Mindfulness for Loneliness

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, suggests that there are 7 types of loneliness, each potentially serving as a constraint to happiness.   She stresses the importance of strong relationships to ameliorate the damaging mental and physical effects of loneliness, which is a growing problem in today’s society.  While we have never been so connected electronically, we have never been so disconnected on a deep, personal level.

Neuroscience shows that we are very much communal beings – needing social networks and social support.  However, there are real personal barriers to connecting at a deep level that prevent lonely people from engaging in social connection.

Recent research has highlighted the benefit of developing mindfulness to reduce or remove these barriers.  Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that mindful meditation reduced feelings of loneliness and increased immunity.

Mindfulness meditation is helpful for loneliness because it can make you aware of the feelings of isolation that you are developing, help you identify the triggers for these emotions, increase the space between stimulus and the feelings of loneliness (response) and enable you to manage these feelings.  Mindfulness, then, can help to eliminate unhelpful thoughts and actions that have become habituated over time and progressively break the cycle of loneliness.

Sophie Benbow, has found from her own experience that mindfulness reduces feelings of loneliness.  She suggests a number of mindfulness practices for coping with loneliness – these include dismissing negative thoughts, mindful breathing, body scan and  mindful walking.  She provides some guidelines for each of these suggestions.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre, neuroscientist and mind-body expert, maintains that lack of social skills is not the major cause of loneliness.  Reporting on new neuroscience research, she contends that our instinctive fight-flight response is the major cause of feelings of isolation and loneliness:

University of Chicago researchers investigating the neuroscience of loneliness found that a lonely brain is supremely in-tune with social cues, in particular the ones signaling a social threat. From an evolutionary perspective, feeling socially isolated triggers a cascade of neural mechanisms that puts us in a nervous and vigilant mode. People who feel lonely are subconsciously scanning their environment for hostility, which may overshadow the positive situations they encounter. 

She argues that this constant over-stimulation through vigilance is a contributing factor to mental and physical decline in people who experience chronic loneliness.  The recommendation of these researchers for people who experience chronic loneliness is “to get out of their heads”.  This recommendation is consistent with the advice of mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who argues that many of our emotional problems arise because we live in our minds, not in our bodies and the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to recognise the triggers of feelings of isolation and loneliness, deal with negative thoughts and use our social skills to make meaningful connections with others.

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

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix on Pixabay

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Why Happiness Grows with Mindful Practice

Chade-Meng Tan gave a presentation on mindfulness and happiness at an international conference on technology.   Meng (as he is called affectionately and respectfully by friends, colleagues and associates) painted a picture, through a series of metaphors, of progression in happiness as we grow in mindfulness.

Attention training and emotional control

At the earliest stage of attention training, through mindful breathing, we gain a level of control over our emotions – instead of our emotions controlling us, we stay in control.  Meng likened this to moving from being an unskilled rider at the beck of a wild horse (emotions), to a skilled rider who has the horse (emotions) under control.  This sense of control is a basis for happiness because, among other things, we will experience fewer regrets.  We will also be less “up and down” as a result of a shift in our emotions.

Self-awareness and self-mastery

As mindfulness training progresses through mindful practice, we gain mastery in two related areas, self-awareness and self-management.  Firstly, self-awareness enables us to understand the stressors in our life – what stresses us – and also to realise the nature and strength of our responses.  We gain insight into our contribution – through prior experience, negative thinking, assumptions and perceptual distortion- to the level of stress we experience.   Our perception of stress changes and we experience less stress as a result.  This is the basis for more frequent experience of happiness.

Self-awareness is the beginning of self-mastery, because we cannot achieve self-management without this self-knowledge.  Self-mastery enables us to remain calm and think clearly in situations where others “are stressed out”.  This calmness and clarity under stress signals leadership capability and may result in greater career success.  If nothing else it enables us to have the freedom of choice – the capacity to determine our response to stressors in the gap between stimulus and response.

Meng likens this stage to the effects of physical training – we gain mental and emotional fitness as we grow in mindfulness.  As with physical training, we find we are stronger, more resilient and happier as we develop our mindful practice.  The positive effects of mindfulness training are deeper and more sustainable than those flowing from physical training.

As Meng points out, based on the results of neuroscience research,:

What you think, what you do, and more importantly, what you pay attention to, changes the function and structure of your brain.

We develop more grey matter (our neo-cortex, the command centre of our brain thickens) and the amygdala  reduces (our potential emotional saboteur – the basis of our fight/ flight responses).  So our brain physically changes with mindful practice and locks in the positive effects, including the growth in happiness, that enable us to function better in all aspects of our life – work, career, relationships and leisure.

Discernment of emotions

Meng maintains, from more than a decade of evidence-based results, that our discernment of emotions increases dramatically as we grow in mindfulness.  He argues that we achieve high resolution in our perception of our emotional processes.  So not only are we better able to detect even small changes in our emotional process, but we can do so in real time – as they are happening.  This gives us useful and timely information so that we can view our emotional response objectively.

Thus we are able to make a perceptual shift so that we no longer think and say, “I am angry”, but rather “I am experiencing anger”.  This enables us to move from a perception that there is nothing we can do about this negative emotion, to one where we recognise that our emotions are something we can control.

Meng uses the analogy of the sky and clouds – your mind is the sky and emotions are the clouds.  This leads to the life-changing acknowledgement that “I am not my thoughts; I am not my emotions and my emotions are not me”.  This statement drew spontaneous applause from the audience because it was so liberating.

Mindful practice then enables us to view emotions as a feeling/expression in  our body, just like physical pain.  We are able then to treat them as separate from ourselves and thus controllable – which increases our experience of happiness .

Kindness habits

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to demonstrate kindness to others.  Kindness has been shown to improve mental health and well-being, even if the kindness is expressed as a thought, rather than action.   Meng explains that even asking people to think kind thoughts about two other people – wishing happiness for them – for at least ten seconds a day can have life-changing effects.  As we reported earlier, we become what we focus on – thinking kind thoughts about others on a daily basis can make us a kind person.

Kindness reinforces all the benefits of mindful practice and enhances and enriches our state of happiness.

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

Image source: courtesy of RobinHiggins on Pixabay

Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief

As we grow in mindfulness we start to learn the many ways that mindfulness can improve the quality of our lives.

The quality of life of many chronic pain sufferers has been improved through mindfulness meditation for pain relief, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

This resource which is available in CD format or audio download, provides an insight into how mindfulness can help you manage chronic pain as well as mindfulness meditations that can be used for pain relief.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), maintains that current neuroscience research supports the idea that the more we become aware of the pain in our body and mind, the better we are able to manage pain and improve the quality of our life.  The research shows that awareness of the body-in-pain compared to distraction from pain, has a greater benefit and provides a more sustainable release from the physical and emotional impact of chronic pain.

We all experience the unwanted parts of life, pain and suffering, at some time in our lives – some people for longer than others through the experience of chronic pain.  Mindfulness meditation can help us relieve not only the physical aspects of pain but also the emotional impacts which can take the form of frustration, depression, annoyance, anger and the inability to concentrate.  We can expend so much of our energy and focus just managing the pain that we are quickly exhausted and unable to concentrate.

Jon Kabat-Zinn provides an introduction to his mindfulness meditation for pain relief and this free resource, which includes meditation practice, can help you realise the potential benefits of this approach for improving the quality of your life:

Jon Kabat-Zinn assures us that through mindfulness meditation we can come to realise:

  1. we are not alone in experiencing pain; and
  2. learning to live with pain is possible.

He makes the salient point that managing pain is part of the work of mindfulness itself and that by participating in mindfulness meditation for pain relief, we are immersing ourselves in the global mindfulness movement that is raising global consciousness – people all around the world are becoming more mindful and we are contributing to this movement that promotes peace, harmony, loving kindness and awareness of others and nature.   Our self-compassion through pain management is contributing to compassion for others.

We can grow in mindfulness in many ways.  The drivers for our motivation to practice mindfulness can also be many and varied.  If you are a chronic pain sufferer, this experience could provide the motivation to develop mindfulness for pain relief.

 

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

Image source: Courtesy of Sae Kawaii on Pixabay

 

Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

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Build Resilience Through Mindfulness

Linda Graham, in her book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, defines resilience as:

the capacity to respond to pressures and tragedies quickly, adaptively and effectively.

Shawn Anchor and Michelle Gielan in a HBR article suggest that resilience is about “how you recharge, not how you endure”. They argue that the misconception about resilience and endurance has led to the exponential rise in the “workaholic” with devastating effects on health, productivity and family relationships.

I have worked in many organisations where management has stated that staff needs to become “more resilient” when the staff were not coping with excessive workloads and unrealistic time pressures.  This perspective incorrectly equates resilience with endurance and potentially leads to burnout.

As Linda Graham notes, resilience is more about our capacity to “bounce back” from setbacks and this requires us to recharge our batteries on an ongoing basis. It also requires re-wiring our brains so that we overcome negative self perceptions and fear-inducing perceptions of daily occurences.

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that when we grow mindfulness and develop the capacity to be fully in the present moment, we can alter our brains and reshape our perecptions.  In the process, we can build our resilience.

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Somatic Meditation: A Pathway to Mindfulness and Trauma Healing

Somatic meditation involves grounding your meditation in your body and not in your mind.  We spend so much time in our minds, thinking about the past and the future.

This form of meditation enables us to take advantage of the “natural wakefulness” of our own bodies and to really connect with the present moment.

Conscious breathing is central to somatic meditation and this can take many forms such as:

  • lower belly breathing
  • whole body breathing

Somatic meditation also incorporates awareness about sensations in your body that you can develop through practices such as posture alignment, massage, mindful walking and progressive relaxation.

Dr. Catherine Kerr, through her neuroscience research, has shown that mindfulness-based body awareness (developed through conscious breathing and awareness of body sensations) can actually change your mind.

She demonstrates how somatic meditation can overcome negative thoughts and reduce depression, stress and distress from chronic pain.

Sandra Hotz, through her Body Centred Psychotherapy, uses somatic meditation for healing trauma.  Your many life experiences are not only stored in your mind but also in your body.  Somatic meditation can help to release deep and painful memories that are locked up within your body.

Sandra offers personal counselling as well as a range of meditation classes and courses, including courses in somatic meditation.

Somatic meditation takes so little time and effort but its benefits are far-reaching.  It will help you to achieve stillness and calm and to reduce the hectic pace of your life – it is one sure way to grow mindfulness.

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Living in the Present – Not the Future

 

Maria, in Paulo Coelho’s book, Eleven Minutes, records in her diary:

I spend all day …longing for work to begin, and, when I’m working, longing to get back to the boarding house.  In other words, I’m living the future not the present. (p.34, emphasis added)

Recent neuroscience research shows that we spend more than 50% of our time either in the past or in the future – we spend so little time in the present.

The downside of spending so much time “living the future” is that we can develop anxiety because we are constantly concerned about future events that may never happen.  We are also missing the opportunity to fully experience the present – to enjoy the beauty, relationships and positive experiences that surround us.

We also miss the opportunity to appreciate what we do have and be grateful for the many things that make our life enjoyable.

Living in the future can be precipitated by envy – we “want to have what they have got” and so we look to the future in the hope that we too will be like them.

One way to check whether you are living the future is to monitor your words:

  • I wish it was Friday
  • I can’t wait for the weekend
  • Summer holidays can’t come soon enough

If we find ourselves constantly expressing desire for the future rather than experiencing and enjoying the present, then we can stop talking this way – we have the power to shape our reality by choosing our words consciously.

The present moment is the only true reality.  If we miss it, we miss so much that life has to offer and potentially harm ourselves and our wellbeing.

Image Source: Copyright R. Passfield