Tip: Use a Light Touch
In mindfulness meditation, when you notice a thought, you’ll likely be tempted to dwell on it and take it somewhere. Instead, you can just touch it lightly with your attention and go right to your breath. It doesn’t matter if you were off in space for a long time. In the moment you touch the thought, you can bounce right back.
Flip the Script?
Change your storyline or simply notice it? Which is better?
Many therapies—not to mention the advice we get from friends and our grandmother—encourage us to change the story we’re telling ourselves when that story causes us anxiety, depression, or other challenging mental states. In the recovery world it’s called “stinkin’ thinkin’,” the kind of self-talk that tells us we are no good or things are not going to work out or that the person we are about to go talk to is an absolute ogre. The stories we tell ourselves in our head do frame our experience, and they can form a kind of script for our lives, so the advice to “flip the script,” to change the story we’re telling ourselves, would seem to make a lot of sense.
Mindfulness practice, however, in its basic form, does not emphasize studying our story so that we can change the story we’re telling ourselves. It doesn’t ask us to enter into a dialogue with our inner storyline to try to shift it. The basic instruction is to notice whatever thinking arises, see it for what it is, and come back to whatever anchor we are using for our attention, most commonly the breath.
So, which makes more sense and is more effective for coping with and healing anxiety?
“It’s not binary. There’s no need to think of one being right and the other wrong or one being necessarily better than the other,” according to Zindel Segal, Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto and one of the founders of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
In mindfulness practice, Segal says, you have an opportunity—the mental time and space, if you will—to see more elements of the story, a richer picture. “You may see more clearly as you anticipate a difficult encounter what the underlying emotion is that’s triggered and how it’s showing up in your body.” In this way, you become aware of the full context of the story, like seeing a flower opening in slow-motion photography. With this awareness, over time “your solid belief in a storyline may begin to erode.”
In mindfulness practice, Segal says, you have an opportunity—the mental time and space, if you will—to see more elements of the story, a richer picture. “You may see more clearly as you anticipate a difficult encounter what the underlying emotion is that’s triggered and how it’s showing up in your body.”
Segal also notes that simply reminding yourself of the flimsiness of a given storyline, such as—to give a very simple example—vastly overestimating the likelihood of a plane crash, is certainly an acceptable strategy. It’s simply that mindfulness practice aims to do deeper work with our story-making habits, to give us more choice as triggers for anxiety or depression emerge in our lives.
Try This Practice: The 3-Minute Breathing Space
This is one of the most popular practices in the 8-week MBCT program. It allows you to shift your attention away from automatic, multitasking patterns of thought to help you get unstuck. It invites you to bring attention to your experience in a wider, more open manner that isn’t involved in selecting, choosing, or evaluating, but simply becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings, your breath in various regions of the body, and finally, sensations throughout the entire body.