My coaching practice focuses on individuals going through divorce, and one of my clients’ main concerns is how to effectively deal with stress. Their transitional state of life often leaves them feeling powerless, scared, and depressed.
Self-Compassion vs. Happiness-Striving
Intuitively, it feels like a bad approach to encourage a quick jump from the loss and stress of divorce straight to a state of joy and fulfillment. But recent research on mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation practices has pointed to effective interventions that I am successfully using with my clients.
Take Sarah, for example (not her real name). Sarah recently discovered that her husband had been cheating on her for years. After recognizing that reconciliation was not possible, she decided to file for divorce. Before contacting me, she logged onto the Authentic Happiness website and took the online optimism assessment there. During our first session she told me she was disappointed with the results of that assessment. She considered herself to be an optimistic person, and she was even a student of Dr. Seligman’s work, but somehow she came out as a pessimist. She said the results fueled feelings of depression already brewing inside and caused her to feel worse about herself and her chances for happiness.
My approach with Sarah was to help her to adopt a mindful approach to her situation, even before beginning a formal meditation program. I helped her to view herself compassionately, reminding her that she is going through a really tough time and that it makes perfect sense that she wouldn’t be feeling optimistic right now. I reminded her that the results of the online assessment should be taken as just one piece of information, and that her own evaluation of her overall optimism should count much more highly. I could see her mood lifting, and that she was in a much better position to look at alternatives. I helped her broaden her perspective so that she could view her reactions to her life situation nonjudgmentally, the fundamental cornerstone of mindfulness.
Broadening Perspective and Raising Positive Emotions
The research I presented in yesterday’s article pointed out two different mechanisms by which mindfulness might work. The first is simply the broadening of the mind (“decentering,” in the words of Garland and colleagues). By taking a birds-eye view of the situation, Sarah was able to recognize some facts that she hadn’t considered before (such as the impact of her stressful life situation on her optimism score), and she was also able to see how the very process of stepping back defused the emotional charge of the immediate concern. Her new perspective also increased flexibility in thinking, a key to resilience.
The second thing this research suggests is that this broadening of perspective may have helped increase the level of Sarah’s positive emotion. Garland and colleagues suggest a possible bidirectional relationship between broadened thoughts and positive emotions, which I also observe in my clients. So Fredrickson’s (1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) research showing that raising positive emotions leads to broadened thought could potentially work the other way as well. Broadening one’s perspective may increase one’s positive emotion.
Mindfulness as the Foundation for CBT EffectivenessMindfulness is an important part of the work I do with clients. Specifically, I help train them to adopt a mindful approach to life circumstances that are largely outside of their control. It is within this framework that I introduce cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practices – changing one’s thoughts in order to change the resulting feeling or behavior. Studies by Teasdale and colleagues (1999, 2000) indicate that introducing mindfulness may increase the power of CBT practices. Fredrickson’s (2008) study of loving-kindness meditation suggests the practice is an effective way to increase positive emotions and well-being. Once I have helped my clients to embrace a mindful approach to their life situations and towards themselves, I introduce a formal meditation practice if they are open to it. I outline the benefits of broadening perspective and increasing positive emotions, and many of my clients experience immediate positive results. These results are especially apparent when they combine mindfulness practice with biofeedback heart rate variability (HRV) software, which provides immediate feedback as to which practices are most effective for them personally.
Sarah is now feeling better about her divorce proceedings. She is able to identify that which she has no control over and consciously shift her focus to things which she can control. She has identified breathing techniques and thought practices that are particularly effective for her, and she now exercises them at will when she is feeling overwhelmed.
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