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.

 

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

How many times has someone said to you “don’t take it personally”? You have probably heard it so many times that the phrase has lost all meaning. Yet, the truth is that almost nothing is truly personal. Further, not taking things personally allows us to experience self-compassion and compassion for others.

We suffer when we believe in a solid sense of “I.” This is the fundamental tenet of the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. Developing an understanding of this First Noble Truth is the key to the experience of freedom and ease. Believing in the true existence of “I” is commonly referred to in Buddhism as ego-clinging. It can also be called self-importance.

Everything is a Projection

People do not see things in exactly the same way. Rather, what each of us perceives is a projection, based on numerous factors, such as habits, assumptions, culture, values and preferences. In fact, the only things the eye directly sees are colors and shapes.

I often help my clients develop their understanding of projections by looking at a plant in my office. I ask them what they see. They may say they see a pretty philodendron. When we analyze that, we realize that “pretty” is an evaluation and “philodendron” is a label. So, what is seen under the labels and evaluations? All that the eye truly registers on the optic nerve are colors and shapes.

Seeing mere colors and shapes does not satisfy our busy brains. We take the color and shape and add labels, evaluations, stories, and on and on until it becomes an epic novel. For example, from the color and shape, we label the plant and then evaluate it. Unless we are mindful about our proliferating thoughts, we may go on and think about the last time the plant was watered and if it needs pruning. We may even go further and judge ourselves for not having a green thumb.

It is the same when we see another person. We don’t stop with what we see directly. Rather, we go on to project all our own “stuff” on that person: good person, bad person, fat person, fit person, attractive person, unattractive person and on and on. Of course, human connection is far more nuanced than mere colors and shapes. However, an understanding that what another sees is his or her particular projection is helpful when we are feeling judged or criticized. This does not mean that constructive criticism is to be ignored. What we should remember, however, is that it is your behavior that is being critiqued, and not who you actually are.

Not taking things personally as the key to compassion and harmony

Not taking things personally is also a key to effective and responsible communication. When we put aside our ego-clinging and self-importance, we can better hear what another is actually saying. Behind every criticism or judgment is a need that is not being expressed in a compassionate manner. Instead of defending our position and taking what is being said personally, take a breath or two before automatically reacting defensively. Feel what your body is telling you. For example, does that clenching tightness in your gut feel like anger or hurt? When you understand what you are feeling, you can more ably discern how to respond, and even whether to respond at all.

For example, if a partner says, “you never wash the dishes,” what he or she is likely expressing is a request that you do the dishes. A typical kneejerk reaction would be to defend yourself, responding “that’s not true. I washed the dishes last Tuesday.” A defensive reaction such as this is likely to create more tension. Instead, we can respond with compassion, both for what we feel and for what our partner is asking.

If what is being said is intentionally mean or verbally abusive, it may be best to disengage in order to feel safe. Responding defensively may escalate an already difficult situation. By disengaging in those situations, you can best contemplate and choose the best choice of action for yourself under the circumstances.

Not taking things personally may take practice, patience and mindfulness in order to let go of our need to be right or defend our position. The result is a more kind and compassionate relationship, both with ourselves and with others.

© 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.

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.

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.

The Use of Narrative Therapy in the Transformative Work of Healing Painful Life Transitions

Helen Keller has said that “the only way to get to the other side is to go through the door.”  This is certainly true in the work of transforming painful emotions, such as those we experience after a divorce, into healing and growth. This process involves allowing ourselves to feel the intense emotions of grief – sadness, anger, despair and other difficult emotions, as well as tapping into our internal strengths and external sources of support.

Narrative therapy and has been used with a wide variety of difficulties and issues, including reactions to a major life transition.  The role of the narrative therapist is as collaborator or co-author with the client.  As such, the narrative therapist partners with the client to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life (White, 1995). The The

Narrative therapy is thus an empowering vehicle for “re-authoring lives” (Carr, 1998, p. 468; White, 1995), in which the therapist takes the role of a partner or collaborator with the client, rather than an authority figure (Angell, Dennis & Dumain, 1999).. The narrative therapist partners with the client to create a safe place to feel the emotions of loss and change, and to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life. The use of narrative or story is a useful vehicle for making meaning and sense of difficult experiences in our lives, by allowing us to access alternative cognitions and gain self-knowledge.

A narrative therapy tool that is often used in this work is the use of written expression, such as journaling and letter writing.  This can be a powerful vehicle for expressing the emotions of loss and change and accessing the individual’s unique internal strengths and resources.

The collaborative approach of the narrative therapist can be useful for accessing the client’s spiritual strengths by respectful inquiry into the client’s worldviews, including his or her beliefs before the loss, and how they may have changed since the loss, and discussing spiritual and existential issues that arise in this context. (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2000, p. 167).

As one gets in touch on a deep level with his or her own suffering and resiliency in the face of that suffering, he or she can begin to get a panoramic view of the human condition and tap into his or her spiritual strength. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been observed to be one way in which individuals create meaning and a sense of order and purpose to the human condition and its difficult transitions (Golsworthy & Coyne, 1999; Calhoun & Tedeschi 2000).

Narrative therapy can be an effective tool for working painful emotions and finding new meaning in one’s life.  The process of expression literally takes deep feelings out of the body, externalizing them so that they become workable. Through this process, my clients are able to see that they have some control over their lives, and can tap into their strengths and their inherent wisdom.  With my guidance as a partner on the path of healing painful life transitions, my clients can discover their unique strengths, resources and resiliency, deepen their spiritual beliefs, and enhance the meaning of their lives in the context of the human condition.