Posted by Deborah Rosenbaum, Ph.D.
So by now we have all heard that being mindful can be beneficial in a world of different ways, from helping us show up more fully for important moments and improving decision making, to combating insomnia and tolerating distress. As a psychologist, I offer mindfulness skills to my patients on a regular basis. It always takes practice, but for many the challenge of being mindful goes beyond the universal task of breaking the habits of a jumpy mind. I often hear that the practice of mindfulness actually causes distress. I want to offer some advice for the folks out there who may have had this experience and decided that mindfulness just isn't for them.
First- let's get clear on why you thought it would be a good idea to try mindfulness to begin with. Take a moment and ask yourself: what was it that you hoped to get? More quality time with the kids? more enjoyment from your morning coffee? Whatever it is, it's probably something important to who you want to be as a person. In other words, it is probably something that is linked to your values.That is important.
Now- keeping in mind that mindfulness might be part of your path to living more of the life you want, don't give up! Instead let's return to the question of why it may be causing distress and perhaps some of the following key ideas will help you get some traction.
Key #1: The practice of mindfulness often involves picking a small part of your world (either inner or outer) and directing your awareness to the processes unfolding there. BUT it also means directing your awareness away from a host of other things that your usually jumpy brain may be accustomed to scanning. Letting go of the jumpy vigilance can feel very distressing and even dangerous. Our brains begin to fret about what we aren't noticing while we are busy mindfully noticing the sensations in our toes. We have, after all, evolved to watch out for signs of trouble or danger. The experience of doing something other than scanning can feel so dangerous in fact that it leads many to return to the emotionally safer stance of jumpy vigilance, and to abandon the mindfulness practice- and the attempt to increase values-driven living.
Key #2: Shed the idea that mindfulness is the same as relaxation or peacefulness. It's not. Mindfulness is the ability to notice and explore whatever is happening- even if what is happening is discomfort.
Key #3: Acknowledge the difference between discomfort and danger. Our bodies have evolved to deliver emotional distress in times of danger- that's the motivating emotional part of the the fight or flight response. But (assuming you did not choose to practice mindfulness in the middle of a dangerous context)- you are not in danger. It is the fire bell that you are noticing. There is no fire. That means that you have the option to be mindful of the discomfort. Acknowledge and accept the urge to have a jumpy brain. Welcome the existence of your built in defense system without responding to the call for vigilance. Examine what it feels like to have an urge. Wait. Notice. Repeat. Continue for a predetermined period of time and observe that the feeling changes.
Key#4: Be aware that discomfort during mindfulness is not failure. On the contrary, noticing and exploring the discomfort totally counts as a successful mindfulness practice! You have taken a step toward developing the skills toward being present for your life and living your values. Congratulations.
Deborah Rosenbaum, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Needham Psychotherapy Associates offering CBT, ACT and mindfulness-based services to adolescents and adults.