If you’ve been reading my articles lately, you’ll know by now that I’m really into the concept of mindfulness (especially when it applies to our rampant use of technology):
As I continue on in my study and practise of mindfulness, I was delighted to learn that mindfulness is incredibly helpful when applied to anxiety disorders, which many of my clients suffer from. The book I devoured most recently and loved is called, The Mindful Way Through Anxiety by Susan Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer. It differs significantly from the book I wrote about before by Reid Wilson called How to Stop the Noise in Your Head (in my article see ‘Step #3: Take concrete actions on worries that you have control over’ section) in that the authors suggest you lovingly and gently ‘invite’ anxiety to ‘sit with you’ as opposed to ‘fighting’ it like it’s an opponent in a boxing ring. In the latter book, the author suggests that you yell the following to anxiety when it shows up:
“I want this! Bring it on! Is that all you got?”
Whereas the mindful approach seems a lot more peaceful and calm to me. When using this approach, you simply ‘notice’ anxiety as it appears- as thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations and you are kind and loving, not combative with it. You treat anxiety as a guest, regardless of whether you invited this particular guest or it just showed up on your front door waiting to be hosted. This takes immense self-discipline- the act of practising loving kindness towards something that you find repellent and want to push away.
As I compared these two books in my mind, I went back two decades ago when I was an intern therapist, learning and trying out various approaches to psychotherapy. My research focused on helping women heal from eating disorders and Narrative Therapy was the rage at the time (even therapy approaches have fashion seasons and go in and out of style like the weather). I interviewed one of the major proponents of using Narrative Therapy with eating disorders to get a feel for how it worked.
In essence, my personal and professional experience trying it out on clients led me to conclude that it wasn’t for me and I didn’t like using it in my practise. Why? Because it felt very patriarchal and militaristic. The basic idea was this:
Presenting Problem: Eating Disorder
Method: use Narrative therapy to ‘externalize’ the person (client) from their eating disorder (problem) by going to war with it.
I was trained to help clients characterize their eating disorder as some sort of ‘monster’- I had them draw it, describe it, and give it a name. Then every time they heard a voice in their head telling them to not eat (as in anorexia), they could name it (for example: “Anorexic Angie”) and talk back to it. For example, they could say, “I’ve got your number Anorexic Angie. I know it’s you who’s appeared on the scene and one of your methods to keep me sick is to tell me not to eat when I am hungry. I’m not listening to you this time. I’m going to eat.”
I found that using this approach caused my clients to constantly feel they were at war and a lot of them didn’t like that concept. And frankly, neither did I. In the past 20 years, I’ve studied, toiled as a therapist, and found that for me, and the majority of my clients, using a Mindfulness approach to the big problems in our lives gives us peace, freedom, and ultimately, the ability to live with undesirable aspects of ourselves and the world at large, instead of running away from them. Also, mindfulness creates a sense of inner peace, connectedness with the world at large, and a deep connection with our spiritual nature. I cannot say the same for Narrative Therapy.
My Favourite Part of the Book: Who’s driving the bus?
In The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, there is a wonderful example of therapy where the therapist asks her client, “Who is driving the bus?” The “bus” is our mind in the analogy, and as a therapist, I feel it is my job to help people take clear ownership of being both driver and navigation officer of their own minds. This is no small feat for any of us! For example, if someone is recovering from alcohol addiction, we would say that alcohol used to drive their bus; but now that they are in recovery, they are driving the bus.
The authors go further with their analogy by suggesting that the individual self should be driving the bus (i.e., our own minds), and that anxiety appears as noisy, pushy passengers on our bus who keep trying to grab the wheel away from us. How do they do this? By making us experience anxious thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. They suggest befriending these noisy passengers (whereas I would guess a CBT/Narrative approach would tell us to gag them and tie them to their seats so they stop misbehaving).
I’m guessing you’re more like me in that you’d prefer the first option which stems from a Buddhist mindset. As someone with an anxiety disorder myself who has tried practically everything over the past 18 years, I am the first to say that it is much more satisfying at the end of the day to make friends with the thing you most fear- to become somewhat detached and curious by asking what it has to teach you. I figure that a lot of times in life, we end up with unwanted passengers on our bus. We have two choices- either spend a lifetime fighting them or doing our human best to somehow find a way to live with them being on the bus…just not in the driver’s seat!