The holiday season starts with a gift that can be lost in a frenzy of planning, shopping, cooking, and gatherings with friends and family. Giving thanks, or expressing gratitude, is a powerful antidote to all forms of negativity. Focusing on positive aspects of life has been found to decrease depression, anxiety, and aches and pains. It improves the quality of sleep, and increases energy and motivation. Studies have found that gratitude even affects metabolism and stress levels. Thanksgiving reminds us to give thanks, which in return gives us the gift of improving our minds, bodies, and our quality of life.
One of the wonderful things about gratitude is we can practice it anywhere, at any time. Any amount of practice helps, and it's a skill we can build. Many people have heard of writing daily in a gratitude journal, or sending thank you cards to express gratitude. Here are some additional less familiar strategies that can be very helpful:
Turn a "Have To" into a "Get To"
Whatever it is that we feel we have to do, reframing it as a "get to do" changes everything. It does not change the reality - but that's not what we need to do. We just need to shift our perspective, which shifts our mood, starting a domino effect of positivity, instead of negativity. I heard about this a few years ago and have been using it ever since. For example, when I'm walking my dog in the freezing cold, instead of thinking of it as a miserable chore, "BRRR! I'm freezing! I can't stand this! Hurry up!" I think, "This is what it feels like to be alive!" This completely shifts my perspective from feeling pressured and uncomfortable, to being grateful for my dog and to feel the air. The coldness brings my focus to gratitude for being alive, instead of focusing on feeling discomfort, and the activity is no longer a chore.
Turn a Hardship into an Opportunity
Choosing to view a situation that is challenging as an opportunity to grow our skills helps shift from feeling powerless to feeling empowered. It is a self-talk strategy to use when feeling defeated or overwhelmed - a tool that calls upon our rational part which knows that adversity can lead to growing stronger. From sitting in traffic, choosing to focus on growing the skill of patience instead of allowing feelings of anger to build, to being caught in a disagreement, choosing to grow the skill of respecting others' points of view instead of allowing intolerance and frustration to fester, there are many opportunities to use this perspective if we choose to.
In addition to these, there are all of the daily moments that are really OK and which we can choose to be thankful for, taking our focus off of problems we may be distressing ourselves about. No matter what is going on in our lives, there is a half-full or silver-lining perspective available if we remember to look for it. We can wish for a Happy Thanksgiving, as well as for Giving Thanks which can make us Happy!
We could always use another strategy for shifting our attention. Our thoughts, as well as related feelings and actions, are determined by our focus, our mental spotlight. At times, we aren't even aware of thoughts brewing in the back of our minds, and we may find ourselves unexpectedly in a rut that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Our mental spotlight has become hijacked.
We can proactively displace negativity by cultivating a goal-oriented perspective in everyday life, in everything we do. This is living from the inside, out and here are some ways to get started:
ASK YOURSELF A QUESTION
Shifting to a healthier focus can start with a very simple question. Throughout the day, asking, "What is it that I would like to do here?" pulls us back into a sense of purpose. Asking this question helps us return our attention to what we want to do and helps us break out of negativity. Unhealthy thinking patterns which are often about the past, the future, other people, or situations out of our control can derail us and take us off-track. Our minds were made to wander. Whether it's about self-care, relationships, completing a chore, or tackling a big job, remembering the goal in the moment helps us direct our mental spotlight and our energy. Being mindful of your goal generates constructive focus on the here-and-now.
FOCUS ON YOUR EFFORT, NOT THE RESULT
One of my favorite mantras is, "I am only responsible for my effort, not the result." Focusing on effort helps to act with energy and purpose. Putting forth effort is an active, constructive expression of hope, which allows for any outcome. Conversely, expecting a specific result could lead to disappointment. Focusing on expectations is an irrational attempt to impose our will on the future.
ADD IN SOME GOOD HUMOR AND SELF-COMPASSION
When we focus on our goals and efforts, noticing frustration helps us uncover unhealthy, unhelpful, and unnecessary self-judgment. We may unknowingly be a bully in our own heads, making things more difficult for no reason. The antidote for this is keeping a sense of humor, rejecting harshness and self-criticism, and turning consciously towards self-compassion. Committing to being a kind, encouraging, and reassuring friend to ourselves makes much more sense, and is entirely doable when we are thinking about our thinking.
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.
It is impossible for any of us to experience exactly what another person experiences. Paths may cross, but each of us walks alone on our unique life journey. 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.
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 integration 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.
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. But how do we think outside of our own thoughts? Is there a reason to do this? Is it helpful? Is it possible?
We can only see through our own filter, or lens of perception.
I once heard a psychiatrist say 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.
To learn more about this process, read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy here and check back for future blog posts.