Happiness & the Science of Emotions

Feeling mixed emotions? That may not be such a bad thing. Studies show that having the right mix of positive and negative emotions can actually lead to positive gains such as psychological growth, and an increase in physical health and creativity. Researchers suggest that the “right mix” of emotions to achieve these benefits is three to one; that is, three positives to one negative emotion at any one time. While this type of neurochemical “brew” can spontaneously occur as a byproduct of our unconscious reactions to life’s circumstances, it can also be consciously cultivated by the choices we make related to our emotions.

For instance, noticing when I am happy and, then, purposefully focusing my attention onto the physical manifestations of happiness in my body is one way of building more positivity into my life. In fact, recent studies in neuroscience suggest that the very act of “pausing” and “attending to” body sensations, like warmth around the heart, during a moment of fulfillment may prolong the joyous experience; even focusing on the comforting body sensation for 5 or 10 seconds may be enough to boost positivity and increase the likelihood of reaching a better balance of emotions. If you are interested in putting this information into practice, you are invited to mentally repeat the words investigate and allow the next time you are experiencing a positive emotion and see what happens for you.

Written by Tony Madril

Mindfulness as Prevention

Mindful awareness increases our ability to be aware our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. It helps us notice subtle changes in our moment-to-moment experience; for example, when we have been emotionally triggered by something within our environment or within ourselves. Perhaps we may become aware of a sudden increase in heart rate, an increase in muscle tension in our shoulders, or a subtle disturbance in our field of vision. This is important because noticing unexpected changes within our mind and body, however subtle, can alert us that to the fact that there may be something in need of our immediate attention.

When this happens, we may benefit from pausing and asking ourselves: “Have I been triggered?” or “What might be triggering me?” Noticing that you have been triggered, you might additionally ponder: “What can I do, now, to best take care of myself?”

 

Instead of avoiding the emotional discomfort of having been triggered by trying to escape, we might be better served by addressing the source of the problem; by deep breathing; calling a friend, or by scheduling an appointment to see our therapist. Mindfulness used in this way can enhance our ability to make better decisions about self-care over time, and prevent unnecessary health problems in our lives.

Written by Tony Madril

Choices that heighten anxiety. How to avoid them.

Here is the scenario: You’re already anxious about a meeting you have with your boss this afternoon at 1 o’clock. It’s now 8 a.m. and the intensity of your anxiety registers at a “3” on a scale of 1 – 10, where “10” is the most anxious you’ve ever felt. While this slight level of anxiety may seem harmless in the moment, consider the choices you might make over the course of the morning that could heighten your anxiety, such as the following:

  • At 10 o’clock, despite the butterflies you feel in your stomach about the upcoming meeting with your boss, you accept a call from an acquaintance whom you know causes you stress. The byproduct of making this decision is that it increases your anxiety to a level 4.
  • At 11 o’clock, you agree to see a customer during your lunch hour because they seem upset. The byproduct of making this decision is that it increases your anxiety to a level 5.
  • By 1 o’clock, your anxiety registers at a level 6, and you now have a headache; distracting you from fully engaging in the conversation with your boss.

The message here is clear. When you’re already feeling anxious, making choices that have the potential to heighten emotion act like the last few grains of sand that finally cause the sand pile to collapse. In other words, choosing to engage in potentially stressful situations that are non-essential, when you’re already distressed, place you at risk for becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

To prevent this, when feeling anxious, you might set an intention to momentarily pause and reflect upon the possible outcomes of each of your choices before taking any action. These brief moments in time can have the cumulative effect of increasing your awareness of the choices you are better off avoiding.

Written by Tony Madril

Soldier on! Learning to “Be With” Unwanted Thoughts, Feelings, and Sensations

Post-traumatic stress can create situations that are very difficult to manage. If you happen to find yourself unexpectedly dealing with unwanted symptoms like feelings of terror, a rapid heartbeat, or profuse sweating, you will need practical tools and techniques on hand to help you through these trying moments.

The following are a few practical mindfulness-based tools you can use anywhere to center yourself when you are experiencing strong emotions, distressing thoughts, and uncomfortable body sensations:

  1. Use your sense of smell: You might find that taking a whiff of a calming scent like eucalyptus oil can help you refocus your mind away from the distressing thoughts, feelings, and body sensations and onto the particular fragrance.
  2. Use your sense of taste: You might also try sucking on a mint or biting into a piece of fruit and, then, practicing being curious about the food’s particular texture, smell, and taste as well as what it feels like to consume it with the different parts of your mouth.
  3. Use your sense of breath. Pause for a moment to focus on the sensations of breathing. If you find that your thoughts seem particularly difficult to escape, try counting the cycles of your breathing. You might say to yourself: “In breath one, out breath one (first cycle) …in breath two, out breath two” (second cycle) and continue for a few cycles.
  4. Use nature. Take a walk outside and practice noticing the different elements of your natural surroundings. Do you hear sound of birds? Can you feel a breeze? What do you sense about the temperature? What does it feel like to walk on the particular surface beneath you?

Working through the symptoms of post-traumatic stress is challenging. The good news is that it is possible to “grow through” these unpleasant experiences. The more you practice the skills of “being with” discomfort, the better able you may be to encounter the next set of symptoms, perhaps with a little more resilience. Someone once said, “Powerful avalanches start with small shifts.”

Written by Tony Madril

The Psychological Toughness of Veterans in Therapy

“Let’s do this!” This is the statement made to me by an Army veteran and psychotherapy client of mine when I asked if he was ready to directly process his past trauma using the tools of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the trauma-focused type of intervention he requested. Since then, this comment has become a constant reminder to me about veterans because it epitomizes the psychological toughness veterans regularly exhibit when they are invited to explore thoughts, feelings, and body sensations related to their past trauma.

While a few studies suggest that the “emotional toughness” classically associated with veterans may inhibit therapeutic progress, vis-à-vis the suppression of emotions, my clinical experience points in a different direction. I’ve noticed a silver lining to such a “show-no-weakness” frame of mind. When I am able to help veterans focus their well-developed conquering attitude onto the therapeutic task-at-hand, it can often draw out a strong sense of their personal resilience in the face of challenge.

In the case of the Army veteran, his stout-hearted readiness to face the images associated with his trauma allowed him to directly follow me into a part of his mind where various unprocessed memories were stored; then, it equipped him with the willingness to remain in his emotional discomfort until I could help him process through the distressing memories.

I have not witnessed this type of psychological hardiness in my 20 years of clinical practice with mostly non-military clients. Is this a coincidence? Probably not. The fact that the veterans I’ve worked with seem to show up better equipped to process through trauma appears to be a by-product of their military training. That said, perhaps helping veterans work through their past trauma can be enhanced by helping them continue to cultivate the unique qualities of their psychological toughness, a strength they may not consider to be an asset for therapy and healing old wounds.

 

Written by Tony Madril

PTSDVets

Free Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Training for Veterans in Los Angeles, CA.

Know of someone who may benefit from learning practical tools to successful manage symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety? Join other veterans for this free training on August 19th from 10 – 11:30 a.m.  Learn more: https://militarymbct.eventbrite.com

Islands of Peace

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often struggle with distressing thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, which seem to happen unexpectedly and may become so unmanageable that a person may not able to complete his or her scheduled tasks-for-the-day. Such distressing symptoms may respond to calming down the nervous system by finding and stepping into “islands of peace.” An island of peace is anywhere you can go within your physical locale that is quiet and still, or quieter and more still than your present surroundings. Great if you can find a nearby park; if you cannot, consider moving to an empty room or corner in the building where you can sit quietly for a couple of minutes–even sitting in your car and counting your breaths may be exactly what you need to generate a moment of inner-peace.

A moment of inner–peace that may lead to another…and, then, another. In a relatively short period of time, you may discover your distress slowly starting to shift. Perhaps you may feel a little more well; just enough to take another step toward balancing an unsettled mind and body. Where are your islands of peace?

Written by Tony Madril

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Shows Promise for Veterans with PTSD

A 2013 collaborative study conducted by the University of Michigan Health System and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System shows that veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who completed an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) group showed significant reduction in PTSD symptoms as compared to veterans who underwent behavioral health “treatment-as-normal.” In fact, 73 percent of veterans in the MBCT group showed significant improvement compared to 33 percent in the treatment-as-usual group. The study was published in Depression and Anxiety.

MBCT is a research-based type of psychotherapy that helps clients work through troublesome emotions using skills from mindfulness meditation and cognitive talk therapy to increase awareness of thoughts and emotions.

LEARN MORE:

–      Download the article on MBCT and Veterans with PTSDhttp://tonymadriltherapy.com/tonys-private-page

–      Attend a free, skills-based workshop on MBCT for Veterans: On August 19, 2017, I will be facilitating a free, skills-based MBCT workshop for Veterans and their families from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Los Angeles, CA. Save the date!

Trauma’s Silver Lining

Is there anything to gain from having experienced trauma? Is there any helpful way to relate to the emotional distress that lingers after the event?

The concept of “post-traumatic growth” offers hope! Post-traumatic growth is a relatively new concept in the field of behavioral health, which purports that distressing–even harmful–events can lead to positive outcomes; lending credibility to the phrase: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” For example, a military veteran who lost a friend in battle demonstrates post-traumatic growth by becoming a peer counselor to other combat veterans.

The following are three questions you can ask yourself to determine whether the very thing you would have rather avoided has unexpectedly made you stronger and more resourceful:

  1. Has my past trauma changed my priorities about what’s important in life?
  2. Has my past trauma led to the creation of a new path for my life?
  3. Do I know better that I can handle difficult situations?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions you may consider that, although you cannot change the past, you can use the present moment to consider how you are positively transforming the way you approach the challenges of life.

Written by Tony Madril

 

Exercising Choice

ChoiceSaying “no” when you would typically say “yes.”

Replying: “Let me think about it” instead of immediately making a decision.

Leaving a stressful situation for a few minutes to find your center.

These are all examples of choices you can make to promote your well-being when feeling cornered by circumstance. Choosing to place your needs first can have profoundly positive effects in your life; it loosens old patterns that don’t serve us anymore.

What choices can you exercise to take better care of you?