resilience

We become what we think about

Have you ever tried not to think? Even better, tried not to think about something specific – like white bears or noisy chickens? Once we become aware of something, consciously trying to avoid it often encourages the mind to keep checking in, to make sure we’re not thinking about it – and so, repeatedly thinking about it.

This phenomenon was tested formally in the late 1980s by psychologist Wegner and colleagues, leading to the theory of ironic mental processes of thought suppression, or the white bear phenomenon. It appears anytime we use thinking to try and stop thinking. For example, when we try not to think of unpleasant things or use thinking to try and create something that requires us not to think – consider ‘forcing’ ourselves to fall asleep or choking in sport.

Now consider how we learn. In short, to consciously learn something, we focus on it or engage in it repeatedly over time. And eventually, our brain creates more persistent neural networks that we see as skills or understanding.

This learning process isn’t just about external skills like driving or gardening; it’s everything, including how we think. If we repeatedly think in specific ways, we get better at automatically thinking in those ways. If we’re always self-critical, we get better at being critical, and if we’re always supportive, we get better at that too.

We get better at doing what we repeat. Which you might word as: we become what we think about most.

At what would you like to better? When I’m asked variations on this question, my initial response is often that I want to ‘stop’ doing x or y, stop criticising my children’s behaviour, stop spending so much time on Facebook, stop…

Unfortunately, this ‘stop doing’ thinking pattern, supported by ironic mental processes, can have the opposite effect in the long run (even if there’s an initial reduction). So, what might we do?

You probably already know. It’s the what can I start doing approach. For example:

  • What can I do?
  • How will I behave when…?
  • How can I help?
  • What is a wise way to respond?
  • What would support my wellbeing here?
  • What response would support the wellbeing of others?

To help unseat persistent unhelpful (or ‘negative’) thinking, we might also start writing about the situations or the thinking itself to see it a little more objectively. The process of noticing our thinking patterns rather than trying to ‘stop’ them can cultivate a lighter emotional approach, which both reduces their unpleasant impact and allows us to start choosing how to respond or what to start doing.

Mindfulness isn’t the only approach here, but it is a comprehensive one (though mindfulness isn’t about stopping your mind from thinking).  And we can combine it with other methods for resilience, leading to more proactive ways of choosing who and how we become.  So, when you find yourself saying ‘oh, it’s just how I am‘ remember, you’ve practised yourself into how you are now AND you can practice your way out.

Have you improved your resilience?

We went into a protective COVID-19 lockdown, then came out.  We had a mostly glorious summer.  Then, schools, colleges and universities went back to having students in classrooms with people standing in front of them teaching (who’d have thought this would ever be a surprising thing?).  There were some real challenges in universities initially, but things even there are heading back towards ‘normal’.  Even if you have no direct connection to people starting back to full-time education, you may be impacted by the slow creep of our old normality re-establishing itself, even if we have to wear face coverings whenever we’re close to others.  Now we’re back into a lockdown.

Near the start of the lockdown version 1, my monthly newsletter mentioned how we might be adapting to the new normal… and then we started to go back to our old normal, and now a slightly new normal.  The signs look good for a 2021 COVID-19 vaccine (e.g. see The Conversation here), so things are likely to swing back, but this is a time of testing.  So what have you learned about yourself?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes the phrase, “There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so.” I dislike this quote because we could read it as blame – if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault – a mostly unhelpful perspective in my view.  Some of us are dealing with higher vulnerability, perhaps with the loss of loved ones, financial or relationship challenges and many other issues caused by a situation that we couldn’t reasonably predict.

But, it also represents an element of hope.  How we feel doesn’t have to be the whole story.  Psychological flexibility is a key aspect of resilience.  If we’re flexible, we’re more likely to see options and opportunities.  Unfortunately, unpleasant emotion – anger, fear, frustration, sadness and so on – tend to take away flexibility.  They can cause us to narrow our attention to the object of our emotion.

My own experience of homeschooling my eleven-year-old son during the first lockdown is a good example for me.  Math’s was a real challenge.  I would get frustrated, he would get frustrated – and in that frustration, we would close down, lose flexibility.  I couldn’t see another way!  Explaining something in a slightly louder higher-pitched voice, for some reason didn’t help.

Eventually, I would take a break.  Slowly, alternative ways of describing a problem or ways of dealing with the situation would creep in.  Over the weeks, I learned a lot – yes, about my son, and about angles in triangles (it’s been a long time), but I also learned how to spot and manage my and my sons rising frustration before it took away our flexibility.

I learned to be aware of the rising frustration and work with it through mindfulness, which itself is a learnable skill that has been invaluable in my own life.  I’m sure that you have been through change, and with that change have developed.  In what ways have you developed that will help you deal constructively with future challenge and adversity?

There’s nothing quite like real life for learning lessons – but it also requires an openness to learning.  William B. Urvine’s book, The Stoic Challenge, describes seeing challenges as tests of your ability to get through something while maintaining creative control of your choices [that’s my summary] – which is one way of maintaining a creative and realistic outlook.

Perhaps you feel like you know yourself a little better, know when to take a break, or when to speak openly with friends or others who will support you.  How the amount of sleep you have impacted you for better or worse;  how to mentally stand-back, maybe taking a few breaths to gain some perspective rather than ploughing into an argument?  Maybe you’ve learned how much impact your environment has on how you think and operate?  Perhaps you’re a little more open to change, able to adapt more flexibly?

Reflect, and see how the challenges of recent times have helped you develop.

Using daily life to grow resilience

Schools and colleges shortly universities have gone back to having students in classrooms with people standing in front of them teaching.  Who’d have thought this would ever be a surprising thing?  Even if you have no direct connection to people starting back to full-time education you may be impacted by the slow creep of our old normality re-establishing itself, even if we have to wear face coverings whenever we’re in close proximity to others.

Near the start of the lockdown, my post Staying flexible when it’s tough mentioned how we may be adapting to the new normal… and now we’re doing it again!  The signs look good for a 2021 COVID-19 vaccine (e.g. see The Conversation here), but this is a time of testing, so what have we learned about ourselves?  I don’t mean as a whole, I mean each of us as individuals.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes the phrase, “There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”  I dislike this quote because we could read it as blame – if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault – a wholely unhelpful perspective in my view!  Some of us are dealing with higher vulnerability, perhaps with the loss of loved ones, financial challenges and many other issues entirely caused by the situation that we couldn’t reasonably predict.

But, there’s also some truth in there, and it represents an element of hope.  How we feel, doesn’t have to be the whole story.  Psychological flexibility is a key aspect of resilience.  If we’re flexible we’re more likely to see options and opportunities.  Unfortunately, unpleasant emotion – anger, fear, frustration, sadness and so on – tend to take away flexibility.  They can cause us to narrow our attention to the object of our emotion.

My own experience of homeschooling my eleven-year-old son is a good example for me.  Math’s was a real challenge.  I would get frustrated, he would get frustrated – and in that frustration, we would close down, lose flexibility.  I couldn’t see another way!  Explaining something in a slightly louder higher-pitched voice, for some reason didn’t help.

Eventually, I would take a break.  Slowly, alternative ways of describing a problem, or ways of dealing with a situation would creep in.  Over the weeks, I learned a lot – yes, about my son, and about angles in triangles (it’s been a long time), but I also learned how to spot and manage my and my sons rising frustration more frequently before it took away our flexibility.

This ability to be aware of the rising frustration and work with it are aspects of awareness, which is a learnable skill – most commonly through mindfulness training – that has been invaluable in my own life… and of course something that I’ve now been teaching for seven years (see Mindfulness at work, or my public courses).

Staying flexible when it’s tough

Have you adapted?  Chances are good that you’ve adapted to a new lock-down normal – even if it isn’t one you would choose.  At the heart of resilience is our ability to remain open and flexible, and to some degree our ability to adapt to this new normal highlights why, perhaps paradoxically, flexibility can be difficult.

I have adapted.  New routines have formed – combining walking the dog with running for exercise, most cooking is now from scratch despite the extra time it takes, I train and coach online now, and many more subtle adaptations.

I’ve even noticed the odd fleeting inner concern about going back to the old normal – even though that old normal was the normal for decades!  Noticing this was a great reminder of the short-term nature of our emotional system and it’s aversion to change, despite our ability to adapt!

When things are going well it’s hard to see that in the face of adversity my openness to options, and willingness to change will be affected.  But one part of experiencing adversity is a narrowing of our awareness – our world view reduces, honing our thinking down to the difficulty we’re facing.

If you’re facing difficulty now, here’s five ways to encourage openness to flexibility by exploring the bigger picture, or to clear some mental space so we can:

  1. Do something physical – such as stretching or some form of exercise (running up and down the stairs has become a ‘thing’ in our house).  After exercise there’s often a period of more open awareness.
  2. Ask yourself, “In a week/month/year/decade (pick a relevant time period) how important will this be to me?” Or perhaps, “…might I be able to see this differently?”  You may then ask, “What would my future self tell me now?”
  3. Imagine someone you care about was going through this / feeling like this, what advice would you give them?  And, what would be my attitude towards them?
  4. Often whirring thoughts in our head block everything else, so let them out.  If you have a trusted friend that’s a good listener, try opening up to them.  Or try this…get a pad with plenty of blank sheets of paper and a good pen; start a 15 minute timer.  Begin writing about anything that comes into your head – and just keep writing – don’t stop writing.  Write, ‘I’m not sure what to write now’ if necessary, but keep going.  Afterwards, you might look over what you have written and see if there’s anything to learn from it… or you might simply shred it and move on.
  5. How do your feet feel while you’re walking?  Simply coming into the present moment where our reality is much simpler, and if it’s physical sensation (like how your feet/face/head etc. feels) more objective than the often biased complexity of our busy heads, can help to make mental space.

There’s no right way, so experiment a bit.

Mindfulness is not… about stopping your mind thinking

Perhaps you’ve heard someone suggest ‘don’t think about pink elephants,’ or some such example in order to demonstrate how tricky it can be to not think about something that has just been suggested.  This paradox was first written about by a group of research psychologist’s, led by Daniel Wegner, in a 1987 paper Paradoxical effects of thought suppression in what have come to be known as the ‘White Bear’ experiments.  After further study, Prof. Wegner proposed the theory of ironic processes of mental control, describing the ironic or paradoxical effects of thought suppression.

The super summary of the paradox is that the more you try not to think about something, particularly if there is associated emotion or anxiety, the more your mind brings your attention back to the thought – it’s called a rebound effect.  In teaching mindfulness, I often describe this phenomenon as, trying to push away unwanted thoughts (or feelings) gives them the energy to push back.  Sometimes you can distract yourself enough that the thoughts seem to go away, but usually, they’re waiting for the next moment in which to jump out on you again.

If during a mindful meditation practice you find yourself trying to push away thoughts, or trying to ‘stop thinking,’ by dragging your awareness back to, say, your body breathing, there’s a good chance you’ll also find yourself frustrated by rebounding.

So, the first useful realisation is simply, don’t try to stop your mind thinking about something, and indeed mindfulness meditation is not about stopping your mind from thinking.  So, what is it about?

A much more productive approach is to be able to watch your mind thinking, without being caught up in the thoughts.  This detachment or more formally, meta-cognition, takes some practice (that’s why we call it mindfulness ‘practice’), but it can have surprisingly helpful results.

In a typical concentration practice, like watching your body breathing, the intention is to bring your focus and awareness to the chosen anchor (the breath in this case).  But, what do you do if you’re constantly interrupted with ‘thinking’?  Well, firstly, recognise that this is a normal process of our mind – it’s what our thinking mind is designed to do, so as far as possible remain objective, curious or relaxed about it.

As soon as you notice your attention has been snagged by some thought, you can feel pleased that you’re back in the present moment, aware of the thinking you’ve just been engaged in.  Next you might acknowledge the thought by labelling or describing it (e.g. ‘ahh, that’s planning again’), and then choose whether to stay with the thought or come back to your breath.  If you choose to come back to your breath, you’re allowing the thought to go.  And, although this might sound like we’re stopping the thought – the difference between ‘trying to stop it’ and acknowledging it and choosing a different focal point, is in practice, very different.

We’re allowing and accepting both that our mind thinks, and that our attention will be snagged by that thinking.  This gentler approach ultimately means we react differently to the thoughts. In fact, we react less to the thoughts, which is less likely to trigger the ironic processes, and so fewer thoughts snag our awareness.  Overall, by not trying to stop the thinking, we get more choice over where we place our attention.

How can mindfulness impact resilience – 2

Here’s the next part on how mindfulness practice helps build resilience.  Continuing the theme of the ‘resilience tank’ from part 1, which described making better use of the resilience you have by reducing the impact of stress (turning off the tap quicker).  In part 2 we look making the tank itself bigger!  You’ll find the post over on LinkedIn.

How can mindfulness impact resilience – 1

So, it’s a smart idea of build resilience before we actually need it – as per the last article, you wouldn’t try and run a marathon without building good physical resilience, mental resilience should be no different.  I  also suggested that mindfulness practice is a great tool for building resilience, but how exactly does mindfulness impact resilience?  Here’s a link to the first of a short series on that very topic, how can mindfulness impact resilience.

-Mark

Resilience – build it before you need it

I’ve just posted an initial article on Resilience.  It’s a broad topic affected by everything from our mood, to life experience to gene expression – but critically, there’s lots of evidence (including my own research) that we can build mental resilience at work, but perhaps not in the way you think… take a look.