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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!

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