Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's All in Your Head

Have you ever misread a situation and created a whole big drama in your head that later turned out to be false? Our human minds are constantly at work, trying to explain the world around us. Thoughts come at us from all directions, defining situations or people as good or bad, judging everything so we can form a conclusion that makes sense of it all. We use our knowledge, however it was obtained, to help us decide how to feel about things. So we feel good or bad about any given situation based on our thoughts.

That makes great sense in theory, but it's not so simple when we're busy living our lives. For example, I just picked up the dry cleaning, and there was an envelope attached to it. My thoughts immediately went like this: envelope=bad news, they're closing, I will have to call the neighbor and see who their dry cleaner is, I don't have time for this, . All this before even opening it. So, of course it was no big deal, the dry cleaner was just giving information about their services, but my thoughts had already created a catastrophe that sapped my energy and good mood. An envelope is not inherently bad, but my thoughts judged it to be so, and my emotional state dove right in, despite multiple other logical scenarios.

Other times our thoughts create a long-standing judgement that affects us on a regular basis. I saw a patient yesterday who is often on call for work. When he is on call, he works 24 hours a day responding to technical emergencies. He regards his pager as a curse. I can't say I blame him, because I have my own emotional reaction to a pager beeping. We explored his thoughts and feelings about his job to see if we could change his emotional state. He likes his job, which provides the livelihood for his family. His pager could be a reminder that he is employed by a company he likes, doing work he enjoys, or it could be a reason to become anxious and upset because it might go off at any time. The pager hasn't changed, but the thoughts and emotional reactions to it have.

So how can we patrol our thoughts to keep them from ruling our mood?

1. Remain mindful.

Like a lot of people, I live on autopilot. I am multi-tasking and unaware of things going on around me. In this state, my thoughts are as automatic as my fingers on the iPhone. I don't notice the scenery, and I don't notice thoughts until an emotion takes over. Why am I suddenly so irritable? If I'm unconsciously going through my day, I will have no idea. On the flip side, if I take time to check in with each moment, noticing the input from my senses, observing my thoughts and reactions, I can see the conclusion waiting to be jumped before I do it. This makes #2 much easier.

2. Recognize your triggers.
I have unresolved insecurities, and worry whether I'm liked by others. I know this is true, and by remaining conscious of this trigger, I can avoid an emotional pity-party when someone doesn't return my phone call right away. This leads directly to step #3.

3. Evaluate each situation logically.
Remember that every situation, person or thing is not either all good or all bad. Just like my patient's dreaded pager, the emotional label comes from our thoughts. Cognitive therapy advocates an almost "scientific" analysis of our thinking with every emotional state. When a friend doesn't return my call, I start to evaluate possible scenarios. I stay mindful, recall my triggers, and suddenly I can think of other reasons for the delay. I understand that my assumption, that my friend doesn't like me anymore, isn't the only explanation (or even the most logical one!).

Thoughts are powerful, but we can remain in control of our own emotions by staying mindful. Over time, we can be more conscious of the emotional baggage that distracts us from the moment, and we are more steady. Then we get to choose how to react instead of bouncing from crisis to crisis all day long. I am striving for equanimity and balance. I think these steps can lead the way.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Do You Know?

How is knowledge formed? We learn about things from books written by experts, or a teacher explains a concept to us in school. We continue our process of learning each day by reading or listening to the news, perhaps we consult with specialists in their fields if we need to learn something specific. We rely a lot on others to provide us with the tools to gain knowledge, and hopefully we recognize that the facts may change over time. New scientific discoveries totally negate previous theories, and we have to update our knowledge base. What about less concrete types of knowledge? I'm thinking of our preferences and dislikes, opinions and social knowledge. I know I don't like beets. Or at least I used to know that. I spent the majority of my life so far believing I am a non-beet-eater. Then I tried one after a friend extolled the virtues of the bright purple root. I have to update my database: beets=good! Now that is obviously a personal preference, and based on my senses. Tastes can change easily over the years, but I easily could've spent my entire life claiming non-beet-eater status if I hadn't tested my previous theory. Then there are other types of "knowledge" that are opinions masquerading as fact. Think of stereotypes or superstitions. Multiple generations in this very country "knew" that people with dark skin were inferior and not due the same rights as people born with light skin. That is the most dramatic example I can think of to illustrate this type of knowledge. A smaller example would be our constant re-learning of what is healthy to eat. Remember when carbs became too awful to even consider consuming? I am fully aware that this is not true, yet I still feel a tinge of guilt whenever I grab a piece of bread from the basket! Lastly is what we know about ourselves. A lot of this self-knowledge is based on sensory input (I have brown hair and blue eyes), but it is colored by what we think other people believe about us and our memories. I know that I am not a beautiful woman, because in grade school I had a bad perm and acne and couldn't hang out with the popular girls. Ok, that was 25 + years ago, but that "knowledge" hangs out in the back of my head affecting my self-worth on a regular basis. I know countless women who know they are fat because someone once said so, even though they now look like a model for Yoga Journal. How do we sort things out and decide what is truly Knowledge? I can easily accept that scientific discoveries happen and former theories are proven untrue. I also know tastes change and that a food or scent or activity that was once unsavory is now pleasurable. Harder to question are the societal and personal opinions that we all accept as fact. I have to listen to my heart and my intuition whenever I am presented with new information. I can evaluate the source, the way it's presented and how it "feels" to me inside. My own thoughts are more difficult to police in this way. Negative thoughts based on distant memories or traumas sneak in without being noticed, and suddenly I'm certain I shouldn't wear that outfit because I'm too old for a mini-skirt. The best method is to constantly notice the running commentary of the mind. I can tune into the negative beliefs and really explore whether they are grounded in reality. I can use my intuition to explore if this knowledge is real, or a sham, and really work to uncover my Self. The more mindful I become, the better I get at discerning the truth, about myself and about the world around me.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Do What's Good for You

I saw a patient yesterday who explained her very reasonable diet and exercise goals to me. She also told me she has had these goals for many months now, and has yet to start on them. She knows what to do, where to go to do it, and how. But she just can't seem to follow through. Why don't we do what we know is good for us? I think there are a lot of reasons why we procrastinate, avoid and ignore what's in our best interests. Fear of failure would be up there at the top, I think. If I never try, I can't fail, or so the thought process goes. This can hold us back in so many ways, from our health goals to work aspirations to personal growth. People stay in jobs they hate because they might not get the promotion if they try for it. Others stay in lousy relationships because they might not find anyone else. So, the devil you know is safer in their thinking. Fear is a big obstacle for most of us, and there isn't a simple answer to get over it. The guidance of a counselor or coach can help us move forward, even when it's scary. Maybe next on the list is the myth of no time. We can talk ourselves into believing there is not one more minute in the day for another activity. Some days, that may be true, but most of the time things can be shifted, Facebook can be logged off, and the TV reruns can wait. Right? I went to a meditation workshop last weekend, and the teacher asked us straight out "You can commit to meditating for just 10 minutes each day, right?" It sounded so completely reasonable and manageable, we all were nodding and agreeing with him. I planned to sit every morning, yet the next day passed without me getting on my cushion. Finally, as I went up to bed, I remembered his query, and sat down for those 10 minutes. It wasn't at the time I had planned, it pushed back my bedtime, but it felt great. I've been able to find those 10 minutes a day since then. Another roadblock is the fear of commitment. Like my meditation practice, a lot of what's good for us requires daily upkeep. We have to eat right every day, exercise regularly, keep up with our continuing education credits, the list goes on and on. If I start something new, it's one more daily obligation, something I'm forced to do. If I start off thinking that way, of course it will feel like a chore. If I instead focus on the benefits, I can spin this into a positive. Thank goodness I get to exercise every day because it keeps me feeling great! That sounds a lot better. The best answer to why we avoid what's good for us is that we're human. We have a thinking mind that can come with an excuse for anything at all. But, the mind can be trained. My patient and I broke down her goals into bite-sized portions and chose one to start with. Something small and manageable as a first step to prove she doesn't need to be afraid of the change, she indeed does have the time, and the commitment will become a daily habit in no time. I will check in with her in a couple of months, but in the meantime I will work through my own excuses to avoid meditation. I'm so glad I get to start each day in silence, it really helps me stay peaceful throught the day. I think that may work!