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More PsychNotes: Mindfulness and Relaxation Methods

May 31, 2017       

There's a Time for Mind“less”ness, Too
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Rule 16: Balance Life with Balance

I act mindlessly much more than I am mindful.

One thing that gets lost in the mindfulness movement is that mindlessness has a purpose, too. Just think—how could you operate a car effectively if you had to be mindful of every action you make (ex. “step on the brake when I see a red light”)?

Frequently, when people first learn about mindfulness they believe more is better. But as with just about anything psychological, it is about balance. Of course, the concept of “balance” is uncomfortable for most people because it is not black and white. Plus, balance can differ for each person so it is not easy to define. Therefore, it is simple to err with too much or too little. (For more, read Balance Life With Balance which discusses the myths of balance.)

Too often when psychologists explain psychological concepts it seems that a person needs to engage in these behaviors all the time to be mentally healthy. However, that is not necessarily true. Similar to other health behaviors, moderation is the key. For instance, exercise can be physically beneficial but too much exercise can harm a person physically. In the same way, too much mindfulness can be harmful. We are not yogis meditating on a mountaintop, we have to live in the real world. Mindlessness helps us do that in combination with mindfulness.

Why is mindlessness important, too? The primary purpose of mindlessness is to help reduce stress. That may seem confusing when mindfulness is also for the purpose of reducing stress. But that is why balance is important.

How does mindlessness reduce stress?

1) Automatic behaviors. Engaging in automatic behaviors such as driving a car or a morning hygiene routine helps to reduce stress by removing those actions from active awareness. A person doesn't have to make an effort to engage in these behaviors so they are less likely to add to stress.

2) Induces relaxation. One reason mindlessness is so attractive is due to it creating a certain degree of relaxation effortlessly. It may not be the same quality of relaxation as meditation but it is relaxing enough to create a positive association with mindless behavior. (i.e. “watching TV is relaxing for me”).

3) Allows escape. Mindlessness allows a person to ignore stressful situations or to mentally escape from them. Again, this concept has a bad reputation in psychology because we psychologists are always preaching the importance of awareness and not avoiding problems. Certainly, those concepts are important, but escape has its place, too. I define “escape” as a temporary solution whereas “avoidance” is a more permanent solution. So I often tell my clients it is okay to escape from a situation as long as they don't permanently avoid it. In other words, sometimes a situation may be too intense to handle at the moment. For example, a person may leave a heated argument to calm down and return to the discussion later.

4) Perfect mindfulness is demanding. Trying too hard to be mindful is stressful. Understanding that mindfulness itself is not the goal but is a means to achieving a goal gives permission to find a balance. What I mean by this is that mindfulness is to assist you in obtaining a more balanced and less stressed life. If it feels demanding, it is out of balance. One caveat, though, is that initially when you are learning mindfulness it may feel demanding in the same way as any new practice can.

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