An Antidote To Stress
Mindfulness For Mind, Body and Emotions.
Many of us are brought up ignoring the body; we perhaps overuse the mind and grow up with the message that it is shameful or weak to show our emotions.
Emotions are vital but temporary messengers that should last seconds and have evolved in humans as a self-preservation sophisticated and complex system. They are meant to exist because they push us to act, they are temporary because they have to be alert to signal the next alarm when the time comes and when our mind registers that a situation is resolved the signal switches off. If we have emotional reactions to our emotions they will persist, if we act negatively to this natural process, this triggers ‘avoidance system’ of the brain and the mind closes in on itself and treats our own negative reaction as the enemy.
Stress and Emotions
The human stress response works the same as the animal stress response apart from animals can turn theirs off after the danger has passed whereas humans can turn theirs on from purely psychological reasons. It is not healthy to live in a corrosive bath of hormones produced by stress. Research shows that stress is generally more damaging than the stressor and in coping with stress the body shuts down the immune system, it can damage artery walls and the learning and memory part of the brain is affected.
It is helpful to be aware that happiness is not a constant state and sadness is natural so it would be unrealistic to imagine we can or should get rid of one and keep the other. Sadness itself is not problematic rather it is our reaction to sadness which is. The negative effects of this spiral become compounded having emotional reactions to natural, passing, temporary emotions.
The negative views that can be switched on by unhappy moods transform passing sadness into persistent unhappiness which can lead to mental health issues. This negativity affects our mind and body simultaneously the body affects the mind and emotions via a feedback loop. Some of this can occur with us having little or no awareness of it actually happening as we are somewhat disconnected to our bodies.
The Need to Fix
When we feel unhappy we try and think our way out of it by trying to ‘fix’ what is wrong with us using a highly sophisticated human skill which is called critical thinking. This actually compounds the problem because it puts us straight into ‘doing mode’ which focuses on the gap of where we are compared to where we want to be. This leads to what Psychologists call ‘rumination’ which actually deteriorates problem solving.
The antidote to all of this is ‘awareness’ which is known as Mindfulness practice. We start by paying attention differently by intentionally focusing on the present moment in a sensory and non-judgemental manner. In a busy life we can catch ourselves wanting to get onto the next thing which appears that we are postponing our happiness. Mindfulness practice gives a new degree of freedom; there is no longer a gap between how we feel and how we think we should feel. In Buddhism this is referred to as ‘non-striving’. We get to a point where we don’t reject unacceptable emotions, but turn towards them.
As a therapist I work with a combination of Western Cognitive Science and Eastern practices such as mindfulness and meditation. When I first start working with clients I remind them that it is helpful to establish that most thoughts are not facts more passing mental events. I ask them over a period of seven days to begin to notice their thoughts and put them into categories such as: planning thought, past thought, worry thought, critical thought, judgmental thought, compassion thought, kind thought, scared thought etc.…
So in this new way of paying attention we don’t have to add anything to our already busy day, we can start to build a greater awareness of what we are already doing. Unhappiness, stress, tiredness and emotions don’t stop existing they just have a lot more space around them. These practices allow us to enter into ‘being mode’ and disengage us from our mental patterns to be able to connect with our bodily sensations which give us feedback from our emotional landscape to make more creative decisions and a new level of freedom.
Examples of things to pay attention to differently might be, washing up, loading the dishwasher, brushing your teeth, showering, taking the rubbish out, doing laundry, driving the car, leaving or entering a room or going up and downstairs. If you are sat in a traffic jam try reframing your narrative by just seeing the situation as a lot of cars on a road rather than catastrophising what it represents for you personally i.e. being late, letting people down, being unreliable and stressed.
Strengthening Your Practice
If you would like to work on strengthening your practice there are a number of free mindfulness meditations to listen to and a mindful walk recording on my website www.gaildonnan.com