Mindfulness without the woo?
November 7, 2018 5:07 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to cope with a personal situation that cannot be changed any time soon (possibly never?) and find myself getting really angry about other things in my life. It's like having a very very short fuse -- things that I would normally laugh or roll my eyes at, now make me want to punch a wall. I think this is a reaction to my feeling so powerless about the personal situation. Mindfulness/meditation isn't helping. What will?

Meditation has specific religious overtones for me, which is I think part of why I'm not able to get into it. I tried the less religious "observe your thoughts" version of mindfulness and all my thoughts just made me angrier, so ... yeah. I'm looking for strategies that do not rely on things like positive thinking or serenity prayers or other woo concepts. The bigger situation is not something I feel comfortable discussing with someone else, like a friend or therapist, at this point. Running has been the only thing that's helpful, but the weather's starting to turn so I need something else to get me through the winter that isn't retail therapy or eating ginormous slices of chantilly cake from Whole Foods.
posted by basalganglia to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
When you find yourself ruminating about the problem, abruptly force yourself to think about a memory or an idea that brings you joy. Think about someone you love or something in the future you're excited about. Text or phone a friend. Do this every time you think about your problem. This is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying "Lahlahlah I can't hear you!" but to intrusive thoughts, and you can turn into a pattern where you recognize you are having an intrusive thought and immediately move onto something else.
posted by ball00000ns at 5:14 PM on November 7, 2018

You can hike all year round and if you're a runner you probably already have the necessary endurance. Hiking is a great form of mindfulness—it really encourages you to experience each moment for what it is, to put in perspective even difficult and tedious things like walking uphill for miles on end, to be aware of the dialogue between your body and your environment (especially in the winter), to seek out details and find beauty in the small things along the way, and to remember that you are a small and fleeting thing in a world whose enduring majesty is far vaster than humanity's most hubristic aspirations. It's really good for getting your mind right and decompressing and making the things in your life that are stressing you out seem small and unimportant.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:16 PM on November 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

This is what low grade depression looks like for me. St John’s Wort, exercise, and pictures of kittens help.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:16 PM on November 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

There's a book called Calming the Emotional Storm that I felt was relatively low-woo and good at the particular task of dealing with feelings that aren't just unpleasant but are actually overwhelming.
posted by Sequence at 5:35 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are non-woo meditation phone apps that work well for me. I'm finding 10% Happier calms me nicely; just try to avoid the goofy interview parts of it.
posted by fish tick at 5:37 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Stoicism might be up your alley. Marcus Aurelius was not much for positive thinking:
What if someone despises me? Let me see to it. But I will see to it that I won't be found doing or saying anything contemptible. What if someone hates me? Let me see to that. But I will see to it that I'm kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where they went wrong. Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully.

— XI. 13[19]
posted by BungaDunga at 5:45 PM on November 7, 2018 [21 favorites]

My first thought was to suggest getting a gym membership where you can run inside on a treadmill. Additionally, I find that any vigorous activity that forces me to focus on what I'm doing and be fully present can be a mindfulness practice. Indoor examples would be dance or martial arts classes (or maybe combine both with capoeira).

Here's a suggestion for a non-woo phone app.
posted by jazzbaby at 5:47 PM on November 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Walk 20-30 minutes a day (when I find this hard, I just tell myself to walk as long as I can and then turn around). I would suggest continuing to try to meditate even five minutes a day and/or taking 3 full breaths between tasks. Journal.

Key is going to be finding a way to “dump” feelings when you can’t do so with a friend. Think of how else you might do this.
posted by Riverine at 6:21 PM on November 7, 2018

First, take up running or walking. Try a supplement like magnesium or glycine, both of which have some evidence of boosting mood, and reducing anxiety, as shown by reductions in HAMD scores. If a few weeks of that don’t help, see if you qualify for use of a cranial electro stimulation device. They help for many people, and do not have serious risks. In addition, see if you can change your personal situation, or shift your perspective. Cognitive behavioral therapy, using any of Albert Ellis’s excellent books, or Feeling Good by David Burns. Ask yourself if you are getting enough sleep. Last, could this be a medical issue more severe than dysthymia? Major depressive disorder and other medical disorders can also cause these issues. If you suspect that based on well-known screening questions, seek medical treatment.
posted by metasunday at 7:32 PM on November 7, 2018

You feel powerless: answer, accept the situation (since you can’t change it. On the assumption that’s definitely true). You can’t accept the situation yet because you’re angry. You’re angry because you feel the personal situation could and should be otherwise. And it’s not otherwise. You’re angry because you hold some one or thing responsible for the frustration of a desire (to have or be or not have or not be some thing)

So you have to question: why isn’t it otherwise? Why can’t that person behave differently? (Or why is this organizarion/culture this way?) If you dig deeply enough into their perspective, context, and history, you’ll achieve understanding, and once you deeply understand things from that point of view, like 80% of your anger will fall away. And then you’ll have mere frustration (vs anger), and that’s much more easily channeled. And then you’ll find it easier to accept whatever it is that can’t be changed. (Assuming it really can’t be changed.) And then you’ll be better placed to figure out how to cope, work around it, etc.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:18 PM on November 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think channelling a little of that anger may be what you need, but just do it in a way that will be non-impact to others. Running is good, as you found; maybe, while you still can run, imagine that the faces of the people who are blocking you are paving the sidewalk under your feet and you are stepping on their faces as you run (I did that when someone dumped me seconds before I was doing a race at a field day; it helped).

Or get a big long roll of paper - toilet paper, paper towels, or even the kind of paper they use in adding machines - and come up with one phrase that sums up your anger and just keep writing it over and over and over and over until your anger has appeased a bit. (I think I still have the long slip of paper from when I was 13 and my orthodontist went back on saying I could take my braces off; when I got home I holed up in my room and wrote "DR. [BLANK] IS A SHITHEAD" about 78 times all told.) Writing out a letter and burning it is also a good move - the whole flame element lends a finality and a bit of a destructive element to things.

Or find an angry song and blast that sucker. Play air drums along for extra-strength aggression, or get a couple pillows and use them as the drums. I know Phil Collins has a rep for being a bit of a milquetoast, but his "I Don't Care Anymore" is perfect for this, both lyrically and drumwise.

Saying all this because I find that if I try to suppress my feelings that makes them stronger; venting them, even just a little, is better. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:45 PM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Since you already know it works, winter running can really grow on a person. Truly. Ice, snow, whatever, it’s manageable for me in everything but heavy rain in the 32-40 degree F range. It might be for you, too, with the right clothes. My favorite weather for running is a nice crisp 25-30 degrees. It wasn’t 5 years ago.

My life and brainspace has been a whole lot better since I decided I was just going to go outside and Do A Thing pretty much every day no matter what, mandatory unless it was below 5 degrees. I have good clothes, the dog loves it, I’m happier. Would be happy to give running-specific clothing/ice spike /logistical advice as needed, and I know that if you search there are a couple winter running clothing questions somewhere around here.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:11 PM on November 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

An exercise that’s made me very mindful - as in focused, in the moment, not able to ruminate - lately has been indoor rock climbing. Bouldering specifically, which is very mentally intensive in addition to the physical challenge. I’d never tried it before, but it shuts off those portions of the brain very effectively.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:29 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mediation has the same woo/religious baggage to me. I've had more luck leading my mind into a better state using self hypnosis. I listened to several hypnosis scripts online but never found quite the right imagery or suggestions. So I took the induction section of several I sort of liked and wrote my own countdown script.

I'm a stubborn cuss and tended to mentally resist other people's voices telling me what to do, so I put my desired outcome into my own words and recorded about a 10 minute total file with me telling myself what I wanted to accomplish. After a few days, I was able to be more mindful and in a few months the suggestions were pretty much incorporated into my day to day thinking.

You could give it a try. You don't have to sit in lotus position either. Get comfy, relax and listen to your own inner voice.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:30 PM on November 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would highly recommend checking out Headspace; it’s the only meditation guide/app that’s worked for me. I also cannot get into anything requiring positive thinking/an inner ball of light/spirituality/etc, but the Headspace guided meditations can be pretty straightforward. I especially appreciate the SOS one-off meditations, as they are short (only around 3 minutes) and are extremely useful for when I feel especially overwhelmed/anxious/frustrated/etc.
posted by =^.^= at 11:22 PM on November 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

posted by johngoren at 2:04 AM on November 8, 2018

I tried the less religious "observe your thoughts" version of mindfulness and all my thoughts just made me angrier, so ... yeah.

"Observe your thoughts" is a complete misreading of the point of a mindfulness practice. Subjecting your thoughts to scrutiny is a pretty reliable way into useless rumination which, if you're already habitually telling yourself anger-inducing stories, will indeed only leave you angrier. What you want to be doing with a proper mindfulness practice is building skill at recognizing the onset of such stories as distractions from your main game.

Here's a previous writeup I did on the practice I use. It contains only such woo as you bring to it going in.
posted by flabdablet at 4:57 AM on November 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

I don't get much benefit from talking about things that are bothering me to friends or professionals and attempts at meditation just turn into rumination for me too. Both those common recommendations just end up making me feel worse.

One thing I have stumbled across that does seem to somewhat help me dissipate strong negative feelings is writing for a fixed period of time, usually 20 minutes. I write everything I'm thinking or feeling and get as ridiculously negative as occurs to me. But I also write just whatever comes into to my mind, I'm not committed to being negative, so sometimes, "but on the other hand" stuff ends up in there too. Often by the end of my time block I'm running out of emotional steam and just end up with a list of stuff I need to do. I just keep writing even if all I'm writing is, "Well I've got more time, but can't think of anything to write. Write write write, just writing, god this is stupid. Oh I should write down also that my new shoes hurt and that is also terrible. I can't afford another pair and the return time is expired."

When the timer I've set goes off I just rip up what I wrote and throw it away.

I don't read it over. I don't examine what I wrote for truth. I don't even recopy the "things to do" section. I just rip it up and throw it away.

It helps some. I hope you find something that helps and I am truly sorry that you have something so sucky going on in your life.
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 5:15 AM on November 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Joining a gym and doing indoor treadmill might be good. I bring an ipad to mine and catch up on TV/Netflix and it goes well.

Headspace is really mindfulness minus the woo and I found it helpful when I was in a crisis of "Can't stop thinking about this awful thing" It wasn't that I stopped thinking about it, it's that I could get better at saying "Hey Jessamyn, you're dwelling on that thing again" and get a perspective that my thoughts are not me, that I had choices, and that it was too bad that I was having trouble but it wasn't all that I was.

So in your case it's like "Oh hey there's that punch a wall feeling again. Give it five minutes, go eat a carrot. See if you still feel like punching a wall anymore." The feelings are still there but you get better at learning to treat them more like recalcitrant housepets and less like prison guards who control every aspect of your life.
posted by jessamyn at 5:27 AM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be woo. Take a few conscious breaths throughout the day. Look at a tree. Notice a leaf on the tree. Make out the outline and details. Notice an insect walking across the sidewalk. Follow it. Look out the window. Notice the cloud or the bird. Make out the shapes. Listen for the bird chirping or the hum of the air conditioning. Notice the sensations in your body. What do your hands feel like? Take a few more conscious breaths. You are in the moment. This can be done throughout the day. Consciously breathing and noticing brings you back to the now.

Practice acceptance. If you can’t, accept that you can’t accept. Keep practicing. When you accept the present moment, without labeling it, you will have more calm.

Seconding stoicism, walking, or some other form of exercise. Walking in nature is good for the psyche. Also, being with friends.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:35 AM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

By the way: in my experience, having a short fuse is the same thing as having a tendency to interpret experience (i.e. tell myself internal stories about my present circumstances) in anger-inducing ways.

One of the skills that my own mindfulness practice has made much stronger is the ability to notice immediately when such a story has started to crank up, then take a step back from it in order to focus on my breathing for the minute and a half it takes for the stress hormones to metabolize, then deliberately search for ways to interpret whatever experience provoked the stress response in a less anger-inducing way.

However, it did take several hundred sessions, each of somewhere between ten minutes and half an hour, before I first discovered that I could apply that skill in that way. Had I not been interested in exploring the effects of meditation for their own sake - had I instead been giving meditation a trial run as a possible "quick fix" for a specific set of symptoms - I don't think I would have persisted with it for long enough to get to that point.

For me, learning to meditate has been a lot like learning to play a musical instrument, in that it doesn't come in any way naturally, the products of early efforts are just painful to think about, and I remain permanently dissatisfied with my present level of skill. The best difference is that meditation doesn't also involve the direct infliction on other people of the more dissonant results of trying out new things :-)
posted by flabdablet at 5:36 AM on November 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

Long-time mindfulness meditator who learned and practiced at a community led by (without getting into religious baggage, though I was and am a lifelong atheist and skeptic) several experts. Flabdablet has the wise here, both on the nuts and bolts of the practice, misconceptions, and the experience of doing it. The letting go of attachment to the thought or sensation, and returning to the point of focus (breath, a word, a sound, depending on tradition) is the important bit. Meditation is a "practice" is because it is practice for the rest of your life when you're not on the cushion, in the same way that doing scales is practice for playing an instrument. You're not going to be good at it at first, it can be frustrating or boring, and there are times where you're going to be like "ugh this suuuuucks I suck" but the sticking at it is part of the lesson.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:49 AM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Talking about playing musical instruments, have you considered taking up a musical instrument? If you're worried about imposing on involuntary listeners, you could for instance use an e-piano with headphones.

I find practising piano is often a good way to get out of my own head for a little while. I'm not particularly talented, so it's all rather mechanical, but honestly, that's probably part of the appeal for me. I have to do one thing with my right hand and another with my left hand, and that requires all my attention, so there's no mental capacity left for dwelling on dire circumstances. (I've been playing a lot of Schubert lately to cope with my rage about the current state of the world and my own relative powerlessness; those Biedermeiers were on to something, if you ask me. Although I try to not withdraw completely from the public sphere and use those restored energies to keep fighting the good fight, etc.)

Crafts probably have similar benefits. Any low-stakes activity really that is sufficiently absorbing without causing additional stress. Calligraphy, origami, knitting. Some people like to bake. I like playing the piano because it doesn't produce anything that takes up space and catches dust or could go to waste if not consumed in time. But it can also be nice to end up with something to show for your efforts you can share with others.
posted by sohalt at 7:22 AM on November 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

It is a cliche, but working out. I'm not talking about taking a casual walk in the park (although that can help too). If you read my ask history, you can see that I've searched for ways to meditate or cope. HEAVY exercise is the only thing that helps me. IT calms you when you are done, and the bonus is that if you are working out hard enough, it is hard to think about anything else while you are doing it
posted by kbbbo at 7:35 AM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might take a look at a self-directed exploration of DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) skills, which are very useful for situations where you're kind of stuck in admittedly shitty situations and need tools to help you deal with them. There is an extremely un-woo mindfulness component to it, but you could start with something like the distress tolerance skillset and then work your way toward mindfulness or other skills within the paradigm that you may find useful.

The DBT Self Help website has a ton of info, essays, and exercises, not necessarily organized in the easiest fashion. This index is probably the best place to start, organized by 5 main categories of DBT skills. Head over to distress tolerance first and poke around and see what speaks to you most as far as where to start.
posted by drlith at 8:21 AM on November 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, check out Constructive Living (which I first saw recommended here by ideefixe). It’s all about accepting and adjusting to reality.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:17 AM on November 8, 2018

One concrete thing you could try in a moment of heightened emotion is silently narrating your internal experience (or external experience, or.. describing anything, really) and focusing on the words. Activating the part of your brain that finds words to describe things redirects energy from the emotional parts of your brain.

I've really liked DBT techniques, there are a lot of them. DBT was basically made to help people manage intense and overwhelming emotions. I am someone who used to end conversations by sprinting out of buildings, and DBT helped me get a grip on that sort of thing. Getting into flow states through creative and/or communal activities (ie music groups) has been helpful too. It sounds like running also does that for you.

flabdablet's experience has been very very similar to mine. If you ever want to give meditation another shot, nthing something like Headspace. The meditations there introduce and then build on very specific techniques, which for me really demystified how meditation works. It mostly feels like a very structured fitness regimen.

If you are ever at a point where you would like to work with a therapist, you might be interested in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. You could look for MBCT self-help resources too.

I'm glad running has helped, and I hope something in this thread leads you to something that resonates.
posted by jnrs at 6:55 PM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Adding +1 to DBT and MBCT, and if you're looking for a therapist I would also consider seeing someone who approaches things from an ACT perspective. Or if you want a self-directed approach I recommend the book "ACT on Life, Not on Anger."
posted by soonertbone at 6:38 AM on November 13, 2018

Meditation was introduced to me this way: Sit. Count your breaths. One... Two... When you get to ten, start again at one. If you lose count, start again at one. Do this for five minutes.

It's hard. When your mind drifts away from the breath toward other things, you'll forget to count or find yourself at 13 or 14. Repeatedly counting ten breaths forces you to pay attention to them and to nothing else.
posted by booth at 1:22 PM on November 13, 2018

Thanks all. Many helpful suggestions here.
posted by basalganglia at 3:44 PM on November 16, 2018

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