Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind." I’d have to agree with Emerson. Many of us think that we have control over our reactions, but the reality is we are walking around reacting much of the time. Our brain is taking in information through the various sources (eyes, ears, mouth, legs/arms, nose), translating the information, and making snap decisions of what is good or bad, right or wrong, necessary or unnecessary, urgent or non-urgent, important or unimportant. We only learn about some of these decisions after we've acted on them. Corporations know this, and they put subtle cues in the advertising that say “If you don’t have (fill in the blank), then you’ll be unhappy.” Right after Thanksgiving, I walked into Target, and lo and behold all of the Christmas decorations were already up. Immediately I sensed an opening in me, a state of cheerfulness and a desire to shop. There is a Pavlovian conditioning in most of us around this time that borders around spending, spending, spending. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, our economy can always use people spending money on it. We can also view it as a time to be generous and really give to others. However, the real question is who is choosing your state of mind? Is it you or is it the media? Take this as an opportunity to actively choose your state of mind, and enjoy a mindful holiday season. Here are a few steps to make sure you are the one in control of your mind:
Years ago when I was doing my post doctorate residency I saw a flyer for a depression group. It said "Fight Your Depression: Join Today." In that moment, and even now, I thought that statement couldn't be more wrong especially when the aim with overcoming depressive mood or thoughts is to come to peace, especially with oneself. Going to war with ourselves only increases our distress because as the saying goes, "what we resist, persists." Our conditioning can be so severe that even the thought of facing our uncomfortable feelings physically and/or emotionally leads to the automatic negative thought "I can't do this." Depending on your mood, that thought will seem more or less believable. In other words, a thought is not a fact but rather a product of your mood or feeling in that moment. However, if we are able to slowly face our fears, and understand and accept this part of ourselves that feels insecure and in pain, we can begin to change our relationship to our feelings of hurt. The moment we notice we're at war with our difficult emotions is the moment when we're sitting in the space between stimulus and response. The choice, possibility, and freedom we experience in that space is what I call The Now Effect.
Most of us experience an influx of never-ending digital contact each day. We've become accustomed to a barrage of work and/or personal emails, texts, and notifications from our social media channel(s) of choice. To keep up with the steady stream and for FOMO (fear of missing out), our minds multitask to process it all, which ultimately makes us a lot more stressed and a lot less productive. I'm going to share a simple, yet very effective, approach to messaging that can change the course of your day.
Most of us want to do things well. Some of us want to be perfect. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, at some point you need to make peace with your imperfections. If you don't, you are destined to suffer. I'm not intending to paint a bleak picture but the fact is we all have imperfections. Maybe we don't have the perfect body, we don't take tests well, or we struggle to keep houseplants alive. Whatever the flaw, the closer we come to accepting the reality of our shortcomings, the closer we move towards self-acceptance. From an evolutionary perspective, we all just want to belong and feel secure. If we're not accepted we're at risk, so the mind goes into overdrive to help us be more perfect so we can "fit in" with our tribe and feel safe. We may constantly be in search of the perfect outfit, gadget, home furnishing, or we may regularly go out of our way to say something smart to impress the right people. Or we might pick more destructive habits, abusing drugs, alcohol, or sex as a means to fit in. Underlying all of this is a subtle belief that we are not okay just as we are. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, PhD to address the two opposing notions: "I'm perfect just the way I am" and "it's time for me to change." DBT can help individuals to manage stress, regulate emotions, and improve their relationships, and the therapy is largely rooted in teaching self-acceptance. How to Practice Self-Acceptance
Lately I’ve had a lot of aggravation in my heart. There seems to be so much turbulence and violence, both verbal and physical, in the world. On top of that, because of the brain’s negativity bias, we’re automatically drawn to stories of fear, anger, and turmoil. The media knows this so they continuously update us with new stories about negative things. The cycle is vicious, depressing, and contagious, leading to more reactivity, and more feelings of hopelessness and fear. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our hearts don’t need more of the same. Instead they need to be touched and soothed, and any pain acknowledged. Instead of feeling hopeless we can instead work on consciously being more open to a vision of a brighter future. Here is a wonderful family’s rendition of singer/songwriter Matisiyahu’s song One Day.
More often than not, as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, "stories" immediately start running through our minds. Some of these stories may be relatively innocuous (prioritizing tasks for the day at work, mapping out that new route for a commute) while others might actually influence the way we see other people. We may start the day with preconceptions about our spouse or partner, our child, or a roommate based on a recent experience or interaction. And beyond the home, we may already have "stories" about our neighbors, grocery store clerks, work colleagues, the barista in our favorite coffee shop, and even complete strangers. Looking at the surface, we may make a snap judgement that a person is beautiful, or not. We're wired to do this, to base assumptions on appearance, but when we dismiss others in this way, we miss out on seeing the person that exists behind the body, beyond our preconceptions of who they are. Sometimes it's easier to operate on auto-pilot in our everyday relationships, but this tendency to automatically interpret the world can lead to disconnection, dis-ease, and unhappiness in life. However, if we intentionally practice being more open and receptive to others, and repeatedly make an effort look beyond the surface, we can create real and lasting connection, which is an essential ingredient for enduring happiness. I invite you to try this 4 step practice today with anyone you come in contact:
For years I've been studying what makes people happier and more resilient. I've looked at my own life, I’ve analyzed the experiences shared by clients and students, and I’ve studied the research from a psychological and neuroscience perspective. What the research points to, and what I've witnessed personally and with clients, is that each and every one of us possesses a core set of natural anti-depressants. When we tap into those natural anti-depressants, it helps shifts our brain activity in ways that make us less susceptible to depressive moods and thoughts. One of the most accessible and fun natural anti-depressants that can help break a bad mood and encourage positive neural activity is Play! In my book, Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion I describe play as "a flexible state of mind in which you are presently engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying." Here's a great video from SoulPancake that shows adults that don’t know each other playing together:
Why are bad habits so hard to break? What if the bumper sticker "Just Say No" is actually working against us? If willpower alone were the answer to breaking bad habits, we wouldn't have drug addiction. There's something going on in our brains when we lose self-control, but all hope is not lost. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, asserts that the phrase "Just Say No!" is in fact "magical thinking." Dopamine is one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure center of the brain. At the most basic level, it regulates motivation and sends signals to receptors in the brain saying, "This feels good!" Whether you're a heroin addict seeing someone you associate with using, a caffeine addict smelling coffee brewing, a smartphone addict hearing a phone ding, or hungry watching a mouth-watering food commercial, your brain rushes with dopamine. One fascinating thing Volkow determined is that images alone can impact the rise of dopamine in our brains. So if we pass a McDonald's and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling from the dopamine unconsciously drives the motivation to stop in for a Big Mac. It's a conditioned response. The same scenario can be applied for to any bad habit you may have. What can we do?
Human beings have a tendency to take things for granted. We often fall foul of chasing the "shiny object" by putting our focus on what we're lacking instead of feeling thankful for what we have right here, and right now. Sadly, this oversight often extends to this precious earth that sustains and supports us all. While it's wonderful that we designate a particular day each year to celebrate Earth Day, how awesome would it be if we could embrace that awareness every single day? Nurturing feelings of connection to, and gratitude for, this earth not only ensures that we respect it more, it also feels good, which boosts well-being. I invite you to drop your shoulders, settle in, and enjoy a meditation in appreciation of this glorious Earth of ours. You can practice this today, tomorrow, and any day you feel inclined.
There certainly is a whole lot of troubling and heart wrenching news in the world today and this current atmosphere can give our minds endless fuel to race, worry, and catastrophize. While many stories of adversity in the media spotlight are real, the stories in our minds that the world is going to hell in a hand basket may not be. Our brains are designed to project into the future in an attempt to predict worst-case scenarios as this was crucial for the survival of our ancestors. However, in modern times it doesn't do us any good to continue in a state of auto-pilot with a hyper-aroused nervous system, spreading worry and negativity throughout our social circles. Spreading catastrophic stories through our social networks creates a contagion of emotional suffering.