Tag Archives: mindfulness

Self-Regulation is Central

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Self-regulation is central to nearly everything in life. I suppose maybe that’s why Dr. Sara Polanchek and I have been ruminating on it so much in our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast series. In fact, the podcast that became available today is more general and less parent-focused than is usual. Again, that’s because self-regulation or self-control in the fact of outside forces or stressors is so important for everyone.

To read my more general self-regulation blogpost, click here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/04/the-secret-self-regulation-cure-seriously-this-time/

To listen to the podcast on iTunes, click here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen on Libsysn, click here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

And finally, here’s a description of the podcast that’s live today!

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously, this time)

For this Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast you should just let yourself relax, let go of all expectations, and tune in. You can even practice being bored, because one part of the secret to self-regulation is that it’s all about embracing your boringness (Spoiler alert, Sara gets bored at the end). Another way of putting this, is that the deep secret to self-regulation (which John shares in this episode) is to repeatedly focus on one comforting thing that is—or becomes—boring (for you science types, that means focusing in on one comforting stimulus). Another big part of the secret to self-regulation is mindful acceptance. Of course, you probably know that mindful acceptance is from Buddhist philosophy, but the concrete application of mindful acceptance involves accepting the fact that you will always get distracted and won’t ever be able to meditate or use progressive muscle relaxation perfectly. You can only strive to be imperfectly mindful (and you shouldn’t even strive to hard for that).

If you make it through this podcast episode without falling asleep, then you might be able to answer one of the following questions:

  1. According to Herbert Benson, What are the four parts of the “relaxation response.”
  2. What’s the problem with counting sheep as a method for dealing with insomnia?
  3. What was the spiritual mantra that John shared?

And if you can answer one of these questions and be the first person to post it on our Facebook page, then you will win something—something in addition to having that warm, positive feeling of having been the first person to post the answer.

Here’s the link to our Podcast Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/?hc_ref=ARRyCtUkbbKwI1usTfQpgCtCAHB3Pi4EVR3fikiq3gd5A-C07BjG7mY7Lqtel9x2jiA&fref=nf

 

 

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The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously this time)

The Road“I’m in suspense,” Sara said. “I’ve been in suspense since the last time we recorded, because John said he had this big secret and I don’t know what it is.”

Partly Sara was lying. She wasn’t in much suspense, mostly because the “last time we recorded” had been only five minutes earlier. But, as I’m sure you realize, capturing and magnifying in-the-moment excitement is the sort of behavior toward which we Hollywood podcasting stars are inclined.

Sara stayed enthusiastic. When I told her that I thought every self-regulation and anxiety reduction technique on the planet all boiled down to a single method that Mary Cover Jones developed in 1924, she said things like, “That’s exciting!” and “I love Mary Cover Jones.”

[Side note] If you end up needing a podcasting co-host, be sure to find someone like Sara who will express enthusiasm even when you’re talking about boring intellectual stuff. [End of side note.]

Mary Cover Jones was the first researcher to employ counterconditioning with humans (although she rarely gets the credit she deserves—but that’s another story). Counterconditioning involves the pairing a desirable (pleasant or comforting) stimulus with a stimulus that usually causes anxiety or dysregulation. Over time, with repeated pairing, the pleasant feelings linked with the desirable stimulus are substituted for the anxiety response. Eventually, the person who has experienced counterconditioning can more comfortably face the undesirable and previously anxiety-provoking stimulus.

My belief is that counterconditioning is the first, best, and only approach to self-regulation and anxiety reduction. Put another way, I’d say, “If it works for self-regulation, then what you’re doing is counterconditioning—even if you call it something else.”

I know that’s a radical statement. Rather than defend my belief and philosophy, let me move on and describe how you can begin using counterconditioning to make your life better.

Let’s say your goal is for you to experience more calmness and relaxation and less agitation and anxiety. That’s reasonable. According to Herbert Benson of Harvard University, you need four things to elicit the relaxation response.

  1. A quiet place
  2. A comfortable position
  3. A mental device
  4. A passive attitude

Benson was studying meditation way back in the early 1970s. Okay. I know I’m digging up lots of old moldy stuff from the past. But take a deep breath and stay with me.

Let’s say you’re able to find a quiet place and a comfortable position. If you’re a parent, that might be tough. However, even if you find it for 12 minutes as you lie in bed, waiting for sleep, that’s a start. And really, all you need is a start, because once you get going, you don’t really even need the quiet place and comfortable position. On airplanes, I use this all the time and it’s not quiet and I’m not physically comfortable.

The next question that most people ask is: “What’s a mental device?” or, “Is that something I have to strap on my head?”

A mental device is a mental point of focus. In Benson’s time and in transcendental meditation, the popular word for it was “Mantra,” but Benson’s research showed that it can be almost anything. One mental device (that’s actually physical) is deep breathing. Another one is to sit comfortably and to think (or chant) the word OM. Benson also found that simple words, like the numbers “one” or “nine” also were effective. But, as I mentioned on the podcast, you can use other words, as long as they are—or can become—comforting. For example, I know people who use the following words:

  1. I am here
  2. Here I am
  3. Peace
  4. Shalom
  5. Banana

For those of you with religious leanings, you might want to use a specific prayer as your mental device. For those of you who are more visually inclined, you could use a mental image as your mental device. For those of you who are physically-oriented, you could use progressive muscle relaxation or body scanning.

The point is that all you need is a point . . . of focus.

Now comes the hard part. Because we’re all human and therefore, imperfect, no matter how compelling or comforting or soothing your mental device might be, you won’t be able to focus on it perfectly. You will become distracted. At some point (and for me it’s usually very early in the process), you’ll find your mind wandering. Instead of focusing on your prayer, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re thinking about a recent movie you saw or a painful social interaction you had earlier in the day or your mind will drift toward a future social situation that you’re dreading.

What’s the solution to the wandering mind?

Well, one thing that’s not the solution is to try harder.

Instead, what Benson meant by a “passive attitude” is that we need to gently accept our mental wanderings and distractions. More commonly, the words we use for Benson’s passive attitude are “Mindful acceptance.” In other words, we accept in the moment of distraction and every moment of distraction, that we are humans who naturally become distracted. And then, after the noticing and after the acceptance, we bring ourselves back to the moment and to our chosen mental device.

On the podcast, Sara asked, “What if, as I try to focus on my mental device, I notice that all the while I have an inner voice talking to me in the background?”

What an excellent question! The first answer is, of course, mindful acceptance. For example, when you notice the inner voice, you might say to yourself, I notice my mind is chattering at me in the background as I focus on my mental device. Then, without judging yourself, you return to your mental device. A second option is for you to find a more engaging or more soothing mental device. Perhaps, you need two mental devices at once? For example, that might include a soft, silky blanket to touch, along with your “I am here” mantra.

As Mary Cover Jones illustrated over 90 years ago, the counterconditioning process is a powerful tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. I happen to think that it’s the only tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. Whether you agree with me or not isn’t important; either way, don’t let anything I’ve written here get in the way of you identifying and using your own cherished mental (or physical) device. At first, it might not work. It will never work perfectly. But, like Charles Shulz was thinking when he created Linus’s special blanket, life is way better when you live it with a comforting counterconditioning stimulus.

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For more information about Mary Cover Jones, you can go here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/11/25/a-black-friday-tribute-to-mary-cover-jones-and-her-evidence-based-cookies/

Or here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2017/07/17/brain-science-may-be-shiny-but-exposure-therapy-is-pure-gold/

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As I write this (6/4/18), the podcast isn’t quite up yet . . . but will be soon!

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on iTunes, go here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on Libsyn, go here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

To check out our podcast Facebook page, go here: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/

Happy New Year (or Not) from Me and my Buddy Sigmund

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On November 10, 2016, I decided to read Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. I was suddenly interested in how and why individuals and society develop an urge toward the death instinct. It’s light reading. I mean, the book is light, and it’s short. So there’s that.

Some people are unhappy that I’ve chosen to read something by Freud. He wasn’t known for his progressive feminist views. He didn’t even make it into the first wave. Maybe I should have read Adler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But Freud was on my bookshelf. Besides, the person who doesn’t think I should be reading Freud is the very same person who gave me this particular copy of Civilization and Its Discontents.

Having an impulse to read about the death instinct is ironic. Or maybe it’s funny. But if there’s one thing that’s not especially funny, it’s Freud. I know he has a book on Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but I’m betting right now—without even looking at it—that it doesn’t make people laugh.  If Civilization and Its Discontents is any indication, Freud may have written about jokes, but he was no joker.

Here’s a little glimpse of his optimistic discourse.

Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to [others]. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other. (1930/1961, pp. 23-24)

Okay. So maybe when Freud wrote this he was a little short on serotonin at his pre-synaptic cleft [as if I believe that neurochemical imbalance nonsense]. Seriously, what Freud needed was some regular aerobic exercise . . . and maybe yoga combined with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy so he could embrace nonjudgmental acceptance. I think Freud would have gotten into mindfulness because it would have allowed him to bask in nonjudgmental acceptance of all things except for people who didn’t practice mindfulness. Or maybe he would have been better served using individual emotion focused therapy with Leslie Greenberg; that way he could talk to a chair and emote. And if you read Freud, it’s easy to conclude he needed to do some emoting because his self-analysis was sort of like late 19th century self-injurious behavior. . . VERY PAINFUL.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud starts by confessing that he feels troubled over his apparent inability to have religious experiences. He seems to long for an “oceanic” experience of being one with the universe that might be attributable to God or religion. Although he seems rather reluctant to openly admit that. Later, he trudges through an analysis of “Love thy neighbor.” Unfortunately (at least for his neighbor), Freud ends up making more of a case for hating the neighbor. His logic is flawless, at least from his perspective. In the end, Freud embraces the likelihood of a death instinct which, in his time, was probably related to Hitler’s rise to power.

But what was Freud’s solution to the death instinct and Hitler’s ascension?

He had no solution. Or at least he had no solution in which he had much confidence. His last two sentences mark the battle lines. He admits to an incontrovertible aggressive and destructive impulse in individuals and in society. That’s much less fun than riding in a convertible. But more to the point, will hate, aggression, and destruction dominate? Freud seems to say—paraphrasing here, “Maybe so, maybe not.” The future, according to Freud, is in the hands of Eros.

With regard to the final outcome, Freud implies, “We shall see.”

This is like when your television show ends with the phrase, “To be continued.” Only now with internet streaming, rarely do we have to wait a whole week for the stunning conclusion. Sadly, Freud died before he reached the stunning conclusion.

But here’s where things get interesting.

Freud died on 23 September 1939 and John Lennon was born on 9 October 1940.

According to Buddhist philosophy, the soul can be reincarnated somewhere between 49 days to 2 years following death.

This leaves open the possibility—or even likelihood—that Freud was reincarnated as John Lennon and eventually, in 1967, wrote and sang, along with his Beatle friends, “All You Need is Love.” The point that Freud, reincarnated as John Lennon, was trying to make is that we all need to be liberally spreading Eros around as a Death Instinct antagonist.

There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I think the obvious take-home message is for us to all practice loving our neighbors even though we might be able to make a better intellectual case for hating them. We should probably love our enemies too. And I’m adding a twist to this for 2017: sometimes this isn’t going to be fluffy gooey love. It’s going to be some bad-ass, in-your-face tough love.

This is my New Year’s resolution—to be a practitioner of good-old Freudian in-your-face tough Eros.

Although I’m ending this with a wish for you all to have a Happy New Year, I’m also recognizing that the pursuit of happiness is aptly phrased because just when you think you’ve got it, it goes and flits off to somewhere else and you have to keep chasing it.

Good luck with the chase and good luck with that Eros thing.

Neuroscience New Year’s Resolutions for 2016

In case you forgot or never knew, 1990 to 2000 was championed as the decade of the brain. You would think one decade would be enough, but judging by how much of a darling neuroscience is in the media, it looks like the brain will be hogging the whole 21st century too. And so in celebration of our perpetually “New Brain Science,” I’m offering six neuroscience-based New Year’s resolutions for 2016

1. For years, the Dali Lama has been advising everyone to develop a “Loving Kindness” meditation practice. Even if his advice doesn’t change the world, having a consistent loving kindness meditation practice can change your brain. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a region in the brain called the insular cortex, an area broadly linked to self-control and good judgment. This makes 2016 a good time to start meditating. We could all use a little more self-control and good judgment.

2. You should sit down for this one. Or stand up. And then sit down again. This is because scientific research supports brain-body connections. Exercise facilitates everything from sleep to sex. If you want a sharper brain for 2016, then stand-up and get walking or stretching or running or lifting or dancing your way to clearer thinking.

3. Last year might have been the year of the gut. There’s been plenty of talk about the “gut” being our second brain. Of course, this isn’t about growing your gut or striving for a dad-bod. It’s all about digestive health. The best way to get your second brain to support your mental health is to feed it whole, fresh foods, probiotics, and fermented foods (like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchee), while avoiding the evils of eating highly processed white sugar/white flour.

4. Exercise is great and good sex may be better, but loving and gentle touch is the bomb. Make 2016 the year—not only for consensual hugs and kisses—but also for shoulder and neck and foot massages. You can even put brushing each other’s hair on your “this-just-might-improve-my-mental-health” to-do list.

5. In 2015 sleep research was hot. It’s more obvious than ever that sleep deprivation is generally bad for your brain; it contributes to clinical depression, suicide, accidents, and illness. Finding a way to sleep well in 2016 means turning off your screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, cutting out the caffeine after 2pm, and establishing a steady personal and family sleep routine. Sleep is the new black.

6. For those of us in the helping professions, the biggest neuroscience news is all about what psychotherapists call empathic listening. Turns out, listening in an effort to understand others grows the brain in ways similar to mindfulness meditation. That means the more you practice listening with empathy, the more you’ll grow that all-important insular cortex . . . and the more you grow your insular cortex, the less likely you are to engage in violent behaviors that threaten the planet. So if you want a more peaceful planet, put empathic listening on your New Year’s resolution list.

There’s one big principle that underlies all of the new brain science: Whatever behaviors you rehearse, practice, or repeat, are likely to strengthen your skills and grow your brain in those particular regions. What this means is that if your goal is to be a couch potato for 2016, you should spend lots of time couch potatoing so you can develop mad skills in that area, with a neurological net to match. On the other hand, if you want a healthy brain and body and awesome friendships and romance in your life, you should engage in the activities listed above—especially the mindfulness meditation and empathic listening—and you’ll grow a brain and skills that just might bring health, love, and peace in 2016.

Note: I submitted this awesome resolution list to a couple newspapers just before the New Year, but only got rejections. And so I decided to submit it to myself and, voila!, it got published right here on my very own blog (smiley face). Please share and pass it on so that all the newspaper editors who keep rejecting my work start feeling the deep regret they deserve.

Outstanding in Field

 

Listening as Meditation on Psychotherapy.net

Listening in psychotherapy and counseling is partly art and partly science. This week I have the good fortune of having a blog piece I wrote on Listening as Meditation published at psychotherapy.net. You can access this blog piece — and other excellent psychotherapy.net blog pieces — at: http://www.psychotherapy.net/blog

Have an excellent and mindful Wednesday.

John SF