Mindful writing practice to re-conceptualize painful memories and traumatic triggers #mentalhealth #addition #alcoholism #posttraumaticstress
January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have been practicing several new cognitive techniques that are helping me feel better on a day to day basis. These techniques address the autopoietic aspect of my experience. That is, auto – self, and poetic – creating, autopoietic speaks to the idea that we are not exactly autonomous within our environmental conditions, rather, we are autopoietic, we can respond to our environmental conditions, although we are never wholly separable from them.
I have suffered for most of my life from the idea that I was an autonomous person, because I believed that meant I was supposed to have the will, or inner fortitude, to transcend my environmental conditions and the fact that I seemed to be subordinate to them was an indication of a fatal character flaw rather than an accurate representation of the reality of my experience. As an autopoietic person, I am empowered to respond to my environmental conditions. I don’t have to change them, I can become skilled at assessing what they are, and then determining by best course of action based on that assessment. Given that environmental conditions are dynamic, and constantly changing, this means that I am in a continuous process of mindfully ‘reading’ my environmental conditions and sorting through a realm of possibilities for what my next steps will be.
My best friend introduced me to a new book, “The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination: Letting Go of Anxious and Depressive Thoughts“, by Sameet M. Kumar. I started writing for twenty minutes on a daily basis, as much as I could remember to do it. I also started using mindfulness to practice meditation. What I noticed is that when I practice a simple inventory taking process by naming sensory perceptions – what I can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, as they are occurring – this cognitive process supersedes my habit of anxious rumination and displaces troublesome thought clusters. I am noticing I can implement this technique at any time, in any place and it helps me cope with troublesome triggers into unwanted mental and emotional states.
I made myself a little database app for my iPhone to track the relationship between observations of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. What I noticed is that one sensory perception, especially in the words or deeds of others, can trigger unwanted thoughts that contribute to unwanted feelings. I also noticed that observations of sensory perceptions seem to trigger unwanted feelings that tag unwanted thoughts that I use to explain my uncomfortable feelings. The other thing I noticed about this tag-team effect of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings, was that they quickly became self-referential. It only took one sensory perception to trigger a cascade of negative thoughts and escalating anxious feelings. Depending on how hungry, tired, or lonely I was feeling to begin with, this exponential increase also ‘trigger stacked’ on top of previous cycles of unwanted thoughts and feelings. This helped me understand how a seemingly minor perturbation in my field of perception could turn into a full blown panic attack or rageful frame of mind in the ‘blink of an eye’.
These observations, thoughts and feelings have led me to practice mindful writing exercises. These exercises start with observations of my immediate surroundings, simple descriptions of what I hear, what I see, what I smell, taste, or feel (sensory perceptions on my skin). For example, right now I hear the percussion of rain falling on the street and sidewalk, I hear water running down gutter downspouts, I hear the splash of car tires on a distant, busy street. I hear a plane flying overhead, diminishing as it travels out of range. I hear voices of pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. I hear the slight sighing snore of my big dog sleeping nearby. I see the wet head of my golden coloured shepherd cross curled up in his favourite chair after our morning walk. I see him shift slightly to make himself more comfortable and hear him exhale a big sigh as he settles back to sleep.
In the chair next to him I see one crumpled ear of our fifteen year old fox terrier, wrapped in one of his favourite sleeping bags. I see him shudder slightly in his sleep. He is going deaf and blind so he has become quite attached to my physical body, always wanting to know where it is and only completely relaxing when he knows I am close by.
I am sitting in my living room, in a house built in 1906. It is a little drafty where I am sitting because I am surrounded by five bay windows and the cold damp air slides off the glass and touches my fingertips, my earlobes and my feet. The light is cold, grey, and dull, it is midday in early January and the sunlight is weak and watery at best on this northern latitude. At present the rain is falling in thick wet drops. Earlier this morning there were a few sodden flakes of snow mixed in.
This process of description engages my creativity, language, writing, and sense of connection. These faculties take precedence over reliving unpleasant memories from the past that trigger feelings of righteous indignation, sadness and unrequited love, or indulging in anxious rumination about the future and everything I can imagine going wrong as a pre-emptive strike against possible bad feelings in the future.
What I am noticing about this writing is that it is also leading me back in time, to examine conditions from my childhood and earlier decades of my life. These examinations are not following the same angst-ridden re-hashing of upsetting memories and hurt feelings, but rather, going back as a journalist recording observations from a time gone by. Somehow, by describing the scenes as if I were hovering over the scene and describing details and transitions, I am able to conceive them as events separable from me, even though I only remember them because I was immersed in them at the time. Now, as I use my new observational skills to describe past environmental conditions and evolving circumstances, I can ‘see’ them in a new way, and understand them beyond the injurious, trauma inducing events that have so dominated my life up to now. I no longer have to bury them, compartmentalize them, force them out of my thoughts. I can actually handle them, and start to see the players, my family members, with some of the compassion I apply to my reactive aggressive shepherd, and my deaf and blind fox terrier.
Wow. Could I possibly come to forgive my family members for the painful circumstances of our emergence and the roles they play in perpetuating hurtful family culture?
I do have hope today.