
These physiologic changes help clients better manage challenges. Following is an overview of guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis, mindfulness meditation, and focused breathing.
1. Guided Imagery
For this meditation method, the therapist leads a client in visualizing pleasing objects or scenes. For guided imagery to be effective, the counselor must first take a thorough client history. Then, knowing what objects relax a patient, the counselor suggests images on which to focus.
Here’s an example. With eyes closed, a patient is asked to picture a peaceful beach on a sunny day. Next, sensory impressions are explored. The client describes the sights, sounds, and aromas evoked by the scene.
To conjure the sense of texture, the counselor might ask, “What does the sand feel like on your bare feet?” The therapist may also play instrumental music that complements the visualization. The goal is to mentally engage all five senses, if possible.
Meanwhile, the counselor observes the client for signs of contentment, such as changes in posture, facial expression, and voice tone. As breathing slows, muscles loosen, and mental activity wanes.
Therapists may teach guided imagery in both private and group sessions. This technique is effective for treating anxiety, grief, addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can aid quitting smoking and reduce the awareness of pain.
For instance, a cancer patient might picture vibrant cells and organs glowing inside them. An arthritic client can soften pain by turning down the volume on an imaginary radio. Positive visualizations can diffuse relationship tension and resolve family issues. In this way, guided imagery is both relaxing and helpful in achieving a desired outcome.
Certification in guided imagery is available. To be eligible, you must first earn your degree and obtain licensure as a mental health professional. Then, apply to the Academy for Guided Imagery. The course involves 33 hours of independent study and 150 hours of formal training, which you can complete in two years. You can opt to select a home-study module or participate in group study online.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
With this type of meditation, the therapist instructs the client to tense a muscle group, hold the contraction for 15 seconds, and then release it while slowly exhaling. After a brief pause, the therapist addresses another muscle group. This process is repeated systematically, beginning with the toes and ascending to the head.
Muscles are gently tightened, not to the point of strain. After each pause, the client notes the sensory difference between tautness and relaxation. At the end of PMR, a client feels body-wide tranquility.
Through PMR, clients gain self-awareness of muscle tension when under stress. Then, they can choose to relax tight muscles and quell unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and frustration. Following are two examples.
- When upset, a client habitually clenches their fists. After learning PMR, they can catch themselves, and release their agitation.
- A client suffers from chronic headaches. After mastering PMR, they can sense the initial tensing of their neck and shoulders. By pausing to relax the involved muscles, they avoid the pain cycle.
Additionally, PMR can alleviate panic attacks, social anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia.
This technique is similar to guided imagery. However, hypnosis emphasizes verbal suggestions, rather than sensory engagement. Therapists use this meditation technique to help clients adopt new habits, change behaviors, and relieve symptoms.
First, the therapist leads the client into a “hypnotic trance,” a state of deep relaxation. Then, the client receives goal-oriented suggestions.
Initially, mental health professionals may dedicate entire sessions to hypnosis. Then, at subsequent visits, hypnosis occupies 15 minutes of treatment time. Once a client is fully versed in the technique, they can practice self-hypnosis independently.
Some therapists make audio tapes for their patients. They may also use hypnosis in group therapy. Research shows that this meditation technique enhances cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, phobias, addiction, and stress management.
For example, for a client struggling to quit smoking, the therapist might state that the habit is no longer enjoyable. As a post-hypnotic suggestion, the counselor could plant the idea that whenever the patient reaches for a cigarette, the desire to smoke evaporates.
After becoming a licensed mental health professional, you can obtain training at any of the following professional hypnosis organizations.
- American Society of Clinical Hypnosis – To be eligible for training and certification by the ASCH, you must have a master’s degree in clinical psychology or counseling.
- Hypnosis Motivation Institute – This college is accredited for teaching hypnosis therapy.
- Milton H. Erikson Foundation – This federally supported non-profit corporation provides hypnosis training for mental health therapists worldwide.
- Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis – Members of this organization include psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists.
4. Mindfulness Meditation
This technique involves watching thoughts, emotions, and sensations, without reacting to them. Counselors specializing in CBT often teach mindfulness, to help clients control negative thinking.
To instruct a client in mindfulness meditation, the therapist directs them to focus on a particular object. When thoughts cause attention to waver, the client observes them, like clouds floating by, without judgment. Then, they draw their mind back to the anchor. Examples of mental anchors for meditation are the sound of a ticking clock or a pleasing image.
Once a client becomes skilled in mindfulness meditation, they’re encouraged to maintain this stance throughout their daily lives. By calmly watching thoughts, patients acquire the ability to change their beliefs and behaviors.
Mental health professionals use this meditation method to treat anxiety, PTSD, depression, eating disorders, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, addiction, poor self-image, and bipolar disorder. This technique works by bridging new neural networks in the brain.
5. Focused Breathing
This type of meditation is also called paced respiration, alternate nostril breathing, and belly, abdominal, deep, slow, and diaphragmatic breathing. During deep inhalations, air expands the lungs, and the lower abdomen rises. Breathing is done slowly, gently, and smoothly.
While following the breath, a meditator scans their body for tense areas, such as the jaw, lips, and shoulders. Then, during the out-breath, they sequentially release the tightness in each body region. While breathing in, they focus on the vitalizing sensation.
Alternate nostril breathing involves isolating the in-breath and out-breath, one nostril at a time. First, you close one nostril with your thumb, and breathe through the open nostril. Then, you switch the process. Using the same hand, close the other nostril with your index finger, and slowly inhale and exhale.
You can also pair slow breathing with counting. The in-breath is shorter than the out-breath. For example, during the inhale, the meditator can steadily count to four. The out-breath is done to a count of eight.
Physiologic benefits of paced respiration include heightened alertness, lower blood pressure, and slower heart rate. Similar to mindfulness meditation, this practice helps clients distance themselves from distressing thoughts and feelings.
Therapists use this meditation technique to treat patients with anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. Slow breathing also helps to control bipolar disorder, addiction, and insomnia.
- From a 2011 issue of the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, here are case study examples of mental health professionals using meditation techniques.
Mental health professionals use meditation techniques to foster positive change in their patients. After becoming licensed, you won’t need additional training to teach progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or focused breathing. To practice guided imagery, you may want to obtain training and certification. To employ hypnosis with clients, you’ll need formal instruction by a professional hypnosis organization.
As a counselor, you can use these meditation methods to fuel your clients’ progress. You’ll be so heartened by their breakthroughs!