Anyone that has seen me for counseling knows I am big advocate of meditation and what it can do for mental health. I think of meditation as brain training and don't we all need some help working with our overactive, negative, why-can't-you-just-do-what-I-asked-you-to-do minds? Yes, mediation has become a huge buzzword nowadays. And when that happens, I think it's easy to dismiss something as a passing fad. But here's why I think meditation as a therapeutic tool is likely to stick around:
Meditation is proven to calm our bodies during times of stress and anxiety
When we are experiencing stress and anxiety, our bodies react: muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, digestive issues and headaches. Not fun, right? Most of these physiological symptoms are out of our control. Even more not fun. But what we are in control of is our breathing. When we engage in deep breathing (which is so much of what meditation is) our heart rate begins to slow down. This in turn relaxes our bodies and eventually our minds. This is why deep breathing is so often recommended in moments of high stress. Likewise, ongoing meditation helps us learn to be more in tune with our bodies and notice when our stress level is increasing.
Meditation helps us be more aware of our negative thoughts
I think of counseling as self-study and part of that self-study is knowing yourself physically and mentally. One of the most common struggles I believe practically every person experiences is negative thoughts, and more specifically, negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is essentially our own inner critic, those thoughts that pop up out of blue that are upsetting, anxiety-inducing or sometimes just plain mean. It's the "you're not good enough" or "you will fail at this" or the "this will go wrong." We all experience this to some degree or another. It can be debilitating and change the choices you make in your life or how you see yourself. The sad truth is that none of those thoughts are true. This is the brain's go-to way of thinking, it's baseline. Our brains were built for survival, so they are always on the lookout for danger, whether physical or emotional. But the good news is we can take control of this process. When we are able to observe our negative thoughts without reacting, challenge those thoughts and decide what we want to focus on, we regain control. Think of it like you are the author changing the story and you have control over the narrative. Now, all of this is easier said than done. Not listening to the BS stories in our mind is hard. As a human, I struggle with this process everyday. Thankfully, meditation can help with that process. Meditation turns our awareness on, which lets us 1) notice what we are thinking, 2) how often we are thinking it and 3) the effect it has on us. The more time we devote to a daily meditation practice and staying mindful throughout the day, the better our awareness becomes. This lets us quickly catch our inner critic.
When we are more aware of our negative thoughts, we take away their power
Our brains are divided into two parts: emotional and rational. Our rational mind operates on logic, reason and facts. Think of it like a robot in a sci-fi movie. It lives on logic. Our emotional mind on the other hand is based on just that: emotions. This is where our anger, sadness, joy, jealousy, rage, and fear live. It is the combination of both of our positive and negative emotions. Majority of time, we react and behave out of emotional mind. Why? Because we feel our emotions stronger than we feel logic. Consider how anger feels, or the intensity of jealousy or the feeling of bliss. We feel that so much deeper than our rational mind. Emotional mind hooks us. Think of the last time you indulged a habit you rationally knew was not good for you. Whether it was binge watching Netflix for too long, eating more sugar than you needed or spending hours mindlessly on your phone. Rationally you knew it was not the most productive choice. But it is hard to resist because of the emotions we feel when engaged in those tasks. Our thoughts work the same way. We can rationally know our negative thoughts are unrealistic or mean, but emotionally we feel them.
What mindfulness helps us do is learn when we are in emotional or rational mind. When we observe our thoughts and emotions, we are no longer just reacting to them. We can step back, look at those thoughts and say "what a minute, that's not true" or "damn, my inner critic is being a jerk right now." Being able to take control of that process is incredibly powerful. You no longer are your negative thoughts or feelings; you are the observer to them. Before, maybe your negative thoughts and emotions were driving the car and you were in the passenger seat, along for the ride. Now, YOU get to drive the car. And you get to decide where to go and what you want to focus on. This creates a whole new level of mastery.
Mindfulness allows us to enjoy the present and experience more joy
If your mind struggles to stay focused on the present because of worry thoughts, you are not alone. The majority of people struggle with staying present, even if the present is great. Part of this is due to the times we are living in and the accessible distractions we have at our fingertips (social media, apps, email). But it's also largely due to the fact that our minds resist being in the present. The mind likes to be anywhere but the present. When you start practicing meditation on a consistent basis, your mind will become more familiar with being in the present. This means your mind will be able to savor the good times and stay focused on your joy. You'll be able to take in the sounds, sensations and feelings that are in the present. Will some worry thoughts still try to sneak in? Of course. But you will be better at noticing when that is happening and bringing your focus back to the present, instead of going down the rabbit hole of worry.
Being mindful makes daily life more manageable
Try to picture of all of your thoughts and worries, all jumbled together. Now imagine all of those thoughts and worries as one big, thick fog. Pretend you are standing on a road that is split in two directions. You are trying to look ahead. But the fog is in your way. Can you see in front of you? Do you know which direction you want to go? Chances are, no. And how could you? That massive fog is in your way. That's what our mind does. We cannot focus on what is in front of us because we are too bogged down by our thoughts and worries. Now, let's imagine that fog is gone, or at least has significantly cleared where you can see in front of you. Easier to decide where to go, right? When we focus on the present, just the present, life is much easier to manage. We are not thinking about tomorrow, or yesterday, or our fears and worries. We are just in the moment, facing what is in front of us. Sure, there are times when we need to think ahead in order to make a decision and plan. But most of the time, our mind gives us too much information and has us focusing on things that are not necessary for making a decision. When we are in the moment, the road ahead is much clearer.
Now, with any therapeutic tool or lifestyle change, it is all easier said than done. The same for a meditation practice. But just like a muscle, the more you flex it, the stronger it becomes. In the next few weeks I'll discuss ways to begin a meditation practice and other mindfulness tips. With time and patience, you can become the driver to your mind, instead of the passenger along for the ride.