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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

How Your Mind Sabotages Your Best Intentions: 3 Steps to Breaking Free

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 25th 2009

unlocking mindA recent New York Times article explored the positive neurological effects that exercise can have as a stress-buffer in the brain. One of the main things that popped out at me in the article was toward the end:

"But the lesson, Dr. Greenwood says, is 'don't quit.' Keep running or cycling or swimming. (Animal experiments have focused exclusively on aerobic, endurance-type activities.) You may not feel a magical reduction of stress after your first jog, if you haven't been exercising. But the molecular biochemical changes will begin, Dr. Greenwood says. And eventually, he says, they become 'profound.'"

This is an age old lesson about perseverance, but has really become underscored in the world of neuroscience lately.

So what's the obstacle?

For one thing, it's important to understand that the mind is an anticipatory machine. It's constantly on the lookout for any sign of danger or what's next.

So when we're hung up with expectations when we're exercising or even meditating, the mind is constantly looking for improvement or feelings of relief. Any sign that it is not getting this raises a red flag and it can easily tumble into a ruminative cycle sabotage.

For example, when we're meditating for the purpose of relaxation, any sign the mind sees that relaxation isn't occurring (e.g., busy mind or feelings of annoyance arising), it will begin to worry about why it's not working, adding to the distress that is there. At some point, we just say, "oh forget it, this doesn't work for me" and stop.

This happens all the time.

What's the Solution?

Well, let's just call it an experiment.

  1. Lay down the pathways - Understand that we're laying down new neural pathways every time we engage in a new activity, no matter the result.

  2. For it's own sake - Engage in the practice just for the sake of laying down those new tracks in the brain, not for the purpose of any immediate satisfaction. You may get satisfaction out of it, but the primary intention is just to lay down the tracks.

  3. Don't expect miracles - Again, the mind is going to be on the lookout for this and will hamper your ability to sustain discipline if miracles are expected.

It's not easy to change old habits because they are well worn into our brains. We've practiced them for a very long time. Therefore, we need to lay down new tracks.

So be kind to yourself in the process and thank yourself each time you lay down a new track, no matter the result.

Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Walking Helps - really - Dec 13th 2009
I suffer from Agoraphobia but if I can walk there or get in a walk before I leave for the event I'm just fine. I make a conscience decision and choice to walk just about everyday. I have a membership to the gym which I love. I can only enter the facilty certain times of the day but if I didn't exercise me my brain and disorders would turn into mush. Thx!

Mind Sabotages Best Intentions - breaking free. - Carol M. Mak - Dec 8th 2009

This article seems to ring true for me.  I lost my car in a wreck, I couldn't afford to buy another one.  In the last 4 months, I've walked virtually everywhere I go.  I feel much better for this.  I've waked every other day to the grocery store for food so I could carry it back home in small quantities.  I've enjoyed building up my legs and this is also benefiting my physical fitness regarding my heart and even I think, my lungs (even tho I walk along a street that pollutes with car fumes).  I do at times put a cloth across my nose and mouth to filter out the worse fumes.  So all-in-all, I've definately noticed that I am far happier and have achieved a level of better mood for being outdoors and doing something worthwhile for myself.  It creates a sense of positive change, a sense that I'm contributing to "less pollution since I have no car" - and I am just better all over!  Depression seems to disappear when I look up at the sky and see the wonderful space - blue or even what - I'm outside, breathing and living!  Never thought I'd say these words.  It's all thanks to my car being gone!! amazing - isn't it?  I think so. ((hugs)) Carol

What a releif to feel happy.  By the way - confidentially, I live in London, Ontario, Canada...a medium sized city, that is growing.

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