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!