“We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” — Thomas S. Monsoon
“Mindfulness doesn’t work for me … I can’t stop thinking.”
This is a comment I often hear when I teach MAST (Mindful Awarenss Stabilization Training) an introductory mindfulness class for emotion regulation. Typically, people come to learn mindfulness at a point in their lives when the stress and anxiety is at a breaking point. It is often at the recommendation of their doctor or a friend who benefited from taking a mindfulness course. They come with preconceived ideas about – cessation of thoughts, less anxiety, and a relatively quick fix to the insurmountable problems in their lives.
Yet mindfulness practice never lives up to any of these expectations. Rather, people become more aware of what they are feeling and often feel worse. This is true especially if they are struggling with difficult emotions and chronic stress.
So how do we make sense of a practice that can potentially make us feel worse, before feeling better?
Mindfulness helps us because it teaches us to become more self aware and to self regulate how we feel. We cannot get rid of our emotions, but we can learn to change our relationship to them. The first step is to learn to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment, and this is a challenge to our busy minds that tend to be anywhere but the present moment.
An understanding of self regulation can help us make sense of how mindfulness helps us to manage stress and anxiety. This is a concept that we teach in the MAST program that helps encourage people to stay with a mindfulness practice that might not make sense immediately.
Self regulation refers to the ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that we don’t feel overwhelmed, make good life choices and adapt wisely to stressful circumstances. The importance of emotional self regulation is recognized in schools as a way of enhancing learning because the better we manage our emotions, the more prepared we are to learn. We can also appreciate the importance of self regulation as a skill that can be learned and continuously developed as adults to overcome stress and mental health problems and live in a more balanced way.
The “Window of Tolerance”
The “Window of Tolerance” is a concept developed by trauma and mental health experts Pat Ogden, and Janina Fisher. It is the optimal zone of arousal where we are able to manage and thrive in every day life. This can be thought of as sailing within a “river of well-being “(Siegel) where we are able to respond to all that comes our way without getting thrown off course. When we are outside of our window of tolerance, our nervous system responds by going into survival mode – fight, flight or freeze.We can either feel overwhelmed and go into hyper-arousal or we can shutdown and go into hypo-arousal. Our window of tolerance can be narrow or wide and is different for all people and at different times in our lives.
When we are able to widen our window of tolerance, we can enjoy more smooth sailing regardless of the waves, obstacles and adventures we encounter.
How Mindfulness Helps to Self Regulate
Emotion regulation depends on our ability to be mindful of fluctuations in our level of arousal and to respond wisely. By becoming aware of body sensations, thoughts and emotions, we can learn to recognize when we are in our optimal zone of arousal or going into hyper or hypo-arousal. Mindfulness gives us skills to:
- Enjoy when we our sailing within our river of well-being
- Notice when we are heading into rough waters and steer us back on course
- Recognize when were in the danger zone and bring ourselves back to safety through grounding skills
When I teach this concept to people who are newcomers to mindfulness practice, it creates a sense of relief to understand that they are not doing it wrong because they don’t feel that “zen” state that they were expecting. Rather, they learn to be mindfully aware within the window even when difficult emotions arise. By learning to be aware of the feelings as they are happening, then we can make wise choices recover and come to a more balanced state.
The other benefit of learning to ride the waves of our feelings is that we widen the window and increase our resilience. When people are suffering from chronic stress the window is quite narrow so it does not take much to feel near the edges or even go outside of the window and get into a state of panic and disorientation. Self regulation is all about having the resources to widen that window and while we may not be able to “direct the winds, we can adjust the sails” and mindfulness helps us to do so.
As a first step to learning how to adjust the sails, I recommend that we start with a simple meditation practice called a three minute breathing space. This is a mini-meditation that is taught in the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy program and most people can make time to do this once or twice a day. Even just three minutes a couple of times a day provides a sense of relief to the nervous system and it also helps us to check in and monitor where we are within our window.