anxiety

Using Meditation to Tame this Mind of Ours

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(Photo Credit: Dollar Photo Club)

By Nicolina Santoro, MA

Mahayana Buddha, the progenitor and prophet of the middle way, had encapsulated an entire philosophy into short, clear directives. “Commit not a single unwholesome action, Cultivate a wealth of virtue, To tame this mind of ours; this is the teaching of all the Buddhas” (Rinpoche, 1993). Meditation is part of the practice of taming the mind. Often described as the still mind, or still waters of the mind, meditation appears to be a kind of martial art for one’s thoughts. To even begin to feel the stillness of mind that comes with the practice of meditation, one must endure the onslaught of thought as it runs through the beginning meditator’s mind rampantly. Even more interesting, is the realization that this pattern of thought is a regular occurrence in the mind. Meditation highlights the never-ending barrage of thought, as the student tries to negotiate the noise to a place of quiet within the mind.

Meditation is actually a common practice among many different platforms of faith, although called many different names throughout time, but the goal of calming the turbulence in the mind remains the same. The practical applications of meditation have far reaching benefits to those who suffer from a variety of illnesses. Mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and manias have all shown to be positively affected by the regular practice of meditation. Some of the therapeutic benefits of regular meditation practice include enhanced self-esteem, reduction in feelings of hopelessness and depression, and a sense of spiritual connection.

Since the mind, by its various sense mechanisms can create and maintain a subjective reality, one seems to be at the mercy of the mind and its myriad of emotional states of being. Thoughts create emotional experiences based on the electrical impulses that send messages to various chemical centers to whip up recipes for certain emotional states. These emotional states hold tremendous power over self-efficacy, and emotional well-being. Most people have had the experience of having a “bad” day, or a lack of desire to get out of bed. These types of feelings and their sources are often overlooked by people experiencing them, as the emotional tide they create has a strong influence in coloring one’s perceived reality. Over time, the continuing pattern of similar emotional states can create long-term relationships between neurons in the brain. In other words, relationships between a thought and the subsequent emotional state that the thought triggered become a learned response with different chemical markers for different emotional states.

Meditation is the act of awareness, noting a thought as it travels through the mind’s eye, rather than grabbing on to it for dissection. It is in the act of dissection that the emotional response is created. A sort of fixation then occurs, making it very difficult to regain a sense of calm detachment which is the focus of the meditation practice. Observe, but be not of the waves of thoughts that roll through the ocean of conscious awareness, and breathe which is certainly not as easy as one might think.  Buddhism imparts that suffering, and dis-ease are certainly inevitable in life however, there is an opportunity for personal transcendence in the observation rather immersion in this state of suffering  (Rinpoche, 1993). A meditation posture is grounded, comfortable yet deliberate. One may elect to sit on the floor with legs crossed in front of them, arms relaxed and poised comfortably in the lap, eyes closed. One then begins to notice their breath, every inhalation and exhalation is noted in the awareness space. As this practice begins, the mind seems utterly flooded with thoughts, worries, randomness, and chaos. However, through each breath, the subject becomes accustomed to the flow of thoughts which become a sort of background noise, and the central focus of breathing creates an altered or trance like state in the consciousness of the meditator. This altered state of being allows the meditator to observe self from a place of detached compassion which is the place of mindfulness that the Buddha described.

Common mistakes that people make when entering into the practice of mediation exists in the misapplication of the quiet mind concept. The term is slightly misleading. The mind, it seems, is never truly quiet. Thoughts run constantly because the mind is always taking in information, processing it, encoding it, retrieving it, and deciphering it. The stillness of mind exists in the unfettered observance of this process. Unfettered meaning that one never holds on to, or tries to single out the thoughts as they steadily move through conscious awareness of the subject. As meditation becomes familiar to the mind itself, the thoughts no longer control the emotional state of the meditator, and stillness is observed by a state of total acceptance, and symbiosis.

The meditation process has been reported to be difficult, and even frustrating to those who are new to the experience, but long term benefits have also been relayed by those who were able to get through the frustration, and experience the trance-like state where feelings of calm and clarity exist. Meditation as a response and treatment for stress is now common advice from health practitioners even in the west because of the positive impact it has on the central nervous system (CNS), (Fontana, 1992).  The effect that mediation has on the body is noted further in the American Psychological Association’s book entitled Integrating Spirituality into Treatment. Meditation lowers respiratory rate, heart rate, and brain wave states, placing the body in a state of rest which is very helpful in dealing with chronic anxiety. Meditation has also been used frequently in the redirection of addictive behavior because of the altered state that it can enhance bio-chemically. In behavioral and cognitive behavioral types of therapeutic interventions, meditation is also useful in the reprogramming of negative thinking, through the natural change in thought patterns that are facilitated by the practice.

Research conducted by Lindgren & Coursey, published in 1995 shows a strong positive correlation between the use of meditation practice and increased feelings of well being among those who suffer from severe forms of anxiety and depression.  Those who are being treated for more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have also reported positive cognitive effects on mood and self-esteem. These trends can enhance the level of care that practitioners bestow upon their clients, giving them the tools to help alleviate some of the distress associated with negative automatic thinking, placing some of the control back in their hands with regard to better self-care.

Self-care is something that even mental health practitioners overlook for themselves. In the mental health fields, burn-out among therapists and social workers is high. The culprit seems to be a lack of self-care and over extension according to the APA. Regular meditation practice can also help alleviate the stress that in the field of mental health seems almost inevitable to its practitioners. Self-care processes that the APA advocates include the awareness of the levels and types of stress in the practitioner’s environment, case load management, outside support networks, and extra-curricular activities that promote a sense of health and well being. A professional support network, boundaries, and realistic expectations upon the self are also highlighted as areas to which the practitioner should attend for optimum results. The clarity that accompanies regular meditation can also invigorate a flagging practitioner, providing a sense of calm and clarity toward the greater good of all concerned.


References

American Psychological Association. ed. by Miller, W.R. (2006). Integrating Spirituality into Treatment: Resources for Practitioners. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Berger, K. S. (2006). The Developing Person. New York: Worth Publishers.

Fontana, D. (1992). The Meditator’s Handbook. Rockport: Element Books, Inc.

Lindgren, K., & Coursey, R. (1995). Spirituality and Serious Mental Illness: A Two-Part Study. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 18(3), 93-111. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Rinpoche, S. (1993). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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World Sickness and the Thirst for God

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By Nicolina Santoro, MA, IMF 77972

Once upon a time, in the vast kingdom of the helping professions, there lived a therapist whose thirst for knowledge and desire to aid in the process of personal and interpersonal change was unrivaled in all the land. This therapist had taken it upon herself to rewrite the story of her own history in a manner that changes the context of painful past experiences from blockages into tools that create a larger understanding and empathy for those she has chosen to serve in her work.

This constantly evolving therapist became immersed in theory and work of great minds such as Carl Rogers and William James. Realizing that human potential is vast, she wanted to understand how important stories and fairy tales were to constructing the memories that colored the landscape of reality, a reality that seemed to have the power to dictate how people see themselves and live their lives.

These dominant fairy tales permeate the fabric of our perceptions which also bump up against the lives of others we come into contact with out in the world. Personal narratives or “life styles” are filled with characters that are archetypal in nature, influencing us to play out repetitive sequences in life. These characters tend to take on the personas of stereotypical themes that are reinforced by learning them at a young age, or by the social referencing effect of our dominant culture.

William James calls the mental fatigue effect of living in an environment laden with unrealistic scenarios or fairy tales “world sickness.” It appears as though living in a world dominated by stereotypes and fairy tales could be implicated in the aggravation of many types of mental health issues.

How can we address the fatigue, depression, anxiety, and thought distortions that world sickness creates and impacts?

Let’s start with being gentle with ourselves. When we imagine a supreme spiritual being, the embodiment of certain characteristics seems to be present across many cultures. Some of these characteristics include unconditional love (a love that exists beyond judgment), a superconscious presence that never dissipates or abandons, and the ability to create out of seemingly thin air. For the scientists who have a different path, god could also be described as the picture of what we theorize as the highest human potential. We have the potential to express this in our own reality by living our lives in accordance to our deepest and strongest values while moving away from comparing ourselves to the unrealistic standards or “fairy tales” woven into the fabric of our society, loving ourselves and others through the lens of acceptance and vulnerability, a gentler version of happily ever after.


References

James. W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study on Human Nature. Longmans, Green & Co. London, UK.

Miller, W.R. (2006). Integrating Spirituality into Treatment: Resources for Practitioners. Washington: American Psychological Association.

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School Refusal Solutions for Parents and Teachers

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By Christine Brady, M.A.,
Intern of Marriage & Family Therapy

What parent among us has not experienced the plaintive pleas of little ones, their little voices crying out, “I don’t want to go to school!” Sometimes these requests are due to vague physical complaints such as, “I don’t feel good”, or “My tummy hurts”. Other times, the range of reasons can vary from mean teachers to lack of friends, or perhaps an exam is scheduled for that day. For a lot of children these occurrences are few and far between. For others, this is a pattern which seems to happen almost daily, increasing family stress, and causing harried parents to count down the days until graduation (a daunting task if your child is in elementary school).  School refusal, if left unchecked, this pattern can escalate lead to chronic lateness, repeated absences, and consequences from truancy officials at school.

Consistently truant children often attempt to conceal their absence from parents and spend their day away from home while children typically termed as school refusers tend to stay home during all or part of the day with parental knowledge. School refusing children commonly become upset at the prospect of going to school and may show signs of fearfulness, crying, temper tantrums, unexplained physical symptoms, or other behaviors, such as stalling, missing the bus, or oversleeping. Children who are refusing to attend school may be attempting to avoid a fearful experience. Being bullied, the structure and discipline of the school setting are common reasons for avoidance. Another motivation for school refusal could be pursuing a positive experience like staying at home with access to video games, access to the internet, or gaining parental concern or attention.

School refusers can have anxiety around specific situations such as the bus ride, cafeteria, restrooms, or locker rooms thereby increasing the desire to avoid school. A child may or may not be able to identify their specific fear, only knowing that they don’t want to be at school because it makes them feel awful. Another group of school refusers may find the social or performance aspects of school such as interactions with peers, writing on the board, being called on in class, tests, or performance classes such as PE make the prospect of attending school frighteningly unbearable. Some children experience school as a place where they are constantly reminded that they are not good enough to achieve at a normal level, let alone, excel.

Dr. Haarman further relates in his book, School Refusal Behaviors, that the most important factor in increasing the likelihood of success with children who can’t or won’t go to school is to return to school as soon as possible. The longer the child avoids a normal school day routine, the more difficult and traumatic it will be to return to school.  A viable starting point for the effective exposure therapy of the child returning to regular school attendance may be to build tolerance to the anxiety provoking activity by attending some portion of the school day whether attending particular classes for a limited time period, or certain days until the child’s anxiety returns to near normal levels. This may require cooperation of school administration, such as a modified schedule change, a teacher change, or allowing the child to arrive late or leave early.

Treatment of School Refusal

This chart is adapted from research conducted by Kearney and Albano, identifies a number of possible intervention strategies most suited for each of the four types of school refusers.
Function Treatment Components
(crying, nausea, distress, sadness, and various phobias, i.e. bathrooms, cafeteria, teachers, bullies, etc.) Somatic control exercises such as breathing retraining and muscle relaxation

Gradual re-exposure to school

Reduce physical symptoms and anticipatory anxiety

Self-reinforcement, self-talk, self-esteem

To escape aversive social and evaluative situations (social phobia, test anxiety, shyness, lack of social skills) Role play restructuring of negative self-talk

Gradual exposure to real life situations

Social skills training and reduction of social anxiety

Coping strategy templates

To get attention  (tantrums, crying, clinging, separation anxiety) Parent training in contingency management

Clear parental messages

Evening and morning routines

Use of consequences for compliance/noncompliance

For positive tangible reinforcement  (lack of structure or rules, free access to reinforcement, avoidance of limits) Family contingency contracting to increase rewards for attending school and decrease the rewards for missing school

Curtail social and other activities for nonattendance

Alternative problem solving


References and Further Reading:

Albano, A.M., Chorpita, B.F., & Barlow, D.H. (2003). Childhood anxiety disorders. In E. Marsh and R. Barkley (Eds.), Child psychopathology (279-330).New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Berg, I. (1996). School avoidance, school phobia, and truancy. In: M. Lewis (ed.), Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins.

Berg, I. (1997). School refusal and truancy. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 76, 90-91

Bernstein, G.A., Helter, J.M., Burckhardt  C.M., & McMillan, M.H. (2001). Treatment of school refusal: one-year follow-up. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 206–213.

Broadwin, I.T. (1932). A contribution to the study of Truancy. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2, 253-259.

Coolidge, J.C., Hahn, P.B., & Peck, A.L. (1957). School Phobia: Neurotic crisis or way of life? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 27,296-306.

Dube, S.R. & Orpinas, P. (2009). Understanding excessive school absenteeism as school refusal behavior. Children and Schools, 31(2) 87-95.

Duckworth, K. & deBug, J. (1989). Inhibiting class cutting among high school students. High School Journal, 72, 188-195.

Evans, L.D. (2000). Functional School Refusal Subtypes: Anxiety, avoidance, and malingering. Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 37(2), 183-191.

Fremont, W. P. (2003). School refusal in children and adolescents. American Family Physician, 68, 8, 1555-1560.

Haarman, G.B. (2012). School Refusal: Children who Can’t or Won’t go to School, Foundations: Education and Consultation Press. Louiseville, KY.

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