Sunday, October 16, 2016

Change the Hardwiring in Your Brain – Be Happy

One of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills  (Linehan, 2015) we work on in our groups is accumulating positive experiences. Accumulating positive experiences is a skill that encourages you to increase your positive experiences, both short term, such as daily, and long term, such as planning for a vacation you want to do. Having positive experiences improves our mood and allows us to manage difficult times better. It also makes us feel better about ourselves and gives us a better outlook on life which, in itself, gives us more stability to take on life. So consider having these positive experiences daily.

Image result for happy momentsShort term ideas for positive experiences can be as simple as taking a long hot bath, walking the dog, reading a book, having a nice conversation with a friend, etc. You build the experiences into your day. You notice them. You enjoy them. I would go so far as to think about being thirsty and enjoying that drink of water as you focus on it going down your throat. Think about putting the feeling on like a suave and soaking it in. Relishing in it. Being in the moment. Enjoying it. Working to move it from a moment to wiring and firing it together, activating that part of the brain that enjoys life. Make the moment a good moment. Move it from a moment to hard-wire the brain. If negative thoughts come in, such as wondering when this is going to end, or you don’t deserve it, notice the thoughts, let them go, and go back to being focused on the moment of positive experience. 

I like thinking and working on this skill because science backs this up. It reminds me of Rick Hanson’s work regarding Hardwiring Happiness(Hanson, 2013)  It also falls into line with Shawn Achor’s, Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change(Achor, 2013)  According to both Hanson and Achor, being in the positive moments, experiences, in our life in the moment actually changes the brain when we let them in and really be present with them. 

Achor gives us five things to practice daily for 21 days to create a habit (which would help to create the hardwiring). These include everyday writing down three things you are grateful for in the morning, writing for five minutes about a positive experience you had in the last 24 hours, meditating and doing a random act of kindness. 

Hanson encourages us to sit in the good moment for at least 10 seconds to make sure that wiring and firing happens and gets transferred to our long-term memory  He states that when the synapses are firing and wiring, they become more sensitive with new synopses developing, which allows that area of the brain to become even stronger the next time it is activated, allowing us to feel even better.
I have a visual image of creating pathways in our brain for happiness and joy, like pruning through the pathways, clearing them out and making them easier to access. Hansen’s work centers around the theory that we have to bask in the enjoyment of the good moments long enough for them to fire and wire together. The longer we fixate, or focus on the positive moment, the more the neurons are going to wire that inner strength that brings those feelings of happiness, gratitude, feeling loved and being lovable. So even in the difficult times, it is important to find something in the day to experience a good moment, even if it is enjoying the sunset or the fresh air on our face.
Start today to hard wire and activate more areas in your brain for happiness  It is exciting to think that we can work our way through difficult moments slowly but surely by focusing on accumulating positive moments and experiences. Through those efforts our brain will actually change and move towards activating a more positive mood.

Works Cited

Achor, S. (2013). Before happiness: The 5 hidden keys to achieving success, spreading happiness, and sustaining positive change. New York: Crown Business.
Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. New York: Crown Publishers.
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT skills training manual. New York: The Guilford Press.

Monday, October 10, 2016

90 Second Emotion Rule

Most people haven’t thought about emotions being a chemical response in the body.  However, according to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, when we are emotionally triggered, it takes less than 90 seconds for an emotion to get triggered, surge chemically through the blood stream, and then get flushed out.  Dr. Taylor, a brain researcher who wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight, suffered a stroke herself at the age of 37 years.  She studied her own brain through her experience of having a stroke, her recovery, and the insights she discovered.  (Taylor, 2006)

Dr. Bolte learned that the automatic and chemical responses in our body, as an emotion moves through us, even when the emotion is extreme, cannot last longer than 90 seconds.  So when something in our environment happens to trigger an emotional response, chemicals are dumped into our system, putting our body on full alert. For our body to release these chemicals and totally flush them out of our system, it takes 90 seconds or less.  (Taylor, 2006) Most of us probably have a hard time understanding this because we have experienced life in a different way when our emotions did last longer than 90 seconds.

There are several things to consider with this information.  There must be a way to manage emotions without being stuck in the pain of them if they really only last 90 seconds or less.  And stuffing emotions probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with our emotions either.

Bolte states that it is up to us if we want to stay in the emotional circuitry through our thoughts. She calls this the 90 Second Emotion Rule. After the emotion has flushed through, we can decide if we want to continue in the circuitry of the emotion. We can reactivate our emotional circuitry with our thoughts.

In DBT we call this “Sticky Thoughts”.  These are the thoughts that stick to an event and keep us in rumination mode. So with this 90 second emotion information, we might want to consider using our mindfulness skills to observe the emotions that come up and allow them to release without attaching thoughts to the emotion. Staying attuned to the emotion in the moment would better serve us in being more effective in our day than being on autopilot and cruising through without noticing the thoughts that take us into the emotional circuitry.  In our mindfulness, we can observe the thoughts that allow us to “take it” or “leave it”.

This means that if feelings of worry, guilt, shame come rolling in, we can allow them to come in, flush through our system and decide that they do not serve us. Allow the feelings to be done after they have completed the circuitry loop.  They are absurd and we don’t have to be caught in thinking thoughts about them to keep them activated.  Move on.  It is only a feeling. 

It may also mean we want to consider if stuffing emotions serves us.  If we stuff our emotions, resist expressing them, those chemicals remain in our body and we have to do something to manage them whether it is emotionally eating, drinking, shopping, keeping busy so we can’t sit down, etc. Fighting emotions, resisting them, means we have to continue to “keep a lid on them”. This takes energy.  Anyone can tolerate a feeling for 90 seconds.  Consider sitting down and letting the feeling come up and roll through you.  Ride the wave of the emotion and then let it go.  The workbook, Me and My Volcano , is a book we use to teach kids to allow emotions to be expressed rather than holding them in (which may seem safer at the time if they have the experience of releasing and expressing emotions appropriately later.  If not, then the stuffing becomes dangerous as the feelings pile up and then erupt – often over something so minute, only to hurt themselves and others.  The idea is to give the emotions some voice even if it means some private journaling rather than stuffing it and avoiding it altogether. (Hage, 1999)

Bolte gave us a wonderful challenge and good insight regarding our emotions.  They are important.  They give us information about ourselves and where we are in the moment.  We need to feel our feelings, observe them, release them, and then move on.  We don’t have to get caught up in them.  We don’t have to be afraid of them.  Just let the feelings come, let them go and move on about your day. 

Works Cited

Hage, D. (1999). Me and my volcano. Silverthorne: Parenting With Pizazz Publications.

Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of Insight: a brains scientist's personal journey. New York: Penguin Group.

Monday, May 9, 2016

“Holding the Space” For Others - True Support

As we walk through life, there are certainly times when we are face to face with situations that are very difficult to navigate or times when someone we love is navigating those choppy waters. Many times people draw back when someone they care about is dealing with a raw situation as they don’t know what to say, what to do, how to respond.  Or if people don’t draw back, they may kick into action with words trying to support the best they know how.  This may come about because they feel like they have to say something.  So they begin with advice-giving or problem-solving with lots of information and ideas, or may even imply the person should know better in handling the situation. 
Advice giving, although maybe meant well, is focused on fixing and tends to take away the person’s power, implying the person doesn’t know or can’t fix his/her life. Too much information through problem-solving may feel overwhelming, uninvited and doesn’t help the person feel supported or validated, nor does the person feel validated when there is an implication that he/she should know better. That tends to be shaming.

What you can do when someone you care about is struggling, is “hold the space” for him.  Holding the space is about creating the space that will make it safe for the person to be with you as you walk the fire with him. In that walk, you allow him to be exactly where he is (no advice giving) and be who he is by allowing him to feel the way he feels. You validate him (understanding his feelings), giving gentle guidance if and when it fits, letting him navigate the path (not pushing for your outcome).  You hold the space by taking on the humble honor of paying witness to the journey as you walk alongside him.  Really it may be that you knock on his door and you sit with him, not saying much, but being with him.  No expectations from him. Just sitting with him. Not filling in the silence.  Maybe if you say something, you will be honest that you really don’t know what to say; you just want to be there for him.  And then you just sit with him. 

In that gesture, you don’t do or say things that will contribute to him feeling inadequate nor do you push towards a specific outcome.  You just become the neutral witness, supporting lovingly, nonjudgmentally and unconditionally. I like to think about it as if you are just sitting with the person, maybe handing him a cup of tea, stoking the fire and keeping the blanket handy in case he gets chilled. That isn’t to say you will really do this.  But symbolically, you will do this with his heart. You surround him with your loving attention, energy, and care.  He feels cloaked in the warmth and love and support by you holding the space for his wounded heart.

Heather Plett talks about 8 lessons she has learned from holding the space for others and from people who have held the space for her. These tips might help make it clearer. The lessons are as follows:
  •        Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
  •        Give people only as much information as they can handle.
  •        Don’t take their power away. (Don’t take over the decision-making.)
  •         Keep your own ego out of it.  (Don’t get caught in the trap of believing that someone else’ success is dependent upon our intervention).
  •        Make them feel safe enough to fail.
  •        Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
  •        Create a container for emotions.  (Make it safe enough for someone to share their emotions without feeling broken or shamed.)
  •        Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. (Release control and honor the differences.)  (Plett, 2015)
Although it may seem that “holding the space” for someone is a rather passive role, it is actually the opposite.  You have to be strong, grounded and centered as you sit with a person who is struggling and raw. You have to be secure enough in yourself and your own emotions so that you can allow the other person to be secure in his own space. You have to be able to let him lead his own life, make his own decisions and pick himself up when he make mistakes and you help brush him off.  The gift is that you support the person in his time of struggle as you sit with that person.  You witness his journey, lovingly holding the space as he feels the support and care you extend to him as he tries to find and regain his footing from a very difficult time.  The gift to you is that you are able to extend support to someone you care about in a very healing way. When we give, we are also the receiver. But we want to be giving in a way that is a gift for the other person.

Works Cited

Plett, H. (2015, March 11). What it means to "hold space" for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well. Retrieved from