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Mindfulness for people who "can't do mindfulness". Part one: why bother?

I'm assuming you're reading this because you've got a sense that Mindfulness would help you; maybe you know someone who raves about it but you don't get why they think it's a big deal or maybe you've attempted it but don't feel that you were doing it right, but you're not sure whether to keep trying it or not.

First, lets do a quick recap on what Mindfulness is so we know we are on the same page. You are being Mindful when you choose to focus your attention on something in the here-and-now, and (importantly) are being nice to yourself whenever your attention wanders off (which is inevitable because the brain is an organ that generates thoughts). The mindful part is when we guide our attention back to the present rather than choosing to entertain each thought that comes up. Often clients have misunderstood this and believe that mindfulness is about emptying their brain so it's really important to know that we aren't aiming for empty brains!

What's the point of paying attention to the present moment?

Good question! At first glance this does seem like a strange idea, to answer this is helps to understand how human emotions works. Below are the three systems of emotion* that underpin our behaviours and emotions at any time. Each circle describes the type of system, why we need it for human survival and how it makes us feel. For the geeks amongst you the hormones and brain parts that are involved with each system are also included.

When we are born it is only the red system that is fully functioning, it's ready to protect us from danger from day one. This is why a baby is able to cry so loudly when it feels hungry or scared - its red system is telling the world that it senses danger. The red system has a “better safe than sorry” mentality which has enabled us to evolve this far, this means that it overrides anything else we are doing as soon as a potential threat is noticed. E.g. if you hear an unexpected loud noise in your house you would stop what you're doing to investigate it just in case something bad had happened. Why is this important information? Because it means that we have all started in the same place: with an alert red system. We each have to learn how to cope with that so that we don’t go through life constantly feeling edgy or defensive, which is just no fun.

Emotional systems that can calm our threat-system

We do this by developing our blue and green systems, which aren’t so well established when we are born. These are heavily influenced by our surroundings and need to be nurtured if they are to grow, for example, when parents are warm and kind then their children learn how to do this too. However, in Western culture there's heavy emphasis placed on developing the blue system; you can see this from the way that we have league tables of school exam results rather than league tables of children’s happiness and wellbeing. I know which school I’d rather send my children to given the choice! Achieving promotions and hitting targets feels good, that is why we like it. We get a hit of the neurotransmitter called Dopamine which gives us a real buzz. We like that buzz feeling so will then seek it out again.

This feel-good factor from the blue system can make it hard to understand the attraction of the green system, which is a gentler, less goal-focused system. It involves a shift in mind-set from go-get-it to just-being, which releases a calm, soothed feeling (Oxytocin). It’s a good feeling too but we don’t often give it much of a chance because it isn’t as thrilling.

Mindfulness is like chicken soup for the soul

The reason why psychologists are always trying to teach their clients mindfulness is because it lights up your green system. This can help to dampen down the red system with the release of the oxytocin, plus brain scan research shows that it helps our rational brain talk to our emotional brain which also helps to calm us down.

The blue system can dampen down the red system too - e.g. ever thrown yourself into working or cleaning to cope with feeling upset or angry? That's your blue system taking over to protect you from the red system. But there are drawbacks to over-relying on your blue system. For example there are times in life when you can't throw yourself into work such as maternity leave, holidays, or when work is the source of threat (too much to do or a horrible boss). So it pays to have spent some time looking after your green system so that you aren't running on empty at moments like that in life.

Part two of this mindfulness blog series will explain how to breath life into your green system using mindfulness (and I promise it will be in manageable chunks).

* This diagram is called The 3-Systems of Emotion Regulation, it's from Compassion Focused Therapy and was developed by Paul Gilbert.

** Holzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congelton, Yerramsetti, Gard & Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. (2011) Psychiatry Res. 30, 36-43.

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