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Stress and Anxiety

Introducing Mindfulness into Your Life

I want to talk about how you can go about introducing mindfulness into your life.

To introduce mindfulness into your life set some time aside every morning to practice being mindful, just five minutes at a time is all you really need and just sit quietly away from any distractions, in fact if you’re somebody who likes to have a hot bath in the morning then doing this while you’re in a nice warm bath, in a nice warm environment, that’s a great way to practice mindfulness.

Either way, sit quietly away from distractions and just let your mind wander. Don’t think of anything specific, you’ll be surprised at what pops into your mind.

Then you need to think about your thoughts, why do you think that way? What do you hope for? How can it be achieved? What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid of it? And what can you do about it?

Just let the thoughts drift through your mind while you’re relaxing then as you come out of your mindful state start thinking about what you can do to conquer your fears, work towards your goals and so on. These techniques are at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy and this is a very powerful psychological technique.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise known as CBT? CBT is a psychotherapeutic technique and it’s a technique used by psychologists when they’re trying to treat patients with anxiety disorders or with mental illnesses. It’s a framework that has become very popular and is now the preferred method of treatment on the UK’s NHS, that’s the National Health Service, and many other health institutions.

There are two main reasons for this, first of all CBT is much more effective than older methods like psychotherapy and it has been demonstrated to work in a number of studies. Secondly, CBT is quick, non-invasive and it’s cost effective. It can even be used remotely simply by setting the patient homework to try and attempt on their own.

Let’s delve into a bit of history as to how all this came about. Behavioral psychology is an old-school psychology that was big in the 1950s, and the central tenet here was that all our behavior and thought processes were learned through repetition, association and observation. I suppose the best example of this is Pavlov’s Dog. If you’re not familiar with the story I’ll just bring you up to speed.

Pavlov was a psychologist and he had a dog, and he noticed that when the dog saw his food he started to salivate so Pavlov tried to get the dog to associate something else with the food and what he did was he rang a bell. At first of course the dog didn’t take any notice but then when he rang the bell at mealtime and placed the food in front of the dog the dog would start to salivate and after a while of doing all this, as soon as Pavlov rang the bell the dog would think “ah yes” it’s dinnertime and he would start to salivate. In that way Pavlov managed to get the dog to salivate just by ringing the bell, so he formed the theory that the dog had learned to associate the ringing of the bell with getting his food.

Behaviorism attempted to explain every single aspect of our psychology this way, phobias and other psychological problems were the result of unhelpful associations forming and these could be treated by creating new associations. Or as B.J. Neblett put it, we are the sum total of our experiences, these experiences be they positive or negative make us the person we are at any given point in our lives, and like a flowing river those same experiences and those yet to come continue to influence and reshape the person we are and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday nor will be tomorrow.

Over time though behaviorism began to lose favor as it appeared to oversimplify matters, in a strict behaviorist view of psychology there’s no room for our thought processes or our internal experiences. What happens when someone plans out an action, what happens when we imagine something happening, what about intention?

Cognitive psychology added this element and looked at the brain more like a computer with a program running, the program is our thought process and we use this to decide what to do and how we’re going to do it.

CBT meanwhile elegantly combines both these approaches into one unified theory, we still learn through association but this can just as easily occur within our own heads. If you’re convinced you’re going to fall off a height then you’ll keep rehearsing it happening in your mind and you’ll keep thinking to yourself that you’re going to fall. This alone is enough to create the association and to make us afraid of heights, so to treat a phobia CBT will focus on reconditioning and creating new associations. But it does this both physically and through changes to your internal monologue, so it combines the two theories.

How does CBT work?

This is where mindfulness comes in. Let’s say you’re afraid of public speaking and you want to try and get rid of that phobia forever. The first thing you would do is to be more mindful and to listen to your own thoughts and reflect on them. This should rob them of their power as you become detached and aloof from those thoughts.

Part of the process is through journaling, this involves writing down your feelings as they come to you or writing them down in a journal at the end of the day, so you can actually physically see them on the page, so they are actually now detached from you. You’re writing them down, you’re getting them out and then you’re reading them back, but because you’re looking at it on a page, you’re looking at it on a piece of paper you can actually think of it as being separate from you. It’s not the voice in your head anymore it’s what’s written down on the page.

The next steps all fall under the category of Cognitive Restructuring. You can think this as reprogramming yourself or reprogramming the computer that is your brain. The first part of this involves thought challenging. In this you’re looking at those thoughts that you made a note of and now you’re challenging them and testing whether or not you really think they’re true, so if you’re afraid of public speaking it may be you think things like I’m going to stutter and everyone will laugh at me. In thought challenging we’re going to deconstruct that belief to see if it really is likely or if it’s anything to be afraid of.

Ask yourself – why would you stutter? Do you normally stutter when you talk? Why would people laugh at you? Are people usually that unkind? Would you laugh if someone had a hard time giving a speech? Or would you be more sympathetic and understanding than that? Does it matter? You aren’t going to see these people again so why does it matter what they think of you?

You can even repeat a mantra to yourself as a positive affirmation, you know something like it doesn’t really matter what these people think of me. It doesn’t really matter what these people think of me – over and over again in your mind.

Then we move onto Hypothesis Testing. Hypothesis testing is one of the most unpleasant and upsetting treatments that are part of CBT, but it’s also by far one of the most immediately effective. The idea is that you’re looking at those fears that you have and then you’re going to test if they’re true. So if you’re afraid of public speaking you’re going to go out and give a speech to a room full of strangers. The larger the gathering the better, and you’re going to face that fear head on and guess what? Nine out of ten times you’ll find your imagination was worse than the reality, most people will just wait politely because that’s what people do. Either that or they will laugh at you, but so what, you’re not going to see them again so it won’t really matter.

Finally there’s Exposure Therapy, this is the final part of CBT. In exposure therapy you’re going to face your fear repeatedly until it gets desensitized. In the case of a phobia of public speaking this might mean attending classes to become a standup comedian, so you end up speaking publically all the time.

Scary – Definitely, Effective – You bet!

Categories
Stress and Anxiety

An Introduction to Meditation

I want to give you an introduction to meditation because there are a lot of misconceptions about the subject.

Many people have the wrong idea about meditation, they think it’s all hippie-dippy, something people did in the 1960s, a new age way to achieve enlightenment or to recreate the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, that sort of thing. Others associate it with religions, religions like Buddhism for example.

It can be all of those things but at its most basic meditation means trying to control and focus your thoughts or to clear your mind or both. Essentially it’s the equivalent of training your attention, it’s deciding what you want to concentrate on and what you don’t, so in a way it’s reprogramming your brain, reprogramming your natural computer to be more focused and more guided.

So often our thoughts are reactive, we’re constantly being distracted and taken from one experience to another, whether that’s due to television or to music or to your Smartphone or to the internet or to something else entirely, our thoughts are always all over the place. We hear something and we react to it, but when you meditate you’ll be effectively controlling your thoughts and when you do this you’re going to be introspective and you’ll start to reflect on the very nature of thought itself. As you do you’ll learn to remain in control of your thoughts and to prevent yourself from becoming easily distracted, stressed, angry or from otherwise experiencing inappropriate or unhelpful emotions.

This is a highly valuable form of training and one that’s particularly relevant in today’s fast paced and constantly connected world. Everything is just going on all the time, as I was saying just now, the phone might ring in a minute and you’d have to answer it, and something else might happen and you’re constantly being bombarded. But, meditation, when you learn how to meditate it can help us to conquer stress, to improve concentration in a range of tasks. You can really sort of drill down and focus your brain on whatever you want to focus on.

Fortunately, meditation is starting to make its way into the mainstream. More and more productivity and lifestyle coaches are recommending its benefits and it forms an integral part of cognitive behavioral therapy, otherwise known as CBT. This is currently the most popular form of clinical intervention for a whole host of psychological difficulties.

The question then becomes where to start – well, let’s look at some different types of meditation and some of the different terms. Bear in mind that you don’t have to stick rigidly to any one of these and you can actually create your own kind of meditation if you wish. Nevertheless, any of these will provide you with a good starting point to do more of your own research and to start practicing the art of meditation.

Let’s look at the different types of meditation – the first one is Mindfulness. Mindfulness which is also called “Vipassana” is a type of meditation that comes from Buddhism. It’s also the form of meditation that’s perhaps most widely used in the western world today and a good example of this being its use within CBT.

Your goal in mindfulness is to be aware and to be present of your own thoughts and to reflect on them, and this form of meditation doesn’t encourage you to try and empty your mind, instead the objective is simply to let your thoughts drift by like clouds in the sky. This allows you to become more aware of what thoughts that you tend to have and in so doing you’re better able to spot negative thought patterns and so on that might be causing problems. This type of meditation has also been shown to reduce anxiety almost as effectively as anxiety reducing drugs.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of mindfulness though is it’s not as challenging as trying to completely empty your mind of thoughts, and so it provides a great starting point for those who are interested in learning more about meditation.

Then there’s Zazen, now Zazen is a term that essentially means “seated meditation” and it is sometimes referred to by the modern Zen tradition as “just sitting”. This is an incredibly minimalist sort of meditation which once again makes it ideal for those interested in getting started, but if you’re feeling a little anxious about meditation then you might want to give Zazen a go.

The most important thing about Zazen is assuming the correct sitting position or pose and you want to be sitting like this guy on the right here. You want to be kneeling down with your legs tucked up underneath you, you want to keep your back and neck straight, you want to have your hands lightly clasped and in your lap, you want to be sitting upright, keep your neck straight, keep your eyes closed and then just simply sit and let the thoughts come.

The simple act of sitting completely still is almost sure to result in a calming effect and to gradually clear your mind so there is no need for complex instruction beyond just sitting.

For some people the lack of guidance is going to make this an approachable and enjoyable form of meditation, for others though it can be frustrating and it might leave you lost.

Then there’s Spiritual Meditation, now spiritual meditation is essentially a form of meditative prayer and prayer has been shown to have many similar effects to other forms of meditation and it’s used in all different types of religions, not just ones from the east. If you’re Catholic and you pray the rosary, saying those Hail Mary’s over and over again can be quite meditative and quite relaxing and it clears your mind of everything else because you’re just concentrating on saying that same prayer over and over again.

Then there’s Transcendental Meditation, now Transcendental Meditation comes from Vedanta which is the meditative tradition from Hinduism. Transcendental Meditation is once again seated and this time it uses a mantra. A mantra is any word or sound of your choice which is simply repeated over and over again, or you could simply concentrate on the sound of your breathing, that’s another way to do Transcendental Meditation.

The ultimate objective of Transcendental Meditation is transcendence, and this is the meditation that is used as the path to enlightenment which is reportedly a feeling of oneness with the universe and perfect contentment.

In reality though, enlightenment is probably just a brain state achieved by relaxing areas of the brain and getting them to shut down. This is something that takes years to master and is highly elusive. If you use Transcendental Meditation with the sole of objective of reaching this state of mind then I’m afraid you’re likely to be disappointed.

When done correctly though Transcendental Meditation is an ideal way to relax and move your thoughts away from stress, and it can be used to calm the heart rate and is a fantastic coping mechanism if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also quite difficult though and many people give up after becoming frustrated at the ability to quiet their inner voice. The secret to success then is to go easy on yourself and not to try and force it.

Then we’ve got Focused Meditation, as with transcendental or mantra meditation, focused meditation involves the practice of trying to completely clear your thoughts by focusing on something else. Mantra meditation is one form of focused meditation but you could alternatively try focusing on an external stimuli or even on something like a candle flame, that’s always very good to try.

Then there’s Guided Visualization. The guided part of this process involves listening to a recording which will often describe the scene that you’re in. This kind of meditation is great for relaxing and for moving your thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of daily life before you achieve the ability to block out your surroundings through other forms of meditation.

Then there’s Movement Meditation and a great example of this is Tai Chi Chuan which is a marital art practiced incredibly slowly involving a set of gentle movements. While it takes time to learn something like a Tai Chi set, you can practice movement meditation by using a dance routine or even by just swaying gently from side to side.

Then there’s Vipassana, and Vipassana is Theravada Meditation. Theravada being a branch of Buddhism, this is meditation which involves close attention to sensation with the goal being to discover the nature of existence. This form of meditation comes from Buddhism and was believed to be the type practiced by Buddha himself.

Then there’s Vajrayana, Vajrayana meditation is a complicated and advanced form of meditation which involves the goal of becoming more Buddha like, there are various types of meditation within Vajrayana such as Mahamudra. This form of meditation involves attempts to empty the mind once again, this time by simply doing nothing to the extent that you aren’t even focused on trying to meditate.

Both the Theravada and Vajrayana forms of meditation are advanced methods and require years of practice to perfect. An understanding of the surrounding beliefs and the cultures is also helpful so you can put everything in the right sort of context.

You can also combine different types of meditation to suit your needs or the situation you may face. For example, you might decide to use Vajrayana meditation to psyche yourself up for a competition or to prepare for an interview, and then sue Theravada meditation to calm down afterwards or to chill out before bed. You can use mindfulness to help make difficult decisions by reflecting on your thoughts in a non-pressured manner or to help correct damaging thought patterns. And you can use Transcendental meditation to give your brain a rest when you’re on a long boring train or bus journey.

Categories
Stress and Anxiety

Why is Modern Life So Stressful?

Just why is modern life so stressful? That’s a question that lots of people ask and it seems to be a question that gets asked more and more often.

Before I answer it let’s just take a look at a typical day for the average person.

You get up before its light, you’ve got to get your family up and fed and your kids off to school, and then you’ve got to get yourself to work.

Perhaps you have a long drive in heavy traffic or you have to deal with overcrowded public transport, either way you arrive at work tired and in need of that first cup of coffee. Coffee which of course is a stimulate which raises stress levels.

And if you’re like most people your working day probably involves staring at a computer screen and an artificial light.

Lunch is probably something high in fat and sugar and is eating “al-desko”.

Work probably requires your complete concentration and is likely interrupted by phone calls, conversations with co-workers, dealing with things that are going wrong, etc. etc. all up against a tight deadline.

The journey home is a repeat of your journey in. Perhaps after work you go for a workout at the gym because you feel you’re not getting enough exercise, or maybe you have to cook dinner for your family. Then there’s all the other stuff that you have to do at home, the laundry and the cleaning and helping the kids with their homework and getting them to bed and that sort of thing. And then you crash in front of the TV and maybe you doze off and sleep for a couple of hours but then you wake up and you’re even more tired so you simply fall into bed exhausted.

After a fitful night’s sleep you get up the next day and do it all again, and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that and so on.

Well no wonder you feel stressed. So exactly what is stress?

Stress is nature’s way of dealing with our inbuilt Fight or Flight mechanism, and it all harks back to your inner caveman or your inner cavewoman. Back then if you were hunting a wooly mammoth or you’re hunting a deer with just a spear and a bow and arrow then you’d need plenty of energy to track it and to chase after it. Your senses would be heightened too so that you could find it in the first place and anticipate where it was going to run.

Likewise if you are running to escape a saber-toothed tiger, you’d need plenty of energy and you’d need to keep your wits about you, too.

Either way, the stress would be just for a short time only, and then you’d rest, nowadays though we’re on this heightened state of alert all the time. The unnatural ways we lead our lives, well that doesn’t help either. You need to learn how to program your mind so that the inner caveman part doesn’t perceive everything as a hunting expedition or a threat and it’s not too hard to learn. Once you can do it life will become much less stressful practically overnight.