Monday, November 14, 2016

Mindfulness & CBT

By using the techniques from last week, you’ll find you’re able to increase your wakefulness, your mood and your general performance on a regular basis.

But now we come to the next trick – changing your mood instantly and switching from one mental state to another. What we really need to be able to do in order to perform at our very best is to switch to a stressed and motivated state when something requires our attention, to become angry in a controlled manner when we’re arguing and to switch off and relax from work when we get home in order to allow our brain to recover and to actually enjoy ourselves. Having an understanding of our neuroscience will help and so will having a good foundation of health. But now we’re going to take full control of our mental state and our attention.

Its All About Perception

As mentioned earlier, our experiences are largely what control our emotions. Simply seeing a lion is enough to trigger a cascade of different changes in the brain that ultimately result in us becoming highly aroused both mentally and physically.

When tired, you could wake yourself by taking that cold shower or by seeing a lion!

When you’re drunk, it’s because you have excess GABA in your brain. But if your friend gets hurt, the rush of epinephrine and dopamine will be enough to actually make you feel sober and sharp again so that you can deal with the crisis.

But what if the lion wasn’t there and you only thought the lion was there? What if the lion was there and you didn’t see it?

Ultimately, it is not the actual lion that triggers the response but rather your perception of that lion and your beliefs about the lion. Put it another way: if you were to see a lion and you didn’t know what a lion was, then you probably wouldn’t have the same fight or flight response – you might even think it looked cute and get an oxytocin release instead!

It’s your understanding of the situation that impacts on the way you react to it and this in turn changes the way you feel and the way you behave. And this is actually what happens all the time throughout our lives to a lesser extent. This is why some people are calm and relaxed all the time (we call them ‘laid back’) while other people are constantly stressed and anxious.

Let’s imagine you’re in your office and you have a very bad deadline that you don’t think you can meet. Some of you might now feel incredibly stressed and thus experience that fight or flight response. But others among you might not have that response at all and you may instead find you’re able to stay very calm and collected.

There’s of course an ideal middle ground here – being too stressed is bad for your health and can actually cause you to become less productive in some cases (the response is sometimes actually referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response!) while being too relaxed as mentioned can cause you to end up not actually doing anything about the situation.

The simple fact of the matter is that in these situations, some people see a lion and some people see a cat. The scenario is the precise same but their reaction to that situation can be very different. This is based on your life experiences, diet, health and personality – but you can take control of it once you know how.

The Idea Behind CBT

CBT is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’, which in turn is a type of psychotherapeutic intervention that is based almost entirely around the concepts we’ve just discussed. This asserts that our behavior is a result of our associations (this is behaviorism) and of our thought processes that actually allow us to reinforce an idea in our heads.

So when faced with a stressful situation, you will be stressed partly because of the beliefs and associations you hold regarding that situation. At the same time, you’ll then start playing out what you expect to happen in your head and when this happens, areas of the brain fire almost as though that thing were really happening. You might imagine getting fired, having your house repossessed, or being injured depending on the scenario.

This then causes the release of even more stress hormones, just as though you were really in those situations and you can end up anxious, aroused and potentially less effective. This is where a lot of phobias come from but it’s also what can make us less self-confident, less likely to take positive risks and generally less successful than we otherwise could be.

So CBT aims to change this, partly by creating new associations and partly by changing the way you think and changing what you’re visualizing. There’s more to it than that of course but this is the central concept and the tools used to this end are collectively referred to as ‘cognitive restructuring’.

So let’s say that you want to be calmer at work, or you want to overcome a fear of heights. How might you do that using CBT?

The first step would be to become more aware of your existing thoughts, beliefs and emotions. You can do this in a number of ways. One common tool is journaling, whereby you keep a journal of your thoughts, feelings and emotions pertaining to the thing that frightens you. This way, you can really deconstruct the thought process that is leading to your fear.

Another option is to use mindfulness. This is a form of meditation that doesn’t focus on making your mind blank but instead focuses on letting your mind become detached while you watch the contents of your thoughts. This process in itself is very calming and can help to prevent a fight or flight response.

Once you have the thoughts that make you stressed though – or you’re aware of what you’re visualizing – you can then go about deconstructing them. For example, if you’re afraid of public speaking then this might mean that you picture yourself stuttering and being laughed at. If you’re afraid of heights, you might think things like ‘I’m going to fall’.

What you don’t realize is that simply thinking these things is strengthening those neural connections and coding the experience as ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ making the response stronger in future.

So now you’re going to unravel those beliefs and try to remove them. One way to do this is with ‘thought challenging’. Thought challenging essentially means that you’re going to really analyze your belief and decide if it might actually be true or not. So if you’re afraid of being laughed at on stage, you’re going to think about how likely people really are to laugh at you and whether or not this is something that you would do in their position. The reality? Most people are kind enough and mature enough to just politely wait for you to get it back together. If anything, they’ll probably only sympathize.

You can also help this process by coming up with contingency plans. In other words, if you do stutter, what can you do to make it less devastating? Probably just make a joke of it to ease tension!

Also: do you really care if these strangers who you’ll never see again think any less of you?

Another scenario might be low level anxiety that you’re holding about your job because you’re afraid of being fired. Let’s say you made a big mistake on a report that won’t come to light for two weeks – now you’re worried you’ll be severely reprimanded.

So let’s address this situation logically with thought challenging: is your boss really that harsh and unfair? Aren’t there laws that would protect you? Can’t you explain that it’s an honest mistake? Could you blame it on your tiredness or stress at the time? If you really did get fired, wouldn’t you be able to land back on your feet? Now picture the way it’s much more likely to go and let that sink in. Suddenly, it’s not so scary.

In both these situations you have taken that mental lion and turned it into a small kitten! You’ve neutered the dragon and you can thus remain much calmer thanks to your new perception of the situation. And the more you practice this, the more you’ll find you start to adopt it and it starts to become a part of who you are. Suddenly, you’ll be able to stay calm and collected during all kinds of crises at work and eventually people will start to turn to you for advice whenever something goes wrong!

Another tool is even more powerful than this and it’s called ‘hypothesis testing’. The problem is, that in order for you to really be able to overcome a fear or phobia, you have to really believe what you’re thinking and visualizing. It’s not enough to just keep saying that it’s a cat and not a lion – you have to really believe it right in your heart.

So the next logical question at this point, is how you can convince yourself of your new thoughts and beliefs. And one way to do that is to use hypothesis testing – simply proving to yourself that your old beliefs were wrong and your new ones are right.

In the case of a person afraid of public speaking, such as myself (wrote about it in 2013), what would that mean? It would mean actually making a mistake in public on person – or even standing there not saying anything for a while. You’re facing your worst case scenario, trialing the worst outcome and hopefully proving to yourself that there’s actually nothing to be afraid of. In doing this, you should find that no one laughs and people just wait politely. At this point, you now know that your fears were unfounded and you will find they bother you much less in future.
This is also a little like re-association or exposure therapy. By consistently exposing yourself to the situation you used to be afraid of, you can create new associations and remove those old negative ones. You can even eventually become desensitized as you learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of. A paratrooper's heart rate can remain at 60bpm throughout the entire jump. Why? Because he’s done it hundreds of times before and his body knew that this was nothing to be afraid of.

You can work your way up to this if you’re unsure but just exposing yourself to these dangerous situations will eventually be enough to help you overcome an unwanted physiological response.

One of the most powerful and effective uses for this? Becoming socially bulletproof; this is what I'm working on. Almost all of us have some kind of natural anxiety when talking to strangers and this causes us to have a minor stress response. As mentioned, this then makes us appear to lack confidence and sends the signal that we are the inferior party in the interaction – again, it all dates back to our evolution.

But if you keep exposing yourself to new social situations and even make them purposefully awkward, then eventually you can completely get rid of any anxiety you previously felt at all. Try going to a shop (not one near you) and ordering your items in a funny accent. You’ll find they politely nod and give you your things without saying anything. Try chatting to people you don’t know on the street – even picking up the phone a bit more and calling people by typing in random numbers. The more you do this, the more accustomed you’ll become to speaking with strangers and the less of a stress response you’ll have in future. By the end, you’ll find that you’re perfectly able to speak with complete, calm confidence in almost every situation!

Has anyone done a challenge for being purposefully awkward?

 Next week we'll talk about "dressing" ourselves for success.

1 comment :

  1. Ordering things in a funny accent? I like that suggestion. I do indeed talk to strangers a lot. I live in NYC and some people would think that's taboo but I start conversations with people all the time - in the coffee shop, in the train, at the bookstore, wherever. It is its own reward.
    Looking forward to your dressing for success post.