Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation, some research-based suggestions (4th post): compassion & implementation intentions
Last updated on 13th November 2017
This is the fourth & last post in the sequence that starts with "Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation, some research-based suggestions (1st post): mindfulness & naming" and then goes on to "Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation ... (2nd post): touch & affectionate releasing" & "Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation, some research-based suggestions (3rd post): embodied values".
The "Bus driver metaphor" is an excellent framework that reminds us of several key coping skills/emotion-regulation methods, that a multitude of research studies have shown can help us navigate through life more happily & effectively. The twelve-breath mini-meditation is potentially a rather wonderful way of making these "bus driver" skills our natural ways of responding to the world. This is so important. Neurotic responses like excesssive catastrophising, rumination/worry, and self-blame cause so much suffering ... see, for example, the papers "The cognitive emotional regulation questionnaire: psychometric features and prospective relationship with depression and anxiety", "Relationships between traumatic life events, cognitive emotion regulations strategies, and somatic complaints" and "Personality predicts mortality risk: An integrative data analysis of 15 international longitudinal studies". Improved coping skills can literally save our lives; they need to become well-established habits and this takes time & repeated practice.
The initial four-breath sequence teaches the key basic ability of being mindful of and tolerating our current state (the bus passengers) without avoidance. Naming our state allows us to distance a little. Then the self-compassion & settling of the second four-breath sequence begins to shift how we are (the bus conductor's kind function). Reconnecting to values reminds our bus driver how we want to travel (the bus conductor's wise reappraisal function). Then for the last three breaths of the exercise, we move into compassion/loving-kindness for others or visualising tackling our next activity challenges. One can also look at this through "an attachment lens" as well, so a distressed child may reach for a reassuring adult, be soothed, and then want to move out to explore the world again. The 12-breath sequence has a similar structure - being sensitive & responsive to oneself, internally soothing & settling, and then moving out into value-directed activity once more.
I use this breathing-space exercise regularly ... typically three times daily. If I'm due to interact with other people in the few hours after practising the exercise, then I will usually make the last section a three-breath goodwill/loving-kindness practice. For me, this involves visualising the people I'll be meeting and wishing them well. Depending on the number of people involved, I might imagine them one at a time or I might visualise them in groups. I use my breath & silently repeated phrases to encourage this well-wishing. How one might go about this is described more fully in "Suggestions for goodwill practice" - this is a three page handout that I give to clients who are learning goodwill/loving kindness/compassionate mind training with me. It contains references to various aspects of my work that probably aren't relevant to the situation with other teachers. However the vast majority of the handout is either directly relevant to, or easily adapted to goodwill meditation trainings generally. See too the downloadable recordings towards the end of the "Good knowledge" section's "Compassion & criticism" folder. There is good advice too in Chris Germer's 23 minute downloadable mindful self-compassion exercise "Finding loving-kindness phrases" (relevant for self-compassion, but also other-compassion) & Barbara Fredrickson's "Love 2.0" website, as well as many practical examples at "Insight timer", probably the most popular free meditation app on the internet.
Crocker's website and her recent research overview ...
More to follow ...
very much addresses this area, as too does "Purpose in life: clarifying future goals & the challenges we will face in achieving them".
8.) Often with compassion/loving-kindness/goodwill meditation practices, one is encouraged to use a repeating set of words to help channel the kind intentions. Many people find that having a specific set of phrases helps reduce mind wandering and helps too to deepen the practice. Traditionally one chooses a simple phrase to wish physical wellbeing for the person you’re focusing on in the practice, another simple phrase to wish them well emotionally, and a third phrase to wish them well for their life generally. Examples are “May this person (refer to them by name if this feels easier) be well. May they be happy. May they flourish” or “May this person be free from suffering. May they live joyfully. May they fulfil their dreams”, and so on. Think about what words or phrases you’d like to use. Chris Germer, who co-developed Mindful self-compassion practices, has a good exercise called "Finding loving-kindness phrases" on his website. The exercise is described in a downloadable PDF sheet and expanded on more fully in a 23 minute meditation. For many people doing this Finding loving-kindness practice is likely to be well worthwhile. Once you’ve come up with a set of words that feels right for you, don’t chop and change too much. Try to stick with the phrases for several practices to give yourself a chance to see what helps you and what doesn’t. It’s been said “Hold the phrases lightly and carefully like carrying quite fragile, precious china”! As always, explore what works best for you.
Stage 2 in the standard "Self-Compassion Break" typically links to a reminder of common humanity. So the SCS handout suggests one might say to oneself things like "I'm not alone. Others are just like me" or "We all struggle in our lives" or "This is how it feels when a person struggles in this way". These are all examples of "reappraisal" which research suggests is a crucial, but underused emotion-regulation tool ... see, for example, the paper "Launching reappraisal: It's less common than you might think". I have written about reappraisal more fully in the blog post "Reappraising reappraisal" where I mention the great Lucius Seneca quote "No man was ever wise by chance". Happily mindfulness & reappraisal seem to make great "bed-fellows" ... see "Use of mindful reappraisal coping among meditation practitioners" and "Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with self-reported positive reappraisal". Crucially though, remembering the finding that reappraisal is "less common than you might think", it's important to realise for the Self-Compassion Break that
It's likely to be worth reading the blog post "Reappraising reappraisal" or the similar downloadable handout "Getting a better perspective" with its acronym WaVED (Wisdom, Values, Empathy, Distance) highlighting some overlapping ways of reappraising situations. If there is a particularly troublesome issue one is struggling with ... or particular kinds of situations that repeatedly trigger suffering ... then it's likely to help if we take time to experiment with "the fit" of various reappraisal reminders. Find out what works well for you. If particular forms of reappraisal are helpful, you're likely to notice your suffering becoming easier. Write down what works for you and in which kinds of situations it's most helpful. Do explore how to phrase the reappraisal most usefully. It is likely to be more effective if you use non-first person sentences, in other words you use "You" rather than "I" ... or you could experiment with using your first name, or possibly a name that has been lovingly used for you by those who care deeply for you, or possibly add in terms of endearment if this feels helpful - see the paper "Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters" with its abstract commenting "Does the language people use to refer to the self during introspection influence how they think, feel, and behave under social stress? ... Seven studies explored these questions ... They demonstrated that using non-first-person pronouns and one’s own name (rather than first-person pronouns) during introspection enhances self-distancing ... these findings demonstrate that small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self during introspection consequentially influence their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for vulnerable individuals".
So after Stage 1: Mindfulness - Sensing, Labeling & Softening, we can move onto Stage 2: Self-Naming & Reappraisal. And we want to practise regularly, so using the Self-Compassion Break as a repeated short breathing space exercise over the course of the day makes very good sense.
And the standard third stage of the Break is Self-Kindness (although maybe this would be better re-ordered). The standard instruction states: "Now put your hands over your heart, or wherever it feels soothing, feeling the warmth and gentle touch of your hands. Say to yourself: "May I be kind to myself", or another way of saying this is "May I give myself what I need". See if you can find words for what you need in times like these ... If you're having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear friend or loved one is having the same problem as you. What would you say to this person? If your friend would leave with just a few words in mind, what would you like those words to be? What message would you like to deliver, heart to heart? Now see if you can offer the same message to yourself. This is precious stuff and reappraisal & self-compassion can support each other, see the recent paper "Self-compassion enhances the efficacy of explicit cognitive reappraisal as an emotion regulation strategy". Although the paper's abstract suggests that self-compassion might usefully precede reappraisal, rather than follow it ... "Cognitive reappraisal has been shown to be an effective strategy to regulate depressed mood in healthy and remitted depressed individuals. However, individuals currently suffering from a clinical depression often experience difficulties in utilizing this strategy. Therefore, the goal of this study was to examine whether the efficacy of explicit cognitive reappraisal in major depressive disorder can be enhanced through the use of self-compassion and emotion-focused acceptance as preparatory strategies. Thereby, explicit cognitive reappraisal refers to purposefully identifying, challenging, and modifying depressiogenic cognitions to reduce depressed mood. To test our hypotheses, we induced depressed mood at four points in time in 54 participants (64.8% female; age M = 35.59, SD = 11.49 years) meeting criteria for major depressive disorder. After each mood induction, participants were instructed to either wait, or employ self-compassion, acceptance, or reappraisal to regulate their depressed mood. Depressed mood was assessed before and after each mood induction and regulation period on a visual analog scale. Results indicated that participants who had utilized self-compassion as a preparatory strategy experienced a significantly greater reduction of depressed mood during reappraisal than did those who had been instructed to wait prior to reappraisal. Participants who had used acceptance as a preparatory strategy did not experience a significantly greater reduction of depressed mood during subsequent reappraisal than those in the waiting condition. These findings provide preliminary evidence that the efficacy of explicit cognitive reappraisal is moderated by the precursory use of other emotion regulation strategies. In particular, they suggest that depressed individuals might benefit from using self-compassion to facilitate the subsequent use of explicit cognitive reappraisal".
More to follow ...