The pandemic is worsening negative thought patterns, but with mindfulness we can help the mind help itself

Friday, March 05, 2021

from Aileen Lalor, special to The Globe and Mail:

It’s probably a bit facile to wonder why our device-dependence has increased as a result of the pandemic (one U.S. survey from last September says average daily screen time for adults has gone from four hours to six).

We’re all anxious about what’s going on in the world and are constantly seeking the latest information. Or we’re bored, confined at home so much of the time. Or we’re obliged to use our devices for work, or we want to use them to connect with other people. Or all of those things. And the everyday or pleasurable things we used to do – a trip to the grocery store, team sports or a haircut – now seem fraught and dangerous. Better to stay at home and surf social media, lest we encounter COVID-19 at the nail salon and have to confess our frivolity to some stern-faced contact tracer. At least, that’s how I feel.

And so I seem to seek out as many inputs as possible: A podcast while I’m running, reading Twitter while waiting for my oven to pre-heat, watching some dumb celebrity gameshow on YouTube and simultaneously Googling the contestants’ heights.

I’m not alone. A friend admitted he’s developed a crick in his neck from looking up at the TV screen, then down at his phone all evening. Another told me she’d settled on the sofa one evening to relax, rosé poured and fluffy slippers on, only to find herself scrolling social media with one ear on the TV news, wondering why the heck she wasn’t feeling blissed out.

I know deep down why I’ve developed this dependency: I’m afraid to be alone with my thoughts. I’ve always been a little fretful – I need to be exhausted before I can drop off at night, because otherwise I pinball between real and imagined fears. And the pandemic has only ignited that anxiety. Our devices are instantly available, ready and willing to fill our minds with nonsense and block out our fears even as they add to them. Twitter is hardly a place of peace and reassurance, after all.

Using external sources to escape negative thoughts – what if I lose my job because of COVID-19?; what if this is screwing up my children?; what if I never see my parents again? – isn’t uncommon. “Sometimes that feeling of, ‘anything but this’ can be the mind’s way of trying to bring something in that’s less distressing,” says Vancouver-based psychiatrist Andrea Grabovac, an expert in mindfulness-integrated cognitive behavioural therapy. And because of COVID-19, “we don’t have our usual coping strategies – the things we would do to nurture and care for ourselves in the way that we were before.”

She says becoming aware of the process of our own thinking is the first stage of developing a healthier relationship with our thoughts. “It’s kind of like paying attention to our posture. Sometimes we can get away with not doing that, but if we have an achy back, it’s useful to keep posture in mind.” In the same way, she adds, it can be helpful to develop a skill called metacognitive awareness – staying aware of the flow of thoughts as just thoughts, one after the other, without getting caught in their content, because when we do, that fuels the stress cycle.

This technique is aligned with mindfulness. “With mindfulness, you’re training attention in a certain way – trying to recognize you have control over where your attention goes,” Dr. Zindel Segal, a professor at the University of Toronto, says. “Your attention could go to a scary report, an image on the internet, a thing you might want to buy. It’s there in front of you, but you can decide if you want to attend to it or not. You can decide if you want to feed it more or put your attention elsewhere.” The ultimate goal is to view thoughts and experiences with equanimity, not allowing them to excessively affect our moods.

Grabovac says by turning toward our internal experience in any moment, we’re training our capacity for interoceptive awareness – awareness of what’s going on inside our bodies. “Parts of the brain, such as the anterior insula, are so important in letting us know what we’re actually feeling – whether we’re happy or sad, hungry or in pain. For people under chronic stress, or with anxiety or depression, these parts of the brain shut down a bit and actually get smaller,” she says. “With just eight weeks of mindfulness training, the anterior insula can recover in size, and anxiety-generating parts of the brain, like the amygdala, become less active. When we shift the way we relate to our experience, it does change our neurophysiology.”

We can learn mindfulness from apps or online; Segal recommends the 10 Percent Happier app and YouTube videos from mindfulness guru Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. In particular, Segal encourages people to work with instructors (for example, through courses from the Centre for Mindfulness Studies) either virtually or in person since, he says, when people try to go it alone, their minds often push back and tell them they’re doing mindfulness wrong, leading them to abandon the practice.

Aside from strategies we learn over time, there are also simple practices that can be put into place immediately: Choosing to regulate phone usage, for example, whether that’s by putting devices in a different room while we sleep or limiting our social-media use to 30 minutes a day. I’ve gone back to reading books instead of doomscrolling at bedtime. And when I run, I switch off the podcasts and just try to be in the moment.

To be sure, I’m less informed ­­– though not about really important stuff. But I’m running faster, discovering ideas, observing what my mind is doing without judging. When my mind grazes a difficult thought or memory, I try to let it in and feel any co-emerging sensations in my body, all the while hearing the thud of my trainers on the pavement. It doesn’t mean I don’t get anxious. I’m still checking my phone the moment I stop running, wake up or turn off the mindfulness track. But I am learning how to let go, switch off and just see what happens.

A super interesting conversation!

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

From Liam O'Donnell

"Welcome to another episode of BrainTainment, today I’m fortunate to be chatting with Dr Bruno Cayoun, a Clinical Psychologist and principal developer of Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (MiCBT).

This is a super interesting conversation! We explore some ideas around mindfulness & unpack the value of MiCBT - and perhaps most importantly; how this approach can be applied to every day life.

Among much more, we cover:

- Snapshot of what MiCBT is all about, and why it might be beneficial
- 4-stage therapeutic approach of MiCBT
- ‘Equanimity’ - what is this about and why important?
- What is Mindfulness at its essence, and why is it beneficial?
- is DESIRE a bad thing? Or is there a place for it?

Please enjoy!"

Published! Co-emergence Reinforcement and Its Relevance to Interoceptive Desensitization in Mindfulness and Therapies Aiming at Transdiagnostic Efficacy

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Congrats to Bruno Cayoun and Alice Shires on their latest publication - "Co-emergence Reinforcement and Its Relevance to Interoceptive Desensitization in Mindfulness and Therapies Aiming at Transdiagnostic Efficacy"!

Interoception, the ability to feel the body’s internal sensations, is an essential aspect of emotional experience. There is mounting evidence that interoception is impaired in common mental health disorders and that poor interoceptive awareness is a major contributor to emotional reactivity, calling for clinical interventions to address this deficit. The manuscript presents a comprehensive theoretical review, drawing on multidisciplinary findings to propose a metatheory of reinforcement mechanisms applicable across a wide range of disorders. We present a reconsideration of operant conditioning through the co-emergence model of reinforcement, which is a neurophenomenological account of the interaction between cognition and interoception, and its consequences on behavior. The model suggests that during memory processing, the retrieval of autobiographical memory (including maladaptive cognition) is dependent upon its co-emerging interoceptive cues occurring at the encoding, consolidation and reconsolidation stages. Accordingly, “interoceptive reinforcement” during emotional distress is a common factor to all emotional disorders and a major cause for relapse. We propose that interoceptive desensitization has transdiagnostic benefits, readily achievable through the cultivation of equanimity during mindfulness training and can be integrated in cognitive and behavioral interventions to permit a transdiagnostic applicability. We summarize the contributions of this approach into 10 specific and testable propositions.

Frontiers in Psychology, 22 December 2020 |

Mindfulness As An Exposure-Based Intervention: Dr Alia Offman

Monday, September 21, 2020

It's hard these days to pick up a magazine, browse the internet or peruse the self-help section without coming across "mindfulness"; however, there are frequently deep misunderstandings with respect to the correct definition, framing, application and utility of mindfulness in addressing mental health concerns as well as overall wellness. 

Co-director of the North American Chapter of the Mindfulness-Integrated CBT (MiCBT) Institute, Dr. Alia Offman, C. Psych, discusses 

  • the clinical path that led her to become interested in MiCBT
  • the operational definition of mindfulness
  • core-skills of mindfulness
  • the structured four-stage therapeutic approach employed by MiCBT
  • specific interventions where mindfulness and CBT skills are combined, reconceptualizing mindfulness as an exposure-based intervention
  • the evidence for MiCBT
  • the neurobiology of MiCBT. 

Dr. Alia Offman is a registered psychologist in Ontario, Canada providing counselling and professional training services using MiCBT. She obtained her doctorate in research psychology at Carleton University, a Master's in Education at the University of Ottawa, and post-doctorate training as a counselling psychologist. Alia is the Co-director of the North American Chapter of the MiCBT Institute. She has been a Contract Instructor at Carleton University for over ten years teaching in the psychology department. She has supervised their fourth year Honours Projects course, taught a fourth year seminar course in The Psychology of Human Sexuality and undergraduate courses in The Psychology of Women, Statistics and Social Psychology. She has also taught in the education department at the University of Ottawa as a sessional lecturer. She is currently teaching a fourth-year course in Mindfulness and Well-being. 

Alia is a published researcher with the majority of her work focused on adult populations, studying such diverse areas as workplace productivity, the impact of discrimination on health, communication in relationships and the effects of relationship violence on self-esteem. She was an Associate Researcher at Carleton University and a Research Associate with the Ottawa Health Research Institute. 

For many years she volunteered with Planned Parenthood Ottawa and she was recognized for her work in the field of human sexuality and was awarded the Norman Barwin Scholarship from the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada.

NEW! Mindfulness Meditation Retreat (for non-therapists)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Mindfulness Meditation Retreat
...cultivating insight and wellbeing through guided mindfulness meditation...

A residential retreat for health professionals, business and community leaders.

Are you interested in developing inner resources to address stressful challenges and improving your sense of calmness and well-being? Would you like to cultivate insight and discover powerful life strategies? If so, join us in learning an evidence-based meditative practice with Dr. Cayoun in a three-day immersion into mindfulness. 
The retreat is suited for all levels of experience. You will: 

  • learn how to practise (or improve your practice of) mindfulness meditation 
  • learn the key principles of mindful living 
  • discover practical tools to incorporate into relationships, parenting and work 
  • understand how to break habitual patterns of reacting and learn how to respond rather than react 
  • learn how to work peacefully with challenging emotions and thoughts 
  • learn to live with greater purpose, wisdom and fulfilment

See here for more information and registration

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