We all know the little voice that chunters away at us whilst we are awake, often influencing our choices and behaviours. This inner dialogue structures our thoughts that emerge from our belief system, a system that has evolved since we started interacting with the world. That combination of our genetic blueprint and experience grooves the way we see ourselves and experience our lives.
The inner voice impacts enormously; can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Both our brilliant thoughts and destructive thoughts come from this dialogue, the balance of the two driving our behaviours at any given moment. So are we passively subject to the words uttered in our head or can we choose whether we listen or ignore?
I would argue that we can choose how we respond to the inner voice. We are not always very good at it, but we can improve. The thoughts that I refer to are those known as automatic thoughts. They just pop in there, frequently come in waves and can if not checked, habitually trigger emotional and physical responses. These responses are both positive and negative, although it seems we err towards the latter. Perhaps this is a survival instinct to tend toward cautionary options.
A negative thought that is ‘lived’, either dragging us back to an event in the past or one that exists in a future, is one we embody. We play it out via our physical existence. To the brain it is very real hence the feelings noted in the body. The brain does not differentiate between a thought and reality, the responses are similar. This leads to the question, how true are our thoughts? How close are they to reality? One could argue that if it is a thought about the past or the future, this cannot be reality because neither exist except in our heads. The past has gone. The future never comes.
To practice mindfulness means that we are paying attention to the present moment without judgement. For our thoughts that we cannot stop, we can be observant of the train that trundles through our head. But instead of letting it stop at every station and allowing a hullabaloo of passengers on an off, the train rolls on through with no or minimal impact. Thoughts come and thoughts go. It is only when we grab hold and play with them do the effects kick in. This sounds very simple and in practice, mindfulness is a simple concept. The truth is that it takes practice, although even after a few weeks of dedicated training, the effects are noticed.
The effects of mindful practice are far reaching in our body systems: for example, reduced muscle tension, clearer thinking, less pain, increased happiness, reduced inflammation, reduced rumination, increased energy, increased awareness, better relationships — sounds good doesn’t it? And the reason for these feel good factors? By and large we can say that it is due to reducing the threats in life that are consistently triggering protective responses in the body that include pain, tension, deteriorating performance at work and unhappiness. All the time that we are associating ourselves with our thoughts, defining ourselves with our thinking and letting the body systems protect in response to thoughts, we will be affecting our physical and mental health, and our ability to live — the essence of suffering.
I use mindfulness training as part of the comprehensive treatment and training programmes for chronic pain for the reasons outlined above. There is no mystery, no religious or spiritual connotation, but rather a simple way of training the mind to focus upon what you want to focus upon and not passively following the wandering mind. Remember that you cannot stop thinking and thoughts arising, that is the mind’s job. But you can become skilled at deciding whether to respond or just let it go, hence minimising the body’s responses and feelings of anxiety, stress and pain. It is important to point out that feelings of stress and anxiety are normal and actually desirable survival mechanisms that prepare us and motivate us for the right action, but in the short term and not in a prolonged manner that causes distress, suffering and an amplification of pain. So, take action, learn how to hear the voice but decide whether to respond or let it go.
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