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Posts from the ‘Self-Kindness’ Category

How Mindfulness Soothes ‘Red Alert’

When I first learned about the 3 emotion systems, I wished I’d know about it earlier.   Having experienced several years of high stress and anxiety, I could see how this knowledge might have helped me navigate such a difficult period.  Here’s a brief introduction to what these systems are, and why they are key to balancing stress.

In his book The Compassionate Mind, psychologist Paul Gilbert outlines these systems, which I’ll describe here as:

Threat zone

Striving zone

Contentment zone

When something makes us feel threatened,  typical feelings are fear/anxiety,  or defensive feelings like anger and resentment.  The stress hormone cortisol is very much associated with this system.  In the striving zone, we’re focussed on trying to achieve things.  When we get what we want, it feels good.  But constant striving is exhausting and can lead to burnout.  The contentment zone is the one we were designed to return to when the tiger that was lurking has gone away.  This is when we feel calm and at peace, and we’re just Being, not trying to achieve anything.  Affiliation is also an important aspect of this system: connecting with others helps us to feel safe and soothed.   We need a bit of each of these systems to function well and stay alive, but often they become out of balance.

So, taking an overview of these three zones – where do you spend the most time currently?  When I looked back on my infertility struggles, I could see clearly that I constantly bounced between Threat and Striving.  Even worse, I had no control over what I wanted to achieve, which amplified the negative effects of both those zones.  During that time, it was safe to say that I pretty much NEVER spent any time in the Contentment zone.  I hardly even knew that such a state existed.  All I felt was scared, frustrated and isolated.

The good news is that even when we’re experiencing stress, there are ways to bring ourselves into the Contentment zone a bit more.  And spending more time there can rebalance the depleting effects of the other two zones.  Practising meditation regularly is one way to do this.  This is partly because it moves us away from the Doing mode that is associated with striving, and into the Being mode which is more characteristic of contentment.  When we practice mindfulness meditation, we’re not trying to achieve anything or get anywhere.   We’re just Being With our experience.   Practised over time, regular meditation can also help us ‘dial down’ the threat system, so that we feel more calm generally.

The other aspect of mindfulness that helps us plug into the contentment system is connecting with others.  When we engage in Connection meditations, we can reduce feelings of isolation by focussing on our shared humanity:  just like us, everyone wants to be happy, and wants to avoid suffering.  Taking it further, mindfulness often offers an environment that enables us to connect with others in a very human way.  Over time, I’ve come into contact with lots of people who’ve turned to mindfulness to help with their own suffering.  Even during difficult times, it has helped me to feel part of that human community, among others who also suffer but for different reasons.

If you want to read more about the emotion systems, I would highly recommend the book Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden.

My Top 10 Mindful Reading List

I often recommend some of these books to people – and I’ve found them all so helpful personally. Some are on mindfulness, others on self-compassion – but they all have something valuable to say about being human.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your reading list, you might like to try some of these.

1. Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – a fantastic intro to self-kindness, & how it can replace poor self-esteem.

2. Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson – great for boosting positivity.

3. Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams & Danny Penman – I recommend this as an intro to mindfulness for those who are curious but haven’t yet tried it.

4. The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert – fascinating explanation of our emotion systems and why we find life difficult.

5. Calming Your Anxious Mind by Jeffrey Brantley – a good book to progress to once you’ve already started practising mindfulness.

6. The Mindful Path To Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer – again, I’d say best read once you’ve already started practising self-compassion meditations.

7. The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D Siegel – I found the sections about learning how to be with difficulty especially helpful, after I’d attended a mindfulness course.

8. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn – I read this once I had a fairly established practice as a way of developing further.

9. Breath By Breath by Larry Rosenberg – A good book for people who already meditate regularly and want to go deeper.

10. Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life by Steven C Hayes – practical exercises that help build discomfort tolerance, based on the ACT approach. The chapters on Values are great if you want to make some changes in your life. I’d suggest learning a bit about self-kindness before doing the other exercises.

If you’ve read any of these, what did you think?

Which books would be on your Top 10?

(At some point I might do a ‘part 2’ to this post – there are definitely more I could add since I first wrote it!)

Meeting The Warrior Within

I’ve been reflecting recently about a certain type of loss. When you lose a sense of ‘who you are’. It happened to me 6 years ago, and it was scary. But I also discovered the renewal that’s possible when you embrace it.

For me, this experience was triggered by the last in a long line of pregnancy losses. As I began to accept that our son would never have the sibling I’d hoped for, there was a kind of grief that I really struggled to meet. Eventually I realised I was mourning a certain version of ‘me’ – the one whose life had turned out a particular way, how I’d imagined it.

Until that point in my life, how many times had I not achieved something I wanted? Or not fixed my pain by filling the hole with something else? None.

Initially, I tried to fill the hole left by this loss of ‘who I was’ with work – falling back on achievement as a possible antidote, a way to shore up my tattered identity. Thankfully I saw pretty quickly that it wasn’t working, and took refuge instead in my mindfulness practice.

And it was here that I met the warrior within, via the practices of ‘turning towards’ and self-kindness.

The title of this post comes from a line in one of my favourite poems, Jennifer Welwood’s Unconditional:

“Turning to face my fear, I meet the warrior within;

Opening to my loss, I gain the embrace of the universe”.

It takes a massive amount of courage to accept feelings of loss and sadness, without trying to fix them – to open to them instead, fully feel them and let them transform you. At first I feared that turning towards these feelings would keep me stuck in them. But I discovered the opposite: it freed me to move forward, into something new and unknown.

As Donald Rothberg puts it, “if we can have the courage to stay with the not-knowing, stay with the difficult, something quite beautiful can come out of that, something creative and generative and fertile… there can be light that comes from being with the darkness…”

For me, an experience of deep loss was painful, but has also been the doorway to an awakening – I’ve learned so much, and I’ve grown so much. I’d never have thought I’d have the patience, courage and energy to be the kind of parent that I am. Nor could I have predicted the immensely deep joy I experience with every step in the adventure of raising our incredible little boy. Or that I’d have the skills and the confidence to be helping other people to find freedom from stress and anxiety. And all of that has unfolded because loss opened that doorway to something unknown, and I walked through it.

This isn’t a tale of ‘everything happens for a reason’ (personally I’ve never found that view helpful when dealing with loss). But it is a tale of the power of acceptance and trust – that life may not always go the way we’d like, but that we can learn that we’re so much more than we think we are. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says “To be a good warrior, one has to feel sad and lonely, but rich and resourceful at the same time”.

Ultimately, loss opened me up, instead of shutting me down. I thought I’d lost ‘myself’, but it made me more than I was, not less than. More human. More present. More committed to making a positive contribution. And so much more alive.

For more writings, guided meditations and more, visit my resources site Lollipop Wellbeing

If you found this post helpful, you might also like these pieces where I described how I practised ‘turning towards’ and self-kindness during those difficult times:

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

Making Friends With My Anxiety