April 15, 2012

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

This winter, as part of my new job at a mindfulness and psychotherapy clinic, I lead a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts medical school. Mindfulness--a state of accepting and non-judging awareness and attention in the present moment--is originally a Buddhist concept, and Kabat-Zinn is credited with integrating it into mainstream medicine and psychology.

MBSR is an 8-week group course. The group meets weekly and each class involves a discussion of mindfulness as applied to a particular topic (e.g., emotions, physical pain, relationships), in-class exercises, and a guided meditation. The goal of MBSR is for participants to develop a daily mindfulness meditation practice ("formal mindfulness") and to become more mindful in daily life ("informal mindfulness").

How does mindfulness reduce stress, improve mental health, and increase quality of life?

1) Appreciation of experience. When we function on automatic pilot, we miss out on many of the moments of our lives. Mindfulness means paying attention to the depth and richness of the present moment--really noticing what's happening, with all five senses. Many MBSR participants report that they now notice things they didn't notice before, like a pretty garden they walk by every day on the way to the bus, the pleasant drumming of warm water on their back in the shower, or how good food tastes when they aren't wolfing it down.

2) Fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Increased focus on the present moment prevents us from spending all of our time in the past, ruminating and regretting, or in the future, inventing anxiety-provoking scenarios. In this way, mindfulness cuts out a lot of symptoms of depression and anxiety, improving mental health. MBSR participants often report that they're now quicker to catch themselves ruminating or creating scenarios, which allows them to consciously bring their attention back to the present rather than getting carried away with their thoughts.

3) Responding rather than reacting. The more attention and awareness you bring to your behaviour, the more you can notice patterns and modify automatic reactions that aren't working for you. With greater mindfulness, you might start to notice that your post-dinner trips to the fridge aren't random but rather are almost always directly preceded by feelings of loneliness or sadness; you might realize that you automatically tense up every time your boss walks by your office door, making you constantly jumpy and on edge. One MBSR participant reported that greater mindfulness allowed him to realize that his first reaction to any request or proposal--at work or at home--was "No, I can't, I don't have time" and that he often missed out on opportunities because of this automatic reaction. He began consciously giving himself 24 hours to respond to requests, cutting out his automatic reaction and giving himself the chance to consider his availability and interest and respond accordingly.

4) Decreased avoidance. Mindfulness involves bringing a receptive curiosity to all experience (e.g., "Oh look, my stomach clenched the instant the phone rang, before I even saw who was calling. What's that about?"), whether pleasant or unpleasant. Conceptualizing all of our experiences as interesting phenomena means that even doing things we dislike, fear, or avoid can be fascinating. MBSR participants report that experiences that they formerly avoided, like one-on-one time with their in-laws, public speaking, or going out to eat alone became opportunities for mindfulness awareness; they used the experience to learn about themselves by observing their physical, cognitive, and emotional responses to the situation. 

NB: Mindfulness is effortful. In MBSR, we often say that mindfulness is easy, but that remembering to be mindful is hard. No matter how many hours we meditate, there are still times when we snap at someone automatically, avoid a painful-but-necessary experience, ruminate all day, or (ahem) stand at the front door for fifteen minutes freaking out because we think we left our keys at work, without noticing that they're actually hanging in the lock directly in front of us. The good news is that each time we become aware of how unmindful we're being, it creates a "mindful moment."

April 08, 2012

Acceptance versus Resignation

What does it mean when a friend, family member, or therapist tells you that you need to try to accept a situation you're struggling with? Is this reasonable advice, or is it just annoying and impossible?

Acceptance is a key concept and a good step toward effective coping with a tough situation, but it has to be properly explained. Friends and psychotherapy clients to whom I propose acceptance of their respective difficult situations say things like, "If I accept that I drink too much, if I accept my partner leaving, if I accept my chronic pain, doesn't that mean I'm just giving up--that I'll become an alcoholic, that I'll be alone forever, that my pain will take over my life?"


Acceptance does not mean passive resignation. Resignation means giving up because you've decided that there's nothing you can do about your situation, whereas acceptance simply means that you accept that your situation happened. It doesn't mean that you like what's happening or that you don't wish it were different, but once you give up the resistance and denial, you can take the energy you were spending on struggling and use it to decide how to respond or what to do next. In this way, acceptance can be liberating.


I had a client who had a problem with binge drinking at social gatherings. When he attended events with unlimited alcohol (e.g., his work Christmas party, a wedding with an open bar), he invariably drank way too much and either made social faux pas or became physically ill and left early, both outcomes that caused him significant distress. Friends had suggested various practical strategies to him, such as setting a number-of-drinks limit in advance, not sitting near the bar, and alternating each drink with a glass of water; the strategies worked well, but he rarely applied them. Why? Because applying a strategy required acknowledging to himself that he had a problem; instead, before a party, he would tell himself that he could handle it, that the open bar wouldn't be a problem for him this time. After some work on acceptance, my client was able to accept the fact that he had a binge drinking problem; he began using the strategies consistently, significantly decreasing his distress and effectively eliminating the problem behaviour.

I had a client whose partner left her. She was unable to accept that the relationship was over, and spent a ton of energy on begging and threatening phone calls, emails, and texts, trying to get her ex to come back. The months during which she couldn't or wouldn't accept the end of the relationship stalled the necessary grieving process and prevented her from moving forward. When she finally accepted that her relationship was over, she was still sad and disappointed, but she also felt some relief--the struggle to hold onto the relationship was over, freeing up mental space that she used to look for a new apartment, consider dating again, and start settling into her new circumstances.

Finally, acceptance is a big issue for chronic pain patients. Unfortunately, chronic pain can often only be managed, not cured, and at some point, most patients are told that some degree of pain will always be present and that they need to accept it and find ways to adapt. This is hard, and many patients continue to consult specialist after specialist, seeking a different diagnoses or new treatment options. Eventually, with or without psychological help, some patients come to accept the diagnosis of chronic pain; they are then able to take the time and energy spent on resistance and medical consultations and redirect it toward improving quality of life and learning to live well despite pain.

Acceptance sounds easy but isn't. It takes significant strength and motivation to let go of how you think things should be or how you wish they were, and to work wisely and effectively with your reality, especially when you don't like it. Accepting can be the hardest and bravest thing you can do.