The paradox of practicing mindfulness in managing emotions

In my clinical practic, I frequently incorporated mindfulness practice to help my clients with different issues.  Quite often, my clients may say, “I tried to practice the mindfulness exercise you teach me a few times, but I did not feel anything and no effects occurred after the practice.”  When my client with anxiety issue said this, I realised that he or she thought mindfulness was a technique to help one to eliminate one’s anxiety.  He or she expected the anxiety would go away after each mindfulness practice.  In fact, research evidence showed that mindfulness practice is useful for people with anxiety issue.  However, it is paradoxical that when one has the intention to use mindfulness practice to lessen one’s anxiety, this “intended symptom elimination technique” may generate an effect that, the more that one try to get rid of the anxiety, the stronger it tends to get. 

It is common practice for therapists to teach clients some relaxation techniques to try to lessen ones anxiety or other emotions.  However, if the clients have a strong intention to use these techniques to reduce or even eliminate ones’ anxiety, this conveys a message that the clients cannot handle or live with the anxiety so that it must be eliminated.  For instance, it is not uncommon to see my clients with repeated panic attacks wanting to eliminate their mild anxiety symptoms as soon as possible.  This intention actually causes them to feel even more anxious for being unable to eliminate the anxiety as soon as possible.  As a result, the mild anxiety symptoms exacerbated into a full-blown panic attack.  These clients become very fearful about their anxiety symptoms and believed that they cannot tolerate any mild symptoms of anxiety.

For practicing mindfulness, we need to let go of the dichotomous thinking of either using mindfulness as a technique for eliminating unwanted emotions or practicing mindfulness to live with whatever we are experiencing.  This dichotomous thinking may either fuel to a fire (exacerbating the unwanted emotions) or make people think we are teaching sitting to do nothing (live with whatever we feel uncomfortable).

In learning and practicing mindfulness, we need to create a healthy detachment with our thoughts and emotions.  Through the practice, we learn how to observe our thoughts or emotions come and go without judgment and the intention to do anything about it.  Over time, we learn that thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings.  We gradually understand that if we take an observer role to our thoughts and feelings, their power over us will be lessened.  As a result, the unwanted thougths and emotions reduced in intensity and frequency.

Indeed, our thoughts and emotions are important messages for us to understand ourselves better. If we tried too hard to eliminate them, we ignored the information conveying to us. In the long run, we are disconnected with ourselves. Therefore, by practicing mindfulness, we can learn how to surf with our thoughts and emotions, so that we do not feel overwhelmed by them and at the same time, we can learn more about ourselves from them.

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