An accidental form of control: when mindfulness produces happiness ACTing Well, Living Well iv

I’ve had some success while working with a man I’ll call Peter.  He’s got chronic pain, and has been incredibly fearful of what it might mean – in fact, you’d probably call him a classic catastrophiser because each time his pain flared up he immediately thought it was something like cancer and he would rush off to his GP or the Emergency Department to have it checked out.  Luckily any scans he’s had haven’t shown anything operable because I’m sure with the amount of distress he was been experiencing, he would have been able to persuade a surgeon to operate had there been anything odd-but-common found.

We’ve been using mindful breathing as a way to get in touch with the sensations, emotions and thoughts that occur to him, and especially ‘making room for’ the thoughts his mind has been telling him of needing to check his body for symptoms, for the nauseous feeling he gets when his mind starts to worry, and for the painful sensations that he experiences throughout his body.  It’s been a real learning experience for him to find that he can be willing to experience these symptoms without judging them, and, as seems to happen for many people, he’s been finding that they disappear or reduce over the five minutes or so we do the exercise.

Now this is a trap for young players and older ones too.  While it’s nice to find that sometimes mindfulness can produce peace, relaxation and calm – that’s not the point of being mindful!  The point of being mindful is to be open to experience whatever happens.  And for those people who do experience a reduction in negative emotions, sensations or thoughts, the very reduction can begin to form a subtle type of control.  The thinking goes something like this

“I feel uncomfortable.  Quick! I’ll do some mindful breathing – and then that feeling will go!”

Sounds a lot like ‘experiential avoidance’ – although perhaps slightly more effective than running around keeping busy to avoid the negative feeling, or trying very hard to ignore the feeling, or perhaps catastrophising.

Why would we worry about this?  Does it really matter if someone does start to use ‘mindful breathing’ as a way to reduce symptoms?

Well yes.  There will be times when even though the person is using mindful breathing to ‘sit with’ something negative, the negative experience doesn’t reduce, doesn’t fade, and may even increase.  That’s not the point of mindfulness – it’s about accepting whatever happens, allowing it to be there AND CONTINUING TO COMMIT TO ACTIONS that move in valued directions.

The problem with hoping that mindfulness will reduce symptoms or thoughts is that when it doesn’t reduce these, the temptation can be to feel distressed – and stop the mindfulness.  And after stopping the mindfulness it can be very difficult to carry on doing the actions that will ultimately enact values.  That wonderful mind can kick in and accuse the person of ‘being stupid’, ‘wasting time’, ‘doing this dumb thing that doesn’t even work’ – this usually brings more negative emotion along for the ride, and ultimately doesn’t help.

So what to do?

I’m still learning this, but I think I’m going to mention that mindfulness is about allowing what will be to be.  And being ready to carry on with valued actions despite this.

I think this might be one of the hardest things to do – I’ll let you know how I go!


    1. Hi Barbara
      I’ve seen some of your posts – it’s great to see how widely mindfulness and acceptance is being used, and how effective it is over time. I try to use it myself, and often fail (of course!) and I have certainly found it effective with pain from FM and when I’ve had my surgeries over the past year. It’s a challenge to use it in other settings, not pain-related, though (like when caught in traffic or in a meeting where things are not quite working the way I’d like them to!). I am enjoying learning the ACT approach, and something I really like about it is the need to use it as a therapist in order to really use it with the people I work with. Makes for a much more authentic and honest relationship I think. cheers

  1. Thanks for posting another of your wonderful photos on your blog. The interplay of the of the curve of the brook so lively receding into the quiet stillness draws my eye along into the picture. And how marvelous that you were able to capture the “air made visible” in the sunlight. The contrasting edges of the straight grasses against the serrated edges of the ferns … brain supplies a burbling, gurgling soundtrack without any conscious effort on my part as I visually feast on this scene.

    A definite inducement to pause, breathe and contemplate.

    1. You’re very welcome! This is an interesting creek called ‘Kerosine Creek’ and is found just outside Rotorua in the North Island. What is interesting about it is that it’s actually thermal and the misty stuff you can see is mist because the water is warm enough even in mid-winter (which is when this shot was taken) to bath in (it’s bath temperature!). Stunning thing to be able to do – sit in the bush with the tui and bellbirds and fantails all around, in hot water in the middle of winter!

  2. Here’s a thought. Mindfulness is not about reducing pain. Mindfulness is about reducing suffering. As long as Peter is sitting with his pain and allowing it to be, he will be reducing suffering, even if the pain is still there.

    1. Yes I think that’s the difference between trying to eliminate or minimise pain, and learning to live alongside pain. The main point of this post is that according to ACT, mindfulness is about openness to experience, rather than using a technique as a means to avoid a certain experience because it is ‘negative’. It seems strange, but by doing this, the suffering element seems to be far less than if pain is avoided or minimised!

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