Retrain your brain

The Nobel Prize winners in Medicine were announced this week, and I was thrilled to hear that one of the awardees is neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Sudhof!  While at UTSW Medical Center (my doctoral alma mater!) Dr. Sudhof discovered synaptic transmission–how brain cells communicate via chemicals.

During my postdoctoral training in neuropsychology, one of the first things I learned is:

Neurons that fire together wire together.

To oversimplify:  Our brain cells communicate with one another via synaptic transmission–one brain cell releases a chemical (neurotransmitter) that the next brain cell absorbs.  This communication process is known as “neuronal firing.”  When brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens.  Messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over & over begin to transmit faster & faster.  With enough repetition, they become automatic.  That’s why we practice things like hitting a golf ball–with enough practice, we can go on automatic pilot.

Psychologists have long known that negative thought processes follow this same pattern–the more we think about, or “ruminate,” on a negative thought, the more entrenched the thought becomes.  Negative and traumatic thoughts also tend to “loop”–they play themselves over and over until you do something consciously to stop them.

The more these negative thoughts loop, the stronger the neural pathways become, and the more difficult it becomes to stop them!  This is why thoughts that cause depression, anxiety, panic, obsessions, and compulsions can become so difficult to combat.  And along the way, these thoughts stir up emotional as well as physiological reactions.

Psychotherapy, regardless of the orientation, attempts to stop this process.

For example, psychodynamic therapy “processes” the thoughts, or attempts to digest the thoughts in a manner such that such the useful parts are kept and the harmful parts are discarded.  Cognitive behavioral and rational emotive therapies attempt to interrupt this loop with techniques such as cognitive restructuring and thought stopping.

As we advance our understanding of neurobiology, we better understand the physiological underpinnings of negative thoughts, why they are so hard to get rid of, and why various therapies work–they effectively change the brain.  A fairly new form of therapy (researched for 25 years now) is a type “reprocessing” therapy called EMDR.

EMDR involves bihemispheric processing of disturbing thoughts–in other words, EMDR stimulates both left brain & right brain processing of thoughts, memories, and behaviors that cause distress.  I’ve studied EMDR since its inception, and scientific studies consistently show that this therapy is effective, and in certain situations, can provide quicker symptom relief than other forms of therapy.

With modern technology (SPECT scans & fMRI’s), along with advanced understanding of neurotransmission, we’re able to see the changes in the brain brought about by EMDR and other types of therapy–it really works!

The speed of symptom relief with EMDR does not negate the usefulness of other types of psychotherapy–traditional therapies build coping skills, enhance self-understanding, and can identify and repair any “missing parts” of personality organization such as the ability to connect with others.  What EMDR provides is more immediate symptom relief and a mental release from negative “loops” in the brain.

In light of all the solid research underscoring the importance of neurobiology’s role in psychotherapy, I owe it to my clients to formally train in EMDR.  Later this month, I’ll travel to Chicago to begin my training.

Congrats to Dr. Sudhof and all the other Nobel Prize winners!

An aside–the picture with this post is one I took of a redbud tree in winter–notice how the branches of the tree mimic the the shape of nerve cells in the brain.  If you find this repetition of pattern in nature as fascinating as I do, you may want to learn more about fractal geometry!  Here’s a very easy read on the subject–Introducing Fractals:  A Graphic Guide.

Find your flowIn a follow-up to my post Finding Flow, here’s a sampling of activities that might help you find your flow:

  • Physical activities such as sports, yoga, dance, and martial arts
  • Outdoor challenges such as hiking
  • Music–writing, playing, mixing
  • Art–painting, sculpture, mixed media, pottery
  • Photography
  • Woodworking
  • Do-It-Yourself projects, such as home improvement
  • Working with animals
  • Gardening
  • Cooking and baking
  • Software development/coding
  • Scrapbooking
  • Writing
  • Needlework–sewing, knitting, cross stitch
  • Horseback riding
  • What you do for work (hopefully!)

Remember that “flow” activities are not interchangeable with “leisure” activities.  For example, visiting with a friend is a healthy leisure activity, but does not induce flow.  That’s because a flow activity:

  • Is useful and challenging, which makes it intrinsically rewarding
  • Helps you progress toward a goal
  • Provides feedback to help gauge the effectiveness of your efforts

And flow activities require some sort of action!  Passive leisure activities won’t help you find your flow.

We all need time to zone out but, just like too much sugar in your diet is bad for you, too much passive leisure time isn’t optimal!  In fact, some passive leisure activities produce the opposite of “flow”–similar to a state of mild depression!  Watching television is one of these passive leisure activities–there can be a lift in mood if it’s a favorite show and you watch in moderation.  But if you watch mindlessly, your brain falls into a trance-like (alpha wave) state, only without the benefits of alpha wave during sleep or meditation–only negative effects, similar to depression.  So keep passive leisure activities to a minimum.  :)

Please share your suggestions for flow activities!

Flow & Happiness

What is “flow” and why is it important for happiness?

First, let me explain what “flow” is.  “Flow” involves both an activity and a state of mind.

When you’re in a “flow state of mind”:

  • You lose track of time
  • You’re totally engrossed in what you’re doing
  • You’re not consciously thinking about yourself–in other words, you’re totally un-self conscious
  • You’re working toward a goal

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, you’re right!  The key difference is a “flow activity” and working toward a goal.

A “flow activity”:

  • Is useful and challenging, which makes it intrinsically rewarding
  • Helps you progress toward a goal
  • Provides feedback to help gauge the effectiveness of your efforts

(Examples of flow activities in the next post–Flow Activities!)

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a flow experience involves “deep concentration,  an optimal balance of skill & challenge, and a sense of control and satisfaction.”  You can watch Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk here:  Flow:  The Secret of Happiness.

The key to flow is finding the optimal balance of skill set and challenge–you shouldn’t be overly frustrated, but the challenge shouldn’t be too easy, either.

A flow activity involves the development of a skill set, such that the challenge of the activity evolves over time as your skill set improves.  In this way, flow activities lead to growth and discovery.

So why is flow an important component of happiness?

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s original research involved studying happiness using the “Experience Sampling Method,” or ESM.  Using ESM, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi found that people are happiest when they are fully absorbed in the activity at hand.  Further, happiness is enhanced when the activity is optimally challenging.

This research was revolutionary in that it was the first time scientists asked people throughout the day, “How happy are you right now and what are you doing?”

Using ESM, the researchers were able to correlate happiness with the activity at hand, rather than simply asking, “What makes you happy?”  As you know from Dr. Gilbert’s research (read my post Finding Happiness), human beings are poor predictors of what truly makes us happy.  It turns out the activity was not as important as feeling fully immersed and optimally challenged.

By finding your flow activities and regularly engaging in a flow state of mind, you’re building happiness into your everyday life.

Flow is more important for overall happiness than the things we often think will make us happy, such as a vacation, nicer home, new car, winning the lottery, etc.

Seven Steps for Finding Flow:

  1. Set goals.  Setting goals recognizes the challenges involved in reaching the goal.  
  2. Understand the challenges involved.  Understanding the challenges suggests the skill set required to reach your goal.
  3. Develop your skill set.  Part of developing your skill set is monitoring feedback.
  4. Monitor feedback and adjust your efforts and goals as indicated.  As your skill set increases, you should increase the challenge at hand to remain in a state of flow.  Accordingly, your overall goal is fluid and can be redefined over time.
  5. Become immersed in the activity–focus and concentrate, ignoring distractions.  Focus is a skill set in itself and you may have to work on this.  It’s important to stay consciously focused in the moment, on the task at hand, to enjoy a state of flow.
  6. Engage in your flow activity on a regular basis.  This is necessary to build your skill set and attain meaningful progress toward your goal.  Your sense of accomplishment as you progress toward your goal is an important component of flow.
  7. As you progress toward your goal, think about the meaning and usefulness of the flow activity.  How does the flow activity harmonize with other goals or values in your life?  An important aspect of flow is that the process is just as important, or even more important, than the final product, in terms of happiness.  Nonetheless, it’s important that there’s meaning in what you’re doing.  For example, if your goal is to become a scratch golfer, you may harmonize this goal with your value of self discipline and hard work.  Or, if your goal is to learn to knit, this may harmonize with your goal of giving handmade gifts to others.

Flow activities may include music, a hobby, movement (sport or fitness), writing, study, art, what you do for work, etc.  For more hands-on suggestions, check out Dr. C’s second book, Finding Flow:  The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.

By identifying your “flow activities” and cultivating a “flow state of mind,” you’re not only building happiness but emotional resilience.  When times are good, flow enhances your sense of satisfaction and well being.  When times are tough, flow activities provide a sense of purpose and productivity, even though you’re struggling emotionally.  So get started today!

What goals and skill sets do you want to cultivate?

finding happiness“Positive Psychology” is the scientific study of resilience, optimism, and emotional well being.  In other words, the science of happiness!

Today, I want to share some of the key insights of this research.

The first thing you need to know is that the strongest predictor of happiness is having something meaningful to do.

Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, wrote about the importance of meaningful activity in a book called “Flow.”  While the concept of productivity contributing to happiness has been around for centuries, Csikszentmihalyi was the first to research and define this phenomenon.

Flow is defined as being totally engaged in an activity, often to the point that you lose track of time.

The activity is challenging, meaningful, and usually requires some degree of creativity or problem solving.  When you finish working on the project, you feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement.

But, the process is just as important, or maybe even more important, than the outcome!

Because “flow” is such an integral part of happiness, I’ll devote my next post, “Finding Flow,” to this topic.

The relatively new field of “Positive Psychology” builds on the concept of “flow” and examines the core components of a happy, fulfilling life.

If you’re looking for a “recipe” for happiness, consider these 7 ingredients from

  1. Relationships
  2. Caring
  3. Exercise
  4. Flow
  5. Spiritual Engagement & Meaning
  6. Strengths & Virtues
  7. Positive Thinking:  Optimism & Gratitude

If you want to learn more, read about Flow and Happiness here, or about the science of Positive Psychology here.

The second thing you need to know about finding happiness is that we are generally poor predictors of what will make us happy!

Research shows that what we think will bring happiness–a new car, a vacation, winning the lottery–does not tend to have a lasting effect on our overall happiness.  Human beings are excellent at “acclimating,” or getting accustomed to a situation.  So we may experience a temporary boost in happiness when something fortunate happens, but fairly quickly, we are back at our “baseline” level of happiness.  Dan Gilbert, Ph.D., writes about this in Stumbling on Happiness, or you can watch his TED Talk here:

GQ Magazine published a great article–“The Luckiest Village in the World“–about tiny Sodeto, Spain, where all the residents (except one) chipped in and won El Gordo, the largest lottery in the world.  After the initial elation, the villagers tended to be as happy, or unhappy, as they were before.  In fact, the good fortune increased the stress level (and decreased the happiness) of many of the villagers.  And the one resident who did not participate in the lottery?  He turned out to be one of the happiest at the end of the year!  As Michael Paterniti, the GQ journalist, notes:

“Even as luck provides certain comforts while others still suffer, it doesn’t really change you.”

The flip side of Dr. Gilbert’s research on happiness is that, just as improved circumstances don’t usually lead to lasting increases in happiness, we are also surprisingly good at adapting to hardship.  So, the things we think would make us miserable often do not significantly impede our happiness over the long haul.

Dr. Gilbert’s research dovetails nicely with the findings of Positive Psychology–it’s finding something meaningful to do, more so than the circumstances, that makes us happy.

Good fortune, a vacation, or a new possession brings only temporary happiness; likewise, we can weather misfortune if we have meaningful activity in our lives.

For help integrating the 7 ingredients of happiness into your life, sign up for the Daily Shoring 90 Day Series


I recently read an article by clinical psychologist Susan Silk & her husband, Barry Goldman–How Not To Say the Wrong Thing.

The gist of the article is that people get to grieve and cope in their own way; if you want to help, listen and/or offer practical help (specific offers of help with kids, errands, food–not advice on how to handle the situation, though!).  Don’t insert your own grief, anger, or preferred coping mechanisms into someone else’s crisis.

Photo from the FB page of The OpEd Project

Photo from the FB page of The OpEd Project

Dr. Silk recommends a simple technique she calls the Ring Theory as a guideline for helping and supporting those in crisis.

Draw a small circle at the center of the page and put the name of the person experiencing the crisis in that circle.  Then, draw a larger (concentric) circle and put the name of the person closest to the center person–for adults, this is usually a spouse or partner, but may be children, parents, or closest friend.  Keep drawing larger circles around the other circles and add the layers of people–close friends, more distant friends, colleagues, etc.  Here are the rules:

“The person in the center ring can say anything she wants, to anyone, anywhere.”

The center person can be angry, complain life is not fair, talk about her worries, etc.  “Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.  When talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help.”  You are not allowed to dump your anger, fear, or grief to people in circles smaller than yours, only to those in your circle or larger circles.

The concept is simple–“comfort in, dump out.”

And remember, everyone copes in his or her own way.  Some people cope best by sharing about their crisis, with friends or even the media, and may find comfort and strength in becoming active in a cause related to their situation.

Others prefer to keep their crisis private.  This is a valid coping mechanism as well–private does not mean denial!  It’s perfectly healthy to look for comfort in the normalcy of day-to-day life.  So don’t be surprised if someone going through a medical crisis or other tragedy chooses to brush the topic aside–and please don’t press!

Sending thoughts of comfort and support to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and my neighbors in West, Texas.

emotional well beingToday is the 90th day of the Daily Shoring Series!  If you’ve been working through the 90 day series, congrats!

If you want to receive the full series again, in order, leave a comment and let me know so I can re-subscribe you.

The daily reminder may be helpful and you can challenge yourself more the second time around!  And because I periodically update and revise the posts, you’re likely to come across something new.

Now that you’ve completed the Daily Shoring 90 Day Series, take a mental inventory. 

If you want to review the Daily Shoring posts, they’re listed under Daily Tips.

  • Are there tasks you would like to repeat?
  • Are there tasks you need to repeat, i.e., cleaning up your sleep hygiene?
  • Are there tasks that would be beneficial at a more demanding level?
  • Are there tasks you would like to incorporate into your ongoing daily or weekly routine?

I’m so glad you participated in Daily Shoring and I hope it was helpful!  I’ll continue to write about topics relevant to emotional well being, so continue to check out!

Remember an accomplishment

Today’s Daily Shoring assignment builds on Remember an Accomplishment.  In the original post, I asked you to remember a time you set a goal, persevered, and were proud of yourself.  Today, I want you to remember a Daily Shoring assignment that motivated you. Which Daily Shoring assignment did you get the most out of?  Repeat it today, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment!

If you’re working through the Daily Shoring 90 Day Series, today is your next to last day!  If you want to repeat the series, leave a comment and let me know.  I periodically update the posts in the 90 Day Series, so you’re likely come across something new!

What was your favorite Daily Shoring assignment?

Balance and mindfulness

I’ve written several posts about mindfulness, but if you’re still confused about exactly what mindfulness is and how to do it, I have a simple exercise for you!

First, let’s talk about some of the mental benefits of mindfulness, which include improved attention/concentration, lowered anxiety, and better mood.  These benefits are related to the focusing and being in the moment aspects of mindfulness.

One of the ways mindfulness works is by retraining your brain to screen out distractions.  This allows you to focus, in a calm manner, on one thing at a time.

While multitasking sometimes has its advantages, most of us recognize the benefits of focusing our undivided attention.  In fact, many people procrastinate because they struggle with giving a project their undivided attention until they’re up against a deadline.  If you enjoy that “rush” and extra focus of being up against a deadline, I’m probably describing you!

You can consciously avoid multitasking, but how do you keep your mind from wandering?  If you find it difficult to keep your mind focused on only one thing (the essence of mindfulness), today’s exercise will help!

First, a little background on a learning tool called biofeedback.  Biofeedback “is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance” (according to the Association for Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback).  Biofeedback is usually performed with electronic instruments that measure blood pressure, heart rate, or skin temperature which give real-time feedback on physiological fluctuations.

People can learn to manipulate physiological responses by shifting their thoughts and focus.

As an example, we know that biofeedback can help people learn to lower blood pressure.  The “feedback” the electronic instruments provide during biofeedback helps a person understand precisely what it is that he/she is doing or thinking that can bring blood pressure down.  (And it’s slightly different for everyone!)  As an example, a person may realize that taking deep breaths and thinking about a beach vacation lowers blood pressure while taking deep breaths and thinking about a work project raises blood pressure.  Once this connection is made, a person can use that information to selectively lower blood pressure at will.

So how can you apply the utility of biofeedback to mindfulness (without electronic instruments!) and figure out whether you’re “being mindful” and “staying in the moment?”  Easy–balance.

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you’re familiar with both focusing and clearing your mind at the same time to stay in a balance pose.  That’s mindfulness!  And falling out of the pose vs staying balanced?  That’s the biofeedback!  If you stay balanced, you’ve got it–you were able to clear and calm your mind.  If you fall, keep trying–you’ll get it!

If you’re not familiar with yoga, a balance pose can be as simple as standing on one leg.

Try it–you’ll quickly learn to calm your mind to stay “balanced.”  If your mind starts to wander, you’ll loose your balance no matter how skilled a yogi you are!  If you want a few ideas for yoga poses, look here.  If you’re a beginner, you may want to start with simply standing on one foot, or try Tree Pose, Dancer Pose, or Warrior III.

Your Daily Shoring assignment for today is to pick a balance pose and try to hold it for 60 seconds!  If you’re good at this, you’re probably already good at mindfulness.  If you feel challenged, pay attention to what you’re thinking or focusing on when you’re able to hold your balance, as well as when you lose your balance.  What works is your recipe for mindfulness!

It’s interesting that we so often hear about the importance of balance in our lives, when balance can be as literal as standing on one leg, which requires mindfulness!

If you want to review, here are the other Daily Shoring posts on mindfulness: Improve Your FocusPractice Mindfulness with a “Grounding Exercise,” Practice MindfulnessPractice Mindfulness with Music, and Use Mindfulness to Avoid the Kindling Effect.

kindling effect

Why is mindfulness effective in improving  well being?  Research indicates (at least) two processes at work–physical and mental.  Today, we’ll focus on the physical underpinnings:

Physical benefits of mindfulness include lowered blood pressure, improved immune system functioning, and better sleep.  These benefits are related to the physically calming effects of mindfulness.  

A little about the body’s nervous system and how we respond to stress:

The autonomic nervous system is made up of two complementary systems–the parasympathetic nervous system  and the sympathetic nervous system.

When we are not in imminent danger, our bodies are intended to default to a restorative phase in which our parasympathetic nervous system is in control.

The parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest & digest,” directs our bodies to digest food and devote energy to healing, growth, and boosting our immune system.

When we sense danger, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in.  The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “fight or flight” response, diverts blood flow and energy to the large muscles in our bodies that allow us to fight off or run from impending danger.  

When we sense danger, our blood pressure shoots up, adrenalin and other stress hormones rush into our system, and we’re prepared for battle.  Unfortunately, most of us have an overreactive sympathetic nervous system–we experience the “fight or flight” response when we’re faced with normal daily stressors and irritations.  For example, say you get cut off in traffic–this is annoying, but there’s no imminent danger and there’s certainly no rationale for a fight!  An overreactive sympathetic nervous system contributes to problems controlling anger, anxiety, and/or physiological stress ailments such as digestive issues, headaches, and so forth.

All of us face daily stressors and if your sympathetic nervous system is constantly kicking into high gear, you begin to experience the “kindling effect.”

To understand the kindling effect, think about starting a fire–if you’re starting a fire from scratch with a bunch of hard wood, it takes some time and prodding for the fire to catch and sustain.  However, if you have embers left over from last night’s fire, and you add some kindling (small sticks & twigs), it doesn’t take long at all–and usually there’s a small combustion when the kindling catches fire.

The same kindling effect happens when your sympathetic nervous system is never fully calmed down.

Whether your typical stress response is anger, anxiety, or a physiological reaction such as headache or stomachache, you’re more likely to have a full blown stress response to a minor stressor if you’re not taking time each day (even better, several times a day!) to relax and reset.  As a result, today’s response to stress is amped up by all the stressors from the past week or month–not a healthy way to respond!

Mindfulness calms the sympathetic nervous system, which recalibrates your body’s reaction to stress and the production of stress hormones.  

Having a finely tuned (as opposed to overreactive) sympathetic nervous system contributes to coping more effectively with day-to-day stressors without the disruption of an “adrenalin rush.”  When you’re not experiencing a rush of adrenalin, cortisol, etc., every time you face a daily stressor, your body is better able to regulate blood pressure, immune functioning, and other restorative processes like sleep.

Your Daily Shoring exercise for today is to take at least 5 minutes to engage in mindfulness.  You can use music, guided meditations, or a grounding exercise–don’t make it too complicated, but try to completely relax–without distractions–for at least 5 minutes.

Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about the mental benefits of mindfulness!

How did you practice mindfulness today?

Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue-Austin, TXYesterday, I wrote about the benefits of mindfulness.  Today, I want you to practice mindfulness with music!

Mindfulness, which is most simply defined as being in the moment, is often associated with mindfulness meditation.  Meditation can be a part of mindfulness, but there are other ways to practice mindfulness.

Today, I want you to select a favorite song and listen to it, beginning to end.  Give it your full attention.  It might work best if you sit with your eyes shut.  Notice the rhythm and different instruments.  Make note of the thoughts and emotions you experience while listening to the song.

That’s it–easy!

Don’t forget–if you’re working through the Daily Shoring 90 Day Series, this is your last week!  If you want to repeat the series, leave a comment and let me know.

Do you have suggestions you can share on how to practice mindfulness?


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