In my last two blogs, I've suggested that psychological problems--those rogue parts of ones self, prone to cause much misery--are often the products of a well-functioning brain. I've suggested that the culprits central to most of our problems are very robust amygdala-mediated emotional memories which, when activated, give rise to inappropriate feelings and assumptions. I refer to these particular types of memories as "amygdala scripts" or simply "scripts".
But science doesn't suggest only gloom and doom regarding psychological difficulties: along with the bad news about how our brains can go rogue on us, neuroscience and psychology combine to offer some good news. In our psyche there exists a mild-mannered but wise warrior who can be roused to tame a bullying dragon (the amygdala and its limbic system accomplices). In neuroscientific terms, that ‘wise one' is the neocortical regions of the brain-especially the prefrontal cortex. The neocortical regions of the human brain promote higher-level reasoning, realistic appraisals, appropriately moderated emotional reactions, and healthy impulse control. Unfortunately, without our encouragement, this potential hero, though capable of so much, is prone to remain docile and unavailable, even an accomplice, to the distortions wrought by the amygdala. What then can we count on to rouse this warrior who has ben drugged by the hormones of the limbic system? Actually psychotherapists have long known about tools that can accomplish this: strategies to reduce emotional intensity, the salutary effects of historical insight, cognitive restructuring and mindfulness, are examples. What's exciting is that neuroscience points to ways in which these tools can be streamlined and enhanced into simple formats that anyone can learn. We might say that we've recently discovered a lot about the precise weapons that our timid warrior needs to pacify the dragon or our psychological problems.
Mindfulness is a good example. But first a disclaimer: the mindfulness practices used in psychotherapy are a Western adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness practices. Western psychotherapeutic adaptations of mindfulness might be considered a kindergarten form of the more profound mindfulness practices found in Buddhism. In kindergarten we learn to count. Although being able to count has little to do with becoming a mathematician, it nevertheless represents a powerful tool that anyone can use to make our life work better. Similarly the mindfulness described here is very limited by Buddhist standards, but it is easy to learn and represents one of the three powerful tools that are included in an effective three-step practice for mastering psychological problems.
Here's how you can experiment with the mindfulness practice step. First you must elicit a targeted script. To do this, think of those situations that activate the problem that you want to address. If the problem is social anxiety, think of social situations that evoke the anxiety. If you want to address inappropriate anger, think of those situations that spark that anger. If you want to work on situations where you feel that you ‘lose your seat' and become passively inept, think of the situations where you are most likely to have that experience. If depressions is your target, what situations serve to exacerbate or instigate a downward spiral.
Now imagine yourself in one of those situations, making the memory as vivid as possible until you find that you are re-experiencing the problematic emotions and imagery that underlie the targeted problem. (This is what we mean by activating a targeted script.) Practice noticing the emotions. See if you can associate these feelings with an area in your body, and note the subtle physical sensations associated with those emotions: perhaps an unsettled feeling in your stomach, an energetic feeling in your torso, or a broken-hearted sad feeling in your chest, and so on. If what you notice is a tenseness, that's fine, but see if you can tune into that tenseness and see what your body is tensing against. What are the feelings that those tense muscles are trying to protect you from? (If at any point the feelings seem to be too overwhelming, then stop the exercise. There are plenty of other avenues for learning to tame a problematic script, including calling a psychotherapist.)
Once you've noticed those feelings, say out loud to yourself, "There in my body are those feelings. That's all they are just feelings in my body. This energy, fundamental to my problem, is just a feeling in my body." If you can't associate the feelings with physical sensations, leave off the "in my body" part. Set aside time to repeat this exercise each day, and during each practice session repeat the above steps perhaps ten or twelve times. With a little practice these sessions will take maybe 15 minutes a day. Offline practice sessions such as these will accelerate your ability to tame a problematic script. Practice sessions are much more effective than simply waiting for your script to get activated and then trying to apply mindfulness.
In doing this practice, you are accomplishing a few things. You are learning to confidently invite and engage those problematic feelings that in the past you've habitually avoided. Better yet, verbally naming them and (if possible) associating problematic emotions with the subtle physical sensations that underlie them further prevent you from getting entangled with them. You are developing a psychological platform from which you can watch and be separate from, but not repress or ignore, those feelings that cause you problems.
This is a very short introduction to the first step of a three-step practice that many people have found helpful. If you wish to learn more about this step of the practice there are books that describe Western Psychology's version of mindfulness, including those by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Siegle and my book What Freud Didn't Know. You may also want to consider contacting a therapist or going to a workshop.
In addition there are many excellent books that introduce the more subtle and profound Buddhist mindfulness practices.