Expert Interview With Dr Elena Touroni: What is Mindfulness and How To Be More Mindful
I'm very excited to welcome Dr Elena Touroni to my blog this week and to share her incredibly valuable insights into mindfulness!
As a psychologist and clinical director for The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, Dr Elena has a wealth of knowledge in this area and I'm sure you'll discover many useful tips and techniques to support you throughout your journey with mindfulness.
I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much I did! We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the end.
Please tell us a little bit about you, including your professional background and experience with mindfulness.
I am a consultant psychologist and I have been working in adult mental health in the NHS and in private practice for over 15 years. I am currently head of an NHS service and the clinic director for The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. My experience with mindfulness began over ten years ago when I first trained in offering dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) in a specialist service. DBT is heavily influenced by Eastern traditions and incorporates the use of mindfulness as an essential skill for noticing and regulating difficult emotions. Since that time I both developed my own mindfulness practice and began to integrate the use of mindfulness in different therapies I offer such as schema therapy. I also ran mindfulness based cognitive therapy groups and taught seminars on mindfulness to a range of professionals.
What does mindfulness mean to you?
Mindfulness to me is about the ability to be in the present moment, to notice your experience in a thoughtful and wise way may that be your emotions, your thoughts, your physical sensations or your external environment.
Anything can be the focus of mindfulness as long as one purposefully pays attention to the present moment with intention.
Mindfulness is also about letting go of judgements and accepting reality as it is.
An important aspect of mindfulness is accepting thoughts and feelings. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this, particularly when the thoughts and feelings are challenging?
My clients very often ask me how to accept their thoughts and feelings particularly when they are challenging. The key to this is a non-reactive way of responding to our experience.
Acceptance in this sense isn't about being passive or surrendering to the feelings,
it is simply an acknowledgement of what is there in the present moment.
I usually encourage clients when using mindfulness to not push feelings away or do anything that means that feelings stay around for longer such as ruminating but simply to notice them and use images to develop an observer position in relation to them. This could be through using thought defusion and imagining feelings on clouds in the sky or in a projection screen at the cinema.
The tip we usually suggest is that mindfully noticing feelings is like watching them on a cloud and then letting each of them go and allowing space in our awareness for another thought and feeling to emerge.
Sometimes we will lose the capacity to observe our thoughts or feelings, perhaps because a feeling might be too intense or a thought is pulling us in a particular direction, but through the use of mindfulness we can notice this and we can again redirect our attention to the present moment. Needless to say that everyone's ability to be mindful will vary at different times and that
the more practice one has, the easier it becomes to apply it as a skill.
How can mindfulness increase psychological resilience?
Mindfulness can significantly increase psychological resilience by helping us have better control of our mind. In a way mindfulness helps us get a better understanding of ourselves, our feelings and our thinking patterns.
When we practice mindfulness regularly we become much more able to use it in a distressing moment as a way of slowing down our thinking, becoming grounded and being able to recover more quickly from the effects of a triggering event that has sent our feelings spiralling out of control.
Mindfulness in essence helps us develop a robust observer self which allows us more wisdom in our choices in difficult moments.
Do you have any tips for people who struggle with their mindfulness practice and wish to be more self-compassionate?
This is a very common difficulty for a lot of people. Our ability to be self compassionate develops very early on in life and depends on our experience with our main caregivers and the extent to which they modelled compassion to us when we had difficult feelings or were in distress. Other than needing to address these difficulties through psychological therapy, the main tip I would give to people would be to try to imagine talking to themselves as they would talk to either a loved one or a young child in a difficult moment.
Imagining the kind, loving and compassionate messages that we often give to those close to us and then trying to direct similar messages to ourselves mindfully can soothe vulnerable feelings and increase our self compassion over time.
Which three top habits can people implement to help them be more mindful?
1. Start the day by doing an activity mindfully.
This could be making a cup of tea, brushing your teeth or getting dressed mindfully. During this time try to pay full attention to the experience, noticing what thoughts and feelings might get in the way and then refocusing on the activity.
2. Have a mindful moment during the day.
You can schedule this in during your lunch time or listen to a mindfulness exercise during your commute. Make sure you allow some space in your day to check in with your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness apps such as Headspace can be very useful with this.
3. When you notice your feelings running high at any point, take this as a cue to practice a mindfulness exercise.
This could be a brief exercise such as mindfulness of breath if you are in a busy environment or a longer exercise if you are at home and have time and space.
Could you please share a mindfulness technique?
My favourite mindfulness exercise is the three minute space.
During this exercise you start by focusing your attention on thoughts and feelings particularly anything that causes discomfort.
You try to observe those for a brief time and then the exercise moves you on to mindfulness of breath. This can be very helpful as one can notice how attention can be shifted from something distressing to the breath and how grounding this can be.
In the last part of the exercise you expand your attention to your physical environment, the sounds in the room, the smells, the way your body makes contact with the chair or wherever you are sitting or lying down.
It is a very clever exercise because it moves from mindfulness of internal experience to the breath which is a constant and then to increasing awareness of the outside world and the present moment.
Has being more mindful impacted on your own life?
Mindfulness has been greatly beneficial in my own life. I have a very demanding job so taking even a few minutes to ground myself during a busy day has been tremendously helpful.
Whenever I get triggered by a situation or interaction I always turn back to the use of mindfulness to step back and understand my thoughts and feelings.
In this sense mindfulness is very helpful to me in my relationship with my partner but also in the parenting of my eight year old daughter.
What are some of the benefits your clients have found from being more mindful?
My clients have found many benefits from being more mindful. To list only a few, they see a reduction in their symptoms of depression and anxiety, an enhanced ability to manage difficult moments in their relationships, a decrease in rumination, a better ability to be focused and perform at work and an overall increase in their sense of well-being.
Dr Elena Touroni is a consultant psychologist and the founder and the clinic director for The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. She has been working as a psychologist in the NHS and in private practice for over 15 years. During her career she has worked as a therapist, lecturer, trainer and head of a specialist service. She has a particular interest in third wave cognitive therapies that combine the concepts of acceptance and change such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and schema therapy.