Attention, please!

Did you know, some researchers believe that 90% of our behaviour is carried out automatically? That’s what we’ve been looking at in my Mindfulness-Based Tinnitus Management classes this week.

A clear example of automatic behaviour is driving a car. If you’re an experienced driver you will likely not be aware of the process of changing gears, the movement of your feet while doing so, and the way you hold the steering wheel. And that’s really useful. Can you imagine having to think carefully about driving like you did when you were learning? It would be exhausting!

Thoughts patterns can become automatic too – if we get given work at 5pm, when we’re planning to leave work on time to meet friends, then we might automatically start to feel angry and frustrated. None of that helps us leave on time, but we feel it anyway. We spend the time we need to be working raging in our heads about the injustice of it all, stressing about how late we’re going to be to meet friends, maybe even planning various lingering deaths for our boss.

So, automatic patterns aren’t always useful! But how do we start to release those habits?

Mindfulness encourages us to pay attention to the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that we’re experiencing right now. This reduces the chance of us reacting impulsively and automatically. So, instead of getting angry and stressed about the last minute work we might instead notice how frustrating it is, and how angry we feel, but then choose to message our friends that we’re going to be late and resign ourselves to getting the work done as efficiently as we can.

By paying attention we can recognise automatic reactions and patterns. And that gives us the opportunity to change them. Let’s imagine that our tinnitus changes sound or gets louder. Whether we’ve had months or years of tinnitus it won’t have taken us long to develop automatic thoughts about these changes such as:

“This must mean something’s wrong with me”

“is this going to last forever?”

“I can’t cope with this!”

“I can’t concentrate – I’m going to lose my job”

And with these thoughts come the clenched teeth, panicky breathing, knotted stomach, hunched shoulders and headache. Why? Because our thoughts affect how we feel, and then how we feel feeds back into our thoughts. We end up in this frustrating cycle:

Sound familiar? I know – I’ve been right where you are.

Even if we notice this cycle we often employ strategies like suppression (“mustn’t grumble”) or putting things in perspective (“it could be worse – at least it’s not…”). These not only fail to get us out of the cycle but actually pull us back in it. The more we attempt to avoid or get rid of the thoughts and feelings, the more they persist.

So how can we help ourselves? Mindfulness trains us to notice that we are worrying or ruminating about our tinnitus and pause for a moment. It teaches us to re-focus our attention on our experience right now, in the present moment. It enables us to let the emotion be and become aware of the thoughts that automatically arise from it.

The result is that we disrupt the cycle – the ping-pong between thoughts and emotions – and step off the tinnitus rollercoaster. And, believe me that is really liberating!