Tag Archives: Neuroplasticity

Identifying Emotions

Sometimes a visual reminder is necessaryVisua
Visual cues are useful for planning and problem-solving. But how about using visual cues for emotions?

Practicing mindfulness can help us to get to know and to befriend our experiences, no matter what kind of experience it may be. When first beginning practice, it can be challenging to identify various emotions and their correlated thoughts, body sensations and behavioral impulses.

Identifying emotions is helpful for a variety of reasons. On a physiological level, it transfers energy from the very primal “emotion brain” of the amygdala to the area of the brain dedicated to helping us organize, remember and make sense of information. When we identify and label an emotion, we are essentially activating a part of the brain that can help us to problem-solve, inhibit undesirable behavior or respond more effectively to what we are experiencing. We still may choose to deal with that emotion in a more primal way (say, slamming your fist into the wall) but at least more of our cognitive resources are engaged and this action is more intentional.

Furthermore, once an emotion is identified, you have more information to work with. Rather than trying to slog blindly through a muddy and sort of icky, disconcerting experience, we can instead be more aware of what we’re experiencing, how long it might last, and what kinds of things might be able to make the experience more manageable. That being said, emotional events do not consist only of the “negative” stuff. Greater awareness of joy, pride, wonder, love and all those positive (for most people) feelings can be very useful as well. When we make note of a good feeling, we are essentially saying, “Hey, this is good stuff. I am going to pay attention.” And the more we cultivate emotional recognition, the better we can be at catching and enjoying a similar emotion in the future.

Mindfulness to emotion can be a tricky topic to introduce. We humans are generally great walking cascades of emotion from one moment to the next so pinpointing what is happening takes practice. Plus, we are collections of learned emotional associations that can be triggered by very subtle or even subconscious stimuli, for instance: a barely noticeable but familiar smell -> memory of your first love -> feelings of nostalgia.

One useful tool I’ve found for helping people to practice takes the form of a handy little device, called “Feeling Magnets.” The founders recently offered me a chance to test this little metal box and its myriad magnets with mindfulness class participants. I found it to be a very useful. It is not very technical- always a plus for me- and due to its portability and discretion, facilitates regular emotional checking-in. Plus, it gives the user an opportunity to put words to their emotional experience, explore emotion/behavior patterns and ultimately, to step back and respond to emotions in a more mindful way. Seeing the emotions you are experiencing written in front of you can help to strengthen the neural connections that will ultimately contribute to the building of a new habit: checking-in, recognizing and validating your emotional experience, and choosing how to proceed.

Simple but effective, "Feeling Magnets" help with mindfulness to emotion.
Simple but effective, “Feeling Magnets” can increase mindfulness to emotion.

As a big fan of visual reminders and cues,  I recommend this simple but effective tool to mindfulness enthusiasts and those who are curious about their emotions. Anything that helps us to witness and wonder at the incredible capacity of our mind gets a gold star from me.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Relationships: Rewiring for Compassion and Effective Communication

Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship
Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship

I don’t know about you, but my partner really can push my buttons. Sometimes he does so intentionally but oftentimes it happens without him knowing it.  In either case, when my buttons get pushed, I typically react in anger. Or, my fallback: passive aggression. As you can imagine, this can lead to the formation of some pretty unhelpful patterns in our relationship.  Usually it results in him getting defensive and me feeling hurt.

When we choose our partner, we usually do so with the assumption that our partner will help to support us in all avenues of life. I think most relationships start with both people oriented toward this ideal: that the relationship is good and that they want to do what is reasonable to keep the relationship on this positive track. But almost always, wires get crossed along the way. And we develop patterns of reacting in our relationships that result in undesirable and distressing experiences.

Bringing more mindfulness to relationships can provide a jumpstart to a relationship, whether it is decades or days old. Mindfulness can help each partner check in with their internal experience and communicate that experience more effectively to the other.  Being a mindful partner can potentially rewire long-standing unhelpful patterns of communication while enhancing compassion and promoting authenticity in that relationship.

For instance, let’s meet our mindful couple, Archie and Veronica. Archie’s hot button is tone of voice. When he feels that Veronica’s tone is critical or harsh, he shuts down. When he does so, Veronica feels like Archie is ignoring her and she feels hurt and angry. She wants him to respond to her and thus, ramps up her efforts to communicate what she is saying. This cycle of communication is self-defeating. With time and practice, Archie and Veronica learn to check in with themselves in that moment that their buttons are pushed. They become familiar with the patterns of emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and behaviors that are triggered. And then, if they wish, they can communicate what is happening for each of them and discuss ways to more effectively manage the conflict.

Veronica learns that sometimes, when it’s too late and Archie has withdrawn, she can manage her distress on her own and revisit the topic with Archie when he is not overloaded. And Archie learns to assert his need to take a brief timeout when he is emotionally flooded so that he can better attend to what Veronica is saying. They both can now take responsibility for their part in a conflict because they feel safe being vulnerable.

Mindfulness is not rocket science. It simply involves consistent effort to attend to the full experience of the present moment. In a conflict with a loved one, it is tempting to get overwhelmed by one particular aspect of the experience, for instance, thinking. So, with Veronica, when Archie was shut down, she was swept away by the distressing (and incorrect) thought that “He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t listen to me. How could I be so stupid to choose someone who doesn’t want to listen to my needs?” Rather than checking in with other aspects of the experience (for instance her body sensations) and attempting to soothe herself until that distress could pass and more logical thinking could return.

It takes time, practice and patience to rewire old patterns of thinking and reacting. Luckily, our fantastically plastic brains have the indelible capacity to form new connections which result in new beliefs and behaviors. As this excellent blogpost describes, better connecting with yourself via mindfulness can have a transformative effect on the relationships in your life. The relationship we have with our partner is one of the relationships that most impacts our daily lives and thus, I believe that it’s one that deserves consistent care and attention.

(Image courtesy of khunaspix / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

New Pathways

Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.
Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.

As a visual person, I use a lot of metaphors in my work. A personal favorite relates to the development of new habits, and particularly, new thought habits. Over time, we build up a certain way of thinking about a situation or ourselves or a difficulty until it becomes more or less automatic. This thinking habit becomes a well-worn, frequently-trod path through the landscape of our mind.

For instance, when faced with the prospect of making a presentation at work, some of us have developed the habit of thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Or, when receiving a stinging comment from the mother-in-law, some of us may descend automatically into self-criticism (or revenge fantasies). There are hundreds of mostly automatic thoughts zinging through our mind on a given day. It can be interesting to take a step back and slow down to see if it is possible to make a new path.

Making a new path does not mean that you can never use the old path. It just means that you are opening up options for yourself, consciously cultivating a different type of thinking (that perhaps is more rational and compassionate) that can ultimately impact how you respond to a situation. It will take time and patience to create that new path, just as it did to create that old one. But the beauty is that as a result of this new response flexibility there is greater awareness of choice and of freedom from (as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it) “the tyranny of thinking mind”.

Change takes time but our mind is an amazingly flexible vessel for our thoughts and motivations. What kinds of new pathways would you like to create for yourself?

Slowing Down

The Grand Canyon did not form overnight
Slow but concerted effort can create incredible change- in a landscape or in human behavior

The other day, I was late for work. I missed the metro and here in Switzerland, when you miss your first mode of transportation, you can be sure that you will also miss your connection. So, there was nothing to do but wait for the next metro and catch the next train to Lausanne.

Knowing that you will be late is an uncomfortable feeling. For me, there is a simultaneous rush of anxiety and irritation and helplessness that sets my heart pounding and shortens my breath. It is safe to say that I find this experience extremely aversive and do what I can to avoid it. But then I remembered something that I say so often in my practice: When you feel the impulse to avoid, try approaching instead.

And so, I relaxed my body, brought my focus to the breath and then watched the anxious thoughts flooding through my mind. By slowing down and intentionally investigating my internal experience, I found that I could step back a bit, remind myself that even though my thoughts felt like facts, they likely were not. I could bring in a different “voice” to counter these anxious thoughts: If I came to work 15 minutes late, I would still have enough time to prepare for my first client and even if I didn’t have enough time, I have enough experience to be able to manage just fine.

Once the wave of “lateness distress” peaked, I decided to see if I could enjoy this small gift of time I had unintentionally received. I channeled my first mindfulness teacher, Dr. Andy Moore at the University of Wisconsin, who once told us that “If you’re late, you’re late. There is no amount of thinking or worrying that will get you there any faster.” It was so nice to be able to stroll to my connecting train, observing the rush of the morning commute. I listened to the street musicians in the terminal. I stood in a sunny spot on the platform. Honestly, I enjoyed myself!

And three days later, I remember those pleasant moments more than I remember the stress. Even though I do not intend to try and be late in the future, I do feel more empowered to manage this experience when it inevitably happens again. Research indicates that it does not take major changes to routine or behavior to form new habits, it just takes brief but repeated moments of intentionally trying something different. This post is headed by a photograph of the Grand Canyon because I think it is a nice metaphor for what can be created as a result of slow but sustained effort. Turning toward difficulty with kindness and self-compassion can become more routine and automatic with the help of gentle intention practiced over time.

For me, slowing down is a habit I hope to cultivate- even in the face of difficulty and unease. And how about for you? What ways of thinking or behaving would you like to deepen in your life?

Mindful Weekend: What Went Well?

sunflowers
Take time to notice what is going well

We humans are a tricky species. Thanks to our ancestors from way, way, waaaay back,  our brains have developed an ability to focus on threatening situations in order to help protect us from harm. For instance, I might think  “Hmm, I could get mugged on the metro so I’d better pay attention to my purse.” As much as this way of thinking is often helpful, it can just as often be overblown, for instance, when I overestimate the likelihood of a mugging or avoid public transportation altogether. Luckily, thanks to good old neuroplasticity, we have the ability to gradually change how we perceive and organize information, and effectively problem-solve.

This exercise from positive psychology trail-blazer Martin Seligman is a way to cultivate a greater attention to what is going well and to effectively analyze a situation to increase the likelihood that things continue to go well.  In his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Seligman suggests we try to regularly engage in the following exercise to practice strengthening these useful mental muscles that help us notice information that contributes to our contentment and sense of well-being.

At the end of the day, think back on three things that went well from the day. Write down each of these events – they do not have to be major, life-shaking occurrences- just three positive events. Next to the event, write down one reason that this event might have gone so well. Try this out for a week and see if it has any affect on your mood.

As an example, here’s my list from yesterday:

1) Event: I got to a meeting on time. Reason: I planned ahead and was organized and ready when the time came to leave the house.

2) Event: I made a good dinner for my family. Reason: I was more creative in the kitchen than usual.

3) Event: My son had a great time playing with his friend. Reason: My son really enjoys the company of his friends.

It may feel strange at first but keep at it and see what happens. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!

New Habits: The Power of Intention

teeth

I am from a generation and culture for which orthodontia is the norm. This meant that as a child, I had some kind of metal apparatus in my mouth for more years than not (actually even past childhood)… One of the main culprits was my tongue and its apparently unhelpful intrusion into my speaking patterns. The orthodontist described that I would have to train my tongue to rest at the roof of my mouth rather than against my teeth, its favorite place to hang out when not busy creating a subtle lisping in my speech.

At first I could not imagine being able to change the natural resting place of one of the strongest and most useful parts of my body. The orthodontist threatened that spikes along the back of my teeth might be needed if I could not make the change myself. Rather than risk the social trauma that might have resulted from my teenage mouth’s spiky surprise, I decided to see what I could do to change my tongue.

Perhaps this was one of my first encounters with the power of my body’s ability to change a deeply ingrained habit. After months of intentionally checking to see where my tongue was lying (just for a moment), and then adjusting its position, this pattern became routine. After a while, as soon as my tongue touched the back of my teeth, it was cued to move on back.

After this experience, I am convinced that simply noticing when a physical, cognitive or behavioral action occurs and then deciding how to respond to what is present in that moment of awareness can provoke lasting physiological change. And, the abundant research on structural neuroplasticity supports my anecdotal enthusiasm.

What this all suggests is that practicing mindfulness is a habit like any other. Training yourself to check in and notice what is happening in a particular moment does not become routine overnight. It requires consistent and gentle intention over an extended period of time. Some days will feel easier than others. Some days it will feel impossible to switch out of autopilot. But the feeling of satisfaction that results from deciding to cultivate a desired behavior and nurturing it into a habit is incomparable.

(Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net )