Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What We Don’t Know Can Kill Us

Research on our immune system is continuing to help us better understand ourselves. Recently, researchers have discovered that when stress negatively affects our immune system, it can have disastrous results on the actual cells in our body. These problems are not to be taken lightly. Allergies, arthritis, some types of cancer, diabetes and heart attacks are on this daunting list.

One researcher discovered that all these dire results are the result of one body event. Stress causes chronic inflamation. If this inflammation continues, the body’s alarm bells keep us on Red Alert. Although the inflammation is meant to help our body fight garden variety substances in nature that can kick off allergies, there is a high price to pay. While our body is fighting off allergies, it is also less able to deal with more serious problems such as actively dealing with infections and wounds.

This problem is not hidden or rare in our population. Studies have found that about forty percent of children and thirty percent of adults suffer from allergies. The scary part is that this can be worsened by only a one-time social situation that is stressful. Many people in our society must cope with an anxiety disorder on a daily basis. Unfortunately, they are more likely to have asthma and any additional stress can make it worse.

As stress continues over long periods of time, the immune system can age faster than normal. That’s why the list at the beginning of this article is so frightening. The more you stress yourself, the more sooner you may have to deal with serious illness.

Some studies found that ongoing stress – such as being a long-term caregiver for a loved one – can make a 55-year old have the immune system of a 90-year old. As we get older it is harder to heal from wounds and other daily ailments. We may also be less likely to be helped by vaccinations. Chronic stress can make these problems appear early than usual.

Sometimes, stress need not be chronic to affect our body’s immune systems respond. A study in 2008 found that even a small fight between married couples affected the immune system. The more the couples continued the argument by being nasty to one another, the more slowly there body healed from wounds. It seems the inner wounds affect the outer wounds.

Reducing your stress on a daily basis is not only a good idea but one that contributes to your physical health. You can do this by being aware of your breathing during the day and if necessary practice your Natural Breathing. To deal with bigger stressors, allow yourself time to release muscle tension and calm your mind. You can find instructions for these two skills at the blog article entitled Muscle Relaxation.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

The Marshmallow Test

Many years ago a psychologist did a study with a group of 4-year-olds by giving each of them a marshmallow. He told them that they could eat it right now or wait for a few minutes and get two more. As you can probably guess, some of the kids ate theirs right away and some kids waited. So far, nothing earth-shaking about this.

The interesting part came fourteen years later. He tracked down all of the children in the study and found amazing differences between the two groups. Most of kids who had gobbled their marshmallow immediately grow to be adolescents who were likely to be impulsive and stubborn. These kids also scored 250 points lower on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test - a common test used for college admissions) than the children who waited for the extra treats.

Stanford psychologist, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, believes this points up a significant difference in how people are affected by what he calls their "time perspective." Each of us tends to have a time perspective on life that is oriented toward the past, the present or the future. Our lives are more enjoyable when we have a healthy balance of all three of these.

Dr. Zimbardo notes that each of these time perspectives, by themselves, have both positive and negative influences on us. People who are mostly present oriented tend to have several disadvantages in their lives: gambling, being broke, engaging in risky sex, problems with alcohol. On the other hand they are fun to be around. They are often the life of the party, more spontaneous, friendly, creative and energetic. They love to find new ways of doing things such as being an improvisor of jazz music.

People who have a past time orientation often find fault with something in the past that accounts for their current failures. They see the past as the golden era of life and are quite pessimistic about ever having the good life again. Nevertheless, these people also have wonderful personality traits such as high self-esteem and see themselves as quite patriotic. They are generous in showing their gratitude and have the interesting trait of finding value in wisdom.

People with a time orientation towards the future are often those who achieve much in life by making good choices. For example, Dr. Zimbardo found that most women who had regular breast cancer screens were future oriented. If a person does not balance this view with the other two he or she may be more isolated socially and use work to compensate for relationships and sleep. He has found that Americans are increasingly finding themselves in this trap.

We all need to live life so that we can move easily between all three time perspectives when necessary. The past viewpoint is helpful for learning from our mistakes while the future orientation can motivate us to make reasonable plans for successfully managing the ever-changing challenges of life. To care for ourselves we need to be able to live in the present: taking time out to enjoy life, slowing down, spending time with loved ones. Living in the present when life overwhelms us can help fill that vacuum within.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Muscle Relaxation

I been helping people manage stress for over 30 years. In addition to Natural Breathing, these two skills in this blog will complete the three skills you need for activating your parasympathetic nervous system. The first part will teach you to release muscle tension and the last part (mind calming) will begin to show you how to slow your mind down and focus on the present.

There are many ways to release muscle tension, all of which can work quite well. If you already have a favorite method and it is currently working for you, you may want to continue using it. But for beginners, this method is probably the easiest of all available methods:

  • the muscle feedback you receive while you are using this method helps you to quickly identify the contrast between muscle tension and muscle relaxation.
  • it relies on no external devices (biofeedback instruments) to tell you when you are relaxed;
  • it is capable of being streamlined so that its inherent clumsiness is eventually eliminated.

There are two ways of learning Muscle Relaxation. You can either have a friend read the instructions for you the first time, or you can record the instructions yourself on a recording device of your choosing. The first time you try Muscle Relaxation, you can listen to the recording and follow the instructions. But after this first time you need you to practice your muscle relaxation without listening to the recording. Although you will find it more difficult to relax without listening to a recording, it will work better for you in the long run. It is too easy to get hooked on the recording for relaxation—it becomes a electronic Valium. You want the recording inside your head, not inside an external device.

Either way you choose, make sure the instructions are read slowly, in a fairly monotonous but clear voice. You need to be in a room with as few distractions as possible (or you can be outside if this works best for you). Be sure that the television and radio are off, the telephone is unplugged, and all pets do not have access to you. Although many people think that relaxation is done best lying down, I have found this hinders you in the long run. When you are starting out, always practice your Muscle Relaxation sitting up. Preferably you want a high-backed chair or some other type of arrangement that can support your head.

You will notice that the muscle relaxation instructions are immediately followed by a set of simple instructions for calming your mind down. Do not be concerned if you find your mind wandering. It will take months of practice before you can correct this natural tendency.

Use the following instructions word for word unless you have a compelling reason for changing them. These words and phrases have been revised over the years due to client feedback. They work quite well for almost everyone. When you see a series of dots within the instructions (. . . .), each dot stands for a one-second pause. You should read these instructions slowly. They should take about fifteen to twenty minutes to complete.

Muscle Relaxation Instructions
You're going to go through an exercise that many people in our speeded up and tense society could profit from doing on a regular basis. This exercise is basically simple, and in its simplicity lies its importance. One might say you knew more about relaxing as an infant than you do as an adult. This ability to relax like an infant is what you can achieve through practicing this exercise. I want you to experience, now, for a brief period, that blissful, carefree relaxation of infancy. But first, to realize the experience of relaxation, it is important for you to feel the full effect of its opposite, namely tension, throughout your body. To do this I would like you to focus your complete attention on each part of your body as I mention it.

First, concentrate all of your attention on your RIGHT FOOT and the toes of this foot. With your right foot flat on the floor, lift your toes upward and fan them outward. This will create tension in your ankle and the calf of your right leg. . . . Now relax it quickly, just let go completely. . . .

Next, focus on your LEFT FOOT and toes. Extend your left toes upward and fan them out as far as they will go. Once again there will be a feeling of tension in your ankle and calf. . . . Now, relax your left foot completely. When I ask you to release the tension, try to let go as much as possible. The secret in relaxing is in the letting go.

Now tense the muscles in your RIGHT THIGH by pressing down with your right heel. Press down really hard on the heel of your right foot . . . feel the tension. . . . Now relax your heel and thigh—let go and notice the difference. In fact, each time you let go try to identify the difference in feeling between tension and relaxation. Notice how pleasant it feels just to have your muscles relaxing and letting go.

Let's do the same thing with your LEFT THIGH. Tense it as tightly as you can by pressing down with your left heel. Press down hard with your left heel and feel the tension as much as possible. . . . Let go and relax all over. . . . You may have noticed by now a pleasant sensation arising as you relax a group of muscles.

Next, focus on your STOMACH muscles, your abdomen. Tighten your stomach muscles into a hard knot. Keep your stomach as hard as you can for just a little while and notice that tension. . . . Now relax, just let go, let all your body muscles loosen completely, and notice the difference once again. . . . You may notice an inner feeling of well-being coming over you as you are able to relax more and more of your muscles. But you need to remember that relaxing is not something that you do, but something you allow to happen. You cannot force it, because it is a perfectly natural response to letting go. You were born knowing how to relax. All you need to do now is to allow it to happen. Just let go.

Next, direct your attention to your LOWER BACK—arch up your back. Arch your back way up and make your back taut and hollow and feel the tension up and down your spine. . . . Now, relax and sit back comfortably again. As you let go, try to remember that there is no limit to the amount of relaxation you can personally experience. Theoretically, you can relax to the point of infinity. Go ahead and relax your back—relax your body as much as possible. . . . Just relax further and further, letting the relaxation go deeper and deeper into your muscles.

While you keep the rest of your body relaxed, I want you to clench your RIGHT FIST. Clench your fist tighter and tighter . . . study the tension in your hand and arm as you do this. . . . Now relax and let the fingers of your hand become loose, completely loose. Notice how different your arm and your hand feel.

Next, clench your LEFT FIST, really tight. Clench it really tight and notice the tension in that arm. . . . Now, let go. Relax your left fingers. Let them straighten out and become limp. . . . Notice the difference once again.

Next, bend your RIGHT ELBOW and bring the fingers of your right hand up to your right shoulder. With your fingers touching your shoulder, tense the muscles of your right arm hard. . . . Study that tension in your bicep. . . . All right, straighten out your arm and let go. . . . Just relax all your muscles and feel the warm, pleasant heaviness that comes with relaxing completely.

Let's do the same thing with your LEFT ARM. Touch your shoulder and tense your left bicep tightly. . . . Hold that tension really tightly and observe it carefully. . . . Let go, let out your left arm. Let it, too, drop limp—relax it as much as you can. . . . Try to let yourself actually feel the relaxation. Continue to let go. Let your whole body relax further and further into deeper and still deeper levels of relaxation.

Now, let's focus on your NECK muscles. Press your head back as far as you can. Press it back hard, really hard. . . . Feel the tension in your neck. Hold that tension briefly. . . . Let go. Let your neck relax as much as possible. Let the muscles loosen so completely that your head is as heavy as a bowling ball. Allow the back of the chair to completely support your head so that your neck muscles can relax totally and completely.

Next, hunch up both of your SHOULDERS. Bring your shoulders right up to your ears. Feel the tension. . . . Now drop your shoulders, let them go completely limp and feel the relaxation. . . . Let that relaxation go deeper and deeper into your shoulders—then let it filter right down into the rest of your body.

Now, raise your eyebrows so that it makes your FOREHEAD and the top of your SCALP all tight and wrinkly. . . . Feel the tension. . . . Relax your forehead, smooth it out. Try to picture, as in a mirror, your forehead becoming smoother and smoother as the relaxation increases.

Next, squeeze your EYES tightly shut . . . tighter and tighter. Feel the tension in your eyelids. . . . Relax them and keep your eyes closed gently and comfortably. Notice how relaxed they feel.

Finally, let's tense the muscles around your MOUTH. Clench your jaws and lips. Clench them tightly together and study the tension around your mouth. . . . Relax those muscles, let your cheeks and lips hang loose, limp. Relax your jaw and keep your teeth slightly apart as you continue to relax all the muscles around your mouth.

Try to notice the contrast throughout your entire body between tension and relaxation. If any tension has crept back into your body, release it and let it go. . . . In your mind's eye, picture your face as though looking in a mirror and actually see the relaxation all over your face. Observe the relaxation around your mouth . . . notice it around your eyes . . . see it all over your forehead. . . . Actually feel the relaxation progress further and further. Just allow yourself to feel the relaxation take over and go deeper and deeper, and still deeper into the muscles and very fiber of your body.

As you become more and more deeply relaxed, your body may feel very heavy. It is also possible that parts of your body may feel very small or maybe even quite large. You may also feel warm all over, or perhaps parts of your body have no feeling—for instance, maybe a hand or foot even feels like it is disconnected from the rest of your body. Whatever you feel as you sit there completely relaxed, just go along with it and enjoy it. Let it happen without bothering to control or question it. The reason is that these things are perfectly natural in a deeply relaxed state. They are normal, for instance, when you are drifting off to sleep; but the difference here is that you can let your mind go blank or let your thoughts drift around without going to sleep. Let yourself feel calm and peaceful . . . warm and relaxed.

The final part of training in relaxation is the most important part, because it is concerned with mentally letting go as well as physically relaxing, of getting rid of cares and frustrations and mentally relaxing without going to sleep. To begin, I want you to picture in your mind's eye a scene representing pure, unconditional pleasure to you. Just give yourself the mental set to picture what you're thinking as you sit there, completely relaxed with your eyes closed.

You may want to concentrate on something you have experienced recently, or perhaps you remember something wonderful about a vacation you've taken, or you may recall something you've seen in a movie or read in a book. It is even possible to think of some happy event that may have occurred while you were in the middle of some hectic activity. Of course, you may want to recall something serene or pleasurable from your childhood.

Whatever comes to you, let it be your private experience to feel fully again for just a little while. Let your mind drift peacefully and relaxed wherever it wants to go. If your mind begins to wander, don't be concerned or fight it. Rather, gently bring your mind back to the scene you have chosen. I am going to remain silent for a few moments while you allow yourself to follow anything pleasant . . . happy . . . or peaceful that appears to you. Let it take you wherever you want to go, just drifting and enjoying. After a few moments of silence I am going to count forward from one to five while you then bring yourself back to the present, at which time you will arouse yourself, refreshed and calm.


Please keep your eyes closed until you are asked to open them. It is now time to come back to the present. But you may have been relaxed for so long in this session that it may take a minute or two for you to become fully alert again. This is to be expected at first, but with regular practice you will find that you can become relaxed very quickly, and that when you have refreshed yourself in this way you will always be able to arouse yourself effectively by counting from one to five. This counting will always bring you back from your deep relaxation fully alert and refreshed with all physical exertion and emotional strain gone.

I'll count for you this time. You may wish to count silently to yourself along with me.
One. You are more aware of the present and finding yourself more refreshed and more invigorated than you have ever been in your whole life.

Two. It's time to stir about by moving your feet and legs. Remember, when you open your eyes, you will be refreshed as though you were awakening from a long nap.

Three. You might want to stretch your arms out. From head to foot you are feeling perfect: mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Four. Now you should move your head around a bit. You are now completely refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to open your eyes.

Five. Open your eyes!

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Worry Cycle

Your dominoes don't actually go in a straight line. The consequence domino repeatedly seems to move from the end of the line and convert itself to the life domino which once more topples your thinking domino. When this happens your life becomes controlled by a circle of dominoes. Being stuck in this cycle is like being stuck in a sticky spider web from which it is impossible to struggle free.

The Worry Cycle Diagram shows what it is like to constantly run around and around in circles. This diagram is entitled the Worry Cycle because when the circle is well established, you feel like you are being controlled by outside forces.

Some improvement programs, including some professional therapies, merely focus on changing only one of these elements of the cycle. More current approaches have shown that this is often not sufficient. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has perceived that merely getting a drunk to be sober is not enough. This is only the first step in recovery. The second is to learn how to live. Cognitive therapy has currently become the best follow-up procedure for getting people to break the underlying causes of their addictions.

Willpower is also not enough. Just the plain fact of your reading this material means that you probably have enough will power. What you lack are the skills to change each of the four pieces holding the Worry Cycle together: Thought, Emotions. Stress, Behavior.

You will notice from the Worry Cycle diagram that worry is the balance point from external events to internal events. It is also the second domino in the series and the first one you really have any control over.

Worry is Universal
Worry is another global human experience in addition to the quest for Happiness. Worry is a very democratic process because it affects all groups of people in all walks of life. Worry is one of the most common human tendencies; every person has at one time or another worried about something.

Most of the problems you have struggled with in your life may be related to the amount of time you have spent worrying. It is likely that worry has been with us since people have been able to think and yet it is probably one of the most common human activities while at the same time one of the most useless.

What is Worry?
Worry is distorted thinking. Cognitive therapists point out four levels of thinking: perceptions, interpretations, predictions, and beliefs. Distortions can occur at any of these levels. The first level deals with how you perceive the raw data of your existence. It concerns itself with your impressions of specific situations, events, and all the things around you.

These perceptions are derived from your five senses. Since your brain is not a perfect machine, these perceptions can be distorted. These misrepresentations can be influenced by memories of past experiences. It feels as if your mind is playing tricks on you.

The second level of worry can occur when your brain is dealing with interpretations of these perceived events. Psychologists often call this level of thinking by a variety of names: automatic thinking, silent assumptions, or conditional beliefs. These assumptions tend to be tentative in nature. It is often difficult to be completely aware of the interpretations you make. With a little bit of effort your interpretations will become more apparent to you.

Predictions, the third level, often take the form of "if ..., then ..." One of my clients would constantly make predictions about his anxiety by saying, "If my anxiety becomes too strong, then I will die from a heart attack." When he was eventually able to test out this prediction he found it to be completely groundless.

When perceptions, interpretations, and predictions become repetitive over an extended period of time, they often get converted to belief systems. Distorted beliefs are the most basic of all types of worry, the most pervasive, the most powerful and the most difficult to change. These distorted beliefs tend to be experienced as absolute convictions about life: about yourself, about others or about the relationship between the two. These beliefs can then double back on you and further affect the accuracy of your perceptions, interpretations, and predictions.

For you to adequately learn the four skills – cognitive restructuring, emotional supervision, stress management, behavior control -- you will need to set aside time each day for reading and learning, you may have to cut back on other activities which are currently in your life but are not as important as learning skills for breaking the Worry Cycle. You will need to commit yourself to working on these techniques even though they may appear difficult and tedious.

The major tool you have at your disposal is repetition. You need to keep repeating your new skills until you have it mastered them. How long this takes is really unimportant. If you need to spend more time learning these skills than some other person, that is okay. Please don't compare your rate of progress with anyone else — either real or imagined.

Self help may seem impossible for you if your experience in learning has been a negative one. You need not fear learning, even though in the past you may have had a bad experience with it. All people are capable of learning. Scientists have shown over and over again that even severely developmentally disabled individuals are capable of learning very complicated tasks. It is just that we all learn at different rates of speed and in different ways. The quickness with which you learn has nothing to do with your final success in this program.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Guilt: An Introduction

What do you feel guilty about? Most people feel guilty about something they have done or have failed to do. It is one of the six toxic emotions that act to destroy our quality of life. Like the other destructive emotions, you can actually do something about it.

Thanks to research in cognitive psychology, we know that it is possible to actually modify our emotions by learning how to change our thinking. Doing this is more than thinking positively. If this were all it took to change our emotions, we would all be doing it. Generally speaking, positive thinking only works well for those who don’t need it – because they already are positive thinkers.

Guilt is triggered by making a mistake, either real or imagined. Not all mistakes lead to guilt, however. How you feel depends on how your interpret the mistake. If you believe that a mistake is something humans do and can be taken as an opportunity to grow from it, you will feel remorse instead of guilt. There is a vast difference between the two.

Again, it is best to understand guilt by putting it in the context of the Domino effect. Although the mistake is the life event that sets stage for guilt, it is the second domino that determines whether you feel guilty or remorseful. The guilt path is taken when your mental to response is, "I should (should not) have done that." The word "should" is all about rules.

We all grow up with rules, whether from our parents, our peers, or institutions such as school and church. These rules are important for learning how to become a civilized adult. However, they can be deadly once you are an adult. If you are a person who makes decisions based on rules then guilt will be a common companion. As humans we are always making mistakes. If you mistakes are tied into the breaking of rules then guilt is the inevitable result.

The major difference between guilt and remorse is the behaviors that follow. Your guilt will get you to punish yourself. We humans tend to be quite creative in self-punishment. Not only is this bad enough, but when you punish yourself that is another mistake. Now you are back at the beginning to be set up for even more guilt.

Like depression guilt is circular in nature because it keeps you running in a circle of guilt. Once you learn to change from guilt to remorse (how to do this will be in an upcoming blog) you will no longer punish yourself for making mistakes. Instead you will be able to forgive yourself for being human.

Living a guilt free life does not mean you will not experience painful emotions. The difference is that the painful emotions will be healthy and short-lived. In this case, the painful emotion will be remorse. Like all healthy, painful emotions, it will drive you forward to begin to be all you can be.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Are You Worried Yet?

"Worry is like a rocking chair--it gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere."

Worry is big news. The most pressing worry is the current state of the economy. People are cutting back on things they normally do that costs money. My hometown newspaper and TV news channels are constantly bombarding us with dire information on the worst economic downturn in eighty years. Talking heads are all over the media.

People are mulling over financial questions. How are we going to pay for our health insurance? Will I lose my job? And if so, will I be able to find another one? How can I afford to send my kids to college? Will the banks lose my savings? Why am I making less money and the oil companies are making more money? What's going to happen with my mortgage?

These questions are not from the few but the many. Try reading the front page of the newspaper or watch the evening news and not find something to worry about. Worry seems to have become a way of life. Google the word "worry" and be prepared to look at 177 million articles. Here are just a few of the things people worry about:

  • Tourists are worried about traveling to dangerous parts of the world.
  • Families are worried about the safety of their loved ones serving in the military.
  • A few Christians are worried about stem cell research and gay marriage.
  • Some people worry the Switzerland particle accelerator will produce microscopic black holes that will destroy the earth.
  • Nearly everyone is worried about politics.
  • Parents in Chattanooga are worried about a Christian commune set up near the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
  • Baby boomers are worried about getting older.
  • Scientists are worried about global warming.
  • Parents are worried about school violence.

The problem with worrying is that it generates highly destructive and unhealthy emotions. As you may know, modern psychology has taught us that our thoughts lead to specific emotions. What we think determines what we feel. Worry can make us go through such gut-wrenching emotions as anxiety, guilt and depression, to name a few.

We know that women worry more than men. There are several reasons for this. The culture encourages women to worry and tells them that worry is an indication that women are kind and caring. Science has recently discovered that another reason women worry more is that, more than men, they believe that past experiences accurately forecast the future.

Yet, we have been told that worry is bad for us and that we should not worry so much. The problem is to find an alternative. What does "not worry" look like? The human race uses many ways to cope with worry. Some people use worry beads. Inspirational books and magazines are designed to help people with their worries. Guatemalan children tell their worries to dolls and place them under their pillows. Advice such as, "Don't worry, be happy" is everywhere. Religious people pray. Distracting ourselves by finding something to "cheer us up" is also a common method for combating worry.

The best way to cope with worry is to replace it with concern. You may want to browse through the archives on this blog to see how destructive worry can be in your life and what you can do about it. Especially check out our previous article on Worry. If you are interested in what to do about worry and how to change it to a more healthy concern, you can check out The Worry Free Life book and The Worry Free Life website.

You may want to learn how to change from worry to concern. There is nothing to worry about; there is plenty to be concerned about.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Depression: An Introduction

The common thinking today is that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance. This is true as far as it goes. The often unasked question is, "What causes the chemical imbalance." Research for the last several decades has shown convincingly that depression is caused by our thought processes.

Since the brain operates on electrical and chemical changes, it makes sense that our thinking can have an effect on our emotions. Since so much of our brain is connected to so many other parts of the brain, it not surprising that thinking (which takes place in the neocortex) can effect our emotions (which originates in our limbic system).

Before we look at how thinking produces depression, let’s remember the chain of events of which depression is a part. The chain looks something like this:

  • An environmental event causes a personal loss
  • The loss is processed by a thinking style called worry
  • The result is depression
  • The behavior associated with depression is lifelessness
  • The consequences of this behavior is that the depressed person experiences more loss

You can see that this sequence of events becomes circular in nature which explains why people can be depressed for so many years. Let’s unpack each of these links in the chain.

Life is full of disappointments, most of which we cannot control. The size of a personal loss does not determine whether we get depressed or not. A small loss may result in minor depression (called dysthymia) while a large loss may result in major depression. This is not always the case because it is not the loss, per se, that causes the depression. It is our perception and interpretation of the loss that triggers the depression. Losses can be major ones like health, money, or a loved one. Small losses could include a minor memory loss, misplaced car keys, etc.

There is a concept in psychology called "cognitive specificity" that supposes there is a close relationship between a specific thought and a specific emotion. In this chain, the specific worry that causes depression is some variation of, "I’m a worthless human being." There are many ways that people can believe this falsehood. This specific belief is what is called a "core belief" because it a belief so deep and ingrained that changing it is extremely difficult. I’ve heard people say they are really negative about themselves when they get depressed. This is backwards. They are depressed because they believe the negative thoughts.

The opposite of depression is not jubilation or feeling good. If we reinterpret our losses in a healthy and realistic way, we will feel sadness instead of depression. Depression and sadness are opposites of each other. As with all emotions, depression and sadness exist along a continuum. A person can have a little depression or a lot of depression; they can have a little sadness or a lot of sadness. Regrettably, our society thinks that grief (a lot of sadness) is the same as depression. This is not so. Unfortunately, many people who are in a state of bereavement are given medication to help them feel better. A healthier approach is to let the grief or bereavement run its course.

Depressed people exhibit helpless behavior. This does not necessarily mean they crawl into bed and pull the covers over their heads for a week. Legitimate behaviors can be done in way that is a form of helplessness because it has no benefit for the depressed person except to keep them depressed. Common behaviors that can be engaged in excessively include gambling, shopping, eating, to name a few. These can be helpless behaviors to a depressed person. On the other hand the overly wrought person who is sad naturally cries (unless it is accompanied by strong depression). Sadness tears release an endorphin-like chemical in the brain to make the sad person "feel better." Crying is the healing process for sadness. Everyone should be allowed to cry as much as he or she needs to. Some people are uncomfortable around someone who is crying heavily and often try to get the sad person to stop. This is unfortunate because the crying helps people to move forward in their journey instead of going in circles because of depression.

The consequence of depression is to run in circles; the consequence of sadness is movement in a straight line. However, life is not always so black and white. Often, people can have sadness and depression at the same time. In this case, the sadness will cause crying, but the depression, because it swings back on itself, will continue the crying. This is why so many people assume that if a person cries too long, they must be depressed. People do not cry because they are depressed. They cry because they are sad over a personal loss.

Understanding the depression chain is the first step to finding ways out of the depression. The tools one needs for changing thoughts are collectively called "cognitive restructuring" which is just a fancy name for "changing the way you think." The major problem with changing thoughts is that doing so means changing a mental habit and habits can be very difficult to change. One of the reasons for this is that habits are often something you do, that while you are doing it, you may not know you are doing it.

We will be posting more material on how one goes about changing the thought and belief system that generates depression. Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact us via email at

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Blog Index

25 Random Facts About Psychology
Anger Management
Anonymity and Faith
Anticipation of Pain
Are You Worried Yet?
Art of Napping
Chill of Loneliness
Cosmology and the Bible
Depression: An Introduction
Domino Effect
Emotional Intelligence
Female Brain: A Book Review
Guilt: An Introduction
Healthy Painful Emotions
Inauguration Day
Learned Helplessness
Learned Optimism
Marshmallow Test
Panic Attacks, Part 1
Panic Attacks, Part 2
Predicting the Future
Psychology - What Is It? Really?
Psychology and the Brain
Q&A #1
Q&A #2
Science Doesn't Know Everything
Six Unhealthy Emotions
Sleep Deprivation, Part 1
Sleep Deprivation, Part 2
Start of a New Year
Stress Management: Overview
Stress Management: Natural Breathing
Temper Tantrums, Part 1: Understanding
Temper Tantrums, Part 2: Prevention
Temper Tantrums, part 3: Management
Using 10% of Your Brain
Weight Loss
What's Good About Good Friday
What We Don't Know Can Kill Us
Worry Cycle, the
Your Comfort Zone

Feel free to suggest any topic to us you would like to see.

The Chill of Loneliness

I enjoy reading journal articles not only because they teach me so much, but also because I admire the cleverness of the researchers in how they design their research. One such article that hit me recently was published in the journal Psychological Science. Authors Drs. Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli from the University of Toronto studied the relationship between emotions and body temperature.

They wondered if there was a relationship between body temperature and such painful emotions as loneliness, despair and sadness. Their interest was aroused by the phrase often used by people when they are describing their loneliness, the "chill of loneliness." People are not merely exaggerating when they speak of being cold when they are lonely or sad. Drs. Zhong and Leonardelli conducted two experiments to see if there was a relationship between emotions and physical sensations.

The first experiment asked one group of people to ponder a time in their lives when they experienced a sense of loneliness. The other group was supposed to think about a past experience when they felt accepted. Then both groups were later asked to estimate the temperature of the room they were in. The group that had thought about acceptance estimated the room to be, on average, 76 degrees. Those who remembered and thought about a time when they were feeling lonely estimated the room temperature to be 71 degrees.

Another, different experiment was done to see if similar results would occur. About 50 people engaged in a computer-based, ball-tossing exercise. Each person would catch a ball and then throw it to anyone they wanted. Over the course of time, most people would expect that everyone would get a ball tossed to them about the same number of times as everyone else.

What the participants didn't know was that the game was designed so that some people would get the ball tossed to them much less often than other members of the group. When the exercise was finished, the participants were then asked to rate the desirability of certain foods: hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple, and hot soup.

As you might guess from the results of the first experiment, those who were "ostracized" from the game had more of a desire for the hot coffee or soup. The researchers understood this to mean that a preference for hot liquids was the result of feeling colder because they had been excluded from full participation in a group effort.

So, the next time you feel chilly in a crowd of people, it is probably not your imagination. You may actually be feeling isolated or rejected. If this is the case, you would be wise to think about the cause of the loneliness to see if there is anything you can do. Loneliness is a "healthy" human emotion in that it can move you forward by possibly telling you it is time to learn some new coping skills for loneliness.
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Monday, October 6, 2008

Stress Management: Natural Breathing

Natural Breathing is an effective, quick technique that can be used literally anywhere and any time. If you have ever hyperventilated, Natural Breathing will keep you from ever doing this again for the rest of your life. This is because hyperventilation and Natural Breathing are incompatible—they cannot happen at the same time. You cannot sit and stand at the same time because they, too, are incompatible. When you master Natural Breathing, you won't ever have to carry a paper bag with you again! Natural Breathing has three components: deep breathing, slow breathing, and discontinuous breathing.

Deep breathing. To learn to breathe deeply, you first need to check how you currently take a deep breath. Do this now by standing in front of a mirror. As you take a really deep breath, watch what happens to your upper body and your stomach. You may notice that your upper body will move—if you took a really big breath, you may have raised your shoulders—and your stomach will be drawn in. Although the vast majority of the human race takes a deep breath in this way, it is wrong. It is wrong because it is backwards.

For a truly deep breath to occur, there must be little or no movement in your upper body—and at the same time your stomach must be pushed out. (This "belly breathing" is used by professional musicians.) To learn how to breathe deeply properly, put your hands on your stomach, directly on top of your navel. Now push in. While you are pushing in, push your hands away from your body with your stomach muscles. Then, as you relax your stomach muscles, let your hands push your stomach back in again. This in-and-out movement of your stomach muscles is the same movement that should occur when you breathe deeply.

Now that you have experienced this movement in your stomach muscles, you know which muscles to use for deep breathing. To learn the complete technique of natural deep breathing, follow this simple four- step procedure. (This procedure should always be done by inhaling and exhaling through your mouth.)

  1. Push your stomach in again with your hands.
  2. Let the air out of your lungs (be sure to keep your stomach pushed in).
  3. Now "breathe in, push out" and then
  4. "breathe out push in."

When you do this for the first time, it should feel different from any other kind of breathing you have experienced before. It may feel either labored or easy depending on how quickly you can adjust to the new coordination of your stomach muscles with your breathing patterns.

Do this several more times so that you can get the feel of what is happening to you. Don't despair if it doesn't come easy. If you are a woman, you have two strikes against you in learning this procedure. First, you must counteract years of physical conditioning. You have been breathing incorrectly for many years, and it may take some time for you to coordinate your muscles.

Second, social conditioning has taught you that, as a woman, "you must never push your stomach out." Let me reassure you that the first problem will take care of itself very quickly. The second is really nonexistent. When you learn to do this naturally, you can deep breathe and nobody will notice it.

Breathing slowly. Now that you have learned to breathe deeply, you must also learn how to breathe more slowly. If you breathe quickly and deeply, you will not get the full benefit of Natural Breathing. You can learn to breathe slowly by simply spelling the word "R-E-L-A-X" to yourself as you breathe in and again as you breathe out. Spell the word silently at the rate of about one letter per second. In this way it will take you about five to six seconds to inhale and the same amount of time to exhale. A total breathe cycle will last about ten to twelve seconds (which means about five or six breaths a minute).

This will probably feel a lot slower than the breathing you are used to. Try this now (using the four-part procedure for deep breathing you just learned) and see how slowly you can breathe. It would be unusual for you to get past the "L" in relax," because most people take in a quick breath and then try to slow it down for the remaining four seconds.

Musicians know that the secret to slow breathing is something called "breath control." When you begin to inhale, do it very gently and gradually, moving your stomach very slowly. You will probably find that controlling the speed of exhaling will be easier than controlling the speed of inhaling.

Breathing discontinuously. Finally, you need to learn how to breathe discontinuously. Listen to your breathing for a few seconds as you normally do it. You will notice that your exhaling and inhaling flow from one to the other. To breathe naturally, you must learn to pause after you exhale and before you take in another breath. How long this pause takes is insignificant. The important factor is that you put a discrete, specific pause between the exhale and the inhale. This pause will help you to further slow down your breathing.

Remember, the pause is the opposite of holding your breath. When you hold your breath, you stop breathing while your lungs are full of air; when you pause, you stop breathing when your lungs empty.

I have named this type of breathing "Natural Breathing" for a good reason: this is the way you naturally breathed when you were born. If you watch a baby on its back, you will notice the little tummy going slowly up and down as it breathes. When the stomach comes down on the exhale, there is a long pause before another breath is taken. So, you see, you are not learning anything new. Rather, you are relearning how to do something that your body considers natural and that which you have been taught not to do.

Now that you know how to breathe naturally, it is imperative that you also learn how to do it automatically. When you are stressed, it can be extremely difficult to remember a half-learned skill. To make Natural Breathing a regular part of your life, you need to practice this skill on a consistent basis.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Domino Effect

As we mentioned in our previous article on happiness, everybody wants to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is a right guaranteed in the constitution. But most people don't realize that there are two kinds of happiness: Happiness (with a capital H) and happiness (with a small h).

Happiness (big H) is something that runs very deep and is quite profound and long lasting; much more than its cousin, happiness (little h). Real Happiness goes by many names: tranquility, inner peace, serenity. Many other words also come to mind: calm, placidity, quiet, stillness, composure, poise, equanimity, repose, harmony, and peacefulness.

Unfortunately, people keep fooling themselves into thinking that happiness is merely feeling good. Not that feeling good is wrong or bad. It just don't happen to be the same thing as the big H. Little h happiness occurs when we can get rid of pain and suffering. Big H happiness is not the absence of conflict or pain, but rather the ability to cope with both.

Happiness is not a goal in life but is rather a by-product of something else. That something else is self control. Perhaps a good way to understand self control is in the sense of self management. Rather than let your life run you, you need to learn the skills to manage (control) your life so that you can experience it the way you want it. By controlling four specific components of your life, you can find your pathway to Happiness. These four parts are what comprise human nature. The more you can control each of these elements, the closer you are to the big H.

This is different from New Age beliefs that promise you the ability to "feel good" no matter what is happening to you. Happiness (with the big "H") doesn't rule out suffering, pain and emotional distress. What it does give you is the ability to cope during such times. It gives you the self confidence that no matter what happens, you will eventually make it through and be a stronger person for it.

These four keys to Happiness are not independent of one another. They constantly interact with and affect each other. The chain reaction that is seen with dominoes is a good way to understand your life. Imagine a set of 5 dominoes where each one represents an important aspect of control. The diagram to the left shows what this might look like.

The first domino represents everything outside of you that triggers off the second domino. This could include weather, people, health, work and any other event that you encounter in your life.

The second domino stands for your thought life. Feelings (emotions and sensations) are the third domino and the fourth is your behavior domino.

The last domino stands for any consequences that happen in the outside world as the result of your behavior. You need to know that these dominoes never change position.

The Big H type happiness occurs when all the dominoes are standing. This is difficult because the first domino, life, has a tendency to keep falling on you (did you notice the round bottom?). So many things can go wrong in life. Yet, we try to keep the dominoes standing by attempting to control the first domino. This is not possible because you have no control over life events.

No matter how hard you try to keep the life domino from falling, it will eventually fall. Every time you set the first domino up it falls again. Then all the other dominoes fall. The trick is to spend less time trying to straighten out life.

You can have the Big H when you have learned to make the second domino immovable. You want to learn how to mentally superglue the second domino to the tabletop. When you can do this by changing your thought life, then you will have Happiness because the rest of the dominoes will remain standing.

In addition to managing your thought life, you also want to learn how to manage your emotions, sensations and behavior. In The Worry Free Life, we show you, step by step how to learn these new skills and apply them to your life.

Cognitive therapy has been one of the most exciting developments in mental health in this century. By discovering that emotions are produced by thinking, psychologists have given the human race a means of finally doing something about such crippling infirmities as depression and guilt.

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