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Why We Need To Learn To Sit With Discomfort

It does wonders to the brain.

02/11/2016 2:34 PM AEDT | Updated 04/11/2016 7:24 AM AEDT
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Sitting with discomfort isn't natural.

'Be comfortable being uncomfortable.'

It is a phrase that's sometimes tossed around flippantly, but if put into practice, it can have a powerful impact.

Pain and unpleasantries make up an important part of the human experience, yet given our conditioning to lean towards safety and away from risk, accepting them is very unnatural.

"Humans seem to have developed a host of coping mechanisms to distract or dissociate ourselves from unpleasant or negative feelings," Dr Muireann Irish, Senior Research Officer at Neuroscience Research Australia, told The Huffington Post Australia.

From reaching for a glass of red in the evening after a stressful day in the office to resisting physical sensations of grief or anxiety, humans tend to withdraw from situations bearing any form of unpleasantry.

Why?

Quite simply, it just doesn't feel good.

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What is your favourite drop distracting you from?

Understanding aversion

"Aversion is a physiological or emotional response to a stimulus or occurrence that indicates that it should be avoided," Dr Irish said. "Aversions are typically accompanied by the desire to withdraw from the aversive entity or to avoid it altogether."

Consider that familiar feeling of disgust that comes in response to eating a type of food that was followed by illness or vomiting.

"These conditioned taste aversions occur even when we consciously know that the food itself had no bearing on the subsequent illness," Dr Irish said.

But they can be incredibly powerful -- to the point where we avoid that food for a lifetime.

Distraction techniques may range from the seemingly innocuous glass of wine following a tough day at work, to overeating to mask feelings of loneliness, or even to severe cases of self-harm.

"The rapid and enduring nature of these associations suggests that aversions are evolutionarily advantageous, serving an important survival function and ensuring that we are biologically predisposed to avoid foods that could potentially make us ill in the future."

As a result, behavioural psychologists will use conditioned aversions to stamp out maladaptive behaviours -- from addictions and obsessions to violent behaviours.

But when we revert back to the unpleasant feelings and sensations that we may wish to avoid in our daily lives, aversion can also be counterproductive.

"Distraction techniques may range from the seemingly innocuous glass of wine... to overeating to mask feelings of loneliness, or even to severe cases of self-harm such as cutting or burning," Irish said.

"Whether such techniques are innate or learned from our environments is up for debate. However, it is generally agreed that distancing ourselves from negative emotions can limit our effectiveness to cope with life's challenges."

Peter Dazeley
Sit tight.

Sitting with discomfort

Consider the physical sensations that arise when your body feels stressed or anxious. Instead of resisting them, try to sit with them.

"Mindfulness builds on the premise of maintaining a focus on experiencing the present, even if that means attending to the experience of negative sensations," Irish said.

What is fascinating is the changes in brain activity that are associated with this kind of attentive practice.

"In particular, engaging in mindfulness has been associated with increased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region located deep in the brain, behind the frontal lobe."

This part of the brain is crucial for planning and suppressing impulsive reactions, in turn enabling us to make more effective decisions when faced with aversive circumstances.

By doing so, you will start to relate differently to unpleasant feelings and sensations -- and understand that they too, will pass.

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