Mindfulness on a full brain

By David Joel Miller.

What is all this mindfulness stuff?

And how can I possibly include that in with my cognitive behavior therapy?

Problem-solving in mental health as in life has always been pretty straightforward for me. If we are applying the wrong formula to a problem then we keep getting the wrong answer. Once we learn an improved formula all we need to do is turn the crank and out comes an answer.  Get a head change, a new way of seeing things and the problem changes from unsolvable to a manageable size. So we work on core schemas, automatic thoughts, irrational or dysfunctional beliefs. And we work on acceptance – radical acceptance. So the whole mindfulness thing troubled me—until-

There have been a lot of articles recently on mindfulness. Now I feel that this has its uses. Religious and spiritual practices have their place. And I am as much in favor of candles and herbal scents as the next person. All this has its time and place. And we know that if the client believes in something it will probably help. But do mindfulness techniques have a place in modern scientific, best practices, forms of treatment. Then I read some things that made me think.

Siegal has written and talked about mindfulness and recently I happened to read some things he had written on the subject. They made sense to me from a logical rational perspective.  Let me try to explain this as I get it and hope not to do too much violence to the science.

Scientists have discovered mirror neurons in the brain. Now if all they did was see someone else doing something and result in us knowing how to do the same thing that would be the end of it, one more way to learn stuff.  But these mirror neurons detect patterns that allow us to infer why someone is doing what they are doing. Learning these patterns makes our world a more secure and predictable place. This has a lot to do with understanding attachment theory.

If when we reach for more food at the table we get slapped – we learn to not reach but ask which may be a valuable learning experience for a young unsocialized child. But if the response varies depending on the amount of alcohol mom has consumed, what we may learn is the pattern that the world is a scary and inconsistent place. The pattern of asking may be adaptive and is quickly forgotten if we encounter a situation where it is not expected. The pattern of seeing the word as a frightening place is likely to last a lifetime.

So the mirror neurons help to explain how we learn basic core ways of relating to the world.

But there is more.

Mindfulness teaches the practice of paying attention to how we feel inside. As we come to recognize how we are feeling it becomes easier to recognize feelings in others. This is sometimes called the “expert” effect. If you are an expert on antiques you will spot them and probably will notice the cheap reproductions also. If you are not an antique expert you will see things you like or don’t like but lots of stuff will go unnoticed in the piles of other stuff. Same thing with feelings and empathy.

Seeing people express love will teach you the pattern of love.  But if the people you live with don’t show love or show it inconsistently then you may be unable to recognize the pattern and to replicate it. This does not mean that people whose early caregiver did not love them as much as they wanted will be unable to love. What it does mean is that it may be harder to recognize and express love in later life.

Lots of people in recovery, from drugs, alcohol, mental illness or dysfunctional caregivers report they have difficulty with trust issues. Most came for situations where it was not safe to trust on a regular basis so they never learned the pattern.  Some recovering people have spent so much time being deceitful to cover up and continue their addiction they no longer recognize the truth when they hear it. Their mirror circuits have not had trust images to reflect back and incorporate in their catalog of patterns.

So how will mindfulness techniques help someone who has trust issues, attachment problems or dysfunctional behaviors? How might these approaches help counselors in helping clients?

By becoming aware of our inner feelings and thoughts we can begin to dispute dysfunctional beliefs. We can learn new more functional patterns of meaning in life. We can recognize our feelings of anger, mistrust, and fear and test these feelings to see if they have a basis in reality. And we can learn from recognizing our own feelings to have empathy for others.

Counselors can especially benefit from mindfulness techniques by becoming better able to present an empathetic other who can participate in a corrective emotional experience with the client.

More to come as I research for that book I am writing on resilience.

Wishing you all the mindfulness you care to have. Hope to hear from some of you.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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One thought on “Mindfulness on a full brain

  1. Pingback: Have another helping of stress. Stress can be good for you. | counselorssoapbox

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