I’m sure you’ve seen this image before. What do you think of it?
Have you tried mindfulness just to find that you keep returning to the distressing thoughts? You gently bring yourself back time and again to what you are in the middle of doing just to find yourself thinking the distressing thoughts again. Have you found yourself feeling frustrated and thinking “mindfulness doesn’t work; why does my therapist insist I do mindfulness exercises?”
I know that for me, when I started working at a psychiatric hospital, the demands on me were unbearable. The work load and expectations were near impossible. I came home each evening irritable and unable to talk with my family because I would be so snappy. I did not like this about myself. Being done with the work day; I just wanted to relax at home with my family and enjoy the evening. I decided to start going for a walk after work and use mindfulness exercises. I used my senses – from this telephone pole to that one, I’m only going to think about what I see. From this telephone pole to that one, I’m only going to think about what I hear…and so on with four senses (I didn’t do taste). My mind wandered back to work so frequently. Or it would wander to other things that bothered me. I gently brought it back time and time again. My walk was 45 minutes long before I could be home without being snappy. Time went by…a LOT of time went by, and I started thinking “mindfulness doesn’t work. Maybe it works for some people, but it must not work for everybody.” I then argued with myself that I am still going to trainings about the benefits of mindfulness and how well it works. I decided to stick with it. You know what I found? 8 months…8 months of consistently walking using mindfulness skills, my walk was 15 minutes. When did it become only 15 minutes until I am calm?! I did not notice feeling better in 40 minutes, or even 30 minutes, but I sure noticed the 15 minute walk…I was barely at the end of the road by that time. Mindfulness works!
We are a culture that wants things done now. We don’t want to wait for anything (especially feeling better)! How many of you remember dial up internet? You’d walk away from your computer when it was starting up or downloading something, right? But you knew it would take time, and accepted that. With lightning fast internet now, when a download or page load takes more than a split second, we are impatient about it. We used to have no problem calling someone’s house and leaving a message, waiting for hours for them to return our call without impatience. Now, with cellphones, if someone doesn’t answer a text message or pick up the phone immediately, we wonder if they are ok…or maybe they’re mad at us for some reason…or…or…or. But we are no longer patient enough for them to return our calls without becoming anxious. This expectation that things will happen immediately has caused us to not have the same level of patience that as a culture we once had. Can you imagine writing a letter to someone, having the postman take it by horseback to another town, then waiting for the postman on horseback to bring you back a letter from the other person? That would seemingly take a lifetime!
Whereas technology has the ability to move forward in a way that takes less time, our brain and body hasn’t. So we’re stuck in a culture that is built on speed (get this done and make sure it is done yesterday), make this business call to our sister company across the globe and have the transaction complete within an hour, etc, but our body and brain can still only go at dial up internet speed.
Let’s say you pick up running. Do you expect that you will run a marathon the first time you go out there and run? Probably not. Do you expect that you will run a marathon after running for one month? Again, probably not. You might hope to run your first marathon in a year (and you may adjust your goal throughout the year), but you recognize that it takes time. Do you expect that the more often you run, the sooner you will run the marathon (ie running 5 days per week vs 1 day per week)? Probably so. So what makes us believe that if we practice mindfulness once per week for 15 minutes that we’ll be masters of it, not have the racing thoughts, and feel a sense of peace the first time we try it? Or even within the first month of trying it?
The first thing about feeling better; getting rid of racing thoughts, intrusive memories, etc is to practice patience. Use the skills (mindfulness, etc) and recognize that it will not get better immediately. My walk took 8 months to realize the change!
The second thing about feeling better is noticing the small changes. Remember how I said I did not notice the 40 or even 30 minute walk? I’m awfully stubborn, so I stuck with the mindfulness walks even though I didn’t notice the small changes. If you have 30 flashbacks per day, and now you’re averaging 20, that is still quite a bit, but is a huge difference. Identify how you can notice the small changes. Write it down so you can actually keep track of it.
Here’s my challenge to you: I don’t care what self-regulation you use (mindfulness, breathing exercises, yoga, etc). Although this article has been about mindfulness, I want to offer you whatever you choose to do. The challenge is to practice that skill 200 times per day. Yes, I said 200. That is not a typo. How is that possible you ask? Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. Remember how you agreed that you’d get better at running if you did it 5 days per week than 1? The more often you practice something, the quicker you get better at it. So, yes, the challenge is to practice your self-regulation 200 times per day. Many of the skills do not take more than a few seconds anyway. How long does it really take to take 10 deep breaths? Or to focus on what you’re doing using your senses? You can do that for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. It is up to you.
At the beginning of May (or whatever the next month is after you are reading this), tell me what you’ve noticed. What small changes did you notice? I look forward to hearing your stories. Comment below or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). However, at the end of that month, don’t stop! You got where you are because of what you’re doing. Keep doing it! Keep doing the self-regulation until it becomes second nature and you don’t have to put so much energy into remembering to do it 200 times per day. Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it!