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How to find a mindful therapist in the UK



How to find a mindful therapist in the UK

When I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist, I had one overriding ambition: to be a mindful therapist, bringing mindfulness and meditation to my clients. In the course of therapy, I would teach them to meditate and practise mindfulness, they would fall in love with it just as I had, and they would reap the same benefits. They would shower me with praise and thanks, which I would receive humbly, like a true spiritual adept.


Needless to say, it didn’t work out quite like that. It took quite some time and quite a few drop-outs before I learned what it takes to be an adept mindful therapist.


If you’d like to know how to find one, read on.


This article contains:




What is a mindful therapist?


A mindful therapist might be either or both of:


  • A therapist who teaches mindfulness to their clients in therapy

  • A therapist who practises mindfulness themselves.


But there’s no type of therapy whose official name is “mindful therapy”, or, for that matter, “mindfulness therapy”, or even, “mindfulness-based therapy”. 


What there are, though, are several therapies that make more or less extensive use of mindfulness and meditation, and therapists offering various kinds of therapy who find ways to weave meditation and mindfulness into them.


The more meditation-heavy mindful therapies get grouped together as “mindfulness-based therapies”, “mindfulness-based approaches”, or “mindfulness-based interventions”. Let’s take a look at these first.


Mindfulness-based therapy


Mindfulness-based therapies and mindful therapists in the UK

The most thoroughly mindfulness-based therapies say it on the tin: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). 


These are group therapies, so, if you’re sure that that’s not what you’re looking for, you might want to skip to the next section.


Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction


This is the grandparent of all mindfulness-based therapies, and arguably of the whole field of secular mindfulness (which is the use of mindfulness outside of Buddhism, Hinduism, or other religious contexts). It was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 


The course lasts 8 weeks, and consists of weekly 2.5-hour sessions, in which participants learn and practice a range of meditation techniques and complete various exercises. Outside of the classes, participants are expected to meditate for around 40 minutes per day (although nowadays many courses offer a 20-minutes-a-day option) and practice mindfulness “on the go”, i.e. while doing everyday activities. There might also be a “retreat day”, when the group spends the whole day practising meditation and mindfulness, often in silence.


Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy


MBCT was developed in the 1990s by three UK psychologists, as a treatment to prevent relapse in people who have suffered repeated bouts of depression. MBCT is officially recommended for use in the NHS with people who have suffered depression repeatedly.


The course is strongly influenced by MBSR but includes elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (more often known as CBT). It is, once again, an 8-week course for groups of participants, involving around 40 minutes of meditation per day, along with various other exercises.


While MBCT was developed for sufferers of depression, don’t let that hold you back - it has been of great benefit to all kinds of people with all kinds of problems. In recent years, it has been joined by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Life (MBCT-L), which has been designed specifically for participants who do not suffer from depression.


If you want to understand more about how MBCT aims to treat depression, here is a TED talk by one of its creators:




How to find a mindfulness-based therapy


If you think it might be a good fit for you, then you will want to find a course run by someone who is qualified to do so. You can find a register of qualified people in the UK here: 


Some very good MBSR nd MBCT teachers might not appear on any register, so when considering joining a course, have a look at the teacher’s training and experience.


Major training centres in the UK are: 


And you might be able to find MBCT on the NHS. It is not, however, available in all NHS trusts, and you will probably need to suffer from depression to be referred for it.


1-1 Mindful Therapy


How to find a mindful therapist for 1-1 mindful therapy in the UK


Alongside the mindfulness-based group therapies, there are at least two individual therapies that make use of mindfulness. But there are none (at least amongst those that are widely available), that emphasise it quite as much as MBCT and MBSR. 


Most importantly, there is no well-known "name-brand" individual therapy in which the therapist is required to be an active practitioner of mindfulness themselves. 


Instead, as is usual for therapies, there is a recommendation that therapists should at least try the techniques that they offer to clients. In reality, many will have relatively little experience of practising mindfulness and meditation themselves. In the next section, below, I’ll say why I think that matters, and how to find a truly mindful therapist, regardless of whether they offer one of the name-brand mindful therapies.


Before that, let’s take a look at the two best-known sort-of-mindful therapies. These are also referred to sometimes as “third wave” therapies, which is short for “third wave of cognitive behavioural therapies”.


DBT


DBT, or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, was developed by Marsha Linehan, a psychologist who had learned meditation and mindfulness from a Catholic Priest who was also a Zen master. It is infused with the attitudes and ideas of mindfulness, and involves some meditation practice. 


DBT was originally developed to treat Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, but is now used for other problems as well, such as depression, addiction, and eating disorders.


DBT is ideally delivered through a combination of individual therapy sessions and group sessions in which a number of skills are taught, including the practice of mindfulness. But if you find a private therapist who offers DBT, they may well only offer individual sessions.


ACT


ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, aims to address any and all mental health problems by targeting what it sees as the core processes that underlie all of them. The client is invited to disengage from their thoughts, connect with the present moment, stop struggling to change their thoughts and feelings, and instead take committed action in line with what they really value in life. 


Something to bear in mind, though, if you are interested in the “mindfulness” part of the equation, is that mindfulness in ACT is often taught only using “on-the-go” techniques, rather than meditation. And, of course, there is no requirement that the therapist themselves will practise the techniques (though it is recommended that they do so) and so your ACT therapist may have limited personal experience of practising mindfulness.


Here is a popular TED talk by Steve Hayes, one of the creators of ACT, on how he overcame his own panic attacks:




How to find individual mindful therapy


There are three possible routes here:


  1. Through the NHS. DBT is used to treat Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, and ACT techniques are often incorporated into courses of CBT by NHS therapists.

  2. Through registers maintained by the professional bodies for these particular types of therapy. In the case of ACT, this is the Association of Contextual Behavioural Science. For DBT, it’s the Society for Dialectical Behavior Therapy

  3. In the same way as you would find any other therapist. Useful resources are:


But, confronted by an array of therapists, all with dizzying strings of letters after their names and experience treating all possible manner of clients and problems, who should you choose?


The most important thing, here, is that you choose the therapist who appeals to you. Evidence, surprisingly enough, suggests that neither experience or qualifications actually predict a therapist’s performance, whereas your relationship with them does. So, it makes sense to go with your gut, whilst also considering practical matters such as distance to travel, fees etc. 


But that is generic advice for choosing any kind of therapist. What should you look for in a mindful therapist? And here we get into the question of the therapist’s own experience with mindfulness.


How mindful is your mindful therapist?


How mindful is your UK-based mindful therapist?


Mindfulness has been hugely popular for some time, and especially among therapists - we pretty much all think it’s a jolly good thing. What this means is that many, many therapists will at least dabble in it, and will specify it as something they offer when ticking boxes for their Psychology Today profile. 


So, when you tick that box when searching in a directory, you could get everyone from an occasional dabbler in mindfulness to someone who’s halfway to Buddhist enlightenment. So, how do you tell them apart? And how mindful should your mindful therapist be?


The consensus view amongst people who are somewhat serious about mindfulness and meditation is that teachers should teach what they know. Which is to say, they should have practised what they are teaching, and derived benefit from it. Hence the requirement in MBSR and MBCT that all teachers should have undergone the course themselves, and maintained their practice of mindfulness afterwards.


If you think about it, this isn’t terribly strange: you wouldn’t learn piano or tennis from someone who wasn’t themselves a skilled player. But it departs from the usual expectations of therapists. Generally, therapists are not expected to have undergone the therapy that they practice. So there will be lots of therapists offering to use mindfulness techniques in therapy who have very little experience of using them in their own lives.


That said, your therapist probably doesn’t need to be a super-advanced meditator who has clocked up 10,000+ hours on the cushion, just as you don’t need to be coached in tennis by Roger Federer.


Finding an appropriately mindful therapist


So, how can you spot the therapists who know what they’re doing, when it comes to mindfulness? 


The first and most obvious thing to pay attention to is how they advertise themselves. Someone who talks about mindfulness a lot is more likely, one would think, to be serious about it than someone who just ticks it as one of many therapeutic modalities they offer. The most mindful therapists are likely to talk more about mindfulness than about a "name-brand" therapy like ACT or DBT.


A further advantage of picking someone who talks (or writes) about meditation and mindfulness is that you can size up their ability to teach it - if they can explain it clearly and convincingly in their directory profile or on their website, then hopefully they can do the same in a session.


A second and even more direct test is…to ask them. There is nothing wrong with asking a therapist about whatever you need to know in order to decide whether they are the therapist for you, and that includes their mindfulness practice. If you ask a question that they don’t want to answer, they can tell you. But questions they should feel able to answer include:


  • Do you practise mindfulness yourself?

  • How long have you been doing it?

  • Do you do it every day?

  • Have you noticed benefits from your practice?


Third, you can check their qualifications. If they have trained to teach MBSR or MBCT then that offers a certain guarantee of a minimum level of experience and competence. That said, you don’t have to have done a very great deal of mindfulness practice to qualify to teach those courses, and, once someone has qualified, there is no guarantee that they have kept up their practice. 


It’s also the case that many people who know mindfulness and meditation very well won’t have any qualifications in teaching it. People who have been practising for 20 years may be less likely to feel the need for such a qualification than people who are relatively newer to it.


So, what are the other tell-tale signs of being serious about meditation and mindfulness? 


  • The length of time that a person has been practising, which they may say in their advertising. 


  • Going on retreats (periods of time - anywhere from days to years - when meditators seclude themselves to devote themselves to meditation). 


  • Religious affiliation. This might sound odd, and you might even be wary of having a therapist with connections to Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s also true that more serious meditators are quite likely to have those connections, and those connections need not imply a doctrinaire commitment to Buddhism or Hinduism. The name of my own practice, for instance, is taken from a Buddhist text, but that doesn’t mean I am signed up to all or even most Buddhist doctrine. It does, however, mean that I have enough experience with mindfulness and meditation to have explored their roots and how those roots connect with 21st century psychological therapies. 


What about compassion?


Mindful therapists and compassion in the UK


Before we wrap up, a few words about a related strand of both meditation and therapy. 


Warm, caring attitudes and feelings are cultivated alongside mindfulness (and other virtues) in most meditative traditions. And so, in recent decades, psychologists have drawn on this, too, and incorporated it into various therapies, mostly in the guise of compassion for oneself.


So, you might want a therapist who can teach you self-compassion (the practice of being kind to oneself) either on its own or alongside mindfulness. 


The picture here is somewhat similar to that of mindfulness. There are both 8-week courses for groups and at least one individual therapy. Once again, the 8-week courses are more meditation-focussed, and more likely to be taught by people with significant experience of meditation. 


Let’s take a quick look at what’s on offer.


Mindful Self-Compassion


This is a course developed by Dr Kristen Neff - who has been an important figure in the research on compassion in psychology - and Dr Chris Germer. The course consists of 8 sessions lasting 2 hours and 45 minutes and a 4-hour retreat. Participants learn a range of meditations and complete other exercises, all focussed on self-compassion.


Mindfulness-based compassionate living


This is another 8-week course, developed by a psychiatrist and a former Buddhist monk, and it is my favourite of the 8-week courses in compassion. It does a great job of integrating elements from individual therapy and compassion meditation to produce an intervention that covers all the necessary bases. And it takes the sensible step of requiring participants to have already done a course in mindfulness. This is because many people find it hard to practise self-compassion at first, and a grounding in mindfulness tends to make it easier.


Compassion-focused therapy


This is the only individual compassion-based therapy that I know of. It was developed by Paul Gilbert, who drew on Buddhist ideas via collaboration with a Buddhist monk named Choden. While it may be an effective therapy, it does not require its practitioners to have any particular level of experience with meditation, and so they may not be much more mindful than the average therapist. 


How to find a compassionate therapist


You can find a mindful self-compassion teacher here: https://mindfulselfcompassionuk.com/find-a-teacher/


And a Compassion-Focused Therapist here: http://cfttherapist.com/


It is, however, worth noting that, while they may or may not emphasise it in their marketing, anyone who has significant experience with meditation is quite likely to have explored compassion meditatio. So, if you find someone who seems to know their onions when it comes to mindfulness, it might be worth asking them how much they include self-compassion in therapy alongside mindfulness.


In conclusion


It has been a great few decades for mindfulness: it has become hugely popular around the world, and has been integrated into quite a number of mindful therapies. It can, however, be a challenge to find a genuinely mindful therapist - one who practises what they preach. If you would like to find such a therapist, then I hope the information in this article will help you.


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