Mindfulness Awareness Stabilization Training
MAST is a neuroscience informed program for mental health that teaches emotion regulation skills through mindfulness practices and psychoeducation about self-regulation and the brain. MAST was developed to provide a simple, user friendly curriculum for people struggling with anxiety, depression, and stress in their lives and in need of timely access to resources and tools to improve their mental health.
Below is a description and rationale for each of the sessions.
Session 1: Mindfulness and the ‘Window of Tolerance”
The purpose of MAST is to introduce people who are suffering from anxiety and depression to mindfulness practices that they can build upon over the four sessions and gradually feel more balanced and present in their lives. Introducing mindfulness to people who are living with high levels of stress and distress, usually the case for people seeking help for mental health services, can be a huge challenge. The idea of sitting in silence, watching the breath and a stream of anxious thoughts can create more distress and not bring the feeling of peace and that is so desperately needed. Rather than not teach mindfulness to people in distress, the idea behind MAST is to teach short, tolerable practices that get easier over time and help calm the nervous system. The first meditation is a three minute guided meditation called the three minute breathing space adapted from the MBCT program.
Mindfulness is the capacity to observe our present moment experience, be it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We can be in mindful state only when we are within our window of tolerance, with the ability to observe our thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are in the moment, including the difficult ones. Over time, the ability to stay in present with our feelings becomes easier and we can learn to ride the waves of our emotions, rather than get stuck in reactivity and survival mode.
In the first session of MAST we explore this concept as it applies to our own lives and how we can build resilience by widening the window of tolerance through mindfulness and self-care. People suffering from trauma may find themselves outside of the window much of the time so the priority is to use grounding practices to help them feel safe and get back into the window. This understanding can be a huge relief to people who believe that mindfulness doesn’t work for them after trying it and feeling like they failed.
Session 2: Mindfulness and the Brain
The regular practice of mindfulness builds resilience by changing the neural networks of our brain. Understanding the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change with experience and practice, provides the motivation that we need to consistently engage with mindfulness practice so that we can experience this gradual change.
Learning about how the brain functions can be incredibly helpful for those suffering from mental health problems. MAST provides basic psychoeducation on the three main parts of the brain and how they function under stress and, more optimally, in a mindful, present state.
The negativity bias of the brain puts humans at a survival advantage as a species at the cost of creating more vulnerability towards anxiety and depression. This can be overcome through the intentional practice of self-awareness that increases the capacity for self-regulation. Mindfulness practice helps to strengthen the neural networks that enhance self-regulation and weaken the networks that lead to a survival response.
Session 3: Mindfulness and Emotions
“Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf.”
By session 3 we can now build even more resilience by learning to sit with emotions in the meditation practice mindfulness of emotions. Up until now the priority it to learn to stabilize the mind by being present with the body and the breath. The next step is to turn awareness to the experience of emotions as they arise and feel them in the body.
With mindful awareness, we can become aware of the range of emotions we experience throughout the day. We also learn that emotions can be categorized as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral but it is the unpleasant emotions that create distress and occupy our minds. Instead of avoiding unpleasant emotions, with mindfulness we learn to be present with them by adopting a welcoming attitude. This allows us to ride the waves of emotions as they change in intensity. We can then turn attention to positive emotions that give us energy and increase well-being. The simple act of labeling the emotions in the present moment and noting how they feel in the body tames the toxic effect of unpleasant emotions.
Session 4: Developing an Action Plan for Self-Care
“Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” — Pema Chodron
Session 4 wraps up the MAST program by giving people an opportunity to evaluate the benefits of their mindfulness practice over the past 3 weeks. The short duration of the program is usually enough time for participants to evaluate whether mindfulness is a beneficial practice to incorporate into their lives and to develop a plan for ongoing practice and self-care.
The theme of session 4 is decreasing stress and developing an action plan for self-care. We look at how to maintain a good balance of everyday activities by decreasing causes of stress and increasing resources for self-care. Most important is that we develop an attitude of compassion and kindness towards ourselves in developing this action plan. We brainstorm ideas about how to bring in more nourishing activities in our lives and decrease the depleting ones, as best we can.
In this session we introduce the meditation on self-compassion which is different from the mindfulness practices practiced thus far. Self-compassion can be the most difficult practice as many people suffering from depression and anxiety have a very strong inner critic and often resist taking a compassionate towards themselves. The practice of self-compassion is a life long process and in session 4 we introduce this an essential foundation of mindfulness practice as a possibility to work towards.
Lastly, we encourage people to distinguish between resources to increase wellness and resources to feel safe when we are outside of their window of tolerance. Recovery from depression, anxiety and trauma takes time. The intention of MAST is to provide foundational tools and a plan to stay on that healing journey towards balance and self-regulation.