MINDFULNESS: A glance within
ANATOMY OF STRESS:
Bereavement, divorce, accident, estranged relationships, job redundancies, work deadlines, child’s future, abuse, murder, robbery, insults, financial worries; basically all of us are in someway predisposed to some such inescapable triggers. Based on past knowledge, experience, conditioning and mechanisms of coping, the brain interprets these situations in life and ascribe it as potentially dangerous or otherwise. Incase it construes it as danger, the Amygdala (part of the limbic system) who is entrusted with our survival comprising memory, decision-making, aggression and emotional processing component of the brain sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (also part of limbic system), the command center of the brain that establish a supreme connect with the rest of the body through the autonomous nervous system (ANS). ANS system works in an involuntary and reflexive manner without our conscious knowledge and controls the heart, blood vessels, muscles, glands, lungs, and systems (digestive, immune, reproductive, urinary etc.).
The ANS is sub-componentised into sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the doer and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the restorer. SNS triggers the fight or flight mode and to augment this condition the stress hormones adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol are fired up forthwith, heart is sent into pounding mode, tension is reinforced in the muscles, breath is shallow and quick, blood vessels are dilated, digestion is slackened, blood shunting occurs, senses are sharp as a tack and the body shudders with dread, terror or excitement thereby communicating to the brain that it is now in a condition of stress. This is body’s defense mechanism to combat danger and threat whether real or perceived.
The inducement of adrenaline (a gland residing on top of the kidney) in the blood is to combat short-term requirements of surge and boost to avoid imminent danger to the body for instance avoiding a predator, last-minute swerve to avoid an accident which later appear as if an instinctual driving skill has been demonstrated, combating a mugger, athletes sprinting for a 100 meter run and variants. As the effects of adrenaline plummet, the level of cortisol flowing in the veins rise. Cortisol is a longer lasting phenomenon i.e. it builds up slowly and takes longer to return to normalcy. As the adrenaline decrease and cortisol rise, the bad side effects of these stress hormones begin such as depression, anxiety, negative thoughts etc. This adrenaline feeling appears to be terrific initially, popularly termed as ‘adrenaline rush’ as it is preparing body for action and keeps the body in lickety-split action but this condition of SNS activation must subside once the threat is dissolved and reconstitutive process has to begin. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is entrusted with this role. It reverses the effects of flight or fight mode as soon as the threat is over and navigates the body to relaxation. PNS restores digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, circulates blood to non-vital organs, increases insulin activity and preserves stability indicating to the brain that revivification is on. Yet another sensational performance by the SNS & PNS duo.
Modern life doesn’t see predators (as in animal threat) or the civilized habitat of ours doesn’t accost any physical threats. One is relatively safe physically these days compared to the primeval period but the brain’s ability to discern real threat from perceived threat is diminished due to erroneous interpretation and thinking traps in the mind that influence people’s emotions and feelings. Strain and tautness with the boss at work, relationship bouts, friendship row, extremity of anxiety whilst viewing closely contested professional sports as in football, tennis etc., even though any of these is not a real threat, they are perceived by the brain as threats to one’s survival and the sympathetic nervous system is activated thereby firing up the release of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. If one has a proneness to constantly attract such stress into one’s life and if one shrieks out for an SNS-PNS performance encore to an unimaginative stretch, the recurrent stress levels can suppress the immune system, lead to a stroke and other somatic aggravation.
Sadly this is what most working people seem to invite into their life with financial worries, career progression, mental and physical abuse, parenting, future insecurities and relationship anxieties topping the charts. Certain level of stress smothers dangers such as preventing accidents or can also positively reinforce one’s state and alertness whilst preparing for a sales pitch or business negotiations or public speaking and also enhance performance in sports, music concert etc., but undue stress upsets one’s well being and is a clinical condition warranting intervention.
An inquest into the stress and depression demographics will churn out astounding statistics world over. It is just not a function of poverty, lack of recognition, abuse or financial worry alone; there are inexplicable reasons beyond these obvious stressors for many people. How else would you explain the depressive behaviour of the following famous and wealthy people; Princess Diana (postpartum depression, bulimia and self-inflicted injuries), Abraham Lincoln (Stress, anxiety, depression & inadequacy), J K Rowling (suicidal after separating from 1st husband), Buzz Aldrin (alcoholism & deep depression for 5 yrs., walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong), Mark Twain (depression during the last 15 yrs. of his life), Angelina Jolie (teen depression), Katherine Zeta Jones (Bipolar II disorder, 2010), Uma Thurman (years of depression), Sheryl Crowe( chronic childhood depression), Gwyneth Paltrow (postpartum depression) and there are hundreds of others the likes of Winona Ryder, Brooke Shields, Jim Carey and Owen Wilson all populating the stress and depression list. In their respective world be it Hollywood or the President’s office or the art & literary fraternity, all of them nursed perceptions that life is threatening, lonely and somber. Decompression is important in fact mandatory and of the many techniques that are available today such as Yoga, physical exercise, Tai Chi, NLP, deep abdominal breathing, visualization, creative reengagement, positive association, Reiki, aromatherapy, progressive muscle relaxation, avoiding alcohol, smoking and substance abstinence, psychotherapy, coaching, hypnotherapy, REBT etc., mindfulness is a powerful technique which we will delve into a bit more in this blog.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is the state of being totally conscious, aware, attentive and being sentient. This is attained by deliberately focusing awareness on the here and now, the present moment and calmly acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts, responsiveness, bodily sensations and traffic in the head. Instead of the accelerated gallop induced by life’s tasks, one awakens to experience. Mindfulness is a Buddhist conception and few of its therapeutic effects are reducing impulsivity, impairing memory temporarily to experience the now, distraction from worries and sustained attention on any task amongst others. Mindfulness is not just about relaxing; it is a way of being, remaining present, the art of consciously observing the world around you.
Jon Kabat-Zinn integrated mindfulness in its present form after his intense exposure to Yoga and Buddhism. He began teaching MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) and combines meditation with Hatha yoga. Later Segal, Williams and Teasdale developed the MBCT program (Mindfulness based cognitive therapy) based upon MBSR. Today MBCT is used to treat major depressive disorder, chronic conditions and relapse of depression.
How does one attain mindfulness? Here are a few methods none of which are new revelation, it is a collation for us to revisit and practice:
- Meditation. It is single point concentration and self-regulation and can be either for attaining a benefit such as centeredness or meditation itself can be an end due to its intrinsic bliss. Maharishi Mahesh yogi introduced Transcendental meditation to the west and later it was popularized by The Beatles. Mediation is helpful to placate depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and a range of health irregularities.
- Deep diaphragmatic breathing. Earlier we established breathing as an Autonomous nervous system (ANS) functioning of the brain, which means it happens unconsciously. In mindfulness, breathing is brought into consciousness and one remains attentive about it.
- Deliberate focus. Mindfulness can be developed during running, yoga, whilst walking in the park etc. Sleep cuts off mainstream consciousness and so does intoxication hence are at the other end of the spectrum in comparison to mindfulness.
- Single tasking as opposed to multitasking. Multitasking may have its benefits in a fast corporate world and can be done in moderation but avoid becoming a frenetic multi-tasker particularly in a non-work environment. Experience the soft moments, be there. Exhibiting an always busy disposition, excessive cell phone endearment and periodic scroll is either compulsive enslavement or perhaps ostentatious and needy for attention kind of stance.
- Deliberate inclusion of silence and ‘doing nothing’ for a few moments to regain perspective and composure.
- Decentering from COP (constraints of the past) or WAF (worries about the future) and keeping the mind in the here and now.
- Observing the zoning out behaviour and arresting it (driving, talking to children, watching a television program with family, at seminars, workshops, classrooms, corporate boardroom etc.)
Mindfulness is a vast topic if explicated in granularity but the purpose here is a gentle introduction into this contemplative concept and its intertwined association with stress, depression and anxiety alleviation. Ever wonder why our body to maintain its equilibrium didn’t endow us with a constantly positive thinking mind? Why is it that most people slip into negativity, catastrophisation and ensnared by pessimism at the slightest association with a challenge? Why does hypnotherapy, MBCT, MBSR, REBT, psychotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming and hordes of other techniques work therapeutically on the mind? Why do we need to pursue mindfulness at all? The answer is we have actually been endowed with a positive thinking mind at birth but the deep conditioning from our parents, relatives, friends, school, college, influencers basically whoever we associated with during our formative period were themselves untrained in seeking a sense of adventure and conquer challenges in their life needless to say due to their own conditioning. Because of this we were non-maliciously subjected to lack of appreciation, dearth of encouragement, restrain from risk, inadequate pat for unconventional approaches and so on.
This has altered the entire scripting in our brain and inundated us with limiting beliefs and inner constraints and we remain incarcerated within the confines of our perceived capabilities as against exploring the infinitude of our potential. We stopped thinking big, stifled our ambition and allowed ourselves to be diminutive in our ‘potential elicitation’ capabilities. The legacy is passed on by each successive generation to the next albeit with marginal improvements and the same behaviour is manifested. Well, insinuating that ‘all of us’ have inner constraints is not a right surmise. A movement called self-help and personal development as a religion exist out there and millions have found their drive and motivation to liberate themselves from their confined precincts of what they had construed as possible for them and what wasn’t. NLP, therapy, mindfulness and all the above mentioned techniques, why are they effective because their basic endeavour is to augment us to rescript our brain, rewire it and retire its negativity. MCBT rides on the coat tails of CBT (designed to address various thinking anomalies in the mind) and percepts of mindfulness. On an average we get 50000 thoughts per day the vast majority of which are senseless and absurd. Mindfulness amongst other techniques is hired to create redundancies in certain thoughts so that regulation occurs and the ones finally elicited are powerful, meaningful and consequential to our respective lives.