As part of our homework we had to try to become more aware of pleasant events – recording at least one every day and thinking about our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations while we were experiencing these events. Making a real distinction in my experience between thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations was a pretty new thing for me. I found thoughts the easiest to identify, then emotions and lastly bodily sensations. Mindfulness encourages us to turn from our thoughts and focus on the sensations in the body in the moment.
Using thoughts to try and solve feelings doesn’t work
This week, a lot of the participants seemed frustrated or sceptical about the body scan and other mindful activities – unclear how they were helping or what impact they could have on long-term relapse prevention.
Liam explained more about the ideas behind MBCT. Humans are used to ‘intellectual’ problem solving – using thoughts to move from a problem to a solution. However, the trouble comes when we try to use intellectual problem solving to approach an emotional problem. We try to use thoughts to solve a feeling.
This leads to the rumination a lot of us are familiar with. Thoughts circle round in our heads, posing as questions which are impossible to answer. To add to this, we are often monitoring ourselves against unhelpful ‘standards’ of happiness that we set ourselves. We wake up feeling bad – and make it worse by comparing it in our thoughts to how we feel we should be. This leads to the vicious spiral of rumination – ‘Why am I feeling like this…I shouldn’t be…no one else struggles this much…. maybe it’s because of this…I’m letting everyone down’. We feel as though, if we found the elusive ‘answer’, all would be fine.
Using this approach to ‘solve’ emotions and moods is unhelpful.
Instead, MBCT is trying to offer a different way of approaching things – moving away from the automatic intellectual need to solve things instantly. It encourages us to step back and in doing so, getting out of the thought patterns that lead to the rumination and the vicious spiral.
Accepting how we feel in the moment without judgement means we step away from that ‘problem solving’ approach. That isn’t to say we can’t change things, but not in this way.
Of course, it isn’t easy to change. We are problem-solving beings. It’s a big adjustment to develop enough awareness of our mental processes to stop ourselves from automatically approaching every mood and feeling as a ‘problem’ to be solved.
We started looking further at mindfulness of the breath as a particular help in these situations. I’ll explore that next session.