Developing Awareness to Overcome Anxiety

Judson Brewer, world-renowned clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, maintains that mindfulness through a three-geared awareness process can break the anxiety habit loop.  His latest book,  Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, provides a guide on how to develop the requisite awareness.  His clinical practice and scientific research in relation to cravings and addictions, the focus of his first book The Craving Mind, led naturally to his understanding of anxiety and how the anxiety habit is formed and overcome.

Judson argues that anxiety hides in our habits.  Underpinning cravings, addiction and anxiety is the fundamental habit loop which develops through operant conditioning – reinforcement of a behaviour through a rewards system.  We experience some kind of trigger which leads to a habituated response that brings a personalised reward.  For example, if you experience a stressful event/day (trigger), you might come home and have a drink of alcohol (behaviour) which enables you to deaden your distress and distracts you from it (reward).  In the process, you are setting up a habit loop which becomes increasingly entrenched because your behavioural response (drinking alcohol) becomes habituated and you progressively need more and more alcohol to deaden the pain and achieve the necessary level of distraction.     

The reward value concept

Judson explains in his latest book that the reward experienced after a habituated behaviour is not a single element creating the habit.  According to him, the way the brain works is that it establishes a reward value for a particular behavioural response that not only involves the present moment reward but also the recollection of the accumulated rewards associated with prior occurrences of that behavioural response.   So, the reward value attributed by the brain to a behavioural response (such as drinking alcohol after a stress trigger) is an accumulation of prior experiences that were deemed positive (such as drinking alcohol in good company in a stunning location) – all of which can distort the real value of the reward and further entrench the behaviour.

Breaking the habit loop or anxiety cycle

Judson points out that the way to break the habit loop or anxiety cycle involves fundamentally developing awareness of the habit loop and establishing a realistic and holistic assessment of the “reward” in the present moment.  For example, if our to-do list acts as an anxiety trigger leading to procrastination (behaviour) which provides the reward of avoidance, we can in-the-moment recall that the procrastination behaviour itself has adverse effects such as leading to criticism for delays and/or intensifying the level of experienced anxiety.   This heightened awareness may also be developed “reflexively” (reflecting on the trigger-behaviour-reward loop after the event) if the experience is relatively recent and the recall is rich in content.  These options of present moment awareness or reflexivity relate to what we have discussed previously as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. 

Developing holistic awareness

The fundamental problem with a habit loop is that our recall is often biased and defective.  We tend to overlook the adverse effects of a behavioural response and focus only on the positive, immediate effects (such as deadening or distraction).  In developing awareness of a habit loop or chronic anxiety, we need to adopt a more holistic and balanced approach – we need to become aware of the impacts of a behavioural response on our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings as well as broader impacts such as on our work, our relationships and our environment.  Just providing an intellectual rationalisation for the desired changed behaviour is normally not enough to create the behaviour we desire – it ignores the power of emotions embedded in bodily sensations.  Judson points out that our survival needs (manifested through difficult emotions and bodily sensations) are more powerful than our need to overcome “cognitive dissonance” (where our rationalisations of a behavioural response conflict with our evidence-based experience).

Kind curiosity

Judson encourages the pursuit of “kind curiosity” to enable us to develop a more holistic and realistic assessment of the personally assigned “reward value” of a behavioural response.  Curiosity is a natural habit (evident in children and somewhat deadened in adults because of “mass distraction”) that can be encouraged and cultivated.  Unfettered curiosity can lead to unearthing disconcerting facts that may disarm, disillusion or distress us – it can challenge our self-concept in relation to our sense wholeness and genuine goodness.  Judson points out the importance of accompanying this heightened curiosity with forgiveness and loving kindness towards ourself – hence, the concept of kind curiosity.  Interestingly, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness includes the concept of purposefully paying attention in the present moment and doing so “non-judgmentally”.

Reflection

Once-off awareness raising is most likely to be ineffective in changing a habit and is definitely not going to overcome chronic anxiety.  We cannot expect to overcome habits that are entrenched and developed over many years (often since childhood). What is required is sustained kind curiosity and ongoing awareness raising.  Through sustained effort, we can substitute a more realistic reward value for the one that we have developed in our mind over time – which is why Judson suggests that we can unwind our anxiety by training our brain, through awareness training, to heal our mind.  Over time, too, we can develop what he calls a “bigger, better offer” (BBO) to offset the current reward value driving the existing anxiety habit loop.  He suggests that mindfulness might “fit the bill” here as it provides a wide range of benefits, without the adverse effect of substituting one bad habit for another (e.g. substituting lollies for alcohol).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our triggers, our habituated behavioural responses and gain insight into the reward value that we attribute to our responses.  We can also learn to substitute more rewarding responses that will encourage the development of changed habits that have positive outcomes.  If we revert to old habits in times of extreme stress, it is important to avoid negative self-talk and self-denigrations and we can do this by extending forgiveness to ourself.

Throughout his book on anxiety, Judson draws on illustrations and validation from users of hist three  apps focused on cravings (e.g. over-eating), addiction (e.g. to smoking) and anxiety.  What these app-based programs provide is a readily accessible way to monitor yourself throughout the day and progressively substitute holistic rewards for those that are currently entrenching unhealthy habits.

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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.

Guided Meditation to Develop the Awareness Muscle

Allyson Pimentel provided a guided meditation podcast through MARC UCLA titled, Begin Again – a process designed to develop concentration and build the “awareness muscle”.   This meditation builds increased awareness of the present moment because it requires us to pay attention as the meditation unfolds – in particular, noticing when our mind wanders away from our primary focus.  Allyson suggests that we need to be “curious about being curious” – that we approach the challenge of paying attention with openness, a sense of wonder, curiosity and exploration.

Allyson emphasises the point that our minds are designed to think, imagine, envision and dream.  It is natural for us to “wander off”, lose focus and entertain the “blur of the past” or the anticipation of the future.  She suggests that no matter what the level of our experience with meditation is, we can alternate between “wakefulness and sleepiness” – which can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically.  

Allyson reminds us that the meaning of the word “begin” is “to come into being”.  She suggests that we are so focused on “doing” that we lose sight of “being” – of appreciating and valuing our present moment experience.  Her guided meditation encourages wakefulness – being fully aware of the present moment and noticing when our attention wanders.   The process of continually returning to our focus – restoring our attention – builds our awareness muscle.  Developing this skill is particularly critical in the digital age which is becoming characterised by the “loss of attention, consciousness and awareness” through online marketing and the role of social media and social influencers.

One of the key things to be aware of during this meditation is the tendency to judge ourselves for our “failure to concentrate” or “stay in the moment”.  We can become critical of our performance, disappointed and angry with ourselves, and frustrated with our lack of progress.  Our current “performance culture” tends to cultivate this judgmental stance.  Allyson stresses the need for loving kindness towards ourselves to overcome these negative thoughts and assessments.

Guided meditation for developing the awareness muscle

Allyson’s guided meditation (which begins at 9 minutes, 20 seconds) has a number of stages that can be followed in sequence or changed to suit your situation:

  • Posture – after taking and releasing a few deep breaths, the aim is to adopt a posture that is conducive to wakefulness to the present moment.  This may entail closing your eyes (to avoid distraction) and adopting an upright posture (as Allyson suggests, as if a sturdy, straight, “big oak tree is behind your back”).  She maintains that this is a way to achieve an “embodied sense of wakefulness”, so that your body posture reflects what you are seeking to achieve in your meditation.  Noticing your posture throughout the meditation can enhance your wakefulness – and may require you to correct a slouch if that occurs.
  • Focus on sounds – one way to achieve an anchor focused on the present moment is to pay attention to sounds both internal and external to your room.  It is important to let the sounds come and go and not entertain them by trying to work out their source.  For some people, sounds themselves may be distracting and this step could be omitted.
  • Focus on breathing – here it is important to become conscious of your breathing – its strength, speed, evenness and regularity – without trying to control it.  As you drop into your breath, you can experience calmness, expansiveness and energy as you open to the life that is within you. 
  • Notice the “tone of your mind” – throughout the meditation you are encouraged to notice what is happening in your mind.  You might find yourself engaged in self-criticism for wandering off – a state that can be overcome by loving kindness and patience.  It also pays to remind yourself that having to “begin again” to re-focus, is progressively building your awareness muscle – which will enrich your life in all its spheres. No matter how many times you have to start over, you are building towards awareness and its inherent richness.

Reflection

This meditation can be challenging, especially in our early stages of adopting meditation practice or if we are feeling agitated about something that is happening to us or others who are close to us (or to others who we know are experiencing terror elsewhere).  The real benefits of this meditation can readily flow over into our daily life and help us to achieve calmness and equanimity in the face of life’s challenges.

 As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and beginning again when our minds wander, we can begin to discern patterns in our wandering – e.g., planning our day, preparing a shopping list, indulging resentment or stressing about possible, future challenges.  This increased self-awareness can help us to develop specific strategies to strengthen our capacity to concentrate and focus our energy.

Allyson suggests that we take to heart Carl Jung’s comment:

Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.

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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.

Cultivating Kindness through Meditation

In a recent meditation podcast, Diana Winston discussed Meditation and Kindness.  She maintained that kindness is “embedded in meditation” because to meditate we have to be able to do so “non-judgmentally”.  Even when our mind wanders, which is a natural human characteristic, we can return to our focus without beating up on ourselves.  We can acknowledge that in this era of disruptive advertising and the incessant pull of “weapons of mass distraction”, we are going to become “lost in thought” at times and lose our focus.  Our concerns and worries about the past or future will also intrude.  However, to be kind to ourselves and achieve the refuge inherent in meditation practice we have to avoid engaging in “negative self-stories” such as, “I am hopeless at meditation”, “I will never master the art of meditating” or “I’m bad at everything I do”.

Meditation as kindness to our self

The practice of meditation is itself an act of kindness towards our self.  When we meditate, we open a rich store of benefits, not the least of these is the increasing capacity to handle our difficult emotions and our destructive thoughts.  Meditation builds our “awareness muscle” and strengthens our capacity to pay attention.  It can serve to enrich our relationships by building our ability to engage in “deep listening”.  Kelly Noonan Gores, in her book, Heal: Discover the Unlimited Potential and Awaken the Powerful Healer Within, stresses the healing effects of meditation, especially meditation practices involving mantras, positive imagining, gratitude and forgiveness.  Mindfulness practices can help carers engage in effective self-care in the face of all the demands on their time, energy, and emotions.

Meditation as kindness to others

While there are specific loving-kindness meditations designed to offer kindness to others, the very practice of meditation brings benefits to others because of our improved awareness of our emotions, thoughts and actions and their impact; increased emotional self-regulation; and enhanced capacity for listening, empathy and compassionate action.

Guided meditation on kindness

During the podcast, Diana offers a guided meditation on kindness that extends beyond self-kindness to kindness towards others.  She begins with encouraging a couple of deep breaths to release accumulated stress and bodily tension.  As she describes the meditation process, she adopts a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach by offering a choice of anchors such as the breath, sounds, and bodily sensations, to enable us to focus our attention.  Diana suggests that if very strong emotions or pervasive thoughts intrude on our meditation practice, we can temporarily turn our attention to them, explore their origins and significance and then return to our anchor.

Reflection

There are so many benefits to be gained from meditation, not the least of these being kindness towards our self and others and the capacity to heal ourselves.  There are many forms of meditation – we have only to explore what approach is best for our self and this may vary over time.  As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation practice, we will realise the multiple benefits of meditation and this will be self-reinforcing.  However, we need kindness and persistence, particularly in the early stages, where we can be discouraged by our “conscious incompetence”.

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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.

Activating Gratitude through Micro-Gestures

LaRayia Gaston, author of Love Without Reason, spoke to Tami Simon of Sounds True in an interview podcast that covered her book as well as her life and work amongst the homeless in Los Angeles.  LaRayia is the founder of Lunch on Me, a charity offering fresh vegan and organic food to the homeless by accessing left-over food from cafes and restaurants that otherwise would be wasted.  She did extensive research to develop a supply chain and distribution process to ensure that people on the street received quality, fresh food.

LaRayia spoke about her difficult life with her own mother who was full of anger and resentment and engaged in destructive behaviours.   In contrast, her Grandmother was a constant source of inspiration through her unconditional love and her ability to spread love to whoever she met, wherever she went.  In her own words, LaRayia maintained that her Grandmother taught her to “love without reason”.  LaRayia decided that she did not want to “sit in the pain of anger and resentment” and the negative energy involved but wanted to share her positive energy and love.

Activating gratitude

LaRayia maintained that it is not enough to write our gratitude journals in the comfort of our homes – we have to translate that gratitude into compassionate action for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We have to activate our gratitude.  She suggests that anyone can achieve this by adopting “micro-gestures” of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  For example, you could buy someone a bottle of water or a coffee, especially someone who has been seeking donations at the front of a store. 

LaRayia made a habit of carrying bottles of water and granola bars in her car that she could distribute to whoever might need one. Taking time to talk to someone on the street, who may look dishevelled, can be another micro-gesture expressing kindness and love – ignoring the appearance of a torn shirt, old jacket, and untidy beard to see the person beyond.  LaRayia contends that she is not asking people to “change the whole world” but to act on “what’s in front of us”.  She also stated that it is one thing to give when asked, it’s another level of awareness and action to notice a need and respond without being asked.

Barriers to activating gratitude and love for others

One of the barriers identified by LaRayia is our “scarcity mindset” – no matter what we have, it is never enough.  Another is what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as always rushing to “be someplace else”, rather than being in the present moment.  LaRayia argues that it takes discipline to be present and to take compassionate action towards those in need.  She practices meditation and develops her deep awareness of her connectedness to everybody, no matter where they live or how poor they are.

Another key barrier to activating gratitude and spreading kindness is the rationalisations that we use to avoid taking compassionate action, e.g., when we consider giving money to homeless people – “They will only spend it on drugs or alcohol”, “If only these people would work hard like us, they would not need assistance – helping them only makes them lazier”.  As LaRayia points out, these assumptions and preconceptions blind us and disable us from taking action – the fact is, we do not know what these people have experienced, the hurt they have felt or the way they have been treated in the past.  We know, however, for example, that young people who are homeless have often been the victim of domestic violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault.

LaRayia addressed the issue of “fear of rejection” in her interview podcast – a very common barrier to extending kindness to others.  We often think, “What if they turn down my offer of help, would I cope with the embarrassment of rejection”? She stated quite clearly that taking compassionate action is exposing ourselves to vulnerability, but it is a cost we have to pay to be kind.  A wonderful example of compassionate action while being vulnerable is that of Coach Mo Cheeks’ action to help a young singer complete the National Anthem at the start of a major basketball playoff – the singer had forgotten the lyrics and Mo helped her out by singing with her despite not being a great singer himself.  LaRayia suggests that the way forward is not to focus on “outcomes” but to concentrate on the process of spreading kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  A focus on outcomes can entrap us and lead to disappointment and discouragement.  On the other hand, focusing on the person in front of us can lead to mutual benefit and healing.

A two-way street

Neuroscience research confirms the benefits that accrue to people who show kindness and gratitude to others.  LaRayia stated that this exchange is “not a one-way street”.  This was especially brought home to her when she was experiencing disabling grief on the death of her beloved Grandmother.  She decided to spend time with the homeless as a way to find herself again and heal from her grief. Her experience is recorded in her documentary, 43 Days on Skid Row.  LaRayia found that homeless people were the most generous people she had ever met – they gave despite their need while we often give from our surplus.  She argues that in giving both people learn and heal.

Reflection

One of the tenets of Lunch on Me is “radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing”.  When we show kindness and love to others in need, we are showing respect and building their self-esteem.  If we show avoidance, disdain, or look down on the homeless, we are reinforcing any sense they may have that they are “not worthy” of respect or love.  

LaRayia encourages us to engage with others from our rich store of innate love rather from a perspective of emptiness.  She notes our obsessive need to accumulate wealth and possessions which do not bring lasting happiness.  The reality is that when we die or if we suffer Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we can take none of this with us – people set about disposing of our possessions and dismantling our life’s accumulation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper sense of connection with everyone, no matter what their status, wealth or appearance is.  We can also develop the courage and creativity to overcome the barriers to activating our gratitude and adopt a daily practice of micro-gestures of empathy and compassion.  LaRayia offers many suggestions for micro-gestures and relevant meditations/reflections in her book.

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Image by Hieu Van 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.

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

In an interview podcast with Bob O’Haver, Gloria Kamler, mindfulness meditation teacher and stress-relief expert, discussed her reasons for meditating and how her practice has evolved over more than 30 years.  She indicated that in her first 10 years of meditation practice, she used to repeat mantras over and over for two and half hours each day.  This proved not only to be unsustainable as she began working with clients, but she also found that she did not experience effective transfer to her daily life of the peace and calmness she  experienced during meditation.  It was then that Gloria turned to mindfulness meditation and the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).   She now offers training in MBSR and meditation.

She also indicated that her reasons for meditating have evolved from seeking peace and calmness (at the time of the Vietnam War) to achieving emotional regulation, living her life more consciously and developing kindness towards herself and others. She realised that, in working as a therapist with people with chronic pain, she needed to achieve kindness towards herself (despite her frailties and fragility) and others and develop the capacity to accept what is.  Gloria suggests that we start each meditation practice session with the question, “Why am I meditating?” – this process strengthens our focus, raises our awareness of what we are actually doing and clarifies our purpose.

Benefits of mindfulness meditation

In a recent guided meditation podcast as a member of the MARC faculty, Gloria discussed what she experienced as the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  She explained that her concept of meditation was the “training of attention” to be able to see more clearly what is happening in her life, to develop a different perspective and to be more settled and contented when dealing with the waves and vicissitudes of life.

Gloria maintained that mindfulness meditation developed our brains so that we were no longer fully captured by our habituated fight/flight/freeze response driven by our amygdala.  She argues that for a majority of time we are working on “auto-pilot”, not being aware of what is going on inside us or in our immediate environment.  When faced with a challenging situation we can revert to responding the way we always responded – with silence, anger, frustration, resentment, envy, aggression, or inaction.  Mindfulness meditation enables us to develop choices and to become more skilful in navigating the ups and downs of life.  In speaking of developing flexibility, freedom and choice, Gloria quotes Albert Einstein on how to create new ways of behaving, “The only way to change a habit is to do something different.”

Gloria found one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation that “totally surprised” her, was the tendency to be “much kinder and compassionate”.  She found that this benefit was stimulated through a growing awareness of her connectedness to others and nature.  She discovered that we are “naturally wired to be kind”.  However, this capacity is often latent because we become “wired to the amygdala” that takes over – acting as our “Commander-in-Chief” determining what we perceive and how we think and feel, leading to our habituated responses.  Gloria found that, through mindfulness meditation, she did not take her life experiences so personally, was able to “witness her own fragility”, act more skilfully and consciously and take compassionate action.

Skills developed through mindfulness meditation

Gloria suggests that there are three basic skills that we practice in mindfulness meditation:

  1. Concentration – bringing our attention back to our desired focus, whether that be our breath, sounds, bodily sensations, or other anchor.  In this way we reclaim our attention and build our “awareness muscle”.
  2. Sensory and emotional clarity – being very aware of what we are sensing and our emotional responses to our perceptions.  Associated with this, is developing the space between stimulus and response, and realizing that we have choice and freedom in how we respond – leading to emotional regulation.
  3. Equanimity – allowing ourselves to be with what is, rather than resisting it.  Gloria suggests that it is natural to resist, to hold tightly to things as they have been and resist what is new and challenging. 

Self-Healing through mindfulness meditation

Kelly Noonan Gores in her book, Heal: Discover Your Unlimited Potential and Awaken the Powerful Healer Within, discusses the futility of the Disease of Resistance and the need to understand its message. She argues that the way forward and the means to break the hold of our tendency to resist is to “learn the language of the body”.  Gloria suggests that technology can separate us from our reality and our bodies.  By becoming grounded through mindfulness meditation, we can overcome self-sabotage and learn to work with our innate healing power and wisdom.  In another meditation podcast, Gloria offers a guided meditation on “body and breath”.

In the meditation podcast that is the focus of this post, Gloria spends some time instructing us on how to become grounded, especially through our feet.  She suggests, for example, that we concentrate on the bodily sensation in our feet – whether it is tingling or numbness, the sensation of socks on our skin or the feeling of something solid beneath us.  When we become grounded, we no longer feel out of control or constantly buffeted by the turbulence of life.  Mindfulness meditation becomes our refuge.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can  live our lives more fully, show compassion towards ourselves and others and experience joy, beauty and healing.  We can become less controlled by our emotions and habituated responses and more open and creative.

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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.

Sustaining a Daily Practice of Tai Chi

While my focus here is on Tai Chi practice, some of the principles I will discuss have relevance to other forms of mindfulness practice.  For some time now, I have been practising Tai Chi on and off, with a few periods of sustained daily practice over several months.  In my current sustained effort at daily practice, I have changed a number of strategies to help me maintain the momentum of practice – and often it is about developing a momentum like I have been able to achieve with my blog (over 500 posts).

I am acutely aware of the research that establishes the benefits of Tai Chi for my physical and mental health and overall sporting fitness.  I devoured Dr. Peter Wayne’s research into the active ingredients of Tai Chi.  So, intellectually, I know about the many benefits of Tai Chi.  However, sustained daily practice requires a commitment – an exercise of both mind and heart, incorporating an emotional attachment to the end goal(s).

Strategies you could adopt to sustain a daily practice

Commitment to a daily practice also involves flexibility, adaptability and adjusting your thinking.   The strategies identified in the following list are based on what is working for me at the moment:

  • Flexible timing – most of what you read about habit forming advises you to adopt a set time each day for your practice.  However, some days it is not possible to achieve a set time owing to other commitments of work or family (or writing a blog).  The tendency then is to drop the practice for the day, rather than adopt a more flexible approach and work out a time when you can fit in the practice despite other commitments taking up your allocated time slot.  Being flexible about timing and location enables you to sustain your daily practice.
  • Prioritising – as you build up awareness of how important your daily practice is to your overall life, you can tell yourself to give your practice a priority in your daily schedule – in other words, no matter what else you have to do, somehow you have to fit in your daily practice.  It becomes a “must do” rather than a “nice-to-do”.
  • Establishing a personal mnemonic – capture the benefits of your practice in the form of a mnemonic so that you can quickly recall the benefits as an added motivator.  This requires you to research the benefits of your daily practice and to keep them uppermost in your mind.
  • Mentally linking the benefits to a recent or forthcoming event – relevancy aids motivation, so if you can think about something that has happened or is about to happen and focus on what benefits your practice would bring, you are adding to your motivation.  For example, if you have recently heard about the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a relative, you are reminded of the benefit of Tai Chi for improving your mind and body and developing your mind-body connection.  If you are about to play a game of tennis, you could think about the benefits that Tai Chi would bring to your tennis playing, e.g., timing, coordination, balance, flexibility, and concentration.
  • Being adaptable as circumstances change – the need to work from home as a result of enforced isolation brought on by the pandemic, has necessitated a lot of adjustments, especially when both partners work from home.  As part of your negotiations about how things will operate in this home/work environment, you can negotiate time(s) and location for your daily practice.  Instead of putting off your practice, you could choose to close the door of your practice room for the required period so as not to disturb, or be disturbed by, your partner.  Negotiating arrangements with your partner is an essential aspect of maintaining positive mental health when forced to work from home.

Reflection

Over time circumstances change, so to maintain a daily practice requires flexibility, adaptability, and strategies to keep the benefits of your practice at the forefront of your mind (so that you will have the motivation to overcome obstacles as they arise).  As you grow in mindfulness through Tai Chi, meditation, yoga or other mindfulness practices, you can become more self-aware about what causes you to procrastinate or put off your practice.  You can also strengthen your motivation through the reinforcement that comes with practice and the development of unconscious competence in your practice activity.

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Image by MichaelRaab 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.

Mind Your Brain

In the previous post, I discussed the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease on the mental. emotional and physical capacities of the affected person.  I particularly emphasised the importance of self-care for the carer whose life is increasingly disrupted and made more stressful because of the cognitive, emotional and financial drain on their personal resources. 

Alzheimer’s disease and the associated  disorder of dementia are becoming increasingly prevalent in society as our populations age.  The Alzheimer’s Association maintains that there are 342,000 people in Australia living with dementia and 44 million worldwide.  The Harvard Medical School notes that Alzheimer’s disease is the major cause of dementia. 

When you come into close contact with someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, you begin to realise the need to savour your brain as a source of wonder in everyday life.  As you see the progressive loss of key faculties by another person, you begin to realise how much we rely on our brains to live effectively and happily in our day-to-day existence. 

It is often only when we lose something, or see others lose something that we value, that we begin to really appreciate what we have.  The same is true of our brains.  And yet, as Andy Puddicombe points out in a YouTube video, we spend more time looking after our hair or car than we do our brains – the source of our thoughts, creativity, happiness, and practical skills.  Andy suggests that all It takes is 10 mindful minutes each day to begin to mind our brains.

Protective measures

The Harvard Medical School, in their publication on Alzheimer’s disease and its treatment, suggest a range of protective measures that people can take to either avoid Alzheimer’s or to slow the progress of the disease.  They point out however that scientists have not found a cure for Alzheimer’s or found definitive ways to prevent its occurrence – there are still many unknowns in relation to the disease, including the actual impact of genetic factors.  The Harvard Medical School, however, notes that lifestyle factors are a major influence on preventing the disease or slowing its progress.

In line with many other sources such as the National Institute of Aging, the Harvard Medical School recommends exercise, diet, weight reduction, restful sleep and mental stimulation as protective measures.  They remind us that what is good for our brain and body is also good for our heart.

The Harvard Medical School provides health reports on the benefits and techniques for different exercise routines.  They particularly stress the multiple benefits of walking in their publication Walking for Health, including the positive impacts on blood pressure, memory, heart health and weight.  Walking is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise and they suggest that it is a good place to start for people who are not used to exercising.  In a related article they identify 5 Surprising Benefits of Walking.

The recommendation re restful sleep accords with the research by Stanislas Dehaene, author of the book How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain.  Stanislas highlights the key role of sleep in consolidation of learning – in making our learning explicit and building “unconscious competence”.

Mental stimulation as a way to mind your brain

The Harvard Medical School maintains that while level of education has a positive effect on maintaining a healthy brain  (through the process of creating “cognitive reserve” in the form of neurotransmitters and brain cells), what is more important as you age is to engage in activities that stimulate the brain.  They suggest, like the Institute of Aging’s recommendations re “cognitive training”, that mentally stimulating activities such as playing music, reading, writing, doing puzzles and playing games, can help to develop and maintain a healthy brain despite physically ageing.  There are many very active and inspiring octogenarians who provide testament to this possibility.

Minding your brain through mindfulness

Harvard Medical School, in the previously mentioned publication on Alzheimer’s, illustrates how this disease actually shrinks the physical brain as a result of the ”massive loss of brain cells” – which, in turn, “damages areas involved in thought, planning, memory, mood and behavior”.  In contrast, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman in their book,  Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, reveal that mindfulness meditation actually increases the neo-cortex area of the brain.

They also contend that mindfulness meditation can shape your brain to build resilience.  Drawing on the science of meditation they maintain that focused meditation and aligned action can develop the traits necessary for personal resilience – positive connections, awareness, insight into your inner landscape, clarity of purpose and a permeable self.  

One of the positive effects of mindfulness meditation is better use and development of your working memory which is an area negatively impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.   The act of paying attention facilitates short term memory thus enabling better retention and use of information for improved decision-making and behavioural choices.  Harvard Medical School has a series of articles on improving your memory and a comprehensive report on how to keep your brain healthy in the face of age-related memory loss.

Specific mindfulness activities have particular effects relevant to minding your brain.  Tai Chi, for example, enables you to deepen the mind-body connection as well as improve physical health, psychological well-being and overall energy levels (thus facilitating other forms of exercise such as walking). 

Reflection

Harvard Medical School emphasises the need to mind your memory to offset the occurrence of memory lapses which are a natural part of the ageing process.  Looking after our memory can be one of the many protective measures that we can employ to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and its multiple debilitating effects. 

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and other mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, we can enhance our working memory, build resilience, develop our physical brain, and improve our overall psychological well-being which further reduces the strain on our brain brought on by life’s stressors.  Developing the habit of mindfulness is a very sound and healthy resolution for the New Year.

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Image by Mabel Amber 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.

Alzheimer’s Disease – Self-Care for the Carer

If you have a family member or friend suffering from Alzheimer’s disease you may find yourself suddenly thrust into a carer’s role, often with little preparation and understanding of that role.  The tendency is to “soldier on” through all the difficulties and ignore the emotional toll on yourself.  However, there are many resources and people willing to help and mindfulness can play a role in your self-care.

You may be witnessing the cognitive and behavioural decline of someone you love who not so long ago was vital, well-read, highly competent, intelligent, and very aware of current events and global trends.  Now you are having to contend with the emotional, financial, and time-consuming toll of caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s (on top of your daily work and life with their own challenges).

Dealing with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

You may have to deal progressively with some or all of the following effects that Alzheimer’s has on your loved one:

  • Disorientation: losing track of where they are; thinking that they are in hospital or just out of hospital when neither is true; thinking they are in a location where they lived many years prior; assuming that their location is somewhere that happened to be mentioned in casual conversation.
  • Rapid memory loss: forgetting what they set out to do and constantly forgetting in the course of some action, e.g., finding their phone, having a shower, locating an object – the result is that everything takes so much longer and tests your patience (despite your good intentions).
  • Loss of practical skills; unable to do normal daily tasks such as cooking, keeping accounts, paying bills, driving the car or operate the TV remote.
  • Mood or personality changes: going from pleasantness to anger and aggression, happy to discontent, calm to agitated, confident to fearful, purposeful to suffering apathy and inertia; or any of the other possible mood/personality swings.
  • Indulging in unusual behaviours: constantly packing up the house expecting to be moved, indulging in unsafe behaviours (e.g., ladder climbing when they are unsteady), tendency to wander and lose their way (even in very familiar territory).
  • Confusion: forgetting who individuals are and their relationships, constantly losing things, thinking that a past event is happening in the present and preparing for it with some anxiety.
  • Difficulty with self-expression: unable to find the words to express what they want to say.

Each of these symptoms is taxing for the carer as well as the person suffering from Alzheimer’s.  As a carer, you may not know what to say, you can become confused about what is true and what is imagined, and you can become uncertain about the best way forward and the decisions that need to be made.

Self-care for the carer

There are many things that a carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer can do to proactively care for their own welfare and psychological health:

  • Inform yourself about Alzheimer’s disease – understanding the disease helps you to make better decisions, reduce some of the uncertainty you are encountering and provides insights into how best to help the person experiencing Alzheimer’s.  One of the best resources around that is also very readable is Harvard Medical School’s report, Alzheimer’s Disease: A guide to diagnosis, treatment, and caregiving.  This publication details the symptoms of the disease, the impact on the brain and its structure, progression pathways, and, most importantly, incorporates a special section on Caregiving: Day-to-day challenges and beyond.  Understanding the decisions that need to be made, the options available and their impacts, makes it easier to make sound decisions amid the uncertainty and disruption surrounding the role of carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
  • Gaining support from relatives and friends: typically, there is a tendency to “go it alone”, however, the role of carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer is incredibly personally taxing.  Harvard Health describes caring for someone with Alzheimer’s as “one of the toughest jobs in the world “ and that your own life will be “dramatically altered” in this carer role.  It is vital that you “share the load” with relatives and friends where possible, e.g., with tasks such as visiting the person who is experiencing Alzheimer, talking through decisions, or sharing the financial burden.
  • Drawing on professionals and networks: It is important to draw on the collective knowledge of expert medical professionals such as the family doctor and appropriate specialist services such as a geriatrician or gerontologist. There are also support networks such as Alzheimer’s Association that provides support groups and professional information informed by research.  There are also carer support groups, such as Arafmi, for people caring for those suffering from a mental illness or “psychosocial disability”.
  • Exercise: physical exercise can reduce stress, enhance capacity to deal with stressors and provide the opportunity to “clear the head” and /or think more clearly about decisions to be made and options that can be explored.
  • Take time out: taking time for yourself such as a weekend or week away.  This is more manageable if you have already shared your situation with family and friends and drawn on their support.  It would also enable you to be more mindful about your own life and needs and options going forward. 
  • Developing mindfulness practices: mindfulness has a wide range of benefits that can assist in your role of carer.  For example, mindfulness can help you build resilience; manage uncertainty; develop calmness; deal constructively with difficult emotions such as anger, resentment, and frustration; and improve your psychological health overall.

Reflection

Alzheimer’s is an incredibly draining illness both for the sufferer and the carer. It takes its toll emotionally, physically, cognitively, and financially. It is vitally important for carers to be very conscious about the need for self-care and to be committed to being proactive about mindfulness practice.  As carers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to manage the multiple stressors involved and to achieve a level of equanimity even amid the disruption, uncertainty and turbulence involved in caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.  There are numerous resources available to assist carers and help them to make sound decisions and take wise action. 

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Maintaining the Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a time when we can experience strong positive emotions such as kindness, joy, gratitude, generosity, empathy, and compassion.  We can also be more considerate, thoughtful, patient, and understanding. The difficulty is maintaining the Christmas spirit throughout the rest of the year – how can we continue to experience these positive emotions and engage in these positive behaviours when we encounter the daily pressures of work, relationships, and expectations (our own and those of others)?

Tailoring mindfulness practice

There are many ways to build positivity and maintain positive emotions and behaviours.  Diet and exercise are two of the most popular approaches.  Seeking silence in a busy life amid the noise pollution of the surrounding world is another.  Mindfulness practice can help us to find the balance and equanimity necessary to manage the daily challenges that can upset our peace of mind and positivity.

What helps to sustain mindfulness practice is finding and tailoring a practice that meets our needs in an arena where we would like to improve ourselves and our reactions, and that can be embedded in our daily routine.  It is important that the mindfulness practice, however brief, is conducted on a daily basis so that it can become a habituated behaviour.

I have found, for example, that one arena where I can become frustrated and annoyed is when playing social tennis.  Part of the issue is my own expectations about how well I should be able to play.  Having played tennis for more than fifty years, with many of those years engaged in competitive tennis, I have the expectation that I should be able to play better than a lot of people.  This expectation, however, does not consider the decline in flexibility, reflexes, strength, and mobility that occurs as we age.  So, I need to manage my expectations, strengthen my sense of gratitude (e.g., about being able to move and play tennis at all!) and learn to manage my reactions to  personal disappointment with the way I am playing on a particular occasion.

What I have found is that mindfulness practices help me to improve my gratitude, reduce my expectations and manage my reactions.  What has been of particular benefit to me is Tai Chi – a form of mindfulness practice that directly impacts my tennis playing in a positive way.  The desire to play tennis well and enjoy the experience adds motivation to my Tai Chi practice. It has become a practice that meets my needs at the moment for self-regulation and that enables me to improve my positive experience in an arena (social tennis) that I thoroughly enjoy.

Developing a personal mnemonic

People often use affirmations to help embed a belief, a behaviour, or an orientation.  Another way to achieve these outcomes is to develop a personal mnemonic that captures the core benefits that you are seeking.  For example, with Tai Chi I have developed the following mnemonic that keeps the benefits of this practice at the forefront of my mind, strengthens the desire to practice and reinforces the positive outcomes that I experience.

My mnemonic for capturing the benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis is as follows:

  • F – flexibility in muscles and overall movement is increased considerably
  • R – reflexes are improved and increased in speed of response
  • A – awareness is heightened of every aspect of tennis play (e.g., movement of the ball, environmental factors, other players)
  • I – intention, integration and interaction are strengthened
  • C – coordination and concentration (which go hand-in-hand) are enhanced along with balance
  • H – heart health improved through better circulation and improved breathing
  • E  – energy and motivation are improved.

The mnemonic stands for “fraiche” – a term which itself has positive connotations when viewed as a delectable dessert.  

Reflection

Developing our own mnemonic is one way of reminding ourselves of the benefits of a personalised mindfulness practice and will enable us to maintain our motivation and increase the frequency of our practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through our personalised practice, we can maintain the positive emotions and behaviours that are characteristic of the Christmas spirit.

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Image by monicore 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.

Thanksgiving: A Time to Revitalise our Gratitude Practices

The US celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday 26 November this year.  It was also formally celebrated in other places around the world while in Australia informal celebrations occurred as American organisations shared their Thanksgiving Day exhortations and practices.  This was followed by intensive sales campaigns under the banners of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  It is easy to lose sight of the message of Thanksgiving in the flurry and frenzy of the constant encouragement to buy and acquire.   Acquisition is suddenly valued more than appreciation.

The value of gratitude

Gratitude is important for our relationships and our mental health.  Expressing appreciation to another person in a relationship is a way of valuing them and what they say and do.  It builds trust and affection and overcomes the tendency to “take someone for granted” which is, certainly, an intimacy dampener.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits that gratitude has for our mental health and overall well-being.  It can alleviate depression, replace toxic emotions such as anger, envy, and resentment and develop a positive attitude to life which is, in itself, conducive to mental health.  Karen Newell, for example, explains from her research how gratitude builds positive energy.  She encourages us to be grateful not only for things that are present in our life today but also for the experiences and people from our past, especially our parents and mentors.

Sustaining gratitude practices

There are numerous ways to express gratitude and appreciation.  The challenge, like all good habits, is to build gratitude practices into our daily life, however brief or informal.  Some people adopt a gratitude journal as a way to express appreciation and progressively build a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.  Others link expressions of appreciation to other activities undertaken during the day.  For example, when boiling the jug, you could express appreciation for access to fresh water (something that many people in the world do not have) or the food that you are about to eat.  While waiting during the day, you could choose to reflect on what you are grateful for rather than dive for your phone.

Gratitude meditation is a sound way to progressively build awareness and appreciation for everything that enriches our life on a day to day basis.  We can learn to savour our relationships, achievements, the development of our children, the skills and capacities that we have developed over time and life itself.  Developing a gratitude mindset can help us to experience joy in our life, not only for what we have received, but also for the achievement of others through empathetic joy.  Being grateful is a great motivator for taking compassionate action, which not only benefits others but also ourselves.

Reflection

The benefits of gratitude and appreciation are numerous and can positively impact many aspects of our life if only we can slow down for gratitude.   We have to learn to create space in our busy lives for stillness and silence so that we can grow in awareness of what we have to appreciate and continue to express our gratitude whether internally or through external communication.   Gratitude can improve the quality of our life and, at the same time, positively impact those around us.  As we grow in mindfulness through our gratitude practices, reflection and meditation, we can experience greater joy in our lives, enrich our relationships and make a real difference in our world – a world torn by envy, hatred, resentment, bias and discrimination and the great divide between the “have’s” and “have-not’s”.

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Image by 춘성 강 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.

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