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Flexible Thinking Part 2: Flexible Thinking and Mental Health

In my last post, Flexible Thinking Part 1, I reviewed what flexible thinking is and its benefits. Over the last few months, we have all been “thrown in the deep end” of flexible thinking as the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to make adjustments. Flexible thinking, or the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations, helped us transition to distance learning, working, shopping, and socializing. 

In this post, I briefly highlight how flexible thinking can improve and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety:

  • Depression tells us things will never change and reduces hope for the future. Flexible thinking applied to depression recognizes the opportunity each day and, in each situation, to do something different and breaks down negative feedback loops.
  • Anxiety feeds on possible, but unlikely, scenarios playing out in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Flexible thinking reminds anxious minds they have the resources around and within them to solve current and future problems and to create solutions to those problems. In short, flexible thinking focuses on “possibilities rather than deficiencies.”

What can we do to increase and improve our mental flexibility? 

Engaging in mindfulness activities, (think deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery) yoga, aerobics and relaxation techniques have all been shown to increase executive functions and mental flexibility. Research has also shown we can also enable flexible thinking through positive affect (positive emotions such as cheerfulness, pride and energy and their expression), openness to experience and self-control.

As we consistently engage in flexible thinking, we can have more control over our thoughts and responses, reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration and stress, meet our goals and successfully navigate the changing circumstances in our everyday lives and interpersonal relationships. 

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review30(7), 865-878.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-inner-life-students/202003/flexibility-in-the-midst-crisis

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Something You Should Know: Meditation and Mindfulness

A Therapy Blog Mini-series

As I work with clients, I often find myself recommending various techniques to help manage our behaviors, emotions, or thoughts. So I’d like to spend some time sharing these tools with you. This is the start of a blog mini-series of things we should all know to improve the quality of our lives and mental health. We live in a fast paced, instant gratification world which often leads to stress in our work and personal lives; so, our first topic will be on a helpful tool to de-stress and bring focus to our lives: mindfulness.

Meditation, or mindfulness, have vast benefits for mental health. While we may not have time to become yoga masters or visit the idyllic mountains of Nepal to meditate, we all have time to practice simple mindfulness techniques. Jeffrey Brantley, the author of Five Good Minutes, reminds us that we do have time because meditation can be done within a few minutes. When used regularly, meditation can be beneficial to our mental health and physical health and can bring the following results:

  • Improved attention span
  • Help with self-awareness
  • Stable emotional health through regulation
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Better stress management
  • Promoted brain growth

There are various ways to meditate, and you will want to try a few to find what works for you. One method that works well for me is from Brantley’s book Five Good Minutes and is called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is the process by which you can modify behavior through negative or positive reinforcement.

Let me share one of my favorite examples of operant conditioning: During one of the early episodes of the hit television show “The Office,” Jim continually restarts his computer. Every time it reboots, it plays the classic Windows jingle, and each and every time this jingle plays, Jim gives his co-worker Dwight a mint. After a while, Jim restarts his computer and Dwight holds his hand out instantly for a mint and states, “Hmm… I now have a horrible taste in my mouth.” The technique that I am going to discuss avoids sounds and mints, but it does condition your brain to have a positive response when you need it most. This specific technique uses positive reinforcement to train your brain to have a positive emotional response to happy healthy memories through touch. This technique can be done when you are calm or when you are having a stressful time to regain control of your thoughts and relax.

Here’s how to do it:

  • First, choose on object to use for this technique. You can also use your fingers, because you always have them with you! As you practice this technique, you will be thinking of pleasant memories. Try to capture the feeling and essence of the memory as you practice, rather than simply running through the memories themselves.
  • To begin, touch the object you have chosen. If using your hand, you can touch your index finger to your thumb. While doing this, remembering a time you felt a healthy sense of satisfied exhaustion, such as from physical exercise or work. For me, one memory in particular stands out: After completing a mountain race in which we summitted a tall mountain peak before returning back to the finish line, I was mentally and physically drained. I remember feeling exhausted, but at the same time feeling an incredible sense of accomplishment. When I think back to that sensation, I can almost feel the same as I did that day.
  • Second, touch your middle finger to your thumb and remember a time when you felt truly connected with someone important to you. This can be when you felt trust, love, or empathy with that individual. During a difficult time in my life, I connected with a friend. That trust and friendship is something I value to this day as I look back on that experience that helped me to feel connected to him.
  • Third, you will touch your ring finger to your thumb. While doing this, think back to a memory when you received a special gift or a kind gesture. For me, there is nothing better than the comfort and feeling of a well-loved pillow case (which, I might add, drives my wife crazy because I won’t let her buy new pillow cases). At one point, my favorite pillow case was torn, and I thought it was done for. While my mom came to visit, she had snuck it away, fixed it, and returned it to me as a gift. This was a kind gesture that I still cherish to this day.
  • Last, while touching your thumb to you pinky, recall a time when you witnessed the most beautiful place you have seen or pictured. Remember how breathtaking it was. When I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, I was in awe. Its majesty and grandeur is not something you can imagine until you see it in person.
  • You do not have to perform these steps in order, or do every step. To begin, start with one memory.

As you regularly practice this mindfulness technique your body and mind will become conditioned to relax during this meditation. Doing it consistently can help improve your mental health and help you control your thoughts through meditation.

When this or other meditation is not enough, please come and see me. We can define and work towards goals that you want to accomplish. Please do not hesitate to contact me at Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555.

Nathan Watkins, AMFT

 

References

Brantley, J. (2011). Five good minutes: 100 morning practices to help you stay calm and focused all day long. Readhowyouwant.com.

Seppala, E. (n.d.). 20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today. Retrieved March 18, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201309/20-scientific-reasons-start-meditating-today

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Anxiety Disorders: Meditation is Helpful Medicine

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According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are affecting over 18% of the American population, making it the most common mental health issue in the United States (adaa.org). Anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Panic Disorder (PD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Specific Phobias
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD)

Alarmingly, little more than one third of the people suffering from any form of Anxiety disorder are getting treatment (adaa.org). Often the barriers to treatment include not knowing that treatment is available or where to find it, or not wanting to resort to medications. Some people may not realize they have a diagnosable disorder, while other people may know they have it but not want to have to “do therapy.” If you or someone you know is not getting treatment for whatever reason, some lifestyle choices could help, including a clean, balanced diet, appropriate exercise, adequate sleep, and something that’s getting more attention in scientific research, meditation.

In January 2017, Psychiatry Research, a peer reviewed scientific journal, published the results of a randomized study that found significant reductions in stress related hormones in those participants who practiced Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as compared to the control group participants who did not (Hoge et al., 2017). Furthermore, when mindfulness techniques are combined with therapist guided cognitive-behavioral intervention the results are even more impressive and longer lasting (Evans, 2008). In short, working with a good therapist to learn healthy cognitive-behavioral habits and making good lifestyle choices—including practicing meditation on a daily basis—can go a long way toward helping you and/or your loved one overcome whatever form of Anxiety disorder you’re dealing with.

There are an abundance of free resources available to help you learn how to meditate.

  • YouTube offers countless videos of guided meditations. Some of my favorites are from Deepak Chopra.
  • You can download any number of meditation apps for your phone. I highly recommend Meditate Me, available only through the App Store for iOS devices.

Whatever resource you use, you’ll be glad you took the time and put the practice to the test!

Call us for an appointment with a skilled therapist.

Here’s to a peaceful life!

 

Evans, S., Ferrando, S., Findler, M., Stowell, C., Smart, C., & Haglin, D. (2008).

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22, 716-721.

 

Hoge, E. A., Bui, E., Palitz, S. A., Schwarz, N. R., Owens, M. E., Johnston, J. M.,

Pollack, M. H., & Simon, N. M. (2017). The effects of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in general anxiety disorder. PsychiatryResearch. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.01.006

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Anxiety! How Being Anxious Can Affect You

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Anxiety is a unique mental health symptom because it is something that in some way affects everyone. Yes, everyone! Anxiety does not care who you are; it can have its effect on you. Anxiety can strike at a variety of times. Many people may recognize some of the physical symptoms before they are mentally aware that they are anxious. Learning to recognize the warning signs of anxiety can help us find relief before anxiety spirals out of control.

I previously worked with a young woman who was highly ambitious, extremely successful in school, was social, seemed to have it all together, and… had anxiety. Her anxiety symptoms were primarily physical: chronic vertigo, sleeplessness, and lethargy. Because of their physical nature, she was not aware they were linked to her mental health, and they went untreated for far too long. For this young woman, the start of her treatment was learning to recognize the warning signs; which, for her consisted of worrying, angst, and over stretching herself by not being assertive with peers. Learning to recognize our warning signs can help us to manage our anxiety appropriately.

Some physical warning signs of anxiety consist of the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Feelings of numbness in limbs
  • Nausea or Diarrhea
  • Feelings of fatigue or weakness
  • Sleep disturbance

You might be asking yourself, “Well, I have some of these symptoms. What can I do to overcome them?” Thankfully, there are a number of things that we can all do to manage anxiety appropriately.

Therapy is a great way for anyone to be able to explore these symptoms and what might be causing them in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Having a therapist who you can discuss these anxious feelings with and determine possible causes can bring symptoms of relief. During a session, the mental health counselor will discuss an individual’s’ specific situations and possible solutions. A study done by Quast (2014) found that therapy has a positive effect on the reduction of symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety can also be treated at home with a few simple things. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere anytime. This technique allows individuals to bring more awareness to their current situation by assessing their thoughts, feelings, senses, and how their body feels. The more people practice mindfulness, the easier it can be to overcome anxiety. Mindfulness tool can be found in phone apps; such as, Headspace. These apps provide a great way to begin a mindful daily structured routine. Mindfulness can be as simple as yoga, meditation, coloring, or drawing.  The use of mindfulness alone has been shown to reduce worrying and helps to prevent the negative effects of anxiety (Hoge, Bui, Goetter, Robinaugh, Ojserkis, Fresco, and Simon, 2014).

Deep belly breathing can be an easy way to overcome anxiety in any situation. At times when I get frustrated or anxious, I stop what I am doing to take three deep breaths. While taking these deep breaths, make sure the amount of time you inhale, hold the breath, and exhale are five seconds or more. During these breaths, ensure that your breath is coming deep from your stomach and rather short breaths from your chest. While working with children, I recommend that they “fill their balloon” which is their diaphragm, or stomach area. If you have done yoga, this is like abdominal breathing or ujjayi breath. After completing these breaths, your body will be back in a more relaxed state.

The young woman I mentioned above could overcome many of the physical symptoms of her anxiety by seeing a therapist who helped her recognize her triggers, negative thoughts, and by building healthy habits; such as, mindfulness and deep breathing. Anxiety should not be the one in control in your life. You can take back control by utilizing the techniques mentioned above.

If you continue to struggle with managing your stress or anxiety, do not hesitate to contact us at Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555.  Together, we can learn further tools to help you through your specific challenges.

Quast, A. (2014). Yogerapy: An Integrated Yoga and Cognitive-Behavioral, Family-Based Intervention for Children with Anxiety Disorders in High Achieving Environments. Ph.D. of Pyschology. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 2014. Print.

Hoge, E., Bui, E., Goetter, E., Robinaugh, D., Ojserkis, R., Fresco, D., & Simon, N. (2014). Change in Decentering Mediates Improvement in Anxiety in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research Cogn Ther Res, 228-235.

Nathan Watkins, MFT INTERN

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Finding “ME” in Meditation

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In a society where we are all required to do more, sleep less, perform better, get richer, and find room for others, it’s hard to find the “me” in much of anything. So much of daily living is performing where our minds are constantly racing to the next thing. Sleep is interrupted by alarm clocks and delayed by late nights. No matter what the reason, whether it’s family, work, or school, it seems there is never enough time in the day.

Reports of declining mental health is increasing in depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and addiction. The big question is: How to cope? Is it really possible to find time for you? To build a way to relax, think, and rejuvenate without any artificial replacements?

I say, absolutely! The way to finding “me” is through ME-ditation.

Meditation means different things to different people. Renowned psychologist Marsha Linehan defines mediation as the ability to open the mind and acknowledge thoughts and senses, without showing judgment or analyzing, while embracing the unknown, through daily practice.

The benefits of meditation far outweigh any screen time on a smart phone. These include reduced depression, lowered anxiety, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, improved relaxation and sleep, and the ability to find spiritual connection. Meditation is also used in addiction recovery. Perhaps the biggest evidence of the benefits of meditation is that it improves emotional intelligence!

John Cabot Zin outlines the ABC’s:

A-Awareness: Becoming more aware of the mind and body. Thinking and doing.

B- Breathe: Allowing yourself to be with your experience. Create your story without reacting or responding. This can create compassion for yourself and others.

C- Compassion: By creating a pause between the experience and our reaction, we can make wiser choices.

Research is beginning to show that mindfulness and meditation increase our emotional intelligence and the way we monitor the emotions in others and ourselves.

Here Are Some Tips For Your Meditation Practice:

*Acknowledge you need “me” time.

*Slow down

*Find a quiet space

*Sit or Lay down

*Put your hand by your side

*Relax

*Clear your mind

*Listen

*Close your eyes, or try a sleepy gaze

*Breathe in through your nose for 5 counts

*Pause or hold for 5 counts

*Exhale through your mouth for 5 counts.

*Repeat

*Practice Daily

If thoughts come into your mind during your exercise, sweep them from your mind. Be aware of your body and sensations. Focus on your breath. Feel the air in your nose or mouth as you inhale and exhale. Acknowledge what you hear or smell. Feel your body relaxing. And breathe. Start with 5-10 minutes daily. The key to prolonged benefits, is to practice, practice, practice. If you fall asleep during your exercise, that’s good! You need it!

If you enjoy this simple meditation, seek out our trained therapists to deepen meditation skills and other powerful approaches to mindfulness.

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Meditation 101

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If you feel stressed and anxious more often than not then welcome to the club. In our ever increasingly busy world of information overload, these two unwanted companions can seem to take up permanent residency in our lives. Having to maintain the work/life balance while simultaneously multitasking endless to do lists can get to be quite overwhelming which creates the perfect storm of unwanted feels. How does one navigate these storms of certain woe? It may be more simple than you think and doesn’t take much time from your busy day. When you begin to feel these pesky squatters start to take up space in your mind, use these two following steps:

1. With either your eyes open or closed, begin to count your breaths (without changing your normal breathing patterns) from 1 to 10 with 1 being your inhaling breath and 2 being your exhaling breath up to 10. 

2. Focus only on the counting (if you find yourself thinking random thoughts as you count – that’s totally fine, observe them, dismiss them, and refocus on the counting)

Unlike having to create addition time like most activities designed to get you to a place of calm, this can be done on your way to whatever demands of the day require. The best part is it can be as little as a minute or up to an hour, YOU pick the amount of time you need to get to your happy place. Now doesn’t that amount of control make you feel devilishly good inside? It’s okay to admit it because YOU ROCK! Now go forward and continue to conquer all of life’s demands you busy go-getters!

Jameson Holman, AMFT

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10 Tips For Surviving The Holidays

The approaching holidays can be exciting, overwhelming and hard all at the same time.  Here are some tips to not only survive but thrive during the festivities.

1. Live “whole-heartedly” during the holidays

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston coined the phase after conducting thousands of interviews studying happiness and connection.  “Whole-hearted living” means letting ourselves be deeply and vulnerably seen. Loving with our whole hearts, even when there’s no guarantee. Focus on what is really important.

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Three Reasons Therapy Is Like A Dental Cleaning

Though I’m not privy to all the research on the matter, I dare say that people who keep regular dental appointments enjoy significantly better oral health over the course of their lives than people who do not. I imagine that the same principle might hold true for emotional/mental health. Allow me to hypothesize as to why that might be the case:
(c) Can Stock Photo

1. Stuff builds up over time.

Crud between the teeth is a natural casualty of eating. Since we all have to eat to live, it stands to reason that we are all going to battle teeth crud from time to time. It’s natural. There are professionals who make a living by helping others through the process of crud removal. When the crud builds up again, the crud removal recommences. We tend to accept as normal that this cycle will repeat on a yearly basis.

Crud within our thoughts and feelings seems to be a natural casualty of living. Since we all interact with others in order to successfully live in society, it stands to reason that we are all going to battle thought and feeling crud from time to time. It’s natural. There are professionals who make a living helping others through the process of crud removal. When the crud builds up again, the crud removal recommences. The duration of the cycle may differ depending upon a variety of factors, but it’s my guess that the crud-build up/crud-removal cycle will probably play out more than once in the course of a life span.

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