Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mindfulness: A New Relationship With Discomfort

We all hate discomfort, especially the emotional kind. Everyone avoids it. But, there are new therapeutic techniques that can actually help us tolerate it better by building a new relationship with it. Sounds crazy right? A new relationship with pain? WTF?

But, it works. It's called mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the ability of the mind to engage in experiencing a negative stimulus -- like a negative thought, a feeling of unease -- in a nonjudgmental way that places the individual in more of an observer position than a victim position.

Mindfulness is the capacity to identify and observe negative thoughts and feelings in the here-and-now, by responding to them more reflectively instead of reactively. It doesn't suggest the discomfort is a good thing, it just says that it IS.

The Mayo Clinic defines it as, "The practice of purposefully focusing our attention on the awareness of the present moment as it relates to our thoughts, feelings, sensations in our body and our sense of the environment around us."

We are learning via science that the brain has a keen ability to adapt and rewire itself known as neuroplasticity. It suggests that there are provable benefits to exercising the brain. Imagine your capability to focus on your brain like it was a muscle. As with any muscle it needs to be exercised as often as possible otherwise we risk atrophy. Hence with mindfulness, and like most muscles, it will strengthen with exercise.

Science has also suggested that mindfulness can lower cortisol levels in the brain (cortisol is known as the stress hormone), it lowers blood pressure and can also increase the immune system's ability to fight disease. Brains are not the previously considered inert masses that stop changing by the time we reach adulthood. They are more flexible than we ever thought.

Letting Go of Control:

Accepting your discomfort, be it worry or anxiety, etc., and not fighting it or trying to have complete control of it, is a concept used in everyday mindfulness training.

For example, patients who suffer from worry and anxiety believe that if they ever give up the battle and surrender to their symptoms, a torrent of even greater anxiety will overwhelm them and they will become incapacitated. But the exhausting effort they put into attempting to gain complete control can make symptoms worse.


When we let go in small increments and allow ourselves to be present in the discomfort for brief periods of time, we start to habituate to the symptoms. In other words, we start to see that we CAN indeed endure the extreme discomfort. Habituation means our brains are getting used to the angst and the angst then decreases in strength. Habituation helps to build emotional tolerance and also raises distress thresholds.

Imagine the "cold pool" analogy: If you jump into a cold swimming pool and splash around in it for a few minutes, after a while, the water starts to feel warmer. But, the temperature of the water has not changed. It's still really cold. This is the beginning of Habituation.

Giving up the Fight, Not the Cause:

So, let's be clear, letting go of control and allowing yourself to sit in the discomfort, in this context, does not mean giving up and letting your symptoms over-take you. It does not mean conceding defeat or becoming complacent with the status quo. It simply means you are accepting your symptoms by giving up the wretched fight but at the same time not giving up the cause. The cause to grow and not let symptoms rule you stays intact. That is one of the key factors of mindfulness.

Here are some examples of mindfulness affirmations used when dealing with the discomfort of anxiety or worry. Try to recite these to yourself when you're walking, exercising, driving your car, or if you are so inclined, when you meditate. They really help.

Acceptance does not mean giving in or conceding defeat to my anxiety

Acceptance does not mean submitting to my anxiety

It's OK to feel some anxiety every now and then

It's OK to let my guard down and trust that I can handle this

Being present with my worry from time to time helps build emotional tolerance

Being present with my worry from time to time helps raise my personal distress threshold

I don't have to listen to what my fears are telling me

I don't need to control my environment to feel safe

I will allow anxiety to run its course

I will try not to believe everything I think

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