Practicing mindfulness can help restructure a negative state of mind or stop expecting the worst possible outcome in every situation.
As a lawyer whose job involves a lot of talking and being the center of attention, Jeena Cho’s fear of socializing was debilitating.
“I was constantly mentally critical of my own performance,” said Cho, who is also a mindfulness instructor and co-author of “The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.”
“If I were to attend a hearing and I could feel my face turning red, my palms sweaty… I would think, ‘Oh my God, everyone in the courtroom will know that you are super anxious. And you’re going to freeze up and you’re going to forget what you’re going to say, ”Cho said. “Of course, all those thoughts would trigger all the physiological reactions then, and then my heart would race even faster.”
After being diagnosed with social anxiety in 2011, Cho learned that researchers were studying the potential of mindfulness practices, such as meditation, to help reduce fear reactions like hers. According to studies from 2015 and 2020, some students have successfully used mindfulness-based stress reduction programs to reduce their fears of academic assessment, which interfered with their ability to study. People struggling with social phobias or fears related to post-traumatic stress have also benefited from mindfulness training, according to research published in 2010 and 2017, respectively.
Sensing that her fears had kept her world very small, Cho signed up for an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program at Stanford University to try and change her life.
A new look at fear
With the help of two hours of mindfulness classes per week, daily 45-minute meditations, and homework that challenges rigid beliefs, Cho has learned to distance herself from fearful thoughts and be kinder to herself. .
“My mind is like, ‘You have a hearing tomorrow, and you’re going to be terrible at the hearing and you’re going to lose, and if you lose, your clients are going to sue you for malpractice. And then you’re going to be struck off the bar, and you’re going to become homeless, ”Cho said. “I was able to look at that thought and say to myself, ‘Oh, you know what, it’s just mental conditioning. These are just a few thoughts that I took somewhere along the line, but there is no evidence for it.
It’s not that she no longer feels fear or anxiety, but her response has changed.
“I can recognize these thoughts as random thoughts that my mind is making,” Cho added. “I would say, ‘Oh, yeah, my mind is doing that catastrophic thought again. What’s the most useful thought I can have? ‘ “
Adults who completed guided mindfulness meditation training for four weeks using the Headspace smartphone app had similar results. They had an easier time overcoming their fear reactions compared to a control group that did not take mindfulness training, according to a small study from 2019.
Headspace allowed participants to use the app’s daily 10- to 20-minute guided meditations for free and provided membership data to researchers, but did not otherwise participate in the study, according to the authors of the ‘study.
The results suggest that “mindfulness training appears to improve retention of fear extinction memories,” said study lead author Johannes Björkstrand, a psychology researcher at Lund University in Sweden. . In other words, fear extinction is the brain’s ability to form and store memories that tell it that a once dreaded situation is now safe.
How mindfulness changes minds
Cho’s experience, supported by all of these studies, was that practicing mindfulness helped her restructure a negative state of mind or stop expecting the worst possible outcome in every situation.
Most find the practice of intentionally focusing one’s awareness on one’s breathing, bodily sensations and emotions to be helpful in regulating over-thinking, fear and shame, according to the 2015 study of Students Who Fear Assessment. academic.
The eight-week mindfulness course the students took calmed them “and made them feel more accepted about themselves and their anxiety issues,” said Aslak Hjeltnes, the study’s first author, said. by email. “Participants began to use mindfulness when distracted by anxious feelings in academic performance situations. Some participants described a gradual change in their daily lives, where they experienced less fear and more curiosity in their own academic studies.
“I have a way of bringing myself back to earth and just telling myself, ‘It’s okay, now I can just go do the exercises, and everything will be fine after,” “said one study participant. to researchers.
For people who still feel fear in response to certain situations, mindfulness can help them stay or sit with those experiences and learn that they can cope with them, said Auretta Sonia Kummar, PhD student in clinical psychology at Murdoch University in Australia, by email. “It’s the regulation of emotions, and therefore also the regulation of behavior (i.e. how I intentionally respond to the fear stimulus as opposed to reacting to it automatically).”
And the effects of this type of training can be long lasting. “Neuroscientific studies indicate that eight weeks of training (mindfulness-based stress reduction) can lead to changes in the brain, such as reduced activity in the amygdala, one of the neural systems that deal with fear, ”said Hjeltnes, associate clinical professor. psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, said.
Regularly confronting fears with mindfulness is important for the practice to work, Hjeltnes said.
Several years after Cho’s first experience with mindfulness training, the practice is still essential for her. “I realized that these tools and techniques are really things that I think everyone can benefit from,” Cho said. “I started teaching it to other lawyers, then I wrote the book ‘The Anxious Lawyer’.
“Whenever I have to give a talk, I always feel anxious. I still notice the little butterflies in my belly, my heart is racing a little faster, “she added.” But I am able to recognize these physiological reactions as the way my body lets me know I am. about to do something important. “
Now that intense anxiety is in her rearview mirror, Cho has said that she experiences the world differently. “I will definitely stop and smell the roses when I see them, watch the sky, watch the clouds go by,” she said. “I am able to simply enjoy the daily, momentary experiences of joy. “
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