For the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about boundaries and self-care for people who have been affected by a loved one’s addiction or alcoholism. I thought now might be a good time to pivot and talk about Mindfulness. This isn’t as much as a pivot as it might seem. After all, Mindfulness is extremely helpful when we’re learning to set boundaries and take care of ourselves. It’s especially important for those recovering from addiction, or the effects of someone else’s addiction.
In therapy sessions, I often teach various Mindfulness practices to help people stay centered during periods of anxiety or stress.
Mindfulness is the art of focusing on your experience in the present moment, without judgment — just being with what is. It's about accepting ourselves, our feelings, our experience, and knowing that we're okay. Sure, sometimes our experience is uncomfortable. But it’s possible to be still in the present moment, where everything is generally ok, even when we're uncomfortable. Mindfulness can go a long way in helping to reduce stress and heal our emotional wounds.
An important part of Mindfulness is learning to observe our experience, without judging it and without getting caught up in our assumptions. This is especially important when we're under stress.
When we're stressed, many of us have a tendency to make assumptions about the stressful situation and create negative scenarios in our minds. Some people report they feel like their mind is racing.
In fact, our experience is generally in two parts — there’s what happens, and then there’s what we tell ourselves about what happens. Many people don’t realize these are separate phenomena. I’m suggesting that we can put aside what we tell ourselves about what happens and just focus on what we actually observe.
For example, I was talking with someone about a text s/he had received that this person found upsetting. It turned out that the text itself wasn't upsetting. But this person's assumptions about the unstated meaning behind the message, assumptions about the sender's intentions, and what that might portend, were very disturbing. But when s/he paused to notice only what could be observed, independent on the mind's impulsive assumptions and scenarios, the message was actually quite innocuous and there was nothing to be upset about.
In other words, what this person was telling him/herself about the text was more upsetting than the text itself.
One more note: The people and scenarios I discussed in these articles are not real people. They are composites of people I have known and situations I have observed.
In a therapy session, a couple was having a difficult discussion about a painful aspect of their relationship, and one partner turned away in the middle of the discussion. The other partner felt cut off, abandoned and ignored. But asked what s/he actually observed, all they saw was the other person turned his/her head. When s/he was able to ignore the noise and assumptions in the mind and focus only on what was observed, s/he experienced a sort of quiet curiosity about what had just happened. On inquiry, it turns out the partner turned away because s/he was feeling vulnerable, scared and embarrassed, and was afraid to show the tears that were starting to come.
There was a gulf between what one of them experience led, and what s/he told themselves about the experience. The internal narrative that s/he chose was not accurate.
We do this all the time. For many of us, simply observing of what's occurring in the present moment isn't our default response. We need to train ourselves and our minds to mindfully observe only what is actually happening, and then respond to what we observe.
Observation is a skill that we can develop. We need to learn to pay attention to our actual experience, and pay less attention to what we are telling ourselves about our experience. This is an essential skill of Mindfulness. Here are some practices that can help train the mind to observe and respond, rather than assume and react:
Meditation: A regular Meditation practice can go a long way toward helping learn to observe your thoughts, rather than just get swept away by them. Meditation has lots of other benefits for stress relief and improved concentration. You can find simple instructions for Mindfulness Meditation here.
Breathe: Take slow deep breaths. When we are agitated, we start to breathe fast and shallow. Our heart rate and blood pressure both rise. By slowing our breathing, the body begins to calm down, the heart rate slows and the blood pressure begins to return to normal. All this helps us focus the mind and notice what we are actually observing.
Observe the mind: Instead of getting carried away by the noise in our head, we can watch and listen to it like a radio. If you do this you'll notice the mind tends to flit from one thing to another. The mind has a negative bias that it imposes on events and makes assumptions that are not based in facts. By watching the mind like a movie, we can more easily set aside impulsive thinking and focus on what we observe.
Here are a few more exercises that can help to train the mind so we can observe our experience:
Notice the sensations of your body in the present moment. For example, place your hands on your knees, palms down, and notice how that feels on the palms of your hands. Or you can take a few minutes to notice the sensations associated with breathing — your chest going up and down, the air moving between your nose and your upper lip. Just observe.
Say a word out loud and watch where your mind goes with it. Say elephant then try not to think of an elephant and watch what your mind does with that.
Pause and listen to all the sounds around you.
All these exercises are designed to help train the mind to pause and observe the present moment. Focusing on what we actually observe in the present moment goes a long way toward calming the mind and helping us choose responses that are appropriate to the given situation, rather than reacting emotionally from a charged emotional place.
I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. As always, if need help with difficult issues, or you think it’s time to talk to a therapist, feel free to call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.