Tag: Mindfulness

Finding Connection in the Here and Now

One of the moments in life that brings me pure joy is to look into the eyes of an infant and with such perfect attunement they track me and smile back at me that toothless grin. Time passes with lots of funny faces, shrieks and giggles. Those kinds of moments could go on forever, yet the realities of my day pull me back into the business and messiness of life. The to do lists, the repairs, the work, the worries pull me out of the present and often into the future. Have you asked yourself lately am I living in the present moment?

I have worked with couples for many years and I observed in their rush to get to solutions they often missed opportunities to connect in the present moment. Feeling flooded with various emotions, one or the other’s mind was racing to figure out whose fault it was, how to protect themselves from the anticipated onslaught, or thinking, “Oh no, here we go again and what’s the point?” In these moments, they were not listening to their partner or seeking with curiosity to understand their point of view or acknowledging the emotion being expressed. Rather, they were flooded with thoughts from past failed attempts or fearing this negative outcome would be a predictor of their future together. The point is without even noticing it, they had exited the present moment going back to memories of the past or jumping ahead to worries about the future.

As a marriage and family therapist, I help couples slow down their dance around connection. They discover this whole new space in the present moment where vulnerability and empathy are powerful tools fueling connection and often healing past hurts or reassuring fears or insecurities. My first goal in treatment is to restore safety. If our amygdalas are too busy firing, then we exit our prefrontal cortex and go to three simple protective solutions: fight, flight or freeze.

If your partner is coming at you full force with criticism, it makes sense that you may feel defensive. If your partner ignores your bid for connection and leaves the room, then naturally over time you may feel rejected. If your partner shuts down, becomes overwhelmed and just doesn’t know what to do, you may feel lonely and long for a sense of team effort. One of the best solutions to these often-occurring challenges is to learn how to connect with our partner in the present while remembering to be respectful, share appreciation, and share feelings without casting blame.

The tool I most often share with my clients initially when asking them to practice living mindfully is to practice tuning into their five senses. Choosing an activity that you already do daily such as showering or brushing your teeth, practice at these moments tuning into your sense of taste, touch, smells, sight and sound. After spending a few minutes tuning into your senses, complete a body scan taking note of any sensations in your body. Label the feeling you have in the present moment such as, “I am feeling sad, overwhelmed or calm,” and then label the thought such as, “I am having the thought, ‘I am going to be late’,” or, “I am having the thought, ‘I have no friends’,” or “I am having the thought, ‘I am so smart why don’t they listen to me’.”

When parents become afraid for their child, often they are flooded with a series of thoughts containing “What Ifs.” The time and energy is spent on worrying about the child’s future and the precious moments of connection in the present are lost. Worrying about the future does little to help solve the problems as the problems you are worrying about have not actually occurred. Schedule time in your day to worry about the present problems, come up with measurable solutions and then let go of the problem until the scheduled time tomorrow. Be sure when considering solutions to make note if the focus is only on correction or control rather than on connection. Whether you choose to focus on your breath, practice meditation, go on a mindful walk or take time out to play and laugh together, you will find that living in the present moment brings an increased sense of peace and hope. When you find yourself in a relaxed state it is more likely for you be creative, find solutions and to connect in loving ways with your child.

Increasing your ability to live in the present moment takes practice. Those of us who take the time to practice, find that when we are in moments of distress or we are not connecting with our partner or child, we become increasingly aware of our own thoughts, feelings and actions and how those are impacting the other person. We then consciously make a choice to respond in new ways, communicate more clearly and effectively and enjoy increased moments of meaningful connection. I never said it would be easy but it is always worth it!

Heal the Body Heal the Mind

If you ever played an instrument or a sport, you know that the body has a memory of its own.  Similar to motor memory, our bodies have implicit memories that occur around traumatic events.  Recent research into neuroscience and epigenetics suggest that our brains change after trauma and that these changes can be passed down through generations with modifications to gene expression.  We are hard wired to respond to traumatic events in three ways.  We reach out socially for support by crying for help, go into fight or flight or shut down and withdraw inward.  Interestingly, these responses show differences in our brain when scanned.  People suffering from trauma are either stuck in fight or flight or perpetually in a state of shut down.

Due to an increased understanding of what is occurring in the brain, we have an improved range of interventions that can help trauma survivors heal.  According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., there are three ways to approach treatment: top down, medication or bottom up.  Most of you will be familiar with the top down approach.  This involves a familiar version of talk therapy where an individual with a therapist’s assistance processes the traumatic event and creates some kind of purpose or meaning out of it.  Due to changes in the nervous system and brain, it can be difficult for survivors to respond with compassion to themselves or to stay in the present moment.  Often, there is internalized a deep sense of shame.  Medications may help calm an overactive nervous system yet there are many forms of therapy that you may not have considered that fall in the category of bottom up.

If you are currently struggling with trauma consult with a trusted professional and consider some of the following treatment options:

  1. Mindfulness is awareness in the present moment of what you are thinking, feeling and experiencing in the body. In order to recover, an individual must become self-aware.  Learn how to breathe, stay in the present and be with themselves.  To learn to tolerate the world of their own inner experience, their own emotions.  Practicing mindfulness helps retrain the brain and once skills are developed to allow you to be present with yourself and better regulate your emotions you will be able to work on developing better relationships with others and attuning with them.  Our brains are hard wired for connection. With an opportunity to connect safely and securely with other people, our brains and bodies become rewired for physiological self-regulation.  Often exercises that involve synchrony with others like yoga, dance, or volleyball can assist in the recovery process.
  2. EMDR stands for Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The trauma survivor recalls the traumatic event while also participating in bilateral eye movements which is similar to what occurs naturally while dreaming.  The individual is able to process in a new way the material without the need to talk about it.  Often the individual who was “frozen in time” is now able to move forward without the interference of reoccurring memories or flashbacks.  This type of therapy requires specialized training and a therapist who has been certified to practice this type of psychotherapy.
  3. Lifespan Integration is a newer type of therapy that is currently being researched yet has also shown to be a gentle method that assists the individual to process the information in a new, safe way that does not require talking about it. Through the use of imagery and a timeline, the client is able to provide that part of themselves with what they needed at the time of trauma. Then the client continues to view scenes from their life to the present. This practice proves to the client that time has passed and that their life is different now.  This method is believed to help integrate the splintered implicit memories into the client’s co-constructed autobiographical narrative.  This method also assists clients who have experienced neglect to integrate and connect within themselves to move from a disorganized to a more secure attachment.  This allows the individual the ability to access more fully their social support network and dissipate toxic shame.
  4. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that is used to train the brain to self-regulate. It is common for trauma survivors to have increased activity in the right temporal lobe resulting in hyper arousal and also a slowing in the brain waves in the frontal cortex used in executive functioning. These changes in the brain contribute to difficulties in regulating mood and a decreased focus and ability to accomplish tasks.  Initially a client will have their brain mapped and then the technician or therapist will develop specialized training sessions to help train your brain to more optimal levels.

The awareness of trauma has grown as does the body of research supporting new interventions.  Despite the new information that shows how trauma negatively impacts the brain, the good news is that humans are resilient and the brain is adaptable.  Healing can come through a combination of techniques or interventions.  There is hope for healing and some of the more amazing people throughout time have been survivors of trauma.

Freeze and Flee, Not For Me

Back in my college years, a roommate of mine played a trick on me that left me paralyzed with fear. Upon entering the room, my mind registered something was different but I couldn’t quite place it. Looking around and not noticing what it was, I proceeded to put my laundry away. To do so, I had to open the closet door from which my roommate leapt out at me. I was so startled my body went into some form of dissonance where my brain and body were out of sync. Someone watching would have seen the laundry basket moving up and down as if I couldn’t decide whether to put it down or pick it up. Afterwards, this left us both in stitches.

For those struggling with anxiety, they know it is no laughing matter. People experiencing it are all too aware of the physical distress and the relentless thoughts pulling them out of the present and into the endless what if’s of the future. Anxiety itself is not the problem. Our fear response is hard wired in us to keep us vigilant and aware of danger that at times is even life threatening. Fear is a basic human emotion designed to provide us with information. Once this information is received, there are only three basic moves: freeze, flee or fight. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released to allow our bodies to prepare for the fight or to get away from it as quickly as possible or if completely flooded to freeze. In the case of being attacked by a grizzly bear, it is best to play dead so you are no longer seen as a threat.

Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is perceived to be real. One night while deep in sleep I had a dream, I was falling out of a tree. I flailed and hit the bed so hard it woke me up, heart pounding and there I was at home safe in my bed. While awake thinking about the possible negative outcomes, our mind and body often respond “as if” those outcomes are already occurring. This leads the person to a natural defense; avoid whatever it is that makes you feel that way.

It is normal to avoid. If you touch a burner and get burned, you want to avoid getting hurt again. This is often the healthy thing to do. With anxiety, it is natural to want to avoid the things that feel scary or uncomfortable; however it works differently with anxiety as the more you avoid it the scarier it becomes. If you address the problem initially is like a small puddle that you can easily jump over. If the feeling gets bigger and bigger, then it feels too big to jump over. With anxiety we need to take action.

But what do you do if it is your child who is paralyzed with anxiety? Parent’s also feel fear themselves about the negative outcomes that their child with anxiety will experience. If they avoid school, will they pass their classes? Will it impact their future? The parent’s fear often leads them to frustration where they attempt to plead, cajole, bribe or punish their child into action. This can result in a negative reaction in their child where a power struggle arises leaving both feeling powerless and defeated.

No one enjoys feeling that way! Here are a few ideas parents can try. These tools teach children ways to take action and lessen the likelihood of them using avoidance in the future.

1. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches the child how to recognize the level of tension in their body. It is a two step process where first the child tightens a muscle for a few seconds and then focuses on that muscle relaxing. Beginning at the top of the body and progressing down to the toes, muscles are tightened and then relaxed. A fun way to teach this to small children is by playing a game called “Spaghetti.” Parent and child practice getting rigid like uncooked spaghetti and holding this position for 10, 20, 30 seconds and increasing time with practice and attention and then becoming limp noodles like cooked spaghetti and having fun relaxing and going limp to the floor. This can be practiced multiple times.
2. Diaphragmatic breathing is a form of deep breathing where the person fills their lungs slowly and contracts their diaphragm. The belly fills like a balloon and then the person holds their breath for a few seconds. The air is then released slowly through pursed lips. This slow, deep breathing helps reverse the chemical reaction of the hormones released with anxiety and brings a sense of calm. A fun way to teach this to smaller children is by using bubbles. I like having fun competitions with trying to blow the longest and biggest bubble by taking a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds and blowing through pursed lips slowly to get the biggest bubble.
3. Five Senses is a way to help bring a person back into the present and it creates a grounding feeling. The person can use all five of their senses once triggered and feeling anxious to help bring them back to the present moment. Have your child look around and describe what they see with detail about shapes, colors and textures. Have your child choose a favorite scent and smell a favorite scented candle, food item or essential oil. Find an item they enjoy the feel of like a smooth blanket, stuffed animal, kinetic sand or bubbly water. Have your child eat something sweet, salty, or sour and focus on the taste as they chew slowly and savor it. Take a moment to listen to the sounds in the room and list as many as your child can hear or play soothing, quiet music or the sounds of nature.
4. Lattering is a form of breaking things down into smaller more manageable pieces. This could include breathing, five senses, being in the present, reaching out to a support person, and breaking school or work tasks into simple steps. Also, avoiding is rewarding because in the moment it feels better. Adding fun rewards for taking action can help make acting more rewarding. For smaller children, I like magic footprints where you trace your childs footprints and then when they come home from school there is a pathway of footprints to follow to a special snack or treat. Also, magic tree or box where once discovered it holds a special reward.

At times, there are things that can be structured differently at school, enlisting a school psychologist or teachers understanding and help can help mitigate a child’s anxiety especially if it is around another child’s behavior, not being able to use the restroom or with performance anxiety.

For parents, to understand better a child’s emotions and to lessen frustration and anger responses, I like Dan Siegel’s work one of which is the Whole Brain Child that explains why it is so difficult for the child to regulate emotion and gives ideas for how parents can learn this and then help teach their child mindsight which is similar to mindfulness.

Anxiety is normal for all of us yet there are times when it takes on a life of its own and it seems our bodies stay in fight or flight or freeze or flee all the time. When this is the case, seeking out the help of a licensed professional is recommended as these tools are powerful and effective yet require patience and practice. Trained therapists are available to assist you and your child out of the automatic responses and into choosing a calmer, more present action.

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