The Stress Resilient Mind Blog
The fundamental idea behind my approach to stress related problems such as anxiety is that what's needed is the skill-set of stress resilience: the ability to quickly and easily recover from set-backs and stressful events. Mindfulness is a key tool for training and developing such a skill-set, but it could also be seen as a skill in itself - even quite a high-level skill-set.
My approach to stress management is to consider what component skills (i.e. of the resilience skill-set) are lacking or need to be trained and developed. In particular I'm interested in what I call mind-body skills, which are to do with managing and regulating the mind-body connection.
If mindfulness is a high-level skill-set, what are the lower-level component skills that make it up? This article describes my thinking on this question.
Well of course the foundation of mindfulness is self-awareness. This includes different aspects of our experience such as thoughts, images, feelings, sensations (body states), desires, urges, motivations and more. Of course there is awareness of emotions - I didn't put it in my initial list because it's quite a general and composite concept. Experience of emotion covers feelings and sensations in the body, also thinking patterns - both styles of thinking (e.g. racing thoughts) and lines of content (e.g. thoughts of revenge). Emotion also conditions focus or attention - how we pay attention, and to what.
All these things it's useful to be aware of. But a lot of people have blind spots - for example some people are "in their heads" - caught up in thoughts and oblivious to what's happening in their body. Mindfulness training can expand awareness into blind spots so that you can learn to respond more appropriately.
Emotional literacy, or the ability to identify (name) emotions, is an aspect of self-awareness. Research shows that emotional literacy is beneficial (increases our well-being) in part because it helps improve our communication and build stronger relationships.
Why would imagination be a part of mindfulness? Well, I don't mean imagination in the sense of fantasy, but just as a sense of what could be. Mindfulness doesn't try to fix everything down but is about openness to change, even curiosity. Knowing the sort of qualities that we can wonder, what would it feel like if ... - for example, what would it feel like if I were more relaxed? more vividly alert? What would it be like if my mind were like a mountain lake, clear and still and deep ...
When we question and wonder in this way, typically what happens is that an automatic or non-volitional part of the mind answers. What would it feel like for the shoulders to soften and loosen? - and as if by magic it happens. (By the way, I might add that I regularly see this happen with biofeedback clients, when we're working with muscle tension biofeedback. We don't just imagine the softening, it actually happens.)
This kind of imagination is the basis of the power of mindfulness to transform the mind.
Mindfulness supports and is supported by balanced arousal. We want the body to be aroused enough that we feel alert and bright and lucid, not dull and sleepy, and yet not so aroused that we're agitated and anxious.
I'd like to mention a couple of sub-components of body regulation.
1. Ability to Fully Relax Muscles
It helps the mind to feel calm and steady and free if the body is too. Loosening muscles throughout the body allows the mind to calm down, and racing thoughts to quieten.
2. Ability to Breathe Optimally
Breathing is often the focus in mindfulness meditation - it's a rich field of experience that reflects (and is reflected in) the mind generally. Optimal breathing is part of the balanced arousal I've mentioned. Without going into details (of breathing physiology which I describe elsewhere), optimal breathing maximizes oxygen delivery to brain cells and can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms us. Optimal breathing creates helpful conditions for mindfulness.
Often we're instructed not to change the breathing in meditation. It's not that the breathing shouldn't change, but it's usually more effective if we can allow the body to change naturally and spontaneously, allow the breath to breathe itself. And it helps if we know what optimal breathing feels like.
Acceptance and Tolerance
Stress and distressing emotions, also painful sensations, is generally made worse when we internally resist or try to suppress these experiences. Of course it would be lovely if we could successfully get rid of unpleasant experiences but often we can't, at least not in the short term. Mindfulness involves noticing this resistance and letting go of it. That's what acceptance is: letting go of the internal struggle against unwanted aspects of your own experience.
Tolerance (as I'm using the term here) is very much related: it's the capacity to experience pain etc. without reacting and getting over-whelmed. Research suggests distress tolerance is a key component of well-being in general.
How do we let go? How can we train to get better at letting go? One part of the answer is to recognise that resistance manifests in the body as muscle tightening - as though we were bracing against some threat. This happens even when the perceived threat is nothing tangible but "merely" psychological. Noticing this physical tightening, and being able to relax muscles, creates the basis for the mental experience of letting go or acceptance.
In other words, acceptance or distress tolerance as a skill is founded on the underlying ability to regulate the body as I've described above.
Mindfulness when practised formally as meditation involves the intent to maintain the focus on some object such as the breath. When it wanders (as it will) the intent is to return to the object.
We're taught not to worry if and when the mind does wander, as the practice is all about coming back to the point of focus - but does it matter if we're highly distracted as opposed to only mildly distracted (as long as we keep coming back)? Is mindfulness practice more effective if our focus is better or more stable? This is perhaps contentious, but I would personally argue, from a practical point of view, yes it does matter. Effective mindfulness practice is when qualities such as clarity, contentment, emotional positivity etc. actually come into being. I don't think this happens when we're not there, or when we're off daydreaming, but when we are fully present. It takes time - the more time we are present the better. Also, if we're going to persist with mindfulness practice, it needs to be gratifying - we need to enjoy it. I think the practice is more gratifying the more stable our focus, or the less time we spend in distraction.
It's worth mentioning that stability of focus is supported by a balanced physiological arousal level (mentioned above) - again pointing to a hierarchy of component skills.
Response flexibility is basically the ability to pause before acting (or not acting), so that you can make a conscious choice rather than an unthinking reaction. (It's the opposite of being impulsive.) It's a very important skill for general well-being, but I would say it's part of what mindfulness is, or what you develop through mindfulness training, rather than being a component skill or a lower-level skill.
How Biofeedback Supports Mindfulness
Biofeedback is a tool that can support training of several of these component skills of mindfulness - most especially self-awareness and body regulation. I explain how more fully in this article on how biofeedback supports mindfulness. My business is about helping my clients overcome stress problems by training and developing mind-body skills using biofeedback. If this is of interest to you, please check out the rest of this site.
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