Mindfulness – A more scientific approach

Mindfulness is a term adopted by Western Psychology to describe a type of thought pattern adopted from Buddhism to help manage one’s own mind and mood. It is a practice of bringing the attention from external to the body and present back to your own body and now. It is a powerful tool in the use of self regulation.

History

Jon Kabat-Zinn [wiki] was used his history of Zen Buddhist techniques to develop a stress reduction course, which he named Mindfulness in 1979. He based it on his understandings of Sati, a term used in Zen Buddhism to refer to being aware of here and now. While he based the mindfulness methods on the Zen Buddhist technique, he put the practice in a more scientific based context, removing most of the philosophy from the method. This developed  a small following and use of this technique as Kabat-Zinn perfected his technique in a therapy context.

In 1991 Kabat-Zinn published a book based on this method with the frugally titled “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” (Delta, 1991).

Definition of Mindfulness

Despite this single source for the scientific concept of Mindfulness, it is poorly defined. In essence, the definition of Mindfulness is “is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment” [wiki] – but what the heck does that mean, and how is it done? The different interpretations of this simple phrase and the multiple methods for how to get there mean that studying the effectiveness of “Mindfulness” are difficult.

A loose definition allows for a loose list of outcomes that are difficult to disprove. Did the failure of this particular line of research fail to prove the claim of X because they didn’t do Mindfulness properly, or was it because the claim was false? To disprove the claim, does every method of Mindfulness need to be checked, and what methods are not technically Mindfulness?

Different studies of Mindfulness may disagree on the efficacy simply because of the different implementation of the method in their research.

For this article, Mindfulness is the use of skills and techniques that allow you to reach a state of mind that may be used to ameliorate your mood and attention.

Past, Present and Future

It has been glibly stated that “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – frequently and falsely attribute to Lao Tzu (which in itself is an error, his name was Li Er, Lao Tzu is his title “The Master”), but is most likely created by either Warren Buffet or Junia Bretas. While this statement is simplistic and frequently falsely quoted or attributed, there is a really nice nugget of truth worth looking at here.

Hourglass indicating time
Time – ticking away the moments

If your mind keeps going back to past events, or your keep forecasting the future, you fail to notice the present that you are in. Right now, as you are reading this, you are not in immediate danger. Take a moment and look around, notice the things that are there. Look for something red, something orange, something yellow, green, blue, purple and black.

Congratulations, you brought your mind to the present.

You aren’t reading in a loop the first sentence of this article, trying to extract all the meaning from it – that has diminishing returns on effort. Once you have looked at it, perhaps glanced back to review it, you move on. Nor do you skip to the last sentence of this article and miss all the bits in between – because the bit you are reading right now is the bit that is relevant right now. That bit is the present.

You might take a sneak peek to the end to see where this is going, even the section titles to see how this will flow – but that depth of the discussion is in the bits between these projections, and to get that you have to be present and reading.

The same thing is true in our lives. When we think back to our past, we usually pick moments that were scary or troubling in some way. Learning from these past experiences has excellent merit, but being stuck in them is a problem. Projecting into the future what is likely to come and where you’d like to be gives you some things to do right now to affect that prediction. But if you only predict, you never do anything. Additionally, your predictions will become less and less valid as you lose connection to what is happening right now.

The past and the future are merely guides to what is happening right now. This is where you live.

Therapeutically speaking, often when people are experiencing elevated or flattened emotion, they are not reacting to what is present right now, they are reacting either to something they remember or something they predict. Neither of these harm the person right now.

As our mood elevates, we become less able to plan a solution. All of our brain resource has gone into feeling that mood and preparing for conflict. A conflict that isn’t here and thus a preparation that is not needed.

In the rare instance that conflict is a clear and present danger, by all means, be present to that – but if it isn’t, it is time to calm down.

Low mood has a similar problem. The present things in front of you seem distant and disconnected. Things don’t seem real. This could be due to being over stimulated by too many things – overwhelmed; it could be due to a safety fuse shut down – recent too elevated feeling; it could be due to medication or some other factor.

Awareness

There is an itchy bit on your body. Do a quick body scan. Did you find it? Have you noticed how annoying it is? Are you tempted to scratch it, rub it or press upon it? Notice how it is getting worse? Now bring your attention to another part of your body, perhaps the warmth of your breath as you exhale and the cool on your skin as you inhale. Feel the movement of your lungs as you breath in and out. In and out. Do you feel the expansion of your torso as you breath?

I apologise (a bit) for the mind trap above. Go ahead and scratch if it is safe to do so… Anyhow, as you focused on your itch (sorry), it became more pronounced, more encompassing and harder to put up with. (Again, sorry). As your took your mind to another part of your body and focused on an innocuous thing (apologies for those with injured ribs) the itch diminished.

Now replace itch with anxiety, or depression, or pain, or fatigue or some other feeling/aspect you wish to negate/diminish. You have experienced the power of mindfulness.

Midnfulness

There are some common factors that are useful in a good mindfulness exercise:

  • Bringing the temporal awareness to the present
  • Focusing on a body element
  • Giving the mind a specific thing to do

Following are a few of my favourite mindfulness exercises.

Four Second Breath Cycle

A full breath is taken when you breath down with your diaphragm, all the way down to your belly button. Your belly button should move in as you breath out, and out as you breath in. Put one hand on your stomach just under your belly button and take a deep breath in and feel your hand move outwards. Now breath out and feel it come in. This is easier if you sit or lie such that your back is straight rather than hunched.

When our body is ready for fight and flight, our digestive system is set to “purge”, making us feel nauseous and reluctant to breath deeply. Our breath speeds up and is shallow, to avoid triggering our purge setting and compensate to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange happening in preparation for our energetic expectations.

Our attention is fixed out there looking for the threat that is going to hurt us. If it is actually right there, then it is important to do something about it – if immediate, use your heightened state to run away. If it isn’t immediate then we need to solve it.

We need to disrupt our breathing in a meaningful way. That is what this breath exercise does.

Note, if you can, how you feel. What feeling is it? What score would you give it out of 10, where 0 is an absence (so it won’t be that) and 10 is “OMG – I’m going to die!”

Now that we have defined a full breath, we are going to breath in for a count of four seconds. As you breath that deep diaphragm breath, count the seconds – one, two, three four. Now hold your breath for four seconds. Feels how your chest has expanded. Count – one, two, three four. Now breathe out, feeling how your shoulders drop or your ribs move. Count – one, two, three, four. Hold your breath for a count of four seconds. Notice the urge to breathe in. Count – one, two, three, four. Repeat four times.

Now, how do you feel? What feeling is it, and what is it’s score?

Five Senses

Technically we have more than five senses. However most of us learned in primary school the five primary senses – taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight. We are going to use these.

How do you feel? What feeling is it and how strong, out of 10, is it?

Now, what do you taste? Sometimes this is hard to describe because we often don’t have words to describe taste in the absence of food. But you do taste something. I’d like you to tune into that feeling. Is it nice, unpleasant or very meh? Move your tongue a bit and see if different parts of your mouth taste differently.

What do you smell? What is a strong odour in your area? What is a subtle odour in your area? Can you smell yourself? Is there an object nearby that you can pick up and smell? Which nostril are you smelling from?

Touch something with your finger tips. Feel the texture, the temperature, the friction. Is it pleasant? If you rub the thing lightly does it feel different to when you press and rub hard? Does a different finger feel the thing differently? Try rubbing it with a nail, or the back of your hand or arm. How does that change the feeling?

Listen… what is the loudest thing you can hear? What is the most distant thing you can hear?What is the quietest thing you can hear? Now the deepest sound… now the highest pitch. Which sound did you like the most?

Look at a distant thing and put your finger between your eyes and the thing. Close an eye – did your finger jump? Switch eyes and try again. Now focus on your finger. Go back to the distant object and notice the shift as things go into and out of focus. Now pinch your fingers close together, but not quite touching and look through them. Do you see the interference lines where some bands of dark and some bands of light exist? That’s quantum man… Can you see your own nose? Most people can, but they automatically tune it out.

How do you feel now? What is your score out of 10?

Muscle Exercise

While this exercise can be done lying down, sitting down or standing up, I’m going to describe it as if you are sitting down. Get comfortable. Put your feet flat on the ground. If you can be barefoot, it is a bit easier, but if not, that is okay too.

How do you feel? What is your score out of 10?

Curl your toes into the ground. Notice how your foot arches up a little to do this. Count to five – one, two, three, four, five. Now relax your toes. Lift your toes up and tense your ankles. Do you notice that muscle on your shin tensing too? Count to five. Say the numbers. Now relax.

Gently tense your calf muscle. We don’t want to go too tense on this in order to minimise the chance of a cramp. Count to three. One, two, three. Relax.

Tense your knees. I bet you don’t do this one very often. Notice how the muscles just under your leg but above the knee tense too. Count to five. Now relax.

Upper thighs. What do you notice? Count to five. Relax.

Butt cheeks. Did you lift up? Count to five. Relax.

Fingers – can you make fists? Or make the fingers rigid? Pick one. Where else stiffens when you do this? Count to five. Relax.

Elbows and biceps. How does this change your fingers? Count to five. Relax.

Shoulders. Flex them apart. Notice how your back moves. Count to five. Relax.

Lower gut, all around from the lower back to your belly button. Notice how this changes your breath. Count to five. Relax.

Chest. Use your lower gut area to breath. If you can, count to five. If you can’t breath while tense, count to three. Relax.

The next two are hard to do subtly in public, feel free to skip them.

Neck and lower jaw -tense them. Hold your breath. Count to three. Relax.

Face and back of head. Notice how flexible your face is. Count to three. Relax.

How do you feel? How intensely out of 10?

Seven Colours

The rainbow didn’t always have seven colours. Different times and different cultures often described it as having three or four colours, and those colours varied a bit depending on place and time. However once Isaac Newton started playing with prisms, he defined the rainbow colours as 7. He had to fudge indigo to make this happen. Partly because he liked the number 7 and partly because it made memorising it easier – ROY G BIV.

How do you feel? What intensity would you rate it out of 10?

Look for something Red. Does it feel warm to you or cool? What is a fruit that looks like that?

Look for something Orange. How does orange feel today? What is another orange object that matches the orange colour you found, but isn’t the object you found?

Yellow.

Green.

Blue – Light blue

Indigo – Dark blue

Violet – Purple

It is fine if you happen to not find the colour you are looking for. It can’t always be found. Acknowledge its absence and wonder at its absence and move on.

How do you feel? What score out of 10 now?

 

Did you notice how each of these exercises mixed elements of the three mindfulness factors?

Grounding and Meditation

Sometimes grounding and or Meditation is used interchangeably with Mindfulness. Mostly this is due to Mindfulness having such a poor definition and thus being broadened to include everything. Here is how I differentiate them.

Meditation is a method of focusing the mind through a set of patterns, often to reach a thought type state. It can be done via guided visualisation (self or other guided), repeated kinesthetic movements (such as weeding, or trimming the hedge) or just attempting to empty the mind of distractions. Mindfulness uses meditation, but meditation may not be mindfulness. Much like a dog is an animal, but animals aren’t always dogs.

Weeding implements indicating weeding as a meditation
Weeding in the garden can be very calming

Grounding is about bringing the self back to the here and now. This may seem very similar to Mindfulness, but it lacks the hyper awareness aspect of Mindfulness. Grounding is more about being switched on to what is here in this moment, than it is about becoming chill. Mindfulness aims to bring awareness of self to your attention and shift your mood to a moderate level. Grounding doesn’t need these two aspects.

Grounding can also be a way to visualise excess feeling or energy going into the ground and being recycled by the earth. Sometimes these feelings are negative and brooding, sometimes they are just too much zing. Grounding can also be used to visualise creating a barrier between you and the rest of the world, just beyond your finger tips. Imagine you are in a white bubble and only helpful things can get through it, all else is blocked.

Similarly to meditation, mindfulness uses some aspects of grounding in its skill base, but grounding is not mindfulness.

 

 

Panic – Part 2

In the last post [link], we covered what the panic reaction is, how it works and why we need it. In this post we are going to cover why it can go wrong and how to manage fear.

Risk Management

Our fear system is designed to keep us alive. It is supposed to assess the risk of a thing – object or event – for a threat value and prime us for a response to that threat. The greater the perceived threat, the less time you have to intellectually evaluate that threat and response and make a choice about your actions – you just do it.

So how do we manage a risk?

  • Threat evaluation
  • Planning a solution
  • Implementing that solution

Threat Evaluation

You can’t  manage a threat if you don’t know what the threat is. To assess a threat, first one must detect a threat, then one must compare it to known threats and lastly one must confirm the accuracy of that threat as it changes based on several factors.

When do we classify a thing as a threat? We perceive the world around us, constantly comparing the sensory inputs to known dangers. A few dangers are programmed into us – edge of a platform detection, being left alone by a primary care given, loud noises. All of the other fears we learn as we grow up, initially from our care givers – if they are frightened of a thing, then we should be too! – and from our own experience.

Baby learning fear
Baby learning fear

As we covered earlier, our brain processes a raw feed of our sensory inputs through our hind brain threat detection system. It is looking for identified threats that we have mostly learned as we grew up.

Our decision that this thing is a risk to our safety is based on comparing it to things our care givers were afraid of, things that have hurt us in the past, or things that we can imagine hurting us. This allows for some errors to creep into our threat perception system.

Cockroaches have no direct means of hurting humans. They can very rarely bite humans which might cause a small amount of irritation at the site of the bite. They can carry pathogens that can cause disease, but this is rarely the source of human disease. They mostly just freak people out. But why? If they can’t hurt you, or more to the point, are far less dangerous than pretty much everything else you come across, why are some people so terrified of them? Partly it is the jump scare thing – you didn’t expect that thing to be moving when it did. Partly it is that they move oddly and very rapidly. Mostly it is because you have seen other people react badly to them. Primarily the fear of cockroaches is caused by seeing other people afraid of them.  If a primary care giver has a fear of roaches, you have a much higher chance of also having a fear of them.

Sometimes we are hurt by something or someone. We don’t want to re-experience that pain, so we avoid that thing so that it can’t hurt us. However that is not generally the best solution to the threat. Imagine that a dog bit you and it hurt. As a result you avoid dogs. The problem is that dogs are everywhere. So your avoidance creates a significant hassle in your life. Another solution to the dog threat is to recognise the warning signs of good dogs vs risky dogs, then work out how to manage both.

I don’t have experience falling off a cliff to imagine that doing so is going to hurt. Clearly I should stay away from cliffs. The problem is that I don’t know how big a cliff has to be in order to be dangerous to me, which can cause a problem when the cliff is only half a metre high (about 2 feet), or I have safety equipment protecting me from falling and I still can’t get near the edge of the cliff. My imagined threat is not being balanced or fairly portrayed.

Feet at edge of cliff above ocean
Confronting a Cliff – Fear of Heights

The care giver and bad experience parts of threat assessment are miss-training our threat perception, while our imagined threats are misinforming the hind brain about the nature of the expected threat.

Dynamic Threats

Once a thing is determined to be safe or unsafe, we need to continue to check the thing in case its nature changes. Threat is a dynamic thing that changes due to distance, time and intent.

A crocodile is clearly a threat, but if it is way over there and I am way over here, it isn’t much of a real threat to me. I shouldn’t camp at the bottom of a river known to have crocodiles, because in time that crocodile will come and visit me. While crocodiles will eat humans, they much prefer pretty much any other medium to moderate sized animal, so if there is another animal nearby, the crocodile will predominantly attack that instead. However you are still food, so you should still be concerned about the crocodile.

Trying to work out the intent of things and the ability of the thing to target you is an important aspect of threat detection and evaluation. Coffee tables may seem to leap out and attack your shins, but perhaps their targeting of you is  a misperception. The coffee table has no intent to harm you. Predator animals might, but rarely target humans. Predatory humans do, but most humans are not predatory to other humans. If you avoid all humans, then you end up quite isolated and lonely, so your assessment of individual humans needs to be continuous in case they reveal themselves to be predatory.

A common error is to assume intent before it is revealed, acting on the threat that isn’t there on the off chance it will come.

Planning a Solution

Now that you have detected a threat, and are keeping an eye on it for dynamic changes in its threat to you, it is time to work out what to do if it is going to affect you.

Imagine a ball game where there are three people standing in an imagined triangle. There is you at point A, Blake at position B and Casey at position C. While Blake and Casey are throwing the ball at each other, there is no threat to you of the ball. You aren’t involved. The ball has a low level of threat as it might become directed at you, but it hasn’t. Rushing in to disable the ball is a possible solution the the ball threat, but not a good one.

The threat of the ball comes if the ball is thrown to you by either Blake or Casey. At this point, the ball threat has increased as it now involves you. Action is now required. Referring to our earlier chart of fear responses, you can either freeze, that is try not to be noticed by Blake or Casey so they won’t throw the ball at you, but now it is too late; flee, dodge the in coming ball so it won’t hit you; or fight, catch the ball and throw it back. The game you have agreed to is the catch and throw back, so it is a very valid solution. Dodging the ball minimises your harm, but it may have a greater social cost as neither Blake nor Casey are likely to want to continue to play with you if you keep fleeing the ball.

Person ready to catch a ball
Catching a Ball – building up ability

Catching the ball can be scary. A thing is moving at you at high speed with enough mass to hurt you if it connects to a sensitive part of your body. If you catch the ball badly it can hurt your hands, or you might drop the ball and look silly in front of your friends. Each of these sub-threats is helpful in breaking down the actual threat and can have a solution to them. If you turn your body slightly, the ball has less chance of impacting some of your more sensitive parts, if you track the ball as it comes in, you can guess at the landing location and put your hands in proximity, if you step back as the ball gets to you, you have a bit more time to catch the ball and remove its momentum. You can also step closer to Blake and Casey so the triangle isn’t an equilateral so the ball isn’t thrown as hard at you so you can build up skill. You can also inform Blake and Casey that you aren’t very good at ball catching and want to work on your skill, which addresses the social threat.

It is tempting to now break each of these perceived threats down another level and solve them too, however that it over analysing the complexity of the threat and allowing yourself to over analyse. The cost of this is either paralysis through over analysis, justifying avoidance, or feeling overwhelmed because there is too much to work out. Knowing when to stop planning and allow yourself to make up a solution on the spot if it is beyond a reasonable level of anticipation is an excellent skill to develop.

Having a basic management plan allows you to inform your over scared mind “stop – I’ve got this worked out”. Your brain is trying to save you as it prompts you to go through scenario after scenario prompting for solutions. We don’t have to work out how to splint a little finger bone with straws and elastic bands in case you break it, nor do we have to work out what to do if it turns out that Blake is a brain eating zombie. These scenarios are either overly specific or very unlikely. Should they become the actual problem we face, then we can create solutions at the time for them and the odds are, you already have some defaults in place – especially for the zombie problem.

Implementing that Solution

There is no point having a solution to a threat and not doing it. Some plans are preventative – turn the saw off when it isn’t being used, use a condom, look both ways before crossing the road. Some plans are based on the threat surfacing – splinting a broken bone, calling for emergency services, explaining why you are late. Not all solutions need to be implemented, however knowing that you have done the prevention actions and have a plan to get through a perceived threat means now you have to do the thing. The thing you weren’t previously going to do because it was scary.

When we are over sensitive to a perceived threat, such as cockroaches, cliffs and men, we need to face that fear and recalibrate our senses. Cockroaches pose no real threat, so bring soap to wash your hands if needed. Cliffs should be tackled with caution, so do some research about how high you can jump safely and work your way up to that, then go on an abseiling course that works with height phobias. Some men are predatory (as are some women, but less so), so learn the signs that you tend to miss that indicates the person has become a threat and interact in safe ways.

Seeing a therapist can really help you work out safe means to manage overcoming your fears and managing your moods. If you don’t face your fears and learn to manage them, then you will always be avoiding your fears or becoming overwhelmed. Consider that most people in society do not have the fear you have and survive quite well despite the sensitivity to the thing you have… that tells you that you are over sensitive and the threat is over represented in your mind. You don’t have to be uncomfortable.

Missing Threats

Most of the previous assumes that you have noted and identified a clear and present danger. Something that is there and can harm you. Once identified, then you can address it directly as a plan for just in case, or an action as needed.

What happens when the threat isn’t there, but it feels like it is?

Imagine that you are hiking the plains of Kenya in Africa. You’ve stopped for a lunch with your friends Blake and Casey. Blake notices a lion off on the horizon eating an antelope.

Lions can kill humans.

Lion face
Lion – King of the Savannah

The Lion is quite a way off, and currently eating, so the odds of it coming for you are remote. So at this point you are all wary of the lion and take turns keeping an eye on it… just in case. You also come up with some handy plans for what to do if it comes your way. When to leave, when to fight, how to fight. Mostly though, you are using the freeze options – don’t draw attention to yourself and the lion will probably ignore you.

It is during your watch that you notice the lion gets up and heads in your direction. You all get a bit nervous… the threat, it is coming. You are all desperately watching the lion to work out if you should get out of there, but it is still quite a ways off, and leaving early means leaving the track you are following, risking becoming lost; or drawing attention to yourselves, which could lead to a fight.

The land dips a bit between the lion and you, and as the lion walks the track you all seem to be on, it goes beneath the dip and you lose track of it.

Where has the lion gone?

You wait… expecting it to appear on the track above on the other side of the dip in moments, but it doesn’t.

Panic starts to set in. Your plans required knowing where the lion was. Now you don’t know that. Your plans are far less useful.

Blake suggests that the dip is bigger than you all guessed, so you keep waiting. If it is that big, does that mean the lion is that much closer to you? Casey suggests the lion has gone perpendicular to the path when it was out of sight of you. As the minutes tick buy, this seems more and more likely. The question now is, is the lion stalking you, or has it gone home?

The three of you spend the next 30 minutes in terror, looking for the lion. Every snapped twig, every movement of tan on a tan background, every shifting of the breeze freaks you all out, expecting the attack from the lion at any minutes… but it never comes.

It turns out that the lion went somewhere else and really didn’t care about you. The result, though, is a day spent waiting for the lion to jump out at you at any minute.

In this example, we had a clear and present danger prompt your danger sense. That isn’t always the case, sometimes it just goes off for no good reason. We spend our day looking for the threat/lion to justify our panic. In the example of the lion it was possible to make some basic plans for how to deal with the lion, but what if you hadn’t seen the lion and you just felt like you were being stalked, or more vague, like something was just going to go wrong?

Our hind brain has, for some unknown reason, decided we are in danger but hasn’t done us the grace of informing us of what we are in danger of.  This invalidates our risk evaluation of the danger, because we can’t identify it. This invalidates the planning a solution phase, because we can’t identify it. This invalidates our implementing solutions, because we can’t identify it.

Wait up… if we can’t identify a threat, is there a threat?

Step 1) Identify the threat. If it isn’t clear and present, it isn’t a threat. If it is clear and present, go to step 2.

Step 2) Evalue the threat. Does it just need caution, or does it need action?

Step 3) Create a management plan for the threat, a few basic options for the most likely (top 3 or 4) ways the threat can affect you, then stop planning.

Step 4) Implement any necessary things now for prevention, then implement as needed based on how the threat evolves.

In the case of the feeling of threat without a clear and present danger, we can stop at Step 1.

There is no threat, so stand down.

Next we will cover how to do that using various mindfulness and grounding techniques.