How Mindfulness Breaks Us Free From Thinking in Absolutes

greenerOur brains are a bit like movie projectors; each thought is a film and in that moment that one particular film is all that we can see and hear. Some are brighter and louder than others, grabbing our attention so much that we forget reality for a while. We can’t really stop this from ever happening, it’s just what brains do. They project a series of opinions, judgements and memories throughout each day.

However, constantly getting caught up in these thoughts can cause a lot of problems, especially if those thoughts are unpleasant or restricting. Say for example that the movie currently playing in our head is all about how bad things are always happening to us, or how we’ll never feel happy ever again. These thoughts of absolutes (‘always’ and ‘never’) can make us feel totally hopeless about our lives, tearing away any sense of personal power or contentment.

And yet, as convincing as our thoughts may be, mindfulness training gives us the knowledge and skills to be able to take a step back and remember that each thought is like a projected image. That’s not to say that we don’t still feel all the emotions from watching the movie, but at least we remember that it’s just a movie, rather than real life.

Confirmation Bias

A cognitive bias is a tendency to think in a certain way; usually in a way that diverges from good judgement, logic or objectivity. Psychologists have studied and named over 75 different cognitive biases! A common bias that many of us share is known as confirmation bias, or selective perception bias. This is when we pay more attention to evidence that supports what we already think, and dismiss any information that contradicts it.

Here’s an example: We’re on our way to work when our car breaks down. Our brain searches for examples of other bad or inconvenient things that have happened to us, and suddenly we’re not just dealing with this one broken down car, we’re dealing with everything from our past that has ever gone wrong. We start having thoughts like, “Why do bad things always happen to me? Why do I never have any luck?” In our current state of mind, we’re overlooking all the good or even neutral things we’ve ever experienced – such as the countless number of days when our car didn’t break down on the way to work. Instead, we take our previous bad experiences as ‘evidence’ that we suffer from constant misfortune.

Believing that we’re doomed to a fate of endless bad luck is distressing and painful. It can make the future look bleak and hopeless. So how can mindfulness help us avoid this trap of thinking in absolutes, without denying our understandable feelings and reactions when things do go wrong?

3 Minute Breathing Space

The 3 Minute Breathing Space is a very handy mindfulness practice that we can do pretty much anywhere, anytime. When we find ourselves in a stressful or upsetting situation, rather than letting our brains spiral into an even worse place, we can take a moment to acknowledge our present feelings. It’s a very useful tool to use to help us step out of our habit of catastrophizing situations.

Begin by closing your eyes (if that feels okay) and start to become aware of how you’re feeling. What thoughts are going through your mind? And what emotions are present? This first step is about gently acknowledging what you’re experiencing without trying to change it or push it away.

Next, once you have a sense of how you’re feeling, re-focus your attention onto the movements of the breath. Notice how your chest or belly rises and falls with each breath, how the air feels as it enters your nose or mouth as you inhale, and how it feels as you exhale.

The third and final step is to then to extend your awareness to encompass the body as a whole, doing your best to bring a kind, spacious awareness to your present experience. Notice any tightness or tension that you’re holding in your body, whilst retaining some awareness of your breathing. Then when the time feels right, open your eyes again.

Gratitude Journal

If we have a tendency to catastrophize situations and often focus on what is going wrong, it may be helpful to start a gratitude journal. By noting down at least 3 things every day that we feel grateful for, we can train our mind to notice more of the good things that happen to us. Keep in mind though that noticing the good things doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. It’s simply about cultivating a more balanced perspective, noticing the full range of experiences in our lives.

Regular Meditation

Studies have shown that regular meditation can strengthen emotional resiliency by promoting changes in the brain. Richard Davidson, a neurobiologist at the University of Wisconsin, discovered that people who are able to regain their emotional balance after a setback have stronger connections between the left prefrontal cortex and the amygdalae than those who aren’t. Mindfulness meditation strengthens these connections! This means we can become more able to avoid getting emotionally knocked over by every inconvenience or misfortune that comes our way.

Want to learn more about how mindfulness can help us deal with emotions? Check out our calendar for upcoming workshops and courses!

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