Almost all of us would like to be that reliable friend, relative or colleague who is the calm amidst the storm and able to support others when the proverbial hits the fan. What is it that supports some people to do this well? Is it something that we can all get better at, or is it a fixed quality? This article explores the role of mindfulness in being a calm and caring presence to others in crisis. It is informed by several years of experience as a Telephone Crisis Supporter with Lifeline responding to people who call looking for support in a time of crisis. It is also informed by many years cultivating and teaching mindfulness. Everything I write here is a work in progress for me too.
The main thing that stops us from being available (mentally, emotionally, physically) for someone who is in a crisis is our own reactivity. The body’s brilliant fight (aggression)/flight (escape) reaction evolved to help us survive acute situations of danger. Reactivity kept our ancestors alive. The fight/flight reaction mobilises the body’s resources, narrows our attention and we focus on the danger. In the fight/flight reaction, the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive control centre, is subordinated to the basic drive to escape or retaliate. This is great if we are escaping danger. It is very unhelpful if we need to stay present, see the big picture and balance competing factors. In most of today’s challenges we really need our pre-frontal cortex on-line.
As we grow up and meet challenging situations successfully, we increase our capacity to stay present in difficulty and not get caught in reactivity. And still, for all of us, there is room for developing this capacity further. This is where mindfulness can come in. Mindfulness is both a systematic method for developing non-reactive, caring presence and a way of being. Contrary to many of the unhelpful popular depictions of mindfulness, mindfulness is not about escaping to your happy place. Rather, mindfulness is about staying present with your current reality – the good, the bad and the ugly – and learning to relate to it in a way that supports caring presence rather than feeds reactivity.
There are a variety of aspects of mindfulness training. A starting place is the training of attention. Our attention moves from thing to thing – reacting to changes in the environment and the thoughts and emotions that arise in the mind. Our attention can very easily get caught in thoughts and emotions. You know that experience when your mind is going over and over a situation that has passed, working out all the things you should have said, or why they are wrong and you are right or… It is also easy to get caught in thoughts of the future – planning an anticipated event for the fiftieth time – or worrying about something that might go wrong at the meeting tomorrow. Becoming aware where your attention is and learning to choose where to place the attention is a building block of mindfulness training. It is practised primarily through mindfulness meditation. Anchors for the attention in a mindfulness meditation include the body, the breath, sounds… all aspects of the present moment.
Informal mindfulness training can be practised at any time during the day. The process is to pause, notice where your attention is, and bring the attention onto something in the present moment. Right now, as I sit at my desk typing this, I can pause and feel my body in the seat, hear the neighbour’s car starting and see the view out the window. For a few moments I move my attention out of thinking (anticipating what I will write next) and allow it to rest on what I am experiencing through the senses. Other informal mindfulness practices include choosing to do a particular activity fully attentive to the experience (not caught in thoughts about something else). The activity could be swimming, walking the dog, driving, reading to your child, cooking, talking to your mother on the phone…
As we train our attention in this way we become aware of how much the mind wanders around, what our particular habits of mind are, and the situations that can trigger reactivity. We gain self-awareness through developing our capacity to be an observer of our emotions, thoughts and body. Without a doubt, at some point during mindfulness meditation we all get to see boredom, impatience, frustration and other forms of reactivity. This is very useful because we then have an opportunity to learn about these reactions, to relate to them with more skill than the usual resistance and to cultivate a non-reactive presence to reactivity itself! This isn’t easy and requires some persistence and repetition (and skilful instruction). The drive to escape discomfort, rather than learn to relate to it, is strong. The attitudinal components of mindfulness are vital here – curiosity, openness, non-judgementalness, acceptance, patience and care.
Over time, the mind training enhances our capacity to stay in non-reactive, caring presence with a growing variety of situations. We practice this in mindfulness meditation so that we can bring it into our interaction with others. As a Lifeline Telephone Crisis Supporter, there are many challenges that can trigger reactivity. Initially the challenge of asking a person if they are thinking of killing themselves can evoke a lot of discomfort and result in avoidance of the question. Depending on our individual conditioning certain callers will “press our buttons”: the lonely caller who rings Lifeline every day is annoying for some of us; the callers who have a distorted view of reality due to paranoia or another mental illness can confuse some of us and we feel inadequate; the caller whose own dysfunctional behaviour seems to be a major factor in their isolation can trigger blame and judgement in some of us; the caller who is being beaten by her partner can enrage some of us.
For me, my Achilles heel is triggered by the aggressive caller who from the time I answer the phone seems to be baiting and angry. I notice an immediate reactivity and defensive aggression arise in me. My body hardens, my focus narrows on self-protection and it is easy for me to say something sharp. Bringing mindfulness to these calls has been a great training ground. I now see angry callers as an opportunity to develop great ease and presence with aggressive people. This approach isn’t to throw away boundaries or let them walk all over me. It is simply an intention not to get side-tracked by their emotion but to meet their situation from a place that is more grounded and importantly, more able to listen. This is still a work in progress for me. A major benefit that comes from this approach is that the interaction has less likelihood of causing a flood of stress hormones and tension in me! Any reactivity is less intense, shorter lived and easier to let go.
Once we have developed our own stable presence, we can support a person down-regulate through a simple mindfulness technique of grounding through their senses. This helps move their attention away from the reactive thoughts that fuel the intense emotions of a situation and onto something neutral. I’ll leave that for another day.
Go well Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.