The Relationship between Anxiety and Attention

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Attention is a learn-able skill

There are many famous quotes and affirmations spoken through the years that point to the humbling truth that most suffering never actually happened … of course this is only partially true as we can all speak to the suffering involved in having a high level of anxiety.

it isn’t that the suffering never happened, but instead that the reality which could have created the suffering never actually occurred – instead the suffering was the result of focusing attention on a reality that could happen in the future – the cortex loves to fixate the attention on the future so that it can engage its’ problem solving abilities in a effort to reduce the probability of suffering in that future.

Ironically it is this ‘future solution’ process which is often the source of our anxiety and resulting suffering.

much of the time the present moment is free from stress… it is actually quite benign or neutral much of the time. In these moments the cortex gets really bored… there are no puzzles to solve, no needs to create strategies for, no meaning to be made…

So then we imagine fictitious situations so that we can engage in strategy creation.

Most problems are too easy… so we gravitate towards unsolvable or complex problems.

the problem is that our Limbic system and our brainstem do not know that the fictitious situation are not actually happening… so while the cortex is having a great time playing a make-believe game in the future, our emotional system is reacting as if the fictitious situation were actually happening to us.

let me give you an example:

Imagine that you went to work tomorrow and you bumped into a co-worker that you have always struggled with… imagine them saying to you that thing that you know they think about you, but have never said to you directly. Now imagine that your boss enters into the conversation and takes the side of your co-worker…. what would you do?

pretty uncomfortable right?

why are you uncomfortable? in reality you are simply sitting somewhere reading this… it’s quite pleasant perhaps?

When our attention is placed in these fictitious futures we find that we are the source of our anxiety – we (our at least our Cortexes)are the source of our suffering.

This is why you hear so much talk about Mindfulness (many posts on the subject if you look in my archives)

Mindfulness is a mechanism to harness and heighten our ability to focus our attention

With practice we can increase our ability to put our attention where we want to – such as right now in this present moment… where it may be quite pleasant

With practice we can learn to observe when attention is stuck on a fictitious future… and come back home … to now

Do you Like your self when you are with this person?

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I had a client share an age old piece of wisdom with me a couple months ago –

he said that he often asks himself the following question when evaluating his relationships:

“Do I Like myself  when I am with this person?”

“do I like who I am when I am with this person?”

this can also be twisted around to be more strength-based or positive:

“With whom am I my best self… with whom am I the self that I enjoy most?”

 

I enjoyed how good of an evaluative tool this is for setting boundaries with people in your life and for identifying areas of personal growth and development.

Take all the people in your life that you allocate a reasonably significant amount of time with and ask your self the above question… you may find it interesting how many different selves you actually have (this is totally normal).

“Who are you with certain people… is that the person you want to be?”

 

Often times when we engage in this exercise we find that we spend a significant amount of time with people who do not enable us to present the self we enjoy most. The follow up question to be reflected upon for person growth is: WHY?

‘Why’ will often lead us to a core schema such as “you should feel guilty for not joining people in their unhappiness” or “If I am too different than I will make that person uncomfortable (which is ‘bad’) – so I should present a self which is most similar to the other person’s presented self.”

 

the Next question is “what do you want?” often a core schema will come and hijack this question with the automatic thought and resulting emotion (guilt or shame) that the question is selfish…

What boundaries do you have in place to ensure that you spend most of your time with the people who elicit your best self?

What relationships could handle your best self if you were brave enough to break the homeostasis and present your self differently?

What meaning do you take from the reality that some relationships will not be able to handle your best self? What actions do you want to take in response to this realization?

 

wow – doesn’t it feel relieving to imagine a life in which you spend the majority of your time with people who bring out the best you?

can you give yourself permission to have that life?

And again we land at a personal growth question… Why? or Why not?

 

This exercise begs for a connection with topic of authenticity. Authenticity is clearly a component, but upon reflection I believe that this is as much about being fulfilled and ‘happy’ with a presented identity than it is about being authentic. They are not necessarily, but can be, exclusive – for example if we changed the question to: “with whom are you most authentic?” you may arrive at a relationship which is honest and vulnerable, yet not totally enjoyable or fulfilling. Suffering and joy are both authentic, and relationships tend to have a resting baseline somewhere on the continuum between these two poles. If a relationship tends to have a baseline in the suffering territory, then you are likely presenting a self which is highlighting aptitudes, experiences, thoughts and emotions which are in synchrony with an energy of suffering.

This exercise is also not totally about fun or happiness either – as there are some people with whom we experience significant gratification in the moment only to feel shame upon reflection when we find that, though there was a sense of joy, the joy may have come at the expense of congruence. For example, the joy could have come at the expense of staying in-line with your own morals, beliefs or values.

So then a best self is both fulfilled, happy, and authentic. – Who are you imaging right now when you read this definition?

 

 

 

 

 

Bottom Up and Top Down interventions to support regulation

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In this post we will be exploring what people mean by ‘bottom up” and “top down” interventions and how you can use this information is relevant to regulation when we are emotionally overwhelmed.

In the field of psychotherapy/psychology there is a strange debate right now about whether bottom up models or top down models are superior. The debate has always confused me a bit as there are very few (if any) models which are elusively one or the other and it seems to stand to reason that the answer is that they are both helpful.

First lets start with a brief explanation/definition.

We are talking about the brain and neural pathways when we are talking about ‘top’ and ‘bottom’… the lower part of the brain communicates and influences the higher part of the brain and the higher part of the brain communicates and influences the lower part of the brain. The debate surrounds point of intervention – is it better to intervene on the lower part or the higher part?

The truths that are part of this debate are that the cortex has very little control over the lower regions, but the lower regions are very hard to intervene with in a way that will lead to lasting change (you can’t just change the way that you feel about a given stimulus – your feelings have been hardwired to the given stimulus – yes this can change, but it will take repeated exposure in an emotionally different context).

The top of the brain is the Cortex – this is the rational, abstract, creative, linguistic part of the brain. If I were to throw a Rock at you, the cortex would: label it as a rock, identify the rocks characteristics, and try and deduce if the rock was thrown in play or aggression etc… If you only had a cortex the rock would hit you in the face.

The Bottom of the brain is this context is actually both the bottom, which is the brain stem, and the middle, which is the limbic system.

The brain stem is mostly concerned with the automatic functions of the body (digestions, pulse, organ function, keeping body temperature correct, identifying basic needs like sex food and sleep etc) and the automatic responses for safety. If I threw a rock at you the brain stem would activate a body response to avoid the projectile.

The Limbic system is mostly concerned with emotions – these emotions are used to determine behavior based on past experiences. When the body receives a stimulus the limbic system has a corresponding emotional reaction which impacts whether a human will: move towards the stimulus (pleasure), move away from the stimulus (pain), or ignore the stimulus (neutral). If I threw a rock at you, the limbic system would determine your emotional reaction – perhaps you would be happy because your limbic system received the stimulus as playful (pleasure) or perhaps you would be scared and angry as your limbic system received the stimulus as a threat (pain).

Here is the oversimplified theory behind the two intervention points.

Bottom up = regulate the individual by intervening with the brainstem and limbic system directly.

  • how does this work? – without going to deep into neurosciences, there are ways in which we can use a person’s own nuerobiology to achieve regulation.

 

  • Examples: If you are scared and a loved one gives you a hug or looks you in the eye and accurately reflects and validates your emotional disposition, your brain will be flooded with “feel good – feel safe” chemicals that will serve to regulate your emotional state (this is effective at regulating the limbic system). Additionally, if you have a secure connection with a loved one who is regularly available your system will anticipate interregulation from your partner and will be able to experience more stress (without being flooded) and will be able to regulate more effectively. By this logic creating secure connection is the best way to promote regulation.

 

  • Example 2: deep abdomen breathing can directly impact your autonomic nervous system and switch you from sympathetic (the adrenaline feeling – hyper alert – tunnel visioned – lets get something done state – the state needed to fight or run or compete) to the parasympathetic (your rest and digest state of being)

Top Down = regulate the individual by enhancing the cortex’s (middle pre-frontal cortex) ability to pause and thereby not automatically react to the stimuli.

  • How does this work? – through enhancing ones ability to focus their attention and to mindfully observe stimuli, we can actually create a degree of pause so that we do not automatically think or behave in response to a given emotion. Additionally we can change our thoughts or beliefs related to an emotion or disrupt an irrational thought which was perpetuating an uncomfortable emotional response. By this logic enhancing a person’s ability to pause, focus attention, and mindfully observe the present moment is the most effective way of achieving regulation.

 

  • note: the cortex can not keep the emotion from happening, but the cortex can intervene to alter the emotion after it has arrived. Trauma survivors know this very well – you can not think your way out of experiencing panic, but you can positively impact your ability to manage panic after it occurs.

 

  • Examples: If your partner comes home from work and with anger and relays, “wait you have been here all day while I was working my ass off and we don’t have anything to eat!” you will automatically feel emotions such as shame, guilt, anger and fear. With increased cortical control you could observe your emotions, but override your automatic reactions such as defensiveness or over-personalization… you could even move all the way to a non-judgemental curious observance of your automatic emotions and strangely be very peaceful within your sea of emotions.

 

  • Example 2: emotions tend to cause automatic thoughts which then create a whole new set of emotions. The thoughts can be altered which will impact the emotions. If you were going to give a speech in front of a large audience you would likely feel fear… the fear may convince you to believe “I am not competent in what I have to say and people don’t want to hear my lecture.” through top down interventions one could take pause and alter this thought to, “I am nervous because I am excited and this lecture is very important to me.” the changed thought would change your emotional disposition.

Conclusion – to achieve regulations it is ideal to have both methods of intervention at your disposal.

Top down – you would increase self-reflection and mindfulness so as to reduce automaticity and increase your ability to focus your attention and observe without categorizing.

Bottom up – you would increase bonding and connection to significant others so as to be open for inter-regulation, you would engage in healthy eating and exercise practices to keep your ‘feel good chemicals’ (hormones, neurotransmitters etc.) balanced, and learn breathing techniques to influence your autonomic nervous system.

 

 

 

 

 

Fear, Competence, Values and Anger in Parenting Rambunctious Children

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This post will investigate how our perceived parenting competence impacts our fear and resulting emotional and behavioral reactions. We will focus on how fear can lead us into parenting interventions that are not consistent with our parenting values.

I was offering a parenting coaching intervention in a couples context the other week and I arrived at an interesting finding.

The couple has one very creative, sensitive, expressive, intuitive, and impulsive child that needed parental intervention to ensure the relative safety of various environments and people in those environments (the child needed help not playing to rough and chaotically). The parents needed help as their intervention methods were very different, and the fathers more authoritative method made the mom uncomfortable.

Values -I started the intervention by assessing values… in order to do so my goal is always to create as much felt safety as possible by genuinely entering into a place of significant curiosity and acceptance. My hypothesis was that there was a bit of value, belief, and ethical dissonance between the couple which resulting in differing parenting schemas (it is very hard to have a united parenting front when there are two widely different sets of beliefs as to how to parent a child). … as we deconstructed the parenting values and beliefs to there foundations we arrived at a welcome conclusion – the couple had essentially the same parenting values and same desires for how they would ideally re-direct misbehaving children.

Family of Origin – We then looked into family of origin themes to isolate how the two partners were parented themselves as children. This part promoted greater bonding and understanding between the couple, but still did not explain the intervention style of the husband… this intervention did however elicit some emotions for the father as the process uncovered his deep dissatisfaction with his intervention style.

Emotions – Next step was Somatics (body’s reaction) and Emotions – and we arrived at the answer. I oriented the clients into a more mindful place by directing them to differentiate from the parenting story I was going to have them recall. I told them that we all have a tendency to become enmeshed with our emotions while retelling a difficult story, but for this exercise we would be a curios mindful observer of our emotional and physiological states while retelling the story – we were going to observe with as little judgement, explaining or defending as possible.

The story was one that all of us with young children have experienced many many times. The young boy gets over excited at the playground… he misinterprets the non-verbal signals from a child he is playing with – he plays too rough and there is a worry that the other child might get hurt. Dad swoops in quickly and assertively to separate the children then relays to his child how dangerous he was playing. Dad appeared very angry while educating the child.

The emotion that the couple first identified were anger. Anger was what the couple believed to be the problem.

I share this next sequence of deconstructed emotions to normalize for all of us what it is like to parent in these difficult instances.

The emotional experience of the Dad (‘kind of’ in order)

Anxious or nervous: That he is in a situation were there is a high probability that his son will need a parenting intervention that he believes he is not competent enough to enact.

Embarrassed: that his child is more frequently the rambunctious one.

Fear: that the other child will get hurt

Fear: that he will not be able to successfully intervene with his son.

Fear: that his wife will think poorly of him

Sad and Shameful: That he is intervening in a way that is incongruent with his values (his parents were very patient, calm, and compassionate)

Terrified: that his wife (his primary connection) is non-verbally displaying disappointment and fear related to his authoritative parenting intervention.

Hopeless, Confused, and Flooded: that he does not have the confidence in his ability to regulate his son and thereby improve the probability of more empathetic play.

Angry: because his fight or flight system has been activated. His system is terrified as he feels disconnected from his attachments figures. (Quick note: social threat impacts our brains (and the fight or flight system) the exact same way as a physical threat. So the fear of being rejected by your partner impacts us the same way as the fear of being attacked by a tiger.

 

During this time both myself and his partner offered deep warmth and compassion.

Next we moved on to the solution

Solution Focused: We then switched to a solutions focused’ish’ intervention to identify unique outcomes = when the above story-line happened but there was a different result. The couple relayed numerous examples of successful outcomes and commented on how dramatically better things have gotten with the parenting now that they are more securely connected to each other (emotionally vulnerable and supportive… attuned… compassionate… present etc.)

Now if you look at the chain of emotions above you may be able to identify the ideal place of intervention… Anxious and Nervous.

The cascade into anger started long before the child started playing too rough… it started when they arrived at the park and the father started feeling anxious do to his self-perception of his parenting competence.

Unique outcome: In instances where the couple was successful the Dad was self-aware of his emotional state (mindful), vulnerable enough to turn towards his wife for reassurance (brave), and the wife was able to give him very quick regulation through validating their connection to each other (bonded).

yes it is sometimes that simple… we just need the courage to tell our partner we are emotionally overwhelmed. And our partners need the courage to trust that offering love and connection is sometimes all we need in order to be able to utilize an effective parenting intervention.

Yes, sometimes parents need help with behavioral strategies, but more often then not they simply need emotional support so that they can be regulated enough to intentionally and effectively utilize the parenting intervention that they already know (they just don’t have access to those methods when they are overwhelmed and dis-regulated by a sea of emotions.)

During an intervention such as this I tend to use a lot of self disclosure – I have two very rambunctious and passionate boys – I can related very much to wanting to over control their behavior to ward off the possibility of them getting so chaotic that I fear i wont be able to successfully intervene. in these times I Don’t need academics or education of strategy… I simply need to be loved and a hug works really really well for me. I am expansively grateful that I am married to a really good hugger that knows me very well.

 

 

 

 

 

When Attachment Theory and Existentialism Compete

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In this post I will be investigating the relationships between one’s core sense of purpose in life (existentialism) and contrasting that with the most basic needs associated with human bonding (attachment theory).

The question that I am playing around with is: “Are there some people who have a life purpose which is incongruent with maintaining a securely attached relationship.”

Attachment theory is empirically validated by many scientific fields from biology to neurology to psychology – the oversimplified conclusion is that “humans need secure, predictable, vulnerable, emotionally available, attuned, compassionate, supportive, safe, emotionally expressive, inter-regulating relationships to function at their fullest capacity.”

Attachment theory (in humans) began by investigating early childhood development. Researchers were able to substantiate that when the primary caregiver (usually a parent) offered all the wonderful variables above (attunement, emotional availability etc.) the child was more likely to progress through various developmental milestones, to be able to function independently, to be emotionally stable, and to find fulfilling relationships in adulthood.

Later, researchers found that having a securely attached relationship between spouses also yields the some of the same positive benefits.

Existentialism is concerned with finding a life path that intuitively ‘feels’ meaningful and fulfilling. The goal of an existential intervention to help a person in leading a life which is most congruent with their purpose.

Generally speaking, existentialism works very well in conjunction with attachment theory = When I am able to help partners to form a secure bond they are often more able (more regulated, more supported, more emotionally balanced, more confident etc) to engage in behaviors which help them to leading a more fulfilling life.

Then I arrived at a realization … my purpose in life is to be happy.

If ones purpose in life is to be happy then it is very hard to debate the necessity of a secure relationship in achieving fulfillment… secure attachment is the foundation for emotional regulation and it is very hard to ‘feel’ happy when you feel emotionally insecure. This would also translate into many behaviors aimed at nurturing our biological system – If you want to feel happy (feelings are the result of our biology) you must take care your biology.

In my own life journey the single most important and effective variable that impacts my ability to be congruent with my purpose is my secure bond with my partner of almost 20 years (in 2017). But this reality may have blinded me a bit to the reality that not everyone’s highest purpose is happiness.

What about those instances in which secure bonding is actually incongruent with the person’s purpose… I’m not suggesting that a secure attachment is ineffectual with these people – I am saying it is incongruent with their goals pertaining to purpose.

What if you wanted to live a life of Zen, or to be the absolute best – the master of a discipline, or the most notable person in your field, or engaged in behaviors which facilitated growth through discomfort etc.

I have often sought to understand people who live lives a lifestyle which necessitates life choices which will likely inhibit them from maintaining secure attachments.

Some examples would be: Living alone in a cave in an effort to reach transcendence, practicing your discipline every waking minute to be the best at your craft, sacrificing everything that would impeded one from being the most powerful leader, or being in an alternative lifestyle such as having ever changing sexual partners.

Attachment theory is validated… and it is a biological reality. But we are more than just our biology – we are also something metaphysical or spiritual, and there are times when our spiritual aspiration are in conflict with our biological truths.

One of my Favorite shows is “chefs table” on Netflix… and there is a theme to many of the depicted lifestyles… they chose their craft over their relationships (and arguably over their own biological health). And the proof is in the pudding – they are the best of the best. (I am basing this on the assumption that mastery or excellence is a more important purpose to some of the chefs than the pursuit of happiness)

and now we arrive at the conflict between the two above theories from a psychotherapeutic perspective…

From a purely existential lens the goal would be to sacrifice all for the pursuit of mastery if mastery is the the highest purpose. This would arguably lead to complete existential congruence at the expense of happiness.

from an Attachment standpoint the goal would be to achieve whatever level of mastery was possible within the boundaries of a nurturing and secure bond with another human. This would arguably lead to greater happiness at the expense of complete existential congruence.

I have clients who may choose Existentialism over attachment when there is conflict (there usually isn’t by the way)… and it is my job not to project my purpose onto my clients.

This is further complicated by the reality that trauma and a lack of self-awareness can impact someones relationship with purpose and attachment… so we must be very perceptive and flexible in isolating the desires of the core self.