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Mental Health

Getting Rid of the Hamster

A clinician’s journey learning mindfulness

Susan,* MA, RPsych

Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (2), p. 21

photo of a woman

When we are anxious, it can feel as if we have a hamster running on a wheel in our brain. Our thoughts go round and round and the worries are never-ending. We cannot seem to find an answer to our problems or to calm our disordered mind. We feel overwhelmed by daily chores, work, school—even life itself.

As if that weren’t enough, the new therapy skills that our counsellor gives us to practise at home just do not seem to make sense. Why would the person who is supposed to help us add even more to our to-do list?

But the fact that many of my clients feel just like this—as if they have an over-zealous hamster in their brain and no time or energy to order their thoughts—may be the reason they find mindfulness practice so helpful. It is not difficult to do, it does not feel like homework, and practising mindfulness can be done anywhere and at any time it is needed.

In 2009, I was sent by my employer to Vancouver for training in dialectic behaviour therapy (DBT) for borderline personality disorder (BPD). I was nominated to attend the course at the last minute and I did not have a chance to do the required reading before the five-day training began. So I had no opportunity to prepare myself for what was to come, and the content of the course took me completely by surprise.

I grew up in a very religious (primarily Christian) country. Going to church on Sundays was the norm in my community. When I moved to Canada, it came as a shock to realize that, in Canada, freedom of religion means that you also have the choice to not attend church on Sunday—the choice, for example, to spend the day on the lake fishing instead. In fact, rather than being judged as sinful, such a choice was often seen as praiseworthy because you were choosing to spend your Sunday in a peaceful, natural environment.

But in 2009, I was still getting used to this Canadian perspective. Imagine my shock when I arrived at the DBT training centre in Vancouver and realized that we were expected to learn meditation techniques—what I then considered to be religious Eastern practices—and then to teach these techniques to our clients! It took me a bit of time to see that mindfulness practice, while similar in some aspects to Eastern meditation, is different in very particular ways.

What is mindfulness? Marsha Linehan writes that “mindfulness skills are psychological and behavioral versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training … drawn from the practice of Zen, but the skills are compatible with most Western contemplative and Eastern meditation practices.”1 Although the training program was focused on techniques to use with clients with BPD, everyone in the training class realized that the skills could be useful for all our clients. And unlike some types of meditation, mindfulness practice does not need to take hours.

Yet even though I could understand the theory of mindfulness and could see the applicability of the techniques we learned in the training sessions, it took time and a lot of practice on my part to really appreciate how mindfulness could benefit not only my clients but also me.

Luckily, we had several monthly follow-up DBT team meetings via conference call, and every meeting started with a mindfulness exercise. Practising mindfulness with my colleagues on the phone helped me to understand how it works and to improve my skills. We took turns leading the session every month, and although I had to use the manual in the beginning as a guide, I was eventually able to lead the exercise without a script. This also taught me that one is never too old to learn new skills, and one is never so educated that one cannot learn to accept and appreciate new values.

In my line of work, when a client is depressed or anxious, the go-to for many counsellors and psychologists is often cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). In CBT, clients learn how to challenge their negative thinking and to change negative feelings and negative behaviours in order to feel less depressed or anxious. Cognitive-behavioural therapy asks clients to do something positive and active to help themselves feel better.

In mindfulness practice, on the other hand, clients are asked simply to expand their awareness of the present, to really live or be “in the moment.” Mindfulness does not make worry or anxious thoughts go away, but it enables the individual to recognize worry and anxiety without analyzing or engaging in them. One of the key skills in mindfulness practice is being able to recognize thoughts as they enter the mind and then let them go without examining them.

Often, it is helpful to think of a visual metaphor to help practise this skill. For example, if a hamster on a wheel is representative of the mind re-cycling anxious thoughts, then clouds moving across a clear sky or water running over the pebbles in a creek bed can act as a visual metaphor for thoughts that enter our awareness but move on without engaging our mind. I often tell clients to choose whatever visual metaphor works best for them. I then encourage clients to practise their mindfulness exercises using this visual metaphor for a few minutes each day.

In the beginning of my own mindfulness practice, I found it hard to sit still and let my thoughts go. But as I practised the skills with my DBT group, I began to incorporate them into my daily routine.

Recently, my life has taken a series of unexpected turns, and I find myself facing challenges I hadn’t anticipated. I am the primary caregiver for my ailing partner, and my extended family is not able to join me in Canada. I have an isolated, very stressful job, with no close colleagues with whom to discuss my clients’ serious mental health issues. But I cannot bring these stresses home, because my time at home needs to be focused on providing care where it is needed.

Ironically, mindfulness—a practice that at first seemed so foreign to me, so far removed from my personal experience—has become my life raft. I use mindfulness techniques to centre myself while I am biking home after a busy, stressful day in the office, or when I am travelling from one appointment to the next. Mindfulness enables me to remain calm, to be focused on the present and to set aside sadness or anxiety about the past and the future. Most important, mindfulness enables me to be present, to live each moment with complete awareness and acceptance.

*pseudonym

 
About the author

Susan is from South Africa and has been in Canada for 13 years. She has 23 years of experience as a Psychologist and works in rural British Columbia, where there are few resources. She supports clients with a wide variety of problems; training in mindfulness was a valuable addition to her toolkit

Footnotes:
  1. Linehan, M.M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press, p. 63.

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