Living with a partner or spouse can be a potentially stressful situation – especially when it comes to both knee-jerk reaction rows and long-term simmering stress.
Quite simply, when you know someone so well, it’s very easy to lash out without thinking.
Counselling and psychotherapy can help teach mindfulness techniques that allow you to put an end to acting without thinking – which means that you can approach potential conflict in a relationship without it spiralling into a screaming match.
Much of how we react within relationships is determined by our earliest experiences – which, in turn, hardwire specific reactions within a region of our brain called the amygdala which looks after our emotions, emotional behaviour and motivations.
That means that when we or our partners “push our buttons” they are doing just that – enacting a chain chemical reaction which causes us to flare up just as we would have done when we first encountered those neurochemicals as a child.
Left to its own devices, the amygdala will keep on producing the same results throughout our lives creating abandonment issues, attachment issues and negative knee-jerk reactions.
But studies in mindfulness have shown that the brain’s “hard-wiring” isn’t so inflexible and we can change not just the way we think, but the actual physical make-up of our grey matter.
This 2005 study published in NeuroReport found experienced meditators had an increased thickness in the brain regions associated with attention and sensory, and this 2011 study from Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention created increases in the grey responsible for memory and learning. Another 2012 study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found long-term meditators had increased gyrification, or folding of the cortex, which appeared to be involved in emotion regulation and self-awareness.
So that’s how mindfulness can work when it comes to the big picture and how you deal with forming relationships. But how does it help in everyday situations?
Dr Donna Rockwell puts it nicely when she says mindfulness “creates this space, it takes us out of the catastrophe” leaving “a lot more heart available”. And research out of the University of Oregon gives more scientific rigour to this.
The study revealed that couples showed lower levels of cortisol in their saliva (and standard test for stress) during and after rows if they practised mindfulness techniques.
When you feel the anger boiling up, it’s often triggered by an emotion linked to pain from earlier relationships. Being able to acknowledge that without reacting in a split-second emotional way, helps give you time to balance a) how you wish to respond with b) how you think you would react instinctively.
Dr Marsha Lucas promotes what she calls “circuit-breakers” – techniques such as pausing for six seconds a few times a day or taking deep breaths – which she says helps reset the nervous system so you’re less likely to react without thinking to any conflict as part of your relationship.
Robert Street Clinic has a number of couples counselling specialists who are able to discuss mindfulness techniques as part of a way to help you and your partner experience a more loving relationship.