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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Ruminating like a cow. Why I may have four stomachs.

I’ve realised as part of my recovery and ongoing wellness, that I need to have time alone. Being an introvert, this is just the way I’m wired. I must say also, that I believe even extroverts need time alone, but are even less likely to get it or plan for it.

So I structured time alone – often at home. I’d get the kids off to school, and pretty much have my housechores done (the bare minimum usually) and then slum around. I get on the net, check emails, fart about on Facebook, blog a bit, read forums (freshwater and fly fishing of course), look up interesting things like how to repair the fins on my Hobie kayak and how to build my own custom fly rod.

I’d make cups of tea, drink a couple of beers, rarely check the TV unless I’d recorded a program, but even then, rarely watch it. And of course I’d warily watch the time….. knowing that at 3.45 pm hordes would descend on the house, crash through the door and pillage our family home leaving carnage and crumbs everywhere.

But most of all, I noticed that I experienced a low mood on these days. I think I have been ruminating – like a cow. Cows have four stomachs you know. And they chew over things, again, and again, and again. I do that. I ruminate over things, again and again. But not very helpful things. So they don’t really get digested. And they probably should be expelled. I saw a cartoon recently that said “don’t hold your farts in. They travel up your spine and into your brain and this is where shitty ideas come from”. I probably have that going on.

So it’s a dilemma. I know I need time alone to rejuvenate, but it can’t be unstructured, aimless, pointless time alone. I need to have something to do. And this is why it’s a dilemma. I’m a recovering Type A, performance driven, alpha male. I’ve realised how I ended up burned out and it’s because I’ve lived as a human doing for too long, instead of a human being. I don’t want to be like the masses who are so busy with their lives that they don’t have time to just ….. be! But on the other hand, if I’m not doing something, I ruminate – and research has shown that people who tend to brood, have higher rates of depression.

So after much thought (I do sometimes ruminate on useful things), I’ve decided that it’s not so much having something to do. It’s having something to focus on or aim towards. There’s a subtle difference. I might focus on repairing something, or tying up some flies, or reading a book, or writing stuff, but it’s a focus. It’s like having a game plan for the day – a road map if you like. But I try not to let achievement and performance dictate the focus – because I don’t want to end up where I’ve already been. That would make burnout pointless, and I can’t afford for it to be pointless.

It’s a fairly subtle change in approach to my cave time, but I think it’s going to work out a little better. I also know that this approach also helps depressed people in their recovery from the great darkness that it is. For really unwell people, having a list (below) can be quite a powerful aid to recovery, without which, they may never even venture out from under the blankets.

  • get out of bed
  • have a shower
  • have breakfast
  • go for a walk
  • read a book

Workplace depression

I subscribe to the online Gallup Management Journal which this month has James K. Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing discussing depression in the workplace.

“There’s a significant relationship between work, stress, and health,” Harter says. “In other words, if people are in an ongoing work situation that is negative or stressful, they have a higher potential for negative health consequences.”

The quality of the workplace can be linked to serious physical and mental illnesses such as clinical depression and chronic anxiety that can have a significant negative impact on workers’ job performance and on their personal lives.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety, typically a normal reaction to stress, becomes debilitating when it becomes “an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations.” In a given year, approximately 40 million U.S. adults (18 and older) — about 18% of the U.S. population — are affected by an anxiety disorder.

Depression, according to NIMH, interferes with daily life and normal functioning. While the symptoms of depression vary depending on the individual and his or her illness, they include “persistent sad, anxious or ’empty’ feelings; feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism; . . . loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable; . . . fatigue and decreased energy; [and] difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions.” About 14.8 million American adults, or about 7% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older, are affected by depression in a given year.

My experience was that I couldn’t switch off. There were definitely negative elements, but these were periodical rather than persistent, although when they happened I would lie awake at night and then dream about the problems trying to grapple with the solutions. I remember waking up totally drenched in sweat. I’d have to flip the covers back, go for a walk to the kitchen and get a drink and wait for the bed to dry.

Everyday, I would feel the dread; the irrational chicken-little syndrome of feeling like the sky was going to fall.

I think complexity and the global thinking necessary for a leader at the top of the food chain was sometimes overwhelming. But overall, I think the worst thing was being spread way too thinly. Everyone wanted a piece of me and there simply wasn’t enough of me to go around.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, best to put a sock in your ego and see a health professional and get some unbiased help. Let’s face it. If you got hit by a bus tomorrow, the reality is the people at your workplace would be sad, but basically someone else would be found to take on your responsibilities and life would go on as before.

Click here for the full article

More on Mastery

So, having touched on the thought of “Mystery before Mastery but not without Mastery” you’ve probably already realized some of the downsides if you get this one backwards.

Part of the pressure we face as pastors is “to be an example to all” – which we probably think is biblical… well it sort of is and sort of isn’t. If we have a modern mindset which says performance, efficiency and results are primary, then we equate being an example to “having it all together” – i.e. we need to “master” this life of faith we lead, and be examples of how to “master” the Christian life.

But here’s what I think….. Paul encouraged Timothy to be an example, but qualified it by saying “let your growth be evident to all”. In other words, Timothy was to be an example of growth and following Jesus, not an example of mastery. This allows mystery to come before mastery and takes a whole lot of pressure off Timothy.

Pastors feel like their authority or “platform” or “right to speak into others’ lives” comes from their mastery. But here’s the kicker. We’re no more spiritual than anyone else (we all have the holy spirit living in us), we may be more or less mature than others in certain areas and we may be no less weaker or stronger than anyone else… But we have been called to be an example. In other words, I think God has a call on our lives to be put in a fish bowl, so people can watch us grow and follow Jesus and in doing so are encouraged, inspired and strengthened to growth in their own life.