Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Using Active Mindfulness for ALS Stress Management

Recently, I learned how to pay attention!

I mean REALLY pay attention - - as in the ability to stay focused all the way through eating a meal, exercising or even chatting with a friend - - ignoring all potential distractions.

As a result of learning the technique I feel that I am in more control, have more awareness and am moving safely.

How? It's super-easy, and you can learn to do it too!

We all do it. Spend way too much time relying on our body's autopilot while our minds are stuck in a nonstop mental chatter.

The constant babble often to blame for everything from misplacing the car keys, leaving the grocery list at home or that infamous question, "Why did I walk into this room?"

Most of us can navigate through life fairly well in this state of "semi-awareness." But for those of us living with ALS - - autopilot is no longer an option. Even little things, like a sudden step backwards or a quick gulp of drink can quickly turn into a dangerous situation.

The best way to pay attention is to be mindful. Pop culture calls it "being in the present moment." It's a neutral, relaxed state of mind that is taught by learning to sit quietly and observe one's own thoughts. This traditional method takes time, patience and is justifiably a very good mind-body pursuit. But with the onset of my own ALS symptoms I was reminded that my time should be used wisely. I needed something that worked right away.

Researching the topic, I found Active Mindfulness, a technique developed by Ellen Langer, PhD.
Dr. Langer is a Harvard professor who has spent the past forty years studying how we pay attention.

I highly recommend her book, Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition Mindfulness, (LINK)  which provides an in-depth yet easy to read explanation of the entire process. A quicker way to become more familiar with Active Mindfulness is through one of her many excellent video interviews. (LINK).

Her version of mindfulness allows us to be mentally active and fully engaged with our surroundings and - - whatever activity we're doing at the time. It's based on tapping into our brain's sense of curiosity and is accomplished through three simple steps:
Here's a quick example:

Say, you walk into the kitchen and can't remember why.
Step 1, is thinking something like, "Hey...I must have been daydreaming!"
Step 2. is to immediately look at your surroundings and identify five things.

In the photo, there's a white handle on the microwave, a blue pot on the stove, a white bear in the corner, a flower on the wall and finally, the red bowl in front of you.

You are now in the present moment!

For Step 3, continue your awareness of your surroundings - - as if you're looking at it for the first time; a brand new space that you've never visited before.

The most important part of the sequence is Step 1; that is,catching yourself in the state of mindless semi-awareness. I like how Dr. Langer puts it: "When you're not there, you're not there to know you're not there!"

The challenge is to lengthen the time spent being actively mindful. For instance, a wonderful experience is to be fully present during an entire conversation with another person. No tuning out, losing interest or wandering thoughts.

Now for something very interesting:

Dr. Langer has been involved in research (LINK) studying the mental and physical benefits of Active Mindfulness for persons with ALS. A recent four-month long study with 197 participants produced pretty impressive results.*

Results impressive enough that the ALS Association (ALSA) recently awarded
Dr. Langer a grant (LINK) to continue her research with ALS patients!

Once further information is posted as to how we PALS can participate I'll share it here.

Active Mindfulness does more than boost my memory and well-being. I use it during any activity that involves my personal safety such as, standing up and taking a step forward or entering and exiting the car. With the increased awareness, I'm also better at listening to my body; catching the early stages of being tired, thirsty or small physical changes.

If you are living with ALS, I encourage YOU to give Active Mindfulness a try as well - - and share your experiences in the comment section below.

*Psychol Health. 2014 Nov 26:1-15. [Epub ahead of print]
Mindfulness, physical impairment and psychological well-being in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Pagnini F1, Phillips D, Bosma MC, Reece A, Langer E.

For more information:
Book:      Mindfulness, the 25th Edition
Video:    Ellen Langer, PhD interview on mindfulness


  1. I need to take some lessons from you....this is all very good advice! It is so hard for me to be "in the moment" sometimes!

  2. Amazing post.Thank you very much for this important post.


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