Mindfulness – writing before exams

I’ve mentioned mindfulness a bit in this blog. I don’t practice mindfulness every day in terms of meditation, breathing, body scans etc. But I do try and practice it as a lifestyle. I try and be aware of what I’m experiencing moment to moment, not be too futuristic nor live in the past and to be aware of what’s happening inside me – my thoughts and feelings.

I try and allow my feelings to be and my thoughts to come and go without fusing with them. I try and allow my thoughts and feelings to be the actors on stage while staying in the audience. I experience the drama, but try and refrain from jumping up on stage and being part of the drama. I suppose of verge more toward the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strain of mindfulness than the Buddhist/yoga strain which emphasizes practice (thirty to sixty minutes a day of breathing, sitting etc.) I guess I would really like to do yoga and meditation, but I’m not disciplined enough (I wish I was because there’s no denying the evidence around the changes to the brain that takes place).

Some really interesting research recently came out of Chicago University around the affect of anxiety on performance. Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high–stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. Interestingly, researchers showed that it wasn’t just the act of writing that inoculated students against choking; rather, specifically writing about test–related thoughts and feelings had helped.

What they found was that anxiety and stress took up “working memory” – something like RAM in a computer or CPU firepower and decreased performance. Basically this was an exercise in mindfulness. It turns an experience of stress and anxiety, into one of observing the stress and anxiety. Of noticing it, and acknowledging it (by writing it down). How does this work? It re-engages the cognitive left cerebral hemisphere which has been deactivated as brain function has descended into the more primal limbic system where flight, freeze, fight mechanisms have taken over due to the fear, anxiety and stress.

Actions of mindfulness (such as writing) are powerful and practiced consistently can produce a more peaceful, lower stress, richer life experience and the body of evidence continues to grow.

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Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.