Conversations are one of life’s great pleasures. Lost in communication with another is a wonderful place to be. At some point though, one may realise that the most frequent conversations are with the same individual. Yourself.
We are all subject to a greater or lesser extent, to mind chatter. The meandering mind that grabs our attention with thoughts, some recurring around the same theme, is part of being who we are. As humans we do have the ability to think and to think about our own thinking (metacognition). It is a very useful characteristic, allowing us to reflect, learn and plan, however it can also be our downfall when rumination is uncontrolled and dwells upon negative thinking.
The natural variation in mood is normal. Sometimes we feel up and sometimes we feel down. Both are transient, however if we are on a bit of a downward slope and something negative happens via a thought or perhaps a comment from someone, the impact is greater than if we are in a good space. It is when there are prolonged dips in mood that problems arise, as we are simply not taught how to shift emotional gears. Some people are natural optimists and can change their mood with ease, but there are many who find this very difficult and become stuck. This is especially the case if chronic pain or anxiety are part of the picture.
Negative thoughts are not all bad though. They do act as a warning that we need to attend to something so that we can feel better. There is a biological reason and this is a useful system of vigilance but only if used appropriately and not repeatedly, ie/ rumination. Often we first notice our body via tension or butterflies in the stomach before realising that there is a worrying thought lurking. Most biological processes continue to operate below our conscious level, with only those that our brain needs us to attend to becoming conscious experiences, ie/ the world we experience as constructed by the brain – see previous blog here.
So, what can we do to gain control. Mindfulness is a practice that has rightly gained momentum over recent years. Many fads come and go, but this strategy is so very potent, transforming our abilities, that I suspect it is here to stay, especially with the wealth of research demonstrating effect and highlighting the brain mechanisms.
Mindfulness is steeped in history, however the principles are equally applicable within the frantic modern world. We are bombarded with millions of stimuli each day, responding as best we can. Some are more sensitive than others and will be subject to the repeated body responses to these stimuli, often in a protective manner. This is the essence of stress that is a physiological effort to restore balance within the body. Often we need to be aware and this is when the brain raises our conscious level to become vigilant. Unfortunately this can become habitual in cases of chronic stress and anxiety when the salient network becomes over-vigilant with subsequent over-response (eg/ panic attacks).
Mindfulness is a way to tackle this problem in a practical way. The skill is about focusing your attention where you wish to as opposed to following the wandering mind. Being aware of the thought process rather than living it out is a powerful way of changing the habits. Typically we respond to thoughts and ‘play the tape’ with very real body responses as if we are there. The brain does not differentiate between us just thinking about a situation and actually being in that situation, the responses are similar. This is why we feel nervous when thinking about giving that speech, even though we are not really there. This can be useful initially so that we are driven to adequately prepare, ie/ reduce the threat. By being aware of the present moment rather than dwelling in the past or constructing a future, neither of which really exist except in our minds (created by us as an emergent thought of what maybe – again useful for planning but not useful if the process continues to repeat itself), we can become observant of our thinking and respond proactively to those thoughts that are useful. In fact, being able to say to yourself, ‘this is just a thought’ is a way to disarm potent thoughts that drive emotional and physical responses.
A thought -> an emotion -> a physical response
Like any worthwhile skill, mindfulness takes a good amount of practice each day. I typically begin with the ‘little and often’ approach, chunking the training into small bouts, 2-5 minutes. This can be done at home lying down, sitting at your desk or on the train. It maybe useful initially to practice somewhere quite as there are many distractions that are increasingly observed rather than drive of responses.
There are wider benefits of mindfulness including clarity of thought by de-cluttering the mind, the development of resilience, improving focus and hence performance at work and on the sports field, reduced tension in the body, easing of pain and certainly a decrease in feelings of anxiety.
To learn more please call us: 07932 689081 or visit our clinic website: Specialist Pain Physio Clinics