Mindfulness at the coffeeshop

I wrote this piece a few years ago when I first started practicing mindfulness.

The other morning I was on the way to a training class for
my upcoming clinical placement. I stopped into this newish
coffee shop that had just opened around the corner. A typical
hipster joint so I wasn’t expecting too much in the way of
friendly service. However I was still rather shocked when
the young and expressionless barista abruptly raised her hand at me,
in a kind of ‘talk to the hand’ gesture, as I was giving my
order. Apparently, I had spoken out of turn. (According to
some new world social order in which barista’s held the
highest authority and us mere customers were supposed
to wait until spoken to before opening our mouths.)
It took me a second to register what had just happened. My
internal dialogue went something like this, “Did she just
raise her hand at me, essentially treating me like a child?
Did I just see that?” My first instinct was to say something
in order to voice my sense of righteous indignation, but
instead, I stopped. And asked myself the question, “What is
really going on for me here, right now?” And, I observed that
my heart rate was going a little faster, and I could feel
my cheeks get a little hotter. In other words, I was pissed
off. In that one simple gesture, she had made me feel like
I was about 3 feet tall.
So I let it go. Somehow, simply acknowledging my anger and
just sitting with it for a few seconds, it had lost its
sting. And then I thought, is this what they call being
mindful. Is this mindfulness in action? Well, if it is I guess it
works. I had been attempting to learn meditation over
the last few weeks and up until that moment, I had thought
it wasn’t having any effect at all, but maybe it was…

Learning how to manage unpleasant emotions

ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be summed up in three key skills or processes. Be present, open up and do what matters. Being present means taking a moment to moment, curious and mindful approach to our experiences as they happen. Being present simply means noticing. But what happens when our present moment experience is unpleasant, uncomfortable or distressing? Well I came across a short Ted Talk this morning which I thought explained how to manage these unwanted emotions in a clear and helpful way and which I’d like to share with you.

Credit: Act Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris

 

Our ability to stay present, and fully experience uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings is important to our ability to move through the world with more comfort and ease and is the key to achieving our recovery goals or just simply feeling happier, and more comfortable in your own skin.

 

There are 8 key unpleasant emotions (which we like to think of as negative or bad but are not, they are simply unpleasant but necessary guides to what really matters to us, protection from dangerous others, reflections or echoes from past negative experiences). However, if we can learn how to be fully present for, not avoid or distract ourselves from, but fully present when these sorts of emotions arise within us – we can handle pretty much anything that life throws at us.The eight core unpleasant emotions are:

 

Sadness

Shame

Helplessness

Anger

Vulnerability

Embarrassment

Disappointment

Frustration

Our emotions are created by our brain and bodies working together but are felt in the body first as a bodily or physical sensation. A biochemical rush that last approx. 60-90 seconds. In the case of unpleasant feelings, it is this physical response that we are trying to distract ourselves from or move away from. Thing is, all emotions are necessary for healthy functioning of our entire being, not just the pleasant ones.

 

This too shall pass

 

Emotions (like urges) come in waves, they peak and then they subside. That’s the key thing to remember. Emotions always subside, both pleasant and unpleasant. The key to managing these emotional waves is to stay present whilst the wave is moving. Usually, after the wave subsides, new insights often emerge. New conversations can be had, relationships can be mended, a sense of relief is often felt and over time learning to embrace and experience all our emotions, mindfully and non-judgmentally, can ultimately lead to more self-awareness, peace and understanding of ourselves and others.

 

Listen to Dr Joan Rosenberg’s Ted talk https://youtu.be/EKy19WzkPxE

 

 

 

Top self-help books I recommend as a therapist and some that have been recommended that I have yet to read…

You can heal your life
Louise Hay

You Can Heal Your Life

Louise Hay has been called the queen of self help books. In-fact this book was originally published as a pamphlet in 1979 before Louise developed it into the best-selling You Can Heal Your Life in 1984. This book is well loved and has sold up to 30 million copies. It is available in a variety of places online or free as a PDF, or you can find a copy at any second hand book store more times than not.

I recommend this book as a non-scientific spiritual read which should be read with an open mind and heart. It is not evidence based in the way that some other books are that I recommend but it is a book that helped me greatly when I was at one of the lowest points of my life. The premise of this book is quite simple. Our thoughts create our experience of reality. Change your thoughts and you can literally change your life. This is basically the premise behind CBT as well, (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) but written in beautiful, simple and yes, I guess slightly woo-woo language. So, for that reason it may not be for everyone. Louise states her beliefs at the beginning of the book and clearly states, these are her beliefs which you, the reader, can either agree with or not. For example, she believes that we choose our own experiences, our parents and even when we are born. I don’t believe this myself. I don’t know that we choose our parents or time of birth, or our early childhood experiences when we are too young to have any influence on our environments. However, I do believe that we choose our responses to events that happen to us as we grow older, and in consciousness. That is simply my belief.

Regardless of what you choose to accept or not, the book has a powerful message of self-love, belief and self-empowerment which is why I recommend this book to friends, family and clients alike.

The happiness trap
Russell Harris

The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living

The Happiness Trap is written by Russell Harris who is an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapist and trainer. He has written numerous other texts and self-help books based on ACT principals. The Happiness Trap is one I recommend as it is simple to read and has a lot of practical activities throughout. It is a great adjunct to therapy if you are seeing an ACT counsellor.

The basic premise of ACT is simply that life involves pain and suffering, but by accepting our reality as it is, not struggling with it, judging or allowing it to overwhelm us with emotion we can empower ourselves to mindfully take meaningful action in the present to create a more positive, meaningful and fulfilling life in the future. The aim of ACT is not necessarily to get rid of symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, but to learn how to deal with life’s challenges more effectively, so that when challenges or conflict arises, as it will do, we are able to manage them in a way which is more in line with our values, goals and abilities. Bad stuff will still happen, but we can learn to not let the bad stuff affect us so much. ACT uses skills such as mindfulness, reflective awareness training, acceptance and self-compassion to enable us to deal with challenges more effectively and reach our goals sooner.

You can purchase a copy of The Happiness Trap here or at your local bookseller.  For the full range of Russ Harris books and access to his online courses you can go to the Act Mindfully website.

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world
Mark Williams & Danny Penman

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world

This is my go to book to direct clients to who are interested in exploring mindfulness more fully as a practice. The book is basically a home-based version of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who also writes the forward to this amazingly easy to read and follow guide. The title actually does a great job of explaining what the book is. It is a very practical guide, light on theory and jargon but packed with wisdom and knowledge. The hard copy, which I have, actually comes with a CD of the 8 meditations used throughout the book, read in Mark William’s incredibly soothing voice, in my opinion anyway!

The book is actually more of a course, based on Kabat-Zinn’s eight week program. Each chapter is basically a week in the course and there is a meditation to go with it. You can approach this book in one of two ways. You can simply read it as a book, there are lots of interesting stories and anecdotes and information to keep it interesting but to get the most out of it, you can approach it as a guide or course in mindfulness which will basically do what the title says it will do – guide you towards more peace and awareness regardless of what is happening in your external world. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in finding out for themselves what this whole mindfulness thing is really about.

You can grab a copy here. If you just want to listen to the meditations they are available on You Tube or on the Frantic World website.

Mindsight: Change your brain, change your life
Daniel Siegel

Mindsight: change your brain and your life

Mindsight is possibly one of the less accessible books I recommend to my clients. It does however, have some detailed and thorough explanations of the science of emotion, attachment, relationships and self-integration. I tend to recommend sections of this book rather than the book as a whole. Daniel illustrates his concepts with case studies which is helpful for understanding how awareness of what is happening in our brains can translate into improvements in mental health and functioning. I tend to use his ‘hand model of the brain’ section quite a lot as well as his section on attachment theory as well.

This book is divided into two halves. The first part is theoretical and explanatory and the second is illustrative. If you are interested in learning about the neurology of the brain and how it is organised then you will find the first half fascinating. If you are someone that likes to learn from others’ examples, the case studies which make up the second half of the book will be most helpful.

I personally enjoyed this book from a therapists’ point of view and recommend it to clients who are more scientific in orientation and who become interested in learning more about how our brain works. The book draws heavily on the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that our brains continue to change and develop as we get older based on our experience and interactions with our environment. This means that change is possible throughout the lifespan, which gives us hope at any age.

 

The body keeps the score: Brain mind and body in the healing of trauma
Bessel van de Kolk

 

 

 

 

Dr Van de Kolk is one of the worlds foremost specialists in trauma. He was instrumental in the development of the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. From his experiences as a young doctor working with returned veterans, he saw first hand the results of trauma experienced by these men and the effects on their brains, memory and bodies.

This book is a very good read. It is both anecdotal and scientific. You will learn a lot about how trauma impacts our brain, mental health and how, ultimately it lives on in the body. If you are a trauma survivor of any kind, I highly recommend this compassionate, liberating read.

You can grab a copy here.

Books I’ve yet to read

As I have been trying to complete my master in counselling and psychotherapy whilst working full time, there are a heap of books on my reading list which I’ve yet to get to. I am just a few weeks away from finishing however, so when I get around to reading them I will post them here. First two on my list are Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Russell Brand’s book on Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions. Oh and, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. That should keep me busy over the summer months!

If there are any self-help books you recommend I read please comment below.

7 simple life hacks to commit to in 2018.

Forget New Years resolutions. The news is out! We are not victims of circumstance or biology. No matter what your past history entails, the good news is change is possible. Our brains are flexible and wired for change and adaptability. It’s called neuroplasticity. The more we practice a behaviour, whatever that behaviour is, the stronger that part of our brain becomes. In other words, we become what we do most.

So, becoming more conscious of what we do on a daily, hourly and moment to moment basis is the key to change. Whatever it is you want to start or stop doing, there is no time like the present to take a step in the right direction.

Here are seven ways that you can change your mind, and life, for the better with the help of mindfulness practices.

1. Live mindfully

…that is, consciously, with awareness and conscious choice. Living mindfully means bringing conscious awareness to everything you do. It doesn’t mean you have to spend hours a day meditating but even a few moments of pausing, breathing and noticing what you are experiencing without overthinking can help improve mood and manage daily stress.

2. Relate to experience directly

Try using your senses rather than through thinking, analyzing or judging all of the time. Take a moment to stop, notice and check in with your self. A simple mindfulness exercise is the 5×5 pause. Going through your five senses and noticing the first 5 things you see, hear, feel, smell and taste. (Taste is sometimes a difficult one, unless you are seated at a sushi train…yum!) However, by the time you get to taste, you will have mindfully checked in with yourself.

3. Stay in the present

Resist the urge to dwell on past events or worry about future “what ifs”. Staying present involves noticing and accepting your day to day, moment to moment experience as real and valuable. Whenever you find yourself time travelling in your mind try a simple 5×5 meditation or simply stop and notice your breathing for a few moments, to bring you back to now. You can also take a moment to look around you and notice the small details of your immediate environment. It’s amazing what you see when you stop to look.

4. Avoid avoiding all unpleasant feelings at any cost

Try to welcome all feelings and emotions as temporary messengers who have something important to tell you. Feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are and they do pass. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating our truest needs, desires and wants. We don’t have to follow our emotions or do what they tell us to every time, however, acknowledging your feelings is the first step towards honoring our truth. Knowledge is power after all.

5. Accept things as they now are and go from there

…instead of how you would like them to be. Don’t waste energy or time on struggling with discontent. The more you struggle with feelings of frustration, unfairness and anger regarding those things (or people) that you cannot change, the less energy you have to put into changing those things you can. Take a deep breath, and take control of the only things you can control, your own mouth, arms and legs!

6. Learn to see your thoughts as just thoughts, not facts or reality

Some thoughts are factual, some may have elements of truth and some may be completely incorrect – learn to choose which thoughts are most helpful to you rather than focusing on whether they are true or real. Our thoughts have the ability to influence our emotions and actions. But, thoughts are really just words, symbols and images floating in and out of your conscious mind. They are not who you are. Your thoughts do not define you. One of the core mindfulness processes is taking a step back from your thoughts and watching them come and go. Like clouds in the sky, or sushi on a sushi train! You can choose your thoughts just as you can choose your sushi. Focusing on thoughts gives them undue power  however so, choose your thoughts wisely.

7. Practice self-compassion daily.

Be kind to yourself. Learn and practice how to be your own best friend and treat yourself with the kindness, compassion and respect you really want. Watch what you say, do and how you treat you. If you find yourself saying, doing or treating yourself in a way that you would never treat a friend then that is a sign that you need to be more loving to you. Take some time every day to say a kind word to yourself or give yourself some praise or encouragement. It might be useful to practice daily affirmations like, I am doin the best I can with what I have or Every day I get a little better at being me.

There you go. Seven super simple New Year strategies to practice daily to improve your mind, reduce anxiety and stress without having to start a new exercise class or join anything.

Wishing you all a safe and enjoyable end of 2017!

 

Yoga for stress reduction & anxiety

Yoga is one of those things I’ve dabbled in on and off since I can remember. It is something I do for a while, and while I’m doing it I love and really enjoy the benefits of, but then for some reason or another I just stop. And then, after a while I start to feel crap again, disconnected with myself, tense etc and then I remember…oh yeah! Maybe I should do a yoga class.

Since I’ve discovered the benefits of mindfulness practice, this has bought a whole new dimension to my understanding and appreciation of yoga. There is really no better way to connect the mind with the body than to connect the breath with movement. Yoga really is mindfulness in action.

So, having said that, I was pleasantly surprised to find this infographic appear in my inbox this morning from the wonderful people at Happify.  It’s an infographic of 7 yoga inspired breathing exercises and poses to instantly destress any time of the day. And you don’t have to be a yogi to do any of the poses, as they are very simple. This is something I am definitely going to be sharing with my anxiety clients so I just wanted to share it here with you’all.

Here you are:

7 yoga poses for stress reductionOh.. and if you want to get into yoga again in the comfort of your own home none the less, I really recommend Yoga with Adrienne’s YouTube channel. She has heaps of yoga videos for whatever mood you happen to be in, and if you really want kick start your yoga journey, I highly recommend taking her 30 days of yoga challenge.

Namaste y’all for now!

5 things I’ve learned about anxiety from a bunch of anxious peeps

I’ve recently finished co-facilitating two rounds of a 12 week therapy group aimed at helping anxiety sufferers conquer their fears. The ‘self help’ group, as it is called, is basically an exposure based 12 week program which encourages members to face their fears by gradually ‘exposing’ themselves to the source of their anxiety bit by bit. It’s called the stepladder approach and is based on basic behaviour therapy.

The aim of the group is to guide members, after explaining what exposure is and how to construct a stepladder, towards conquering specific fears or phobias. It’s not really structured for those who are diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), PSTD or depression for example. There is only so much you can do in a group context. That was the theory behind the group, however, the reality proved quite different. We had a few members that had a specific phobia or fear such as public speaking, or a specific social phobia such as fear of eating in public, but most of the members’ anxiety was not that specific. Most seemed to be suffering from a general malaise and in some cases extreme uneasiness in public, social phobia in general or just a case of debilitating shyness. Some had depression as well.

It soon became clear that the prescribed ‘stepladder’ technique was not going to work with these people. One could still go over the basic idea of the stepladder, that is, expose yourself to your fears, little by little. Take baby steps. But a definitely rigid approach was not going to do. So, I did some research and also, concurrently, I started an online course on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) but mostly, I learned from the group members themselves. Hearing their stories week by week, their awkward to embarrassing moments, their small and seemingly tiny triumphs and major breakthroughs…they taught me more about how to manage this thing called anxiety, which we are all faced with to some degree, than any text book or peer reviewed article I have read.

So here’s what I learned about how best to deal with anxiety from my research and from those that know best:

1. Accept anxiety as part of life.

Most people who come to a group such as the one I have just described have been struggling with anxiety for a long time before seeking help. Some for years. What they want most when they first come to the group or seek help is for a ‘cure’ that will somehow make their anxiety ‘go away’. But what is most freeing or a revelation for some is when we explain that anxiety is a normal part of being human, and that it will always be present to some degree. Struggling with it only makes it seem stronger and bigger than it really is, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away either… However, acceptance of anxiety is something altogether different. Acceptance allows for dialogue, it allows for a two-way exchange between the person suffering from anxiety and the message that anxiety is trying to convey. It is the first step towards healing, it signifies a willing to listen, to engage.

2. Face and then embrace your fears.

Whatever it is that makes you most anxious, that is where you need to start.  Jumping in head first is not a good idea, however a measured, stepladder if you will, approach really does work if done consciously, with self-awareness and with self-compassion. A step is still a step, no matter how small….however, there is a qualifier and the qualifier is as follows:

2a. Face your fears, only if they serve your greater good. That is, face and accept anxiety only if it serves your values. There is no point putting yourself through all that pain and anxiety for no good reason, if it serves you however, and helps you to achieve your goals or be the person you really want to be, then there is a very good reason.

3. Know your values.

One session, after learning about the importance of values in ACT I asked the group members to share with me their reasons for coming to group in the first place. They looked at me blankly at first, as if it was a silly question but then I explained… Yes, I know it’s because you wanted to get help with managing your anxiety but WHY? Why does that matter to you? Wouldn’t it be easier to just stay home, live with your anxiety to a degree and not push yourself to come here, or go on working through your stepladders each week? There is a reason why you do that, come to group each week, something you want to achieve or a way you’d like to live, and that reason should give you a big hint as to what your values are. Values guided action makes anxiety meaningful. It adds another, very powerful dimension to the how of exposure based therapy. The why.

4. Listen to what your anxiety is trying to tell you.

Anxiety is not always blind fear and anxiety is not a one size fits all broadcast. There are different types of anxiety. There is helpful anxiety and not so helpful anxiety. Sometimes, it is steering you towards something, sometimes it is telling you your off track. There is the anxiety that comes with moving forward, and the anxiety that comes with staying stuck. Only the individual can know what their anxiety means to them, or what it is trying to say. Mindfulness is one way of getting tuned in to what your anxiety is trying to tell you by displacing some of the static that most of us walk around with every day, without realizing it most of the time.

5. You are what you do most.

All the skills and techniques broached in the 12 week course (and in most CBT based therapies including ACT) are all pretty sound, yet none of them will work if we only pay lip-service to them. There is no magic pill or cure for anxiety or any other mental illness. Medication helps to a degree but it really only treats the symptoms, or helps with balancing out chemicals that have become imbalanced in the first place because of what the individual has experienced, reacted to and consequently how they have been behaving for many years. It takes dedication, practice and conscious choice to over-ride what have become automatic behaviours or ways of responding for many anxiety sufferers. The more you practice these new behaviours, thoughts, techniques and ways of being, the more they will seem natural.

 

So that’s pretty much it. (Well not really it, but a sizeable chunk, and besides, I’m getting sleepy!)

All good things take a little time, but like all good things, they are truly worth it in the end. As has been my journey towards becoming a qualified counsellor…it’s been a long 3 and a half years and in a few weeks I will be done with this first long stretch of road. Yes, in just a few weeks I will be qualified! However, while I feel I have learned so much, it gives me a certain amount of anxiety to realize that I have still sooo much more to learn. But, I’m pretty sure it’s the good sort of anxiety…

The parable of the shower-head. A reflection on acceptance.

I am doing my very best with what I have

A while ago I wrote a post on my old blog titled, Am I Futurizing?  In which I reflected on the term as it related to my relationship. Basically, futurizing in a relationship context involves wanting to fast track a future without fully appreciating things as they are in the present. It’s like you have this idea of a happy ever after in your head and you are impatient to get there. Understandable, but so much so that you negate the present and are constantly feeling ripped off or anxious. It’s like there’s a kid in the back seat of your mind constantly asking, “Are we there yet? Are wee therree yettt?? Yes, it is annoying.

Since I wrote that post however, I have read a lot more about things like mindfulness and existential therapy and the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and the ability to be more in the here and now. And, so I have since found an answer to my question. Yes, I was futurizing…. oops!

So, where does the shower-head fit in to all this? Well, thing is, I don’t really love my apartment. It’s a bit of a dump really. The kitchen cupboards don’t all close properly. Someone has done a shoddy job of painting the place. All the light fittings have paint on them, and the bathroom has a hole in the ceiling. The water used to trickle out of the shower and to get your whole body wet you had to do this weird kinda twist like dance step. At the time, however, I was desperate to find a place and was running out of time, so I took it. I remember crying the day I moved in to this shoe box which looked worse than I remembered it from the time that lapsed between the inspection and my moving in. Still, I told myself, it’s only temporary…So confident was I of that fact that I only signed a six month lease. I thought by the end of that year my boyfriend and I would be moving in together for sure. Well, here we are more that a year later and I’m still here. We are still together, and yes there have been vague discussions about a future cohabitation occurring at some point in the future but no concrete plans yet.

For over a year I put up with that shitty shower. My boyfriend and I would attempt to shower together and we would have to take turns getting wet and invariably, one of us would be standing shivering while the other rinsed off. He kept saying, Why don’t you get the real estate to look at it? I’d say, Yeah I’ll do it today. But I kept putting it off or forgetting about it. Until the next morning when I’d be standing in the shower recess feeling resentful about how displeased I was with my shower and what it represented. I allowed the bitter semi hot water to dribble over me and I’d feel annoyed every morning. Not a great way to start your day…

This went on until last week, when I finally asked myself, So what is the meaning of my resistance to getting a new shower-head? And then the realisation dawned on me. I was still futurizing. I was unwilling to change my shower-head because it represented my suffering in the present moment and for some reason, I had become attached to that suffering. Like, there was something noble in it? What was noble about having a shit shower every day? Nothing. I was just resisting accepting how things were for me in the present because I was still living in the future somewhat in which everything would be perfect, supposedly.

Well, past experience has taught me this: The future and the past are many things, but they are rarely ever perfect. Why suffer anymore than you have to in the present. Why play the victim? That day I emailed my real estate agent and the next day I had a shiny new shower-head which covered my whole body in a steady, hot and steamy stream of heavenly water.  I stood there in my new luxurious shower, in my shitty bathroom thinking…FFS why did I wait so long??

So, the moral of this story is. Don’t wait too long to change your shitty shower-head! Live in the present and enjoy it as best you can. I’m sure most of us have a shitty shower-head in their life. What’s yours?