Saturday, August 23, 2014

Taking in the Good- A Tool to Combat Life Stress

The human brain operates with a negativity bias. The brain gives negative experiences more attention and processing then it gives positive experiences. We learn more and faster from pain than from pleasure. People work harder to avoid a loss than to attain an equally positive target.  The reason for the negativity bias is rooted in the evolutionary process. In order to survive, humans had to learn to avoid predators, social aggression (from other tribes and within tribes), natural hazards (floods, storms, etc), physical and psychological pain. These are called threats. Humans were also oriented to seek food, shelter, sex, social connection, and pleasure - both psychological and physical pain.  These are called treasures. Humans learned that avoiding threats was essential to life whereas seeking treasure usually had less immediate impact on survival. Thus, the human brain evolved to be routinely poised for threat. If a threat, like a predator, is not dealt with right away, the individual may not survive. Whereas, if a treasure was not obtained at a certain time (i.e. food), it could be pursued another time without causing significant danger to survival. Failing to deter a threat today, potentially meant loss of life and not having a chance at a treasure, ever!

So, we humans focus more and process more easily negative experiences.  Negative experiences can actually take over and dislodge positive ones. We can see the evolutionary advantage here - if you are sitting on a tree branch eating an apple and a panther strolls by, your brain will immediately look to assess the level of threat simultaneously disregarding the taste and experience of enjoying the apple.  Further, the thought of the panther is likely to linger for some time.

It has been postulated that it takes three positive experiences to make up for one negative experience. For instance, if a person has a bad experience at the doctor, it will take three positive doctor visits to achieve a neutral orientation to going to the doctor. It will take additional positive doctor visits to change the perception from a neutral anticipation of doctors visits to a positive anticipation of doctor visits.  In order to promote a lasting positive perspective, the ratio of positive to negative must be even greater. In short, it generally takes many positive experiences to transform a negative experience into a positive one.

How is a positive orientation promoted? The brain is shaped by experience and not by thought or intellect. In order to have a more positive or happy outlook, you have to give yourself more positive experiences. A simple way to have more positive experiences is a technique known as take in the good or TIG.

In order to take in the good, you first identify a feeling state that you want to experience.  For instance, you might identify comfort as the feeling state you want to experience.

There are many things that one can take in. It is most effective to take in what is needed:

For forms of anxiety, fear, and anger, it is therapeutic to take in experiences that focus in pleasure and comfort. Examples are watching a sunset, eating a favorite food, the satisfaction of accomplishing daily tasks. There are many things that one can take in. It is most effective to take in what is needed: 

For forms of anxiety, fear, and anger, it is therapeutic to take in experiences that focus in pleasure and comfort. Examples are watching a sunset, eating a favorite food, the satisfaction of accomplishing daily tasks. 

For forms of  impulsivity, excessivity in behavior (i.e. addiction and compulsivity), emotional eating and hoarding, it is therapeutic to take in feelings of safety, strength, peace or forgiveness. 

For forms of  relational problems and getting along with others, it is therapeutic to take in feelings of being valued, respected, liked, being included, fairness, kindness and feeling loved.

Taking in the good allows us to systematically overcome the brain's negativity bias. It helps us increase positive emotions and increase our capacity to deal with negative emotions and stress. 

Submitted by Holly O. Houston, Ph.D.  Adapted from Rick Hanson's book Buddha's Brain

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vulnerability of Depression

Mental health problems do not affect three or four out of every five persons but one out of one. ~William Menninger

The recent suicide death of actor, Robin Williams, has had a deep impact on people of all ages and walks of life. His talents have undoubtedly crossed our paths in one way or another over the past 30+ years. It is strange to think that the death of this man, a stranger to most of us, has such an impact. But the impact is unmistakable. 

The truth is that we do not know Robin Williams on a personal level. Most of us have never met him or spoken to him.  However, we have invited him into our homes, hearts, and lives through his movies and various roles.  In his death, he represents to us our friends and family and loved ones.  He is a face that we now associate with depression and suicide. He was someone who outwardly to the world seemed “okay” and “happy” and “funny,” though privately was suffering with the weight of depression.  He was someone who appeared to many to have everything; family, success, money, fame, and more.  Yet, he still suffered with depression.

His death serves as a reminder of our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of our loved ones.  Anyone can have experience depression.  You, your mother, brother, best friend, or child, or a stranger on the street.  Robin Williams’s death brings this vulnerability frighteningly close to home.

Mental health problems affect everyone. You do not need to be suffering from a mental illness to be affected by mental illness, as each of us knows someone who is, whether or not we realize it.  It may be depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or PTSD.  But we all know someone who suffers, whether silently, or out loud.

Mental illness unfortunately continues to carry a stigma in our world, despite the prevalence.  There is stigma associated with having a mental illness, of seeking treatment for mental illness, as well as not seeking treatment for mental illness. For many people, there seems to be no solution.

If you find that you, or someone you love is experiencing depression or having thoughts of suicide, please get help. Contact a professional, whether a counselor, psychologist or other mental health professional as there is help available.  You may also contact a 24-hour crisis line for assistance for yourself or your loved one at 1-800-248-7475.

Karen Rosian, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist