Meditation and Mindfulness for Beginners: Getting your Mind in Shape

Starting a daily meditation and mindfulness practice is a lot like starting a fitness program for your mind. You know you want to do something good for your mind, but might not know where to get started. This simple guide will help explain meditation and mindfulness in plain English so you can find what works best for you.

Meditation vs. Mindfulness vs. Mindfulness Meditation: What’s the difference?

Meditation is a more overarching term that includes a broad range of activities, but generally involves engaging in concentrated thought, focus, or reflection. Mindfulness is the act of consciously directing your attention to the present moment, with non-judgmental awareness of your emotional state, thoughts, and physical sensations. You can be mindful without meditating (e.g. “everyday mindfulness” or simple mindfulness exercises you can do during day to day tasks). However, individuals often practice Mindfulness Meditation, which is designed to cultivate mindfulness. When practicing Mindfulness Meditation, you set aside time to purposefully focus yourself on the present moment, with awareness, and without judgment.

Meditation vs. Mindfulness vs. Mindfulness Meditation

How is mindfulness meditation helpful?

The practice of cultivating mindfulness can be helpful for a variety of mental and physical conditions. Many studies have demonstrated that the practice of mindfulness can actually change our brains and our emotional reactions to different experiences, particularly difficult emotions. We also become better at regulating our emotions. One key thing to consider is that while mindfulness won’t get rid of our problems, it allows us to react differently to them. Mindfulness allows us to step out of our tendency to be on auto-pilot and make more conscious decisions about how we want to respond. We are able to see our thoughts as thoughts and not become stuck on them. Additionally, mindfulness has been shown to improve our ability to focus and to relax. A regular mindfulness practice has even been shown to strengthen the immune system. In short, almost everyone will find some benefit from practicing mindfulness.

Meditation can be helpful wherever you are.

Tips for Getting Started

  1. Find Time: This might be the most challenging part of the process. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the most helpful. People often get started with mindfulness meditation because they feel stressed or feel like their own self-care needs are being neglected. Therefore, the process of simply making time in your day for your own needs can often be the biggest hump to get over.

    Acknowledging that you are feeling run down, or wound up, or simply in need of some time to reflect is a big step.You’re making a declaration that your needs matter, and recognizing that until you take care of yourself, you won’t be able to be the best, healthiest, or happiest, version of yourself. Even if it’s only 5 minutes, deciding that you matter and that you need to just stop and breathe, is a big deal. Thank yourself for finding the time and making your own health and wellness a priority. Many people find it helpful to set a standard time each day to meditate, such as right when they wake up. Really, the best time to meditate is whatever time you can find that works for you.

  2. Find a Place: Ideally you will find somewhere quiet and calm to practice your meditation. It’s not necessary to have a dedicated space, though some people find it helpful. The most important thing is that you are able to disconnect from the hustle and busy-ness of the day. That might mean softer light or a location away from distractions. Some people like to get a meditation pillow or bench, while others simply use a comfortable chair.
  3. Set a Goal: identify why you want to start meditating, what you hope to get out of your practice, and why you think it might be helpful. You will feel motivated to continue your practice and stick with it if you have an idea of why you want to do it. You might find it helpful to write it down, or you might want to verbalize your goals to a friend.
  4. Strength in Numbers: When you start a physical fitness program, sometimes joining a class or finding a gym partner can make it easier to stay committed. Similarly, it can be helpful to have a meditation buddy or group. Such partnerships can help with accountability and sticking with your practice, and many people find it helpful to talk to someone about some of their experiences when starting a mindfulness routine. Having someone to ask questions, discuss successes, and exchange encouragement can be helpful.
  5. Be Kind with Yourself: There may be times you struggle to meditate, and sometimes you’ll have a better experience than others. That’s OK. Remember that having a nonjudgmental stance is a cornerstone of the practice, and that includes being nonjudgmental of yourself and your own successes and shortcomings.

You can find basic meditation instructions, guided meditations, and daily mindfulness exercises in the “Relax Now” section of Pacifica.


CBT & ACT: Help your clients give their thoughts a little space

Night sky, CBT and ACT teach us to gain distance from thoughts

One of the major premises of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the idea that thoughts affect feelings, and that by changing our interpretations and thoughts about and interpretations of situations or events, we can change our emotional responses. Sometimes this can take the form of challenging the validity or accuracy of thoughts by questioning whether or not they’re true. This process is effective for many people and helps them to recognize that their interpretations, beliefs, and self-talk aren’t accurate or fair to them. By then generating more positive and true statements, they are able to feel differently about their experiences. For example, rather than feeling anxious by focusing on an unlikely worst-case scenario, individuals can acknowledge that the most likely outcome is something they can handle, and their concerns or worries become much more manageable. One of the essential tools for examining and challenging thoughts in cognitive therapy is the thought record. The thought record is used to help individuals see the relationship between their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. It also helps people to identify potential inaccuracies in their thinking, and provide an opportunity to change those thoughts to be more fair.

Despite CBT’s wide acceptance and demonstrated efficacy, for some individuals, the process of challenging their thoughts can feel invalidating. Some people find that they get stuck in what feels like an academic exercise of trying to find evidence for or against their thoughts. More recently, there has been a “third wave” of therapy (such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT) which integrates concepts from mindfulness and acceptance to help individuals change their relationship to their thoughts. On first glance, some people (therapists and clients alike) have a difficult time reconciling CBT and acceptance-based approaches, because they appear to be in conflict (one aimed at changing thoughts while the other is focused on accepting them).

CBT & ACT: Integrating Different Approaches

However, both CBT and these newer therapies have the effect of helping people see their thoughts as more like “mental events”, being more objective, and giving their thoughts more space. CBT is more oriented towards challenging the content of the thoughts whereas acceptance- and mindfulness-based therapies are more focused on allowing oneself to co-exist with the thoughts, without necessarily believing or acting on them, or trying to change them. In both cases, the individual is changing their relationship to their thoughts; often this means putting some distance between themselves and their thoughts. One of the difficulties clients often face is taking their thoughts to be the truth and believing them. Often they have the same thoughts over and over, and that repetition makes the thoughts seem all the more true. Whether mindfulness, acceptance, or distancing by challenging validity ring most true for your clients, increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions will help them to disconnect and de-fuse from those thoughts.

Pacifica is a digital implementation of an integrated approach, which is to say, it includes elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based approaches. Pacifica includes several different types of thought records with different foci, some delving more deeply into cognitive distortions, with another more focused on guiding the user to generate alternative thoughts, etc. Additionally, there are guided meditations focused on awareness and acceptance of thoughts and emotions, and psychoeducational content which guides users through the process of using the various tools. Pacifica users are able to select which approaches and tools are most effective for them and which fit their needs and personality best.

"The most effective solution is the one you are willing to implement", ACT or CBT


Lessons from HIMSS: How mental health tech can advance population health

Last week Dale and I had the opportunity to attend the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Conference in Orlando, Florida. Here are some thoughts and reflections I’ve had since then.

One view of the HIMSS conference
One view of the HIMSS conference

Technology and Progress in Mental Health

The 1990s were the “Decade of the Brain”. Though many advances and discoveries were made during this time, the experience for mental health patients today is still challenging. Finding providers (particularly those which are covered by insurance), understanding different models of care, and integrating mental and physical health can all be difficult. Despite the high rates of mental illness in our society, stigma is still a problem and a barrier for many people trying to seek treatment. Recently, pharmaceutical companies drastically reduced budgets to research medications for psychiatric conditions.

So what can we do? The first step should be working to improve mental health outcomes through measurement-based care and evidence-based practice using proven behavioral/psychosocial treatments. In order to do this, we can harness the power of the Internet and mobile apps and use technology to advance the state of this sector of health care.

While there are a number of connected-health tools available, few of them are geared towards people with mental health problems, and even fewer are achieving traction or widespread adoption. There could be several reasons for this, but employers and health insurers are increasingly looking for innovations in this space. Health care providers and insurers on a broader scale are beginning to realize that without solid mental health, patients struggle to manage their chronic health conditions and costs can increase dramatically. Employers, too, are motivated to help keep their workforce feeling mentally well. Depression, for example, is as costly as heart disease or AIDS in terms of lost productivity, costing over $43B annually in the U.S. and mental illness is a leading cause of absenteeism in the workplace.

One of the biggest things that investors, providers, and health insurers are looking for is engagement: Getting folks interested and involved in managing their mental health. Apps like Pacifica can help people do just that, either on their own through guided self-help tools, or by connecting to an in-person provider and enhancing their between-session work. Rather than offering an alternative to an in-person provider, Pacifica’s goal is to work in concert with clinicians to improve outcomes and help users achieve longer-term behavior change and wellness.

HIMSS Lessons: The State of the Field

We attended HIMSS to announce our recent funding round and new product launch as well as a big update to the existing Pacifica app. Additionally, I participated in a panel discussion about women in mental health tech. It was clear from our experience in that conversation and the conference more broadly that while there has been a lot of innovation in this area, the field still has a long way to go.

At the conference, we attended a talk that included the CEO of Omada Health, which has developed an electronic diabetes prevention program. Their method is based on a well-validated, in-person program that they adapted to work virtually. They use objective outcomes to measure progress and bill for reimbursement. While this is slightly more challenging when applied to mental health, Pacifica follows the same basic principle of creating engaging, interactive tools based on empirically-supported best practices.

The Health IT Chicks panel participants at the HIMSS conference
The Health IT Chicks panel participants at the HIMSS conference

We left the HIMSS conference feeling exhausted but also excited about the opportunities that lay ahead as we continue to innovate and work to improve mental health care. The use of objective measures has been called for by the Kennedy Forum for years and will continue to be important as mental health care providers adapt to changes to reimbursement models and the introduction of value-based care. Everyone seems to agree that health care costs need to come down, and the use of objective measures to improve treatment monitoring and adjustment is a good first step. As we move forward, attention to issues of privacy and information security will continue to be important, as will integration into existing electronic health records. These are all challenges, but exciting ones, which hold the promise of improving health care for all.