Category Archives: Mindfulness

Can Mindfulness Help Break Bad Habits?

I marvel at the human brain’s capacity to function on autopilot, navigating hundreds or thousands of routines with no (or minimal) conscious thought. The first few times we perform a new task – like tying our shoes – it’s a bit effortful. But once we’ve mastered a skill, we can execute it while thinking about other things.

Habits largely live in the realm of the unconscious. We encounter a trigger that sets forth a behavioral routine which results in some form of reward. The reward generally draws us toward something pleasant or away from something unpleasant/harmful.

See donuts.
Eat donuts.
Savor the delicious flavor and survive.

Hear rattling sound in forest.
Move away from sound with all due haste.
Avoid poisonous snake bite and survive.

We find this survivalist wiring in all sentient life. The degree to which we’re drawn to a particular behavior in response to a cue or trigger lies in the reward value that we’ve assigned to it. The higher the reward, the easier it is to trigger the behavior.

So, how do we get stuck in bad habits?

If we’re uncomfortably and unhealthfully overweight, we know we should eat less and focus on healthier food choices, but we can’t seem to avoid the allure of salts, sugars, and fats. If we smoke cigarettes, we’ve been bombarded with all kinds of messaging about how bad it is for us (and may even experience life-threatening symptoms), but we still light up. A similar logic goes along with alcohol and drug addiction. Our higher order thinking may know that our behavior is not life sustaining, but we have real difficulty changing it.

Dr. Judson Brewer, MD, PhD has devoted his life’s work to helping people break the cycle of addiction. He tells us that willpower and self-discipline alone are not sufficient to overcome this seemingly intractable foe. They rely upon the faculties of the newest part of our brains – the prefrontal cortex – to exercise control. Regrettably, that’s the first part of our brains to go off-line when we are under stress, which is when bad habits are most likely to engage. They spring forth from ye olde reward-based learning that triggers behavior based on a cue in anticipation of a reward.

CUE: I feel anxious, upset, bored…
BEHAVIOR: I eat chocolate, light up a smoke, down a drink, take a pill…
REWARD: I avoid having to feel anxious, upset, bored… in this moment

Dr. Charles Duhigg served up the Golden Rule of Habit Change to address this circumstance: Keep an old cue, deliver an old reward, but insert a new behavior. For example, go for a brisk walk in nature the next time you feel anxious, bored, upset… While that’s a healthier alternative to overeating, smoking, or substance abuse, it keeps the old habit loop intact, making it easy to revert to the old behavior. Besides, do we really think a habit loop designed to avoid feelings is a good thing?

As a long time meditator, Dr. Brewer wondered to what extent the practice of mindfulness might benefit those struggling with addiction. He identified several factors favorable to its use:

  • Mindfulness takes behaviors that have been unconscious and brings them into awareness with compassion and without judgment. It creates the space for making different choices.
  • Mindfulness recognizes that physical sensations, mental states, and feelings rise and fall away. Whatever impulse drives undesirable behavior, it’ll go away.
  • Mindfulness brings curiosity to impulses and reward systems. Impulses feel less compelling when examined from an interested but dispassionate stance. Rewards may not be so rewarding when taking a longer view. (“Mmm. The chocolate tasted good for the few minutes that it took to eat it. But then I felt bloated and guilty. It also disrupted my sleep, and I felt lousy the next day.”) If you reset the reward value, the habit loop may die on the vine.

Dr. Brewer tested his theory with smokers who were highly motivated to quit. Half of the group got the prevailing gold standard treatment protocol for quitting smoking; the other half received mindfulness training along with a related app for their Smartphones. The mindfulness group demonstrated a success rate 5x that of the gold standard group! He applied the technique to overeating and witnessed a 40% reduction in craving-related eating.

Want to learn more? Read my next post or watch Judson Brewer’s TED Talk entitled A simple way to break a bad habit.

The Wheel of Awareness

While perusing Daniel Siegel’s book Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, I came across a useful metaphor that has helped me get my head wrapped around mindfulness. He calls it the wheel of awareness.

wheel of awarenessThink of the center of the wheel – the hub – as consciousness, or that state of being aware of one’s external environment and internal sensations and processes. Siegel refers to it as knowing. It’s that part of us that has the capacity for awareness.

Consider the rim to include all of the things about which consciousness might be aware. Siegel labels it the knowns. The rim contains:

  • Input from our 5 senses – i.e., sight, sound, taste, smell, touch
  • Interior signals from the body – e.g., breath, heartbeat, digestion, body temperature
  • Feeling states – e.g., happy, sad, angry, calm, anxious, excited, lethargic
  • Mental activities – e.g., planning, analyzing, remembering, imagining, ruminating
  • Relational sense – i.e., interconnectedness

The spoke on the wheel represents the precise stream of energy and information to which we direct our attention at any given moment. Experienced meditators have the ability to direct sustained attention toward one thing at a time. Novice meditators may find that their spokes flit around at a dizzying rate. The consistent practice of meditation slows this activity down and enables the meditator to differentiate elements of consciousness and discern relationships between them. It has the capacity to alter neural structures.

“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”

A receptive consciousness allows for focused attention, open awareness, and kind attention toward whatever arises. One lives in the relative calm of the hub and doesn’t get lost or stuck on the rim, buffeted about by the knowns of life. The hub is the source of awareness, reflection, choice, and change. This receptive consciousness also senses energy and information flow with more focus, clarity, depth, and detail.

The book offers several practical suggestions for developing mindfulness. One simple technique that leverages the aforementioned insights follows:

  • Find a comfortable position in which you can sit with dignity and ease. You may close your eyes or adopt a fixed gaze on a neutral object.
  • Focus on the breath without trying to control it. Just breathe in and out naturally.
  • Take a few moments to notice each of the five senses. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling in this moment (if anything)?
  • Conduct a body scan – from the tips of your toes to the top of your head – and take note of any sensations that arise.
  • Notice feelings that crop and where they might reside in the body.
  • Pay attention to thoughts that come into consciousness (and how quickly they tend to disappear!)
  • Turn the sense of awareness back in on itself – i.e., notice the one who is noticing!
  • Finish with statements of kind intention for yourself and for other beings – e.g., May I (all beings) live with meaning, connection, and equinity. May I (all beings) be healthy. May I (all beings) be free from harm. May I (all beings) flourish and cultivate a grateful heart.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

A recent conversation with my naturopath drew my attention to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program developed in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. It’s an 8-week workshop with weekly classes, homework, and an all-day retreat with instruction in mindfulness meditation, body scanning, and simple yoga postures. It’s based on the following tenets: beginner’s mind, non-judgment, patients, acceptance, non-striving, trust, and letting go.

mindfulness

My husband and I attended an orientation last Spring. I followed up with a quick read though The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality by Linda Lehrhaupt and Petra Meibert, both certified trainers. While the authors make clear that a book is no substitute for the lived experience of a class, it provides a high-level summary of the course contents. I’m intrigued and may give the class a go.

Based on reading about how our brains and bodies work, I’ve learned how our mental activity impacts our brain circuitry and our physiology. When a situation elicits the “fight or flight” response, our bodies:

  • Mobilize energy (glucose) in our bloodstreams to provide fuel for our muscles
  • Elevate heart rates, blood pressure, and breathing to expedite delivery of fuel and oxygen to our cells
  • Halt long-term “building projects” – e.g., growth, tissue repair, reproduction
  • Boost immunity and blunt pain response
  • Sharpen senses and improve memory

These physiological changes prove useful for responding to a short-term threat – e.g., running from a predator. They’re detrimental when activated over a prolonged period of time in response to sustained predatory conditions, chronic pain, mental anguish, and the like. MBSR provides the resources to tamp down the parts of our brain that activate anxiety/negativity and amp up the parts that promote resilience and well-being.

With mindfulness training, we can draw focus away from the particulars of a difficult situation (e.g., grid lock during the daily commute) and observe the way we relate to it on an emotional, intellectual, and behavioral level. We learn to recognize that the irritant plays a relatively minor role in our experience of stress; it’s the extra elements that we attach to it that escalate our response. With heightened sensitivity to our reactivity and our rumination, we can turn the dial down on stress while opening the door to options for self-management and coping.

Mindfulness goes beyond managing stress. The program also draws attention to all the ways in which we get caught up in thoughts and lose sight of what’s happening in the here and now. It strengthens our capacity to recognize the vitality of every moment – even when we’re doing chores! It helps us live in the present without getting caught up in a past that we can’t change or a future that has yet to occur.

Mindfulness also helps to calm the restless mind. Thoughts have power. When they get “stuck” in our minds, we can get caught up with them. But if we can become aware of them in a calm, friendly, non-judgmental manner – without identifying with them or giving them credence – they lose their capacity to exert a negative influence. They can just pass on through.

Mindfulness can help us improve relations with others. The core premise here is that we cannot connect meaningfully with others if we’re not connected to ourselves. When we’re in touch with our thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs, we’re more likely to communicate clearly and less likely to respond on auto-pilot. We’ll be grounded in the present moment and listen more attentively. We’ll pause before reacting, giving ourselves time to choose the appropriate thought, speech, or action. We’ll also notice when we’re involved with something or someone that does not prove forwarding for our lives.

Given the program’s longevity and span of influence, there has been quite a lot of research on its effectiveness… hence my interest in attending. I just need to figure out how I’ll get it to fit in my schedule!