COMMENTARY

Mindfulness Can Help Patients Manage 'Good' Change – and Relief

Greg Sazima, MD

March 02, 2021

Two themes have emerged recently in my psychotherapy practice, and in the mirror: relief and exhaustion. Some peace in the public discourse, or at least a pause in the ominous discord, has had the effect of a lightening, an unburdening. Some release from a contracted sense of tension around the specifics of violence and a broader sense of civil fracture has been palpable like a big, deep breath, exhaled. No sensible person would mistake this for being out of the metaphoric woods. A virus menaces and mutates, economic woes follow, and lots of us don't get along. But, yes, there is some relief, some good change.

But even good change, even a downshift into relief, can pose some challenges to look for and overcome.

Consider for a moment the notion that every change represents a loss, a metaphoric "death" of the prior state of things. This is true of big, painful losses, like the death of a loved one, and small ones, like finding an empty cookie jar. It's also true in changes we associate with benefit or relief: a refund check, a job promotion, a resolving migraine, or the breaking out of some civility.

In changes of all sorts, the world outside of one's mind has shifted – at odds, momentarily, with our inner, now obsolete understanding of that changed world. The inside of the head does not match the outside. How we make that adjustment, so "inside = outside," is a clinically familiar process: it's grieving, with a sequence famously elaborated upon by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD,1 and others.

We all likely know the steps: shock/denial, anger, "bargaining," depression, and acceptance. A quick review: Our initial anxious/threat reaction leads to grievous judgment, to rationalizing "woulda/coulda/shoulda's," then to truly landing in the disappointment of a loss or change, and the accepting of a new steady state. Inside proceeds to match outside.

So, what then of relief? How do we process "good" change? I think we still must move from "in ≠ out" to "in = out," navigating some pitfalls along the way.

Initial threat often remains; apprehension of the "new" still can generate energy, and even a sense of threat, regardless of a kiss or a shove. Our brainstems run roughshod over this first phase.

Step two is about judgment. We can move past the threat to, "How do I feel about it?" Here's where grievous feeling gets swapped out for something more peak-positive – joy, or relief if the change represents an ending of a state of suffering, tension, or uncertainty.

The "bargaining" step still happens, but often around a kind of testing regimen: Is this too good to be true? Is it really different? We run scenarios.

The thud of disappointment also gets a makeover. It's a settling into the beneficial change and its associations: gratitude, a sense of energy shifting.

The bookend "OK" seems anodyne here – why would anyone not accept relief, some good change?2 But it can nevertheless represent a challenge for many. The receding tension of the last year could open into a burst of energy, but I'm finding that exhaustion is just as or more common. That's not illness, but a weary exhaling from the longest of held breaths.

One other twist: What happens when one of those steps is an individual obstacle, trigger, or hard-to-hold state? Especially for those with deep experience in disappointment or even trauma, buying into acceptance of a new normal can feel like a fool's game. This is an especially complex spot for individuals who won't quite allow for joyful acceptance to break out, lest it reveals itself as a humiliating trick or a too-brief respite from the "usual."

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, are helpful in managing this process. Committed time and optimal conditions to witness and adapt to the various inner states that ebb and flow generate a clear therapeutic benefit. Incorporating meditation training into my work with psychotherapy patients also becomes a kind of diagnostic force multiplier. Patients improve their identification of somatic manifestations, emotional reactions, and cycling ruminations of thought. What generates distraction and loss of mindful attention becomes better recognized. Contemplative work in between sessions becomes more productive.

What else do I advise?3 Patience, and some compassion for ourselves in this unusual time. Grief, and relief, are complex but truly human processes that generate not just one state of experience, but a cascade of them. While that cascade can hurt, it's actually normal, not illness. But it can be exhausting.

Sazima is a Northern California psychiatrist, educator, and author. He is senior behavioral faculty at the Stanford-O'Connor Family Medicine Residency Program in San José, Calif. His latest book is "Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners," Miami: Mango Publishing, 2021. Sazima disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

References

1. Kübler-Ross E. "On Death And Dying," New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

2. Selye H. "Stress Without Distress," New York: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1974.

3. Sazima G. "Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners," Miami: Mango Publishing, 2021.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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