Christmas wish list: that more people will enjoy the experience of listening and being listened to

decwithinsight

By Bernadette Healy

What is it like to be with the other when you truly focus on listening to them and their story?  Embarking on this kind of journey – if only for 10 mins – is a little like going to a foreign land as we cannot really know how it is for the other no matter how well we know them or think we know them.  If we want to truly be with the other we must let go of our preconceptions and our petty needs such as the use of conversation with another to gather data; compare ourselves; or make ourselves feel better etc.  Paradoxically if we approach it with the openness and curiosity that we typically bring to travelling, we will find that the other can help us, like a travel guide, to see their world through the eyes of the local expert: – them – as, after all, we are each the expert in our own lives.  There you will discover the other in a new and wondrous way and find yourself in the midst of connection.

The following is offered as a representation of being with the other:

 The red ribbon sits between us

silken light

A floating promise

If I or you tug too hard it falls from the other’s hand

If I let go it drops into the space beneath,

out of reach,

not ours anymore.

Holding, not grasping

Keeping it untangled and free.

Holding so you know I am there but not calling for you unbidden

We can leave it still and sit connected.

We can place it down and take it up again at another time.

We can take turns offering and leaving it resting.

My rabbit holds it at times – but I must not allow him to run off too far afield.

I am there with you

My ribbon will sometimes meander as I try to stay with your twists and turns

Remind me if I am falling behind or have strayed too far ahead or away from you

The ribbon connecting you to me to you to we

Safely softly huge

Holds contains encircles

Allowing

Allowing

Allowing

The neurobiology of interpersonal experience – relationships help shape the structure and function of the brain

brain

By Bernadette Healy

Being in relationship is not only fundamental to health and happiness [1] but is also something for which we are hard-wired neurologically[2].  Results from studies on the connections between the development of the brain and individual psychology show that in addition to our neurological propensity for social connectedness and even empathy, that interpersonal relationships actually affect the structure and functioning of the brain which in turn, impacts on a person’s emotional, social and mental functioning.

One of the leading figures in this area, Daniel Siegel[3] suggests that relationships are not just important to us emotionally or subjectively but that our relationships influence the development of the mind which he defines as patterns in the flow of energy and information[4] He suggests that the actual structure of the brain is set up to enable connection with one another – the mind actually developing not just from one’s own brain, the neurophysiological, but also via connections with the brains of those with whom we are in relationship – particularly via our early experience of relationship with parents.

That is, interpersonal interactions shape the genetically programmed maturational information which determines the development of the nervous system.   Siegel has outlined 5 interpersonal processes which he describes as being critical in the optimum shaping of brain development.  An individual’s experience of these interpersonal processes with each parent – ones early attachment experience – impact all subsequent relationships, including our romantic relationships.

There are five key interpersonal processes between parents and their children which have been found to optimise the shaping of brain development, including the ability to participate fully in healthy, connected adult relationships.

The five key interpersonal processes[5] are:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Reflective dialogue
  3. Repair
  4. Coherent narrative
  5. Emotional communication

Collaboration refers to a style of communication which is both contingent and collaborative.  It is a process in which a signal from Person A is not just received by Person B in a mirror fashion, but is processed and followed by a response from Person B which incorporates the fact that the message has been taken in, processed and interpreted and is now relayed in a collaborative exchange.

Reflective dialogue refers to the conversations particularly between parents and their children about the nature of the mind.  These conversations need to include content about thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, sensations, attitudes, beliefs and intentions and are necessary to develop what Siegel calls mind-sight or the ability to think about and visualize the mind itself, both of others and of the self. This ability is associated with the development of empathy and compassion.

Repair is the interpersonal process which refers to a comprehensive response to the ruptures in contingent collaborative communication within relationships.  That is, ruptures to being in tune with someone.  Ruptures are inevitable as, for a myriad of reasons, one or other in a relationship cannot always respond as fully as the other needs.

Repair is an interactive, dynamic action which requires reaching out, and giving an apology, but also acknowledging that you have made a mistake and then actively trying to get back in tune with the other. An example of the use of repair with your partner following conflict may be described as follows:

  • As soon as possible reflect on the conflict
  • go back to your partner
  • check that your ego is not leading the way and acknowledge your part in the situation
  • resist the urge to tell them what you think their contribution was
  • admit that you were wrong
  • tell them that you care about how they are feeling
  • ask them how they are
  • ask what it is that they need right now from you to repair the situation and enable them to feel better

Coherent narratives are the best predictor of successful attachment – which is the strongest predictor of positive development.  A coherent narrative is about the coherence with which the autobiographical story of a parent is relayed to the child.  It is not so much about what has happened in the parent’s life, but the coherence with which the story is relayed. The ability to tell such a narrative reflects successful neural integration – which is also required to engage in collaborative communication.

Emotional communication refers to the process of parents sharing the positive and negative emotions of their children. It is comprised of two parts: firstly a parent allows themselves to feel the emotion within themselves that the child is expressing; and secondly then helps the child to regulate his or her emotional state.  It is very important for parents to be able to share and amplify positive emotions, such as joy, in this way.  Parents need to be able to tolerate negative emotions in their children rather than seeking to quickly fix a problem or avoiding, by taking those emotions inside and modelling to children the fact that negative emotions can be tolerated and soothed and will allow us to learn about ourselves.  Moving towards rather than running away from negative emotion ultimately results in learning how to self soothe.  Anxiety is commonly related to problems with regulation of emotion including difficulties with self-soothing and is likely to have had its genesis in insufficient emotional communication with parent/s at critical developmental periods.

Attachment style and choice of romantic partner

Needless to say it is extremely common to find that one or more of the above processes is compromised in early childhood.  Impacts are felt throughout subsequent development.  The experience of the above interpersonal processes contribute to the attachment style of adults which in turn impacts our choice of romantic partner.

Understanding your experience of relationship in your family of origin will provide insight about the way that you are in relationship and clues as to areas where improvement needs to be made (great news is that you can, with sufficient effort, overcome impact of deficits in these key interpersonal processes – though obviously in cases of severe early deprivation, long-term and probably professional help will be required).

 

[1]Vaillant, G.E. (2002) Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the landmark Harvard study of Adult Development.  This work is based on a scientific evaluation of three prospective, longitudinal, adult development study cohorts comprising 800 subjects all of whom were born in the early 20th century. A unique database was compiled by means of giving out questionnaires every couple of years and conducting physical examinations every 5 years and standardized interviews every 15 years. Corollary data were also compiled from spouses and children. The data were scrutinized by a panel of researchers who were blind to the identities of the members.

[2] Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

[3] Siegel, D.J. (2007).  The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being.  New York: W.W. Norton.

[4] Siegel, D.J. (2000).  Interview with Cynthia Levin, Mental Health Net, October 1st 2000 – (accessible introduction to key concepts in Siegel’s book: The developing mind).

[5] For a step-by-step guide for parents in improving their ability to practise these interpersonal skills see: Siegel,D.J. & M. Hartzell (2014). Parenting from the inside out. (available as eBook)

There is Only One Version of Your Story

oneversion

By Bernadette Healy

It is entirely possible that even amidst your busy work life – while trying to make an impression on those that matter – striving to stand out, and hoping to be chosen for greater things – that you could also be wondering about where you find yourself now, in the world of work.  You might be wondering about the purpose of your role; the meaningfulness of your assigned tasks; the degree to which the project is worthwhile and even the merits of the company,  workplace or even industry sector within which you find yourself.

You might ask your younger self, for example your 18 or 19 year old self, what do you think of where I am now?  Have I sold out my ideals?  Is this worth all the hype that was created back then around the possibility of securing one of these coveted roles?  Have I missed out on a time of just trying different things? Of working only to enable travel to the next place? Of experiencing my days largely unaware of the time?  Ought I to be pursuing that other idea that used to occupy me?

Yes it is quite possible and even probable that you can be working in an effective and committed way while actively wondering about all those other options. Yes you can even be being celebrated by others for the way you are doing your job while internally experiencing profound questioning of that very same role.  You may even be wondering more generally about what larger purpose your work should be addressing.

A sense of purposefulness is not static.  A sense of purposefulness can at times elude us.  The clear purposefulness that we felt just a few short months ago in the very same place can start to shift and morph into an in-between place, a place of not where we once were, but clearly not the next thing either.  This can be both unexpected and quite confusing.  Also it can sometimes be a bit sad as we long for the time when either we were so busy getting to that job, that we didn’t think about the what of it, or we might be longing for the time when we were so thrilled to get that job and then so preoccupied learning how to be in it, that there was no room for anything else.  The sadness can be for the loss of innocence; the shift in your way of experiencing yourself in relation to the world of work compared to an earlier, less conscious time.

Unless you are overdue for a major life review (e.g. 20+ years of a working life with little or no active reflection to date), the good and bad news is that you don’t have to change anything just because you are having doubts and questions and ‘what if’ kinds of thoughts.

You have a number of options.

  • You can keep doing what you are doing
  • You can keep doing what you are doing and resolve to notice but not act upon questioning thoughts
  • You can keep doing what you are doing, notice your questioning thoughts and resolve to pay regular attention to them
  • You can keep doing what you are doing, notice and note the questioning thoughts and then review, for example, 3 months from now with a view to identifying recurring themes and ideas
  • You can start acting in your head as if you are going to make a change and think through all the possible options, do some research, make lists of pros and cons – (this needs to be done seriously for it to be useful)
  • You can do the above and then leave it for a few months – trusting that after you have spent appropriate time, energy and conscious thought on this complex cognitive task that factoring in an incubation period will generate a number of novel solutions (please see this earlier post for discussion and reference for non-conscious cognitions)
  • You can gather information from people who know about the options you are considering[i]
  • You can be on the lookout for projects or opportunities to experience more about other interests and ideas (perhaps at work but also including in your own time; volunteering; classes; workshops; going to different places; creating opportunities for new experiences)
  • You can keep doing your job and your life and reflecting and weighing up options while being aware of the fact that you have many unanswered questions – the next ‘just right for this moment’ thing will become clear if you can be patient and open to hearing yourself above the noise of everything else.

 

[i] but always weigh up others’ judgements carefully.  The most important source of information about your future direction is you and your felt sense of what is and is not a good fit with the person you know yourself to be.

When the going gets tough resist travelling to Myopia

60558493 - you can't see the forest for the trees

By Bernadette Healy

I have recently been reading some interesting pieces around the themes of tribalism[i] and social cohesion,[ii] and reflecting on the worrying trend to focus myopically on the sound-bite individual level (demonizing or worshiping), at the expense of tackling long-term, humanity-wide issues.  Of course as a psychologist, and particularly one delivering mental-health-related services, I am daily contributing to the individual-centric paradigm – just as our communication systems increasingly do. Particularly as the entry point for audience engagement.  One argument used to justify this approach is that, once hooked in to the story of one of our tribe or one of our enemies, broader themes can be addressed.  I wonder if this is happening less and less often, and that instead, the piece begins and ends at the individual level – with the reader happily left to sigh in contentment or wonder or exclaim in relief that they don’t know anyone or live near anyone like ‘that’.

There is no denying that it is very difficult for many of us to stay with the bigger issues long enough to find a way to contribute positively without becoming overwhelmed.  A combination of: enormity of the issues; relentless streaming; reductionism of content; and sensationalising of information all contribute to this group helplessness. This is particularly the case when our work and personal lives are stretched to capacity, and aggravated further by competitive and combative work domains.  The seemingly ever-increasing levels of anxiety prohibit many from staying with their own discomfort –  leading to the pursuit of a myriad of avoidance behaviours including withdrawal, anger, fleeing the scene, routine and or excessive drinking, over-eating, addiction to screens / internet porn etc  – and little capacity is felt to be left to think about humanity.  However, contributing towards a greater good (even when limited to your ‘tribe’) can provide healing opportunities and a natural antidote to Myopia.

Please note the ‘a’ before ‘greater good’!  This is where paradoxically, the individual level must be honoured in order for each of us to sustain any contribution to others.  In other words your values and interests will largely determine what ‘greater good’ means for you.  You will need to reflect a while and perhaps try a few alternatives before you find a domain that sustains you. What is possible and sustaining will of course shift as your life structure shifts. The reflecting and choosing and even a tiny action[iii] can create huge shifts and extinguish that awful feeling of helplessness that can grip us in despair and inaction such that a myopic view is all that is doable.

This state of myopia is of course damaging in terms of societal-level tolerance and cohesion.

Getting back to the personal challenge of working within a profession where change is commonly focused at the individual level, I found it very gratifying to read about a recent Australian Psychological Society Social Cohesion Round table[iv] at which participants developed a list of psychological insights to promote social cohesion.  Their list included the following:

  • Diversity and radicalism are natural and healthy aspects of any society as they allow complexity and creativity in problem-solving. Problems occur when violence is used and as such there is a need to target promoters of hate and violence, who in turn are often a product of disengagement.
  • Challenge the assumption that it is the responsibility of minorities to integrate into the mainstream and promote self-reflection and cultural competence / responsiveness. Focus on community strengths, not individual threats and punitive measures.
  • Focus on changing social norms not individuals, individuals will follow
  • Acknowledge the influence of media and hence the potential to work collaboratively with media practitioners (journalists and broadcasters) and media researchers to change social attitudes and public discourses.

Good luck finding the little thing that you can do if you happen to find yourself visiting Myopia land.

 

[i] Hope for a mad world Sarah Gill The Age September 1, 2016

[ii] Psychologists convene to discuss ways to promote social cohesion in a multicultural society InPsych. The bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society. August 2016 Vol 38 Issue 4 pp 22-25.

[iii] https://www.change.org/ http://www.crowdfunding.com/ http://www.volunteer.vic.gov.au/information-for-volunteers/find-a-volunteer-opportunity

[iv] A snapshot of this work can be seen at http://www.psychology.org.au/public_interest/social-cohesion/aps-resources/

A letter to you as a parent

45325721 - child with parents hand holding young tree in soil together for prepare plant on ground,save world concept

By Bernadette Healy

Dear parent,

I wonder what is going on for you as you worry about your child.  Perhaps the following is of interest (although it may not be!).

It seems to me that you have come to a point in your life where you are trying to make sense of who you are as a parent (as well as a person), and this includes exploring the ways that you yourself were parented.  This of course brings up old hurts and lots of complicated feelings towards your parents.  Possibly, as well as wanting to distinguish yourself as a mother/father from your own mother or father, you will also find yourself understanding more of what her or his life structure was like – this is hard because you might find yourself being sympathetic at the same time as being angry at some of the ways she or he was, for example, with regard to a sibling.  You seem to be feeling a mixture of being trapped (in a situation that you did not expect to be in with regard to your own child) and being afraid that if you cannot find a way of keeping it all together; that everything will collapse into chaos.  It is as if you are alone in all this difficulty – but perhaps that is how you felt in the past when you were too young to have much influence?  You are not that little girl or boy anymore; you have life experience, skills and attributes to bring to this situation; and you do not have to be alone in it all. But perhaps you have not yet found satisfactory ways of letting people in to share the emotional load  (and perhaps others are not as available as they could be)?

It seems as if you have to solve all the problems, but perhaps that too is a leftover from the past, and the role you were expected to play in your family of origin.  Perhaps you have been in the habit of carrying more than just your anxiety in your determination to keep the chaos at bay?  But now maybe you are ready to find some new ways which are not so heavy, and hopefully you will have more moments enjoying yourself being with your family.  It seems to me that you could be a little kinder to yourself and trust the part of you that, at times, wants to seek help.  When you are ready, the parts of you that haven’t had a chance to come out into the light for a while will bubble through, and offer easier ways of being. Be gentle and patient with yourself, and allow your child to help guide you into becoming their parent (they only want you and ‘ok’ is the gold standard).

Bernadette

 

Cleaning cloths, politicians and values – maximising good fit with your partner.

23345782 - close-up of man cleaning the floor with yellow wet floor sign

By Bernadette Healy

I recently noticed a range of cleaning cloths upon which were printed images of current Australian and international politicians, together with suggestions for possible applications of the cloths.

I wondered both about the product line, and where else it might be sold. Other than the not-so-upmarket as to be apolitical but not so political as to be anti-frivolous-consumer-goods place where I was – who was the target market? I was amused (but not tempted to buy!) and although I didn’t experience any negative reaction in coming across this product, I thought it likely that some would – that others may experience a ‘values-clash’ moment.

The expression ‘values-clash’ while perhaps increasingly absent in the modern work-place vernacular, never-the-less concerns a very important concept both in the personal and work domains.

In the personal domain, a sense of shared values with one’s partner is vital to relationship longevity.  Some of the values that influence compatibility relate to lifestyle choices – an area of potential to have battles about day to day decisions.  Examples of these ‘values in action’ decisions include:

  • How much emphasis is placed on planning? Is the process of planning a jointly enjoyed activity within the relationship? Is allowing scope for spontaneity, valued?
  • How do each in the couple value time spent socialising versus time alone pursuing their own interests?
  • How much emphasis is placed on money? What form and place does money-management occupy in the relationship? Is economising an important shared language in the relationship? Is the language of money confined or pervasive?
  • Does the expression of emotion fit in the relationship? Is there an emotional language?
  • What decisions are made about food? What will be eaten? Where? Prepared by? How much is reasonable regarding cost? Is quality a key issue? Is variety important? Is it just about taking in the appropriate nutritional requirement to enable the more important activities to be undertaken? Or is it an important activity in its own right?
  • What emphasis is given to keeping up with friends? What emphasis is given by each of the partners to the extended family and spending time with them?
  • What emphasis is given to the standard and maintenance of the shared spaces occupied by those in the relationship? What is the definition of minimum / optimum with regard to house-work standard?

Having regular conversation about what really matters to each of you, and starting these discussions early on will provide you both with key information about the viability of your relationship in the long-term – and help to minimise the hurt all round.

Authenticity: A power equally available to all

original

By Bernadette Healy

I have just finished a little book written by Oliver Sacks, entitled Gratitude.  The book contains four very short essays written in the last two years of the author’s life; three of them were written in the knowledge that he was dying, and the last piece was published in The New York Times only two weeks before his death.

I wouldn’t characterise the essays as amazing in a literary sense, nor ground-breaking in the way of his famous medical narrative books: Awakenings and The man who mistook his wife for a hat.  The essays are not particularly intellectually challenging either, although the essay My periodic table certainly gives a wonderful insight into both Sacks’ long-standing and favourite academic areas, and his intellectual capacity more generally.

I did however, find them extraordinary in the sense that they are an exquisite representation of the power of conscious authenticity.  (There is also a deceptive simplicity and quiet beauty to them, and most definitely a spirituality.)

What do I mean by conscious authenticity?  I think that this is almost a developmental concept; that is, it is something which will unfold over time. It can be fostered but not compelled, and it is subject to individual variation – for some never achieved.  Conscious authenticity incorporates two important parts.  Firstly, there is a sort of hurdle requirement related to an advanced knowing and acceptance of one’s self. Secondly it is the ability to consciously interact in the world and make decisions about potential actions therein by constantly referring back to that knowledge base of what really constitutes the genuine, non-contrived, ‘I’.  This to-ing and fro-ing of experiencing and deciding is done with the awareness that there is always a choice, and that each chosen action or direction is more or less consistent with that something of which we have a sense, as being truly us.  When we consult with ourselves and act accordingly, we feel a formidable power both within ourselves, and, I believe, by others. This power of enacted authenticity is equally available to all.

Unfortunately, many people become so caught up in living the life they think they ought to be leading – rather than the life that is uniquely theirs to be led – that a dilution of their personal potential results. Even when absolutely driven by one of the myriad forces that can motivate individuals, if such a force is not really yours – such as when your motivation is primarily to become what your parents would have you become or what your partner thinks you should do – then eventually a depletion of the self may occur, leaving one feeling a sense of loss and even a sense of betrayal of the self.  Even worse perhaps, is a pervasive sense of there being an unknown something else which is felt as beyond one’s grasp.   This is a difficult – though common – transition to experience and work through.  It can be achieved by honest reflection and review combined with a preparedness to make different decisions than previously – those which are about leading the life that is uniquely yours.

This of course is a long process.  Sacks shares quite personal material about some of the important decision points in his life’s journey, but what makes the book extraordinary is that we come to know the importance that writing and sharing his story held for him, and of his clear sense of what he wished to impart in this, his final work.

This becomes a work in itself; of the power of choosing to be authentic.

 

How free are you to be yourself at work?

7743093_s

By Bernadette Healy

Anxiety and issues around levels of responsibility are two of the most common reasons why lawyers attend counselling:[1]

  • Anxiety is often reported as a non-specific kind of experience and is frequently associated with symptoms such as constant scanning of your personal world for possible signs of future threat, excessive worrying about past situations, and negative thoughts such as concerns about failure and approval-seeking and physical sensations such as agitation.
  • Troubling feelings related to responsibility include: taking on too much responsibility and wondering how the effort to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ can be maintained; stress around too much responsibility combined with too little autonomy particularly with regard to decision-making scope; and issues around inconsistency about responsibility such as seeking high task responsibility but resisting or struggling with taking responsibility for personal reactions.

Early in the counselling process it is very common for lawyers (and others who have highly developed thinking skills) to intellectualise difficult situations and to resist or be unaware of the feelings underlying their thoughts about the difficulty.

Obviously thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected but the feeling aspect tends to be neglected, particularly for those working in professions where rationality and intellectual capacity are greatly prized. This neglect can lead to a general feeling of being cut off from oneself and others, and from the full range of your own feelings.

Cutting off and distancing behaviours are more likely to happen when work roles have associated expectations about feelings which are at odds with our own. In some cases it may be that work demands that one ought not to have any feeling responses at all.

Hoschchild[2] suggests that organisations turn emotional responses into commodities through the ‘purchase’ of expectation implicit in the job description.  Emotional labour is a term used by Hoschchild to describe the effort required by individuals to either exhibit a particular emotional response which not actually being felt, or suppress a felt emotion in order to satisfy work role expectations.

This behaviour is expected within many workplaces in which certain emotions cannot be displayed, in order that a particular outward appearance is maintained. Emotional labour is further described as either requiring surface acting or deeper acting. Surface acting is when we fake an emotional reaction in order to fool others in the interest of performing a work role, but we are not deceiving ourselves.  Deep acting happens at an internal psyche level when we attempt to alter how we feel or experience a situation in order to comply with work role expectations.

Feeling compelled to sustain deep acting over a prolonged period – which is done as a means of dispelling dissonance between expected work self and self – eventually leads to issues such as alienation, burnout and inauthenticity. [3]

In addition to being mindful of the extent to which your organisation may be buying a particular emotional response from you, it is important that you manage your own wellbeing by making sure that you do not self-commodify.  In other words you need to make sure that you know who you are and how you feel and how to remain true to that while in your professional role.

As with any self-improvement or even self-care process, you need to start with self-reflection in order to increase your understanding of yourself, including identifying your values and core beliefs.  This will help you to predict and prepare for possible values clashes and triggering situations at work, and to work out to what extent you may be using ‘deep acting’ to reduce the dissonance between yourself and your organisation’s expectation of you.

[1] Based on my own practice experience

[2] The managed heart Commercialization of human feeling,(2003)

[3] Rebecca, Erickson Christian Ritter  2001  Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2 pp. 146-163

Listening to your body

By Bernadette Healy

Stress

Do you want to learn a strategy to help you take charge during moments of stress?

As you are no doubt aware, people differ in the extent to which they are in tune with their bodies.  Some are routinely able to take good physical care of themselves and are practised in attending to, and understanding the information that the body can provide about being in the world. This includes recognising the particular physical discomfort that they experience when facing a challenging situation at work or at home.

For others, however, the body is a forgotten vessel – known mostly in a secondary sort of way as that which carries around the parts of themselves of which they are more aware – such as their rational, thinking selves or their feeling selves. (NB. This does not necessarily equate to living unhealthily).  During a stressful time many in this group may still think about their stress and try and work it out rationally, or they may be aware of feeling stressed, such as feeling more easily angered, or emotional, or more intolerant than usual.  They are less likely to stop and focus on their physical sensations.

Even when very aware of being stressed, it is common to automatically engage in reactionary avoidance behaviours rather than stopping and paying attention to the body.  This is often due to a fear that focusing on the physical experience of stress will make things worse[1].  (Individuals may or may not be aware of this fear).

Learning how to pay attention to the information held in the body is a very important part of working through stressful times, including breaking patterns of avoidance behaviours.  Common avoidance behaviours include – but are not limited to: outbursts of anger, blaming others, withdrawal from people, drinking alcohol or using illicit substances, over-eating and fleeing.

So how can you begin to pay more attention to your body in a way that will assist you to cope with stressful situations while reducing the likelihood of engaging in the behaviours listed above?[2]

Start with a few minutes of focusing on your breath.[3]

Then still with eyes closed, focus on the sensations in your body, pay attention to whichever area of the body is calling out for your attention.  Try and take your awareness to that part of the body and observe the sensations. (Imagine that you are describing the sensations to someone without any knowledge of human anatomy and its terms – instead seeking to describe the sensations in a fresh, non-technical way).  It may help to ask yourself questions about the sensations such as:

  • Is the sensation hot or cold?[4]
  • Is the sensation in one distinct area or spread out?
  • Is the sensation heavy or light?
  • Is it coming and going or staying the same?

Once you have noticed and described the sensation, move on to the next sensation that you notice or if you feel that is enough, open your eyes.

Sit for a while and ask yourself how long that sensation has been around?

If it makes sense for you, try describing the sensation visually, for example: a ball in the chest, a large rubber band around the head, a metal weight on the back, a bobbing cork in the throat etc.  (You might even like to try making a primary-school level drawing of this and then just look at your picture and notice any thoughts that occur to you about the picture)

Make a point of trying to notice the coming and going of the sensations in the future, and see if you notice any patterns about when it is strongest and weakest.

Pay attention to how you are feeling now.  It is highly likely that the simple exercise of focusing on physical sensations of discomfort has resulted in a lessening of them.  Of course they may well return, but you will know from direct experience that they can also diminish, and that you now have a strategy to assist in this process.

 

 

 

[1] In cases of severe anxiety there is a need for professional help in sorting out when to focus on physical discomfort and when to actively choose other strategies at least until the anxiety has moved out of the severe zone

[2]If at any point you feel too uncomfortable (say an 8 or above on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is little discomfort and 10 is maximum discomfort), discontinue and engage in a healthy distracting behaviour such as a brisk walk, watching a loved movie, looking up information about a favourite topic, reading a novel etc and consider seeking professional help if you would like to understand about your discomfort and learn some appropriate techniques.

[3] Sit with back and neck straight.

  • Close eyes gently.
  • Become aware of your breath.
  • Don’t try and change your breath, just observe it as it comes and goes.
  • Try and let go of any thoughts as they arise
    • Remind yourself that they are just thoughts, choose to let them go as if the thoughts are on a train which you see whizzing past but do not get on.
    • As thoughts arise, don’t blame yourself for becoming distracted but instead bring your attention back to the breath as soon as you are able without judgement or criticism.
  • Observe the breath coming and going.
    • Don’t count the breaths or think about the process of breathing, but just experience the sensations of breathing and observe the breath in the moment of breathing.
  • Notice whatever there is to be noticed
    • g. the temperature of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils; the feeling of air on the skin just under the nose or at the tip of the nose; a feeling of movement within the chest etc.
  • Continue for 3-5 mins.

[4] For more information see Cayoun, B. A. (2011).  Mindfulness-integrated CGT: Principles and practice.  West Sussex, UK.: John Wiley and Sons.

 

Common thinking traps

thinkingTraps

by Bernadette Healy

How do you think?  In the face of a relationship issue, are you in the habit of thinking you are in the wrong (or right!) until proven otherwise; do you avoid raising issues based on your assumptions about the likely responses from your partner?  Are you prone to transforming a one-off mistake at work into a career-trajectory disaster?  Do you ruminate on all the possible ways that others could be thinking about you?

All of these are examples of common thinking traps.  These sorts of thinking traps interfere with our ability to be resilient, that is, to cope with negative circumstances in flexible and adaptive ways. Being resilient includes avoiding faulty thinking which includes these sorts of thinking traps.  Faulty thinking styles were originally described by Aaron Beck[1] – commonly regarded as the father of cognitive therapy- and further defined by him as risk factors for depression.  The following are descriptions of common thinking traps[2] – they may be applicable to you or help you to understand those around you:

Over generalising – Where a single negative event is viewed as affecting everything or as a signal that everything will go wrong. For example: I was useless in my role at work today, I will never be any good at this role; I took too long on that task this morning, I can’t work quickly.

When you have managed to catch yourself if the moment of using this kind of thinking (well done for your moment of mindfulness!), consider a narrower view of that particular experience.

Catastrophising – Imagining the worst possible outcome connected to a current situation, magnifying the impacts of this outcome and predicting that that is what will occur.  For example: there were no people at the first open for inspection, we will never sell the house, our financial situation is ruined; my heart is racing, I am going to have a heart attack and die.

If this sounds like you, slow down and make a realistic assessment of the situation

Mind reading – Guessing another person’s thoughts. For example: they must think I didn’t do enough preparation; she thinks I am unprofessional; he doesn’t like my report; he thinks I’m a …. I think if I say ‘x’ to my partner, that they will say ‘y’ and that will lead to ‘b’ so I wont bother saying anything at all.

If these examples sound familiar, try to regularly check whether you have got your message across clearly; check whether or not your needs and feelings are being heard; speak up and ask questions of others.

Fortune telling – Predicting a bleak future without evidence. For example: no-one will ever love me; I will never be successful.  To combat this kind of thinking challenge yourself to provide evidence for your conclusions.

Discounting the positive or tunnel vision – When positives are seen as worthless or meaningless or less significant than negatives. Focusing in on a small portion of available data in a situation (common in gamblers).  For example in response to positive feedback, saying: ‘Yes but; anyone could do that; it was nothing; that’s what anyone would do in this situation; I only …’. To refute this kind of thinking, balance out your perspective – ask yourself about all aspects, what is the big picture in this situation?

All or nothing thinking – Unable to see grey, focusing on black and white in thinking.  For example: they behaved in a way I don’t agree therefore I cannot continue the friendship/association; I didn’t get 100% therefore I am a failure. Ask yourself what a middle ground perspective would look like and challenge yourself to occupy that ground for a period of time; put off making a decision from the all or nothing position for at least a week and allow yourself to experience the uncertainty of ‘being in the grey’ – new perspectives will result.

Personalising – Holding yourself responsible when you’re not at fault. For example:  they didn’t attend they must not enjoy my company; s/he’s really annoyed, I must have done something wrong; there’s a message from my boss, I must have made a mistake.   In such situations ask yourself about alternative contributing factors and look outward rather than inward.

 

[1] Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

[2] Reivich, K. & Dr A. Shatte (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: 3 Rivers Press. Simmons, J. & R. Griffiths (2009). CBT for beginners.  London: Sage publications Ltd.