“Mindfulness, is that the same as meditation? It sounds boring, but I have heard a lot of people talking about it lately.”
“I keep meaning to start doing mindfulness, but I’m so busy with what’s next on my to-do list. Who has the time.”
I have been recently hearing a lot of comments like these in the therapy suite, on social media, and even while venturing through my day to day life. While there are many different ways one can conceptualize mindfulness, there are common themes across all mindfulness models that may help clear things up for Wellness Wednesday’s readers.
Mindfulness can be considered both the philosophy and the practice of being actively in the present moment. In our daily lives, we often find that we pivot between thoughts about regrets or actions of the past and worries about the future. These may be major concerns, or even mild distractions, that pop into our minds and prevent us from being fully present in the here and now.
In a therapeutic context, mindfulness aims to help people integrate the concept of mindfulness into treatment (e.g., Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction [MBSR] or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT]). Meditation is one way that many people choose to practice being mindful, but mindfulness can be practiced in many more ways than the classic seated meditation.
Anyone can practice mindfulness by simply bringing their awareness to the moment by attending to their five senses while doing any activity (e.g., walking outside, showering, or eating). Anyone who drives regularly will recognize that we can go through life in a mildly effective way while on autopilot. In those moments we go completely into our head instead of focusing on the road We may generally arrive on the other end of that journey in a relatively safe manner, but that is certainly not always the case and what may we have missed along the way?
Being mindful is about taking in what you are doing more fully, rather than thinking about something else. Clearly, we do need to plan ahead and cannot always be 100% present, but how often is that past and future thinking not particularly helpful in the moment? Indeed, trying to be more present in our daily life can be a realistic goal to strive for and will benefit us all in some way.
The reason mindfulness mediation has become almost synonymous with the concept of mindfulness is because meditation provides us a specific opportunity to practice being mindful by focusing on the breath as an anchor to that present moment. No matter where you are or what is happening, the breath is something that is present and can be focused on.
However, meditation is like going to the gym. You cannot expect to go to two workout classes and see results. It needs to be a regular practice in your weekly routine and the more opportunities you provide to practice mindfulness the better.
The benefits of mindfulness have been well documented in research and the media. This includes improvements in emotion regulation, impulse control, attention, compassion, stress reduction and pain management. Mindfulness is also something that holds little risk and is healthy to learn for children, adolescents and adults.
One big component of mindfulness and the practice of meditation is learning to tolerate discomfort. Sitting in the same position without distraction focussing on your breath is uncomfortable, kind of just like life. If we can build a tolerance for discomfort, and an ability to disengage from it, we can start to build resiliency for those tougher moments ahead.
One of the most universal challenges that we all face is in the navigation of our romantic relationships. Our love and history with another person often makes it harder to evaluate the real complexities of the relationship and whether or not it is working for us. One of the main issues is our belief that “love” is the most important component of a healthy relationship and that we should stay or leave based on this key ingredient.
In reality, love can actually cloud our vision of other key ingredients in a healthy relationship, resulting in a relationship that is not harmonious with some of the other ingredients we need to be happy and have a longstanding and positive engagement with our partner. These other ingredients will vary from one person to the next in terms of what is important and how much weight they have in our lives. One’s key ingredients may include, shared values, a shared lifestyle, trust, commitment, intimacy, independence, and communication.
It also may not help to put pressure on a relationship to meet all future goals. Trying to find the perfect match that will lead to marriage, children and identity fulfillment puts a lot of burden on the here and now, where we may need to initially focus on whether this is the right partner for us in the moment and then whether our paths have the likelihood to continue to converge as we move forward together.
It is important to recognize that no relationship is perfect, but healthy, balanced, and fulfilling one’s core needs is possible. To obtain that, we need to be aware of what we are experiencing, not simply ignore or avoid problems, and be mindful of how we can move towards the relationships we want.
Success in a relationship with one we “love” is often reflective of how we face the challenges that will ultimately emerge. Some of those challenges are fleeting and do not hold much weight. Others, may be re-occur far more often than we would like.
So what do we do when we “love” someone, but see the same issues returning time and time again? It is all about asking the right questions, being honest with ourselves about the answers, and making an informed decision once we understand the situation better. Here is a guide of how we can assess our relationships and question ourselves to get you started:
What isn’t working in this relationship?
Are these differences/issues important to me?
Are these issues going to keep coming back?
Are my expectations fair and realistic?
What is leading me to stay?
What can I accept responsibility for?
Is change mutually desired?
Is change possible and fair to expect?
Can I tolerate things staying the same?
Will I be happy 5 years from now if things have not changed?
Does our partner see what we see?
Do they feel the same way?
Is fear or shame driving my instinct to stay or leave this relationship?
Do I need more time to understand my own desires?
What past experiences or worldview am I bringing into this decision? Is that important?
How do I feel about this being my future?
Am I going to likely bring these same concerns to future relationships?
This all leads to the tough part:
While the difficulties of making a decision were already there, this decision is an informed one. By asking good questions and reflecting on our responses we can better understand our needs and determine whether our current relationships foster those needs, have the potential to foster those needs through some reasonable work, or whether we will not be fulfilled and need to move forward in another matter.
Sometimes we need to rinse and repeat in relationships. It is certainly not easy to leave a relationship that we have invested a lot of time and emotions into, but sometimes that will be the decision that needs to be made. Other times staying and working on the relationship can feel right too. The key is to make an informed decision. That requires some tough questions.
A long time ago people used to write things down… on paper.
I know that I am not one to talk, as I am currently typing this on my laptop, but I really do see value in therapeutic journaling. Whether it is simply writing down two or three lines regarding what you are grateful for, the highlight of your day, or something you are looking forward to, journaling provides the opportunity to start or end your day on a more positive and reflective note.
Our mind can easily become cluttered with worries or negative thoughts. Capturing these thoughts can also be helpful. Looking down on our worries and negative thoughts in a more concrete form can sometimes help build space between yourself and the transient thoughts that can emerge. Looking down on these thoughts with curiosity and questioning their veracity can sometimes lead us to recognize that they are indeed fleeting and, in many cases, not necessarily accurate. Often, examining your inner thoughts on paper can help you to realize how silly they are, which, in turn, may make them easier to let go of.
If you really are not a paper and pen type of person, you may appreciate some of the gratitude applications that have emerged over the last few years. Grateful (iOS/Apple) is an excellent application for gratitude journaling, while our Android readers may enjoy Gratitude (iOS/Apple & Android) are two popular options. Grateful prompts you daily to input a response to various prompts that it randomly selects for you so you are not responding to the same question each day. You can also change the prompt to fit the mood of your day if there is something in particular you want to reflect on. What I like about this app is that you always have it with you, even if you are on vacation or at work, and that you have the option to attach a photo to your gratitude. It gives you the space to write just one sentence, but the option to write a full paragraph if desired.
What is so interesting about gratitude journaling is how quickly one can see results. While most of us have pretty fixed ways of thinking, it does not take much to provide your brain an alternative option for examining the world. Journaling can be an excellent way to challenge your moment to moment thoughts, but also provide an alternative pathway towards grateful interpretation of our lives, whether it be the little things or bigger events we can focus on in a different way.
Over the past three blog posts we have explored the concept of change, the stages of change, and the fear that often prevents change from happening. This week we are exploring how to assess whether or not our change journey is something we should pursue alone or whether we could benefit from a helping hand. It may feel like going it alone will be the most discreet and easiest way to approach the change. The desire to change independently might come from not wanting others to know if we fail, not wanting others to know that we currently partake in a negative behaviour, or from the satisfaction of knowing that your success is entirely self-earned. These thoughts are not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes the desire to go it alone prevents us from receiving the assistance and support that will allow change to be successfully implemented and maintained.
Assessing a plan of action and whether you need support is best done by asking yourself if you understand the barriers in place and have an actionable plan to move forward. Are you equipped with the resources needed to take each step in making the change? Would you benefit from having the emotional support and encouragement of a trusted friend or family member? Would you like a friend to help you stay accountable and check in with you daily or weekly about your progress?
Determine what resources you have available around you to support change. It might be friends, family or your romantic partner, but it may also be a professional. This could include booking an appointment with a personal trainer, dietician, or even a therapist to help you tackle some of those barriers that can emerge on your change journey. Alternatively, there may be groups in your community or even online that you could join. Being part of a group that is moving towards a similar pursuit can help us feel empowered and focussed on our goal. This could involve a running group to help you with your fitness goal, a substance abuse support group to help you with your sobriety, or joining a baseball team to help with your goal of being more social. The simple act of telling others that we are committed to change can encourage us to take our goal seriously, even if it is out of pressure to not disappoint others.
Essentially, you need to ask yourself if starting the action stage of this goal feels overwhelming alone and whether accessing supports might help.
For the next few weeks, Wellness Wednesday is exploring the concept of change. Recognizing that things need to change is a key first step towards wellness. Join us over the next month as we dig into change and the barriers that can emerge along the way. This week features the return of Wellness Wednesday's editor Michael Decaire.
Last week on Wellness Wednesday we discussed the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change. This model can help us identify where we are in our change journey, but can also assist us in identifying barriers those seeking change may face along the way. It can also be a process that is derailed by fear, an emotion that many of us will experience surrounding a process of change. How fear presents itself during change can be a shifting pattern, with each major stage of change reflecting a different type of fear that may either move us forwards or backwards in our journey towards wellness.
Fear in Contemplation. As a reminder, an individual in a contemplative state is beginning to recognize that change might be a good idea or necessary. These thoughts are often fleeting and may not be particularly flushed out to any significant depth. Fear can derail early contemplative states due to the emergence of anxiety surrounding the unknown. While we may not be particularly comfortable in our current state, it is familiar. That familiarity can reduce certain anxieties, where a dive into change without having initiated some early preparation steps can reflect an undefined journey ahead for the contemplator. That lack of definition can often be a substantial barrier to initiating action.
Fear in Preparation. The early contemplator may find that, despite their fears, they have been forced through the unknown by the emergence of a stressor that tips the scales and makes the initial preparatory steps less scary than the thought of inaction (e.g. facing an ultimatum from a partner; a health emergency). While the shifting balance of fears can help facilitate movement, it does not mean that fear of change has entirely subsided. Instead, the nature of that fear has changed.
During preparatory states, an individual may feel overwhelmed by the number of steps they have deemed necessary to move towards their defined goal. They may be fearful that this is a journey that they are not yet capable of taking, pushing them back towards a contemplative state and reconsidering whether change is even possible. The trick here is to recognize that change is a journey and is rarely something that can be completed in a single step. Mapping out a multi-step journey does not mean that we need to successfully navigate each of these steps now, but it does tell us what the first or next step looks like. Generally that next step is not particularly scary. If it is, you are likely combining two steps at once and need to break that next step down to a level that it is not particularly fear inducing.
Fear in Action. The action-staged individual has undoubtedly battled successfully through many fears. This in itself can be an empowering process that fuels change, but the action-stage of change is rarely a short one and fears may creep back in throughout the process. A common fear during early action stages is the fear of failure. This fear
can be a double edged sword; helpful in one way, but detrimental in the other. Fear of failure can spawn increased attunement to threats to successful change, which can help us anticipate and counter those threats as we face them. Fear of failure, however, can also cause us to feel unwilling to take the necessary steps towards change due to discomfort with the idea of failing and what that would mean to our self-esteem and worth. Feelings of hopelessness can often leave us stuck in an unchanging state, but we also may perceive that this feeling will be compounded by attempting change and actively confirming to ourselves that we are destined for failure. The funny thing about hopelessness is that it is really only an accurate feeling if you always fail to act.
Fear in Maintenance. A surprising fear can emerge towards the end of the maintenance stage of change that can be a bit of a surprise, but poses a barrier towards a final transition to termination. A “fear of letting go” of some of the resources used in the action and maintenance stage can emerge due to anxieties of falling back into old habits. This could include something as simple as no longer tracking calories during a push towards increased healthy eating or something more substantial as discontinuing therapy that helped you along the change journey. At times, some of these new resources may be part of your ongoing termination plan. For instance, attending peer support meetings for an addiction may allow you to keep other wellness factors in check or permit you to support others along their journey. At other times, they can be actions that are not meaningfully supporting wellness, but are instead mental crutches that we are holding on to out of fear. Letting go of these “crutches” does not mean they cannot be accessible to you in the future if needed, but judging whether they are legitimately helpful in the here and now is an important step towards termination.
Is Fear a Bad Thing? Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. All humans have the capacity to respond to fear in multiple ways. Evolutionary theories have long looked at the concepts of fight, flight, or freeze, the latter often being excluded in the public lexicon around “fight or flight”. In the process of change, the most common initial barrier to change is a freeze response. In this state, the individual is in stasis and unable to move. Old habits persist and there is either no further consideration of change or they feel paraliyzed with the simple thought of considering movement forward.
A flight response is more likely to emerge during action stages and result in an individual retreating back to their old habits. This can leave an individual feeling like they have failed and may increase the likelihood that the next time they consider change the freeze response begins to emerge.
Successful change comes when an individual’s response to fear is to activate their fight response. The fight response initiates action, but can be followed by a flight response when stifled. The trick is to keep on fighting, looking at failures as an opportunity to reassess what went wrong and to put new action steps in place. The power is in assessment and understanding. It is difficult to fight against something you do not understand. By assessing their own experience and the barriers they have faced, one can reduce the power of the unknown and a fight response becomes a much easier thing to initiate.
Join Wellness Wednesday next week as we tackle this final action. Looking at initiating the change process on your own and recognizing when you may benefit from a little help along the way.
Jessica is a member of the clinical wellness and learning support team at FLEX Psychology. Jessica started Wellness Wednesday out of a desire to provide further opportunities for her clients to extend their wellness journey to all avenues of their life. You can learn more about Jessica by clicking here or by learning more about her and the clinical team at FLEX Psychology by clicking here.