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Curiosity Saved the Cat

Children naturally tend towards curiosity.  Do you remember being a kid watching ants crawling in and out of that ant hill wondering what they were up to? Such a question, filled with genuine curiosity, might have led you to watching the ants for longer than you ever would today as they carried things in and out of a little mound of dirt. Children frequently have a curiosity about themselves and their surroundings that makes them naturally mindful to the world. 

We tend to lose such curiosity as we enter adulthood. When was the last time we, as adults, curiously watched the clouds to see what we might find?  As we grow older, in place of curiosity, our brains lay down short-hand information for us. Instead of actually experiencing moments, we experience the idea of a moment, based on concepts and memories rather than direct contact with sensory experience.  Additionally, we become increasingly invested in not paying attention to information deemed as unimportant, or neutral, as our attention turns more and more towards chasing “the good stuff” and solving perceived problems in our minds.  The clouds and ants go unnoticed, along with upwards of 90% of our daily experiences. They are filtered out as irrelevant, and therefore not worth noticing. 

With formal mindfulness practices, we have an opportunity to bring curiosity to our inner and outer experiences once again. We might ask ourselves, “ what does this breath feel like?”, “ what body sensations are here?” or, “what am I believing right now?” These formal practices lay the groundwork for bringing curiosity to the rest of life. Indeed, in daily life, curiosity can be the gateway to living in the present moment, with less judgement and reactivity. What does this cup of coffee actually taste like? What are the layered sounds of traffic? What bodily sensations are here when I see my child smile, hear good news, or am running late for a meeting?  Being with these questions guides us directly into the present moment. Bringing curiosity to these inquiries immediately moves us out of automatic pilot and reactivity and into a conscious, awake state in which we actually experience the “little moments” of our days.  And, in the wise words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” They are, in fact, the vast majority of our lives.

Over the next few months, we will be reviewing some interesting research related to mindfulness and behavior change, with a particular focus on cultivating curiosity.  

Till then – stay curious!

Begin again….and again…..and again…..

When we practice mindfulness, we are sharpening several necessary and frequently underdeveloped skills – flexible attention, knowing what we’re feeling, and observing our own thoughts – to name just a few. This month on the blog, we’d like to discuss the critical skill of beginning again.

Whether we’re sitting in meditation, or practicing informally, it is inevitable that we will become lost in thought – many, many times. This isn’t anyone’s fault, but we do need a strategy to work with it. The instruction is rather simple for working with the moment when we realize we’ve become lost in thought. The instruction is: begin again. This simple instruction has real transformative power. To truly begin again, means to abandon the analysis of where our mind went, why it went there, or what it means about us that the mind continues to just think so much.

When we practice beginning again, we learn what it truly means to return to the object of mindful awareness without any drama. In doing so, we learn to quickly drop the stories about ourselves and other people, and experience the moment with fresh eyes and an open heart. As a result, we create opportunities for connection, joy, forgiveness, and compassion that would otherwise be lost. How many times does the present moment become so contaminated by regrets, fears or resentments that we are no longer truly here? And how do we tend to react in those times?

Beginning again allows us to step out of the scripts that can easily dictate our behaviors, and engage with what’s actually happening. Just this evening I (Erin) announced to my kids that it was time to get ready for bed. Immediately there was the standard pushback, and instananeously I felt that familiar tension in reaction. “Here we go again”. Of course I raised my voice, and began playing out the script “if you’re not in bed in five minutes there’s no story”, to which I received the standard and predictable “you can’t tell us what to do all the time!”

Thankfully, through my mindfulness practice, I now have the option to step out of the old script and begin again. As a result of practicing in meditation, I am familiar with what the pivot towards starting over actually feels like (of course remembering to use the skill is always the hard part). My body and my mind soften, and I connect with a faint whisper of a reminder to ‘begin again’. Without judgement, self-criticism, or needing anything to be any different than how it is, I completely let myself off the hook. No longer did I need to be the mom that was “in control”. I could just be there, without needing anything to be different at all.

Of course this is a small example, but the skill of beginning again can lead to profound shifts. And learning to begin again is a skill that is cultivated and practiced whenever we meditate. By beginning again, we can give ourselves permission to gain freedom from self-defeating habits and patterns, and learn to experience ourselves, our lives, and the people around us exactly as they are.

Warning: Mindfulness may not be relaxing.

This month we thought it would be helpful to discuss the differences between relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation practices. Both have benefits. However, we (Erin and Josh) often find that people talking about mindfulness meditation, mistake it for another way to relax. The mistake is more than understandable since there is a lot of overlap between relaxation exercises and mindfulness meditation practices.

First, let’s take a look at relaxation techniques. Such techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and others. These techniques can be powerful tools for reducing anxiety and tension when they are practiced. Additionally, regular practice of them has been shown to have health benefits. While practicing a relaxation technique, one actively engages in the technique in order to obtain a specific body response, such as slowing the breath, heart rate, and loosening the muscles – the opposite of the fight or flight stress response.

In mindfulness meditation practices, we may also focus on the breath and body, as well as thoughts/images in the mind, but from a perspective of curiously observing them in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and with kindness. While relaxation techniques seek to gain control over the body’s reactions, mindfulness meditation aims to increase awareness of physical, emotional, and thought reactions in daily life. Stress reduction often comes in the form of mindfulness practitioners gaining awareness of how their bodies, emotions, and minds influence each other and create stress reactions or perpetuate them beyond the stressful event itself. Mindfulness practitioners also increase awareness of reflexive thought and behavior patterns that may contribute to long term stress, thereby enhancing their ability to have a choice in how best to respond.

Sometimes, mindfulness meditation is relaxing. Many times, as people practice mindful meditation and increase their awareness of the present moment in their daily life, they find peace in the present moment. For instance, they may become aware of thoughts about something stressful of the past or worries about the future that are creating stress reactions in the body. With redirecting awareness to the present, people often find that there is nothing threatening in that very moment and a sense of peace may follow. One may also find some peace while meditating by holding the worries in an accepting awareness with compassion. Furthermore, mindfulness and relaxation can be combined. For instance, once a person has awareness of muscle tension and shortness of breath while meditating, they may choose to take a few deep breaths to calm the body and then return to simply observing the breath.

Nevertheless, people often find that mindfulness meditation is not relaxing. This is helpful! During meditation, as we quietly direct awareness toward the present moment, we are confronted by much of what we may want to avoid or “fix,” such as regrets, fears, and pain. However, some of the value of mindfulness meditation comes from practicing the skill of holding these experiences in our awareness with compassion rather than avoiding them or trying to immediately fix them. With practice in returning to the present, we can learn to bring mindfulness to any aspect of daily life. Thus, one can not only mindfully observe a beautiful sunset or taste a piece of chocolate, but also mindfully rush to work or address a child’s misbehavior. Bringing mindful awareness to such events as they unfold helps us to stay present with what is actually going on in life rather than reacting solely to the story line playing in our mind.

Myths about Self-Compassion

For many reasons, people often reject self-compassion as “not for me”.  This month on the blog, we’d like to look at several common myths about self-compassion, and provide some clarity around what self-compassion actually is (and what it is not). 

Myth #1:  Self-compassion is weak.  If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll never get anything done.

In our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture, there is a pervasive belief that being tough on yourself is the best way to remain productive and engaged. Research, however, shows that this is not actually true. Motivating oneself with self-criticism tends to lead to fear of failure, and giving up early when things don’t go as planned. Additionally, people who attempt to motivate themselves with self-criticism tend to avoid taking risks. On the contrary, people high in self-compassion are more likely to take risks, persevere in the face of challenge, and learn from their mistakes rather than give up. People high in self-compassion are able to accept critical feedback without personalizing it. All in all, people who are high in self-compassion also possess the skills necessary to improve performance, rather than diminish it.

Myth #2:  Self-compassion is selfish. 

It’s common to hear people express concern that if they practice self-compassion, they will become less compassionate towards other people, and obsessed with their own needs. Remember, one of the components of self-compassion is common humanity – the understanding that no matter your circumstances, struggling and hurting is a shared human experience, and not personal. People with high self-compassion actually show increased ability to lean in to others’ suffering, rather than avoid it. Additionally, people with high self-compassion are more willing to compromise in relationship conflicts, and forgive other people rather than hold a grudge. In short, the way we treat ourselves is indicative of the way we treat other people – self-compassionate people treat others with compassion.

Myth #3: Self-compassion will make me lazy.

Some people might make the mistake of equating self-compassion with self-indulgence, leading to a fear that if they practice self-compassion, they’ll sit around all day eating cookies and watching Netflix. This is indicative of a misunderstanding of what self-compassion actually is. Self-compassion enables people to honor their long-term values and goals, rather than indulge short-term urges. Fierce self-compassion includes caring enough about yourself to take steps towards bigger goals, and to tolerate the necessary discomfort along the way. Research actually shows that people with high levels of self-compassion engage in more, not less, health behaviors, including exercising, eating well, and drinking less.

For more information about self-compassion, we highly recommend Dr. Kristin Neff’s work.  Our main resource for this article was the self-help manual The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.  And some research related to self-compassion includes the following:

Neff, K.D., & Pommier, E. (2013).  The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160-176.

Sbarra, D.A., Smith, H.L. & Mehl, M.R. (2012). When leaving your ex, love yourself: Observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psychological Science, 23, 261-269.

Magnus, C.R., Kowalski, K.C. & McHugh, T.F. (2010). The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise-related outcomes. Self and Identity, 9, 363-382.

Zhang, J.W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 244-258.

Self-Compassion Versus Self-Esteem

This month we’ll continue our talk on the topic of self-compassion, and explore some of the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion.  Self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively.  Self-compassion, by contrast, refers to how we relate to ourselves when we’re hurting – with kindness and understanding (see the previous blog post for a full discussion on components of self-compassion).  While the two might seem similar at first, there are crucial differences between them to understand.

Self-compassion is a way we relate to ourselves.  It emphasizes common humanity, and includes the expectation that we will inevitably make mistakes, betray our values at times, and occasionally disappoint ourselves and people around us.  In other words, when we are self-compassionate, we let go of the expectation of perfection.  When we bring self-compassion to painful and disappointing moments, we are free to let go of the question “what is wrong with me?”, and focus instead on soothing ourselves while learning from our mistakes.  In this way, self-compassion actually builds resilience.

By contrast, self-esteem is more focused on how we are “doing” – instead of emphasizing common humanity, it emphasizes personal performance.  High self-esteem leads to feeling really good, because we perceive ourselves to be “knocking it out of the park”.  The preconditions for self-esteem are many – first of all, we have to perform well, or look really good, or in some kind of way possess some really wonderful quality.  Of course, while our performance is strong and our sense of possessing whatever that wonderful quality is, is high, we feel great!  But….when our performance slips, or that wonderful quality wanes, self-esteem tends to wane with it.  In this way, self-esteem can truly be a fair-weather friend.  It’s there when things are going great, and abandons us when we most need support.

Second, self-esteem can encourage social comparison, as opposed to common humanity.  By judging ourselves as “better than”, self-esteem increases.  The trouble with this reliance on social comparison are clear.  Social comparison isn’t so good for relationships, and doesn’t allow us to truly celebrate and enjoy another’s success. And – it falls apart!  There will always be someone smarter, stronger, harder-working (add any other quality or possession here).  Finally, because high self-esteem feels great while it lasts, people have a tendency to seek it out.  Unfortunately, this can lead to tendencies like devaluing people around us, over-preparing for tasks, perfectionism, and avoidance of risks that could threaten self-esteem. 

When you find yourself just feeling great about yourself, by all means, enjoy the moment!  Savior the feeling and let it sink in.  But – thanks to self-compassion, we don’t need to rely on that feeling, or try to create more of it, or equate it with self-worth.  By cultivating self-compassion, we build a resilience and resource that is there for us when self-esteem simply cannot be.  Mindfulness practitioners endorse higher levels of self-compassion than non-meditators – yet another way that mindfulness increases wellbeing and stress resilience.

Mindful Self-Compassion

This month on the blog, we’d like to introduce you to self-compassion – a topic we’re sure to return to frequently. To boil it down to its essence, self-compassion is the stance of turning towards oneself as an inner ally, rather than an inner enemy – particularly in times of suffering and pain.

Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer break mindful self-compassion into three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Mindfulness brings a balanced and accepting awareness to moments of suffering. In order to practice self-compassion during painful times, we must first know that we’re hurting – this is where mindfulness comes in. Common humanity refers to the understanding that all humans suffer and struggle – that your pain is not personal or a sign of badness/weakness. No human is perfect, and we all make mistakes and experience regret at times. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition, not a sign of personal failing. And finally, self-kindness involves turning to ourselves in moments of pain with care and compassion; the same way we would turn to a loved one who is hurting. It’s very common to kick ourselves when we’re down. To offer ourselves messages of “what’s wrong with me?!” and other forms of criticism.

We will be exploring mindful self-compassion frequently in future blog posts and discussions. To summarize research findings thus far: people who are more self-compassionate endorse higher levels of life satisfaction, better relationships, stress resilience, and general wellness – as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression. And some great news: self-compassion can be cultivated, so don’t fret if you tend more towards self-criticism. Participants in a standard MBSR course endorse significantly higher levels of self-compassion at the end of the course than when they began. And the mindful self-compassion program, which we’ll describe in future posts, is an eight week program explicitly designed to increase self-compassion through a series of formal and informal mindfulness-based practices.

Until next time, wishing you a self-compassionate month as you navigate the inevitable ups and downs.

Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation

This month, we’ll look at the connection between mindfulness and emotion regulation.  Several studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation training results in an increase in emotion regulation.  Emotion regulation, in general, refers to a person’s ability to effectively experience emotions.  Skills related to emotion regulation include: knowing when an emotion is present, accurately identifying emotions, nonjudgmental acceptance of emotions, and effectively soothing and down-regulating painful emotions.  People with low emotion regulation skills might find themselves swept away and hijacked by their emotions, or on the flip side, excessively avoiding emotions leading to a sense of emotional numbness.

The study we’re looking at today looks at neural mechanisms (aka what’s going on in your brain!) that might explain why mindfulness meditation leads to better emotion regulation.  Brain areas of interest in this study include the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).  In general, when the amygdala is activated, emotions like anger and fear are generated.  When the VMPFC is activated, emotions are regulated, leading to less emotional reactivity and a quicker return to baseline.

This study found that long-term meditators demonstrated less amygdala activation than short-term meditators or non-meditators.  So, in response to situations that might trigger an emotion like fear or anger, long-term meditators were less likely to experience those reactions at all.  This was especially true for long-term meditators with a lot of meditation retreat hours.

Short-term meditators in this study were defined as people who recently completed an MBSR course.  The study found that short-term meditators showed higher levels of amygdala-VMPFC connectivity than non-meditators.  Meaning, when short-term meditators become emotionally triggered, those emotions are more quickly regulated when the VMPFC comes online.  Which leads to thinking more clearly, responding more effectively, and stepping off the emotionally reactive treadmill early and often.  Yet another example of how mindfulness meditation training, truly is brain training.

The link for the article we discussed today is:

Kral, T .R. A., Schuyler, B. S., Mumford, J. A., Rosenkranz, M. A., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2018). Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli. NeuroImage, 181, 301-13. https://doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.07.013

And a few other studies related to mindfulness and emotion regulation:

Goldin, P.R, Gross, J.J., 2010.  Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion 10, 83-91. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018441.

Ortner, C.N.M., Kilner, S.J., Zelazo, P.D., 2007. Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional influence on a cognitive task. Motiv. Emot. 31, 271-283.  https://doil.org/10.1007/s11031-007-9076-7.

Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A.A., Oh, D., 2010.  The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 78, 169-183. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018555.

Mindfulness Meditation and Hypertension

This month on the blog, we’ll be looking at the results of a very recent RCT (randomized controlled trial) published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, looking at the impacts of mindfulness meditation training on adults with hypertension.  In sum, the results of the study suggest that mindfulness meditation may offer adults with hypertension a host of benefits, including not only lowering blood pressure and related health risks, but psychological benefits as well.

A bit more about this particular study….

For future reference, an RCT is considered to be the “gold standard” of research design.  While no study is perfect, RCTs aim to minimize bias by randomly assigning participants to one of two conditions:  treatment as usual (control group), or the treatment being studied, while holding all other factors constant.

Considering the prevalence of high blood pressure (AKA hypertension) in adults in America, there is high interest in cost effective, non-invasive strategies to help people lower their blood pressure safely and effectively.  High blood pressure (hypertension) is a risk factor for several serious health complications, including heart attack and stroke.

In this study, 42 adults with normal-high blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension were randomly assigned to one of two conditions:  health education intervention (control group), or a mindfulness meditation condition.  Both conditions were administered in eight two-hour sessions.  The mindfulness meditation condition was very similar to a standard MBSR course, with a few modifications specific to treating hypertension.

Following the completion of the interventions, participants in the mindfulness meditation condition had significantly lower systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number- also thought to possibly be the more important measure of health risk) than the health education condition.  At 20 weeks post-intervention, the mindfulness meditation completers’ systolic blood pressure dropped 13 mmHg from baseline, while those in the control condition dropped 1 mmHg.  Additionally,  at 8 weeks mindfulness meditation completers also reported lower levels of anxiety, stress and depression.  At 20 weeks, mindfulness meditation completers reported lower perceived stress scores.

The citation for the article we discussed today is:

Márquez, P. H., Feliu-Soler, A., Solé-Villa, M. J.,…Arroyo-Díaz, J. A. (2018). Benefits of mindfulness meditation in reducing blood pressure and stress in patients with arterial hypertension. J Human Hypertension.

Let us know if you have questions about the study!  We hope to see you soon.  We’ll be back next month to discuss another recent research study related to mindfulness-based interventions.

Hello! And Welcome!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We are honored, humbled, and very excited to introduce ourselves and our services to the Monmouth County area!  We are two local psychologists with a passion for bringing responsible and heartfelt mindfulness-based programs and training to our local community.  As psychologists and people in the world, we have seen and felt how suffering (of all shapes and sizes) can be transformed by cultivating the qualities of mindfulness.

All of our upcoming groups will be listed on our website, and we will be sure to let you know about them in monthly emails.  Additionally, we will be publishing a monthly blog summarizing a few recent research findings related to mindfulness, and the implications for personal practice.  We encourage you to peruse our website to learn more about us and our services.

Please be in touch with any curiosities or questions about who we are, what we do, or how we might be a resource for you.  We are really looking forward to getting to know our community.

With gratitude,

Erin and Josh