Mindful FearWritten By: Danielle Beck-Ellsworth Date: October 16th, 2012. Topic: Eco-mindful Living.
By Danielle Beck-Ellsworth
I have a sign that sits to the right of my computer on my desk that reads “surrender your fear.” Multiple times a week I read those words and ask myself if I am holding on to an idea or decision out of fear. We all make decisions out of fear at some point; in some situations it can even be useful. For example, whether or not to wear a seatbelt or looking both ways before crossing the street. A small amount of fear can be a survival tool. But what about when fear becomes so great that it paralyzes a person?
I observe paralyzing fear in most of my clients with eating disorders. They fear the same things as everyone else: fear of failure, fear of conflict or fear of rejection. Like many people who struggle with negative body image and chronic dieting, they also fear the power food could have over them if they do not control it. They are afraid of how their body may change if they allow themselves to eat according to their hunger and fullness cues. Ultimately, they are afraid of losing control. All of these fears debilitate a person. They become so lost in the fear of losing control they become unaware that they have actually lost control to fear.
So, what does it really mean to surrender your fear? When I read these words I am personally reminded to breathe and let go. The process of breathing and letting go are aspects of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be both a skill and, for some, an approach to life. John Kabat-Zinn (1990) describes mindfulness as moving your awareness to the present moment while at the same time allowing yourself to completely accept each aspect of your experience without trying to change any part. When the mind is dominated by fear it is difficult to feel calm or relaxed. Instead, people are likely to feel disconnected, overwhelmed and fragmented.
Practicing mindfulness can be especially helpful for individuals with eating disorders because it provides a path out of the fear that underlies the behaviors. Instead, people become an observer of their experience. Fear becomes a detail about the experience to be noticed instead of the dictator and momentum behind decisions. Mindfulness helps create a tolerance and comfort for fear by sitting with it instead of distracting away from it with behaviors. By learning the true nature of fear, a person begins to have a deeper awareness of the roots of their fears. Mindfulness is the catalyst for bringing about these significant changes.
Many studies have demonstrated the influence mindfulness has over fear, anxiety and depression. For example, Hofman and colleagues’ meta-analysis shows how mindfulness effectively reduces both anxiety and depression symptoms (2010). Additionally, the mindfulness-based stressed reduction program (MBSR) has been shown to decrease the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and depression (Kabat-Zinn, et al, 1992). Those who have chronic pain, stress or disordered eating also appear to be helped by the introduction of mindful interventions (Baer, 2003). All together, there is a growing body of work that supports the efficacy of mindfulness.
So what is mindfulness exactly? We hear the word mindfulness now in yoga studios, in movies and in various treatment approaches (e.g. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and so forth), but may not understand how to apply it practically. Mindfulness is a broad category that can be part of someone’s life in many different ways. To begin, the foundations of mindfulness include acceptance, non-judgment, letting go, patience, beginner’s mind, trust and non-striving.
Acceptance and non-judgment go hand in hand with each other: in order to accept there needs to be non-judgment. The situation or person is taken as they are without evaluation. For example, I accept that I am sitting in my office, in my chair writing this article. The experience is neither good nor bad, pleasant nor unpleasant, it just is. When judgment is passed onto a situation it can easily lead to a form of suffering. If I decide it is great to be sitting here writing the article than I will not want it to end. When the experience does end I will be sad or disappointed. If I judge my experience as unpleasant, then I will want it to end sooner. As long as I am writing, I will be slightly suffering because I am not truly enjoying it. If I am aware of my experience without judgment, I ultimately do not suffer with the experience, nor when the experience ends. The process of acceptance and non-judgment is especially helpful for someone with an eating disorder; however, it may be challenging to implement after a long history of judging feelings, such as fear, as bad and intolerable. Patience and trust can be helpful at this point.
Patience applies both to you and to others, having an understanding that the pace of life is not always in one’s control. Patience involves going slow and being present. We tend to get caught up in being productive and we are easily bored when the pace slows down. When I facilitate a mindful group with clients who have eating disorders, patience tends to be one of the areas with which they become easily frustrated. They believe they should “get it” and it should be easy to practice mindfulness. They struggle with being patient with themselves and the process of mindfulness.
Additionally, there needs to be a fostering of trust in the process. I understand that when I ask my clients to practice mindfulness, they might not have much trust in me or the process of mindfulness. Why should they believe that practicing being present and non-judgmental is really going to decrease their anxiety and fears? Trust. With a little trust, clients have enough motivation to at least be curious about the process of mindfulness. Not only are clients asked to trust the instructor and the process of mindfulness, they are asked to trust themselves. They are asked to allow themselves to breathe for two minutes, and trust that they can handle and observe what thoughts and emotions may come up. This process may take time to develop as clients most likely have spent a lot of time trying not to sit still and avoid the thoughts and feelings they do not want to address. Helping someone with letting go can be useful with this step.
Many people and clients have expectations about what will happen if they allow themselves to feel emotions such as sadness, guilt, shame, fear and so forth. They also have expectations about what might happen if certain memories or thoughts resurface. All of the energy that goes into avoiding and suppressing these thoughts and emotions adds up, and in the end the energy is wasted. It is similar to the old example, “Do no think about a white elephant”. What did you just do? Image a white elephant? I did. When we try not to think about something, we end up thinking about it more. Letting go is a useful tool for being able to observe an experience without expectations. If a client is practicing mindfulness by focusing on her breath for two minutes and a memory surfaces, she can be guided to just notice the memory. No judgment, no expectation, instead just curiosity. It is as if the person is observing the memory for the first time, such as a beginner.
Beginner’s mind is another foundation of mindfulness. Instead of approaching a situation with expectation, as we tend to do with situations we think we have been through before, we can approach the situation with an open mind. If the previously mentioned client anticipates feeling upset and uncomfortable by resurfacing memories, she will probably go down the path of judgment and fear. If she has an open and curious mind, they will notice the memories and then let them go. She is an observer of her own memories instead of a participant in the memory.
The last piece of mindfulness is non-striving. Another reason my clients are sometimes frustrated when practicing mindfulness is their expectation that they need to do it perfectly or in a particular way. Additionally, they believe that after being mindful they should be calm or relaxed, and if they are not they did something wrong. We all tend to go into an experience with some form of an expectation and idea about what the outcome should be, so what happens when it does not turn out how we expected? We look for a reason to explain why. This is the fast-track to judgment. It was our fault, it was someone else’s fault, it was mindfulness’ fault! Non-striving is about not having an attachment to the outcome –again, having an open mind to the experience.
Collectively, the foundations of mindfulness are tools to ward off paralyzing fear. So, how does one begin to practice mindfulness? It is important to start with an intention. Decide what you want your mindfulness practice to look like and how you want to apply the foundations of mindfulness to your life. Possible intentions include creating a scheduled time to meditate on your own or finding a group that regularly meets to meditate; posting reminders such as relax, be present, look within around your home, car, and workspace; or designating a place in your life as your peaceful space.
There are a many forms of mindfulness exercises that can be practiced either formally – at a set time and place every day – or incorporated into daily life. The following are ideas to get you or your clients started.
Breathing Meditation: Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Take a few minutes to sit and focus on your breath. Notice the path your breath takes as you breathe in and out. As thoughts surface, bring your attention back to feeling yourself breathing in and out, in and out.
Walking Meditation: While walking slowly and without purpose, concentrate on your steps, the surroundings, a mantra or the ground. There is no destination other than the present moment.
Music Meditation: Choose a song to attend to. Focus on different intervals in the music, feel the rhythms, and try to connect your breath to the rise and fall of the notes.
Mindful Eating: Chew each bite slowly and with intention. Slow down the process of eating to bring awareness to the feel, smell, texture and taste of the food in your mouth. Be aware of the bite, grind and swallow.
Yoga: Use various poses to create an awareness of the body as well as its need for and connection to the breath. Align each movement to an inhalation or exhalation.
Mantra Meditation: Mantras are syllables, short poems or phrases often connected to the breath. Repeat a mantra quietly and slowly to yourself while seated in meditation. Examples would be, “Breathe”, “I am OK,”, or “Surrender your fear”.
Awareness of the Present: Mindfulness during our daily routines involves being aware of exactly what is going on in the present moment. Our mind does not move two steps ahead; instead it stays in the present: I am washing dishes. What a beautiful flower. I am upset. I am hungry.
Mindfulness can be useful for both the clinician and the client. This article reviewed how mindfulness can be helpful with decreasing fear and as well as help someone with an eating disorder; however, many mental health challenges can benefit from the practice of mindfulness. The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Kabat-Zinn are good places to start for further information about mindfulness. Additionally, many websites about mindfulness offer free meditations.
Baer, R.A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125–143. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bpg015
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Delta, New York.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Perterson, L. G., Fletcher, K. E., Pbert, L., et al. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 936–943.
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