Transcript of Audio: Step 4--Mindfulness and Cognitive Restructuring
Mindfulness can be very useful in many ways. In this step we will discuss how mindfulness can help with changing ingrained, unhealthy thought patterns that interfere with solving problems. Prior to using the mindfulness approach, it is necessary to have an understanding of cognitive restructuring, which is the ability to recognize irrational thoughts and to develop alternative healthy thoughts. When we recognize that our thinking can be changed and that by doing so we change the outcomes of situations in our lives we gain greater control over our lives. The way we think influences our emotions and our behavior.
The previous audios describing the steps to understanding mindfulness have already discussed aspects of cognitive restructuring because mindfulness and changing our thinking are intertwined. In other words, one depends upon the other. Cognitive restructuring allows for greater mindfulness ability and mindfulness impacts the very core of how we think.
Think of it this way. If you are walking through the woods, or even the city for that matter, and you travel the well-worn path, you will always see the same thing. Sure, there will be changes with the seasons or maybe other people who are walking the path. But, in general, little that is new opens to you. However, if you are walking a path and you decide to take a side path, you have the opportunity of seeing something new, maybe meeting people who are very different from you, perhaps arriving at a different destination.
Mindfulness is like this. It expands your awareness. Instead of your mind staying on its comfortable path of sameness you develop greater awareness and explore other paths. Mindfulness allows you to see beyond what you normally see, to experience other aspects of your life that have been there all along but have been ignored. You begin to take in more information about your surroundings, your self, and others. And information is powerful. It provides a different perspective.
The same is true of your thinking. If you continue down the well-worn paths of your thinking, nothing new will present itself. Attempts to solve problems will only involve repeating the same behavior patterns and solutions that haven't worked previously. However, when you allow yourself to mindfully explore new paths, the different perspective can allow new solutions to appear to you.
I have experienced this many times myself when I wanted to take on a new project where I was overwhelmed by the seemingly impossibility of it. However, when I told myself to just collect information and not worry about the implementation yet, I began to see what was possible. The process of exploration allowed me to gather information that made an overwhelming task seem possible. Once I had the information then it was possible to develop a plan to solve the problem I faced.
Too often we keep reviewing what we already know and coming to the same conclusions. By discovering what we don't know we obtain a different perspective and can arrive at different conclusions. Helen Keller once said “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.“
Mindfulness allows us to look for the doors that are open. Instead of focusing on a limited aspect of our experience, we open our awareness to allow more information into our field of vision.
Initially, however, this may be a difficult process. Some people don't want to leave the safety of their pathways. Even when the path may be painful, it is at least known to them. However, in their minds, a new pathway may be worse. And it may seem unlikely or even impossible to consider that a new pathway could be better.
That is why these steps about mindfulness should be done in order with substantial time taken with each one. It is a way of gradually changing the path rather than totally immersing in something new. Each step allows for a new understanding. Without the prior step of learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, it can be difficult to open yourself up to new solutions. New solutions may bring different emotions, not necessarily bad or good emotions, just different. Therefore, without having developed a tolerance of discomfort, it may be easy to return to the comfort of the old, but familiar, path.
Hopefully, you are curious by now as to how mindfulness and cognitive restructuring work together. I will start by describing an example. Let's say that something bad happened on a special holiday. Every time that holiday occurs your brain travels down the path of grief and despair. In an attempt to avoid the pain, you try to avoid celebrating the holiday. However, many years later, even decades, the holiday still reminds you of the sadness and grief. That is because the memory of the pain has become the only path your brain knows and associates with that holiday.
However, if you open up your awareness to other experiences of that holiday, such as celebrating instead of avoiding, over time your brain has created a new pathway of experience for that holiday. This is due to now having many competing memories of that holiday. Although you will still remember the sadness, you will also have other experiences from which to draw. As a result, the holiday doesn't only trigger grief but other emotions based on those other happier experiences.
Similarly, if you allow for the tolerance of the emotions rather than the avoidance, other emotions will begin to appear and compete with the pathway of grief and despair. Eventually, you are opening yourself up to these other emotions as well as the sadness. Your experience becomes multifaceted. As you may see from this example, the attempts to avoid the pain only strengthens the pathway of pain, grief, and despair.
You might ask, “What part does cognitive restructuring play in this process?” In essence, just by listening to these audios about understanding mindfulness and practicing the steps of developing mindfulness, you may already have been engaged in cognitive restructuring. For instance, when someone avoids an unpleasant emotion, it is usually because they have some thought about the emotion such as “I can't stand feeling that way!” When they choose to feel that emotion anyway during their practice of mindfulness, they have changed the thought to “I can stand it, but I don't like it.” Over time, even that thought might change to “I'm okay with feeling this way.”
Therefore, when you choose to practice the mindfulness exercises so that you can learn to develop a tolerance of discomfort and unpleasant emotions, your choice is already a change in your thinking. For some people who are particularly fearful of discomfort and emotions a more active approach to cognitive restructuring may be necessary to allow them to practice mindfulness, especially mindfulness with unpleasant emotions.
For instance, someone with anxiety may come to therapy with the thought “I can't stand this anxiety! I have to get rid of it!” But choosing to focus on learning to mindfully tolerate the anxiety, instead, is a change in their thinking. However, sometimes it may take cognitive restructuring such as education and convincing before they are willing to make this choice.
In addition to changing thinking prior to mindfulness practice as I just described, the actual practice of mindfulness also contributes to a change in thinking. For example, one day many years ago I was engaged in a task that I disliked--doing dishes. Normally, when cleaning dishes I would be thinking about other things I would rather be doing or how much I disliked doing dishes. But on this particular day, instead of thinking about those things, I just did the dishes. I fully experienced the process of doing dishes. My full focus was on cleaning the dishes without any other thoughts. When I was finished, I thought “That was actually pleasant.” Ever since then, I've thought differently about doing dishes. This example shows how the mindful experience of something can change the thinking about the event.
Mindfulness impacts the thoughts which means that the practice of mindfulness can restructure the thoughts into more healthy patterns. Thus, cognitive restructuring is involved in developing the practice of mindfulness and also results from the practice of mindfulness.
Using mindfulness to help change thinking and to improve problem-solving requires initial training in cognitive restructuring. It is important to be be able to recognize irrational or inaccurate thinking and know how to change it to more helpful thinking. The articles “How Do We Change Irrational Thinking?” and “Understanding and Using the Cognitive Diary” can provide you with an overview of this process. Once you know how to restructure the irrational thoughts that interfere with your life, goals, and happiness, then you can combine this process with mindfulness to solve problems that you experience.
First, when confronted with a problem, it is important to let yourself just mindfully “be” with the problem. As I discussed in the previous audio, the attempts to avoid or get rid of problems create more serious problems over time. Mindfully “being” with a problem means being aware of it without any demands, expectations, or criticisms of yourself or others.
When I say “without any demands”, that means to be aware of the problem without expecting that it shouldn't exist or that you have to get rid of it. For example, if a person has a serious injury that causes chronic pain, a demand is that somehow she must get rid of the pain. As a result, she is constantly seeking a solution for the pain. Perhaps one solution is that she avoids activities that might create pain which unfortunately prevents her from engaging in enjoyable activities or weakens her body further. Or perhaps, she uses pain medications so that she doesn't feel the pain. Unfortunately, long-term use of pain medications decrease in effectiveness and increase possibility of addiction. Whatever solution she takes, the result is that her life becomes focused on alleviating the pain. In this scenario, “without any demands” means being aware of the pain without the demand that a solution has to be found.
Using the same scenario, being mindfully aware of the pain without criticisms of yourself or others is also removing demands. For instance, the criticism “I am weak because I can't handle this pain” is another way of putting a demand on yourself. Or, the thought “If only...” referring to how things would have been different if you or someone else had foreseen the outcome, is another demand on the situation.
Mindfully being aware of the problem involves redirecting your thinking back to the problem and away from these distracting or irrational thoughts. Just as you learned with the earlier steps of mindfulness to refocus your attention to the present, even if it is unpleasant, you can do the same thing with problem-solving.
The difference with problem-solving is that when you mindfully focus on a problem without the demands, expectations, or criticisms, you may perceive other possibilities. As I discussed earlier, you may be able to travel a different path rather than being stuck on the path demanding a solution.
For instance, a mindful approach to the scenario I just described regarding pain may allow the woman to come to an understanding that doing activities she enjoys may be a better distraction from the pain than lying in bed focused on the pain. And she might find that by being active she strengthens her body which may reduce the pain. But before that can occur, a mindful acceptance of the pain must occur.
In other circumstances, too often our thinking is influenced by past events which often leads to fears of the future. For example, someone might believe “I've always chosen bad partners. I'll just make another mistake. It's probably better for me to avoid relationships.” This thinking focuses on avoidance and prevents a solution. However, mindfully being aware of the problem without self-criticism, allows the person to think “What has been influencing my choice of partners? And how can I prevent that in the future?” The result of this thinking is likely to include seeking more information to solve the problem.
Sometimes the solution is in the mindfulness itself. Just “being” with the problem rather than trying to get rid of it can be the solution. Other times mindfully being with the problem allows you to explore other solutions. Primarily, it may allow you to gather information that you didn't have before. When you focus only on your demand of getting rid of the problem, it may be very difficult to be open to other information that may not involve getting eliminating it.
For instance, I have seen people who have spent years trying to get rid of the problem of insomnia. They have sought out various doctors, used sleep medications, anti-depressants, therapy, and any other mean to try an improve their sleep. However, the demand “I should sleep better so I can function better” causes anxiety which then contributes to insomnia. Being mindfully aware of the problem without the demand allows them to obtain other information.
For instance, the person with insomnia may learn that if he thinks instead “It doesn't matter how I sleep. I can still function” his attitude towards sleep changes which may alleviate tension and improve sleep. Instead of the entire daily focus being on getting a good night's sleep, the individual can focus on what he wants to do each day and shrug off whether or not he sleeps well or functions as well as he thinks he should. Often, without the stress and anxiety caused by the worry about sleep, the individual sleeps better. And, if not, he at least mindfully focuses on what he wants to accomplish each day rather spending his limited energy thinking about sleep.
Other types of problems may involve having to seek out information. For instance, let's say a person loses her job and her field has limited opportunities. She may need to reflect on the possibilities for her future employment, what she wants, and how she can reach her goals. Rather than being stuck with her demands about what should or shouldn't be and looking at that door that just closed, the mindful focus allows her to identify what information she needs and how she can get this information.
To summarize, the mindful approach to problem-solving opens up your awareness to possibilities. This step of understanding mindfulness does not have practice exercises to help you develop the ability to mindfully problem-solve. Instead, it is necessary to develop a mindful focus when confronted with problems. However, if you have practiced the first three steps of understanding mindfulness, you should have the tools and skill to put mindfulness into practice with solving problems.
This step involves an active, mindful approach to problems. By letting yourself “be” with the problem rather than avoiding it or trying to get rid of it, you can examine the problem from a rational perspective.
In fact, one area of practice that can be useful is cognitive restructuring when irrational thinking interferes with problem-solving. Using the Cognitive Diary method is a mindful approach because it examines the problem and how you think about it without the demands that you shouldn't think this way. By gathering information, it allows you to develop alternative ways of thinking that are believable to you. By repeatedly reminding yourself of these alternate thoughts, you eventually change your thought process.
So, to practice this step, when problems occur in your life, let yourself “be” with those problems so that you can examine them thoughtfully. Without the demands and criticisms that make you feel bad about yourself or the situation, you can look at the problem in a more detached way. This detachment is similar to how you might give advice if it were someone else's problem. By approaching it in this way, you can then determine the steps you need to take to address the problem.
Copyright © 2014
by Excel At Life, LLC
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