OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

As neuropsychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.”[1] What Dr. Hanson describes is known as the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is hardwired in the human brain. Early humans needed this brain bias for survival purposes. The negativity bias allowed our ancestors to learn behaviors that became hardwired in the brains of their descendants in order to avoid danger and stay alive. The negativity bias remains part of the human brain today, and impacts our wellbeing in many ways.

The Impact of the Negativity Bias in Daily Life

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. We hold on to negative memories much longer and more strongly than positive ones, like what Dr. Hanson describes as Velcro.  This hardwiring stimulates the brain’s fight, flight or freeze hyper-vigilant responses to perceived threats, and affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally.

On a physical level, hyper-vigilance affects our adrenal and cortisol systems, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath and numerous other physical issues. Emotionally, we may experience anxiety, fear, confusion or anger. Cognitively, we may develop strong negative beliefs, such as “I don’t deserve love”, “I cannot trust others”, or “I am not safe.”

For example, if someone has experienced the sudden death of a loved one, she may react with great fear and anxiety each time she is unable to reach another loved one. If someone is judged or ridiculed at work for suggesting a novel approach to working with a challenge, he may be less inclined to offer suggestions again. And, if one grows up with an abusive parent, she may come to believe that she is unlovable and that no one can be trusted. These associations the brain makes are like tangled knots in a ball of thread that link new experiences with old negative experiences.

Overcoming the Negativity Bias through Mindfulness

The good news is that the negativity bias can be overcome through mindfulness, and the tangled knots of association can be loosened and untied. The first step is to become aware of the brain’s negativity bias and that the brain links different events and experiences together, like the 0’s and 1’s of a binary computer. This awareness helps us then determine if something we are experiencing is truly a threat to our safety or wellbeing. If it is a threat, we can take appropriate action. If it is not a threat, we can learn to let go of the impact of a perceived negative experience, seeing it for what it is.

Mindfulness can actually rewire the brain to hold on to positive experiences in a productive and healthy way – more like Velcro than Teflon. The practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present, moment-to-moment, and not just live in our thoughts. The irony is that through mindfulness meditation, we become more aware of our thoughts. The difference is that we no longer need to get carried away by our thoughts, and expand a single thought into an epic novel. We learn to let thoughts go and return to the experience of the present moment.

Being mindful also makes us more aware of the negative and self-limiting thoughts that have kept us from being fully and joyfully alive. Mindfulness is not limited to sitting on a cushion and watching our breath. In fact, in addition to sitting meditation, I often “prescribe” mindful walking, mindful dish washing and mindful driving to my clients as ways to learn to be present with whatever it is they are experiencing. The key is to notice the thoughts and come back fully to whatever it is you are experiencing.

Without mindful awareness, our negative thoughts are the omnipresent background noise of our lives. Becoming aware of our negative self-talk and thoughts allows us to separate ourselves from them, to challenge and even eliminate them. Cognitive therapy, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, offers another way to do that, and works well with mindfulness practices.

The more present we are, moment-to-moment, the more we can experience the small joys of being alive.   We are more able to fully savor positive experiences and make them a part of who we are, without judgment. We come to realize that joy and presence is our birthright.

A highly effective way to rewire the brain to respond more to positive experiences is the “gratitude exercise”: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day. When I assign this exercise to depressed clients, I may hear the complaint “but I have nothing to be grateful for.” I respond to this by pointing out positive things in the environment they can experience directly, such as a sunny day or a bird singing outside my office window.

The gratitude exercise and learning to be mindful in the present moment allow us to short circuit and rewire the brain’s negativity bias. We can then open our eyes and hearts to life, with all of its joys and sorrows, and fully appreciate who we are.

 

[1] R. Hanson, “Take in the Good”, www.rickhanson.net, June 2015.

 

 

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

MAKING FRIENDS WITH PAIN AND OVERCOMING SUFFERING

You may have read the title of this article and thought to yourself, “Why would I want to make friends with pain? I’ll do anything to avoid it!” Paradoxically, it is only through acknowledging and going through the pain of our suffering that we can then work with it, overcome it, and achieve happiness. As the Dalai Lama has said,

We have to relate the Four Noble Truths to our own experience as individual human beings. It is a fact – a natural fact of life – that each one of us has an innate desire to seek happiness and to overcome suffering. (The Dalai Lama)[i]

The Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught provide a universal framework for the practice of Buddhism. This small book can be viewed in the context of this basic teaching of the Buddha after he gained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in India.

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. Until we find a way out of our own unhappiness through our individual path toward healing and growth and our spiritual practice, we are stuck in the endless cycle of samsara. Like a hamster on a wheel, humans tend to do the same things over and over, and wonder why we’re not getting anywhere and staying miserable.

The Second Noble Truth describes the cause of our suffering, that is, our attachment to our thoughts, our possessions, our negative beliefs and emotions, and above all, our clinging to a solid sense of self.  It is difficult to let go of these attachments. They become habitual patterns. We mindlessly perpetuate these patterns, wondering why things never change. Both psychotherapy and Buddhism provide tools in this regard to help us mindfully disengage from our negative habits and tendencies.

The Third Noble Truth teaches that our suffering can actually cease through our letting go of our belief in a solid self and coming to understand on an experiential level that all phenomena are empty of a solid self and are impermanent, always changing if we stop long enough to notice. This is so difficult for us humans. It is so hard to let go of our habitual tendencies and our thoughts. Enlightenment, “lightening up,” is possible, however, through practicing on our path with patience, discipline, diligence and above all, compassion and gentleness.

The Fourth Noble Truth describes the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The yearning to let go of the habits that cause our suffering is universal. Sometimes, we use unhealthy means in our attempt to escape suffering. We find, however, that there is no escape from doing the work if we want to heal. We have to lean into our pain and go through the suffering to get to the other side.

Only through leaning into and experiencing our pain can we transform our suffering and develop compassion, true understanding, healing and growth.

 

[i]Dalai Lama, H.H. (1997). The Four Noble Truths. London: Thorsens.

COPING WITH GRIEF AFTER LOSING YOUR JOB

 

Many of us think that grief should be reserved for the death of a loved one. However, grief can be experienced after any life transition, and one of the biggest life changes is the loss of a job. Here are some tips for coping with job loss.

  1. Remember to have compassion for yourself.

Feelings of shame often arise after losing a job. Shame is one of the most poisonous emotions humans experience. It can lead to self-punishment, which can come in the form of berating yourself for not doing a better job or for making a mistake that led to the job loss. Self-punishment may also play out in negative behaviors like substance abuse or promiscuity. Take time to understand that we all make mistakes, and that no one is perfect – including you. Self-compassion is so important in all aspects of your life. Be gentle and kind with yourself. Take the time to nurture yourself in body and mind. Do things that bring you peace and comfort, such as reading a good novel, getting a massage or taking a warm bath. Do them with the intention of caring for yourself with kindness and compassion, and breathe that into your heart.

  1. Develop skills to banish negative thoughts.

Thoughts of shame, blame, regret and doubt are inevitable after losing a job. The key is to not let those thoughts develop a life of their own. Mindfulness meditation techniques can be particularly helpful at this time. Learn to notice those negative thoughts as soon as they arise. Instead of following a thought, breathe into the feelings in your body that accompany the thought. It might be tightness in your chest or stomach, a clenching of your jaw or some other body sensation. Allow your breath to loosen those physical sensations. When the thoughts come up again, simply breathe into the accompanying body sensations. You may want to enlist the aid of a mindfulness meditation instructor or friend who practices mindfulness if this is a new technique for you.

  1. Take some healthy alone time.

The shame and other negative emotions that accompany losing a job may lead you to want to isolate yourself and avoid social interactions. It is fine to take some time to recover from the shock of losing your job. At the same time, it is important to use that time in a healthy way. Avoid the urge to overindulge in food or alcohol. Exercise can be extremely beneficial to help you combat depression, and the best form of exercise I have found is walking. Feel each footstep as it hits the ground, and when you notice yourself getting lost in negative thoughts, return to feeling your feet hit the ground. Treat yourself to a massage or other activities that help you feel better.

  1. Take some time each day to do something positive.

When we lose a job, we may feel hopeless or even worthless. Do something each day that reminds you of your worth. It may be something as simple as helping an elderly person cross the street, saying hello and smiling to people on the street or giving someone directions. You can offer to help your neighbors walk their dog, or volunteer your time for a cause you believe in. Being of service to others, even in the simplest of ways, will remind you that you are worthy and have something to offer.

  1. Express yourself.

It is so important to get the swirling emotions of grief out of your body in a way that is beneficial. Keeping all that stuff inside will only lead to depression and dis-ease. Keeping a journal is a great way to express yourself, and can help you not only get out all those messy emotions, but also may help you clarify what is now important to you and your next steps on your career path, or if applicable, your path to retirement.   If writing is not easy for you, there are other forms of expression that can also be beneficial, such as drawing or painting, dancing, singing or playing music or simply moving. The important thing is to move that energy outward.

  1. Evaluate and call on your support systems.

One of the most difficult things for me after losing my job many years ago as an attorney in the entertainment business was the loss of people I always believed would be there to support me, especially my colleagues in my corporation. It felt like they were staying away from me because they believed that the loss of my job might be contagious! This is what we in the grief field call a “secondary loss.” That is, the loss of my colleagues, and the lack of support from them was an offshoot of the loss of my job. I was given the opportunity to evaluate who was really there for me and, and to develop a greater appreciation for those who stepped forward to support me on my new path, and to actually allow myself to be vulnerable enough to let them to be of support to me. In retrospect, I now know that this process helped me develop as a compassionate human being in my personal and spiritual life, as well as in my professional life.

  1. Use this time to reflect on what is important to you.

Undoubtedly, people trying to be supportive have told you that losing your job can be a “blessing in disguise.” When you first lose your job, it feels like a blow and not a blessing. While you may not see your job loss as a blessing, it is nonetheless a great opportunity to take the time to reflect on, and perhaps re-evaluate, your passions, priorities and values. For example, when I was laid off from my corporate job as an entertainment lawyer, it felt like a death blow. I no longer knew who I was, because I had so strongly identified myself as my job. When I got over the shock of losing my job, it became apparent to me that I was being given the opportunity to find a new career path that more suited my spiritual path and my personal development. The loss of my corporate job and following the steps described above allowed me to fulfill my dream to become a psychotherapist and grief counselor and to express who I really am.

 

 

           

 

 

           

 

 

 

 LIVING WITH A PARTNER WITH DEPRESSION OR BIPOLAR DISORDER

 

The recent suicide of Robin Williams awakened many of us to the toll depression or bipolar disorder takes not only on the afflicted person, but also on those of us who love and live with the person with a mood disorder. As the tragedy of Robin Williams illustrates, there is no such thing as being “just” depressed. Depression and other mood disorders are serious illnesses, and mental illness should be treated as seriously as physical illness. Partners of mentally ill loved ones are often thrust into the role of caregiver, and self-care is paramount.

Here are some tips for caring of yourself while caring for someone with depression, bipolar disorder or other mood disorders.

1. Set healthy boundaries. It is tempting to forget your own needs when living with someone with a mood disorder. Remember that you need to take care of yourself. If you do not, you will become resentful and may suffer burn out and your own depression.

2. Do not isolate yourself. A person with a mood disorder is likely to isolate him or herself. This is a primary symptom of the disorder. It is also often a result of the shame or guilt the depressed person feels. Make sure to maintain your friendships, work life and the activities that give you satisfaction.

3. Learn about the disorder. This will help you understand your partner and give you tools for caring about yourself while caring for your loved one. If he or she suffers from bipolar disorder, learn not to say “he is bipolar.” He or she is not their illness, but someone with an illness. Learning about the disorder will also help you to….

4. Don’t take it personally. A symptom of many mood disorders is irritability and uncontrolled anger. Do not take it personally, as hard as that may seem when your loved one is lashing out and directing his or her anger toward you. Do not argue or defend yourself at those times – it is like trying to be rational with a baby having a temper tantrum. Arguing and expressing your anger at these times will only escalate the situation. If the anger is overly hurtful, disengage, and walk away, as unemotionally as you can, while not suppressing your own feelings. You can say “I know you are hurting right now, but you are also hurting me. We’ll talk after you feel a little better.”

5. Determine if the anger is abusive, and weigh honestly whether to stay or leave. Only you know if the personal attacks are overly abusive and if they outweigh the love and good in the relationship. If you are in danger physically or emotionally, it will likely be best for you to leave the relationship. Abuse is never acceptable. Determine if the angry outbursts and behaviors are simply that or if they cross the line into abuse. If it is only occasional emotional attacks, that may be acceptable, but only you can judge how much it is affecting you and your life.

6. Take care of your own feelings and health. It is important to preserve your own health, both physical and mental, when you are living with a person with mental illness. You need to express your feelings, or you will become depressed yourself. Allow yourself a good cry, take a walk, hit a pillow or stamp your feet to get the feelings out. It is best not to do this in front of your loved one, as this may result in further guilt, shame and depression for him or her. Talk to a trusted friend. Get professional counseling for yourself. Get a massage. Exercise. Stay connected to your spiritual community.

7. Do not try to “cure” or “fix” your loved one. He or she may hope, whether consciously or unconsciously, that you will be a savior/rescuer and cure the illness. Remember that this is not your role or job. Remind your loved one of this gently and firmly, and suggest professional help. This is a big piece in setting a healthy boundary. Do not nag about that, as tempting as that may be.  Make suggestions once, avoiding the word” should.” He or she will hear you, and may just not be ready to take the necessary steps toward healing. Remember that only your loved one can choose to get the help he or she needs, and forcing him or her into therapy or into taking other steps will backfire if he or she is not ready to commit to the process.

8. Do not feel guilty about your loved one’s depression or other mood disorder. Remember that you are not responsible for it. Offer support, understanding and love, and again, don’t take it personally.

9. Do not make excuses for your loved one. Unfortunately, the negative symptoms of a mood disorder, such as undue anger, irritability and self-isolation, often spill over into other areas of your loved one’s and can affect your relationships with others. Let your loved one know that you will not make dishonest excuses, while assuring him or her that you will not divulge confidential information. If we all start saying “We would love to see you, but my partner is dealing with depression and is unable to go out tonight” we will begin to take away the stigma associated with mental illness. We have no problem excusing ourselves when we have a cold – why should it be any different with symptoms of a mental illness?

10. Be willing to engage in activities without your loved one. This goes hand in hand with not isolating yourself. If your loved one’s illness prevents him or her from keeping a social commitment, go yourself, especially if it is a commitment with a friend or community that nurtures you.

11. Have compassion for yourself, and acknowledge the good you are doing. Living with someone with a mental illness is a difficult challenge. Know that staying with your loved one and acting in the best interest of both yourself and your partner are acts of courage and compassion. Remember that you cannot have compassion for another unless you have compassion first and foremost for yourself.

 

 

 

 

The Healing Power of Love in Grief

The way we grieve is a result of what we learned about love and relationships as a baby. We all learned certain “rules” growing up about love, such as “don’t give your heart away” or “don’t love too fully or you’ll get hurt.”

Through my work as a grief counselor, I have come to believe that the grief process is akin to the process a young child goes through in separating from his or her primary caregiver (PCG). For the first few months of life, the infant experiences no separation from the PCG – they are one and the same. Little by little, the developing child comes to understand that he or she and the PCG are in fact separate beings. The child starts to experiment by crawling or walking away from the PCG, coming back as necessary for “emotional refueling.” Playing peek-a-boo games teaches the toddler that even though something may be physically hidden from view, it still exists. Around the age of three, the child is able to understand the more abstract notion that he or she can keep a representation of the PCG, in his or her heart, and with that emotional presence and support, can venture out further into the world without the PCG. The development of this capacity is called object constancy, i.e., “a coherent mental representation of important attachment figures.” (Worden, 1996, pp. 9-10, citing Bowlby (1963, 1980) and R. Furman (1964)).

The inability to retain a sense of object constancy, and to remember that the PCG is a resource even when she or he is not physically present leads to many difficulties in forming healthy relationships and good boundaries. For example, those with borderline personality disorder or other attachment disorders were unable to achieve the capacity for object constancy because the mother or other primary caregiver was neglectful or abusive, physically and/or emotionally and did not therefore create a sense of safety and trust in the growing child.

Grief theorist J. William Worden (2002) describes certain tasks a bereaved individual to complete in order to navigate the grief process in a healthy way. The first task is to accept the finality of one’s loss; the second task involves feeling, and not avoiding, the pain of one’s grief; the third task is to adjust to an environment without the deceased; and the fourth task is to “emotionally relocate” the deceased and move forward in life. This process of “emotionally relocating” the deceased loved one is akin to the development of object constancy.

This process of grief and love was illustrated in a poignant way with one of my grief therapy clients, who I will call “Joe” for the sake of confidentiality. Joe came to see me for therapy after the death of his young wife, “Jody” as it became clear that his suffering in his grief was unrelenting. A common theme in Joe’s lamentations was that his wife was quite mean to him, especially as her cancer progressed and affected her brain. Joe was unable to talk about Jody without crying, and he developed some unhealthy coping tools to assuage his pain. As the first anniversary of Jody’s death drew closer, Joe’s suffering increased.

I recently asked Joe if he loved Jody, and with tears streaming down his face, Joe for the first time in our sessions said that he loved his wife. It felt as if a dam Joe had built around his heart had burst, and he was able to open his heart to his love for Jody. This was truly a breakthrough in Joe’s path to healing his grief.

It was clear that Joe needed to find a place for the Jody he loved in his heart in order to move forward in life. For so many of us, like Joe, this is a process of having the courage to love wholeheartedly. Many of us hold back pieces of our love out of fear that doing so will make us too vulnerable. However, vulnerability is not a weakness and does not put us at risk of harm. Rather, the word “vulnerable” simply means the ability to be open. Being open allows us to see things more panoramically and makes us stronger, not weaker. More importantly, being open to loving fully allows us to keep our loved ones with us as a source of strength and support when they are not there in person.

Loving and living fully after loss often entails completing “unfinished business” with our loved one in some way, whether through therapy, journaling or other expressive means. We may need to forgive our loved ones for their human weaknesses, and also forgive ourselves for difficulties in the relationship. No relationship is perfect, and letting go of resentments, guilt or fear is an important piece of the process of finding an open place in our hearts for our loved ones who have passed. Only then can we relocate the deceased emotionally in our hearts, heal our grief and move forward in life.

Using Anger Mindfully

Many of us, especially those on the spiritual path, tend to look at anger as an entirely negative emotion.  However, anger used mindfully can be extremely positive, powerful and ultimately healing.  Anger is simply energy, and we always have a choice as to what to do with it. Dzogchen Ponlop, in his recent book Rebel Buddha (2010) aptly states:

We usually think of anger … as negative.  Ordinarily, our impulse would be either to cut through it and get rid of it or to transform its intense energy into good qualities like clarity and patience….[T]he  direct experience of our unprocessed, raw emotions can generate a direct experience of wakefulness. These emotions are powerful agents in bringing about our freedom, if we can work with them properly (p. 144).

So, what do we do that that energy?  We are often afraid to feel its raw power, and fear that expressing it will make us seem less than the kind compassionate people we are.  However, using anger mindfully will actually awaken our compassion, starting with compassionate lovingkindness toward ourselves.

In fact, many people who are compassionate toward others do not treat themselves with the same degree of compassion, and are self-critical and often depressed.  It has been said that depression is “anger turned inward.”  One of the major goals in treating depression in psychotherapy and in grief counseling is to help clients feel safe to express their anger, and turn the energy of anger outward.  “Ex-pressing” anger literally means pushing it out, so that it becomes workable and is not a toxic agent against oneself.

Anger in its pure form, without the “additives” of concept and labeling it as a bad thing, is simply energy.  The key is to harness that energy through the use of mindfulness.  Mindfulness enables us to recognize the anger without simply reacting — either spitting it out against another or turning it against ourselves.  By looking at it without reacting, we have the ability to choose to use our anger productively.

The following are some suggestions for using anger mindfully:

  • Notice how anger manifests in your body — is it a burning sensation in your heart?  A cold tight clenching in the pit of your stomach?  A flush of heat in your face or hands?  Become as familiar as you can with your own unique physical “early warning signs” of anger so you can catch its energy without reacting.
  • As soon as you notice the physical sensation of anger, stop and breathe.  Allow the energy of anger to wake you up to what is actually happening at that moment.
  • Give yourself permission to feel hurt, abandoned, scared, frustrated or sad with a sense of compassion for yourself.  Breathe in light, peace and compassion, and breathe out the dark, heavy sensations of anger without judgment, accepting it just as it is.
  • If you notice the anger turning inward against yourself, continue to breathe it out more forcefully.  Use your body to keep the energy of the anger outward — shake it off your hands into the air, stomp it into the ground with your feet  — whatever it takes not to turn that energy against yourself.
  • Be curious.  Ask yourself:  “What is this feeling?  What is it telling me?”
  • Trust your body to tell you the appropriate course of action.  Is there something you need to say to someone who has hurt you, in a way that will forward your own healing and contribute to the growth of the other person and your relationship with him or her?  Is it something you can simply let be, making sure not to turn the anger inward?

As Stephen Levine (1987) eloquently says, “the investigation of anger…leads us directly to the love beneath, to our underlying nature. When we bring anger into the area where we can respond to it, where we can investigate it, where we can embrace it, it emerges into the light of our wholeness….Then anger is no longer a hindrance, but a profound teacher.”

References

Dzogchen Ponlop (2010).   Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom.  Boston:     Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Stephen Levine (1987).  Healing into Life and Death.  New York:  Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

© 2011.  Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC.  All rights reserved.

Do Our Pets Grieve After Loss?

Lucy and Andy, my two cats, have been best buddies ever since we brought Andy home fourteen years ago, when Lucy was one year old.  As I write, they are nestled next to each other.  Lucy, who has always been very healthy, is starting to show the signs of age:  recurrent urinary tract infections, and the beginnings of kidney failure.   As a hospice bereavement counselor, I support family members through their anticipatory grief, and their grief after the death of their loved one.  Is Andy starting to prepare for Lucy’s demise? How will she react after Lucy dies? How can I support her in the process?  I know plenty about supporting humans through their journey of grief — how do I do that with my animal partners?

Many have observed behavioral changes in their pets after their animal and human companions die.  They may search for their friend, stare out the window, seemingly in hopes that their friend will come back, stop eating, cry or seem depressed, clingy or withdrawn.

Some researchers believe that a cat or dog’s concept of death is similar to that of a young child.  Young children do not have the cognitive development to understand the finality of death, and grief counselors urge parents to talk honestly about death, in as much detail as a child can understand and tolerate — we cannot do that with our pets.  Pets can experience absence of what they became used to with their animal companions — their warmth when cuddling, their heartbeat, eating side by side.  Some behaviorists believe it is helpful to show surviving pets the bodies of their deceased buddies.  Indeed, it has been observed that a cat may stop searching for his or her playmate once shown the corpse of his dead friend.  If that is not possible, searching behaviors may continue until the surviving cat realizes in some way that his or her friend is not coming back.

So, how do we support our grieving animal friends? As a grief counselor, I always keep in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it is therefore important to start with the physical.  With humans, I always ask if they are eating and sleeping well and getting exercise, using psychoeducation to explain that grief is stressful in all domains — physical, emotional, social and spiritual — and that if the bereaved does not take care of the physical component, he or she will not be able to move forward in a healthy way on the journey of grief.  Obviously, we cannot explain this to our animal companions.  Instead, look for eating and sleeping changes.  Not eating can be very dangerous in animals, and can lead to liver failure and death.  Hand feeding may be necessary in this case, and the physical closeness involved in hand feeding can be soothing and aid in healing.  It is also important to observe if the animal is urinating normally, as urinary tract infections can occur in times of stress.

Emotional support is also important in the healing of grief.  I have observed time and time again how important touch is in working therapeutically with those who are dealing with loss.  When I comfort a grieving spouse, a hospice patient who is scared and confused in dementia, and others who are experiencing the pain of loss, the touch of a hand or a hug is often  far more healing than words.  It is the same with our pets — massage them and talk to them in comforting tones. Continue to observe their behavior, and if they seem fearful, depressed or anxious, spend as much time as you can with them, talking to them in a soothing way and petting them so that they learn that they are safe.

Our pets are very sensitive to changes in their human companions’ emotions, and may become anxious.  Therefore, it is important for us to take care of ourselves, and get the support we need, whether from friends, a grief counselor or a support group, so that we can best support our pets.

Mind the Gap: Living in the Space Between Loss and Healing

One of the most difficult phases in any life transition is the space of the unknown between a loss or change, and healing or new beginning.  All life changes, even positive ones, entail a sense of loss or grief.  For example, there is a sense of loss in giving up addictive behaviors like cigarette smoking, despite the fact that the change is a positive one.  Even the change of getting a better job or promotion entails loss — you might be giving up security, relationships and the comfort of the known in making such a change.  The most difficult changes involve the death of a loved one or death of a relationship.

Our lives are always in transition.  Every breath we take involves a transition, from inhaling to exhaling, to the gap or space before the next inhalation.     After the end of a phase in our lives, we have a tendency to jump into something (or someone) new, because that space of the unknown can be so uncomfortable.  William Bridges (1980) calls this space the “neutral zone.” As Bridges explains (p. 112), “one of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.  For us, emptiness represents only the absence of something.  So, when the something is as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing those missing elements as quickly as possible.”

Resting in the space of the neutral zone — feeling the pain of our loss, exploring our options, getting to know ourselves on a deeper level — is the key to transformation and growth.   How can we sit in that space of the unknown that feels anything but neutral, without giving in to the impulse to do something?  The first step is to be rather than do, which sounds much easier than it is, until we develop some friendliness toward ourselves and our anxiety.  Notice the impulse, and instead of acting on it, explore it with curiosity:  Where do you feel it in your body?  What is it telling you?  Breathe into it and let it be without having to change it in any way.

Mindfulness meditation, especially mindful breathing, is very helpful in learning how to be in the gap or neutral zone:  Feel the cool air entering your nostrils on the in-breath.  Pause and then feel the warm air leaving your nostrils on the out-breath.  Notice in particular how the out-breath dissolves and experience the space before your next in-breath.

Journaling can also be helpful in navigating the neutral zone.  Journaling helps us get those swirling emotions out of our bodies and head in a way that is workable and spacious.  We can gain some perspective on the stages of our journey — a major function of the neutral zone, and get to appreciate that time as a time for renewal.

Finding a regular time and place to be alone is also helpful in the neutral zone.  The period after a loss is a natural time to turn inward. This time of year, the barren stillness of winter, is also a natural time to turn inward.  Experience the loss of summer’s richness and the loss of the autumn leaves.  Know the gap before spring comes again as a time for renewal.  Without death, there can be no rebirth.

The Christian mystics call this gap and time of turning inward the “dark night of the soul.” It is a time to allow ourselves to feel the pain and despair that is a universal part of the human condition in the face of loss and change.  We may feel bereft and spiritually arid, and it is necessary to feel those feelings in order to transform them.  Despair can be seen as the manure from which spiritual growth and personal transformation arise.  As Michael Washburn so beautifully says in the aptly titled article The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It (1996), “It is only in the depths of despair that genuine spiritual life is found.  It is a paradox that we sometimes have to lose our way in order to find our true self.  We sometimes have to die to the world and to our worldly self before we can discover that our deepest and truest self was within us all the time.”

REFERENCES

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA:  Perseus Books.

Washburn, M. (1996).  The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It:  The Dark Night of the Soul and the Emergence of Faith.  In Sacred Sorrows, Nelson, J.E and Nelson, A., eds. New York:  G. Putnam’s Sons.

Coping with Grief During the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us.  This time of year can be particularly difficult for those who are grieving the death of a loved one, and can revive or intensify one’s grief even after many years have passed.  Here are my top ten tips for coping with grief during the holiday season:

1.  Spend time with family and friends.

2.  Spend some “alone time” to reflect.

3.  Light a candle in your loved one’s honor.

4.  Volunteer your time to help others, with the intention that your are giving in honor of

your loved one.

5.  Tell stories about the life of your loved one.

6.  Write a letter to your loved one.

7.  Express your feelings through journaling or art.

8.  Make a donation to your loved one’s favorite charity or group.

9.  Have a party for the deceased with people who loved him or her, play his or her

favorite music and prepare his or her favorite foods.

10. Take care of yourself — buy yourself flowers, take a trip out of town, get a massage,

read a book, take a walk, and have a date with yourself.

EMDR as a Healing Tool in Transforming Traumatic Grief

The intense and painful experiences of grief are generally considered “normal.”  However, when those experiences are extremely distressing, unduly interfere with day-to-day functioning or do not subside to a manageable level over time, the bereaved may be experiencing complicated or traumatic grief.  Complicated grief has been proposed as a new diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and suggested components of the diagnosis include (1) that sufferers experience bereavement by death; (2) that their reactions include intrusive and distressing symptoms, including yearning, longing and searching for the deceased; and (3) that the bereaved exhibit at least four marked and persistent trauma reactions, which may include:  “avoidance of reminders of the deceased,  purposelessness, feelings of futility, difficulty imagining a life without the deceased, numbness, detachment, feeling stunned, dazed or shocked, feeling that life is empty or meaningless, feeling a part of oneself has died, disbelief, excessive anger or bitterness related to the death, and identification symptoms or harmful behaviors resembling those suffered by the deceased” (Mitchell et al, 2004, p. 13).

Even in cases that do not fit the criteria for complicated grief as described above, the events surrounding the death may be sufficiently traumatic to interfere with daily functioning or result in unrelenting distress.  As a psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss, I have found EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to be an effective tool for alleviating trauma in grief.  As in grief, trauma affects the whole person — body, mind and spirit, and on a hierarchy of needs, trauma must be dealt with in order for the healing process of grief to proceed in a healthy, and healing, fashion.

What is EMDR?

In brief, EMDR was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro after making a chance discovery that the lateral movement of her eyes reduced the intensity of disturbing material she was dealing with in her life (Shapiro, 1995, p. 2).  Dr. Shapiro spent several years scientifically studying this phenomenon, and found that bilateral stimulation, i.e., stimulation on both sides of the body — whether in the form of eye movements, tapping, sound or other forms — released traumatic material from the brain in a way that made the material workable. Trauma that is locked in the brain leads to the “fight, flight or freeze” response, and EMDR helps transform traumatic images into memories that no longer have a deleterious hold on the individual.

In addition to this physiological response to trauma, the traumatized individual often develops negative beliefs about him or herself (such as “I do not deserve love, “I was at fault” etc).  The beauty of EMDR is that it works on a cognitive level as well as the physiological level, not only facilitating the transformation of traumatic images in the brain, but also allowing the individual to replace negative cognitions about him or herself with positive ones (such as “I deserve love”, “I did the best I could”, etc.).  EMDR also works on a somatic level, with the therapist guiding the client to feel the traumatic images and negative beliefs in the body, thus further facilitating the transformation of the images into non-intrusive memories, and also transforming the negative beliefs into positive, useful ones. Therapists need to be trained to practice EMDR, and follow a standardized protocol in EMDR work with clients.

Case Studies

Two cases in my practice are illustrative of the effectiveness of EMDR in resolving traumatic grief.  “Carol”, the mother of two small children, came to see me complaining of ongoing distress after the death of her husband nine months before.  “Bill” was in a motorcycle accident, sustaining a broken leg. After being admitted to the hospital, Bill suffered a stroke and brain swelling, and died after being taken off life support two days later.  Carol was concerned about her irritability, particularly toward her children, and her anger toward Bill for dying and leaving her with two small children to raise alone. She also expressed guilt regarding her anger toward Bill, which I spent time validating and normalizing, since anger is often exhibited as a normal grief response.   Carol spent much time telling her story — a useful healing tool for making meaning of a seemingly senseless situation (White, 1995).  She did not exhibit signs of trauma for the first few months that we worked together.  However, as the anniversary of Bill’s death approached, Carol found it difficult to sleep, being awakened by intrusive images of Bill lying in the hospital bed and her shock when she learned of his condition.  We explored Carol’s negative cognitions around these images and Bill’s sudden death. The negative belief that that most impacted Carol was her belief that Bill’s death was her fault because she had a premonition that he would be in an accident, and she did nothing to prevent it.   In describing the images of Bill lying in the ICU and her belief that it was her fault, Carol felt tightness in her chest and had difficulty breathing. After two 90-minute EMDR sessions, Carol was able to replace her negative belief “I was at fault” with the positive belief “I did the best I could.”  She reported that she still, of course, experienced memories of Bill’s death, and reported she was very pleased that that she could feel sadness without guilt.  Carol was thus finally able to process her grief and loss in a healthy way.

My work with “Mary” was deeply profound and moving.  Mary’s husband “Don” suffered with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) for three years, and Mary witnessed the horrible, inexorable ravaging of Don’s body while his mind stayed strong.  Mary’s expressed purpose for coming to see me was that she was unable to feel Don’s presence in her life.  Mary described Don as her soul mate, and I assured her that because of the strength of their bond, she would find a place for Don in her heart and feel his presence as a support in order to move forward. However, it was clear that she would first have to deal with the traumatic images that prevented her from fulfilling this step in her grief process.  The most disturbing image, and target for our EMDR work, was finding Don lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor after falling out of his wheelchair.  I taught Mary the “butterfly” technique, in which the client crosses his or her arms across the chest in a hug and taps alternately below each shoulder, simulating the bilateral stimulation used in formal EMDR sessions. I instructed Mary to use this technique at home as a resource when traumatic images arose.  After two sessions, with Mary working at home with the butterfly hug when disturbing images and emotions arose, Mary reported that those images had receded as mere memories that were no longer unduly disturbing.

Mary came into our next session glowing, and reported that she had felt a tug at the back of her shirt while sitting quietly one day and “knew it was Don, back in my life.”  She reported that she subsequently felt Don’s presence coming to her every night before she fell asleep.  Our trauma work was done, and Mary was well on the way to healing her grief.

Conclusion

My work with both Carol and Mary, as well as many others, has enhanced my confidence in my therapeutic skills in identifying and working with traumatic grief, and has increased my trust and faith in the effectiveness of EMDR as a healing tool in grief.

References

A. Mitchell, Y. Kim, H.G. Prigerson, M.K. Mortimer-Stephens. (2004). Complicated Grief in Survivors of Suicide. Crisis 25(1), 12-18.

F. Shapiro. (1995). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing:  Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures. New York:  Guilford Press.

M. White. (1995). Re-authoring lives. Adelaide:  Dulwich Center Publications.