July 24, 2013

For Better or for Worse

Warning: Mindfulness isn't always fun.

Often when I recommend mindfulness practice to a friend or client, we end up talking about the joys of being more present and less distracted, the wonderful feeling of really connecting during a conversation, or the gratifying experience of actually paying attention to what you're seeing, reading, or eating. Mindfulness is associated with pleasure, and rightfully so.

Mindfulness isn't always that pleasurable, though. Being mindful involves willingness to be present and aware of all of our experience--even when it isn't fun or exciting, and isn't what we hoped for. This includes awareness of what's going with the people around us and what's happening in our environment, but it also means being aware of what's going on inside us, i.e, our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.

But what if what's going on inside is unpleasant? Do we really want to be aware of hateful or embarrassing thoughts, unpleasant body sensations, and painful feelings? My answer is yes and here's why:

It's a beautiful sunny day and I'm working from home and actually being quite productive--yet I don't feel good. I woke up with belly and chest pain, and the physical sensations and accompanying anxious mood persisted through meditation, breakfast, errands, and several espressos. Because I've been practicing mindfulness for a few years and because I meditated this morning, I know what's wrong: I'm upset about a conflict with a friend that happened last week, an issue I thought was resolved. Because I checked in with my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, I know that I feel sad and uncertain, that there's a paring knife slicing through my chest and something heavy and round sitting behind my belly button, and that my mind is repeating "It's your fault" over and and over.

You might be thinking that all of this sounds quite unpleasant and you're right. The physical sensations hurt, it was uncomfortable to realize that I'm still upset about the conflict, and it's irritating that the discomfort is present on an otherwise nice day. In this case, mindful awareness is only making me aware of physical and emotional pain. So why am I glad to have tuned in to it?

Despite the discomfort, awareness of my distress is worth it because the awareness
a) helps me avoid making it worse, and b) helps me decide what to do. A few years ago, if I woke up with this feeling I might have eaten an entire jar of peanut butter for breakfast, gone to work in a zoned-out state of anxiety/peanut-butter stomach discomfort, been short with my colleagues, called my sister at work to complain about my undiagnosable free-floating anxiety, come home and automatically gone for a run whether or not I felt like it, and then gone to bed and woke up feeling even worse the next day. I might even have spent time with the friend I'm in conflict with and acted passive-aggressive or self-effacing without realizing it.

In contrast, today I noticed that something was weird as soon as I woke up. I purposely selected a guided meditation designed to help me look closely at my feelings and physical sensations, which made it clearer what was wrong. I made a good breakfast, decided to work from home, and strategically chose to work in the living room rather than the kitchen to avoid my habit of mindless overeating when I'm stressed. I resisted the temptation to call my friend and frantically make amends. I'm making decisions based on the fact that I know I'm upset; in so doing, I'm exercising self-compassion and avoiding making things worse.

Mindful awareness that I don't feel well doesn't take away the not feeling well. None of this is pleasant and I would much prefer to enjoy this gorgeous day without symptoms of anxiety and without a stressful conflict. But given that this seems to be what's happening today, I'd rather know about it.

Mindfulness can be unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as mindlessness and its repercussions.

July 21, 2013

Strike When the Iron is Cold

In a conflict, is it best to strike while the iron is hot and try to identify and resolve the problem as it's happening? Or is it better to address it later, after you've cooled off a bit?
A couple weeks ago, I attended a mindfulness retreat. During a discussion of mindful stress management, the teacher informed us that in the moment of a stress reaction (e.g., mind racing, heart pounding, blood pressure skyrocketing), access to the rational and reasonable part of our brain is essentially cut off. While this initially seemed counterintuitive, it makes sense in evolutionary terms: When we face a threat, all of our body's resources are allocated to the fight-or-flight response, helping us either fight with all of our might or escape. Survival is the only objective and our attention narrows to focus exclusively on the threat; the part of our minds that can consider and deliberate isn't needed.

This resource allocation system is adaptive when it helps us escape from a sabre-tooth tiger or lift a car off a trapped child; however, our minds and bodies do the exact same thing when we're facing everyday hassles, delays, slights, and other stressors. Not recognizing the stress reaction, we often push forward with conflict resolution and problem-solving, making things worse. 

Earlier this week, I received what I perceived to be an unprofessional, insulting, and just plain mean email from a colleague. My body immediately launched a stress reaction--hot face, pounding heart, tensed muscles. My mind racing with righteous indignation, I dialed my colleague's number and then, remembering what I learned at the retreat, hung up and decided to step away from my desk. Sitting in the lunchroom a few minutes later, I observed what was happening in my mind ("Who does she think she is! That's so mean! After all I've done for her!") and in my body (see above), and dug around to see which emotions were present (hurt, anger, frustration). This information led me to believe that I was having a stress reaction and helped me decide to put off respond to the email for 24 hours. This decision definitely led to a more satisfying resolution of the conflict!

The concept of addressing conflicts and problems once you're temporally and emotionally removed from them isn't new. But learning that half of our brain is missing when we're in the throes of a stress reaction really hits home: It explains why it's so hard to think when we're upset and why, when we're mad or scared or sad, we can't consider alternative perspectives, and often miss information that's easy to see once the stress reaction passes. But how can you tell when you're having a stress reaction? This is where mindfulness comes in: Sit or stand still for a minute and become aware of your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Tune into how you're feeling and then use the data to decide what to do.

NB: Strike when the iron is cold applies equally to the other parties involved in your conflict. That is, you may be calm or have moved beyond your stress reaction but you need to be sure that the other party has too. You don't want to problem-solve or conflict-resolve with someone who's missing half their brain!