If you have done any personal growth activities over the past decade, you have likely heard of the term “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is the mental state of focusing your attention on the present moment while nonjudgmentally experiencing your internal experiences. Mindfulness is similar to the Japanese term for meditation, Zen, which encourages connection to ultimate reality in the moment.
I was introduced to mindfulness in my early graduate trainings on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I began incorporating mindfulness into my own life and this practice helped me grow in multiple areas of my life. A decade later, mindfulness is everywhere in the field of mental health treatment, and for good reason – it is effective.
Therapists encourage mindfulness because it is the most direct route to improving self-awareness, which is helpful to the therapeutic process and change in general. So much of what we do as humans is automated. Our brains and bodies react automatically to make our lives easier. This process works smoothly if you have had mostly positive life experiences and minimal stress to cope with. Our brain’s natural habit-forming process begins to work against us when trauma, toxic stress, substance use and other negative experiences are introduced into our lives. Our brains learn to associate certain emotions with behaviors that can range from inefficient to fatal.
Mindfulness is a state often at odds with how our brain prefers to function. Our default network is constantly creating narratives of our experience that varies in terms of how close they match “reality”. These narratives trigger associations that lead us down additional paths and ultimately to behaviors. In the case of many mental health and addictive behaviors, the narratives and associations the mind creates can lead to suffering as short-term pleasure or avoidance is favored despite long term consequence to our health and well-being. Mindfulness disrupts the default mode and places us firmly in the present moment directly facing narratives and past learning with no escape or avoidance measures. These emotional monsters have grown stronger by living in spaces where they are not seen. As one begins to look at and “sit with” these emotions, they begin to lose their emotional power over us, and we gain strength.
The non-judgmental acceptance of internal experience allows people to notice thoughts and feelings without doing anything with them, just noticing. This powerful practice gives people the power to determine what they do with thoughts and feelings as opposed to thoughts and feelings controlling one’s behavior.
It is challenging to pause our brain’s default network. It is also extremely challenging confronting emotions that have long been avoided. This process involves slowing down, taking an inventory of our inner state, sitting with potentially painful emotions, and engaging in a behavior that we are uncomfortable with. It is especially challenging when the behavior you are altering is highly rewarding or comforting like substance use and process addictions like food or shopping. It can feel like every fiber of your being is trying to force you into the behavior but you are resisting. This is where the adage “old habits die hard” comes from. Your brain is quite efficient at developing networks and links between emotion and behavior. When we consciously disrupt a neural network from completing, it can be frustrating and uncomfortable. After all, the goal of the default network of our brain is to bring comfort and predictability to our experience of reality.
So why go through this frustrating process? The answer is to develop psychological flexibility and growth. While we prefer predictability and comfort, the world we experience often does not. Being able to adapt and skillfully navigate various life situations are key aspects of growth and health. As you become mindful and work through problematic habits, you eventually develop healthier habits that will soon become your new default network.
Over time, as you mindfully replace problematic behaviors with healthier ones, a healthier baseline auto-pilot will develop that will eventually feel effortless. As you get better at recognizing what you are feeling and develop healthier automatic behaviors, your overall effectiveness and quality of life will begin to improve.
The thought is that it generally takes 2 months for a habit to develop. I think it can take much longer depending on how long the behavior was engaged in. There will also undoubtedly be periods of stress that may compel you to fall back into old comfortable patterns well past the 2-month mark. You will likely relapse, but do not get demoralized and quit; it is all part of the process. With enough effort, any habit can be altered.
Mindfulness is a key tool to help you develop awareness of your default emotional and behavioral networks. This is difficult and at times, emotional draining work. Many clients make the mistake of trying to change too many behaviors at once leading them to feel burnt out and demoralized. I recommend utilizing mindfulness around one issue or behavior at a time.
So go ahead and pick a behavior or emotion you struggle with. When you are close to engaging in that behavior or emotion, go inward and start recognizing what you are thinking and feeling. See if you can sit in this space a bit and do not do anything with it. When you have mastered this, go ahead and identify an alternate behavior you want to mindfully engage in when confronted with the original behavior or emotion.