By Bruce Craig, MA, Resident in Counseling in Northern Virginia
In the first couple of articles in this series we focused on noticing our emotions objectively and learning how to not be reactive to them. This is a constant lifelong practice that we can get better at over time and we should also remember we are human so it will never be mastered. I cannot emphasis enough how important it is to exercise self-compassion when we fail at this and find ourselves reactive to emotion and acting out in some way. Once you have this insight and you notice, I ask you to be understanding with yourself, maybe even bring in your sense of humor to laugh at the fact that this difficult humanness happened in you again.
Our Mental Process
Your mind thinks the way it does and sends emotional impulses with good reason and is always trying to do what it believes is best for you. Our minds build processes based on prior experiences, associations, traumas, world views, conceptualizations, and anything else it deems relevant. These processes then get automated and, if we allow it, applied to various situations without consideration to actual reality. Once we begin to see our emotions objectively and develop our ability to see our thoughts rationally, even during difficult emotions, we can then begin to see some of these processes that are not as useful for us as they once may have been.
A Real Life Example
After returning from my first combat deployment to Iraq in 2007, I began randomly experiencing panic while driving in Southern California. For seemingly no reason, I would at times find my heart beating abnormally fast, a shortness of breath, and a feeling of being completely overwhelmed with fear. Over time this happened less and less, but it was still very disturbing when it would occur and could easily ruin my next few hours.
It wasn’t until about nine years later, when I began practicing Mindfulness, that I was able to begin seeing emotions objectively and notice the thoughts leading to the emotions in a rational space. On one occasion, I noticed the fear in me and the feeling of anxiety in my gut when I noticed some trash on the side of the road in that moment. My mind was associating trash on the side of the road with roadside bombs in Iraq, a tactic sometimes used to disguise them.
When intense emotions overwhelm our mind, it is difficult to understand or even see the thoughts that are leading to them. This was ten years later and I was finally able to see clearly what was happening. With this insight, I was then able to begin working with these thoughts. I simply tell my mind that I can see what you are thinking, it makes sense that you would want to warn me, but it is no longer useful. Of course, this is not a one and done type thing and I had to do this several times before my mind was able to break this association and relearn a more useful process.
Working with Thoughts
I know it often seems like we think how we think or some things are just part of our personality and it is just who we are. These perceptions are those conceptualizations or world views our mind has that we talked about earlier. I like to keep these articles short and simple so I don’t want to get too deep into science but research shows us that these are all learned processes. If you read about Neuroplasticity you will see how we are capable of rewiring our brain. Things we do repeatedly create neuropathways so we do not need to think in order to act and this is what we want to begin noticing with Mindfulness. This process is useful for the full range of human emotions and is useful even when it is less intense emotion we are dealing with. One of my favorite examples here in the National Capital Region is the frustration that can happen in us with traffic. Imagine you are driving and a car pulls in front of you, rudely and dangerously cutting you off. In that moment most of us experience high levels of frustration and anger. These emotions are stemming from thoughts like, “how dare this person cut me off” or maybe even some not-so-nice-names or curse words.
As you gain the ability to see those emotions objectively, I ask you to then to start working with those thoughts. Changing our minds process takes time and intentionality. You have to find what resonates with you the most and continuously add to or argue with your thoughts. In the example above about traffic, you might add compassion. You may say in your own mind, “I too have cut people off by accident, it happens.” Try to validate what your mind is doing for you, “I see what you are thinking brain and it makes sense, that is frustrating, but it is not useful.”
The more this type of situation happens and you are able to notice the feeling of frustration objectively, work with the thoughts and return to the present moment, it will over time become your natural process. We can add anything to our way of thinking that inspires openness and helps lead us to a more useful perspective. I encourage you to experiment with this over time and see what you notice about your process. Try to make this a non-judgmental space where you explore with curiosity and work to consistently be open to a softer process that allows a deeper understanding of reality instead of rigidly clinging to the same, old conceptualizations and world views. Stay tuned and next month we will finish this series by talking about cultivating a focus on positivity to better enjoy life.
About Bruce Craig:
Bruce is a resident in counseling providing counseling services at our Fredericksburg location. Bruce is a recent graduate from Eastern Mennonite University with a MA in Counseling, following a B.S. in Social Psychology from Park University.
Bruce completed a rigorous internship working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Bruce also finds Mindfulness to be useful in helping clients be in the present moment. For clients who are receptive to it, he teaches them ways of controlling their thoughts instead of becoming anxious about things that might happen or focusing on aspects they cannot change.
He is currently in a course to become certified in the use of Mindfulness in therapy but already has experience and success applying Mindfulness with clients. Bruce provides a warm, empathetic, and non-judgmental space for all people to bring whatever issues they need to work through. To learn more about Bruce, visit here.