Monday, January 14, 2013

Naming Your Thoughts

I used to have an eating disorder. For a good few years growing up I believed that it was a part of me and something I would always have to live with.

As I have gotten past my disorder -- through a mix of mindfulness and psychologist sessions -- I've realized that I identified so strongly with the disease because of the ever-present nature of my analytical and critical thoughts. They were always with me, ergo, I am a hopeless and eating-disordered person.

Not one day would pass without thinking about food or myself in such a negative way that I would purge, exercise obsessively or deny myself food. I would be upset, unhappy and then after I made myself sick I would feel light, free and happy for as long as it took to eat something else. Then the cycle would repeat and I would be unhappy and incredibly negative to myself. I was cruel to the point that I would make myself be sick to punish myself for being so weak as to eat food.

The negative thoughts had so much power because I believed in them. I didn't have the ability to discern the helpful thoughts from the unhelpful thoughts. I didn't even know about mindfulness and I was pretty much powerless against my urges to restrict food and was being submitted to bullying - from myself - every day. So I was trapped.

After I began seeing a psychologist the disorder lessened, and then once I started mindfulness I was able to name the thought patterns that still visited me every once in a while. That's one of the key techniques in mindfulness: Naming stories, emotions and thoughts.

Let's take a further look at what naming thoughts is.

Say you're out shopping and you stop and buy a big cream bun - oh hell, why not two - and you sit down and eat it, it's so tasty, you really enjoy it. But immediately after the last smudge of cream has been licked from the paper wrapping with your finger, your mind kicks in. The happiness at eating that tasty treat is gone, replaced with "Oh well done fat fuck. Nice going. Why don't you reach down and try and grab your ass with less than four hands. I hate you. Go and throw that up RIGHT NOW."

After your mind goes into this mode you have a couple of options. You might assume the hopeless and meek response - listening to and believing your mind, so you go into the bathroom, drink heaps of water and then puke all the tasty up. Or you might go home, run 8km and then not eat at all for the rest of the day. That's the non-mindful approach and the one that made me into a self-esteem-less babe for about 10 years.

You don't wanna do that.

You wanna eat this without difficult thoughts? Me too!

The mindful approach takes a different tack. Instead of instantly 'fusing' with the negative thoughts and believing them, you become aware of thoughts occurring in the mind. You listen to them, make room for them to be just as they are, without trying to change them or control them (because you can't) and then you name them. (Sometimes this is really fucking hard. Sometimes your mind wants to win so bad. But practice your mindful meditation and you'll get there.)

Your mindful approach say, "Oh hey, there's that 'Laura is fat and hopeless story' that my mind sometimes comes up with." The mindful approach recommends that sometimes you can thank your mind after becoming aware of the story (yeah, I struggled with this one at first - it seems so silly, but give it a shot, you might get to like it) for being able to come up with such crazy shit. Then you just gotta chill with the thoughts, breathe, and let them be.

And that's naming stories. It can work with emotions (such as, 'oh there's anger, or frustration or anxiety') as well as thoughts (such as 'I'm having the thought that I should throw up my food - that's interesting but unhelpful, so I'm not going to believe it or pay attention to it').

It must be noted that the object of mindfulness isn't to try and get rid of your thoughts, even though a side effect of mindfulness is sometimes that the intensity or occurrence of unpleasant thoughts becomes less. The object is to just let thoughts be.

I've included a short track from the people at Living Well here which explains thoughts really well. (Living Well is a resource for men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or assault and has some really thoughtful information. I chose this track because it's relevant and clear.)

Anyway. Try this track out, check out the meditations and practice some when you can.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Positively Saturday

You know those days you get sometimes, when you start thinking about a job/meeting/person or something that makes you a bit uneasy, or it might be something hard, like a difficult emotion. What ever it is, your mind will wander onto that topic and before you know it, shit's snowballing in your brain and you're awash with anxiety and getting close to something resembling a panic attack.

That happened to me today as I went to the markets with my sister. It was a nice day, we'd just had a nice ride through the morning sun into town and as I waited for my coffee to be made I started quietly thinking about the fact that I have to get a new job. As I thought about it I began feeling a bit despondent because I've applied for like 100 jobs (but really only like, 30) and had no calls back. A couple of rejection letters, yeah, but no calls. Anyway I'm getting way off topic. The point is I was sitting there just about to drink a coffee with this whirlwind of thoughts ripping around inside my head.

As I had nothing else to distract me, I started adding to the mess: No job? Yeah. No job. Also, you have nothing to do today, no social engagements. You suck.

I didn't catch myself in time, got overwhelmed as fuck and started doing little rabbit sniffles into my coffee. It hadn't helped that I had burned myself with my coffee...

It was uncomfortable as it was thinking about my job-less state, burnt finger, and now I had a critical voice inside my head going 'Ha-HA! You are a failure! No job and now look. You're CRYING in public!'

My immediate response was to try and rationalize how I was feeling, and to fight back at this voice by listing the positive things I have done or at least, am trying to do.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't really work.

I didn't actually use mindfulness at that time to help myself realize a helpful thought versus unhelpful though scenario, but on reflection I think it's because I was feel stressed and my sister also stepped in and tried to help me with positive talk. Sorta like, everything will be ok, you'll get a job etc.

Note: I do like positive people, positive talk and positive situations but I just don't think it works to help me to live a less anxious life. Positivity, that is. I'm somewhat cynical and I just think that accepting a situation and the thoughts you're having as something you can't and shouldn't try to control is more powerful than 'being positive'. Trying to use positivity against some of the negative thoughts I (and some of you, I'm sure) have is like throwing an adorable and very fluffy white bunny into a wolf den. It might make the picture cuter for like, a nano-second, but the bad-thought-wolves will tear that positively fluffy bunny to ribbons.

I mentioned 'helpful' thoughts before and a key component of mindfulness is recognizing whether a thought is helpful or unhelpful. In order to identify this, you need to work out what your values are and then work out what thoughts are helpful for you to achieve or maintain this core value. I will be posting more about this next.

So anyway, the end of the story is that I got anxious and sad and didn't use mindfulness, but I reflected on the situation and realized that I would have benefited from a mindful approach. Duh.

One more thing I wanted to leave you with today is a series of quick questions designed to look at how anxiety is linked to thoughts. It's taken from this article and is a great read for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of identifying and challenging unhelpful thinking. Not too much psychological lingo and an interesting view.

Here's the possible questions a psychologist might ask to establish the relationship between thoughts and emotions:

"Cognitive–behavioural therapists emphasise unhelpful thinking styles because they recognise a link between the view individuals take of a situation and the impact that this has on how they feel emotionally and physically, and on the altered behaviours that result.This reciprocal relationship can be identified by looking at a specific time when mood has worsened and then asking a series of questions such as:‘When you were in the pub with your friends at what point did you feel most anxious?’‘How anxious did you feel at that time on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is feeling no anxiety at all and 100 is the most anxious you have ever felt?’‘At that moment when you came back from the toilet and your friends were all laughing and you felt 95% anxious, what was going through your mind?’‘When you noticed the thought “They think I’m an idiot and will end up rejecting me”, how much did you believe it at the time, on the same 0 to 100 scale?’‘Is it possible that that thought and how anxious you felt are linked?’"
I would recommend reading the article to understand thoughts and how they impact on your life, and then doing a mindfulness meditation about thoughts to better understand how they enter your mind and how you can notice them. I've included a meditation here for you, if you like it, great! If not, check out some of the others on the web at Free Mindfulness.

Anyway, here's the thoughts and sounds meditation. Find a quiet spot, sit up straight and enjoy your practice!

 TMG x

p.s. I got a call about a job while writing this post and I have a trial on Tuesday. Yay!!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mind full? Mindful!

Hi. Welcome to this blog about a mindful life.

So, who am I?

I'm a girl in my mid twenties originally from Brisbane, Australia and I recently returned home from overseas only to find myself at a crossroads. Instead of my usual freak out about too many choices, I'm now ready to tackle whatever I make the future hold for me.

And why? Well, while traveling I 'discovered' mindfulness for myself and it's been life changing so far, so it's here that I'm going to share my experience with you.

I first heard of mindfulness about a year ago when a psychologist friend began running some short courses on mindfulness and meditation and I must admit, at first I didn't really get it. OK, truthfully I didn't just 'not get it' I thought it was stupid as hell and in no way was I going to try it. I heard these same friends talk about how it was a way to manage anxiety, stress and other life dramas but, being me (stubborn/also sometimes ignorant) I knew it wouldn't work for me. My method for getting rid of anxiety (booze, exercise, distraction) was working just fine. But yeah it also totally wasn't. Plus there's the whole "Toughen up, everyone else is going through what you are and they're doing fine." Right? Also no, but we'll get to that later.

Oh, and did I mention I'm stubborn as fuck and headstrong so if anyone is going to do anything for me I'm going to come up with it? So I ignored mindfulness for a while and continued to quietly self-distruct. Nothing major - just wasn't getting anywhere. I kept repeating the same cycles and getting frustrated - thus digging the hole further.

In my teenage years and early 20s I struggled with the standard issues: no idea what to do after school,  dabbling in anti-social 'activities' to avoid responsibility, some standard (and not so standard) relationship dramas, aimless fluffing about, etc. I had good friends and plenty of good times, I traveled a fair bit and lived in a couple of different countries but I always wanted to do something more. I had a niggling feeling of letting myself down but I had no idea what I wanted to do or be and was always plagued by head talk, head talk, head talk.

It became so frustrating at times as I was also fighting with a pesky eating disorder that would pop up whenever I became stressed. This cycle continued right up until about two months ago when I was in Berlin and finally decided to say fuck it and start meditating. I had nothing better to do.

And how did it go? Damn if they weren't right all along. Life changing.

But even with meditating being helpful, it was only when I bought a book called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris that I understood the theory. It's based on ACT which is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I began meditating along with reading the book and saw that I was less anxious and more able to 'deal with my mind' almost straight away. Instant results, which appealed to my flippancy.

So why blog about it? Well, I was blogging about my life and travel on another blog and I began writing about my mindfulness experiences there.

After a couple of posts I realized that I wanted to be able to document my mindful progress, setbacks and experiences in the one exclusive place and I also realised that if I could benefit why not share it with others who could follow along and learn with me.

I'll be posting meditations, exercises, tips, advice and techniques as and when I use and experience them and will be as honest as I can.

It'll be cool if others join in and and tell me how they're progressing and what they do. I'm not a registered psychologist and I'm writing this blog as a personal project.

Me being super mindful