Mindfulness

What is the Detached Protector mode in schema therapy?

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One of the most common 'modes' in schema therapy is the Detached Protector, which tries to protect us by suppressing our painful emotions. When we are in this mode we are very much in our heads, being overly rational and cut off from our feelings. I guess if I were to think of the living embodiment of this mode, it would be Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory – someone who lives completely in his head, who doesn't feel much or understand other people's emotions at all.

So this is a part of us that gets activated when, say, we are upset and fear becoming overwhelmed. Our Detached Protector (unconsciously) kicks in and we change focus from the painful feelings to change the subject, tell a tangential story, or rationalise the way we feel until we're not feeling it any more. Very commonly when my clients are in this mode they will be talking about an upsetting experience without actually feeling that upset in any way.

This part of us almost always develops in childhood, when we may have learned to shut down to cope with overwhelming emotions. A good metaphor for this process is the way a circuit breaker gets triggered when there's a power surge – it shuts the system down so nothing gets damaged. So something in your brain gets triggered and switches off its emotional circuitry, to protect you from unbearably intense emotion that you are too young and undeveloped to deal with (managing big emotions and self-soothing when they are upset is not something that young children are able to do).

We also call this process 'dissociation', which basically means disconnection or detachment from our inner experience or the world around us. The younger you are, the harder it is to regulate your emotions, so if you are scared because someone is hurting or threatening you, the only way to protect yourself is to trigger this circuit breaker in your brain.

From helpful to habitual

This shutting down was both helpful and necessary when you were little, but over time it became a habit and led to an increasing number of problems. For example, imagine that Stephen comes to therapy because his wife is threatening to leave if he doesn't stop going quiet and withdrawn whenever they have a problem in their marriage. When Stephen comes to see me, he tells me he's deeply worried about losing his wife, who he loves very much. But when they have conflict, he just 'clams up' and feels empty and numb inside.

This is Stephen's Detached Protector kicking in – probably because conflict situations were scary or threatening for him as a child, so he learned this self-protective behaviour. In schema therapy, a big part of the work would be helping him learn to feel and express his emotions a bit more – also to communicate with his wife when things got bumpy. These simple changes could make a profound difference to Stephen's day-to-day life and even save his marriage!

It's important to repeat that this part of you is a protector mode – it's not bad or mean in any way. It's just that, like Stephen's experience, what starts out as helpful and even life-saving becomes a hindrance over time. So with Stephen, it would be important to teach him healthier way of managing his feelings – talking about them to me, his wife or a friend; using deep breathing, helpful ways of thinking or mindfulness techniques to feel calmer and more relaxed, even when conflict flared up. Over time, bit by incremental bit, this could be transformative for him – and, if you have a Detached Protector, for you too.

If you would like to know more about schema therapy, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the Contact page to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

 

How chronic pain and illness affect your mood

As I sit writing this, I am in a moderate amount of pain. Like millions of people around the world, I suffer from chronic musculoskeletal (back and hip) problems, so most days come with either a small or large dose of pain, depending on how well I am looking after myself, how stressed I am, how much sitting I do that day, and various other factors.

Having been in some degree of daily pain for almost two years now, I have learned a few things about the relationship between physical pain and mental suffering:

  • It's important to distinguish between 'primary' and 'secondary' pain. I learned this from Vidyamala Burch, founder of the excellent Breathworks. This organisation provides the Mindfulness-Based Pain Management programme, which has a strong research base behind it and helps many people in the UK and beyond deal with chronic pain and illness.
  • Burch also co-wrote Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing with Danny Penman. In this superb book the authors explain that primary pain is the actual raw data caused by, say, a gash in your leg. Intriguingly, the majority of the pain you end up experiencing is secondary – the pain created by your brain as it amplifies that raw data, depending on the way you think about and respond to your primary pain.
  • This only became clear to me recently when I visited my osteopath during a bad patch physically, feeling down and hopeless about resolving my problems. He reminded me that the pain was significantly better now than when I first came to see him; and that it was crucial to remain as positive as possible, because my negative thoughts ('I will never get over this'; 'Nothing will help'; 'I can't stand the pain any more') were undoubtedly making the pain worse (this is essentially what the Buddha taught – that human life inevitably involves pain, but we create suffering by our response to that pain. But that's a topic for another day).

Managing the pain

I think it's important to note here just how hard it is to maintain a positive, optimistic mood in the face of chronic pain or illness. As anyone with a long-term condition knows, it grinds you down, especially when it flares up or your symptoms get worse for whatever reason. Please don't think I underestimate the impact of physical ailments on your mood – it is a struggle and gets everyone down from time to time, as well as causing stress and worry/anxiety about the future.

I couldn't understand that vicious cycle any better. But once you understand the relationship between pain sensations in the body and the way that your brain either amplifies or minimises those sensations, it seems crucial to me that you do all you can to use your brain/mind to help your body.

 When I first hurt my back and was really struggling, Vidyamala Burch's guided meditations really helped pull me through. Here is a great one on being more compassionate to yourself, available for free, if you would like to try it. And if you are dealing with chronic pain or illness, my thoughts and well wishes go out to you – I hope you get the medical help you need and manage to overcome your problem soon.

If you would like some help with the psychological aspects of your condition, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use my Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

Learning to love yourself

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

I was reminded of this Derek Walcott poem at a recent talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Western mindfulness movement (and one of my heroes). It seems to embody not just a self-compassionate, mindful attitude, but also the key idea in schema therapy – that to heal our past hurts we must learn to love ourselves, even if we have long held negative, self-limiting/critical beliefs.

Also, it's a beautiful poem – I hope you enjoy it...

Love After Love
The time will come when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat. 

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. 

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 
the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.

Best wishes,

Dan

Cognitive therapy and chronic pain

If you suffer from a medical condition that causes you chronic pain, life can be gruelling. Nobody likes being in pain, so over time it can really grind you down. Musculoskeletal problems like hip, knee or lower-back pain, arthritis and other ongoing, hard-to-treat conditions can sap your strength and energy over time, making it hard to stay positive or hopeful that a solution will eventually be found. Dealing with pain can make you stressed or depressed, as the ongoing struggle – unsurprisingly – causes sadness and low mood.

But if you or someone you care about is struggling with a painful condition, it's important to know that there is very good evidence for the impact that psychological treatments can have – in particular, cognitive therapy and mindfulness meditation. Of course, thinking differently about your problem, the core strategy in cognitive therapy, will not take away the pain (although it can significantly decrease the amount of pain you are in). Instead, it will help you stop thinking so negatively about the problem, which will boost your mood and stave off the risk of depression. 

The mindful approach to stress

Since the 1970s, mindfulness – in particular, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR – has been used to help people with a wide range of psychological and physical ailments. MBSR's founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed his revolutionary approach to help people who had been failed by traditional Western medicine. He worked with patients suffering from treatment-resistant spinal problems and even terminal illness – and had a remarkable success rate at lowering their stress levels and improving the quality of their daily lives.

As with all forms of suffering, whether emotional or physical, the mindful approach is to change our relationship to the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, enabling us to stop fighting or resisting them and – counterintuitively – accept them, even if we do not want them to be there. Over time, we find that this stance of acceptance is an extremely powerful one, allowing the 'aversive' experiences to come and go, so they don't get stuck or morph into other forms of suffering like self-criticism or anger.

I want to be clear: I am not minimising how hard or upsetting it can be to live with chronic pain (as someone with ongoing back, hip and other musculoskeletal problems, I know that only too well). But being human inevitably means dealing with stressors, large or small; and, if we cannot free ourselves from them, we must find the best possible way to live with them.

If you would like help with chronic pain, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

How mindfulness meditation helps with anxiety & depression

Mindfulness is a real buzzword at the moment. It's hard to pick up a newspaper without coming across an article extolling its virtues. Mindfulness meditation programmes have been introduced into corporations like Google and Facebook, as well as schools, government departments and a whole host of other settings – it feels like everyone has suddenly switched on to the power of meditation.

But what exactly is mindfulness and how can it help with psychological problems like depression or anxiety? The first thing to say is that, although we in the West are only learning about mindfulness now, in the East people have been using mindfulness techniques for 2,500 years. Mindfulness is a cornerstone of Buddhist practice, used to calm and focus the 'monkey mind' (which normally just jumps around from one thing to the next).

Mindfulness was first introduced into the medical mainstream by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s – he developed an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme, to help people with chronic pain and other serious medical problems. This proved so successful that a team of psychologists adapted it to help people with psychological problems, especially recurrent episodes of depression. They called this new programme mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and it proved equally effective.

The key idea in mindfulness practice is learning to focus on your moment-to-moment experience, rather than being swept away by the storms of anxious or depressive thinking that drive psychological problems. As with both cognitive and schema therapy, we have a large body of evidence showing that mindfulness works. On a personal note, I have had a daily meditation practice for years, and absolutely vouch for its power to calm and centre me for the day ahead. I have also taught many clients to meditate and seen the huge impact it has had on their problems with anxiety and depression.

Here is a simple sitting meditation you can try right now:

    •    Switch your phone off, then set a timer for 10 minutes, so you don't have to worry about how long you’ve been meditating.
    •    Sit in a straight-backed chair, cross-legged on the floor or lie down. Try to relax your body, letting your shoulders drop and face muscles soften.
    •    Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing – the flow of air over your lips and nostrils, in and out. Don’t try to change your breathing in any way, just breathe naturally.
    •    If your mind gets bored and gets distracted (as it probably will), don't give up or get frustrated. Every time you notice your mind has wandered gently turn your attention back to your breathing until the timer goes off.
    •    Once you feel able to meditate for 10 minutes, extend the time to 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, and so on. And remember that, like anything, the more you practicemeditation the easier it gets.

If you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Do you want to learn mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is very much in the news these days. Mindfulness is increasingly being taught in schools, corporations, to athletes, veterans, the police and even MPs in the Houses of Parliament! And for good reason – a regular meditation practice has been proven to help you feel calmer, less anxious and depressed, to respond better to stressful events, deal with chronic pain or illness with greater balance and equanimity, improve concentration, memory and overall wellbeing. 

As someone who teaches my clients to meditate, I have seen first-hand what a difference it can make for people struggling with mental health problems. And as a regular meditator for over six years, I know from personal experience what a profound difference it makes to one's life. I genuinely believe that life is so much happier and more positive as a direct result of my meditation practice and am deeply grateful that I made meditation a part of my daily life.

Learning to meditate

When I am teaching clients to meditate, I first direct them to Mark Williams and Danny Penman's excellent book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Mark Williams is a British psychologist who helped develop mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), an eight-week programme to help people deal with stress, anxiety and especially recurrent bouts of depression. 

This book is based on the MBCT course, but is also a wonderfully clear and simple guide to mindfulness meditation – it's the perfect place to start if you are interested in bringing the transformative power of mindfulness into your life. It also includes a CD of guided meditations by Mark Williams, which will really help when you're getting started.

If you would like to take an MBCT course, visit the Resources section of my site to find a reputable place to study. I also think that a blend of mindfulness and schema therapy is an excellent way to tackle a wide range of psychological problems. If you would like to know more, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

How to use mindfulness in daily life

In recent years, mindfulness has gone from being a little-known (in the West) form of Buddhist meditation to a hugely popular, much-written-about practice. It's hard to pick up a Sunday supplement these days without reading something about mindfulness, whether it's being taught to schoolchildren to deal with exam stress, or embraced by corporations such as Google, Facebook and eBay – it has become one of the buzzwords of our age.

This, of course, is a great thing – I strongly believe that everyone should meditate, and if we all lived our lives along Buddhist principles many of the world's problems and most of our cruelty and inhumanity to each other would be transformed overnight. But I am concerned about the misunderstandings of mindfulness, so wanted to set the record straight.

Mindfulness – especially in a psychotherapy context – is a skill. I teach my clients mindfulness techniques like I teach them any other skill, like how to identify and challenge negative thoughts; how to use relaxation techniques to de-stress and reduce anxiety; or how to 'push against' their avoidance in order to face and overcome their fears. 

To understand this, it's helpful to think about the difference between formal and informal mindfulness practices. Formal practices involve sitting (usually, although they can include movement) in a quiet room, closing your eyes and concentrating for 20 or 30 minutes on your breath, body, thoughts or some other point of focus. Informal practices simply involve waking up to the sensory experience of your moment-to-moment experience, whether that's looking intently at a leaf, cloud or sunset; concentrating on the many and varied sounds coming to your ears; eating your apple or sandwich and relishing every taste, smell, texture and colour of the food.

Although I encourage my clients to develop a formal practice – and have a daily practice myself – it's the informal practices that can be so powerful if you are suffering from a psychological problem like depression, anxiety, chronic stress or an eating disorder. That's because they allow you to choose where to place your attention – on the negative thoughts swirling through your mind, the painful emotions and physical sensations in your body, or... something else. Anything else.

Here's an example:

You are sitting in a cafe, having a pleasant day, when you receive a text message from your ex-boyfriend saying they want to see you. You have only just got over the breakup and this text, out of the blue, triggers a cascade of 'what if' thoughts...

'Why does he want to see me? What if he's changed his mind? Does he still love me? Maybe he's met someone else and wants me to hear it from him. God, that would just kill me...'

Unsurprisingly, these thoughts trigger a wave of powerful emotions: anxiety, upset, hope, fear, sadness, jealousy...

Within a few seconds, you have been catapulted from feeling happy and calm to being tossed around on waves of emotion. Then you remember your mindfulness training, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. You sit upright and let your tense shoulders drop and relax. You focus on the warm, milky, chocolatey cappuccino in front of you, inhaling deeply of its aroma and then take a sip, tasting the coffee and noticing the sensation as it travels down your throat. Your mind keeps trying to pull you away with a string of 'what ifs' but each time you simply notice the thoughts, then gently but firmly bring your attention back to the coffee.

Your emotions naturally subside and you feel calmer. You put your phone away, deciding to respond to the text tomorrow, rather than rushing a reply you might regret. And you smile, at how just being mindful helped you out of a dark place.

Of course, it's best to develop both a formal and informal practice, but understanding why you are doing so can help you overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations involved. Developing this skill is, I believe, one of the simplest but most powerful steps you can take in overcoming your problem, whatever it might be. And once you learn how to apply them, mindfulness techniques are free, with no horrible side-effects, unlike some of the other treatments on offer.

If you would like to find out more about how mindfulness could help you, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Do you find meditation a struggle?

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Most of us now know that meditation is good for us. Part of the recent upsurge of interest in meditation – and especially mindfulness practices – has been a deluge of media articles explaining why mindfulness is so helpful. And, of course, it is. There is a large and growing body of research proving that regular mindfulness meditation can reduce stress, tackle anxiety and recurrent episodes of depression, help us feel more relaxed, centred and in tune with our lives. And let's not forget 2,500 years of Buddhist psychology and mind-training, in which mindfulness is a key tool.

The only trouble is, many people start meditating with the best intentions, only to give up when they find it way more difficult than expected (and advertised in all those glossy magazine articles). I have been meditating almost every day for six years and, let me assure you, it is still a struggle on some days. My mind is restless and I find my thoughts wandering for minutes at a time. I am fidgety and my body just won't settle into a comfortable posture. Sometimes, I even think 'What's the point of this? It's such a struggle, maybe I should just give up!'

Practice, practice, practice

But I don't, because I am committed to that daily practice for the rest of my life. Why? Because I also know how wonderful meditation can be, especially when we sit for longer periods. That's when the mind naturally settles – like sediment in a bowl of water – and we can reach deep states of calm, quiet and peacefulness. 

I also know that these pleasurable states are rare – and are actually not why I practice. Counter-intuitively, the practice is not necessarily about feeling peaceful and relaxed. It's about being disciplined, sitting every day at (ideally) the same time, making that deep commitment to my personal growth and development.

And sitting there while my mind tells me it's bored, restless, irritable, dissatisfied and that I should open my eyes and make the coffee now is developing my mental muscle – the one that helps me deal with daily irritations and upset with calm and steadiness (known as 'equanimity' in Buddhism). The one that helps me resist cravings for the chocolate bar I don't really need, that extra glass of wine, the must-have shirt that's 50% off in a sale.

That is why I practice – and it's why just sitting with the discomfort, without acting or reacting, is one of the reasons meditation has such profound long-term benefits.

As the Zen saying goes: 'Just sit'. Meaning: just meditate, every day. Easy, hard; relaxing, frustrating; fascinating, boring. Just do it and over time you will feel the benefits.

If you would like to find out more about mindfulness meditation, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Bibliotherapy on mindfulness

'Bibliotherapy' is an important part of cognitive therapy, either to run alongside a course of therapy or as a self-help tool. I often recommend books to my clients, partly because there is only so much time in a session, so it's much more useful for them to read up about their particular issue and for us to discuss their findings next week. But I also find that many people like to understand why they might be having problems and find their own strategies for solving them – another important idea in cognitive therapy, because ultimately I want my clients to be their own CBT therapist.

In this post I will focus on mindfulness, an ancient Buddhist practice that, since the 1970s, has been adapted by Western psychologists to help treat a range of physical and mental difficulties. The idea is that you can read one or all of these books, depending on which appeal to you. And you can read the whole book or dip into the chapters that seem most relevant to you.

1. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This beautifully written, wise, eminently readable book is one of my favourites. Kabat-Zinn is, more than anyone else, responsible for introducing mindfulness to the West. He started using mindfulness techniques to help people with chronic stress, physical pain or serious illness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the '70s, which paved the way for other practitioners to use mindfulness either as a standalone technique or combined with other approaches like cognitive therapy. The author explains with great clarity exactly what mindfulness is and how you can integrate it into your life, either with 'formal' practices like sitting or walking meditation, or 'informal' practices such as being completely mindful of whatever it is you're doing, from washing the dishes to gazing at a glorious sunset or preparing and eating a delicious meal. If you're new to mindfulness or meditation in general, this is the perfect place to start.

2. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. Another good beginner's guide, this introduction to mindfulness theory and practice is written by Mark Williams, a clinical psychologist and one of the UK's leading mindfulness teachers, and Danny Penman, a health journalist and author. It offers a clear, easy-to-follow path through all the basic mindfulness techniques, and includes a CD of guided meditations by Williams – who has an incredibly gentle, soothing voice. As an aside, if you ever get the chance to see him speak, grab the opportunity. He is an excellent speaker who really embodies the calm steadiness that regular meditation can bring.

3. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. If you want to take a mindfulness course for issues like stress, anxiety, depression or chronic pain, there are two basic formats: mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Both run over eight weeks, with a combination of meditation, guided imagery, yoga and other exercises in the class and at home. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the MBSR programme first (see above) and in the early '90s the other three authors began exploring the use of mindfulness to treat depression, especially repeated bouts of depression which can be hard to treat. They combined elements of Kabat-Zinn's MBSR programme with cognitive-behaviour therapy to come up with MBCT, which has proven extremely effective at treating recurrent bouts of depression – as effective as antidepressants, in fact.

This is another warm, rich, wise book, which leads you through the steps of an MBCT programme, while explaining why we get depressed, what we now understand about depression and the brain from MRI scans and other research into its physical make-up and functioning, and how psychologists around the world are now exploring the meeting point of Buddhist psychology, neuroscience and cognitive therapy, with intriguing results. It also includes a CD of guided meditations by Kabat-Zinn, which I use as part of my daily practice, so can thoroughly recommend.

If you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Try loving-kindness meditation

Three of the core Buddhist meditation practices are the body scan, mindfulness of breathing and Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. In Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, or non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice is traditionally in five stages, so here are the first two – I will go through the full practice in a later post:

1. This practice will take 10 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. After 10 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

Living a compassionate life

Compassion is one of those words, like kindness, that some people seem to feel uncomfortable with. When I suggest that a self-critical client could be more compassionate to themselves, they often say, 'But how would I motivate myself?' Or 'How could I stop my standards from slipping?' This idea, that being harshly self-critical is the best form of motivation, often baffles me. Think of it this way: if your child was struggling with maths at school, would you want their teacher to shout at them and tell them they were stupid and pathetic? Or would you want a teacher who was encouraging, helped them understand what they were doing wrong and kindly taught them, step by step, how to improve their work?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? So why do we think that being harsh and unkind to ourselves, using names like 'idiot', 'stupid' and 'loser', will do anything but drain our self-confidence and make us feel stressed, anxious and unhappy. We also know from MRI scans of the brain that our brains cannot distinguish between external attack – from a bully, say – and internal attack, when we are punishing and angry in our thoughts and self-perceptions.

There is also an idea that kindness and compassion are fluffy, wishy-washy concepts – fine as ideas but of no use when dealing with the harsh realities we often face in daily life. Not so. When learning about compassion, I have been deeply struck by the teachings of Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and his French interpreter, Matthieu Ricard. In his wonderful book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Ricard describes the often harrowing stories of Tibetans who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Chinese military – China has occupied Tibet since 1950, killing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

But the Tibetans, who have been tortured or seen their loved ones murdered, are neither bitter nor full of hatred for their tormentors. Instead, their deep resources of compassion allow them to retain their sanity and equilibrium. The Buddha teaches us that hatred is a poison for the mind; it causes as much suffering for the hater as the object of his or her hate. When I read these stories I am humbled, because of people who have suffered so much can forgive their invaders, I can certainly forgive the petty annoyances and difficulties people cause me.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is not just for the easy people in our lives – those we love and care about. Compassion is for everyone, whether we like them or not; those who help us and those who do us wrong; the easy and the difficult, likeable and dislikable. As he says, 'Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer'.

So, try to be a little more compassionate in your life – both to those you come into contact with and yourself. Compassion really is like a healing balm to a troubled mind.

If you would like to learn more about being kinder and more compassionate to yourself, and would like to arrange a session, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Thoughts racing? This meditation will help

When you are feeling stressed or anxious your thoughts might race, making it hard to slow down or focus on what you're doing. Although this is completely normal, it can feel really unsettling, as the content of those thoughts is likely to be negative or frightening, so it's a bit like watching a scary movie stuck on fast-forward... If this is a problem for you, here is a simple mindfulness meditation technique that can really help:

Mindfulness of breathing

1. First, make some quiet time for yourself – take 10 minutes out of your busy day, that to-do list can wait! Switch your phone to silent and make sure you won't be disturbed. Find a comfortable position, either cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, or sitting on a straight-backed chair. Make sure your spine, neck and head are in alignment – erect but not tense, so you are sitting with a sense of calm alertness.

2. Set a repeat timer on your phone to 5 minutes, then close your eyes and settle into your body. Do a quick scan of your whole body, from the tip of your toes to the top of your head, noticing any areas of tension and allowing those parts of the body to soften and relax. You can imagine breathing into the tense area, then releasing any tension on the out-breath.

3. Bring your attention to your breath, following the entire breath cycle as it travels into the nostrils, down the back of your throat, into the lungs, then back along the throat and out of your nose. Notice the way your chest and belly rise with each in-breath, then fall on the out-breath. Don't try to change or control the breath in any way, just let your body breathe itself – which it does every second of your life, whether you notice or not.

4. Start counting after each breath cycle, beginning with 1 – so breathe in, out and mentally count 1; in, out, 2; in, out, 3 and so on until you reach 10. If you find yourself carried off by thoughts, that's fine – be kind and gentle with yourself, direct your attention back to the breath, then go back to 1.

5. If you find yourself counting 20, you have got distracted! Again, just go back to 1 and start again.

6. When you hear the first timer signalling 5 minutes, you can choose to continue counting, at the beginning of each breath cycle – so count 1, in, out; 2, in, out; 3, in, out and so on. Or, if your thoughts have settled and quietened down you can drop the counting and just focus on your breath.

7. When you hear the second timer, that's 10 minutes. Slowly open your eyes and gently move your body. Resume your day, carrying this calm, mindful attention into your next activity.

I really hope that helps. And if you would like to know more about mindfulness meditation, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Compassion for all - including you

The Buddha taught that we should have compassion for all living beings: every bird, animal, fish, insect... and human on this planet. This is not easy. Leaving aside the thorny question of what we are supposed to eat if we take this idea to its logical extreme, let's focus on people, because that's complicated enough. For example, it's easy to feel compassion for those we love or like. We can forgive those closest to us pretty much anything, because we have such a strong bond with them.

Our friends, parents, siblings, children, spouse – if we are lucky enough to have good relationships with these people, feeling compassion for them is not hard. But what about that colleague you don't get on with at work – the one who talks about you behind your back? Or the guy who just cut you up in traffic, nearly causing a nasty accident?

Taking it one step further, how about politicians like Donald Trump who promote violence and racism? Should we really feel compassion for him? And harder still, how about a murderous dictator like Stalin or Hitler – surely they are the last people on earth we should feel compassion for.

As someone who is passionate about Buddhist psychology's depth, richness and practical wisdom, I have long struggled with this idea. But as far as I understand it, the Buddha would say that we should feel compassion for everyone, even those we find abhorrent, because the alternative is to fill our minds with hatred, anger and hostility, which he called poisons of the mind.

If I spend my days hating Trump, who suffers? Not him, for sure. I can fundamentally disagree with his odious behaviour without succumbing to hatred – instead, I can wish for him to change, to become a less hate-filled and harmful person, because that will reduce the suffering he causes in the world.

And I can't believe that anyone who is so full of anger and hatred is truly happy; so I can have compassion for their unhappiness without approving of the person in any way.

Compassion for yourself

If this all seems hard to grasp, surely it's easier to think about feeling compassion for yourself? Sadly, in my experience of helping people with all sorts of psychological problems, this is neither simple nor easy. Time and time again I am saddened by the harshly critical way in which people talk to themselves in their minds.

They call themselves names like 'idiot' or 'failure', say they are 'pathetic' or 'crazy' or worse. And this, of course, creates suffering – research shows that harsh self-criticism is linked with depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, anger-management problems, and more.

So a key focus with all of my clients is encouraging them to be kinder to themselves. Mindfulness meditation really helps with this, as do a wide range of cognitive and schema therapy techniques. But you can start today, simply by catching yourself using harsh words when you speak or think about yourself. Ask the simple question, 'Would I talk to my best friend like this?' If the answer is no (and it almost always is), try speaking to yourself a little more kindly. It could make a huge difference to the way you feel day to day.

And if you would like to learn more about compassion, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

5 myths about mindfulness meditation

It's wonderful that mindfulness has gained so much popularity in recent years – it's hard to read a newspaper or Sunday supplement without finding a story extolling the benefits of meditation. Unfortunately some of these stories are not entirely accurate, and many people have misconceptions about what meditation is and how it can help. Here are five of the most common myths and misunderstandings I hear about meditation, to help you gain a clearer insight into this potentially life-changing technique:

1. Meditation is just for Buddhists

Not so. Although mindfulness meditation is a 2,500-year-old Buddhist technique, it is increasingly used in Western psychological, medical, educational and business settings. If you learn meditation from me, or another therapist, you are essentially learning a technique, like using thought records to challenge unhelpful thinking. Although I do have a strong interest in Buddhist psychology and philosophy, I only talk about that to my clients as far as they are interested in it. So you don't have to believe in any form of religion to benefit from mindfulness, all you have to do is sit quietly for a short period every day and watch your breath. That alone is proven to have a raft of benefits, from reducing stress and anxiety to lowering blood pressure. Simple.

2. You have to clear your mind of all thoughts

Again, no. If your mind is empty of all thoughts, you have a very unusual mind indeed. We are always thinking – even when we sleep – so the idea that we should somehow magically stop thinking when we meditate is neither helpful nor realistic. Instead, if we are trying to focus on our breath, say, when we find our mind carrying us off into thinking about lunch, we notice that and gently bring our attention back to the breath. Again, again, again – it might happen 100 times during a 20-minute meditation, but that's not a problem at all. In fact, this is the practice, because each time you notice and bring your attention back, you are strengthening your ability to focus, which is the whole point of meditation.

3. You have to meditate somewhere quiet

In some ways, this is true – it's helpful to meditate in quiet places, for example at home in the early morning. But mindfulness is a skill we are trying to cultivate for when we need it – on the Tube, in a meeting, in a shopping centre. So the more you practice in everyday situations, the more that skill is available to you when you most need it – like your toddler having a meltdown in the supermarket. I often meditate on the Tube, because it can be an unpleasant place – noisy, packed with people, hot, glaring lights... Far better to close your eyes and focus on sounds, say, than ride along grimly trying to ignore it all.

4. Meditation should always make you feel relaxed

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's a saying in Zen meditation: 'Just sit'. This means just meditate, every day: hard/easy, enjoyable/frustrating, relaxing/no change. It doesn't matter, because we meditate for the long-term benefits of daily practice. If you do it most days for a period of time, you will probably feel calmer, more grounded, less stressed, happier, more able to deal with stressors without reacting impulsively or unhelpfully. That's why we do it (and why I have, most days, for six years now – and will for the rest of my life).

5. Meditation is New Age hocus-pocus

It's true that meditation conjures up images of bearded, be-sandalled folk, incense and crystals. But mindfulness meditation, as well as having that 2,500-year history behind it, has been rigorously studied and researched in prestigious medical establishments since the 1970s. There is a huge body of research proving its effectiveness for a wide range of psychological problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression; and for medical problems like chronic pain and high blood pressure.

If you would like to find out more about mindfulness meditation, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan