Man looking outward, reflecting

MBCT Diary: 6 – Using Breathing Space to ‘Reset’ |

I’m blogging about my experience of a series of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy sessions. You can read the posts in order starting here.

Recording pleasant and unpleasant events

Over the last week, I had been noticing and recording pleasant and unpleasant events as part of my homework for the sessions. Like before, I had to try and record the event itself, my bodily sensations, my emotions and my thoughts.

One of the things I found most interesting about recording unpleasant events was when Liam explained that we didn’t have to have only record ‘totally dreadful’ unpleasant experiences. Some of the experiences we record could be only ‘mildly unpleasant’ or even quite neutral.

I realised that pleasant and unpleasant events and experiences could be on a much subtler scale than language enables us to describe. By taking time to become more aware of an unpleasant event and all the sensations and thoughts that came with it, I felt I was further getting to know my own mind.

Using the ‘breathing space’ as a ‘reset’ button

I also found doing the short ‘breathing space’ meditations three times a day really refreshing. It felt a bit like a ‘reset’ button, enabling me to step out of whatever was going on at the time. The instructor gave us a great metaphor for what the breathing space can do. Imagine we’re caught in a downfall of rain. Many of us will rush for shelter. We’re glad to be out of the rain for a moment – we hope it will stop so we stand undercover for a while. It becomes apparent we’re going to have to go back out into it – to face the thing we’re trying to avoid.

We could respond by going out into it cursing the rain, disliking the feeling of being wet, getting upset about how it is always raining – all of which is adding to our discomfort. Instead, another option is to stand there in the shelter, aware of the sensation of being a bit wet but not clinging to the hope the rain will stop. We can focus more closely on the rain itself and how it looks and splashes.

Taking brief shelter, or doing a breathing space, will not stop the ‘rain’, but can help us take a step back for a moment and change our experience going forwards.

For next week’s homework, we were encouraged to combine these two activities – using the breathing space as a coping mechanism whenever we experienced unpleasant events. All the practice we had becoming more aware of pleasant and unpleasant events as they happen meant that we would be better able to identify the times when the rain was falling and a breathing space meditation might help.

The interaction between thoughts, emotions, sensations and behaviour

Next we discussed the interaction between our body sensations, our thoughts, our emotions/feelings and our behaviour. We talked about how these feed into each other if we are not able to take a step back using a breathing space meditation.

Alice gave one example of such an interaction:

“We wake up with particular bodily sensations. Perhaps we are feeling tired and achy.
We immediately start to think and ruminate, ‘I don’t think I’ll get anything done today’ and so on to ‘I’m useless, this will never change, another wasted day’.
Unsurprisingly, these thoughts lead on to emotions and feelings of frustration, sadness and disappointment. We might feel depressed and irritable.
This influences our behaviour – we cancel everything that day, we stay at home, we can’t sleep – and so next morning we have more tired and achy bodily sensations to deal with.”

This can be much more common among those who have been depressed in the past – we have more learned reactions and associations with moods or bodily sensations, which means we slip more easily into the rumination and the spiral. Alice also said that a large percentage of people who end up being diagnosed with depression initially present to their doctor with aches and bodily pain. This is the part of the vicious circle that we more easily feel we can get help with.

At first, I could understand how thoughts and emotions interact, but struggled with the idea that bodily sensations could affect mood. But soon I realised that actually I had a really strong personal example. When I have the bodily sensation of feeling full or bloated then the feeling of my clothes on my body, especially if they are tight, can act as a trigger for thoughts about weight. ‘I’m fat’ and ‘I’ve eaten too much again’. These then cause me to feel emotions of sadness, frustration and irritability with myself.

Learning to take a breathing space when I initially have that sensation helps me to identify the sensation for what it is, a transient bodily sensation, often after a meal or before my period. I can then stop myself going into the automatic spiral of rumination about it.

Usually when we have an uncomfortable feeling or bodily sensation, our mind tried to find a thought to hang it on. If instead you concentrate on the feeling itself, it stops the rumination having a chance to get in.

Next time we’ll explore staying present in more detail – and how this can help us develop a new relationship with depression and anxiety.

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