Using Mindfulness When Things Are Beyond Our Control

control

 

As much as we like to plan and make our own choices, there will always be times in our lives when we have little or no control over what happens to us.

 

Say we have an accident and have to stay in hospital for a while, or we’re involved in a legal procedure and are awaiting a decision that could change our lives, or even something less serious as waiting to hear about how we did in a job interview.

That waiting, lack of influence or loss of autonomy can be incredibly stressful or depressing. Our minds may be full of solutions that we simply are unable to put into use, or we may be plagued with regret, rumination and thoughts of 'if-only'.

However, we can use mindfulness and self-compassion to help us get through these difficult or uncomfortable situations.

 

‘Fight or Flight’ Reactions

 

Ever noticed how stressful situations get your blood pumping, your heart beating faster, and your whole body buzzing with nervous tension? That’s a ‘fight or flight’ reaction (also known as ‘hyperarousal’ or ‘acute stress response’) – a physiological response to a perceived attack or threat.

An initial response from the amygdala then starts a chemical chain reaction within the body, which is why our blood pressure goes up (among other things). The nature of the threat doesn’t really matter to the brain; the fight or flight response could be triggered by a vicious dog jumping out at us, or just the prospect of speaking in public.

Basically anything that we perceive as being potentially harmful to our physical or psychological well-being will send us into that stress reaction.

In general, this is no bad thing; it’s designed to help keep us safe from danger. However, if this reaction is triggered regularly, it can make us feel constantly anxious and on-edge.

This can happen in situations that are beyond our control; we naturally feel threatened or at risk, however, there’s nothing we can do to avert that risk.

For example, say we’re waiting for an important medical scan, the results of which could show whether or not we have cancer. We have to wait for the scan, and then we have to wait for the results, and throughout all this time there’s nothing we can do other than worry.

Our anxious thoughts of not-knowing, of not being able to ‘do’ anything will keep triggering our fight or flight responses, trapping us in a perpetual state of stress. Aside from the health issues this can cause, it’s simply not pleasant! So what can we do when we find ourselves helpless against our circumstances?

 

Noticing When We’re On High Alert

 

The first step in helping ourselves cope is to notice when we’ve gone into a stress reaction – sometimes this can happen just from thinking about the situation we’re in. By bringing mindful awareness to our bodies, we can notice if our breathing has become rapid, or if we are holding tension in parts of our bodies.

What usually happens when we bring mindfulness to these things is that we naturally let go a little, simply from noticing that the tension is there.

Of course, this won’t always be the case though. It’s not always possible to relax ourselves. In these cases, it may just be enough to simply acknowledge how we’re feeling. If we’ve been going through a trying time, we may have got stuck in the belief that we must keep soldiering on, that we can’t allow ourselves to feel sad, angry, anxious or whatever else.

And so we hold it all inside. Being honest and accepting of whatever is arising for us at this time will allow those feelings to come and go more freely, rather than getting held tight in the body.

 

Mindfulness Shrinks Amygdala Volume

 

Studies have found correlations between increased mindfulness and decreased amygdala volume. Remember that it’s the amygdala which kicks off the whole stress response process. So in other words, people who practice mindfulness benefit from a reduction in stress and anxiety.

That’s not to say that we won’t still feel stressed during stressful situations! Yet we are more likely to be able to cope better when those things arise. Therefore, practicing mindfulness isn’t just a good idea for in-the-moment stress relief, but is useful as a sort of ‘preventive’ measure for future stresses too, in the same way that strengthening your back muscles may help prevent so many aches and pains in later life.

 

Self-Compassion in a Crisis

 

There’s never really a time when some self-compassion isn’t a good idea, however when we’re helpless and in a difficult situation that’s when we really do need it the most. When there’s nothing else we can possibly do, we can at least be kind to ourselves.

In a beautiful talk (The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion), self-compassion expert, Kristin Neff describes a particularly challenging experience she had on board a plane with her four year old autistic son, Rowan. As can sometimes happen when autistic children are very young, Rowan had a terrible tantrum. He’s flailing and screaming on the plane, while all the passengers are staring disapprovingly. Kristin decides to take him to the bathroom to comfort him away from everyone else, but when they get there it’s occupied:

 

“So imagine being in that little space, outside the bathroom door, with this tantruming child, and I knew that in that moment the only refuge I had was self-compassion. So I put my hands over my heart, and, I tried to comfort him but I was mainly focussing on myself: ‘This is so hard right now darling, I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but I’m here for you.’ And you know what? It got me through.”

 

So although there are some things in life that we can’t control, we can at least choose to be kind and caring towards ourselves; to take a deep breath, acknowledge how hard things are right now and that we’re doing the best we can, and show ourselves some compassion.

 

MEDITATION:

Body Scan

 

The Mindfulness Project runs a full calendar of events, including the 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course. 

 

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