Andrew: 2 things that I learned to overcome my own brain
Sometimes I get so stressed that all I want to do is binge-watch Netflix and eat takeaway. Then I remember that takeaway is for people who have money and this month I forgot to renew my Netflix membership. Well, things are not always that dire, but during busy periods of the university semester it can sometimes feel that way.
Our brains have a strange capacity to put barriers in the way of the things we value.
For example, I truly value my education and learning, but sometimes I procrastinate or I might overwork and neglect my friends and family. About three years ago now, I chose to learn new ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed about study. Fortunately, I was successful in achieving this and my days of stress are now few and far between.
My efforts eventually led me to mindfulness.
As a student who has at times been poor, stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, isolated and anxious, I would like to share with you my two tips that helped me overcome the barriers my own brain puts up.
1. Mindfulness does not always feel good
All of us have a little hedonist inside of us that only wants to feel good. This was the reason I first started practising mindfulness. But such an approach can only be temporarily effective. I remember one day getting a poor assignment result back and feeling down about it. I thought to myself ‘I know! Mindfulness will make me feel better!’
But it didn’t. In fact, it made me feel worse.
Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, ‘awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present-moment, non-judgementally’.¹
The hard part in that definition, for me at least, is the non-judgemental part. When your aim in mindfulness is to feel good, you are only ever able to become mindful of pleasant experiences because unpleasant ones are too overwhelming to come into contact with. When I tried to be mindful during unpleasant times, my judgmental mind kicked in and said, ‘this doesn’t feel good,’ ‘you must be doing this wrong’ and ‘why isn’t this helping? All the other times this worked’.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be applied to all states, situations, and contexts² and eventually, I overcame my fear of practising mindfulness with difficult thoughts or feelings by shifting from a judgemental mind to a curious one.
2. Be curious, curious, curious!
Whether you are a dog or a cat lover, most people would have seen a puppy or kitten become curious about an unfamiliar object and tilt their head from side to side in pure wonderment. That is the essence of curiosity. It is the treatment of an object, situation or experience with a sense of wonderment and desire to learn more.³
Curiosity, for me, was the antidote to my own judgemental mind. When I shifted from judging my own experiences to becoming curious about them, I started to notice that I was ok with having more unpleasant experiences. I was like a puppy or a cat playing with a new toy, trying to learn as much as possible about whatever experience I was faced with.
Curiosity, for me, was the antidote to my own judgemental mind.
For the most part, when I confronted my unpleasant experiences with curiosity they turned out to be not so unpleasant after all. I just needed the courage to face them in the fist place rather than avoid them.
Mindfulness is a great skill to learn and USQ offers a range of Student Support to help you learn more about it. Additionally, Headspace and Smiling Mind also offer great apps to support mindfulness practise, you can participate in USQ’s free, online Headstrong program to learn how mindfulness skills can help you succeed at uni and in life, or you can listen to this free one-hour webinar recording where I discuss this topic in more detail.
If you have never practised mindfulness before and are thinking it will be all too hard, just notice any discomfort that may arise in your body, acknowledge it, and choose to move in another direction that you value instead.
1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
2. Hayes, S. C., & Smith S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
3. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy the process and practice of mindful change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.