Using Mindfulness to Live Life Intentionally
by Darian Slayton Fleming
In my article What is Mindfulness and How Do You Apply it in your Life, I defined the concept of mindfulness and discussed its direction to be aware. Now, what do you do with this awareness?
The next part of the mindfulness definition calls for you to pay attention on purpose and make intentional choices. This chosen action can be internal such as exploring a troublesome thought and redirecting it. It may mean addressing something outside of you. The key is to catch yourself getting emotionally activated and intentionally choosing your responses.
The first step in being able to do this is to understand the physiology of emotional activation and be able to recognize the physical warning signs your body sends you when you get triggered.
In the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk discusses the physiology of emotional activation and the fight, flight or freeze response. When activated, the brain shunts blood, adrenaline, and cortisol from the gut to the physical extremities in preparation for danger. This system worked well in early human life. Hunters needed this system to keep them physically safe from lions, tigers, and bears. It enabled them to run and protect themselves. By the time hunters returned to their camps, the chemicals had exited their systems and they were able to engage with others calmly.
These days, we are so much more mobile and busy. We are expected to multitask; work at a fast pace and meet stringent productivity standards. These conditions allow little time or space for calm and thoughtful coping.
You can choose to influence your outcomes. Become familiar with what happens in your body when you get triggered. Do you clench your jaw or grit your teeth? Do you feel short of breath or tightness in the chest? Do you feel muscle tension, butterflies, or knots in your stomach? Are there other physical sensations? If you’re not aware of such signals, you might ask your spouse, close friend, or family member to tell you what they see when you are activated. Either way, make an effort to identify and notice when these sensations hit you. Once you are aware, you will be able to notice and reach for your coping strategy as soon as you realize you have been activated.
How do you apply the intentional part of mindfulness to this process? Consider this strategy which I call PBAR (Pause, Breathe, Assess, and Respond). Following these four steps will clear your mind, relax your body, help you consider your options and choose appropriate responses. You might even write these steps on a colorful notecard and post it where you will see it when you need the reminder.
When you have a troubling thought or experience that upsets you, take a pause to allow yourself mental space to think. Take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths to increase your oxygen flow and calm down. It’s totally okay to ask for a moment to think about your response. Assess the situation by asking yourself questions such as “What is happening right now?” “How am I feeling?” What do I need? The answers to these questions will inform your responses.
Consider this scenario. You have had a long, rough day at work. When you get home, your wife is at her whit’s end after managing cranky, busy toddlers all day. She seems irritable and demanding of your attention. You still need time to unwind after your trying day. How can you manage your anxiety in this situation?
As soon as you walk in the door you see your wife’s face, hear her voice and realize she is irritable. What bodily sensations are alerting you that your anxiety is mounting? Can you feel them? Now is the time to take a pause; take a deep breath and reach for your management tool. Ask yourself what is happening right now. The answers may be that you are tired and irritable as well. What do you need right now? You probably need to use the bathroom, change your clothes and have a few minutes of quiet time. Now you have the answers to your assessment. You may then find the inner strength to give your wife a hug and say, “I’m sorry you had such a rough day. I did too. May I have fifteen minutes in our room to unwind? I’ll be happy to hang out with the kids after that while you get some rest.
Next time you get activated, try using the Pause, Breathe, Assess, Respond (PBAR) process. When you take the time to assess and make intentional choices, your loved ones may respond less defensively. You will feel better about yourself. You will experience more harmony in your relationships.
About the Author
Darian Slayton Fleming is a licensed clinical social worker and certified rehabilitation counselor. She is a passionate disability rights advocate and member of the American Council of the Blind. She lives in Gresham, Oregon, near her beloved son and family. Darian has been published in “Dialogue Magazine” and author of Speak Up For Yourself: Get What You Need and Feel Good About It. She is featured in The Community Book Project: Celebrating 365 Days of Gratitude. These books may be found on Amazon. She is producing a documentary about her late husband who was a blind skydiver. Check out blindjohnmovie.com.