Have you ever gotten in your car and driven somewhere only to realize you remember nothing of your experience driving there? Scary. How about mindless eating? Click on the Facebook notification on your phone scroll through, turn it off, 30 seconds later re-open it, finally coming-to and noting that you are looking at the same feed? Then move to Instagram? Oh shoot … same stories. We have all done these things and have been able to identify with that moment of autopilot. In our busy and hyper-connected world, it is incredibly easy to become mindless.
Emails, social media, work tasks, family duties, errands. When we are in this mindless state, we tend to get lost in the “doing” and find ourselves constantly going and trying to get things checked off the list. You can be on autopilot in your emotions and thoughts too. Perhaps stress or business, maybe a sense of sadness, is your norm. Finally, an attachment to social media typically lends to a view of the world that is skewed: all these people are so happy and off on amazing adventures … why isn’t my life that great? All this autopilot thinking and mindlessness can make us vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression. In fact, research shows that the more our minds wander, the less happy we are.
the influence of schema
I have struggled with anxiety and a need to be perfect pretty much since I could walk. I have this intense and overwhelming desire to make people happy, help at any cost, put others entirely first, and a great fear of letting the people in my life down. Obviously my frontal cortex (the thinking part of my brain) knows this is all unnecessary and that there is more to me than being perfect, but somewhere along the way in my development, I formed this schema.
Schema: a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. Also described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information.
Yes yes, I learned this in therapy. (I am not a psychologist, so please forgive my most basic of understandings here.) As I understand it, a schema is the way we see the world, the tendencies we have toward negativity, positivity, self-esteem, etc. Someone with a positive self-schemata will selectively pay attention to flattering information and select out the negative, further mapping that schema. If you have a negative self-image, the opposite is true. My self-schema is people pleaser, not good enough, perfectionist. So, if I am not a people pleasing, perfect good little girl, then I am useless and the world will crumble around me. Pretty self-centered and catastrophic thinking. And in fact, my counselor would prefer that I not judge myself by calling that self-centered as I often like to throw myself under the bus like that.
Again, I know these things aren’t true, but my natural reactions to situations are a genuine reflection of this schema. My autopilot also allows these emotions to come out. When I am feeling stressed, overworked, overcommitted, anxious, etc., these tendencies toward autopilot and self-schema and are heightened. We all have a self-schema and when we are on autopilot and not living in the present, the associated emotions are heightened. If you have a tendency toward stress, it is difficult to prevent these emotions from taking over – we must work to live in the moment and not look for stress around every corner.
My schema led to feelings of not fitting in as a kid (who fits in? who would want to?). It led to an eating disorder that really started as a small child but was fully heightened in my years as a ballerina through college and into grad school. It led to a sense that I could prevent my parents from divorcing if I was just good enough (obviously I wasn’t good enough because they split when I was 6…). It makes it hard for me to relax on vacation because I should always be working, right? It prevented me from contemplating starting a business sooner and, now as a solo practitioner, I face daily bouts of self-doubt.
I think about what I look like. Guess what? No one cares more than me. I think about how I suck at CrossFit. I don’t. A lot of people look up to me and I’ve improved significantly in the last few years. Wish I would let myself celebrate that more. I think about what I could be doing better. No comment … we can all do better. I think about why some patients aren’t improving. A thousand things could come to mind and many of them not in my control. I think about whether or not people even read these blog posts! I hope they do – I hope they find value in what I have to share. And if they don’t … well, so what? And if I do decide that I care, I can work to find improved avenues for communicating my information.
On the flip side, my people-pleasing, perfectionistic self-schemata also makes me competitive in the gym, a really good friend, a loving and happy wife, a caring daughter and sister, a bit of a neat freak, a compassionate and thoughtful physical therapist with an attention to detail, and a provider who wants to give back to the community in bigger ways than just one patient at a time. It encourages my empathic nature and this is helpful in my work. But, as you can see, it is at a cost.
I have found that practicing mindfulness can be extremely helpful in settling the brain. It allows me to rest the endless stream of “I’m not good enough” in my head. I used to be really good at this and practiced guided meditation using the Headspace App each morning. Life got busy (as it does) and I stopped prioritizing the practice, but I will resume right after posting this!! It is so important and I can tell I need to include it in my life again. I have suggested it to so many friends, family members and patients. They all notice the benefits personally and I am ready to get back on track. But … I’m not going to judge myself if I fall off the wagon again.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation which aims to bring a person into the present moment. I have heard it described that people often live in a state of “forgetfulness”. That is to say that they are not really there. Their mind is caught up in their worries, their fear, their anger, their regrets, their desires, the past, the future. For me, I get caught up in what I could be doing better, what stress awaits me in coming weeks, how do I fit it all in, how to I make everyone happy? This is me not living in the present moment. Mindfulness is the opposite of this. When your mind is with your body, you are established in the present moment and there are incredible benefits:
Decreases stress and anxiety: Taking time for yourself, focusing on deep breathing, being present in the moment
Improves creativity: Promotes divergent thinking which helps to generate new ideas, enhances awareness and decreases “mental chatter” which makes it easier to focus during creative tasks
Improves focus: Research has shown that eleven sessions of meditation leads to structural changes in the part of the brain involved in focus and self-control
Improves relationships: Meditation is associated with greater relationship satisfaction, understanding and better communication during a conflict, increases compassion toward others (making it easier to accept people for who they are)
The creator of Headspace, Andy Pudicomb, is worth listening to here. Headspace is, as they advertise it, “a gym membership for the mind”. There is a free 10-day trial (which you can actually repeat over and over) or you can set up various membership options. The app offers guided meditation in a really simple way, using animations to help you understand why the practice is important. In essence, the idea is to clear your mind of all the buzz, to be present in the moment and to use breathing to calm the body and mind. It presents you with 10 min of time which is absolutely worth it. A way to build mindfulness into your day.
Headspace is just the method I use. You can practice mindfulness using other services or by just working to be more aware. Feeling the water and soap on your hands as you wash dishes. Paying attention to what your breath feels like on a run. Counting the reps you perform in a workout. Putting your phone away when you are talking with a friend. Living with intention.
I have committed to adding mindfulness practice back into my days and I’ll be placing the Headspace app front and center on my phone. I am also committed to less time on social media so as to try to remain present in the moment as much as possible – I think I will move those icons on my phone to less obvious locations. I recommend identifying if you have “buzz” in the brain and working to lessen the stress and anxiety caused by that busy brain. Look into the Headspace app, put down the phone, look around, take a few deep breaths, and appreciate your life in the present.