Tag Archives: Mindfulness

Who Is Normal, Anyway? Part V

29 Nov

There is always some reason in madness

– Friedrich Nietzsche

V – What Does Work?

There are no simple fix-all cures, but there are techniques and tricks that can help.

Everything you do rewires your brain, alters your brain chemistry. Even making a cup of tea. What really beds in change is regular practice. For example musicians and taxi drivers significantly change their brains due to their practice. Neuroplasticity shows how we can rewire our brains to great advantage – recent research shows that we create thousands of new neurons each day, even into old age.

And so talk therapies can leverage this to get the root of the problem and literally rewire the brain. For example, many therapies can give you tricks to push your mind out of the negative rumination that is at the core of the destructive cycle of depression.

Study after study backs this up. And the evidence is clear that although drugs may reduce some symptoms in the short term as much as these therapies, the relapse rate with drugs is more than double that of these approaches.

Jonah Lehrer said: “patients who escaped depression with the help of anti-depressants, and then stopped taking the drugs, relapsed about 70 percent of the time. The chemical boost was temporary. However, during the 18 month follow-up period, only 28 percent of patients in mindfulness therapy slipped back into the mental illness. What we often forget is that therapy alters the chemical brain, just like a pill. It’s easy to dismiss words as airy nothings and talk therapy as mere talk. Sitting on a couch can seem like such an antiquated form of treatment. But the right kind of talk can fix our broken mind, helping us escape from the recursive loop of stress and negative emotion that’s making us depressed. Changing our thoughts is never easy and, in severe cases, might seem virtually impossible. We live busy lives and therapy requires hours of work and constant practice; our cortex can be so damn stubborn. But the data is clear: If we are seeking a long-lasting cure for depression, then it’s typically our most effective treatment.

In fact, psychotherapy and mindfulness mediation can even alleviate physical conditions, for example gastritis and tinnitus.

There’s a better way to understand people with psychological problems: psychologists and psychiatrists use formulation: “we don’t ask what is wrong with someone, rather we ask what has happened to them.

There are so many different theraputic approaches:

Psychoanalysis looks at childhood, emotional drives, and the unconscious, usually drawing from Freud, Jung and the like.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – rather than delving into the past looks at your perceptions, emotions and behaviour in the present.

Systemic Therapy – looks at a person as defined by their relationships with other people.

Body Psychotherapy is pretty cool – using the body to gain a greater awareness of mind. After all the mind would not exist as it is, without the inputs from the body. I’ve tried Focusing and found it effective.

Mindfulness is an approach I’ve been using for a few years and, while I don’t have issues with depression or the like, it has helped me to sleep better, to relax more, to appreciate the moment, and maintain more healthy relationships. Self awareness is what this practice gives you, which is the first and hardest step towards change, as most therapists will agree.

Point is, there are plenty of approaches, so you can choose the style that best suits you and your problems.

Part IV – Psychiatry in the previous post.

Insomnia

17 Apr

Insomnia sharpens your maths skills because you spend all night calculating how much sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right now.

– Anon

Like one in four of the population, I get problems sleeping. I tend to wake up in the middle of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep again. Others I know struggle getting to sleep in the first place.

Experts aren’t completely sure what sleep is for, though we know that it has lots of health benefits, physical and mental. But learning about these really doesn’t help you getting to sleep, it just makes you more frustrated.

So in the years of getting pissed off by lack of sleep, I’ve picked up lots of tips. There is no panacea, but with a combination of physical and mental approaches, you can go a long way.

Physical

  • if you’ve been lying awake in bed for a long time, get up and move around – this releases tension in the body, and takes the mind off whatever thoughts are distracting you from sleep.
  • wash your face – I can’t remember the details of the research I read on this, but the face being cool helps getting to sleep.
  • don’t eat sugary snacks before bedtime – slow release energy is better, such as cereal with milk, or yoghurt with granola. If you have chocolate for example, your blood sugar will drop shortly afterwards, and your body will wake you up for you to get food. Slow release energy will keep the blood sugar stable so you are more likely to stay asleep.
  • get lots of sun in the day time, avoid light before bedtime and keep your bedroom dark – there’s a little receptor in the back of the eye, not used for seeing, that is sensitive to blue light. The blue light makes your body suppresses melatonin production. In the dark, the body produces melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Getting this light at the right time of day helps to regulate your sleep cycle. It’s interesting that for me sleep is better in summer and worse in winter. I’ve recently got a daylight bulb in the living room, and a daylight lamp in the office. And the corollary is to stay clear of strong light the hour before bedtime. If you must use a computer or mobile phone, get an app that reduces the blue light (you can use f.lux for the PC and there are plenty of mobile apps available).
  • it may be an obvious suggestion, but no drinks after 8pm is good idea – a full bladder can wake you up.
  • keep the same sleep schedule on weekends as you do during the week.
  • steer clear of the drugs – they may be of help in the short term if you’re desperate, but in the long term they can have really messed up side effects, and can often make the problem worse.

Mental

  • try not to get annoyed and frustrated about it. That keeps you awake longer. Acceptance really helps. It’s interesting to know that back in the day two sleeps of around four hours was the norm – in between sleeps they’d get up for a few hours and chat, eat, or even indulge in a spot of rumpy pumpy.
  • if you have things on your mind, write them down before sleep. Even if you feel like you don’t have anything consciously going on, it may be worth writing whatever comes to mind when you can’t sleep.
  • the standard advice is to keep your bedroom for sleep only; don’t have a telly, or use it as an office.

Often with insomnia, the mental state when lying in bed is key. It’s easy to get stuck in the mind, perhaps re-living a past event, or thinking about the future. Maybe getting stuck in a loop. There are two approaches here: calming the mind, or taking your focus out of the mind altogether.

  • mindfulness, is a great way to break out of that cycle and relax the mind. I did a mindfulness course last year and it has a lot of benefits. I know it sounds like airy-fairy nonsense, but take it from an inveterate skeptic: there is a lot of scientific evidence behind it. Check out my recent post on the topic.
  • try to take your focus out of your mind. An easy one is just wriggling your toes, maybe once with every breath. Another approach is the body scan – it’s a mindfulness exercise that works most times with me.
  • while I would normally agree with the mindfulness training I’ve done, and say that watching the breath without controlling it is preferable, when trying to sleep I think slowing the breathing down is useful, as it can help to calm the body and mind.

Alternatives

It’s worth bearing in mind that insomnia can, in many cases, be a reaction to life circumstances. Much like depression, it can have great utility; when we have a problem, laying awake at night can be a way the mind gets our attention that we have a problem to solve. Also, as described here, it can give us the time, free from interruption, where we can contemplate our situation away from the mundane pressures of the day, and come up with solutions to improve our lot.

As a result many recommend CBT as a way to beat insomnia.

And if you’re up for trying something a bit more edgy, get a load of lucid dreaming.

I do hope some of these suggestions are helpful. I’ve largely beaten this issue using the mindfulness techniques, but if you have other things that have helped you, feel free to add them below.

Mindfulness

8 Nov

Some people are instinctively cynical when mindfulness is mentioned. It can bring to mind new age, eastern, woo-woo nonsense.

However, when you take away some of the cultural and religious trappings around these mind practices, then you will find some very simple techniques that have surprisingly effective results.

Results that are proven by evidence.

Its popularity is steadily increasing: school children are taught it to help them get past exam stress and US marines are even trained in the practice.

What Is It?
Mindfulness is a purposeful awareness of your experience in the present moment.

The core of the technique is being aware of your breathing.

Once you’ve got that going it is expanded to get you paying attention to each thought or feeling.

Another way to describe it is as a state of clear, “present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. [It] is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance“.

A non-judgmental attitude is key – it means that you sit with your experience, whether good or bad, and accept it for what it is.

And that’s pretty much it.

What Has It Done For Me?
The benefits are wide ranging and no less than profound.

I began by doing a short 4 week course and immediately noticed the benefits. It reduced my insomnia like no other solution.

The increased self-awareness it brings means that I see more clearly how I am reacting to a situation. I am aware of my emotional response, and can see more clearly the choice I have of whether to allow that emotion to drive my actions, or to choose another path. This has clear applications in conflict situations. With this self awareness comes a greater awareness of how others respond to my actions too.

Given the increased awareness of the moment this mindset brings, I am able to enjoy the small things more. Simply paying close attention to the sensations when I’m eating a sandwich means it can become a much richer experience. Even something like doing the washing up can be more enjoyable.

I’ve also found it’s helped me to improve my concentration, because after all, it is at its core, exercising the ability to focus. Focus is closely related to willpower, which has been proven to be something we can improve.

The ability to focus in this way means that I can step back from the current swirl of thoughts in my mind. In this state I often find that important things I was forgetting bubble up to my conscious mind.

What Else Can It Do?
In these days, with so much data to look at, with so many demands on our time, to have the ability to better focus our attention, and to become aware when we’ve got distracted, is an invaluable skill.

Not only has mindfulness been clinically proven to reduce stress, blood pressure, depression and anxiety, but it has also been proven to help people sleep better, work more effectively and improve their personal and professional relationships. It even helps people cope with chronic pain.Be Mindful Online

Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.Sam Harris

It reduces rumination, something at the core of the depressive mindset. It has been shown to reduce depression and bipolar symptoms. Increasing awareness, as every psychologist will say, is the first and hardest step in dealing with psychological problems.

Chade-Meng Tan describes how, when using these techniques, you watch your emotions and realise they are not you, but something you experience. “Therefore they are not permanent, they are changeable. This attitude, while seemingly simple, can bring great solace, and eventually significant change to people suffering from limiting psychological problems.

Jonah Lehrer said: “patients who escaped depression with the help of anti-depressants, and then stopped taking the drugs, relapsed about 70 percent of the time. The chemical boost was temporary. However, during the 18 month follow-up period, only 28 percent of patients in mindfulness therapy slipped back into the mental illness.

It can give you a greater awareness of your physical state, and of bodily reactions to your environment. It can even boost your immune system.

Neurological Effects
Andrew Newberg describes how brains scans of lifetime meditators show that “there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being.

Regular practitioners of mindfulness show increased activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is implicated in emotional responses such as fear, whereas the frontal cortex shows activity when exercising executive control, planning, etc. This means you become more able to control your emotional reactions.

How Can I Try It?
So give it a go. Sam Harris has published a helpful guided 9 minute meditation to start you off.

And if you really want to train yourself in the habit I recommend this online course. It costs £60, takes 4 weeks, and you’ll need to set aside a little time every day to do it. It gives guided meditations, instructional videos, and resources to help you track your progress.

Here are some great micro-goals to get you easily into the habit, and more tips here.

It’s a great practice that helps you enjoy the present moment and engage with life to produce a richer experience.

Bell

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