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Fusako Koshikawa

A Timeless Technique for Curing an Impending “Mental Cold”

Fusako Koshikawa
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The season of fresh spring green glowing in the brilliant blue sky has arrived. This season is also, however, a time when many people suffer from mental disorders due to fatigue from a new life that started in April. This is called gogatsu-byo (May disease) in Japanese, and its symptoms include sleeplessness, chronic fatigue, lethargy, anxiety, restlessness, and the like. If you recognize any of these symptoms, you should take action before they become serious, as you do when you are catching a cold. A “mental cold” is the same as a “physical cold” in that it is crucial to deal with it at its nascent phase.

One of the theories explaining why a mental cold should be dealt with early is Teasdale’s differential activation hypothesis (Figure 1). According to this hypothesis, even those who are usually not pessimistic tend to fall into a pessimistic way of thinking when they feel down, leading to still deeper gloom. Moreover, they may feel anxiety about the very fact that they feel gloomy, which may in turn cause them to feel worse, a state called secondary depression. This deteriorated melancholy then makes them interpret events pessimistically – and this vicious cycle substantially affects the onset and recurrence of depression. This is one theory of the pathogenic mechanism which particularly regards depression, but I suspect that other kinds of mental disorder, such as anxiety, also follow the same process. In order to prevent further deterioration of mental disorders, therefore, it is important to escape from this spiral at its first stage.

One particularly useful technique to deter this vicious cycle is the mindfulness meditation practice. This meditation practice, which has been used in Buddhist asceticism since ancient times, has proved to be effective against melancholy, anxiety, overeating, and so on and is recently drawing attention in clinical psychology as well, especially in cognitive behavior therapy. One of the reasons that this practice is attracting attention is that it controls stress through an approach that is profoundly different from existing countermeasures against stress. Many of the existing countermeasures attempt to change stressors themselves (e.g., by avoiding occasions of speaking in public) or to change the meaning of stressors (e.g., by converting the idea that “you must speak well” into “what you speak about is more important than how well you speak”). On the other hand, the mindfulness meditation is an approach involving a change in one’s relationship with stressors. The core of the mindfulness meditation is to “simply keep watching events as they unfold without making any evaluation or interpretation.” This mental attitude changes the focus on life as a series of issues to “solve” into a series of events to “observe with curiosity,” in order to know what will occur next.

Why is this mental attitude effective in alleviating mental disorders? Judging or interpreting that something has not gone well almost automatically causes the following reactions: First, negative emotions emerge. Then the usual reactions start in order to bring the present unacceptable state as close as possible to a desirable one. If the usual reactions are successful, there is no problem, but if they fail to produce the desired result, these reactions are automatically repeated, resulting in further deterioration of the situation. For example, we sometimes obsess about the gap between present and desirable states. Instead of considering how to close the gap, we are preoccupied with the gap itself. This obsessive thinking, repeated with negative emotion, recalls past failures or creates anxiety about the future resulting from this emotional condition, further intensifying and reinforcing the negative emotion. In this way, we fall into the vicious cycle mentioned above.

Figure 1: J. D. Teasdale’s differential activation hypothesis

Mindfulness meditation is a highly effective technique to break this spiral. First, by suspending evaluation or judgment, we can cut off the resulting negative emotion and avoid falling into the spiral. Second, by avoiding the usual reactions – i.e., by refraining from interpreting the events occurring before our eyes in a way that leads to the usual reactions – and instead seeing the events before our eyes as they truly are, we can notice important factors that were long overlooked. Many company executives, who are often forced to make critical decisions, like to practice Zen contemplation or meditation, probably because they realize its effectiveness from their own experiences.Because we are typically in the habit of evaluating and automatically responding to the perceived gap between the present and desirable states, we need to train our “mental muscle” to suspend such evaluations and see events as they truly are. One advantage of mindfulness meditation is that we can easily practice it anytime. Mastering an unconventional countermeasure against stress such as mindfulness meditation will lead to more flexible and effective daily management of stress.

Reference: Fusako Koshikawa, Exercise for a Lighter Mind [Kokoro ga Karukunaru Ekusasaizu] (Tokyo Shoseki)

For those who are interested in how to practice mindfulness meditation or stress management, this book introduces 23 techniques for stress management that are useful and easy-to-understand.

Fusako Koshikawa
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Biography and publications]

Prof. Koshikawa majored in psychology and graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University. After serving at a mental clinic as a clinical psychologist, she finished the Master’s Program in Psychology at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University and withdrew from its Doctoral Program after finishing the required coursework. She assumed her current position after serving as Assistant Professor and Associate Professor for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Waseda University. Prof. Koshikawa’s major publications include Horizons in Buddhist Psychology-Practice, Research & Theory (as a co-editor and writer, Taos Institute Publication); Personality Psychology Handbook [Seikaku-shinrigaku Handobukku] (as a co-editor and writer, Fukumura Shuppan); Countermeasures against Children’s Stress: Manual for Curing Children of Intense Anxiety [Kodomo no Sutoresu Taisho-ho: Fuan no Tsuyoi Ko no Chiryo Manyuaru] (as a co-translator, Iwasaki Gakujutsu Shuppansha); The Mindfulness Cognitive Therapy [Maindofurunesu Ninchi Ryoho] (as the translation supervisor, Kitaoji Shobo); Exercise for a Lighter Mind [Kokoro ga Karukunaru Ekusasaizu] (as the supervisor, Tokyo Shoseki), etc.