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Keeping the Body in Mind
This week hasn't been as smooth as the previous. I've had a lot on my mind, and as such it's been difficult to be mindful of things going on around me. I've been challenged, but I believe I can pinpoint the difficulty and explore it.
So this week was all about connecting the mind to the body, which might read a little silly at first. What it means though, is that we can learn a lot from out emotions and our stress level from our body, and similarly what we do to our body and how we treat it can have a direct effect on our emotions. This quote from the book explains it perfectly:
“The body is acutely sensitive to even the tiniest flickerings of emotion that move constantly across the mind. The body often detects our thoughts almost before we've consciously registered them ourselves and frequently reacts as if they are solid or real, whether they accurately reflect the world or not. But the body does not just react to what the mind is thinking – it also feeds back emotional information into the brain which can then end up enhancing fears, worries and general overall angst and unhappiness. This feedback loop is a dance of phenomenal power and complexity that is only now beginning to be understood.”
Mindfulness ExerciseI tested this idea myself whilst doing the exercise I had carried over from last week. The exercise was to take a random, common activity you do without thinking and do it mindfully. I chose combing my hair, and so every time I remembered I would take my time and really pay attention to the actions, the movements, and the sensations of combing through my hair.
My hair is quite tough, especially in the mornings, so usually combing my hair hurts initially and I just want to get it over and done with. In these situations the pain actually seemed to dull because my focus was on that and all the other sensations. I noticed the feeling of the comb against my scalp, and the tugging feeling told me the parts of my hair I needed to focus on. I noticed the way the curls loosened against my hands while I held the parts of my hair I was combing. I mean, these aren't new occurrences and I'm sure I understood what my hair was doing as I comb it out but it's not something you pay attention to. I enjoyed the exercise, found it calming and interesting to consider all the things I do without thinking.
The idea of the body and mind directly affecting each other and therefore directly affecting moods is one I'm familiar with from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and IAPT. With my advisor, we would talk about Safety Behaviours I have to manage my anxiety, but because I associate those things with anxiety they can actually end up triggering or prolonging the feeling. I thought maybe the tasks here would be similar, finding out what bodily things may trigger stress and learning to be aware of them. That pre-conception made me think the week might be a little easier than I expected. What it's really about it noticing that you have a body.
What I mean is that stress and depression and all mental disorders cause us to focus almost entirely on the mental. It's very feasible that in worrying about our mental health we can forget all together about our physical health. The chapter talks about physical pain and how it can be a manifestation of anxiety (headaches, back pain etc.), about how the way our body reacts to different stimuli affects our decisions, and basically that we need to learn to treat out bodies with just as much care as our minds. That's proved much more difficult for me because of a problem mentioned next in that chapter: body image issues. If you dislike your body, feel like you're fighting against it or like it doesn't match up to how you feel as a person then why would you want to treat it with care? You want to ignore it maybe, hope the things you dislike go away rather than either changing them yourself or learning to accept them. It adds another layer of challenge to an already tough concept. The benefit, however, is learning your bodies reactions and then learning how to manage your emotions and situations using those cues. It's the same ultimate goal as my CBT sessions, just through a different route.
I'm actually going to do a Part 2 post about the other exercises I had to do and skip straight onto the meditation. I had three other tasks for this week, one of which was optional but valuable, all to do with self-reflection and understanding. I want to talk about them in more depth, especially since two of them involved writing, so I'll do that in part 2.
Meditation: The Body ScanBy far the toughest part of this week was the body scan. It's a fifteen-minute meditation in which you need to be lying down. It involves moving your focus between different parts of your body, noticing the sensations in one before shifting the focus to another, then eventually bringing it all together, noticing and learning it all together. Because of the length, I found myself struggling to find moments during the day to fit it in, or just putting it off altogether. When I would do it, I got distracted for long periods, had to stop because I was panicking about being late for work or wherever I was going, or falling asleep halfway through if I was doing it before bed. It was a frustration, mainly because I knew it was a really good meditation. I had done it without problem or interruption about three times this week, and after each one I felt completely refreshed. I felt my senses were heightened, but I was also relaxed.
I understand, however, that this mentality was the problem.
The guide for the meditation says that you shouldn't be striving to “accomplish” something, and that I wasn't failing if I got frustrated or distracted. What I'm supposed to do is understand why those feelings are happening and learn more about myself through them, to understand the patterns of my thoughts rather than to shut them off all together. It's much, much more difficult than it might sound, especially if you're the kind of person that is always thinking and thinking quickly.
What I must remind myself is that this week was absolutely not a failure, and I got a lot of good out of it. I just need to get to grips with the fact that these meditations and tasks are not jobs or chores cutting into my resting time, they are themselves resting time.
By the way, do let me know if any of you would be interested in a separate blog post on the concept of Safety Behaviours that I mentioned earlier. I believe we all have them in some form or another, and being aware of them is infinitely useful in noticing when your stress level might be escalating without you noticing right away.