Lines of Defense
Self-care is the first line of defense, and is ALWAYS priority # 1. Get proper rest. Take food. Take water. Take Supplements. If you are taking prescribed medication under the supervision of a Medical or Mental Health Professional, take those as well. Get exercise. Practice good hygiene. Connect with a safe support-person or people.
After you’ve attended to basic self-care, whether you are currently in crisis, facing a minor challenge or setback, or simply looking to enhance your life, Mindfulness is the next line of defense.
Mindfulness has deep roots in Eastern Practices for at least a few millennia, and has been in use in the Medical and Mental Health Community since the 1970’s. Over the last 40 years, there have been countless books penned, and articles written on the many benefits of Mindfulness in Medical Journals, Psychological Texts, and Mental Health publications. For our purposes, we will be discussing the use of Mindfulness as a method to treat unwanted feelings of Anxiety, Depression, and other Emotional States.
Let’s take a moment clarify what we mean when we talk about “States.” There are many different emotional states. Some states are desirable, like contentment, happiness, love, or gratitude. Other states, like anger, frustration, depression, or fear, are less desirable. For this discussion, and for the sake of simplicity, let’s break all of our emotions down into two kinds of states: Compromised States and Resource States.
The Mechanics of a Compromised State
There’s a common misconception that feelings are happening to us. This is not exactly the case. Feelings (States) are the result of processes that happen inside of the brain, in response to the how our we are evaluating and interpreting the events and conditions of our lives. It often feels like it is happening to us because these mental processes are habitual, involuntary, and automatic. They occur in the Unconscious Mind. This process is actually quite simple and if you are mindful, easy to observe.
When in an Anxiety State (a Compromised State), a crisis has occurred or is believed to be imminent. The Unconscious mental processes have evaluated the situation as being dangerous, or threatening. You identify with the thoughts processes. This stimulates activity in the Sympathetic Nervous System of the brain, which is responsible for the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” Mechanism.
Problems arise when our State is inappropriate to the condition, or it IS appropriate, but it is out of proportion; that is, your feelings are bigger than the situation calls for. Depending on your predisposition, your feelings may be out of proportion to the situation you find yourself in. If you have a tendency toward elevated feeling of anxiety or nervousness, you may find yourself experience an escalating Anxiety Attack, or a full-blown Panic Attack. Depending on the severity of your reaction, you are now in a Compromised State. Your judgment and decision-making are now compromised, and you have entered into a highly reactive state with a disproportionate sense of urgency.
Memory, Imagination, and Perception
One dynamic of the mind is that it can’t clearly tell difference between what we remember, what we imagine, or what we are perceiving in the present moment.
Have you ever had an argument with someone, but didn’t resolve the conflict? Then days later, you remember the argument, and all the feelings of anger, frustration, hurt, or betrayal come rushing through your body all over again. The argument is over, but the simple act of remembering it, puts you into the same emotional state all over again.
Or you are preparing for an upcoming event, like a job-interview, or a date, and you are imagining challenges, or things ‘going wrong.’ You are perfectly fine in the present moment, but your imagination is now stimulating that same Sympathetic Nervous System, triggering the “Fight, flight, or freeze” mechanism. Nothing is happening to you in the present moment, but you are in “Fear Mode.”
It doesn’t matter whether you are remembering a past event, imagining a future circumstance, or perceiving something in your immediate environment, the mechanics of the process are the same. Ironically, anger, fear, anxiety, and worry are not the optimal states to be in, to respond to the situation that ‘triggered’ those feelings in the first place.
When in a Compromised State, the most natural tendency is to want to escape the present moment, with urgency. Paradoxically, the way out is through.
Qualities of the State of Mindfulness
One of the most immediately resourceful States from which to engage your life is Mindfulness. There is only one place from which your life unfolds—your here and now. Since it is the only space from which to engage your life, it is also the optimal place.
Without getting too esoteric, let’s talk about what Mindfulness is. Mindfulness is the practice of being present, in the moment, aware of what is happening, both outside, in your environment, as well as inside, your mind and body.
In a way, Mindfulness is dissociative. Instead of being immersed in stressful thoughts and feelings, Mindfulness is a quality of detachment from our own internal, mental and emotional processes.
Mindfulness is responsive, rather than reactive. You may not have any power to change the immediate conditions of your life. You may not have any power to change your feelings about the conditions of your life. If you are mindful, you DO have choices about how you respond to both of them, in the present moment. The more mindful you are, the more choices you have.
Mindfulness is spacious. If you can observe your thoughts and feelings, a new quality of awareness arises. You realize that who or what you are is not the thought; you are the awareness of the thought. As you deepen your practice of Mindfulness, you realize that you are aware of the thoughts and feelings, yet that awareness remains unaffected by those thoughts and feelings.
The moment you enter a state of Mindfulness, you are shifting out of a compromised, reactive State, into a receptive and responsive State.
For our purposes, I’ll introduce a very basic, easy to use method for Mindfulness. First read through this exercise and familiarize yourself with the process. Then, read through it a second time, following the instructions to bring your awareness out of the thinking mind, and into your body, in the present moment. You can do this exercise with your eyes open, or closed.
Before you begin, become aware of what your current state is. Are you in a Compromised State? Are you feeling anxious, angry, or depressed? If so, quantify it. On a scale of 1 – 10, how strong are those feelings. Make a note of your answer. It will be relevant after you have completed the exercise.
If at any time your mind strays from this exercise and you find yourself lost in thought again, that is normal. Simply bring your awareness back to this exercise. Bring your awareness back to the present moment.
Let us begin this Mindfulness Exercise by drawing your attention to the present moment. Without looking at them, or clenching the muscles, or moving them, how do you know your hands are there? Can you feel the presence of your hands and fingers? The feeling awareness of your body is called, “Somatic Mindfulness.”
While holding your awareness in your hands and fingers, expand that awareness to include your wrists and forearms. Your elbows and upper-arms. Your shoulders. Now become aware of each arm, as a whole.
Do this same exercise, but do so with your feet. Become aware of the presence of your feet and toes. Expand your awareness to include your ankles, shins and calves. Expand your awareness to include your knees, and thighs. Become aware of your hips and pelvis. Now feel both arms and both legs, simultaneously.
Expand your awareness and become aware of your lower-back and abdomen. Expand your awareness to include your upper-back, shoulder-blades, and chest. Expand your awareness to include your neck and throat. Your face. Your eyes and eyelids. Your scalp.
Now hold your awareness in your entire body. Feel your entire body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Become aware of your breathing. Feel the rising and falling of the breath. Breathe into your entire body.
From this space of self-awareness, become aware of your environment. Become aware of the sounds in the environment. Notice what sounds are background. Which sounds are foreground. If you do this exercise with your eyes open, notice the predominant shapes, and colors of the objects in your immediate field of vision.
Become aware of your Inner Voice. What is it saying? If it is useful for you, ‘take ownership’ of your inner voice and silence it. As you continue reading, or going about the business of your day, hold some of your attention in your body.
Practicing Mindfulness draws you out of a Compromised State, into a Resource State. You are no longer reacting to the conditions of your life, from a frantic, or chaotic State, but from a more centered, balanced, resourceful State.
If you were in an anxious, angry, or depressed State before you practiced this exercise, check in with yourself again now. On a scale of 1 – 10, what was the previous level of your unwanted feelings? Notice how this exercise has affected those feelings. Are your unwanted feelings greater, or lesser, now that you’ve gone through this exercise? Any shift out of a Compromised State, into a Resource State is a great success.
If you get caught up in some task, and forget about being mindful, this is perfectly normal. Whenever you think of it, bring your awareness back into the present moment, back into your body. Bring awareness to your breathing. Hold your attention there for as long as you can as you continue with your day.
Does this practice seem overly simple? Developing a daily Mindfulness Practice has a cumulative effect. As you continue practicing, you will notice your State of Mindfulness deepening, and your emotional reactions becoming less reactive, and more manageable. It is less important to ‘get it right,’ than it is to simply practice Mindfulness. As with almost everything in our lives, it gets easier with practice.
One way to deepen a Mindfulness Practice is to make it a habit to become present, centered in the body, whenever you change from one environment to another. I make it a habit to take at least a few moments to bring awareness into my body and my breathing, every time I get into or out of my car, or whenever I sit down at my computer.
I value your input, and I’d love to hear from you. How has Mindfulness benefited you? What are some of the things you do in your Mindfulness Practice?
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~ Daniel W. Finney, CHt