It is part of human nature to avoid unpleasant events. This week in the MBSR course I am teaching, the participants did not fully embrace documenting their unpleasant events – no surprise there! The previous week, it seemed effortless for most of them to record the pleasant events. It’s 100% normal to turn away from the unpleasant. It’s a form of self-preservation and sometimes it’s very wise to do so. If only we were Barbara Eden in I dream of Jeanie, folding our arms and blinking our eyes to remove ourselves from a stressful event. It is not living in reality if we consistently turn away from the unpleasant, undesirable, “not what we want” kind of experiences, we are essentially denying our reality.
I invited my niece, Colleen to live with me for a year in San Francisco after college graduation. Six months into this little adventure, we are both enjoying it. She (like myself) prefers the reality of pleasant events and resists the unpleasant. That became very evident when the grace period for her student loans expired this week. While we sat down to do a budget, she was overwhelmed and walked away saying “I don’t want to deal with all this money stuff – I hate this!” While most of us don’t have the luxury of escaping back to college life or the genie bottle, we have to find the courage to relate to the stressful events in our life. When we deny our circumstances, they don’t correct themselves on their own. Fortunately, Colleen recognized this and found a way to face her anxiety and created a manageable budget. I assured her that it was a lesson she would continue to deal with throughout her life.
Resistance is a wakeup call. In bringing awareness to those aspects of our daily life that we habitually resist, we have the opportunity to begin to transform them. Here’s the deal: Once we identify or “name” the unpleasant event, we have the opportunity to change our brain chemistry and our stress response. Research studies have shown that people trained in mindfulness have thicker pre-frontal cortexes of the brain, an area responsible for decision making and modulating appropriate emotional responses and have less activity in the amygdala, our threat detector in the brain.
If you feel like experimenting with pleasant and unpleasant events, try it out this week. Simply name the experience. For example:
Looking for a parking spot - Unpleasant event
Were you aware of unpleasant feelings while this was happening? Yes or No
How did your body feel (in detail) during this experience? Hands gripping wheel, sweating, headache, tension in my neck, and shallow breathing.
What moods, feelings & thoughts accompanied this event? Frustration, worry that I would be late or I would disappoint others.
What thoughts are in your mind as you write this down? I bet if I gave myself more time, I wouldn’t have been this stressed out. Why was I so worried about that? It wasn’t a life and death matter.
This week, I encourage you to have a look at what habitual patterns you deny, repress, turn away from, or distract yourself from. Perhaps you can find the time to do the short little exercise and ask yourself those simple little questions.