Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mindfulness and Anhedonia

So in my meditation class tonight there was a woman who was talking about how she can achieve a certain amount of peace, but then came into work yesterday and was surprised at how irritated she got at a co-worker and how she felt that he took away her peace. She was confused because in the past, it wouldn't have bothered her as much. This raises a good point about what meditation actually does that I felt like sharing.

Prolonged mindfulness practice involves paying attention to what is actually going on in your mind, it is *not* a way to "bliss out". See, a lot of our everyday experience involves us getting constantly distracted, not really feeling our emotions, and just going on autopilot most of the time. When you start actually paying attention, emotions that you haven't been dealing with can rise up and shock you with their intensity, and at the beginning, it can actually make you feel worse as your usual reactivity to them goes apeshit.

The reason this happens, at least in my experience, is because you have actually been suppressing them a bit. Now, for the so-called "negative" emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, etc, that doesn't seem like a totally bad thing, but the problem is that you end up doing it with the so-called positive emotions as well, joy, love, happiness. This can lead to my old friend (like Kirk and Khan), anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. And that one sucks. Not because you're miserable all the time, because you're not. It's that you're either miserable, or just "ok". All valleys, no peaks.

For a short time, anyone can deal with that, but as it persists, the desire to shoot oneself in the face increases, because from one's own experience, there really is nothing much to live for, just suffering relieved by periods of lack of suffering, but no actual happiness. Everything becomes drudgery. Try to imagine every single task in your life feeling like a chore that you need to do to satisfy someone else, and you get absolutely no reward for it. But you have to keep at it when all you want to do is lay in bed. There's no relief aside from the brief periods of not feeling an acute desire to be dead. Some people like to quote the statistics for depressives who kill themselves as an indicator of the seriousness of the problem, and it is, but when I hear those numbers, my immediate reaction is always how low they are. Anhedonia is a motherfucker.

Anyway, back to meditation. What you learn in mindfulness is to not fight those "negative" emotions, but to sit with them and fully experience them. You look them right in the face and say "I am feeling this anger right now. I am not going to distract myself with something else, I am going to fully experience this." You pay close attention to every sensation. The increased heart rate, the tensing up of all your muscles, that little metallic taste in the back of your throat (adrenaline), all of those fight or flight chemical reactions going off in your body. It feels fucking horrible, but then something surprising happens. It can't sustain itself.

See, normally when these emotions happen, it comes with the internal dialogue constantly running through our body, and we're basically arguing with ourselves because we don't want to feel it. But that act of fighting keeps renewing the flow of fight or flight chemicals, and it prolongs our misery. When you sit down and decide to just experience it without resistance, it wears itself out comparatively quickly. Now, I'm not saying it will do this your first time, although if you're lucky, it might. But the act of embracing the feeling, deciding "OK, I'm going to feel this fully" without fighting lets it work its way through your system and then be done with it. As long as you're not constantly re-charging the batteries of the miserable experience, it will end, and then you can get on with your day.

This takes a LOT of practice, and isn't often talked about in most popular treatments of meditation. This is not "a moment of Zen" in the popular sense. This is deciding to sit down and confront your reactions head on, and it's fucking hard to do. At first. As with everything, it gets easier with practice. You just have to decide to actually do it, and not continue with avoidance behavior.

There is a popular misconception that the equanimity one seeks via meditation means that you end up in a state of calm all the time, with no peaks and valleys. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's more like you experience all of your emotions even more potently than before. For someone with depression and anxiety like myself, that's pretty daunting at first, and gives one pause. "I've been suicidal, should I really do this?" I won't speak for anyone else, but I decided to go for it. Because in addition to those scary emotions being felt more deeply, you feel the positive ones more deeply as well, so there is a pay off. The difference is that now, as I've come to accept the impermanence of all of this shit, the scary emotions aren't as scary because with the meditation (and CBT) they don't last as long because I'm not constantly fighting with them. Also, the positive feelings are less tainted by the anxiety that they will go away. I recognize that they are fleeting, and I'm grasping after them less, since I'm experiencing them much more fully than I have before. When they go away, it's not fun, but it bothers me less. I know that the scary stuff won't last, and the good stuff will come around sooner or later, so I'm much more able to maintain the state of calm in between the peaks and valleys.

And that's why I give a shit about all this, B-)