In a recent study reported in Science, researchers at the Universities of Virginia and Harvard (Wilson et al. 2014) showed across 11 studies that people typically cannot bear spending between six and fifteen minutes alone in a room just with their thoughts.
Participants unsurprisingly found spending time doing mundane tasks far more agreeable.
In one of the studies when these mundane distractions were unavailable, a staggering 67% of males and 25% of females voluntarily chose to administer a small static shock to themselves (one that previously they had stated they would be willing to pay not to receive again!) rather than suffer sitting there with nothing but their thoughts for company.
These findings are truly incredible – but they do make intuitive sense. If you take any commuter train for example, look around at your fellow passengers and see how many are busying themselves listening to music, catching up on last night’s TV, reading a newspaper, texting and so on (indeed, many of your fellow passengers may well be engaged in more than one of these tasks simultaneously!)
The findings from the Wilson research go some way, I think, to explaining the inexorable rise in mental health issues (both clinical and sub-clinical). This distaste for simply being with our self is, of course, not the only factor that makes us vulnerable to mental health issues, but is, I believe an important contributory element. But, crucially, it is something we can very easily do something about – with many, many positive benefits.
Currently, there is a huge interest in mindfulness – which is a wonderful and easy way to become comfortable with simply being with one self. Another tried and trusted approach is self hypnosis (which has much in common with many mindfulness practices).
The great stumbling block for many people, however, is getting over the initial discomfort that inevitably arises when we put away our distractions and simply focus on our awareness moment to moment.
The way we approach either mindfulness or self-hypnosis is vital. If we approach them with our usual ‘busy, busy must get it done’ attitude we are unlikely to get much benefit or persevere. A useful approach is what I call ‘relaxed curiosity.’ This attitude allows us to be curious about the experience and potential benefits without getting caught up in ‘doing it right’ or worrying about ‘doing it wrong.’
Perhaps the simplest mindfulness process is counting the breath (but just because it is simple doesn’t mean it is not powerful):
Find somewhere reasonably quiet (this is helpful but not essential – you can do this exercise on a busy train if you like) and sit upright with your palms resting on your thighs.
Breathe in slowly (ideally through the nose) and silently count one. As you breathe out (ideally through the mouth, but through the nose if you are in public and don’t want to feel self conscious) slowly count two.
Continue breathing slowly and counting each breath until you reach the count of 10, then start over at one again. If you lose your count simply start on the next in breath at one and continue for as long or as short as you wish/is appropriate.
You will find this simple exercise incredibly difficult if you insist that your mind goes blank and all you focus on is your breath and your counting. So, simply set the intention to gently focus on your breathing/counting and make space for whatever thoughts, body sensations (such as itches, tensions, relaxation etc.) occur without getting caught up in them.
If you do get distracted by a train of thought or a body sensation, congratulate yourself on noticing that your focus has wandered and gently bring your focus back to your breathing/counting.
Practise this process diligently, but gently, for a few weeks and you will notice many positive benefits, not least the ability to be with your self in a new, lighter way. If, however, you have tried this type of process before and didn’t reap the rewards, then you might benefit from a one-to-one session learning a range of mindfulness and self-hypnosis techniques. So, do feel free to contact me if you would like to explore the value of a one-to-one teaching session.
I am a UKCP-registered psychotherapist. My core training is in clinical hypnosis, NLP, EMDR and mindfulness. I have consulting rooms in London and Epsom, Surrey.
Wilson, T.D. Reinhard, D.A. Westgate, E.C. Gilbert, D.T. Ellerbeck, N. Hahn, C. Brown, C.L. Shaked, A. ‘Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind’, Science 345:75–7.
Photo credit: by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash