Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

The power of choice

As the majority of the UK picks its way through yet another lockdown, shuffling past a Christmas that many would rather forget, the wise words of psychologist, best-selling author and Holocaust survivor Dr Edith Eger may offer some solace against the stubborn backdrop of uncertainty.

“The most damaging prison is in our mind, and the key is in our pocket.”

In her #1 New York Times bestselling book “The Choice”, and “The Gift” Eger recounts her journey from imprisonment at Auschwitz to liberation and then on towards her own mental freedom. In spite of the horror she and millions of others suffered, Edith nonetheless describes our minds as our biggest prisons, to which we already hold the key. It is liberation from our own negative, self-destructive incapacitating thoughts that brings us true freedom:

“When we escape our mental prisons, we not only become free from what has held us back, but free to exercise our own free will.”

We have the power of choice, and we can choose freedom, writes Eger. We can choose how we look upon what has happened to us. We can choose how we will respond. 

We can focus on the usefulness of our experiences. How have they been helpful to us? How have they nourished us? In the solution focused approach, we encourage our clients to focus on the nuggets of usefulness from their everyday experiences, with questions such as ‘What’s been better?’

And, writes Eger, if there is no such usefulness to be found when we look out, we can look within. In the solution focused approach, we encourage our clients to do so with questions such as ‘Given what you have been through, how have you manage to cope?’ ‘What strengths have you drawn on to keep going?’

As Eger points out, “It’s not what happens to us that matters most, it’s what we do with our experiences.”

When we are deep, deep down; our neurochemistry flatlined, the top – where all the mental freedom and inner peace hangs out – can seem a long way up. 

Likewise, when we are flying so high, so fast, too fast to think; too busy to check-in with ourselves – cortisol and adrenalin fuelling our way forward and blocking out everything (and everyone) else – inner peace and mental freedom might as well reside on another planet.

And yet, there is always choice. We can choose to look up, to stop, to breathe, to make a cup of tea, to practice gratitude, and to remember how strong we really are.

Eger, E. (2018). The Choice. Penguin Books

Eger, E. (2020). The Gift. Penguin Books

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Seeking hope

Many of us in the UK are buckling in for a second lockdown, as the government attempts to bring soaring COVID-19 statistics back under a semblance of control.

It feels in many ways like a step backwards. A failure of sorts. A return to something we, as a community, were pretty happy to see the back of. Overwhelmed hospitals, social isolation, business shutdowns, furloughs, separation from family and friends. Uncertainty, loneliness, struggle, grief. Topped up with the grim reality that this is probably not the last COVID-19 peak. Probably not the last wave of furloughs. Probably not the last lockdown.

Against such a hopeless back drop, adopting a solution focused approach can offer some solace. In Solution Focused Brief Therapy, when we ask our clients “What are your best hopes from our talking together?” at the beginning of our first session together, we are presupposing that they have hope. No-one is without hope.

According to Snyder’s Hope theory (2002), hope is a state. We can do things to increase hope. We can do things to diminish hope. But we are never entirely without hope. 

We are never hopeless. 

Perhaps, at this challenging time, if we view ourselves, our family, our community, our society, through solution focused spectacles, we might start to notice the pockets of hope. Glowing embers of community, togetherness,  effort, empathy, creativity and growth. 

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mindPsychological inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.

Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Ending and beginning

This month has been one of endings and beginnings for me. I achieved my qualification in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy with Clifton Hypnotherapy Practice Training, having gathered the most awesome group of friends I could have hoped for. Set against the backdrop of coronavirus and uncertainty, CPHT gifted me a year of learning and growing together – supporting each other to help others. From that nest of support, Choice Therapies was born, and it continues to grow into a nurturing community for practitioners from all walks as therapy, as they learn and grow and strive to do their best by their clients.

This month I also had a big push on my Masters thesis, exploring the use of Solution Focused Hypnotherapy for the management of chronic pain conditions. For a few weeks I was wholly submerged in data analysis and write-ups, and thanks to the incredible support of my supervisor, not to mention my family, I’m returning to the surface, as a finalised report takes shape.

And yesterday, I waved goodbye (over Zoom) to a lovely bunch of solution focused practitioners from across the globe who I had learned so much with and from over the last four months, on the Intensive Solution Focused Brief Therapy course with BRIEF International. Discussing the intricacies of this transformative approach with the solution focused greats, Adam Forever, Chris Iveson, Elliott Connie, and Evan George, was an absolute joy, and has shaped how I work with clients for the better.

So here I am, winding down, taking a moment, taking a breath. Looking back down the mountain to admire the view. These moments are important. We take stock, we process, we gain perspective on where we are right now, in this moment, and nudge the tiller if needs be to help us along the path ahead.

There’s so much to look forwards to; collaborations, projects, research, learning. Choice Therapies continues to grow into a wonderful community. My own practice continues to allow me the opportunity and privilege of watching my clients grow in strength and confidence, finding ways to manage their challenges that work for them. Many of the ventures I am fortunate to be a part of, are in their infancy. The future is full and exciting.

But for now, in this moment, I am pressing pause. Reconnecting, celebrating, and feeling grateful.

Mindfulness

How does labelling emotions help?

“If we can name it we can tame it,” says Marc Brackett, Research psychologist and Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in his inspiring book, Permission to Feel.

By giving words to our feelings, we start to possess their power. And yet, while there are over 200 words related to emotions in the English language, we only use about 7 of these on a regular basis to describe our inside selves. This meagre diet of emotional vocabulary is woefully inadequate to express, and therefore process our thoughts, worries and fears.

Labelling our emotions is an essential part of moving them from our emotional brain to our intellectual brain. When they are confined to our emotional brain, our feelings can be intimidating. Scary. Overwhelming. Beyond our reach. We know we feel rubbish but can’t articulate why, to ourselves or to anyone else. This isolates us from support because we don’t have the words to reach out. We may not even have the words to understand we need to reach out.

We have a responsibility, to ourselves and to our children, to label feelings accurately, to develop our emotional language in order to protect ourselves from this emotional bottleneck.

Words are there, and they are ours to use; to be curious, to explore, to investigate, to express exactly how we are feeling. Only then can we release, connect and write our own stories.

Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to feel. Unlocking the power of our emotions to help ourselves and our kids, and our society thrive. Celadon Books

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Snacking: how can we resist the urge?

It’s mid-afternoon. Working from home. Five meetings deep. Battling the post-lunch slump. Stifling yawns. Back aching. Attention slipping. The fridge beckons.

Once you become aware of your desire to get up and head to the fridge, your brain has already invested millions of neural connections into the decision to do so.

You now have 0.2 seconds to work with, from the moment you became consciously aware of being about to head to the fridge for a snack, to the moment you start to stand. This 0.2 second interval is long enough, with practice to notice the urge, and intervene.

And notice we must, as it requires ALOT more cognitive effort to stop ourselves from polishing off a tub of humous/a bag of Pom Bears/anything with chocolate in it, once we have already started the process of doing so.

We can’t control all of the neural signals sent out by our brains before we become aware of what’s going on. In any one moment a mind boggling 40,000 neural impulses are firing in between our ears, the vast majority of which we will remain blissfully unaware about. BUT.. we do have the power to consciously ‘veto’ urges that are sent to our awareness from the other 95% of our brain. We can choose whether or not to act on our impulses.

As Dr Jeffrey M Schwartz explains, us humans may not have much free will but we do have free won’t. Maximising the potential of these precious 0.2 seconds, to gain greater control over our urges, starts with awareness.

Once we can discern the small time scales that make up the process of each impulsive action, we can start to notice urges as they arise, and as they unfold. Author of Your Brain at Work, David Rock, describes this process as ‘Brain – signal – desire – movement’. Once we become aware of our desire we have a small window to inhibit our movement.

Holding on to this idea of how we might inhibit an urge takes up valuable space in our prefrontal cortex, an energy-hungry, space-limited resource. The limitations of our prefrontal cortex are never more apparent than when we are tired. When our intellectual brain is running on empty, and we are pouring vast swathes of our cognitive capacity into staying awake, there is little space left to notice, let alone stop the urge to snack.

Herein lies the importance of words. Language, as David Rock puts it,supercharges our ‘veto’ power. If we have the words to describe a pattern of thinking we will be much more likely to notice it.

Building our language around what on Earth is going on inside our brains, brings this once- mysterious processes into our conscious awareness where we have more control over how we manage them.

A key focus on Solution Focused Hypnotherapy is building this language to strengthen the network of connections between our intellectual conscious minds and our emotional subconscious minds. We learn that the process exists. We colour our understanding with language – words that bring the process into our conscious awareness. Then we draw on this understanding when we need to, achieving greater control over our urges when they strike.

So at 3pm on a Tuesday, when the fridge sounds it’s familiar calling hum and the cupboards subconsciously serenade us towards the snacks, we know that we have a 0.2 second slither of time. A gift of 0.2 seconds in which we can express our ‘free won’t and choose to refuse.

Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work. New York: Harper Collins

Solution Focused Therapy

Borrowing perspective

As humans we care about how others perceive us. Our primitive programming prioritises human connection. To a degree, caring what others think keeps us kind. But often we can care too much. And caring becomes worrying. Worrying becomes anxiety. Anxiety can make us feel trapped. 

We worry about how our colleagues perceive our communication style; our office ‘banter’, our outfit, our handshake, our weekend plans, our email signature, our Zoom backdrop. 

We worry about how families perceive our lifestyle, our house, our job, our partner, our carbon footprint, our choices.

We worry about how our friends perceive our personal style, our level of engagement, that thing we said or didn’t say, that thing we did or didn’t do.

The parents among us worry about what our mum and dad friends think of our parenting style, our children’s diets, manners, birthday parties, screen time.

This worry shuts us down, and pushes us further and further away from our own authenticity. We try to be what we think others want and what we think others need. We try and try and try, until we find ourselves a world away from our own sense of meaning. Disconnected from our inner strength. Lacking confidence and losing self-esteem.

Ironically the friends and family members who we love and trust the most will tend to describe us with far more kindness than we describe ourselves. 

When we step, with both feet, into the perspective of a loved one, someone who knows us better than anyone else, and look back at ourselves, we can shine a light on strengths, capacities, and resources we never recognised were there. 

In solution focused therapy we encourage our clients to step into this alternative perspective and we ask;

“What would this person notice about you that lets them know of your strengths? 

“What stories would this person tell that had inspired their confidence and belief in you?”

Sometimes, when our own lens is misted over with worry and self-doubt, borrowing the lens of a loved one can help us achieve clarity on exactly how, underneath all the trying, we are already the person we hope to be.

Mindfulness

Dancing leaves

The tree that reaches it’s gentle sweeping branches over my courtyard is a giant. Exposed to the elements; wind, sun and rain. I often sit back and wonder at the leaves, dancing their chaotic dance. Twirling, tumbling into and around each other; clinging on to the branches for dear life as they twist around it in search of refuge from the wind. The dance is exhausting to watch, it appears miraculous that the leaves manage to hold on.

These dancing leaves remind me of my thoughts. Bustling alongside each other, coiling, curling around each other, vying with each other for a millisecond of space. And yet, when I shift my focus from the busy canopy down to the thick trunk, I leave behind the chaos; all is still, steady, strong and firm.

Refocusing our attention to our core, to what matters, can feel like a challenge. It can be difficult to remember that the trunk is even there, hidden beneath the wild waving, the spinning circus of leaves above. When we accept our thoughts for what they are, leaves dancing in the wind, we accept their busy, chaotic dance, we accept their exhausting acrobatics as an inevitable part of our nature, part of our humanity as we journey through life, exposed to the elements. When we accept our thoughts for what they are, we allow ourselves to release our focus on the twists and turns of every leaf. We allow ourselves to step back and see through the swaying branches to the steady trunk beneath.

This core strength is something we can return to whenever we need, when the chaos above becomes too overwhelming. It is always there, restorative and resilient; a sturdy cradle from which we can branch out, extend, adventure and explore; dancing with the wind and reaching for the sun.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Mindfulness

Hearing bodies, listening minds

 “It was gut instinct. I just knew.”

Given how readily we accept the connection between our body and mind through our everyday choice of words, it is surprising how little credit we give our bodies as messengers of our emotions. 

We ignore our heavy eyelids and pour another coffee to override fatigue. We hide stress underneath the make-up we use to conceal our skin breakouts. We dull our anxiety with the pain killers we take for our tension headaches. Our bodies can be bombarding us with signals that our mind is suffering, and still we don’t listen. There’s always a quick fix; a way of pushing the signal away and papering over the cracks.

Until there isn’t a quick fix. There’s no paper left. And we break.

What happens if we start to listen to our bodies before they scream for our attention? What happens if we recognise the power of these connections between our body and mind, and use them to go deeper, to understand how we can support our bodies and minds to work in our favour? What happens if we take a moment to hear what our body is telling us? What happens if we take the messages seriously, and look beyond the surface for a solution?

What is your body telling you? 

Mindfulness

Connecting to the present moment

In the shade of society’s towering expectations, it seems there is little to be gained by committing our whole selves to the present moment. Success in education and study requires that we motivate ourselves towards an end goal. Reaching mastery at a sport, a musical instrument, a craft, a language, a project; requires that we strive to continually improve ourselves. Maintaining healthy relationships requires hope and curiosity in our own capacity to improve. As Sam Harris points out in his book Waking Up our “simply accepting our many faults does not lead to happiness.”

So what do we gain by connecting, completely, with right now, with this very moment? 

Mounting research has found that people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering. We create anxiety by negatively introspecting about the past and the future. About what happened, what didn’t happen, what might happen, what might not happen. Every waking moment, this endless stream of thought runs into a reservoir of anxiety that, as it fills, starts to impact our functioning. We lose patience, concentration, energy, and productivity. We slip into unconscious behaviours like compulsive eating, drinking, gaming, working. Our bodies chime in with tension headaches, nausea, stomach cramps, and other aches and pains.

Embracing the present moment can give us temporary relief from the relentless gathering of thought. We stop the flow of introspection. We step out of the chaos and allow our minds space to breathe. In the quiet, we have a chance to reconnect with our authentic selves. We gain perspective. We gain clarity. 

The poet Mary Oliver captures with spine shivering intensity, the hope that waits for us in the present moment, in her poem The Summer Day.

Mindfulness

The multitasking epidemic

Modern society applauds the multitasker. The more plates we can spin simultaneously, the bigger the pat on the back. Did you manage to do the online shop while helping your child with their homework, answering a couple of work emails, emptying the dishwasher and feeding the cat? Our frantic, relentlessly competitive, modern culture holds you in high esteem. Well done you.

Except that multi-tasking isn’t the magic mode that cultural expectations and our incessant inner critic would have us believe, according to research conducted at Standford University by Clifford Ivar Nass.

Nass describes our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. The biggest multitaskers among us will typically switch between at least four different tasks at any one time.

The adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine that course through our body when we keep another ball in the air, tricks our mind into thinking that we have increased our productivity. However, as Nass and his research team demonstrated, multitasking decreases productivity by 60%

While the juggle may seem to work for us at first, it is ultimately unsustainable. Multiple tasks battle for our attention, each one distracting us from another. Not only does this chaos of distraction decrease our productivity, it also decreases our IQ. We find it harder to remember things, and we are more likely to make mistakes.

Inevitably the dance of multitasking leads us away from meaningful connection. We are too irritable, too busy, too distracted. Creativity, and people, are kept at a distance, lest they disturb the plates are spinning with such desperation it can start to feel like the plates are spinning us.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from this epidemic of multitasking?

In their book Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Héctor García and Francesc Miralles propose various strategies for fostering a state of flow – the antithesis to multitasking. Many of their suggestions are useful, even when we have no specific task on which we need to focus, as they serve to bring us back to the present, something a wealth of research has shown to improve our mental health.

  • Don’t look at a screen for the first hour you’re awake and the last hour before you go to sleep.
  • Turn off your phone when you wish to focus on a specific task.
  • Designate one day a week to turn off all devices.
  • Read and respond to email only once or twice a day.
  • Practice mindfulness or other meditative techniques, or simply get out for a walk as this help you return to the present when you find yourself getting distracted.

Turning down the distractions and quietening the noise of our busy lives and gifting each thing that we do with our undivided attention can help us find our natural flow, our Ikigai. Once we shift our focus away from the past and future, and situate our whole selves in the present moment there is no place for anxiety and so more space for a steady flow of progress towards where we would like to be.

A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.

Albert Einstein

References

García, H., & Miralles, F. (2017). Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. London: Penguin Random House.