Thursday, March 31, 2016

Early Thoughts on Mindfulness Meditation, Anxiety, and Self-Care

This is an attempt to structure my thoughts about my recent attempts to organize a strategy for mitigating the sources and symptoms of my state of depression. It is not scientific, but I'm not using this as an excuse - it is simply because there isn't much I understand of neuroscience and psychology, and I am relying on simple intuition and rationality to try to help myself recover. Perhaps when I am better, I could begin to read literature on the science behind this.

Sources and Symptoms

This is probably the most disorganized of the sections. I am in the thick of things that negatively affect my psychological state, and hence I have found it hard to rationally and consistently observe myself. The key source of what I believe to be my state of depression is probably the stress resulting from the loss of financial and personal independence, following marital failure and my professional burnout. That is however in the past. What appears to be more important are the current drivers for the stress - the guilt, the high anxiety, and the rumination over the past. These issues are apparently known to psychology and to neuroscience, but I have no scientific literature to link here for now.

It is perhaps most difficult to wrap my head around the current driving sources of my stress. There is a complex interplay between guilt, anxiety, and rumination that makes it really hard for me to explain without contradiction what's really making things tick. Rumination is the most natural and easy-to-understand phenomenon I guess ... there is an under-current of driving anger and hurt from the memories, and when I encounter current events that mirror or remind myself of those memories, they flood right back and are really hard to shake off. These unpleasant memories and feelings are also brought to the forefront for when I think about my paths forward, for these paths inevitably cross the paths I had taken before. Anxiety I believe I had always possessed, but it was kept in check by a sunny disposition and optimism that I had built around me since childhood. Like it or not now that the old optimism has been (mostly) swept away by the recent events of my life, high anxiety is something I have to try to consciously work against. This leads to the issue of guilt which isn't an easy thing to talk about. There is an aspect to my upbringing in terms of family life and societal pressures that appear to make self-guilt loom large in personalities like my own. Ideas like "you did not try hard enough," or "you are a failure," are drilled deep into me, making self-doubt a very strong force in my psychological makeup. For myself I now know this to be false, but those negative feelings still dominate more often than not. I am fortunate enough to have undergone been-there-done-that experiences that inform me that I am capable of good work, and great passion. As I will try to elaborate on later, when I began to understand the symptoms of depression I had also begun to realize I am not "lazy" when I do not perform.

By far the most powerful symptom of my current condition is my inability to focus for extended periods of time. The urge for distractions is strong, and somewhat bizarrely the urge for distractions to distract myself from distractions. Until recently (see my previous blog entry) I hadn't even realized this was a classic symptom of a good number of depressives. This makes a number of modern social media tools a particularly deadly combination, with my own being Facebook and Youtube. At their most bothersome, I have observed myself desperately and instinctively seeking new content - first from email, then from the news (e.g. BBC,) and then new videos from Youtube, and then with hundreds of friends the almost-infinite stream of items on each of their news feeds. At the same time I would set for myself the same trap by sharing interesting stuff that I liked, and constantly checking to see what my friends think about it. Needless to say this sucked up hours each day. This is where in the past I'd have said "hours of my productive time," but that would be my guilt-drivers kicking in. Now I know these hours would only be productive had I possessed the necessary focus to set and follow goals in the first place. In truth I would have had replaced one distraction with another, and felt guilt over it.

There are a number of side-effects to the key symptom I had just described. The first is physical. Whenever I get hit with a feeling of high anxiety, I start entering a form of panic attack and breathing becomes difficult. These are most often driven by feelings of guilt, and also by instances of rumination. In fact I am going through a minor panic attack right now, as I try to express all of these thoughts in writing. These physical attacks can also be triggered by physical discomfort. In my case these could vary from itch on a patch of skin, to an insect attack, to tighter-than-comfortable elastic bands around my waist from my shorts. Very often the very distractions I seek end up triggering these attacks, the classic being the negativity one often encounters in the news and from social media. Some are self-engineered through unfulfilled expectations of reactions from friends. As it turned out, the technique to mitigating these effects are easy but can take a while to achieve. I will explain this a little later.

Another side-effect is my tendency to waver in my focus at the slightest obstacle in whatever I do, or whenever I am forced to wait on something for any length of time. Again this source of frustration tends to feed back into the guilt that further drives the stress, almost into a feedback loop.

Mindfulness Meditation

I will admit that as a scientist, a skeptic, and an atheist, I generally avoided new-age mumbo-jumbo (or as the Amazing James Randi called it - "woo") stuff. I still avoid them, but from the perspective of unfounded superstitious beliefs. I did however encounter anecdotal evidence from respected neuroscientists that these practices can aid the brain and the mind, particularly where focus was concerned. Plus it appeared to be a harmless activity. That was what made me consider mindfulness meditation as a possible strategy to combat the lack of focus due to my state of depression.

There is an ancient East Asian fear (or paranoia) that one could "enter the fires and demonic realms" when practicing meditation "incorrectly," or without supervision. While I had still been "spiritual" that paranoia was quite a dominant one, which was why I had avoided thinking about meditation as a way to bring calm and structure to the mind. I am now fairly certain this is bollocks, and unfounded superstition, and probably in the face of the entrenched "spiritual" interests of some. As an important corollary effect the realization that there isn't (really) any "correct" way to do this was helpful to my taking this up. All I needed was to understand my goals, the concepts behind the practice, and how I was going to go about doing it.

The principles and logic behind my attempt are fairly straightforward. As I understand the basics, the practice involves focusing the mind on the act of breathing comfortably - all the while being aware of one's surroundings and where one's mind is. For me the key to the whole enterprise is the act of gently shifting focus back to the breathing whenever I find the mind to have wandered off - whether to a random place, or to some form of rumination. There is no guilt, and no self-reproaching because there is no "correct" way. Self-care and self-love is paramount.

My principal goal is to help my mind get used to focus, and to gently get it to stick. The meditation serves as a gentle exercise of that. As such my practice involves 20-minute sessions prior to sleeping, just after waking up, and before a designated period of time over which I'd like to get some professional work done for the OpenWorm project. The forms are currently being experimented with. I am usually lying in a comfortable position, rather than be engaged in what I consider to be the East Asian cult-of-suffering approach where nothing appears to be useful or worthwhile unless one suffers for it. I tend to set specific meditation goals over the 20 minutes which is signaled by a gentle audio-visual alarm on my iPod. Examples would include "Nothing but breathing and my surroundings," which I tended to take prior to sleeping. The logic behind that is that when I do wish to lull myself to bed, I'd then allow my mind to wander. "Focus on thinking about what I would like to get done," is something I would try for the mornings and prior to a period of work. In all cases keeping my mind on top of each breath I take is retained. One thing I had found helpful were yoga-ish physical movements or positions taken to a nice slow rhythm as I focused on my breathing. They really do help bring an almost-mindless mechanical structure (I count my breaths) my mind feels comfortable with, all the while never forgetting my intended points of focus.

Early Thoughts and Conclusions

It is still fairly early to talk about real conclusions, but anecdotal observations of myself appear to support this activity as helpful. In some ways, I feel calmer and less prone to beating myself up over problems or frustrations. The key metric for me is my ability to focus on professional goals and tasks. In this regard, there are some notable improvements. I have derived sufficient focus to set a simple goal for the next day each night. I have been better able to set aside a small window of time to go about achieving those goals, and (mostly) stick to it. On encountering an obstacle or some source of frustration, I am now able to seek shelter in a short meditation session (2-5 minutes) instead of seeking some form of distraction as I used to be wont to do. Usually this allows me to continue, or at least reason that the obstacle was a greater challenge than expected which then necessitates setting new goals and reorganizing my plans. More importantly I no longer feel a strong urge to blame myself for when I am unable to stick to the goals I set. Instead I do the mental equivalent of financial restructuring, set about new goals, and meditate. Just as importantly pleasure and relaxation activities have become valid goals, and valid intended foci for meditation. In real terms, I have gotten my levels of focus (tentatively at least - I now guard against euphoria, which is part of the mood swing due to the cyclical nature of depression) to a somewhat consistent 1-2 hours of professional focus each planned day of activities. This is a far cry from the 8 hours of work in a paid professional setting, but I'll take that over 0 hours of focus for extended periods of time (weeks on end!) without my even noticing it. The goal is now to function with a consistent rhythm that I can build on.

And before I forget about an earlier promise to elaborate, all of these have come in conjunction with other mitigation plans for dealing with my state of depression where distractions were concerned. I made peace with Facebook by a variety of tiered steps. Primarily I had cut out the news feeds of most friends whose content tended to annoy me or to trigger negative reactions. I had also ensured that new sessions of my browser necessitated the keying of the Facebook password prior to login - this puts a "what do you think you are doing step?" to discourage unintended logins due to instinctive urges for distractions. And then I had removed a button link on my browser to Facebook - it is easier to catch myself typing "face" on my browser's URL input than it is for me to click a button. Finally I made it a point to deactivate my Facebook account over the week days, and only log in over the weekends. Note that deactivation is merely an exercise of pure discipline. Facebook has no real deterrence mechanisms against logging into a deactivated account - all you need to do is key in your password, which is what I'd do normally anyways. These mitigation steps against distractions have proven quite helpful and quite instructive. I have so far been able to stick to this plan over the past 3 weeks. Youtube and regular news turned out not to truly distract me the way Facebook had. And I found out that when I do log on to Facebook over the weekends, I will still get sucked into the endless streams of wall updates for at least an hour before I even notice it.

Anyway I hope this has been interesting or useful to any readers of my blog. It is primarily just a way for me to express my thoughts online, but it does help if the experiences are of use to someone else. I would end with a little epiphany I had recently while thinking about my circumstance:

When one has ended up in a ditch or a hole, dreams of looking off into the horizon aren't very helpful. It is one's obligation to focus on looking up. Keep looking up.
Addendum: These were the videos that started me down this path. They sounded strangely new age, but yet not at the same time.

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