Mindfulness and the Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Cheryl Rezek, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, in her video presentation, What is mindfulness, stresses the connection between mind and body.  She highlights the fact that stress is not only experienced in the mind through perception of threat but also in the body in the form of stomach aches, headaches, pain in the shoulder or other parts of the body and many forms of physical illnesses.  Cheryl draws on neuroscience research to demonstrate the positive impact of mindfulness on the body and the brain.

What is mindfulness?

Cheryl discusses mindfulness in terms of “focus with intention” – designed to become more aware of what is happening inside of us as well as around us. She stresses the role of context in shaping who and what we are.  In her own practice and research, she seeks to integrate insights from biology, sociology and psychology – a holistic perspective on the forces shaping our makeup and the way we experience the world.  For example, like Johann Hari, she sees negative childhood experiences as contributing to the likelihood of experiencing depression in adulthood.  Our social environment – whether family, work or community, in isolation or conjointly – shape our perceptions.  Cheryl’s holistic approach is reflected in her training in the interrelated disciplines of clinical psychology, psychotherapy, play therapy, family therapy and mindfulness.

She reminds us that children are naturally mindful as they negotiate their world – they are curious and open, asking questions, exploring nature and wondering about their own bodily sensations.  I recall recently playing tennis with my grandson in a clearing in a wooded area while my granddaughter sat on the grass and explored everything in her immediate environment- the grass, wildflowers, leaves and anything that wriggled or moved.  Her attention was totally focused for an hour on whatever she could see, touch or smell.

Applications of mindfulness

In her presentation, Cheryl discusses the numerous applications of mindfulness – from dealing with chronic pain to managing mental illness.  Her own writings reflect this diversity of mindfulness applications.  For instance, she talks about how mindfulness can help people manage contracting cancer and undergoing treatment – her ideas are explained in her book, Managing Cancer Symptoms: the Mindful WayShe also discusses the application of mindfulness to dealing with Anxiety and Depression.

Cheryl stresses the importance of seeing mindfulness in its broadest context – not confined to the act of meditation but extending to being mindful in our everyday activities such as walking, listening, eating, attending meetings, waiting and washing the dishes.  She offers an app, iMindfulness on the go, to encourage people to be mindful when in transit or engaging in any of their daily activities.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become aware of the opportunities to be mindful in our everyday activities.  Practice of simple mindfulness activities builds our inner and outer awareness and helps us to better navigate the stresses of life.

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Image – Painting by a Chinese-born artist who experiences the mental health condition of Schizophrenia

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Curiosity and Compassion Towards a Family Member

Mitra Manesh, meditation teacher and founder of the mindfulness app Innermap, offers a guided meditation titled Curiosity and Compassion in the Family.  The focus of this meditation is as much about self-compassion as it is about compassion towards family members.  Like other guided meditations offered through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Mitra’s meditation has a brief input but the 30-minute meditation podcast is primarily a meditation practice.  It progresses from a grounding exercise, through to an input on the challenge presented by family members, followed by two compassion exercises – one towards yourself, the other towards a family member.

Mitra defines mindfulness as “kind acceptance and awareness of our present moment experience”.  Underlying this approach is compassion (self-compassion and compassion towards others) and curiosity (the catalyst for awareness).

Becoming grounded – arriving at the meditation

Mitra encourages you to first find a position and posture that is comfortable and that will enable you to become grounded.  By bringing your attention to your intention for the meditation, you can physically and mentally arrive at the meditation.   You can start with some deep breaths followed by resting in your breathing.  Mitra suggests that you then scan your body to locate points where you experience comfort – allowing yourself to pay attention to the warmth, tingling or other pleasant sensation.  Invariably your mind will notice points of pain or discomfort – again bring your attention to each of these points and release the tension at that point, allowing yourself a sense of ease and relaxation.

At this stage, focusing on an anchor will help to maintain your groundedness as distracting thoughts will invariably intrude into your process of releasing and relaxing – bringing new tensions such as a sense of time urgency or the need to plan for tasks to be done.  Mitra suggests that you tell yourself that you don’t have to be anywhere else or to do anything else during the 30 minutes of this guided meditation.  The anchor can be a sound – internal such as the air conditioning or external such as the sound of birds.  It can be your breathing – returning to rest in the interval between your in-breath and your out-breath.  Whatever you do, don’t beat up on yourself for these distractions.

Family – a challenging environment

Mitra reminds us that meditation practice is designed to assist us to lead our day-to-day lives mindfully.  One of the most challenging arenas for mindful practice is the family – individual family members can be particularly challenging because of their personality, mental illness, life stresses or a multitude of other factors.  Even very experienced meditators find some family members to be particularly challenging.

One of the problems is that family members become too familiar – we have seen them often and we think we know them, understand them and can predict their behaviour.  However, the presumption of knowledge can result in a lack of curiosity and desire to understand – it can lead to hasty judgments and a lack of compassion. 

Curiosity, on the other hand, will lead us to understand the nature of the mental illness suffered by a family member.  We might presume we know about depression and how it plays out in their lives and yet we can judge them as lazy when they spend most of their day sleeping and continuously leave their room and surrounds in an absolute mess.  If we explore the nature of their illness we might discover, for example, that they are suffering from the complexity of schizoaffective disorder which may involve the symptoms of schizophrenia along with manic depression – a complex mix of disabling conditions that can lead to compulsive shopping, impulsive action, constant depression and the inability to communicate about their depression or hallucinatory episodes.  So, not only are they disabled by depression, but they are also incapacitated by the inability to seek social support.  We might think we know and understand about the mental illness of a family member but the complexity of the arena of mental health would suggest that we have little insight.  If you have never experienced the black dog of depression, you are unlikely to have a real sense of the depth and breadth of its disabling character. 

Mitra encourages us to become “unfamiliar” with our family members and to become instead curious about them – “but compassionately so”.  This includes “showing them who you are” while encouraging them to show themselves.

A self-compassion meditation

Mitra provides a self-compassion meditation (at the 11th minute mark) following the discussion of the family as the “most charged” arena of our lives.  Accordingly, she suggests beginning with a deep breath to release any tensions that may have accumulated during the discussion of family challenges.

She asks you to consider how your posture and breathing would be different if you were adopting a “compassionate curiosity” towards yourself. This compassionate curiosity, a sense of wonder, can be extended to curiosity about your bodily tensions and your feelings.  Are you feeling anxiety about a family member’s depression? Is your body tense, or your mind agitated or are you carrying feelings of resentment along with the bodily manifestations of this abiding anger?

What happens to your mind’s chatter and your body’s sensations when you extend forgiveness and compassion towards yourself for your self-absorption, hasty judgements, lack of understanding and self-satisfaction with “knowing” the other person.  Can you let go of all your self-stories and beliefs that block this self-compassion?  Compassionate curiosity enables you, ultimately, to rest in self-acceptance

You can ask yourself what you are needing and feeling at this point in the meditation and ask for the fulfillment of your needs as you touch your heart and feel the warmth therein. Mitra identifies some needs that you may have, including the need to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you have made in your interactions with family members.

Compassion towards a family member

At the 28-minute mark of the guided meditation, Mitra suggests you focus on a family member, following your self-compassion meditation.  You could bring your attention to a family member with whom you have had a disturbing interaction.  Its important to bring that chosen person fully into focus.

You can request that you change your relationship to them, for, example, “May I be curious about you to understand you and to prevent myself from forming hasty judgments about you?”; “May I be genuinely compassionate towards you?”

Mitra suggests that you frame your request in terms of a single word that you can revisit from time to time, e.g. “understanding”.  The request could be framed as, “May I understand you and you understand me”.  Your compassionate curiosity will enable you to show yourself and your genuineness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through self-compassion meditation and extending compassion towards a family member, we can develop our compassionate curiosity towards ourselves and them and deepen our understanding and acceptance of them and ourselves.

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Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Recognition of the Signs of Mental Illness and How to Intervene

In the previous post, I discussed being mindful of mental health in the workplace.  This involves not only awareness and being present to staff and colleagues, but also being able to recognise the early warning signs of mental illness and having the courage and competence to intervene.

The early warning signs of mental illness in the workplace

Recognition of the early warning signs of mental illness enables early intervention to prevent deterioration in a person’s mental health.  Without such an intervention, issues can build up for the individual, making it more difficult for them to manage their stress and/or stressors.

The Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit introduced in the earlier post provides a list of possible early warning signs of mental illness and lists them under five categories:

  1. Physical – such as constant tiredness, continuous ill health, major changes in appearance and/or weight, complaints about ongoing health concerns
  2. Emotional – such as irritability, loss of a sense of humour or of confidence, increased cynicism, nervousness, overly sensitive to perceived or real criticism
  3. Cognitive – overall performance decline through lots of mistakes, lack of concentration and/or inability to make decisions (constant procrastinating)
  4. Behavioural – behaving out of character by becoming more introverted or extroverted, withdrawing from group activities, lateness to work, not taking scheduled breaks (such as lunches) but taking unofficial time off
  5. In the business – inability to meet deadlines, declining motivation, frequent absences, working long hours unproductively.

There may be multiple causes for one or more of these early signs to occur.  So, it becomes important to check in with the person involved as to how they are going and whether you can be of assistance.

Checking in – having the conversation

Often managers and colleagues are reluctant to say anything to the person showing early sings of mental illness and the person involved is often unwilling to raise the issue for fear of being seen as “not coping” or “being weak”.  Part of the problem is that they really need support and care and genuine concern for their welfare.  They can be experiencing a strong sense of isolation, lack of support and associated depression.  Extending a helping hand can often work wonders.   But how do you start the conversation?

People in the workplace are very ready to ask someone about a physical injury such as a broken wrist but when it comes to a mental illness they are often fearful or uncertain – yet the person with the early signs really needs someone to show care and concern.  So, we can have a situation where the two parties – the manager/colleague and the person experiencing mental illness – are compounding the problem by not engaging in the conversation- a form of mutual withdrawal.

The recognised format for the initial conversation where someone is displaying the early signs of mental illness is called AYOK – “Are you okay?” The Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit offers four steps for starting the conversation:

  1. Ask R U OK?
  2. Listen without judgment
  3. Encourage action
  4. Check in

It is useful to preface this conversation with the observation, “I have noticed that…and I am concerned for your welfare.”  In other words, communicate what you have observed (shows you are interested in the person) and express care and concern.

The person involved may be unwilling to talk initially but it is important to undertake the occasional check-in.  An experienced practitioner at the 19th International Mental Health Conference mentioned that on one occasion he had the initial AYOK conversation and the person involved said they were okay…and yet, some months later they came up to the practitioner and said, “I’m not okay, my daughter committed suicide three months ago – can you help me?”  Having had the initial conversation opened the way for the subsequent voluntary disclosure.  To avoid the conversation compounds the sense of isolation of the individual involved – they feel that they can’t help themselves and that no one else is willing to help them.

It is important to prepare for the conversation beforehand – know what you are going to say, allow time for the interaction and choose an appropriate time and place.  You need to ensure that you are prepared to listen and be mindful during the conversation.

You can provide support by suggesting they use the Employee Assistance Program, visit their doctor (who can initiate a formal Mental Health Care Plan) or discuss options for making reasonable adjustments to their work situation.  The important thing is that you take compassionate action, not letting the situation deteriorate.

It is vitally important to maintain confidentiality about any information disclosed to protect the privacy of the person involved.  You will need the explicit consent of the individual to disclose the information to co-workers, for example.  The information conveyed to you can only be used for the purpose intended by the disclosure – e.g. to enable a reasonable adjustment to their workload or pattern of work.

The exception would be where the person discloses that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings.  In this case, you will need to seek professional support.  Beyond Blue has some very sound and detailed guidelines for the conversation in these situations, including what language to use.  ConNetica, in their blog post Chats for life APP, also provides an App (with practical conversation tips) which has been designed by young people for young people experiencing mental health problems, and possibly suicidal thoughts and feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become more aware of the early signs of mental illness, have the courage and confidence to have the AYOK conversation and a willingness to take compassionate action.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.