By: Leah Gottlieb
As seen on The Times of Israel on January, 4, 2021
How do you feel when you face a challenging emotional moment? Were you able to overcome it? If so, what did you learn, and more importantly, did it help you grow emotionally?
When an emotion is triggered, especially a strong one, it triggers changes in our brain and the rest of our body. Our fight or flight response can cause a range of psychosomatic effects. Scientists have also established that an emotional reaction causes us to start thinking differently: when we are scared we actually will typically start looking for other dangers in our surroundings, and are more likely to have other scary thoughts, which can just make things worse. And this of course can lead us to also start behaving differently, and for some of us, in ways we later (very much) regret.
The biochemical response in our body and brain is very real, as are our thoughts. At the same time, we have the power to internalize that anxious and catastrophic thoughts can be quite real – but at the same not true.
Mindfulness: A very powerful tool
How can we, in the moment, manage to recognize the distinction? Mindfulness is one very powerful tool we can use to help us come down from a heightened state, regain calm, and more effectively navigate a multitude of situations.
Mindfulness has been getting a lot of attention lately and has been especially helpful in light of 2020’s challenges. It’s a technique used very centrally in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a specific form of behavior modification therapy used to help people with various struggles.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program used by medical centers, hospitals and health services across the United States, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises from paying attention – on purpose – in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Sounds easy enough, but how does one really do that? Mindfulness can be a powerful, helpful tool, but there are ways to learn how to use it properly.
Here are a few simple steps to follow to help you achieve mindfulness.
Hone in on your beliefs in the moment.
Take a deep breath and a mental step back.
Ask yourself, “what do I believe in this moment?”
Do I believe that something is wrong with me?
Am I worrying about my capability in the future?
Observe the nature of your thoughts and sensations.
Do you notice your chest tightening or your muscles tensing?
Do you have a clear perspective on the current situation? Are you “tragedizing?”
Self compassion is crucial in this moment of recognizing something is real but not true.
Be gentle with yourself and your symptoms. It is essential to learn to validate your suffering while simultaneously acknowledging the catastrophic nature of your current thoughts. If something is not true, it means you’re not going to die, fail, faint etc., yet the feelings you have in that moment are very real.
Being mindful of current thoughts helps internalize the message that most of the time, we are less powerless than we feel at that moment. The intentional tuning in and curiosity can help us recognize that the storylines we attach to our emotions are just that, stories. But we also have room to accept that all experience is still real.
Each of us is negatively affected by emotion myths – deeply rooted beliefs we have about our emotions. For instance, one such common myth is “emotional truth, not factual truth, is what counts.”
When we ruminate, these myths overlap with these thoughts, and can create a strong feeling of powerlessness over the current “crippling reality.” But reality or not, feelings of desperation or doom can cause physiological symptoms, causing the experience to feel even more real.
As soon as you start questioning these thoughts and beliefs and shine a light on your fear-based loops, you can begin to emerge from their grip.
What does it mean to have thoughts that are “real but not true?” Well, our anxious and catastrophic thoughts may be a byproduct of the chain reaction caused in our body and brain as described above.
When we make questioning our beliefs into a new practice, when we get into the habit of going the extra mile to bring meta awareness to these loops, it becomes easier to recognize when a trigger is “real – but not true”. In other words, when you begin to allow yourself to doubt your misperception, the illusion begins to collapse, decreasing the chance that these illusions will continue to cripple you in the future.
When you practice mindfulness, when you challenge yourself to engage in meta awareness opposing these crippling beliefs, it becomes more organic. As a result you can be extricated from the true intense emotional spiral you may fall into when these beliefs overtake your experience.
Keeping the tool of mindfulness in your pocket will help you overcome feelings of “real – but not true,” and can help strike a critical dialectic between how we feel and what is true.