Negativity Bias, Running Late, Anxiety, and Mindfulness

I woke up to my alarm for the 2nd time that morning feeling groggy. It was two hours earlier than I normally would wake on a Friday, and yet I was running late; whoever invented the snooze alarm is an evil genius. I hate running late, though it’s a situation I often find myself in. My mind began to focus on some solutions to my time problem: just have some cereal for breakfast, skip a shower, move faster, and eat faster…things like that. I sped into to the kitchen to make breakfast and discovered there was no coffee in the house. Who’s supposed to function in the wee hours of the morning without coffee? A friend needed a ride to an important appointment and I needed to make sure they got there on time. And with each misstep that morning I could feel the tension increasing in my traps, and the need to move faster. Unfortunately while operating at this pace I was making more mistakes, wasting valuable time. And then, I couldn’t find the keys. The tension was overwhelming. My mind started racing through worst-case scenarios. What if they missed their appointment because I hit the snooze, or couldn’t find my keys? That would be my fault, and would make me a terrible friend. And what would happen to them? The tension in my traps felt more intense and spread throughout my body, my jaw got tight. I felt like I couldn’t contain it. “Damnit” I shouted in frustration…Anxiety is a powerful force.

Fast forward to an hour later. I drove to my friend’s place and got to them on time. Traffic was light that morning and I dropped them off at their appointment with 20 minutes to spare. All of those catastrophe scenarios my mind generated suddenly seemed so silly in retrospect. I could breathe, my trapezius muscles could soften, I could finally relax and was on my way to getting myself a well-earned cup of coffee. In reflection it is pretty easy to see that my response to anxiety that morning was not very helpful except for causing me some distress.

Breaking down this situation: here’s how much anxiety I would like to have felt given the totality of the situation.

JS hits MW slow mo

And here’s how much anxiety I experienced.

MW hits JS

Ah the absurdity of being human.

JS MW Laugh

That morning I was not very mindful. I disconnected from the present moment and allowed my mind to pull me into worries of the future, and ponder catastrophes yet to happen. It also pulled me towards the past with my critical mind, “if you only didn’t press that snooze button you wouldn’t be running late. Why didn’t you check to see if there was coffee yesterday?” My mind went to blaming. “If you weren’t making so many stupid decisions in the past, you wouldn’t be in this position now. If my friend didn’t need a ride, I wouldn’t be in this mess.” I also allowed my feelings to control me, reacting to the powerful hormones of anxiety by hurrying up, getting into flight mode.

We humans have a negativity bias. We naturally connect with experiences and thoughts that tell us that we are in danger more than ones that tell us we’re OK. Danger can mean many things: for our ancestors that could’ve meant a large predator in the wilderness. In the modern era danger can be a car rolling through a stop sign, a fight with our partner, a work deadline, or running late for a meeting. Evolutionary psychologists call our propensity to be on guard for danger the false alarm effect. A great way to think about this process is like having an internal fire (danger) alarm. If a fire-alarm is extra sensitive and it goes off when it’s not supposed to it can be a nuisance at worst, but it doesn’t place your survival at risk. If a fire alarm isn’t sensitive enough and it fails to alert you to a fire, your survival is at stake. Thus it makes sense that we evolved to have a more sensitive alarm for danger instead of a dull one. When our alarms go off, regardless if the danger is due to a large jungle cat, fire, or running late, our fight-or-flight response activates increasing physical tension and narrowing the focus of our minds.

Complicating matters is the fact that the mind is a compelling story-teller. It tells us stories all throughout the day. Sometimes it daydreams ridiculous stories of possessing magical powers, or rehearses the big meeting coming up. Other times, it likes to catastrophize, magnify, minimize, judge and blame. It can weave tales of black and white about a rainbow. It told me I was a bad friend because I hit a snooze alarm, it told me that for sure my mistakes would cause my friend to miss court. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we say that when our mind tells us a story changes our perception of reality we have fused with that thought. When you disconnect from that thought, it is called defusion.

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That morning I fused with the story that “I am running late, I need to move faster.” And I reacted to that fusion with anxiety. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, tension, gastrointestinal issues, tingling, numbness, sweating, clenching, panic and/or goosebumps. Typical psychological symptoms of anxiety include: racing thoughts, worry, catastrophic thinking, self-criticism, poor self-confidence, apprehension, problems with decision making, and/or fear. Some of the common behavioral reactions to anxiety include: avoidance through distraction, substances, staying away from reminders of the anxiety, suppressing thoughts, or substance use. Other reactions to anxiety include rushing, pacing, nervous laughter, combativeness, or working extra hard to compensate for the feelings of anxiety.

In essence, our minds are prone to seeing the world in a more negative light, restricting our focus from seeing other perspectives, create stories that may enhance those negative perceptions, and then in response to believe the stories your mind tells you your body releases a series of hormones which make it more difficult to defuse from the story. Suddenly you get a vicious-self feeding cycle. That morning I rushed through my morning routine due to anxiety, and as a result I made more errors, which led to an increase of the anxiety. I was so focused on the negative that I couldn’t see the blanket truth happening in the world around me.


So how do we manage our minds when they combine negativity bias and compelling stories? Well for starters we can stop minding our minds. With mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other mindbody practices we can learn to take the observer role, learn how to ground, notice that thoughts and feelings can be inaccurate and they happen automatically. When we develop such skills we develop the power to choose which thoughts and feelings we want to engage with, and how we want to react to them. Mindfulness is an active practice that can be used throughout your lifespan. Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all that means we can achieve a state of being that removes us from human paradoxes and drama, but it helps a lot.

Other ways of managing mindbody reactions include taking active self-care to reduce our psychological vulnerability to unhelpful frames of mind. When our mindbodies are in peak health they adapt to stressors with more flexibility, creativity and ease. Peak health is often achieved by having good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, feeling safe and secure, relaxation, managing stress, and satisfying our social, psychological, and physiological needs. When I gave my friend a ride that morning, I was sleep deprived and I also did not participate in exercise that week. Those factors made me more vulnerable to having an intense anxiety reaction compared to when I experience similar stressors of running late when I’m well rested and exercise regularly throughout the week.

Today we explored some of the nature of anxiety. The human mindbody is sensitive towards danger signals, and responds by activating our fight-or-flight system. Additionally the mind is a compelling story teller and it can tell us tales of disaster, judgment, or catastrophe. And when we aren’t in peak health conditions we’re more vulnerable to unhelpful frames of mind. Anxiety is experienced through physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses. Mindfulness activities, stress management, and self-care can help us manage our responses to our internal systems and give use more power to choose how we want to react to what is happening in the here and now. Thank you for taking the time to read this article dear reader. Until next time, farewell.

8 Steps to a 5 Minute Mindful Breathing Exercise

Meditation

Trigger Warning: If you’ve had a history of trauma, and are prone to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or are actively experiencing PTSD, this process may set off some of those experiences, which can reactivate feelings of the trauma. There are other mindfulness exercises that involve more grounding that may be a better fit for you, and you may want to skip this exercise.


Please read through all of the instructions before you begin.

  1. Get in a comfortable position. This exercise can be done, sitting, laying, or standing if you wish.
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Invite your eyes to rest.
  4. Breathe in through the nose (if you can’t breathe through your nose the mouth makes an excellent substitute), out through the mouth, practicing diaphragmatic breathing. In order to practice diaphragmatic breathing,
    1. Inhale deep into the belly, then the chest; invite your belly to expand and the ribcage to open as you inhale.
    2. Exhale out through the mouth, at a pace that is comfortable for you, bringing the belly in towards your spine.
    3. If you find it is difficult to breathe deep into the lungs you may consider resting your hands on top of your head, as this will open up the ribcage and make it easier to breathe deep.
  5. Focus on the breath like a curious observer. Notice the coolness of the inhale, the warmth of the exhale. Notice how the chest rises and falls, and how the air flows through your windpipe.
  6. As you go through this process, you may notice that your mindbody wanting to attend to different sensations, thoughts, or feelings. Perhaps you feel the urge to scratch an itch, or begin planning your to-do list is for tomorrow, or feel bored of this moment attending to the breath. Push nothing away and attach to nothing.
  7. Any time you notice a thought or a feeling, label it and let it pass through your mind as though it were a log flowing down the river of your mind, and return your attention to the breath. You can tell yourself things like, “my mind is planning,” or “mind is judging,” or “body is feeling some anxiety.”
  8. When the timer goes off, take a few moments to wiggle the fingers and toes, blink open the eyes, and then return to the room.

Go ahead now and take the time to complete the exercise, then return to reading.


Was it challenging for you to just breathe and sit still? Did you notice that even though all you’re supposed to be doing is breathing that your mindbody was having thoughts and feelings? I know my mind wandered to planning, criticism and pondering. Did you notice any patterns?  This exercise can be helpful to reduce anxiety, and understand the background content of our minds. It can also be a helpful reminder that we are more than our thoughts and feelings, and we do have some control over how we interact with them. Learning to regulate our interactions with our mindbody can go a long-way to improving our overall mindbody fitness.

ACT and Ants

ant

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it’s important to make committed actions based on your values. And just before writing this, I was thinking about the sacredness of life and how it’s so important to protect. But suddenly in the kitchen there was a swarm of ants, and I wanted nothing more than to commit a mass genocide via chemical warfare. That’s the tricky thing about values, they are flexible and they can change moment to moment.

And that’s a huge challenge right? The me of 30 seconds before seeing the swarm had a really different perspective on the sanctity of life than the version of me facing the swarm. ACT promotes ongoing non-judgmental contact with internal and external environmental events as they occur, so I can observe and describe the experience of homicidal rage towards ants –I experience muscle tension, it’s a hot energy, my mind blames of the ants for not having a nice apartment, and it presents images as borax- as ongoing internal events. Meanwhile my external environment I see thousands of ants working in dangerous conditions to try to bring food back to their family, a dirty counter top, and notice that it’s 70 degrees in the apartment. I didn’t notice the calming feeling of the air until I took that time to step back and ask myself “what’s happening in this moment?”

ACT also teaches that we should accept reality for what it is, without avoidance if we can. My rage towards the blasted ants won’t change the fact that there are no potted plants inside my home (even though my partner and I removed them because they kept building colonies inside them), it will only serve to feed my rage and take me away from present moment awareness. If I look at the facts, the fact is, there are a bunch of ants clinging to the free food left for them like good scavengers, and I am experiencing the desire that they would not be here.

ACT also teaches the concept of cognitive defusion, which is a fancy way of saying recognizing that my unhelpful thoughts are just thoughts, and not necessarily reality. My experience of such a thought in this moment comes from the weighty experience of judgment labeling myself a murderer and therefor a bad person for the act of ant-homicide I’m about to commit. But labeling myself as a potential murderer and a bad person doesn’t help me at all, it just serves to create my own set of psychic torture. I can be someone who both respects the sanctity of life in one moment, and wants to end life of a different species I’ve labeled as vermin the next moment. My mindbody has the ability to hold these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas or even behaviors – I am a healer after all – and I don’t need to label things in an all-or-nothing context.

Another tenant of ACT is recognizing the self as context. I’m the territorial creature who wants to protect my home. I’m also a moral thinking creature that wants to act in the best manner. I also exist in a culture where extermination of other creatures by chemical warfare is totally legit. I also recognize that though I exist in such a culture, I need not engage by my cultures rules given that historically most cultures tend to get some things wrong when it comes interpersonal or inter-species relations. When I take time to look at myself in different contexts, I can see why I can have seemingly conflicting motivations.

How I choose to respond to the hoard of ants in my home, whether via chemical warfare, cleaning, or some other method, is up to me. If I connect with the present moment, my values, see myself in the context I exist in, engage in cognitive defusion, accept reality for what it is and then make a committed action based on my awareness of those factors, I can make my best choice possible that is true to me and my values. These 6 factors are the basis of Acceptance Commitment Therapy and aid in developing cognitive flexibility, accepting the bad, good, and everything in between, and living by our own values.

Words are Magic

pexels-photo-256546.jpegToday I’d like to explore our perceptions of reality, the power of language, and the ways that we use it. As a species, we come to know both our internal and external environments through our senses. This is paramount to our survival. We observe wide ranges of light, which helps us recognize familiar faces, identify distance, and color. We hear the invisible waves which create sound, and can feel a wide range of temperatures and objects. We can smell beautiful flowers and taste whether food is sweet or bitter. We have used our powers of observation to thrive on this planet we call home.

At the same time we know our senses are limited, we can only see, touch, taste, smell and hear a small fraction of the knowable universe. For instance we cannot see x-rays nor hear sounds of very low or high pitches. As such, we only perceive a fragment of reality. Making matters more complicated is each of us has our own unique perceptions and the experience of the redness of a fire-truck to me, may be a very different experience of the redness of a firetruck to you.

There are a variety of schools of thought when it comes to trying to understand the nature reality. Some think that there is an objective universe, but it is beyond our feeble abilities to ever truly comprehend it. Moderate realists believe that there is an objective reality, and given our feeble natures we can gather a close approximation of what it is. Critical realists believe there is a knowable universe and through scientific measurement we can truly come to know and understand it. In contrast, phenomenologists believe that there is no universe beyond the construct of the mind which is perceiving it. Regardless of which of these philosophies about reality is correct, the only experience of reality that we can have is our own.

Words are labels, they represent a construct of our reality. They can be written, spoken, or chattering inside our minds. As a species we use language to communicate with each other, spread ideas, help each other out or even to deceive one another. Words hold immense power. Right now I am using language to explore my perceptions about the constructs of reality and language with you.

Let us explore some ways in which words can influence our experience of reality. Ever feel those butterflies in your stomach, or that thumping in your chest before a big event? Perhaps it was before a sporting event, a test, an important conference, or a big date. If you label that energy as anxiety or nervousness, you’re more likely to have an apprehensive reaction and experience a decline in your performance. If you label that energy as excitement or enthusiasm, you are more likely to embrace the event and see an increase in performance. A small reframe can have significant effect on our experience of reality.

Ever have that worry that you can’t shake of, “what if I left the stove on?” It does not matter in the context of objective reality whether or not the stove is on, you are going to have a stress reaction if the words create a cause for concern. How about the experience of receiving an effusive complement or some unwarranted criticism? The words in themselves do not change the quality of your character, but they do ultimately have an effect on your experience and well-being.

Subtle changes in the words we use can have big implications about our experiences of reality. For example, I know many people struggle with their self-talk in describing acts that they want to accomplish as shoulds. “I should clean the apartment,” is a loaded phrase. Should -like supposed to, need, or ought – describes a moral imperative. If a should is not accomplished it often gets loaded with guilt or a sense of lacking if it is not accomplished. Because now the implications of the language “I should have cleaned the apartment” means I did not do what I was supposed to do. Whereas the sentence “I wanted to clean the apartment,” simply communicates an unmet desire without any wrongdoing implied.

From these examples it can be seen that words have significant influences over our experience of reality. It is important to be selective of the words we choose, because they will frame our individual experience, and the experience of those we communicate with. Furthermore, there is power in the existence of, or the creation of a word. It doesn’t matter whether you believe magic in itself exists or not. The fact that the word exists means that the idea breathes in the collective conscious. Likewise there is the same power in the elimination of a word. A knowable concept can be erased from our collective conscious. The language creates a perspective on reality for the group and for the individual. And is that power not in itself magic? How will you use your magical powers?

Clean vs Dirty Pain

Pain presents itself in many forms. Throughout my journey I have become intimately familiar with pain. During my training to become a mental health counselor, I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis. From one perspective, it’s a great ironic story. Here I was, intentionally trying to learn how to heal other people’s pain and suffering, and meanwhile I had to learn how to deal with my own newfound suffering. From another perspective, it was serendipitous. Irvin Yalom[1] wrote, “Only the wounded healer can truly heal.”[2]  I am a quality practitioner because I experience, live through, and heal so much pain.

There is a concept that I really like when it comes to understanding the experience of pain: it’s the concept of clean pain and dirty pain. In this paradigm, clean pain is the pain experienced as a direct result of an injury. It’s the sting of a cut. It’s the nerves firing when you stub your toe. It’s the aches of your arthritic knee or your endometriosis.

Dirty pain, in contrast, is the pain we experience due to our psychological responses. It’s the thought “I hope I don’t need stitches, I’m supposed to pitch tomorrow.” It’s the judgment call someone makes when deciding if they can go to work not only because it will be incredibly difficult to stand and focus due to the chronic pain condition, yet at the same time they have to pay the rent. These thoughts are natural responses and help us figure out the best way to navigate our pain.

The ordinary thoughts that we label as dirty pain, tend to activate our stress responses. As such the body increases inflammation, and as a result increases physical pain. The body perceives pain through the activation of a chemical named Substance P. Substance P is activated in response to both emotional and psychic pain. Thus when you experience physical pain, you tend to have less tolerance for emotional pain, and vice versa. This also means that your mindbody’s normal reaction to pain is to increase the intensity of it!

Pain creates suffering; it also creates room for healing, recovery, and growth. We can develop some control over dirty pain once we figure out how it works within us. We can learn about how our individual stress response system works, and use healing practices, nutrition, relaxation techniques, and exercise to reduce inflammation. We can learn new coping skills like mindfulness tactics to navigate our automatic thoughts and feelings, which also will help us reduce pain. I use these practices to manage my own pain, and teach them to my clients. Like a tree shedding its branches sometimes we undergo pain and adapt so we can grow towards the light.


[1] It was Irvin Yalom’s writing that inspired me to pursue a career as a therapist. My sister recommended him, she’s the best.

[2] In his book Lying on the Couch.