The Answer is Yes
Emotions are linked to related thoughts and behaviors – have a sad thought, feel sad, act sad. Sometimes we are not consciously aware of underlying thoughts and beliefs, but they are there.
The more these thought patterns have been repeated, the stronger those neural pathways have become. Like a well-traveled path, these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors become familiar. The longer this goes on, the more pseudo-evidence is collected to support them, as the brain tends to filter out anything that conflicts with existing beliefs. There comes a point at which repetition leads to automaticity, and then a comfortable, natural feeling. These beliefs may then exist beneath our level of awareness, feeling like facts that cannot be challenged or changed. The further back in time these go, the deeper the roots.
Our beliefs may feel like facts, however if they are amplifying negativity, they are judgments. Facts are neutral; it is our perspective of the facts that make them seem negative or positive. For example, look back at a time you were upset about something, and then you weren’t. The facts themselves, did not change – only your perspective did. Look at a situation during which people have various and conflicting opinions about – the facts are the same, but perspectives are different. This means the facts are not causing related emotions, the opinions are. The spilt milk does not make you cry, however your thoughts about it may.
At times we may put on a mask to change our behaviors, to hide thoughts and feelings from others, and sometimes even from ourselves. We may do this by distraction, avoidance, or numbing. When the thoughts come back, if they haven’t changed, we feel distressed again. Wearing a mask, stuffing our thoughts and feelings, is exhausting and unsustainable. When we are feeling calmer about something, we have calmer thoughts about it. The difference between wearing a calm mask and feeling calm, is having a different, healthier perspective.
The good news is, we don’t have to wait for this to happen by getting a good night’s sleep or talking with others to hear their viewpoint. We can unstick ourselves because we can use our minds to change our perspectives, to develop healthier thoughts, and to feel better.
It may seem strange and difficult to try to step outside of our own personal fishbowl, to even consider that our beliefs may be false. To do this, we can remember the fact that thoughts and beliefs are rooted in exposure, repetition, our genetic predispositions, and the lifelong fluid interactions of these, and may have little to do with facts or helpfulness.
This process can start with a simple but powerful question:
“Is it possible to look at this another way?”
I love this question, because the answer is always yes. It’s not about changing a negative to a positive, putting on rose-colored glasses, or ignoring emotions. It’s about separating facts from judgments, and developing healthier, believable thoughts about the facts, which may include neutrally stating the facts themselves, validating existing negative emotions, being kind to oneself, having empathy and compassion for others, considering possible alternative directions, and refocusing on efforts and goals. These are some of the steps to close the gap between negative and positive.
After developing these thoughts, it is essential to take deep breaths while focusing on them, and to repeat this frequently and proactively, to strengthen the healthier thought patterns that support related feelings and behaviors. When you do this, you are strengthening new neural pathways – you are rewiring your brain.
It is important to know this will feel weird at first (otherwise known as cognitive-emotive dissonance), but as with learning anything new, the weird feeling decreases with repetition, and the healthier perspective will become the automatic or natural state.
This does not mean the old thought patterns are going anywhere – we can’t replace thoughts; we can weaken identified unhealthy thought patterns and strengthen ones that support us feeling the way we want to feel. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Keep acknowledging the reappearance of old patterns (don’t stuff or mask), know that thoughts about failure are part of the old patterns, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, and keep refocusing towards the new ones. Repeat this as often as possible, proactively.
Unhealthy perspectives and feelings may unnecessarily last for months, years, or decades – or not. We do have a choice in the matter. If you find it difficult to get started, it may be helpful to ask yourself another question to which the answer is always no. “If I keep thinking this way, is it possible for me to feel better?”
This means it makes sense to give it a try. We can develop these skills ourselves, or for more support with this process, we can find a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Newburgh, New York. www.marshamandel.com
If we repeat these enough to ourselves, they become automatic and feel like facts. Once this happens, it often does not occur to us to challenge them – they become part of our personal lens of perception that we see the world through.
Having these thoughts briefly or occasionally is not a problem, but getting stuck in them is. When we take a step back, a deep breath, and notice our self-talk, there may be clues to an unhealthy and judgmental inner voice that may be behind much of our distress.
Here are 6 common thoughts that indicate an unhealthy and self-defeating perspective, followed by solutions for calming that critical inner voice.
1. I shouldn’t feel this way.
If an emotion is there, it’s there. Resisting it won't make it go away – it will make things worse. Emotions don't like to be ignored, stuffed, or resisted. They tend to keep poking at us until we notice them. Turning towards the emotion we don’t want to have may seem counterintuitive, but it will actually decrease our distress.
Solution: Notice the emotion, identify it by name, accept that it's there, and allow ourselves to feel it. Feeling it doesn’t change any facts, it’s just part of acknowledging a reality, or what is.
2. It’s ridiculous for me to feel this way.
This takes #1 and adds judgment on top of it. Thinking not only shouldn’t I feel this way, but my feelings are ridiculous, will further inflame the emotion and stuff it down with shame. This leads to general negative self-perception. There's no benefit to shaming our own emotions, and we're often unaware of this form of self-bullying – we just experience it.
Solution: Step back, deep breath, empathize with our self. This means seeking to kindly and nonjudgmentally understand the emotion instead of ridiculing it. Ridiculing it is a cruel form of denial that distracts us from our healing path.
3. That was so stupid of me.
Whatever it was that we're calling stupid is in the past, so it makes sense to try to view it in the healthiest way possible. A common belief is that we need to be hard on ourselves in order to change a behavior, but we actually don’t – it just makes us feel worse and is discouraging. Noticing that we'd prefer to do something different next time is all that's needed. It doesn’t matter how big the mistake is. It’s not calling the mistake fine or great; it’s not trying to turn a negative into a positive. It’s about healing and self-kindness. There's no downside to either one.
Solution: Accept the fact that we're not evolved or designed to be perfect, and call a mistake by its name. Then use encouraging self-talk that fosters hope.
4. I try to think positively, but I can’t.
Trying to improve our outlook with positive thinking can lead to flip-flopping – a term I use when we try to lie to ourselves with a thought we would like to believe, but don’t. If we are truly worried or unhappy about something, thinking, “It’ll all work out,” or, “I’m fine,” is completely invalidating to our emotional part. When we pretend our worry or unhappiness isn't there, it builds and builds, resulting in an increase in stress hormones followed by an eventual outburst, an explosion, passive-aggressiveness, racing thoughts, or unhealthy coping behaviors. Then we flip back to the negative. It’s internal warfare.
The main problem here is black-and-white, or rigid thinking. If we notice an internal dialogue that sounds like, “It’s going to be fine! No it’s not!” we're flip-flopping and distressing ourselves unnecessarily.
Solution: Be self-validating, neutral, and hopeful. Just as we can’t tell the future with negative thoughts such as, “This is going to be a disaster,” we also can’t tell the future with positive thoughts, “Things will be great!” We can notice our rigid thinking, and look for a gray area. Thinking, “I’m noticing I’m feeling worried about this, but it may work out OK. Either way, I’ll do my best to cope,” is a rational and much healthier thought than positive affirmations that our brain doesn't believe.
5. I should be doing better, or, I’ll never be good enough.
Better than what? Good enough for who? Making comparisons is a natural tendency, but it’s often a harmful one – especially when our brain is irrationally filtering out positives. Life isn't a race and we can define success however we choose, as well as the perspective we would like to take on wherever we are in our lives. There is no bottom to this particular thought pattern because there is always some kind of “better.” A common false belief is that challenging this leads to complacency.
Solution: Ditch the “should” and the shame. Replacing it with, “I want to, I hope to, I’ll try to,” inspires hope, motivation, and action. Again, take that step back, deep breath, and then accept whatever facts are evident. Refocus on carefully chosen steps or goals, and replace these unhealthy comparisons with encouraging, rational, and healthy self-talk.
6. I’ll never forgive myself.
Many people confuse forgiveness with condoning or forgetting. Forgiveness means letting go of anger about some transgression, and has nothing to do with saying this transgression was OK. Forgiveness allows for redemption, healing, growth, and the release of toxic anger.
Solution: Allow our healthy part to wisely acknowledge that anger towards ourselves has no benefit. All it does is sustain shame and other negativity. Taking ownership of the transgression, making whatever amends we can, and forgiving ourselves, are steps towards healing and inner peace.
Click here for more information on managing thoughts and developing healthier perspectives with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
Managing Anxiety About Anxiety
At its worst, anxiety can feel paralyzing and interfere in every aspect of life.
If you have tried ignoring or fighting it, you know that this is not just ineffective - it makes anxiety worse. Responding with more fear, worry, anger, or frustration inadvertently feeds it. Continuing to respond the same way will lead to the same result: more anxiety.
When we experience overwhelming negative emotions in the lower brain, our higher brain can become hijacked, leading to emotional reasoning. These unhealthy, unhelpful, or false thoughts, like other cognitive distortions, can feel like facts. If they’ve been repeated enough, thoughts such as, “Shoot, here it is again, it’s just going to get worse and worse,” or, “Oh no! Not my anxiety! I can’t stand it!” or, “Everyone knows how anxious I am!” become automatic and feel natural. This can trick us into believing there is no other possible way to look at our experience of anxiety. If we continue spiraling into it, in addition to anxiety we may feel embarrassed, powerless, and hopeless.
The single most important factor for managing anxiety once it starts is our relationship with it. View it as an enemy, and it will fight to distress or exhaust us. Try to view it as a nuisance to ignore, and the lower brain will keep poking at us with distress. Distractions may help temporarily, but if the belief that anxiety will take over and take us down remains unchallenged, it will.
If anxiety itself caused more anxiety, everyone would react the same way to it. As with other forms of distress, it’s our judgments about anxiety that cause it to spiral. Our judgments stem from beliefs which are rooted in many things including genetic tendencies, our life experiences, and the history of their interactions. Repeated thought patterns may be well-traveled pathways, but they're not hard-wired. (For more information about rewiring or changing thought patterns, click here.)
Maintaining the same unhelpful beliefs about anxiety is incompatible with a new, healthy perspective and relationship with it. Ask yourself how you would like to respond to anxiety. Imagine yourself feeling calm, noticing one of the warning signs such as a rapid heartbeat or quick, shallow breathing. Imagine yourself responding with acceptance, calmness, and confidence. What beliefs do you think would likely be present in order for you to feel this way? A reliable place to start is to separate the facts about anxiety from our negative judgments, and then to look for new, healthier thoughts to have about the facts.
Four important and simple facts about anxiety to be aware of are: (1) it serves a useful and important purpose in protecting us from danger by preparing the body to fight or flee, (2) it can be triggered when no actual danger exists, (3) we can use our higher brain, our rational thoughts, to calm it, and (4) calming it does not mean making it go away.
Keeping these facts in mind while following the steps below will improve your relationship with anxiety, and it will no longer feel like an enemy to fight. Your new, healthier response to anxiety will include acceptance, understanding, calmness, encouragement, confidence, and empowerment. The goal is not to make it go away, because anxiety is with us for a very good reason – to keep us safe. The goal is to learn how to manage it effectively so that it no longer interferes in your life.
These steps may feel strange at first due to unfamiliarity. When we learn, we establish new thought patterns. This requires repetition and purposeful effort, which includes tolerating the initial strangeness of it until it starts to feel more natural. Each step is important for the process.
1 – Check in with yourself.
Frequent checking in with yourself throughout the day will increase your awareness of any anxiety before it has a chance to hijack your brain. Checking in can be done in just a few minutes. Take a pause, a step back, a deep breath. Check your heartrate and your breathing. Check your muscles for tenseness. Check in with your thinking. Anxiety brews beneath our level of awareness if we are not paying attention.
2 – Stick with the facts.
Identify whatever you notice without judgment. “Oh no, I can’t stand this!” or “My heart is racing! I’m going to die!” are false judgments. Focusing on the facts may sound like, “I’m noticing some anxiety - a fast heartrate and shallow breathing. This is a normal and safe body response to anxious thoughts.” Notice the level of anxiety as it is, without catastrophizing or future-telling. The next steps will help with this.
3 – Practice self-validation and self-compassion.
Keep your focus on the here and now, in the very moment as you are experiencing it. Acknowledge past distress, but avoid projecting this into the future. You can’t tell the future, and if you are following these steps, you are catching anxiety early and responding in a new way to the initial discomfort in order to change the outcome. If you’re used to resisting anxiety, this may feel very new and strange at first.
Self-validation is about acknowledging your feelings. If someone tells us to calm down, it feels invalidating and dismissive, yet we tend to do this to ourselves instead of acknowledging feelings that are present. Taking a moment to change dismissiveness or catastrophizing to validation has a profoundly powerful effect. It can be as simple as thinking, “I’m noticing some anxiety, and it feels uncomfortable. I feel my heartbeat starting to race. I’m feeling distracted and restless.”
Self-compassion is about being accepting and kind to yourself, instead of being critical. “Anxiety is something many people experience. I’m not alone with this. It’s not a reflection of my character and it doesn’t mean I’m weak or a failure. People can be strong and healthy, and still experience anxiety sometimes.”
4 – Consciously calm your body to help your mind relax.
Deep breaths and relaxed muscles are incompatible with an anxious mind. If your reaction to shallow quick breaths and muscle tension has been to focus on how bad they are, how it feels like they’ll last forever and lead to more problems, you’ve inadvertently been feeding the fire. Focus on slowing your breathing down and relaxing your muscles. This sends signals to your mind to calm down.
5 – Use calming and encouraging self-talk.
Recall the imagined calm response to anxiety and the beliefs that are likely supporting it. Self-talk has to be believable because we can’t knowingly lie to our own brain. If saying, “Everything will be fine,” is not believable, helpful self-talk may sound more like, “This is temporary. I’ve had this before and it’s gone away,” or, “In this moment, I am safe,” or, “I’ll do my best to get through this in a healthy way.” When you calm just enough to tune into your rational healthy part, you may recall a saying or mantra that has been helpful to repeat or meditate on.
Strengthening and Maintaining Your New Relationship
Healthy relationships require thoughtful effort. Building feelings of trust and comfort takes time. Waiting for a problem to start and expecting the desired response to automatically be there initially is unrealistic. Most people who give up on changing thought patterns using cognitive behavioral therapy skills (CBT) assume it doesn’t work for them because of the strangeness of thinking differently while the old unhealthy emotional reasoning is still present. This is called cognitive-emotive dissonance, and in order to make these positive changes, it must be tolerated.
If you think of a time you learned to do something differently, you’ll notice it felt weird at first, but became more natural with practice. We do this all the time – driving an unfamiliar car, using a new computer or phone, or starting a new job. The difference with these is that there’s a more immediate, tangible reward for staying the course. When we purposefully change our thought patterns because we’ve identified old ones as unhealthy, the rewards may initially be subtle and gradual, however staying the course can be life-changing.
Strengthening new patterns of thinking that support this healthy relationship occurs when we pay close attention to our thinking, and practice repeatedly shifting our focus to healthier thoughts. If we neglect to do this, the old, familiar, well-traveled pathways will remain strong.
Maintaining a healthy relationship with anxiety becomes very easy, because it’s a helpful part of our life experience, watching out for our safety like a trusted old friend. The trust is mutual because it no longer gets out of control - we know how to help it calm. At this point, anxiety becomes a familiar friend we can embrace fearlessly.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
Inside Your Anxious Mind
If you've read my blog post about changing unhealthy thoughts, than you know that when we repeat any thought over and over again, it starts to seem like a fact. Our brain doesn't care if it's true or not - it just makes things automatic after repetition. Anxious minds tend towards specific types of false beliefs, otherwise known as cognitive distortions. So take a step back, take a deep breath, tune into your own thinking and ask yourself if any of these seem familiar.
1 - All or Nothing
If things don't go exactly as you've planned, is the whole thing ruined? If you have one spot on your shirt, or one hair out of place, do you feel as if you can't go out? Do you think others are either "good" or "bad"? Trustworthy or untrustworthy? Reliable or unreliable? Most things are on a spectrum and it can be harmful to generalize one way or the other. The red-flag words here are "either" and "or". If you recognize this kind of black-and-white thinking, look for the grey areas.
2 - Fortune-Telling and Catastrophizing
Do you find yourself thinking that you know what will happen? You have all the evidence you need, to know that this is unreliable. Think about times you predicted a terrible thing would happen, and it didn't . No matter what the outcome, it isn't helpful to feel certain about things that may or may not occur. Sometimes people think they have to worry or else disaster will strike. You can be thoughtful and cautious without the worry. In fact, you can counteract these thoughts by considering possible neutral or positive outcomes, and telling yourself you will do the best you can with whatever happens.
3 - Mind-Reading
Do you find yourself thinking that others are having negative thoughts about you? Do you assume that you know what other people are thinking or feeling based on their facial expressions or behaviors? Evidence that an anxious mind is doing this can sound like, "Are you mad at me?" We project our own beliefs onto others, and we're often wrong. For example, if you're thinking that something you've done is not up to par, chances are you believe others have this same negative opinion. Truth is, we can't read each others' minds. As with other mental mistakes, we may be entirely wrong or right, or the truth may be somewhere in the middle.
4 - Magnification
Do you find yourself feeling anxious when others around you have the same facts, but are calmer? If this is the case, you may be seeing a problem through a magnifying lens. An anxious mind tends to see things as much worse than they are, which is unhealthy and unhelpful. When you become distressed about something, ask yourself if you can look at it any differently. (The answer to this is always, "yes".)
5 - Filtering
Our mind typically takes in what it already believes. This means that when there is evidence to challenge distortions such as fortune-telling and mind-reading, our brain will likely filter it out or make us actively reject offers of reassurance or positivity from others. Furthermore, we will magnify evidence that supports the anxious thought.
If you find yourself collecting evidence that supports your anxious negativity, be like a detective, and search for clues that disprove your anxious thoughts instead. Be persistent and keep looking because your anxious mind will be sneaky and try to hide them from you. Look for facts, and look for positive interpretations of those facts. What do you have to lose? (Answer: anxiety.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very effective for decreasing anxious thoughts. Read more about CBT here.
Read on for 8 important facts about your brain that you need to know right now.
1 - It has no filter for false or unhealthy thoughts.
You can be 100% certain of something and be 100% wrong. The upsetting thoughts that you’re going to fail at something, that you can’t recover, that something bad will happen, or that others are judging or angry with you, can be entirely false. So can the related thoughts that you wouldn't be able to stand it if your worry was even partially true.
2 - You are inadvertently brainwashing yourself.
Accepting thoughts as facts without questioning them allows them to grow and spread, and they will. Thoughts are like seeds in a garden; whether they are weeds or flowers, given the fertile space to grow, they will thrive.
3 - Self-talk is going on whether you are aware of it or not.
Most of your brain activity is completely beneath your level of awareness. All of the knowledge you are carrying around with you which includes how to walk, talk, write, drive, and a million other things, also includes any other thoughts you have repeated – healthy, unhealthy, true, or false – your brain doesn’t care. If thoughts are repeated, they become deeply rooted and automatic.
4 - Your brain will reject ideas that conflict with whatever it already believes.
This means that even if your brain is given indisputable facts, it will seek to find a way to filter out and reject them with those deeply rooted automatic thoughts.
5 - Your brain can hijack itself with emotions.
Powerful emotions can take over your thinking and your behavior. Your brain is built for survival – sense danger, take action, and think about it later. When you experience intense fear or anger, self-protection kicks in within 20 milliseconds. The problem is that these emotions can generate false or unhealthy thoughts that that remain after the danger has passed, taking root and becoming part of your belief system.
6 - Images can be worth much more than a thousand words.
The images you carry with you hold immeasurable knowledge and beliefs. You may be certain of however you see yourself, others, the world, or the past and future in your mind, and yet these images and views may be entirely unhealthy and false, just like any other thoughts.
7 - You have the ability to make purposeful changes in your brain.
You can learn from mistakes, you can change your mind, change your thoughts, change your habits, and change your life. You can refocus and reimagine the images you carry with you. The thoughts, “I can’t change,” or “This is just the way I am,” are both false and unhealthy. The indisputable fact is that you can make changes. Question the thoughts that pop into your mind or that have been with you for a long time because the thought, "I just know I'm right," can actually be partially or completely wrong. Use self-talk to purposefully tend to your thinking, to consciously brainwash yourself with true and healthy thoughts that you have carefully developed and that you can believe. This may feel unnatural, which just means it’s different from how you're used to thinking. With focused effort and repetition, the new, healthier thoughts will become habitual and will start to feel natural.
8 - These changes are an inside job that only you can do, however there are two forms of therapy that can quickly and effectively help you do this. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you identify false and unhealthy thoughts and to develop healthier ways of thinking. Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) can help change distressing images and views that you may feel stuck with. When the images are changed, your brain will shift to healthier perspectives of the facts. ART helps you let go of the distressing images, emotions, and body sensations, which you really don't need to hold onto. This can profoundly and quickly improve your quality of life. See more about ART at www.acceleratedresolutiontherapy.com.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
We Are Alone Together
On most days I hear at least one person say that they feel alone, that no one truly understands them or their situation, or that they feel "different" from others. How is it that so many people feel the same way, yet so many people feel alone? It's a paradox of being human.
We can only try to imagine what another person's life is like. We can be close, but we can never be inside another person's mind, and no one will ever join us in ours. Being alone in our very own mind, body, perceptions, interpretations, and inner world is paradoxically, a shared experience. We are each alone in our personal experiences of living, but we are all on a solitary journey, together.
Thankfully, we have the ability to turn our attention to thoughts that help us feel connected if we choose to. If we look for similarities with others, we will find them. We can mindfully note our thoughts, to notice thoughts of comparison, judgment, or criticism towards ourselves and others, and then purposefully shift our focus to curiosity, acceptance, and empathy. We can recognize differences as being just part of the picture, putting them in the perspective of being a reflection of our uniqueness, instead of putting up walls.
Recognizing our mutual human experience of being alone can conversely allow us to tune in to common humanity. We can decrease judgment of others and of ourselves. We can let go of both blame and guilt. We can be forgiving, compassionate, and self-compassionate. There is no reason to bring ourselves or others down, because despite our differences, we are all in this personhood thing, together.
ART Offers Fast Relief
Erasing painful images from the past, replacing them with positive images, finding solutions from within through a process we typically only access during sleep... It sounds unbelievable, but ART is officially an evidence-based practice, recognized by NREPP, the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, to be an effective psychotherapy for PTSD, depression, stress, and personal resilience. ART was also classified as a promising therapy for symptoms of phobia, panic, anxiety, sleep and wake disorders, disruptive and antisocial behaviors, general functioning and well-being.
And it can work in 1 - 5 sessions.
I didn't believe it either. I heard about this in a meeting on Trauma Informed Care last year - some new therapy that erases painful images. I looked it up online and was both amazed and skeptical. Could this be possible? I watched the founder Laney Rosenzweig's TEDx Talk. I watched a news clip about a veteran whose PTSD was cured in one session, and more videos from individuals who reported similar success. After checking out the Accelerated Resolution Therapy website, I found myself registering for the Basic training in March. In 3 days with Laney and a group of therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, I had learned about the science behind ART, both experienced and administered it, and remained amazed, yet still in disbelief.
I started using ART immediately with clients who had painful memories with distressing images, emotions, and sensations. As each of these clients reported weeks after the ART sessions, that they could not find the images even if they tried, I had no choice but to accept that this therapy works and it works fast. They had the facts, but lost the pain. After completing the Advanced and Enhanced ART trainings in early September, I am very excited to be offering ART to clients in my practice.
An eye-movement therapy that erases images sounds strange and unbelievable. There are many scholarly articles and studies available about it, but I'd like to answer some typical questions here.
What do eye movements have to do with anything?
Eye-movement therapies have actually been around for decades. One of the current theories is that the eye-movements replicate what occurs naturally in the REM (Rapid Eye-Movement) stage of sleep. In this stage, we have increased brain activity, dreams, eye-movements, and relaxed muscles. When people awake after REM sleep, their thoughts are more loosely associated - this accounts for the surprising metaphors, symbolism, and mixture of many parts of our experiences in dreams. Doing these eye-movements with the guidance of a trained therapist allows the brain to access a process which is typically not available when we are awake. This bilateral stimulation from the eye-movements is powerful, calming, and elicits natural, simple problem-solving.
How can memories be changed?
Most people know that memories are not reliable. This is why witnesses to the same event see things differently, and why memories change over time. When we are recalling, we are actually reconstructing. The process of recalling involves changes in the brain - new proteins synthesizing, neuronal (brain cell) changes in structure. This means that it is actually new and different each time. When we recall, there is a window of reconsolidation, during which our memories themselves are more vulnerable to change.
How can images, emotions, and facts be separated in a memory?
We used to think that a memory was stored in one place and fixed. It is not only changeable, but one memory is actually stored in multiple parts of the brain. Images are stored in the part of the brain that processes what we see. Sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations are each stored in specialized areas. So are emotions and internal sensations like that feeling in your gut or your throat, or tingling, or tension. Emotions and sensations are more closely linked to images in the deep, more primitive parts of our brains. Eye-movements that occur with dreaming and that are used with ART, have an effect on these parts in order to process emotions and sensations. Facts are stored in the more advanced parts and are not affected by ART. Over time, our reactions to memories may change; ART allows us to do this very quickly.
What does this have to do with phobias, anxiety, or depression?
In order to survive, we have to remember fear - so that we learn to be afraid of dangerous things. If a person develops a fear of spiders, the memory of the fear is recalled at the sight of a spider. Processing the memory with ART, removes the fear associated with the image of the spider. Other emotions or mood states such as anxiety or depression, are strongly associated with images and memory. Processing memories that may be at the root of this distress with ART, helps to separate the facts from the distress.
If you are curious, I encourage you to look at some of the links above to find out more about it. You can find an ART therapist near you, or if you are near Cornwall, NY, you can contact me for more information.
Quick Steps to a Quiet Mind
Many people have trouble stopping their minds from swirling with too many thoughts. From obsessing over past mistakes to worrying about the future, overwhelming thoughts can make it difficult to feel calm or enjoy ourselves. Even when we know that worrying or obsessing is not going to help, sometimes we just can't shut it off. Having a strategy to put our attention on the present moment can help.
Meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn's popular book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, is filled with brief mindfulness exercises. The title alone reminds us that we can take our racing thoughts with us - to the beach, on a hike, or on a vacation, and we can make ourselves miserable. Sometimes the setting is not enough; calming ourselves is truly an inside job. If meditation and mindfulness seem like too much to learn about, there are short, easy ways to shift our attention off of our worries, fears, or anger. Grounding exercises are short, easy to remember, simple to do, and help us in several ways.
When we choose to pay attention to something in the present moment, we get a break from dwelling on the past or predicting future problems. This break interrupts the physiological changes that occur with overwhelming negative thoughts, allowing our minds and bodies to shift gears.
Managing attention is a skill that improves with practice, just like everything else we learn in our lives. Improved focus means when we decide to put our mental energy into something, it will be easier to follow through with it.
Using our senses to make simple observations in the here and now is a basic form of mindfulness. Studies have found that mindfulness is helpful for physical and mental health, and improves overall well being. People who practice mindfulness are less judgmental of themselves and others, are more focused on savoring life experiences, more engaged in activities, form deeper connections with others, and have a greater capacity to cope with adverse events.
Tuning into our senses increases our mind/body connection, increasing our ability to be more aware and present in our lives, and less distracted by our thoughts.
3-2-1 Grounding Exercise...easy as 1-2-3!
It may sound too simple, but try it and see what happens. Be still and look around you. Name 3 things that you see. Be quiet and listen. Name 3 things that you hear. Continue to be still and name 3 things that you feel. Now name 2 things that you see, hear, and feel. No repeats. Now name one of each.
There is an old saying that applies here:
"When you take care of each moment, you take care of all time."
Some of my clients use this exercise to bring themselves back from overwhelming anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Some use it to avoid becoming lost in upsetting memories. I used it on a walk with my dog yesterday after finding myself worrying about something in the future. The exercise brought my attention to seeing the trees, flowers, and pavement, hearing the sounds of birds, a dog barking, and a car, and the feelings of the ground under my feet, the leash in my hand, and shirt sleeves on my arms. No repeats. The exercise brought me to see the blue sky and clouds, to hear the sounds of crickets and faint voices from nearby yards, the feelings of a breeze and my arms swinging. No repeats. I saw a line on the pavement, heard a distant helicopter, and felt my breath. My worrying was gone, those moments were OK, and I was present.
Be a Witness to Your Experience
We sometimes go through our days just reacting to our environment without putting much thought into it. Even when we stop and say, "Hmm, let me think about this for a minute," we are still submerged in our assumptions and core beliefs.
I once heard that going through your day without thinking about your thinking, is just like sitting in a car, foot on the gas, and hands tied behind your back. We would never do this! However if we accept the thoughts we have without asking if they are based on facts, are healthy, or help us reach a goal, then we are doing the same thing.
One of the problems with thoughts is that our brain does not know if they are true or helpful. How many times have you been 100% certain of something, and later found out you were wrong? Sometimes we are wrong and hold onto false and unhealthy beliefs, without any awareness of it. We cannot think outside our own mind, but we can tune into the process by striving to be a witness to our experience.
Being a witness to your experience, means you are taking a helicopter view of whatever is going on in your mind instead of being immersed in it, running on automatic, unaware. Taking a helicopter view is the difference between being overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions, and being aware of having these thoughts and emotions. Being aware helps us distance ourselves enough to question and ask if these thoughts are worth having. This is the first step in managing them, or in putting your hands on the wheel of your life instead of being a passenger.
It may seem strange at first, but you can start by closing your eyes, and asking yourself, "What am I thinking? What am I feeling?" You may be surprised at what comes to mind. You may discover that you're mad at yourself or someone else for making a mistake. When you are aware of this, you can decide to be forgiving and kind.
Once you are aware of what is going on in your mind, you can start to challenge unhealthy and untrue thoughts. You can find new and healthier ways to look at things, becoming a witness to your experience, more aware of your perspective, and more in control of whatever is going on in your mind.
Marsha Mandel, LMHC