Differentiating: Snake or Stick?

For those of us who struggle with Anxiety or Depression (note, capital "A" Anxiety and capital "D" Depression), it's important to practice the process of differentiating. In the context of this post, I'm using the words "differentiate/ing/ion" to mean delineating between things (not to be confused with the process of differentiation as it applies to holding healthy boundaries in relationships).

It's important that we differentiate, because Depression loves to corral normal emotional responses for its purposes, as does Anxiety. Differentiating allows us to determine what is our Depression/Anxiety, and what is a normal response to an actual stimulus.

For example, experiences like grief, sadness, hurt, and anger often trigger our experience of Depression and are used for the purposes of creating a false sense of presence and power for the Depression itself. It's a normal process to grieve after the loss of a loved one. If someone cuts you off in traffic, a normal response would be to feel angry. A missed opportunity (stimulus) leads to feeling let down (normative response). An upcoming test causes stress and anxiety (small "a"). These things are normal. It's important not to be tricked into thinking that these responses are your Anxiety and/or Depression taking hold. That's exactly what the diseases want; they aim to narrow your focus and trick you into thinking they are everywhere! 

So, one of the easiest ways to differentiate in a situation is to follow these steps (a mindfulness practice in-and-of itself):

1) Identify the problematic feeling you're having 

2) Determine if there is a stimulus that can be linked to this feeling

3) Check the facts with yourself and/or others to validate that this feeling is a natural response to the identified stimulus

If you can do this, you're most likely experiencing a normative response to an unfortunate life situation and not your Anxiety and/or Depression. This is one MAJOR way that you can lessen the impact of both of these disorders. 

I'll end with two hypotheticals to illustrate the importance of this process:

1) You're hiking in the woods along a single-track trail, and suddenly, just in your periphery, you notice what appears to be a snake lurking in the grass a few feet to the right of you. Immediately and instinctually, you run forward several meters, eager to get away from the snake and out of its sight. For the rest of your hike, you're consumed with thoughts of snakes. Every stick, root, branch, and movement in the grass signals SNAKE and your adrenaline and stress become more actively engaged. Your baseline anxiety goes up, tainting the peaceful hike.

2) You're hiking in the woods along a single-track trail and suddenly, just in your periphery, you notice what appears to be a snake lurking in the grass a few feet to the right. Immediately you stop, breathe, and take a closer look. Upon further inspection from a safe distance, you realize that what you thought was a snake is actually a stick. Noticing your heart racing, you take a few mindful breaths and re-ground yourself. For the rest of your hike, you're able to take in the beauty and nature, more present and calm, having down-regulated from the snake scare. You enjoy the peaceful hike.

Our world certainly has its share of snakes, but through differentiation, we come to realize that they are not as rampant as we might fear. 

'Tis the Season: Gratitudes and Intentions

The holidays can bring up all sorts of emotions for people. As such, this time presents us with a wonderful opportunity to slow down and tune in to our current state of being. This "slowing down" requires us to be more purposeful than ever before, as the pace of life seems to constantly speed up. Technology and modern media now make sustained attention more and more difficult! 

Case and point: I was invited to watch football at an old friend's house over the winter break, and so I headed over, more to reconnect than actually watch sports. While there, I noticed that every time I'd look at the television, a different pair of teams was playing. I innocently asked my friend and his buddies what was going on, as none of them seemed to be turning the television channel to prompt the switch between games. The viewing telecast (apparently called "NFL Redzone") allows viewers to watch only the highlights and replays of the biggest plays from the most crucial moments of all NFL games happening at any given moment in time. No longer must fans be asked to watch all of the "boring" in-between moments. Even watching a sports game is not entertainment enough! The games seemed to switch every 5-10 seconds. After watching this for about 45 minutes, I felt more anxious and more tense. We're being conditioned to be distracted!

So, I invite you all to take this time to slow-down and practice a kind of sustained attention on gratitudes for 2015 and intentions for the upcoming year. What better way to celebrate the new year. I recently emailed with a former client who was discussing the black/white nature of setting a New Year's Resolution or calling it "New" at all. She preferred to refer to the changeover as a "continuing", which I really liked. So, as you continue through this holiday season, again, I offer you two questions to meditate on, rather than setting a New Year's resolution:

What are you grateful for in 2015?

A note about gratitude: Research shows that reflecting on and sharing gratitude can literally make you happier. Don't believe me? Check out this sweet YouTube video that presents some case studies in succinct, yet tear-jerking, fashion and prove just that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg

What are your intentions for 2016?

A note about intentions: By the principle of "energy follows thought" (which is related to the "law of attraction"), we can manifest reality based on the thoughts we allow and hold in our minds. A similar thing occurs based on how the systems we are embedded in approach and attend to us. Don't believe me? Try walking around with an "I am the shit" attitude for one day, and see how people respond to you. Next, try walking around with an "I am a PIECE of shit" attitude for a day, and see how differently those around you respond. The proof is in the pudding. Another experiment randomly divided up a similar group of rats into two different groups, and then separated the two groups into two different cages; one cage had the label "Smart Rats" and the other "Dumb Rats". These were two random samples of the same species of rat with roughly the same intelligence, mind you. After being handled by participants exposed to both the rats and the signs on the cages, the "smart rats" out-performed the "dumb rats" every time in side by side competition. The energy of the handlers, impacted by their thoughts about the rats based on the signage, rubbed off on the rats in a VERY real way. Energy follows thought. By mindfully setting an intention, and then revisiting that intention with ATTENTION, we can manifest it.

So, what are you grateful for in 2015?

What are your intentions for 2016?


Critical Thought and the Second Level of Awareness

In my last post, I mentioned that our experience of our thoughts is very REAL. This means that we do actually have the critical, negative, hurtful thoughts that we experience and they can harm us and cause us suffering. It's quite common; this is our reality. These thoughts, however, are not necessarily TRUE, and the ability to which they can harm us is more closely linked to how much truth we attribute to them, than the reality of the thoughts themselves. 

I will explain further. The brain is a thought machine. Its job is to constantly churn out thoughts, much like that ticker tape you see running at the bottom of news feeds on TV. For a multitude of different possible reasons (that I won't go into here, because they vary according to each unique individual's temperament and experience) many of these thoughts happen to be critical thoughts. I'll say it again: EVERYONE experiences critical thoughts. The potential for these types of thoughts to wreak havoc on our psyches is directly related to how much truth we attribute to them. For example, if I had the thought: "I am unworthy of love and kindness from others" (level one) and I next assign truth to this (a level two action), I am giving that thought a tremendous amount of power and allowing it to do damage to self-worth. I am effectively arming that thought; this is dangerous for me. Someone else may have the exact same thought and be able to dismiss it due to protective factors: They may practice non-attachment and let it drift by without clinging to it (a skill honed through meditation), they may counter it with a healthy thought (ie. I give love and kindness, therefore I am worthy of receiving love and kindness from others...a CBT technique), or they might check-in with a trusted person who can counter it for them (I call this "checking the facts"). The bottom line:

It's what we do on this "second level" of awareness that matters. We all have the level one critical thoughts. What we DO with those thoughts--how we think about and story the sum total of these thoughts--is what really matters for our mental health. 

The same can be said when we zoom out and examine the reality of our lives as they currently exist. The reality of what we're doing with our lives matters much less than the story we tell ourselves about what we're doing with our lives. I'll provide another example to illustrate:

You take a day off from going to the gym or exercising (level one); Do you write the story that you were lazy and worthless, do you write the story that you listened to your body and rested, or maybe you write a story that exists somewhere in between? (all options for level two awareness actions)

In this case, taking the day off, in and of itself, is not the issue. The actual event has little affect on you. The way this real life, level one, event is storied, however, has great implications for what happens the next day. Before long, patterns of thinking and then behaviors take over. (Energy follows thought! More on that in my next post).

At issue here is the fact that the brain is "plastic," meaning it can be changed throughout the lifespan. We're able to remember this easily when it comes to how we approach impressionable children, but we wrongly assume that it gets fixed at a certain point. The types of thoughts to which we attach, further carve out grooves that make it more likely that we will use those harmful neural channels in the future.

If you're like me, you probably find this both scary and relieving (Ha! Awareness of multiple level two options where I choose to hold both). By practicing mindfulness around the types of thoughts we're attaching to, we can decide which channels we utilize. This means that the longer we can break the pattern of going down the channels of critical thought, the easier it will be to use other, more positive, channels. Eventually your brain will not so quickly default to the critical, harmful story. 

As a way of just starting to practice this concept today,  try to differentiate between the two levels. Are you aware of what's happening on both level one and level two? This is a mindfulness practice. The act of separating reality from the story of your reality is an AWESOME first step.

After you do this, you can begin to open up awareness to other possible stories, and then selectively attend to those that are most helpful and healthy for you. Remember, you get to decide what is true.

Mindfulness as Daily Practice

One of the simplest and most easily accessible definitions I've come across for "mindfulness" is "the mind observing itself". It's for this reason that mindfulness is made available to us in what I call "micro-moments" (quick moments of awareness) throughout the day. In this way, mindfulness can become a daily practice, interwoven into the franticness of our daily lives.

For a long time I sought grounding and peace through a daily morning meditation; that is, focused and set periods of time sitting on a meditation cushion, attempting to clear my mind of distracting thoughts by practicing non-attachment to whatever would enter the cognitive space. While this proved to be an interesting exercise in discipline and patience, I found that the meditation did not necessarily carry over into the rest of my day.

One day, after describing my daily process for trying to stay present/aware to a psychiatrist friend/mentor, he challenged me to try something different. I had been describing a pattern that I was working to fix:

"I find myself frequently rushing through the day, so focused on what's next or where I'm supposed to be that I miss out on the present moment. Sometimes at the end of the day, I wonder if I've really been there for anything I did. I'm getting through life, but that's not good enough; I want to experience life. I feel calm at the end of my meditation sessions in the morning, but then I feel like I get thrusted into the rapidly moving current of the day. I become so focused on the next thing, that I never have the opportunity to look around and appreciate the scenery."

His response:

"The next time you find yourself in a hurry, don't do anything. Just note, either in your head or maybe even by saying out out loud: 'wow, I'm really in a hurry right now'. Don't attempt to stop and meditate, don't do any intervention, just acknowledge what's happening in the moment." [hence, the mind observing itself]

Amazingly, this quick acknowledgement proved quite effective. I began to notice that simply acknowledging what was happening ("I'm in a hurry") began to help me slow down, breathe, and bring more presence to the current moment. What happened is I would inevitably slow down. It didn't take 20 minutes, it didn't require a meditation cushion, and it could be applied anywhere and under any conditions.

So, I invite you to try this. If you need help, set a watch or phone alarm to go off at a few key times throughout your day. Or, pick a recurring daily activity (maybe washing your hands). When this stimulus happens, allow the mind to observe itself. What's happening for you in those moments?

Are you in a hurry?

Are you feeling inadequate or like a failure?

Are you being critical of yourself?

Are you loving yourself? 

Do you feel strong and capable?

Notice the thing, whatever it is, and treat it with non-judgment and non-attachment. The acknowledgement itself is the intervention. 

Finally, remember that the thoughts you notice are REAL but they are not necessarily TRUE. (More on that for my next post...)

Tara Brach's free podcasts have been getting a lot of air time for me lately, thanks to a good recommendation from a therapist friend in Portland. They helped inspire this post. Check them out HERE.

I'll end with this quote from the Dalai Lama:

"Man...is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."