Working for Carers
Session 1: Introducing Mindfulness
The bad news: life can be difficult
Life contains some problems that we simply can’t avoid. And being a carer brings a whole extra layer of challenges and complications, especially during our current Covid and lockdown reality. You may be facing all sorts of tough issues - anxiety, overwork, social isolation, strained relationships, money worries, and so on.
On top of that, it's easy to make things worse for ourselves by how we react to the original problem. This can be explained by how our minds have evolved to have an ‘autopilot’ mode, which immediately tries to solve problems. ‘Autopilot’ is very useful for us in carrying out routine tasks – we don’t have to work out how to do them every time. But it’s not so helpful when we experience a difficult emotion like sadness or anxiety, or irritability. It tries to ‘fix’ it for us, but it just can’t – because emotions don’t need to be ‘fixed’, they are a normal feature of human existence.
The very failure of autopilot to fix things can then make us feel worse, because it leads to negative and self-attacking thoughts about why we shouldn’t feel as we do. And then, because thoughts and moods are so closely linked, our mood gets worse, giving rise to more negative thoughts, then our mood gets even worse…and so we find ourselves in a downward spiral. This whole process happens at an unconscious level – we don’t mean to do this to ourselves. We have simply created a ‘mental habit’ for thinking and feeling in this way. And it’s all because we have allowed autopilot mode to have way too much power.
The good news: there is another way…mindfulness
There is another way to relate to problems and difficult emotions, including those created by your caring responsibilities. By practising mindfulness, you learn to simply notice things, without judging them as good or bad; or trying to instantly change them – even if you don’t like them. The training involves very simple ‘awareness’ techniques: including formal meditations, and other informal activities throughout your day.
The ABC of mindfulness
Awareness – of what is happening in our experience
Being with our experience – accepting what is already there and cannot be fixed immediately
Choosing wise responses – instead of reacting automatically, allowing the most helpful actions and choices to emerge
The benefits of mindfulness
Recent clinical research shows that mindfulness training can completely alter the structure of the brain, making it more robust and flexible. Specific benefits include:
Less stress – and more resilience as you learn better responses to difficult situations, and to turn off the damaging ‘fight/flight/freeze response’ in your body more of the time.
Clearer mind – increased attention, concentration, and memory enables you to do things better and faster.
Emotional intelligence – as you become aware of what’s going on for you and others, you’re better able to communicate assertively while kindly, and so build healthier relationships. This is particularly helpful for carers having to negotiate with multiple organisations and agents.
Creativity – and innovative thinking, due to an ability to hold a wider perspective and think ‘outside the box’.
Decision making – and problem-solving skills, particularly at times of high pressure, as your mind sifts through lots of data more intuitively and efficiently.
Healthy body – an enhanced ability to relax in your mind and body leads to a stronger immune system and alleviates problems like hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain.
More enjoyment – mindfulness isn’t only about alleviating problems, it’s also about finding out what really makes you tick, so that you can do more of what gives you a sense of pleasure and fulfilment.
Home practice before next session
1. ‘Waking up to yourself’ meditation: Follow the instructions on the audio meditation. (Every day, or as close to this as you can manage)
2. Mindful minute: several times a day, stop what you’re doing for 30 seconds or so. With your eyes open or closed; notice your body, and notice what you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Allow all of these things to merge into a general awareness of what’s going on right now in and around you. You can do this on your own, or listening to the ‘mindful minute’ on the CD (when appropriate).
3. Do a routine activity ‘mindfully’: Pick a routine activity that you do every day – for example, brushing your teeth, or making a cup of tea. Instead of doing it on ‘autopilot’ as we normally do, try and get into more of a ‘being’ mode by bringing awareness to the physical sensations of the movements your body makes. Notice anything else coming into you through your senses: sounds, textures, light and colour, smells and so on. Bring curiosity and interest to how this routine activity feels different each time you do it, when you pay this special kind of attention.
4. Do something different: sit in a different chair from the one you usually do. What does it feel like? What do you notice when you change something around like this?
Feel free to jot down what you discover by doing the practices – whatever feels relevant to you, but here are a few possible pointers:
How much time do you normally spend in ‘doing’ mode?
What happens when you focus your attention on one part of your body, or your breath? How easy is it?
What’s different about doing a routine activity when you notice what it feels like in your body?
Session 2: The A of the ABC - Awareness
Mindfulness is about:
1. Training the mind to pay attention…and to pay attention to your attention
2. A different way of being: seeing things as they really are, and opening up the broadest perspectives.
The primary mindfulness tool: meditation
Meditation develops your ability to concentrate and focus on one thing at a time. Its ultimate aim is to develop your overall awareness – and it uses concentration as the main tool.
The ‘waking up to yourself’ meditation
In this meditation, you are training two skills:
1) Concentration or ‘absorption’. This is your ability to pay attention to your experience. You just notice what you notice. Don’t force your concentration, rather allow your mind to become naturally absorbed in the sensations.
2) Mindfulness. This is the ability to notice what is happening to your attention. Your mind will wander, that’s natural. Each time it happens, you just bring your attention back to your body/breath with kindness and patience.
The main aim of this practice is to become aware, and not to make relaxation happen. But if you are very agitated, stressed or restless, you can do some conscious deeper belly breathing to help you establish some calm. Some people also find that counting their breath helps them stay focused. So, you breathe in, and breathe out, and say silently to yourself ‘One’, and so on up to 10, and then go back to 1.
The ‘movement meditation’
You don’t have to be completely still to practise mindfulness. This movement meditation does two main things:
Strengthens your ability to pay attention (concentration) and to bring back your attention (mindfulness)
Realigns many of the body’s muscles and joints, which helps to release stress in the body
Some helpful pointers about how to approach this meditation:
Focus on the physical sensations.
Notice how your mind relates to the sensations.
See if you can find an ‘edge’ for each movement.
Starting to get to know yourself
Mindfulness is about seeing things more clearly…including yourself. As you start to practise more, you will see how your mind jumps about a lot from one thing to another, especially when it is either pushing something unpleasant away, or holding onto something pleasant. Start to notice this tendency. You can also start to notice the kinds of places your mind habitually tends to wander off to – and the kinds of thoughts, emotions and body sensations that accompany this. When you do this, you are really getting to know yourself – and that’s the foundation for making changes in your life.
Home practice before next session
1. Alternate each day between these two practices:
‘Waking up to yourself’ meditation – follow the instructions on the audio meditation above
‘Movement meditation’ – follow the audio or video guides above
2. Keep doing a routine activity mindfully – like brushing your teeth or making a cup of tea
3. Mindfulness in nature: choose a regular walk in your local area and bring mindful awareness to the experience. Notice things around you. Perhaps choose a few particular objects of interest and spend a few moments really noticing everything about them - using all your senses.
4. Jot down some notes about how certain events are connected with habitual thoughts, emotions and body sensations. You can use the format of the table below to capture what you discover: