“Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body,”¹ Most of us also do this, living through our thoughts about things, rather than experiencing them directly. Anxiety, stress and depression can be temporary and normal responses to life events. However, once these moods become chronic states of being, possibly due to internal triggers such as thoughts, then life seems like a battleground. Many people see their GP and sometimes are diagnosed with ‘clinical’, (anxiety, depression and stress). One of the most common mental health issues seen by doctors is anxiety and Generalised Anxiety Disorder or (GAD), where people feel anxious generally about a number of things rather than a specific event.
I have previously written about how Focusing can help us to connect with ourselves and cultivate a different relationship with what is troubling us. This in turn positively effects a better relationship with ourselves and those around us. Reflecting further, in working with others in therapy, it occurred to me that a practice of Mindfulness is important in accessing a place where Focusing can happen more naturally. Even though Focusing is a natural process, we like Mr Duffy are often unaware of it or ignore it. Mindfulness can help prepare a space for us, to enable us to Focus on a more formal level and midwife the practice into our lives as a way of being.
Writing back in 2013, in an interview with The Guardian, Professor Peter Kinderman, head of the Institute of Psychology at Liverpool University, acknowledged that sometimes psychiatric labels are not helpful and that what is needed is a “humane approach, to help people understand and address their moods, rather than labels and medication.” Medication plays an important part, but some question if being given medication for our psychological state actually conveys the message that we are not in control of our thoughts and feelings. For some people the label is them, defining their existence. Professor Ian Robertson² of Trinity College, Dublin suggests that the “medicalisation of mental processes has led to a fixed rather than growth mindset.” It is important that we don’t give up hope of being able to change. Neuroscience shows us that our brain functions, rather than being fixed, have a plasticity to change through the life-span. This means in practice that our habitual thought patterns can be modified if we pay attention to how we think and become aware of what this is doing to keep us anxious, stressed or depressed.
If you have a Mindfulness practice already, then you might be curious about Focusing. Mindfulness and Focusing share many similarities. They both acknowledge the importance of breathing as a focus for the mind, assisting it to become ‘calm’ and thus reducing the constant internal chatter. This is an important habit to cultivate to help minimise the tendency to ruminate and worry about the past and future, a source of anxiety and depression which keeps us ‘stuck’. This kind of thinking appears to us as being useful and productive but in fact it keeps us stuck, just doing this over and over again. Being in the present moment in a kind and compassionate way, recognising that our thoughts are just thoughts, helps to break the cycle of trying to solve or figure things out.
This ‘chatter’ is normal, we all have this tendency and we use it to problem solve, thank goodness! It is when we have problems that we can’t ‘solve’ that things go wrong. Clients spend hours asking ‘why,’ unable to resolve chronic issues. Professor Robertson highlights that a ‘wandering’ mind tends to focus on negative thoughts and memories because the brain “hates unresolved conflicts.” Too much stress can reduce our performance levels, say in an exam, if our levels are already high. This is due to the affects of the ‘stress hormones’ circulating around our bodies. However those with lower stress baselines find the added pressure actually boosts their performance.
Mindfulness and Focusing share an accepting, open, non-judgemental way of being with our thoughts. This actually reduces our stress baseline. In Mindfulness the aim is to let go of the thoughts (thoughts are just thoughts). This can be extremely helpful, but Focusing cares about the thoughts; it seeks to develop an interested curiosity towards them rather than trying to push them away or pretend they don’t exist. We often carry around unresolved anger and hurts which, if left unprocessed, can actually affect our health³. Perhaps feelings could not be dealt with at the time, or the person feels they cannot relate to these feelings. Focusing cultivates a relationship with them, saying ‘hello’, acknowledging them and exploring the thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations experienced to achieve a different positive relationship with them. This may involve metaphor, images, memories or symbolising how we feel when this can’t readily be put into words. The process releases a creativity within ourselves that is often ‘stuck’ when we only use our analytical faculties.
Once learned it is possible to Focus with a partner, where the partner knows nothing of the issues or problems being explored, by using metaphor and by paying attention to the whole body rather than just the ‘mind.’ In my therapeutic approach I utilise elements of Mindfulness and Focusing to work integrally with others. I practice Mindfulness and Focusing as a way of being, and facilitate workshops for those interested who can then take away new skills which enable them to work alone or with a Focusing partner. Focusing ‘circles’ can also be very rewarding for those interested in a group setting. This is not formal group ‘therapy’ but it can be very therapeutic and supportive.
In therapy it is possible to ‘befriend’ all of our experiences without judging them as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ In changing our relationship with them we are able to respond rather than react to the daily aspects of our lives more fully, and this in turn transforms our relationship with our ‘self’ and others. This puts us in control of our response to the external and internal triggers which contribute to our suffering. Research on Mindfulness has also found that it is able to lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep problems, and alleviate gastrointestinal problems; also those with obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders and substance misuse issues have found beneficial effects.
Pain is a reality of life, we cannot erase it. We can reduce and manage our suffering, so that life feels worth living again. Our creative energies are released to flow into enjoying the present. This has positive effects on our present and future mental and physical health.
¹ James Joyce, The Dubliners, (1914).
² Robertson, I, (2016), The Psychologist, Vol. 29,11.
³ Everett L. Worthington Jr. & Michael Scherer (2004): Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: theory, review, and hypotheses, Psychology & Health, 19:3, 385-405.