Barriers to Overcoming the Anxiety Habit Loop

In previous posts I have discussed Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop underpinning anxiety, addiction and craving and his mindfulness processes for overcoming anxiety.  Central to his process for overcoming anxiety, is understanding the trigger-behaviour-reward process, the need to honestly and openly explore the realised rewards and costs of a particular behaviour and the willingness to update the reward value in our mind in the light of this learning.  In this post on barriers to using Judson’s process to overcome anxiety, I will explore further some of the ideas presented in his book, Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind.  I will also link this discussion to other ideas on barriers to mindfulness that I have written about earlier. 

Barriers to overcoming the anxiety habit loop

Below are some of the barriers I have identified in reading Judson’s book but supplemented by my earlier discussions:

  • Obsession with the news – we can feast on the news as if our lives depended on it.  At every opportunity, we might be seen accessing our mobile phones to find out the latest news.   We can do this while waiting, instead of using this down-time to build our awareness.   The problem is that the news is typically dominated by adverse events and people’s suffering as well as portents of disaster.  It is often unnerving, adds to anxiety and causes disquiet.  If we become obsessed with the news, we are not creating the space for stillness and calm that would enable us to be mindful about our habituated behaviour and its real rewards (outcomes). 
  • Closed worldview – pursuing the news is what Judson describes as “deprivation curiosity” where our motivation is to address a deficit in our knowledge where the reward is discovery of the up-to-date information.  However, this process constitutes a closed system because closure is achieved once the void (missing information) is filled.  We can also adopt a closed worldview by trying to protect ourselves from disconcerting or uncomfortable information, and related feelings, about our habituated behaviour and its impact on our wellbeing and the welfare of others.  Judson argues that what we need to pursue is “interest curiosity” where the process of curiosity is reward in itself because it is open-ended, never dries up and exposes us to the rewards of joy, wonder and awe.  He suggests that interest curiosity feels better when we compare it to “the scratchy, closed-down itch of deprivation”.
  • Review and regret approach – this habituated behaviour constitutes another closed circuit in that it leads us to self-flagellation and negative self-appraisal whenever we revert to our bad habit or make a mistake.   Judson suggests that what is needed here is “forgiveness and moving on and up”.  This reflective approach opens the way to real learning and sustained habit change.  We can beat up on ourself for mistakes but this only feeds the anxiety habit cycle and contributes to depression.  In contrast, If we adopt a growth mindset, we can see each experience, and attempt to overcome our anxiety habit loop, as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Our actions serve to give us feedback about outcomes, both intended and unintended – and this is the way we learn.
  • Lacking persistence – in this era of the desire for immediate satisfaction, it is easy to lose heart and give up before our goal is realised, even if we have made some progress along the way to reducing our anxiety level.  We can overlook the fact that our habituated behaviour has been developed over many years and, in some instances, has resulted from a traumatic event or adverse childhood experience.  It will take a concerted effort over an extended period of time to overcome an anxiety habit loop.   Judson suggests that it will take “short moments, many times” and a willingness to persist with the process of “kind curiosity” to unearth our anxiety habit loop and the underpinning reward system. 
  • Unchanged reward value – we can mindlessly accept the existing reward value that keeps our anxiety habit loop locked in thus creating a barrier to change.  Alternatively, we can actively seek to update our reward value with disenchanting information (which we typically ignore).  We tend to see only the positive aspects of a habituated behaviour (e.g. avoidance of discomfort, pain, embarrassment  or hurtful self-disclosure).  Judson likens this barrier to a “chocolate experiment” where people failed to realise when eating more and more chocolate turned an otherwise pleasurable experience into one that caused displeasure.  We can either not notice or ignore the “turning point” and fail to develop a real updated, assessment of a reward value.   This often occurs with people whose underlying anxiety drives a habit of procrastination.
  • Focus on reasoning rather than feeling – Judson argues that thinking and rationalisation will only go so far in terms of sustainable habit change.  While as humans we need thinking to problem solve, be creative and plan, rational argument has little impact on entrenched habits.  A more holistic approach of sustained personal inquiry is required to unearth not only our thoughts but emotions and bodily sensations that inform us about what is happening in the moment when we resort to our habituated responses. Focusing on our feelings in the moment gives us a way to understand the drivers behind habit formation and maintenance, and enables us to develop the requisite insight to update our “reward value” of the habituated behaviour.

Ways to overcome the barriers to unwinding anxiety

In his Unwinding Anxiety book, Judson discusses a one-week silent retreat that he and a colleague provided for members of the US women’s Olympic water-polo team (who were back to back gold medal winners).  He explained that a real breakthrough for members of the team in developing holistic, interest curiosity was achieved by having participants repeat the sound “hmm” as a mantra.   This sound when repeated tends to engender openness, wonder and awe while clearing the mind of its tendency to engage in worry and negative self-judgment.  Judson suggests that this practice can be employed whenever we become stuck in our meditation attempts, experience panic or encounter internal barriers to overcoming our anxiety habit loop.  It enables us to tap into bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Judson also provides a process for experiencing a closed versus an open mindset.  This entails recalling in full colour and richness an anxious event followed by recalling a joyful event.  He explains that this process of observing bodily sensations generated by the different events forms part of the first day of his Unwinding Anxiety app.

Another source of encouragement to maintain persistence and adopt an open, learning mindset is provided by Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Metamorphosis.  The words of this mantra effectively describe the process of the sustained effort and open mindset required to achieve transformative change and encourages us to “not give up” but “trust the process” and be open to breaking with our old ways.  If we sing the mantra along with Lulu & Mischka, we can reinforce our desire to persist until we overcome our anxiety habit.

Reflection

Clearly the unwinding anxiety process proposed by Judson has application in many arenas, including in sports.   This got me thinking about an issue I am having with my tennis game when playing social tennis.   I have played tennis since I was about 12 years old (and probably earlier but I can’t think back that far).  I have used a single-handed backhand all my life but as I get older, my wrists and arms are becoming weaker (despite my occasional efforts to strengthen them with exercises).  So, for my 75th birthday, I requested three tennis lessons from a coach to learn how to do a double-handed backhand.  By the end of the third half hour lesson, I could manage a rally with the coach using my newly “acquired” double-handed backhand.  The problem is that I am experiencing an emotional blockage that is stopping me from using the new stroke at social tennis – I keep reverting to my single-handed backhand.

When I read about the habit loop and the need to change/update the reward value (in my mind) attributed to a particular behaviour in order to change the habit, I realised that what was keeping my old habit (single-handed backhand) in place was the failure to update the reward value of this behaviour.  I still seemed to be assuming that it was a reliable stroke preventing me from making mistakes and enabling me to keep the ball in play or win a rally.  The reality is that my single-handed backhand is no longer reliable and I do make lots of mistakes with it.  So I need to update the reward value that I attribute to this stroke and accept that in the earlier stages of a changeover to the new double-handed stroke, I will probably make more mistakes.  However, the bigger, better offer (BBO) is a stronger, double-handed stroke capable of winning a rally.  By being unwilling to use my double-handed backhand, I am adopting a closed mindset and depriving myself of the opportunity to learn through doing and reflecting on the outcomes.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, kind curiosity and mantra meditations, we can develop the persistence and courage to explore our anxiety habit loop and its reward value.  With a sustained concerted effort, we can begin to overcome our anxiety habit loop as we update our reward value and develop substitute rewards that are bigger and better than what we currently rely on, consciously or unconsciously.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

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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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

Overcome Your Habituated Way of Reacting and Restore Your Energy and Power

In her podcast interview with Tami Simon, Dr. Lise Van Susteren identified four patterns of reaction to life challenges that she describes as “survival strategies”.  If we can understand these patterns of behaviour, we can regulate our normal way of responding to stimuli we encounter in life and develop more tolerance towards others.  In her book on Emotional Inflammation, co-authored with Stacey Colino, Lise offers a process to discover our triggers and recapture our balance, energy and power.  The book spells out the 7-step process, called RESTORE, and looks at ways we can personalise this process in line with our preferred survival strategy.

Four survival strategies that become habitual behaviour patterns

Lise maintains that the four survival strategies she has identified are based on solid empirical evidence and her own life experience.  She suggests that your preferred survival strategy is shaped not only by your personality and temperament but also by your life experiences and the people who influenced you throughout your life.  The four survival strategies are:

  • Nervous – fearful and anxious because they are able to clearly see dangers, both present and pending, and are capable of providing a warning and catalyst for action through their vigilance and thorough research (they “run the numbers”).
  • Molten – angry and outraged response to situations that are perceived as immoral, unjust or irresponsible and that constitute grounds for justifiable anger.
  • Revved – frantic response to the needs of others leading to ignoring own needs and resultant personal exhaustion.
  • Retreating:  a reflective and considered response that exhibits humility and compassion for others while exercising patience in the pursuit of resolution of issues and challenges.

Lise identified herself as a person who adopts the “revved” survival strategy.  She cannot say “no” to requests and finds herself in a whirlwind of activity giving talks and presentations and writing articles and other publications.  She identified Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech to world leaders, participating in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, as an example of a “molten” survival strategy – her words and actions precipitating a global, youth climate change movement.  In reflecting on my own response to the Coronavirus and its resultant impacts, I can identify my survival strategy as “retreating” – which is clearly shaped by my life experiences and the people who were most influential in impacting my thoughts and actions in response to anxious and challenging times. 

Lise suggests that if you can understand your habituated survival strategy, you will not only be more tolerant of others but also be better able to respond differently and more effectively when the occasion demands it – because you will have been able to reduce your “emotional inflammation”. She proposes the RESTORE process as a way to achieve these ends.

The RESTORE process

Lise maintains that the RESTORE process is a pathway to overcoming habituated responses to the things that trigger us while providing us with a means to regain our equilibrium and power to contribute to a better world.  Each of the seven steps of the process draws its name from one of the letters of the word, “restore”:

  • Recognise your feelings – identify and name your feelings, not denying or avoiding them.  The more you deny your feelings, the stronger they become and the greater is their influence over your words and behaviour leading to an increasing number of negative, unintended consequences.  This also involves getting in touch with your body and what it is telling you about your level of stress and agitation and the difficult emotions you are experiencing, particularly in situations where you perceive you have no control over what is happening.
  • Examine your triggers – gain an understanding of your triggers and their impact on your words and actions.  This involves a willingness to reflect on situations that led to a high level of reactivity on your part.  It also entails identifying the people and experiences that have shaped your habituated, unhelpful responses.  The process previously described for dealing with resentment is an example of this self-exploration.   Both this step and the former require self-observation and self-intimacy that can be developed through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 
  • Steady the natural rhythm of your bodybreathing with the earth, somatic meditation and mindfulness practices help to restore your equilibrium that arises when you are attuned to the natural rhythm of your body. 
  • Think yourself into a safe space – often we are overcome by negative self-talk which makes us inflexible and destroys our equilibrium.  Working with your mind is necessary to achieve emotional agility and the capacity to adapt to ever-increasing stress situations. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a cautionary reminder that “you are not your thoughts” – they are like passing clouds, while you are the peaceful and resilient reality behind those clouds. 
  • Obey your body – this entails self-care including physical exercise, practices like Tai Chi and yoga, avoiding foods that your body experiences as harmful, reducing stress by achieving a better work-life balance and using self-care services especially if you are a carer.
  • Reconnect with nature – Lise suggests thatyou can “reclaim the gifts of nature” by accessing its healing benefits and its capacity to stimulate appreciation and gratitude and inspire awe.  Mark Coleman offers online courses on nature meditation to assist you to reconnect with nature.
  • Exercise your power – Lise argues that to consolidate your newfound equilibrium and power, you can become an “upstander” instead of a “bystander” – taking effective action in the world (e.g. on climate change) out of a sense of thoughtfulness, compassion, self-belief and hope.  This is the pathway to joy – pursuing a purpose beyond yourself that reduces self-absorption.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can deepen our self-awareness and tolerance, build our understanding of what triggers our unhelpful responses, develop equilibrium and reconnect with our personal energy and power to create positive change in the world. 

Throughout our restorative approaches we need to practise self-compassion, not beating up on ourselves for any shortcomings or shortfalls.  Louise Hay recommends that we practise the affirmation, you’re always doing the best you can with the understanding and awareness and knowledge you have.

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Image by NickyPe 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.

Self-Compassion in Times of Uncertainty and the Coronavirus

There are many people offering ways to manage anxiety and fear in these times of uncertainty brought on by the global Coronavirus.  Psychologist Rick Hanson, for example,  provides multiple online mindfulness resources including the Wise Brain Bulletin.  In the latest issue (Volume 14.2), Kristin Neff and Chris Germer offer 10 self-compassion practices for self-management during this time of the pandemic.  Self-compassion is about being compassionate towards ourselves despite our mistakes, deficiencies and perceived weaknesses.  It takes time and effort to build self-compassion, particularly if we are used to negative self-talk, berating ourselves for our mistakes or constantly comparing ourselves to others (and coming up short in our own estimation).

Elsewhere, Kristin provides a video explanation of the concept of self-compassion, discusses the three components of self-compassion and offers exercises on how to develop each of these.  She also offers a range of guided meditations and exercises on the website for the  Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.   Kristin and Chris are co-developers of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSP) Program designed for those who want to explore more fully the richness of this mindfulness approach.  They are very well qualified to teach mindfulness and compassion (for ourselves and others).

Additional Approaches to developing self-compassion

There are multiple resources and exercises available to help you build self-compassion.  Some that are very accessible and easy to use are:

  • Compassionate body scan: a 20-minute progressive body scan that focuses attention on different parts of the body and treats each part of the body with kind awareness and tension release.  The guided body scan is offered in separate audio recordings by both Kristin and Chris.
  • Mood tracking: an essential element in building the self-awareness necessary for developing self-compassion and improved mental health.  There are many mood tracker apps that help you identify your triggers and enable you to gain control over your emotional responses.  Steve Scott provides a review of the 14 best mood tracker apps available today.  These apps provide a ready means of tracking stimuli and your responses in terms of moods/feelings.

Reflection

Self-compassion is the antidote to negative self-evaluation, just as gratitude and savouring what we have reduces competitive comparison and envy.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-compassion through meditation, mindfulness practices/exercises and reflection on the triggers that precipitate our strong emotional responses, we can progressively develop self-intimacy and the self-regulation necessary to identify our negative triggers and control our responses.

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Image by Stephen Cruickshank 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.

Leadership as Resonance

Ginny Whitelaw, biophysicist and global leadership coach, understandably frames leadership in terms of energy and resonance.  She explains that as humans we are made up of matter and energy – matter in the form of blood, skin, bones and energy in the form of our mind.  Ginny notes that the leadership function entails concentrating energy, your own and that of your followers, to create an organisational vision (capturing emotional as well as intellectual energy); develop the culture of a team (through energy alignment); and promote innovation (turning creative energy into new products, services and structures).  She explains that energy is always on the move, in constant transformation and continuously vibrating.  Her new book, Resonate, to be released in 2020 explores these concepts in depth and their many leadership applications.

Resonance – synchronous vibration

One way to define resonance is synchronous vibration.  For example, a room or a musical instrument is described as resonant when it amplifies sound vibrations and extends them by vibrating at the same time.  Ginny provides the example of making a loud sound over an open grand piano and noticing that some strings vibrate, and others do not – the strings that vibrate match the vibrations in your voice.  When things operate synchronously, we say that they are “in synch”.  So, in Ginny’s perspective, leadership is about creating real change and making a difference by achieving synchronisation of energy, our own and that of our followers – in other words, generating resonance.  She describes a leader as an “energy concentrator”.

Blocks to leadership resonance

Through her study of biophysics and martial arts (5th degree Aikido black belt), Ginny came to realise the very close connection between mind and body and the role vibration and energy play in human consciousness (the resonance theory of consciousness).  Her role as a senior leader in NASA, coordinating the 40 groups that supported the International Space Station, enabled her to understand that coordination involved energy alignment and resonance (vibrating “in synch”).

Ginny’s experience with martial arts and Zen philosophy heightened her awareness of the mind-body connection.  For example, she explains that fear holds back our achievements as leaders because it distorts our resonance – blocks our energy emission and reception.  She suggests that as leaders we need to go beyond our triggers that create fear in our mind and body.  The fears may have their origin in adverse childhood experiences or the negative self-stories that arise through our inner critic.

Ginny likens the effect of fear to the dampening of resonance created when several socks are placed inside a bell.  Even a bell designed especially for resonance will sound dull and clunky when the socks are inside it.  The socks are metaphors for our mental and physical blockages – the things that stop our personal resonance.  Our challenge as leaders is to remove the blockages – so that our voice is “as clear as a bell”.

Removing the blocks to leadership resonance

Ginny discovered through the impact of deep breathing on her asthma that clearing blockages requires being still, mindful breathing, and other mindfulness practices such as meditation, Tai Chi and yoga.  Reconnecting with nature and the multiple sources of energy in the environment also help to rebuild personal resonance.  Ginny explores relevant practices and exercises in her book The Zen Leader.

When you can achieve a level of integration between your thoughts, emotions and body you free up yourself to become your more “resonant self’.  Ginny explains that by achieving this integration we can emit a “clear signal” and “bring our one clear note to achieve our purpose” as a leader.

Reflection

I can relate fully to the concept of leadership as resonance having been involved in many minor and major change endeavours as a leader in organisations and in community.  The concept of energy emission and reception resonates strongly with me.  I also find that as I grow in mindfulness, I am better able to tap into my creative energy, enhance my ability to tune into others’ focus and energy and contribute to a purpose that is greater than myself.  Removing the personal blockages to my “one clear note” is a lifetime pursuit – a journey into mindfulness through meditation, Tai Chi and other mindfulness practices.

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Image by Valiphotos 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.

Identifying and Managing Harmful Beliefs

Tara Brach provides an insightful article on the nature and impact of harmful beliefs.   She explains the well-known fact that our beliefs about ourselves and others (that we hold to be true), influence our thoughts which in turn generate emotions that then shape our behaviour – especially our responses to what we perceive as negative triggers.   Tara points out that often our beliefs cause us suffering because while they are real, they are not true.  The negative bias of our brains serves to sustain these harmful beliefs.

Our false beliefs can take many forms:

  • I am not good enough
  • They are out to undermine me
  • I am not doing enough
  • I don’t deserve to belong to this group
  • They don’t want me to be a part of this activity
  • I am bad.

These negative beliefs can develop at an early age and be reinforced by our cultural environment and own life experiences.  Parental influences can play a big role, e.g. if we cannot live up to their expectations musically, academically or with sport.  We may have experienced early separation from one or both our parents either temporarily or permanently.  This can reinforce our natural inclination to separateness – seeing our self as separate from others- and develop a sense of what Tara calls, “severed belonging”.

Our negative beliefs about our self or others can lead to defensiveness and inappropriate behaviour in conflict situations.  Our beliefs act as a way to protect ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable.  These beliefs are often below the conscious level and can lead to unconscious bias.  The problem arises when we then use our experience, impacted by distorted perceptions, to confirm our beliefs, thus leading to “confirmatory bias”.  Tara suggests that our beliefs can act as a veil through which we see and interpret the world.

The reality is that our beliefs about our self and others are merely representations that serve as as “maps” to negotiate our interactions in daily life.  The problem, though, is that “a map is not the territory”.  Sometimes our “maps” are accurate and useful; other times they are flawed, misleading and a source of suffering.

Identifying and managing harmful beliefs

Tara provides an eight minute meditation podcast on how to come to grips with harmful beliefs and to manage them effectively.  The starting point after becoming grounded is to reflect on a situation where you were in conflict with someone else.

Tara draws on the work of Byron Katie, author of The Four Questions, to provide a series of questions that you can pursue as part of this beliefs meditation:

  1. What belief or set of beliefs was I entertaining during the interaction – what did I believe was happening? (identifying beliefs)
  2. Are these beliefs true or did I invent them to protect myself? (remembering that beliefs can be real to us but not true)
  3. How is my life impacted by this belief or set of beliefs – what is it doing to my day-to-day experience (am I feeling stunted, controlled or imprisoned by the beliefs?)
  4. What is the underlying vulnerability embedded in my belief/set of beliefs – does this exploration reveal a pattern?
  5. What would my life be like if I no longer held this belief or set of beliefs? (would I feel freed, better able to express compassion toward myself and others and able to develop my response ability?)

The process of identifying false beliefs and their impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviour can create a new level  of self-awareness.  Once we have gained this insight, the process of managing our beliefs involves “letting go“, so we can progressively release our self from the distortions of reality involved, increase our openness, develop creativity and improve our relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness through beliefs meditation and reflection on our  less-than-satisfactory interactions, we can identify and manage false beliefs that bring suffering to our daily lives and achieve a new level of vulnerability, not higher levels of protectionism.

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

Image source: courtesy of rawpixel 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

Mindfulness for Self-Regulation

Over the past few months, I have been conducting manager development workshops with my colleague as part of an action learning program for public sector managers.  The program, called Confident People Management (CPM), is skill-based and focuses on developing skills to enable managers to build a productive, mentally healthy workplace culture.

In a recent workshop, two of the participating managers identified issues in their approach to management that related to the need to develop self-regulation.   I will describe each of these issues in turn and discuss how mindfulness could help each manager to develop self-regulation to deal with their particular managerial issue.  The names will be changed to respect the privacy of the individuals involved.

Self-regulation for a racing mind

An integral part of the four-month, manager development program is the workplace practice of skills learned in the monthly workshops.  Each workshop begins with a shared reflection on this workplace practice – what was attempted and what outcomes, intended and unintended, were realised.

John reported that he had been practising active listening in the workplace.  However, the biggest impediment to his effective listening was his racing mind.  Each time someone he was talking to mentioned an issue, John’s mind would automatically start racing, filling his head with ideas and solutions.  He found that he could not stop this mental activity and it got in the road of his active listening.

John could learn to still his racing mind by practising a form of narrow awareness such as mindful breathing.  There are two key elements of mindful breathing that would help John with self-regulation, the focus on breath and the practice of continuously returning to this focus when thoughts arise.

With mindful breathing, awareness of breath becomes the anchor of the meditation practice. Each time a thought arises, it is allowed to float to the surface like a bubble that eventually bursts.  Each thought is noticed but not entertained, and during the meditation the participant develops the discipline of continuously returning to the primary focus of breathing.  This anchoring, through focused awareness of breath, builds the capacity for self-regulation for a racing mind.

Self-regulation for the management of triggers

Another participant, Mary, expressed the issue of being constantly triggered in the workplace and finding herself becoming irritated and angry.  The management of negative triggers is an important skill for a manager in the workplace because they need to model appropriate behaviour and not become the victim of their uncontrolled impulses.

Mary explained that certain triggers led to physical signs of agitation such as tightness in her chest and shoulders and overall tension in her body.  She was able to identify the bodily manifestation of her heightened, negative emotions as well as the inappropriate behaviour that this led to, such as angry words and an aggressive stance.

What would help Mary to manage her response to these negative triggers would be the practice described as S.B.N.R.R. in a previous post.  This practice would enable Mary to develop more appropriate responses to the negative triggers.  The process involves stopping (delaying a response), breathing deeply (to gain control), noticing tension points in the body (to release the tension), reflecting on any pattern in the triggers (to better understand why she is triggered by particular words and/or actions) and responding in a more appropriate way (to gradually increase her response ability).

As managers grow in mindfulness through appropriate meditation practice (such as narrow awareness and S.B.N.R.R.), they can develop self-regulation to deal with issues that would otherwise derail their management of people and the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of ernestoeslava on Pixabay

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Developing Relational Mindfulness

Terry Real, in his podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True, introduced the concept of “relational mindfulness”.  He described this as a skill that we can develop through meditation and reflection.  It entails being able to be in-the-moment in your interactions within your close relationships and to respond from your “adult prefrontal cortex”, while being conscious of the potential, automatic and harmful response of your wounded child.

Relational mindfulness requires recognising that your close relationship is your “biosphere” – it is integral to your ecology.  Terry suggests that “thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically”.  This, in turn, requires humility – recognition of the mutuality of the relationship, moving beyond the hurt of your wounded child and acknowledging your mistakes and the hurt of the other person.  It also entails being conscious enough to avoid triggering a negative response from the wounded child of the other person in the relationship.

It takes a lot of self-monitoring and self-management developed through meditation and reflection to achieve the requisite humility.  If you can develop self-regulation, you are better able to access your considered, adult response rather than be at the mercy of your compulsive wounded child.

Taking a break to recover and commit to the welfare of the relationship

If, however, despite your best efforts, you are flooded emotionally when you are triggered by the actions or words of your partner, you can withdraw from the interaction.  Terry suggests that the adult, considerate way to do this is to state three things:

  1. your need to take a break to deal with your own emotions around the issue under discussion
  2. your desire to re-engage in a reasonable time, e.g. in an hour
  3. your willingness to think about how the needs of both of you can be met.

It is critical to see the conflicted interaction not as an opportunity to win or prove your partner wrong, but as a chance to take care of your partner (as well as gain increased self-awareness).  Taking care of your partner may mean apologising (this is where humility helps) and asking what you can do to help your partner or to make good their “hurt”.  Accusations targeted at the other’s wounded child only inflame the situation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can develop relational mindfulness in our everyday interactions within our close relationships.   Meditation practice and reflection on our interactions will help us build a relational mindset and develop adult responses in situations that trigger our wounded child.  This relational mindfulness, then, will enrich and sustain our close relationships.

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

Image source: courtesy of cocoparisienne 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.

Overcoming Cravings and Addictions through Mindfulness Practice

In my previous blog post, I discussed Melli O’Brien’s interview with Judson Brewer, an expert in the use of mindfulness for overcoming cravings and addictions.  Jud, as he is called, is the author of a number of books, including The Craving Mind.

In the earlier blog post, I wrote about how addictions are formed and how mindfulness undermines both cravings and addictions through breaking the link between our addictive behaviours and our perceived rewards.

In this blog post, I will focus on the barriers that prevent us from using the power of mindfulness to break the shackles of cravings and addiction and present a mindfulness practice, recommended by both Melli and Jud, that will help to overcome those barriers and shackles.

Personal barriers to using mindfulness to overcome cravings and addiction

During the interview with Jud, Melli suggested that sometimes shame gets in the road of our recovery from addiction.   Craving and addiction feels so very personal that we are reluctant to own up to ourselves or others about its existence.  We want to avoid the pain of self-realisation.

We may be reluctant to give up the rewards associated with the addiction because they have become our crutch, e.g. to deal with stress; and we might be fearful that we will not be able to cope.

Melli also asked Jud what he personally experienced as barriers to daily mindfulness practice.  In his response, Jud identified three key things that made it difficult for him to sustain his daily mindfulness practice:

  1. growing in self-awareness that was painful – it became progressively clearer to Jud that he had caused suffering for other people in his life and this was difficult to face on an ongoing basis, and was humbling;
  2. being too intellectual in his practice – intellectualizing about some of the practices rather than just being-in-the-practice;
  3. doubting the efficacy of loving-kindness meditation; but finally, after a number of years, overcoming his assumptions and bias against the practice.

A four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addiction

During the interview, Jud introduced the R.A.I.N. process as a mindfulness practice for breaking the habit loop of cravings and addiction.  The four-step process involves the following:

  1. Recognise – that you are caught up in a habit loop through a craving and recognise the addiction it creates when you give into the thoughts and emotions associated with the craving;
  2. Accept -that you have this craving and related addiction which, as Melli suggests, is a part of the “human condition”, that is part of being human;
  3. Investigate – what is happening in your body when the craving appears; what are the body sensations you are experiencing? what triggers the craving? what are the real outcomes/cost of the addiction (challenge the behaviour-reward link); experience the pleasantness of exploring your curiosity about yourself and your personal reactions to various triggers; enjoy the experience of getting to know yourself and who you really are.
  4. Non-identification – acknowledge that your cravings and addictions are not you; that you are not your thoughts; that you are not your emotions; and that underneath it all is you growing in awareness and becoming-in-the moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we gain a better understanding of the personal barriers we create to stop ourselves using mindfulness to break the shackles of our cravings and addictions.  We can also learn mindfulness practices that can break through these barriers and the shackles that hold us captive to our own unhealthy habit loop.  In the final analysis, we learn to trust in the power of mindfulness and the resultant awareness.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain 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.

Mindfulness and Postpartum Depression

Kristi Pahr, freelance writer and mother, discussed how mindfulness helped her to deal with postpartum depression (PPD).  One of her problems, experienced by many mothers, was that she did not recognise her systems as PPD but put them down to hormonal change.  Unfortunately, PPD can get a hold of you very quickly and its effects can lead to a rapid deterioration in your mental health, your relationships and overall life.

Typically, the father is unaware of the nature, cause and devastating effects of postpartum depression and can further aggravate the condition through their seeming insensitivity, lack of concern or lack of physical/emotional support.  The mother may also feel unable to communicate the intensity of their feelings or their deteriorating health, and may be reluctant to communicate their real condition for fear of being seen as incompetent.  The symptoms of postpartum depression can be many and varied and this fact serves to compound the confusion on both sides, for mother  and father.

Kristi’s Story: How Mindfulness Helped My Postpartum Depression

Factors that contributed to Kristi’s postpartum depression were a loss of the first child during pregnancy, traumatic birth of the second, exhaustion, physical isolation and loneliness.  Feelings of inadequacy with a newborn baby often overwhelm even the most competent women and Kristi found that her sense of “not coping” led to “hyper-vigilance” – a constant scanning to check that everything is okay with the baby, heightened sensitivity to stimuli (e.g. a baby’s cry), and increased emotional arousal.

Hyper-vigilance can intensify feelings of inadequacy and anxiety and create a downward spiral in terms of mental health and well-being – the exhausted mother cannot sleep and recuperate which, in turn, negatively impacts her physical health and depletes her energy and capacity to cope with the stresses of daily life with a new baby.  It is a common experience that when you are tired, even the smallest problem or issue appears insurmountable.

What Kristi found is that mindfulness helped her to get in touch with her feelings, stand back from them, identify her triggers, defuse her negative thoughts and develop ways to manage her emotional response.  It also enabled her to identify the severity of her condition and to seek professional help so that she was able to increase her arsenal of strategies and tactics to manage her condition.

One of these strategies Kristi employed was practising awareness by writing a journal at the end of each day and addressing these insightful questions:

  • What feels really good right now?
  • What doesn’t feel so good right now?
  • What made me feel balanced today?
  • What am I grateful for?

Resources: Mindfulness for Postpartum Depression

Research into mindfulness for postpartum depression suggests that mindful practice should begin in pregnancy.  Here is a selection of resources for developing mindfulness for pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum depression:

1. Shamsah Amerise, MD, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, when writing for Headspace.com offers 10 Tips for a Mindful Birth.

2. Katherine Stone, award-winning blogger, provides resources for people experiencing postpartum depression on her  blog:  www.postpartumprogress.com

Her resources include the following the article:  Why Mindfulness Should Matter to Moms

3. Edith Geddes, MD and Medical Director of the University of North Carolina Women’s Mood Disorder Clinic, passionately advocates for screening for, and treating, perinatal mood disorders, especially in rural areas.  Being a former professional musician, she offers a mindfulness technique for composing a moment:

Composing a Moment: Mindfulness Techniques in Postpartum Mood Disorders

4. Mind the Bump Appdeveloped jointly by beyondblue and Smiling Mind – is designed to reduce stress during pregnancy and reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression:

Mind the Bump App Improves Wellbeing During and After Pregnancy

5. Andy  PuddicombeThe Headspace Guide to a Mindful Pregnancy.

As you grow in mindfulness during pregnancy and the postnatal period, you will be better able to handle the stresses of pregnancy and reduce the possibility and/or impact of postpartum depression.

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

Image source: courtesy of marmaladelane 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.