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Posts tagged ‘stress’

Panic Attacks, procrastination and fear: transforming panic into excitement.

A few weeks ago I was with a friend who showed me a video of Mel Robbins talking about how she had learnt to transform her panic attacks into an experience of excitement. In my work I am often asked what suggestions I have for applying mindfulness to panic attacks and I was keen to listen to this talk to see what she had to share and see how I might apply it in my own life.

I have never had a panic attack, but I was writing in the last email about the feeling of dread and anxiety on approaching an event where I have to meet people, and how this fear of socialising that I picked up as a teen seems to create a false narrative in my head about what I can and cannot do. Listening to her talk I could certainly see how I might apply it to these situations, and how people might use it if dealing with a panic attack.

In her talk she starts by discussing the limitations of motivativational thinking to get us to do things. She says: “we are not designed to do things that are scary, difficult or uncomfortable. Our brains are designed to protect us from those things, because our brains are trying to keep us alive. In order to change, to build a business, to be the best parent, best spouse, to do all those things that you know you want to do with your life, your work, your dreams, you’re going to have to do things that are difficult, uncertain or scary. Which sets up this problem for all of us: you are not going to feel like it….[because] our minds are designed to stop us from doing anything that might hurt us.” She goes on to say that as a result of this we all have a habit that holds us back, the habit of hesitating.

She then outlines how one technique the brain uses is the spot light effect, where the brain magnifies the risk of something in order to make us back away from doing it. She goes on to say “you can truly trace every  single problem and complaint in your life to silence and hesitation”.

Mel then talks about how the sensations in our body are the same when we feel excitement or fear, and that it is this similarity which enables us to reframe how we are interpreting these sensations. She gives an example from her own life: when she is about to go out and give a talk she can feel her heart racing, her palms a little sweaty, her breath racing. If she were to tell herself “I am anxious and frightened of talking” this would create a feeling of fear of going out on stage. Instead she focuses on the sensations as an expression of feeling excited, and this supports her as she walks out in front of the audience.

The root of this approach is based on the fact that the flow of adrenalin is the same if we are feeling excited, or scared. It is how we interpret it that then determines how we think and feel about the physical sensations adrenalin causes.

In her longer talk below Mel describes how she was at a low point in her life, waking up with feelings of dread, and how this would lead to her laying in bed, consumed by panic and anxiety, hitting the snooze button until the morning was turning into the afternoon.  One evening she saw a programme about a rocket launch, and as she watched the rocket take off she decided that was what she would do the next morning on waking, she would count down and launch herself out of bed before her brain had a chance to start thinking, working or catastrophising about the day.

As she woke up the next day she immediately started a count down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then got up. Once she was up the debilitating anxiety that would otherwise have kicked in and kept her in bed could then start to be absorbed through becoming active: she started to face the day as it was rather than as it appeared to her as a thought as she lay in bed worrying about it.

Mel then started to apply this 5,4,3,2,1, approach in her waking life. On noticing that she was caught in an addictive behaviour – perhaps prevaricating before going to bed, or moving on to an activity she needed to focus her attention on – she would then say to herself 5,4,3,2,1, and at 1 move on to the activity she had been avoiding and stop the activity that she was wanting to move away from. 

“When you count backwards, you mentally shift the gears in your mind. You interrupt your default thinking and do what psychologists call “assert control.” The counting distracts you from your excuses and focuses your mind on moving in a new direction. When you physically move instead of stopping to think, your physiology changes and your mind falls in line.

The Rule is (in the language of habit research) a “starting ritual” that activates the prefrontal cortex, helping to change your behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that you use when you focus, change, or take deliberate actions.” (Ref)

I have started to use this as I wake up, and it really works. Rather than laying in bed with the feeling of dread of the day that is to come, which could easily lead to 30 minutes or an hour of delaying getting up, when I count back as soon as I wake up and swing myself up and out of bed then this mood that might have kept me trapped in bed immediately starts to dissipate, as instead I head to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get a glass of water and move into doing some yoga and meditation. I am also starting to explore using it during the day, at times when I notice myself caught in procrastination, hesitation and avoidance.

To find out more about her method I’ve included her interview below.

Using the 5,4,3,2,1 method for a panic attack

With panic attacks Mel uses the similarity between feeling excited and feeling fear to create a different way of focusing your attention and interpreting the experience. In a panic attack we have no clear trigger for why we feel panic, so there is nothing to move away from. All we have is our body telling us we feel panic and our brain has no idea why. Given that our brains purpose is to keep us safe by helping us move away from danger, this is the most terrifying thing for our brain: the experience of danger with no clear action it can take to escape.

As one of the participants on an 8 week course I was running observed, mindfulness helped them to stop panicking about the panic attack, and that in itself stoped it from escalating. But how to transform a panic attack? Rather than riding it out, which the mindfulness helped this participant to do, is there a way to actually transform the experience. Mel suggests that there is. 

At a time when you feel calm and at ease take a few moments to connect with an anchor thought you can use when a panic attack occurs. An anchor thought is an image/thought of a situation where you feel safe, grounded and excited. The example in the video the woman connects with is of seeing her grandchildren. 

On first noting the sensations of a panic attack count back: 5,4,3,2,1. Then connect with your anchor thought and say to yourself “I am so excited to….”what ever you anchor thought is. In the case of the woman in the video she would think “I am so excited to see my grandchildren tomorrow”. The effect of this is that it tells the brain the reason for the sensations in the body are not an unexplained terror, but a feeling of excitement at the idea of the thing you are about to do.

Perhaps you like going on a roller coaster, or bouldering, or feel exhilaration on going dancing or are excited to take your dog for a walk. Connect with one thing that gives you a feeling of excitement and that you enjoy which you can then focus on when the panic attack starts. This gives your mind an explanation to then enable it to calm your body down.

Think of the brain as a guard on watch at the city gate – suddenly the dogs start barking, the guard looks up with concern, ready to sound the alarm in case the city is under attack. If the guard sees no reason for the dogs barking he will become more agitated and alert, looking for any sign of danger. In the same way in a panic attack the brain is alerted by the body to danger, but there is no clear danger. All the brain can do is look for danger and attempt to remove you from an unseen harm which gives rise to increased alarm as there is no obvious escape route from an unseen danger. If the guard were then to see a cat sitting on a wall, he would suddenly know that the dogs were only excited by the cat, and there was no need for concern. In the same way, give your mind an image of being excited by your anchor thought and the brain can settle, telling the body it is ok, stand down the alarm signals, it’s only excitement at seeing a cat! 

If you experience panic attacks and use this method please let me know how it works for you. As I have not been able to apply it to myself I would like to hear if it does help you interrupt a panic attack, as I will then be more confident to share it more as I teach. 

We are meeting again this Monday. Looking forward to seeing you there.

For details of the next 8 mindfulness week course starting on Thursday 3rd May click here

Balanced Effort

This Christmas and New Year I wanted to get away for a break and to refresh my meditation. A student at the group I run at UCL told me of the International Meditation Centre near Bath and I booked myself on to their  10 day retreat. I have been in London 12 years now since leaving the monastery and have not been on any long retreats in that time, so this was a very welcome return to a structure that was very like my life in the monastery. The morning bell went at 4am and we were mediating at 4.30 for the first of many 1 hour sessions during the day.

Apart from the first and last day we were in silence throughout. There were about 80 of us on the retreat, evenly split between men and women, yet the silence made it feel very spacious and took away the need to try and connect and talk, instead giving a feeling of a lot of personal space.  

The meditation itself was intense. We were sitting between 7 – 8 hours each day. With plenty of gaps! You can see the schedule below. This really gave the chance to drop much more deeply into the practice. Following a more intensive meditation schedule thinking can really recede to the periphery and there is a tremendous sense of spacious awareness, a feeling of light and open attentiveness, the mind being calm and bright, honed to a single point of attention in the moment.

When the mind stops jumping into the past and future, there really is just this spacious present moment, that is not a fixed point in time, but an aliveness in the vibration of this energetic field of being. 

The retreat really helped me to drink deeply from the joy of a calm mind. My body feeling alive and vital, mind calm and heart happy. 

Leaving the retreat felt the hardest part of the whole experience! Retreats are what they are: a leaving behind of our usual life. They are not a way of living. Even in the monastery we did not live with this intensity all the time, we had to maintain the infrastructure of the monastery, which meant working as well as mediating. The skill of meditation is learning how to bring the lessons from these deeper immersions into the practice back into one’s daily life.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few experiences from the retreat. 

 

Balanced effort

The first experience is the story told in one of the sessions which illustrates right effort. It was a Buddhist retreat so they were quoting from the Buddhist scriptures, which contain a plethora of stories from the time of the Buddha. This story concerned a monk called Sona. As a young man he lived a very luxurious life, so much so that he had fine down on the soles of his feet from never exerting himself. A king once asked to see this and marvel at his fine feet! Shortly after this the young man met the Buddha and became a monk.

Suddenly he left his life of privilege, wealth and ease and concentrated on the training of a monk. He was determined to gain insight. He was living in a hut in the forest, and used a track outside to do walking meditation. Reflecting on his meditation subject as he walked. His delicate feet were used to walking on silk, not the forest floor, and his walking track was soon covered with blood from his lacerated feet – but determined to see the profundity of the Buddha’s teaching for himself he kept walking. In his sitting meditation he strained for insight, but it did not come. Eventually he thought it was to no avail and he decided to leave and return to lay life. 

The Buddha saw this and came to Sona, concerned for his well fair, knowing that if he pushed himself too hard his mind would not be able to soften and be receptive to the intuitive knowledge that was there like a bud waiting to open, but which could also wither in the intensity of his wilful effort. 

The Buddha spoke to him in the following dialogue:

“Sona,” he said, “I have heard that you are not getting good results from your practice of mindfulness and want to return to the lay life. Suppose I explain why you did not get good results, would you stay on as a monk and try again?”

“Yes I would, Lord,” replied Sona.

“Sona, you were a musician and you used to play the lute. Tell me, Sona, did you produce good music when the lute string was well tuned, neither too tight nor too loose?”

“I was able to produce good music, Lord,” replied Sona.

“What happened when the strings were too tightly wound up?”

“I could not produce any music, Lord,” said Sona.

“What happened when the strings were too slack?”

“I could not produce any music at all, Lord,” replied Sona

“Sona, do you now see why you did not experience the happiness of renouncing worldly craving? You have been straining too hard in your meditation. Do it in a relaxed way, but without being slack. Try it again and you will experience the good result.”

Sona understood and stayed on in the monastery as a monk and soon attained awakening.

As you sit in meditation remembering this story can be a really great way to check in with the quality of your own effort: is it too wilful, or too unfocused, or is it in the middle – balanced and just enough?

This was a living part of how the retreat centre worked. In the first few days the retreat leader told us to notice the quality of our intention as we sat. Were we sitting with forced determination not to move? Were our knees hurting but from pride we would not move as we wanted to be seen to sit for the whole hour? He said that we are here to train our mind, not our body. If we find we reach a point where sitting is done with gritted teeth – then it is time to stand and move, he even invited us to go to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and have some cake!

This was a very different approach from what I have come across in other retreat centres, and it encouraged a softness that made it easier to rest into a deeply calm and focused attention. The teacher said that when effort was too much from sitting with gritted teeth, then there would be a lot of ego in the sitting, which would mean a lot of thinking. So this approach only makes for more thinking and distraction.

It did help! Giving myself permission to move, shift posture, make myself comfortable, allowed for a relaxing into the practice that then made it easier to sit in a stillness that arose from being present rather than as an effort of will. 

If you would like to have a more in depth experience of meditation I recommend the centre. They run 10 day retreats at the end of very month. Their next starts on the 19th January. For details click here

Mindfulness in the workplace can boost productivity

Once considered something alternative mindfulness courses are being increasingly used by business to improve morale, productivity and the ability to cope with stress. Businesses as diverse as Transport for London (TfL), Google, Facebook, GlaxoSmithKline, the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers are all turning to mindfulness meditation as a tool for giving them an edge in a competitive market.

The benefits of a regular meditation practice include improvements to physical and mental health and an increased ability to be resilient and manage stress. This has the effect of supporting increased productivity and reduced sickness absence levels in staff. An example of this is Transport for London, which has seen the number of days taken off because of stress, anxiety and depression fall by 71% since introducing employees to mindfulness. Other benefits include heightened emotional intelligence, improved decision-making and strategic-thinking abilities, a heightened ability to focus and enhanced creativity. These are key abilities at all areas of a business as it will support improved levels of resilience, team work, productivity and problem solving whatever a persons level of responsibility.

In an increasingly competitive and demanding work environment the importance of supporting staff well-being is shown by the rise in mental health problems, with stress topping the league of reasons for long-term sickness absence according to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2011). Mindfulness is a way to train the mind in a way that we can recognise that we are not a slave to our thoughts and that we can choose how to respond to internal and external events, two strands highlighted by the Mental Health Foundation as key to mental and emotional well being. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence’s recommendation of MBCT as the treatment of choice for recurrent depression has also contributed to mindfulness gaining recognition as a significant form of intervention in cases of recurrent and ongoing mental health issues.

Its not just scientific research and meditation teachers noticing the benefits of mindfulness. A study of HR managers by the University of Washington in 2012 concludes that mindfulness helps us experience less stress and an increased focus when multitasking; whilst research by the Institute of Mindful Leadership found that for 93% of leaders surveyed, mindfulness training helped them create space for innovation. Some 89% said it enhanced their ability to listen to themselves and others, and nearly 70% said it helped them think strategically.

In summary, regular meditation:

  • increases activity in a number of brain regions, including those parts involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation and perspective taking;
  • improves psychological functions of attention, compassion and empathy;
  • turns off the autonomic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight response, which when activated too regularly or for prolonged periods leads to chronic stress) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the rest and digest mode during which the body repairs and rejuvenates). As a result it decreases the levels of the stress hormone  cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for a wide range of harmful effects on the body: an increased susceptibility to disease and illness, insomnia, increases in weight through fat being stored more easily, a reduced libido through reducing testosterone production in men and causing hormonal imbalances during a wonam’s menstrual cycle, ulcers and IBS. When your body is experiencing the “fight or flight” response, your heart rate increases and blood pressure is consequently higher. The digestive system is shut down and blood is directed to the late muscles in the arms and legs to prepare for running or fighting. If you’re constantly stressed, this chronic cycle will eventually take its toll and can contribute to heart disease;
  • reduces stress and initiates the rest and recuperate mode thereby boosting the functioning of  the immune system;
  • improves medical conditions including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, premenstrual syndrome and chronic pain; and
  • improves psychological conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, phobias and eating disorders.
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