Mindfulness, meditation and self-talk are important ways of helping yourself when you’re depressed, stressed out, anxious or emotional. They’ve been shown to help handle feelings and are actually often used as components of the most helpful forms of therapy, cognitive therapy.
Why is it important to talk about these three techniques, especially for those with Asperger’s?
Two typical traits for those with Asperger’s are black and white thinking and a tendency to ruminate, to stew thinking about something. With black and white thinking, we see things in extremes, all bad or all good. When we’re depressed, that tends to be all bad.
All bad isn’t realistic; life is always a mix. Things don’t always go wrong. People aren’t always hostile or rejecting. Ruminating means dwelling on something, usually negative when we’re depressed. As we dwell on our thoughts, they tend to become more dramatic, more overwhelming, more conclusive of our negativity. It’s like a downward spiral.
Both black and white thinking and rumination focus on the past, revisiting what has happened, or in the future, anticipating what might happen. We’re rarely in the present. Most often, at this exact moment, nothing too stressful is happening.
The point of mindfulness as an outlook, a way of being, is that it focuses on the present moment – our awareness of what’s happening right now.
Mindfulness exercises include activities that force us to focus on the here and now. Focus can be on attending to our breath, what we hear, bodily sensations, or what we’re doing, like the feelings of washing dishes, the soap on our hands, the feeling of the water, the texture of the plate and glass. This pulls us out of the past and future into the present, which tends to be calmer.
Meditation is a practice for both the body and mind.
When we’re emotionally aroused or stressed, our entire autonomic nervous system is activated. Blood pressure goes up, breathing changes, stress hormones race through our bodies, and every system is affected.
We can be stressed in this way both by what goes on in the moment and by what goes on in our minds – thinking about something can trigger the same physical stress response as being in that moment. Emotionally we’re at a high level of arousal, regardless of what’s happening in the moment. Meditation turns off the stress response, and teaches our bodies what Herbert Benson of Harvard calls the “relaxation response.” Meditation has actually been scientifically proven to structurally change the brain to be more stress-resilient.
When we meditate we become calmer physically and emotionally, and we come into the present moment. We learn to let go of thoughts and feelings and begin to recognize them to be what they are, thoughts and feelings that change.
This allows us to step back from all that negative thinking and rumination, and realize that those thoughts are only thoughts, and feelings only feelings. Thoughts and feelings pass, and no matter how extreme, they are not all there is to reality. It’s like having a program taking up your whole computer screen, and then minimizing it so that it’s just an icon in the corner – still there, but not crowding out everything else.
There are three components to mediation.
The first is breathing, slightly slower and deeper at first, and then normal breathing. The second component is having a focus, which can be anything repetitive. The third component is letting go of thoughts and feelings that come. When you realize you no longer are focused, you simply return to your focus. There is no messing this up; everyone becomes distracted by thoughts or feelings.
One form of mediation that’s popular now is called mindfulness meditation.
You sit or lie down, breathe, and focus on the feeling of your breath, what you hear, your physical sensations, or any actual experience of the moment. As thoughts and feelings come, you simply go back to your focus when you realize that you’re thinking.
There are other forms of meditation, and all forms of meditation work equally well in teaching our bodies and minds the “relaxation response.”
- Transcendental meditation involves repeating a mantra, and you can also repeat any phrase or word that appeals to you.
- Progressive body relaxation involves focusing on parts of your body from your scalp down to your toes, being aware of tightness, and allowing that tightness to relax.
- Meditative yoga (not hot yoga or power yoga) can be a meditation; walking, swimming or any repetitive activity can be a focus.
You do need to be somewhere or doing something that doesn’t require thinking, so driving, watching TV or playing video games can’t be a focus. For myself, I often find it’s much easier to follow a guided meditation than to sit or walk for 10 minutes on my own, but that’s up to the individual.
There are many guided meditations available through phone apps.
Headspace is an app for learning to meditate. Calm has a body meditation setting and Buddhify has meditations on specific subjects, such as dealing with difficult feelings, walking, taking a break. Insight Timer has a focus in Eastern philosophical practices, but it has thousands of meditations that can be searched by subject and length of time as well as a timer to be used with a choice of background music or sounds. Unlike the others, Insight Timer is completely free.
There are also excellent meditations for sleep, such as the app iSleepEasy and many meditations on Insight Timer, such as Relax Into Sleep. Sleep meditations can be helpful if you have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night.
Meditation and being mindfully present help us when we are overwhelmed by feelings in two major ways:
- First, they help us self-calm to at least some extent. This makes it possible to ride the wave of feeling without being immersed in it. We might discover that calming ourselves gives us a chance to use other strategies for riding out bad feelings, such as taking a walk or listening to music.
- Second, the calming allows us to access our thinking capabilities, the prefrontal cortex of our brains, so that we can think more realistically. We need to think to counteract the negative distorted thoughts of depression.
In cognitive therapy, you learn to identify the key negative ideas you tell yourself: “I’m a failure” ; “Nothing I do is right” ; “I have to be perfect to be good enough” ; “Nobody cares about me,” as examples. To quote a professor of existential psychology, Dr. James Bugenthal, “It’s not one thing after another. It’s the same thing over and over.” These core negative thoughts occur over and over, underlying the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Anything that agrees with these thoughts we hold onto as evidence “proving” they are right; anything that would disprove these thoughts we dismiss.
As a simple example, let’s say a core belief was that you were terrible in math. If you did poorly on a math test, you’d think “I knew I was terrible in math.” If you did well on a math test, you’d think, “It was an easy test. Everyone did well,” or “That was a fluke.”
When you identify a core thought underlying your feelings, and you are calm and in the present moment, you can often recognize the thought as a distortion.
Noone is perfect, all bad, or always rejected. You can create a positive thought that expresses this balancing: “I don’t have to be perfect, noone is” ; “I’ve been good at some things” ; “I do have people who care,” etc. Having a positive thought is more balanced and actually more realistic. All-negative thoughts are distortions of reality that bring us down. Being able to recognize these distortions and use positive “self-talk” is a proven way of treating depression.
The best things about mindfulness, meditation and self-talk is that they are basically free (some apps have in app charges if you choose those) and are completely portable. Once you have learned to meditate, recognize the negative thoughts that recur, and come up with ways to talk back. You now have scientifically studied and proven tools for combatting depression and stress in your toolbox. Anyone can learn to use these tools, they are easily accessed online or in books, and they work.
by Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.
Dr. Marcia Eckerd has been in practice as a licensed psychologist since 1985. I am on the CT ASD Advisory Council and the Clinical Advisory Committee of the Aspergers/Autism Association of New England, as well the professional advisory board of Smart Kids with LD. Aspergers101 is honored to offered the knowledge and experience of Dr. Eckerd through her informative blogs!