Today I’m going to be using the hidden NHBPM prompt that I discovered existed through Facebook eavesdropping: Mindfulness. Depression and anxiety can run rampant through patients that are dealing with chronic pain and addressing these issues is as important as confronting the physical factors.
Mindfulness is a topic that comes up a lot when learning about pain management techniques. You’ve probably heard of it before, it often hangs out with its good friend, Meditation. It’s a topic that I’ve read a lot about, in various books and blogs and one that can be approached in different ways. You could say that mindfulness is form of meditation, or meditation is a form of mindfulness, but you’d just be applying labels where they don’t need to be and sending your thoughts into a loop that leads to nowhere.
The whole point of mindfulness is to avoid such loops and only hitch your thoughts to the wagons that matter.
This is what mindfulness means to me:
But mostly the recognition part, it’s impossible to change thought patterns that you are not aware of.
Being mindful is a way to be in the present moment. It’s a method of focusing attention on what’s in front of us, as opposed to regretting the past and worrying about the future. As you become aware of your thoughts and the sorts of thoughts that precede unwelcome emotions, it’s fairly easy to see how much emotional turmoil is caused by thinking about situations that are in the past and unchangeable, or in the future and uncertain to ever happen at all.
So, how does that work? The more you try not to think about something, the more you actually do, right?
To simplify mindfulness, it works through distraction. Oddly, focused distraction. It works by allowing details to fill our perception, rather than relying on the brain to fill in the gaps (which is how we perceive most things). The key to being mindful is noticing.
I heard a rumour that the biggest trick The Devil ever played was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. Fair enough, that’s a pretty good scam if you want to go around wreaking havoc, but it’s not the sneakiest attack that humans are under.
But if that were the case and we are our minds, then who on Earth is reading this and partially trying to see what their mind is up to right now?
Who thinks “I have anxiety”?
Who thinks “I have pain”?
Who thinks “I have depression”?
Who recognises that they have thoughts in the first place?
We’re complicated beings, us of the human variety.
How does one break out of this labyrinth of thorny thoughts?
By paying attention. I know, I know, your attention span has shrunk to the length of a YouTube video (and not one of those “now allowed 15min+” vids) and brain fog makes it hard for you to focus on anything. It’s alright, mindfulness doesn’t require you to continually focus on one thing as a means of distracting your mind. Just about anything in this world can be used as a basis for practising mindfulness.
Sometimes my mind gets all revved up on anxiety and starts berating me about unnecessary things.
“You shouldn’t have done this/or that/or that other thing, Caf, you’re a bad person” – Past centric thinking/Unhelpful self judgement
“You aren’t ever going to be able to do this/or that/or that other thing with CRPS, Caf, your future is bleak” – Future centric thinking/Prediction
Neither of these approaches is a thought trail that I want to go down. Also, neither of these thoughts is accurate, concrete or certain.
Both of these trails lead to the exact same place: Negative Emotion Land. Really, there are so many paths in and out of the dreadful place that nobody should be surprised to realise they are on one and hadn’t noticed. It happens to me all the time.
Sometimes, noticing is all it takes to jump tracks. For example, when I notice that I’m feeling tense about how I think something in the future will be, I realise that I’m playing fortune teller. I’m fooling myself like a gypsy fools fairgoers. It’s easy to disregard these thoughts after that, they don’t always fade immediately but thankfully seem to have some pride and eventually stop popping back up to have me ridicule them.
It’s more difficult to deal with anxiety patterns that are focused on the past. Often, I actually do believe that I shouldn’t have done that thing or that other thing, but I don’t truly believe that I am a bad person. I call the recognition of past failings and not repeating those behaviours “learning” – it’s this amazing thing where you don’t have to give up on all hope for yourself just because you’ve made a mistake or ten, or a thousand.
In terms of mindfulness, I am recognising the thought as a thought, recognising that there are two different aspects to this being an anxious thought and then recognising other ways to perceive that memory, judgment or prediction that are more helpful to my present.
Sometimes, that works for a minute and then my mind careens back toward a trail what will take it to The Palace Of Sads (capital of Negative Emotion Land). I notice that I’m on the wrong track again and repeat cycle. Anxiety is a vicious thing, it doesn’t bugger off just because you’re onto it, it screams louder. It can take some time to quiet that roaring. Mindfulness is a technique and it takes practise.
Most of us rely on language as our primary means of both communication and understanding. When we monitor our thoughts, the language that they appear to us in can be used as a tool to focus and then shift attention. Improving our emotional state can be something as simple as swapping “I’ll never be out of pain” for “I am in pain today, but nobody knows what the future holds”. One of these things is not quite like the other, one nurses fear and the other carries hope.
Language wields more power than many people know, but it isn’t the only way to be mindful.
Mindfulness can often be effective for me if I focus instead on physical sensations rather than purposely attempting to stop thinking about whatever is causing me anxiety. This is most helpful when I am dealing with problems are are in the present moment.
There are problems in the present too? But I thought that’s where mindfulness was taking us! I don’t wanna go anymore…
There are problems everywhere. Thankfully, people are problem solvers. Mindfulness gives us tools to help conquer and cope with our problems, but it isn’t going to make them go away.
The present moment issue that I have to deal most with is loads and loads of intense pain, both of the physical and the emotional variety. I can’t think my way out of a CRPS flare up, but I can use mindfulness techniques to help shush the associated emotions.
Breathing is my solid, go to distraction. How am I breathing? Where does the air go? What does it feel like? Is it cold? Is it damp? Could I be oxygenating my brain a little better by deepening these breaths? The answers don’t need to be verbalised, they are merely prompts for noticing.
Switching up my senses is another great tool. By nature, I am a visual type of person, I will never remember your name if I haven’t seen it written down or pictured the letters in my mind. This is just a predilection, it doesn’t mean that my other senses are inferior, they’re just less attuned. In a point worth noting: I have only recognised this about myself through practising mindfulness.
A visual mindfulness activity is to look at things and notice something about them. What’s in front of you? Is it round? Is it green? Is it shiny? These might sound like simple things to answer, however the very act of pondering these questions is mindful.
One can’t turn senses on and off, but it is possible to regulate how much attention we give them in any moment. If noticing visuals isn’t helping, I can switch to noticing sounds. What can I hear? What sort of noise is it? Is it high pitched? Does it have a beat?
Sounds not working for you? Try thinking about touch. What can you feel on your skin? Is it pleasant? Soft? Scratchy? Painful? Warm? Freezing? Where can you feel air moving around you?
The point of these exercises is not to decipher what any of these stimuli mean, it’s not to understand them. When being mindful, all we need to do is notice. Pain can hurt like hell, but it can also be a good, physical sensation to use as a basis for mindfulness practise once we stop judging it as bad/wrong/unwanted.
As you can see, mindfulness isn’t so much a method of ceasing negative thought patterns (as is commonly believed) it is a method of channeling focus and awareness into other things. When you do that, there simply isn’t as much space left for your brain to be running its own destructive thought attacks.
Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised at how much stuff is around you that can find a place in your present mind. Fill your brain up with details and you squeeze the chattering monkey out.
Thanks so much to everybody that has been supporting me in the NHBPM challenge! If you like what I am doing, please share these posts with the people that you share things with or click that little thumbs up. It’s CRPS Awareness Month, which is why I’m choosing to disclose a little more about my health on a daily basis. The more awareness that we can raise, the easier it will get for people who are navigating the choppy waters of chronic pain.
Love & Cheers To Better Thinking,
This post written as a part of National Health Blog Post Month, run by WEGO health. Check out what people have been contributing via #NHBPM on Twitter, or joining the NHBPM Facebook Event.