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Conditional wellbeing

Conditional wellbeing
Feelings of enjoyment should not only follow an act of effort or good behaviour

Do you have a habit of putting your happiness on hold until “something good” happens? Do you say to yourself, “When I buy a house/get married/have a boyfriend/girlfriend/make more money etc., then I will feel good”? If yes, you suffer from what I call conditional wellbeing. Conditional wellbeing is to make good feelings about yourself, the world and other people dependent upon external factors. This approach to life is often at the centre of much of our unhappiness, however, and general discontent. So if it is so unproductive to our emotional health, why do we do it?

I believe that our culture of delayed gratification, as well as our rigid beliefs, have great influence on how we approach our wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. As children, we are often made to believe that good feelings of enjoyment should only follow an act of effort or good behaviour. Parents use rewards to make us do what they want us to do, as in “You can have ice-cream after you have done your homework/tidy up your room”, etc. When such schemes are reinforced through consistent practice, our brains automatically create an association between work and fun, as if we were only entitled to the latter if we did the former.

Our beliefs about “happiness” and “being worthy of feeling good” also interfere with our ability to enjoy ourselves for no reason. What do you usually associate with pleasure and good moments?  Does it tend to involve free time, people and things, eating and drinking? Are you always engaged in some kind of (special) activity when you create this mental picture? If yes, your beliefs about personal wellbeing could be limiting the way you perceive and experience it, making it conditional.

Some people only allow themselves to feel enjoyment after a long day’s work, at the weekend or when away on holiday.  Without noticing, their lives become all about chasing that reward, as if they did not deserve to have it without sacrifice. You need to earn it to enjoy, right? “No pain no gain”, so they say. Those beliefs are, of course, cognitive traps. While they keep you running on that wheel like a deluded hamster, the true satisfaction of living that comes from true, uncompromised self-expression become even more far-fetched.

If you identify with the above, and would like to reconnect with a healthier sense of joy and wellbeing, I suggest the following:

1- Stop over identifying with negative feelings: have you lost touch with life’s little pleasures because you are so focused on the negative? When you only have time for the big fish, life becomes a tedious and unsatisfying waiting game. Try maximising the pleasure that comes from waking up in the morning and having that delicious cup of coffee, or refreshing shower. Anything that gives you a good feeling is worth your attention and can change your experience, moment by moment.

2- Master the art of feeling happy just for being alive: make a point of taking a few moments throughout the day to feel good about being you. To achieve that, show gratitude and appreciation to yourself mentally, while you connect with good feelings in your body. If they do not come up naturally, create them, consciously, and experience them mindfully for a couple of minutes.

3- Drop the perfectionism: challenge thinking that revolves around “If I…, I would…” and “When I…, I will…” and start valuing yourself for who you are and not who you “should have been” in an unfortunate past, or “could be” in an idealised future. The same applies to the people and material things you convinced yourself you should have in order to feel happy. Tell yourself you are worth happiness and joy, right at this moment. When you genuinely feel that way, you attract good things, effortlessly.

How to accept negative emotions

How to accept negative emotions
Mental health is all about emotional connection and acceptance

Mental health is all about emotional connection and acceptance. Our habit of judging and neglecting negative emotions, as well as our obsession with controlling them, often makes us more unhappy and unbalanced. If you are tired of fighting against yourself and the way you feel, and would like to rebuild a healthier relationship with your emotions, here is how to accept negative emotions:

1- Connect with the body

Emotions are expressed in the body. Therefore, anyone who wishes to fully connect with their emotions does so, primarily, through a reconnection with the body. You can achieve that through exploring bodily sensations such as those of tension and lightness. If you struggle to identify emotions, exploring your bodily sensations will give you a good sense of the impact your own thoughts and experiences have on you.

2- Become consciously aware of the presence of negative emotions

Instead of diverging your focus away from negative emotions or doing your utmost to repress or control them, become fully aware of their presence. You can do that by moving your attention towards them and creating a mental map of where they are felt in the body through direct observation of their intensity and movement, as well as the effect they have on you.

3- Observe them without judgement

Most of us were raised in a culture of emotional neglect in which “negative” emotions are thought to be an inconvenience that should be dealt with as soon as possible. Such attitude tends to be unproductive, however, since it has the potential of creating an even bigger problem. Avoiding, denying or repressing negative emotions are dysfunctional behaviours that often lead to emotional and physical problems. To prevent that from happening, just let them let them be and resist the urge to do something about them.

4- Validate their right to exist

Because all emotions are part of us, when we deny their wisdom and value, openly rejecting them through repression, avoidance or denial, we do so to the detriment of our own selves. Even when they do not seem coherent at first glance, they have a right to be brought to awareness. Every time you recognise a negative emotion with openness and respect, you become whole and complete in yourself.

5- Befriend your body

To become more tolerant of negative emotions, it is essential that you see your body as a friend. Self-love and acceptance is only viable through a strong alliance with our whole selves, mind and body. To befriend your body, change your beliefs about “negative” bodily sensations and emotions by regarding them as normal expressions of the self. Seeing them as fleeting also helps you approach them with patience, understanding and kindness.

The benefits of focusing your attention on emotions go beyond emotional regulation and wellbeing, but also help enhance your concentration abilities and regulate impulsive behaviour. To get the most out of the above, be mindful of how you feel and do what you can to remind yourself to think and act differently when worrying excessively or feeling anxious.

10 basic concepts in trauma therapy

10 basic concepts in trauma therapy
A traumatic event is an adverse experience so overwhelming that overcomes one’s ability to cope

If you believe to be suffering from trauma, you could benefit from understanding how it affects your mind, emotions and behaviour. Below you will find a list of 10 basic concepts in trauma therapy so to expand your knowledge and facilitate further learning:

  • Traumatic event: a traumatic event is an adverse experience so overwhelming that overcomes one’s ability to cope. This could be a very frightening or shocking event, such as being in a car accident. Growing up suffering verbal abuse from someone one knows, loves and trusts can also lead to trauma.
  • Types of trauma: trauma goes beyond physical injury, but it concerns any negative experience that affects an individual as a whole person, body and mind. Therefore, trauma can also be of an emotional/psychological and relational nature. Trauma is referred to as “simple”, when it is of a single occurrence, such as in the example of the car accident mentioned above. Complex trauma, conversely, consist of a series of traumatic events that happen over a long period. Childhood or developmental trauma is a classic example of complex trauma.
  • Trigger: it is something or someone that reminds you of a traumatic event. A trigger can be a smell, sound, behaviour or even an emotion that connects you to past trauma. Adults that as children suffered emotional abuse by a parent, for instance, may be triggered by a situation in which he or she witnesses the same type of abuse. Under the influence of triggers, one may have flashbacks and re-experience the negative emotions and bodily sensations related to a particular traumatic event.
  • Flashback: as mentioned previously, a flashback is the activation of a traumatic memory, with or without the intention of the victim/survivor. When one has a flashback, he or she feels as if re-living the adverse experience that led to the trauma. Contrary to popular knowledge, not every flashback has a visual component that follows it. In some instances, flashbacks do not activate images, but exclusively the negative emotions and/or bodily sensations experienced when the trauma took place.
  • Fight or flight response: when the brain identifies a threat to our wellbeing, be it real or imaginary, it prepares our body for action, in other words, fight an enemy, flight the scene or freeze on the spot. When on fight or flight mode, our physiology changes so to adapt to our self-preservation and protection needs: our heart beats faster, breathing becomes shorter and muscles tenser so to get us ready to fight or make an escape. These physiological changes reflect our nervous system state of high alert and survival.
  • Chronic traumatic stress: stress that is experienced in a healthy or manageable manner does not tend to last very long. The great majority of stresses we come to deal with in life are short-lived, such as rushing in the morning to be at work on time. Chronic traumatic stress, however, is not temporary, but it can last for months or even years. A vulnerable victim of domestic abuse or a war prisoner, for instance, may experience stress that does not abate and, as a result, it becomes chronic over time.
  • Hypervigilance: it is a state of constant arousal. When one is hypervigilant, even without awareness, his or her body is on survival mode, or fight or flight. In that state, people are biased to the negative, tend to catastrophize and see threats or dangers where there is none, since their brains are constantly on high alert. For that reason, hypervigilant people are much more likely to worry excessively and have an anxiety disorder.
  • The neurobiology of trauma: simply put, it explains how trauma affects the brain. When studying the neurobiology of trauma, one understands how exposure to continuous stress during development, for instance, can lead to a sharp increase in the activity of the limbic system or the area responsible for the fight or flight response, to a point where the victim becomes hypervigilant and unable to switch that response off.
  • PTSD and C-PTSD: exposure to a single or several traumatic events can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, respectively. PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, sleeping disturbances, hypervigilance and irritability. C-PTSD sufferers also exhibit these symptoms, as well as chronic shame and guilt, built-up anger, suicidal thoughts, relationship and emotional regulation problems, amongst others.
  • Re-traumatisation: re-traumatisation may occur when a trauma victim is exposed to certain people, situations and behaviours that somehow bring out a state of vulnerability similar to when the original trauma took place. A classic example of re-traumatisation is when a woman that has suffered rape is blamed for what happened by the authorities involved in her case, such as a judge or a police officer.

Unresolved trauma can be quite debilitating and compromise quality of life. If you would like help to deal with the effects of trauma, I highly recommend Attachment-Focused EMDR. Please click here to learn about the approach or contact me to request an appointment.

Affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts

Affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts
Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered

The tone of your inner dialogue says a lot about you. If you worry excessively or is anxiety prone, your thinking may be biased to the negative and reflect your insecurities. If you have low self-esteem, you may be giving too much power to your inner critic and allowing it to have the last word. Whatever mental health problems you are facing, there is a high probability that they are being fuelled by dysfunctional thoughts. A natural and effective way to revert this scenario is through the conscious use of affirmations. Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered. When formulated immediately after an uncomfortable thought or image, they can accelerate change by directing your mind’s focus to the here and now, and the person you want to be. Below you will find a list of affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts to help you regain control over your thinking and wellbeing:

I am now in control of my thoughts

I am now ready to let go of fear inducing thoughts

My focus now is on thoughts that favour me

My focus is on the here and now

I choose to focus on the good

I am good to myself and my thoughts are good to me

I am clearing up my brain of all the cognitive rubbish

I am now ready to let go of negative thinking patterns

My brain is now in harmony with what I want for myself

I am now ready to move on with my life

I now favour positive beliefs about life, myself and others

My healthy self always has the last word

I am calm and centred and can trust my own judgement

I now favour an objective outlook

My thinking is now aligned with my calm and centred self

I always decide what I want to focus on

I am the master of my attention

I am in charge of directing the focus of my attention

As you can notice from the above suggestions, affirmation do not contain the word “not”, be it by itself or attached to another, as in “don’t”, “can’t”, etc. This is because affirmations are about mentally confirming and validating what you want for yourself and your life, or in the words of Gawain (2002), “The practice of engaging affirmations allow us to begin replacing some of our stale, worn-out, or negative mind chatter with more positive ideas and concepts”. To get the most out of affirmations, increase self-awareness and start actively monitoring your thinking and using them whenever your notice you mood being influenced by a negative thought.

 

Reference:

Gawain, S (2002). Creative Visualisations, Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Why you can’t stop worrying

Why you can’t stop worrying
Just by the power of thought alone, we can activate our body’s stress response

Excessive worrying is a common problem. Most of my clients’ complaints are directly linked to the frequent occurrence of negative thoughts. While some are constantly bombarded by intrusive thoughts that make them feel ashamed or insecure, others are stuck in catastrophizing, or the habit of picturing worst-case scenarios. Regardless of its content, such dysfunctional thinking has a great impact on their mental health and quality of life. Simply put, those who worry excessively find it hard to feel good and enjoy the moment. That is because their brains are often busy anticipating supposed adversities, dangers and losses. But if worrying too much is counterproductive, why most of us struggle to make it stop?

In his brilliant book “Mind to Matter”, Church (2018) explores “The evolutionary value of negative thinking”. When we think of the bigger picture, we are able to understand how a preoccupied attitude has been central to our success as a species. If we were not able to be sensitised by fear, our limbic system or emotional brain would not mobilise us for the fight or flight response. A laid-back attitude to danger would increase our exposure to being eaten by predators, amongst other dangers. If there were fewer of us who were lucky enough to dodge death and manage to grow and procreate, our probability of thriving as a group would have been considerably reduced. A hypervigilant state of mind, or our ability to remain alert and be warned by our thoughts of the possibility of something bad happening, seems to have greatly enabled us to stay alive and become masters of our destiny.

It all makes sense, does it not? Now you know why it is so easy for you to start worrying: your evolved brain is trying to protect you! Of course, there is one caveat: its inability to differentiate between real and imaginary threats. You can literally bring yourself to a state of high fear and anxiety just by imagining something awful happening, as dying suddenly from a heart attack, even though you are in perfect health. Just by the power of thought alone, we can activate our body’s stress response and induce a change in our physiology so to prepare it to deal with a problem that does not exist. Cortisol and adrenaline, our stress hormones, flood the body and increase heart and breathing rate as well as blood pressure. While you are worrying if you have managed to charm everyone at that presentation, your survival instinct is making you feel like approval is a matter of life or death.

To find out if you are stuck on fight or flight, make a conscious effort to reconnect with your body and emotions. Hypervigilant people tend to live in their heads and neglect their physical and emotional health. As yourself, from time to time, “What are my bodily sensations and feelings saying about me at this very moment”. Muscle tension that does not get better with time, cluster headaches and unexplainable pain, for instance, are common chronic stress symptoms. While constantly checking your phone may seem like a harmless behaviour, it is also central to keeping your brain in a state of overstimulation. The practice of self-awareness will turn off the autopilot and enable you to start regaining control over yourself. Then, as you become familiar with how your life style, habits and choices affect your mind and body, be courageous and start investing in change that will bring balance and happiness into your life.

Reference:

Church, D. (2018). Mind to Matter, The Astonishing Science of how Your Brain Creates Material Reality.  Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem

5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem
What you tell yourself in your own head has immense influence on your self-image and self-esteem

Beliefs, like words, have power. What you tell yourself in your own head has immense influence on your self-image and self-esteem. That is because behind your negative self-talk, there are always negative beliefs about yourself, the world and others fuelling a pessimistic, weak and unfavourable outlook. Beliefs are so powerful, that they can guide you towards creating a reality you have built with thought alone. So if you believe you are not fit to run for more than 5 minutes, you will not. Equally, if you decide you can do it, not only rationally but also emotionally, you will. By believing in something “emotionally”, I mean with your whole being, namely, with your mind and body.  As Lipton (2015) explains in The Biology of Belief, “Thoughts, the mind’s energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology”.  That would explain how there are so many stories of people that defied terminal cancer diagnoses, for instance, and ended up living a much longer life. To help you start thinking and feeling better about yourself, below you will find 5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem:

1- I matter

Even if you are currently not in a relationship or do not have many friends, you are important to others.  As a living being, you matter not only to the universe, but also to yourself and others around you, even when they do not know you. Life is precious and we all want to preserve it. Therefore, even if I have never seen you, as a fellow human being, I wish you all the best. And no, you do not have to be a therapist or a monk to think like this, since a great number of people do.

2- I am competent

Are you aware of how many skills are required of you just to read this blog article? Even if you feel depressed, in despair or heartbroken, you still have the ability and strength to wake up and face your fears every single day. It is sometimes hard being human, but we become masters of our existence already from a very early age. Remind yourself that trying is what matters, not winning.  Every time you try, you show yourself, the world and others that you are alive and connected.

3- I can stand it

You have overcome disease, bad weather, hardship and disappointments. You have been able to get up and get things done even when you felt like curling into a ball and disappearing. You have shown up even when your body felt weak. You have been there for others when you could not be there for yourself. You have felt alone and bitter, but tried to be civil and respectful to others. You have dealt with your losses the best you could, even without validation or support from others. You are resilient and can stand pain and discomfort.

4- I can trust others

Would you have got this far without the help of others? Even though some of us are quite independent, we all survive and even thrive because we work in collaboration. Relationships of all kinds are risky, because everyone that comes into it does so with a set of expectations, vulnerabilities and at least one trauma. As we are imperfect beings, we all get hurt at some stage in our lives. The good news is, as you learned above, you can stand it! If you get disappointed, you will eventually get over it, as with most things in life.

5- I am good enough

You were good enough to have come into this world. You were good enough for growth and development, regardless of the circumstances. You were good enough to make it to your age and have known the people you do. You were good enough to achieve what you have and to make something out of it. You are good enough to be alive and worth every breath you take. You are good enough and worthy of everything you still have to give to yourself, the universe and others. You are good enough because you are you, and you are unique.

If you suffer from low self-esteem and struggle to feel whole and happy, it is time you started telling your brain a different story about yourself, the world and those around you. I highly recommend writing the above beliefs down and incorporating them into your meditation practice. When you reach a calm state of mind and feel at one with your body, create imaginary scenarios in which you see yourself behaving as mentioned above. Then, connect with the positive bodily sensations these images evoke, as if you were right there and then enjoying this new way of being. Repeat the exercise on a daily basis and observe the effects it has on you emotional health.

Reference

Lipton, B. H. (2015). The Biology of Belief, Unleashing the power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsband, CA: Hay House