Got troubles? Don’t chew them over.

Ruminant animals, such as cows, are known for “chewing their cud” over and over before digesting it. It’s a process that enables them to get maximum nutrients from plant-based foods — they ferment the food in a special stomach, regurgitate it and chew it again. The rechewing allows them to break it down and digest it more easily. It’s easy to see the parallels with the way we humans sometimes think about an unpleasant event over and over and over again in an attempt to process it — in fact, we have a word for that, rumination.

cow chewingUnfortunately, we probably aren’t getting any beneficial nutrients from our rumination process. In fact, when someone tends to chew things over, and also has a pessimistic explanatory style, they are more prone to depression. Such nonstop rumination with no positive action statements not only fuels depression, but has been shown to extend the cortisol release that happens during stress.

Most of the time, I do a good job of keeping myself from rumination (some research does show that women are more likely to ruminate than men are). I’m a pretty positive thinker, I have a lot of distractions to keep me busy and I’m usually good about expressing my feelings to others. Lately, however, I’ve found myself engaging more in rumination after some stressful interactions, getting caught up in a kind of circle game with the same thoughts going round and round in my head. So I’m turning to the experts to help me get back on track.

Martin Seligman has several skills that he recommends for ruminators. Thought stopping is the first one. Literally say, or even yell, “Stop!” You can write it on a card to remind you, or ring a bell — anything to shift your attention away from the recurring thoughts. Because it is the nature of rumination to circle around in the mind, you can even schedule another time to think about it. The purpose of these thoughts is to remind you of the event, so sometimes writing down the thoughts helps too. If they are written down, you no longer need the mental reminder, and you can stop thinking about them.

The use of expressive writing about the stressful event may also be useful. The important thing is that the writing can’t just be ruminative, a regurgitation of the events. It has to be turned into a story, attached to feelings, and ideally, reveal insights into the situation that might move you forward. What are the emotions and feelings that surround the story? Fear, guilt, regret, anger? The RULER method teaches us to recognize, understand, label, express and finally, regulate emotions. Writing about the troubling event can be a healing part of that process because it is an opportunity to take the first four steps (RULE) and attach them to the story.

Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. One that was published in 2008 (Chambers, et. al) showed that after a 10-day intensive mindfulness program, participants demonstrated reduced rumination, fewer depressive symptoms and more working memory capacity. Since mindfulness is all about staying in the present moment, this makes sense — it’s hard to think about a past event while staying present. If the unwelcome thoughts come up during mindfulness practice, we learn to just observe them, without judgment, and let them go.

Ultimately, rumination is a desire to control an event that is out of our control — either because it has already happened or it involves other people’s actions, not ours. We all wish we could have do-overs, or make other people do what we want. The techniques that I’ve mentioned here help to distract, heal and re-focus from what is out of our control. Eventually, we may learn to surrender to what is, accept the reality of it, go with the flow, and trust the universe to make it right.

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Choosing between this and that

Did you ever balance on a see-saw when you were a child? There was always the challenge of working with the other person to find that perfect point where you were hovering in a horizontal line for a second or two, before one of you fell, a victim of weight and gravity.

The word seesaw may have come from the French words ci-ça, which mean this and that, or perhaps from the back and forth action of an actual saw. The imagery of the seesaw feels appropriate for a lot of the choices we face as we look for emotional balance, especially in how to respond to what life throws at us. We swing back and forth between options: On this side, we have pessimism; on that side, optimism. On this side, we have anger; on that side, equanimity. On this side, we have judgment and denial; on that side, acceptance. This, that, this, that.seesaw_balance

How do you choose the appropriate response in any given situation? Yesterday when I was talking about changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to reduce stress, a listener challenged me on the concept of always looking for the silver lining. She was right to do so, because optimism isn’t always the correct response, especially if it keeps you from seeing a situation with clarity. There are certain instances where it’s better to be pessimistic because it keeps you cautious. For instance, you don’t want your airline pilot to be too much of an optimist!

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, writes that optimism should be a flexible, situational choice. “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” He goes on to say that just because those of us who are not born optimists can learn how to be more optimistic, doesn’t mean that we lose our values or good judgment. It just means that we now have a tool we can choose to use when it is to our benefit.

Responses aren’t always either-or. If I choose not to respond in anger, that doesn’t mean I opt for complete passivity either. If we keep in mind the back and forth motion of a saw, we see there is a range of potential responses. We often find equilibrium in the middle, at the fulcrum point of the seesaw. The key is to give ourselves time to make the choice. It’s that pause, that “take-a-breath” moment that’s the hardest part for me. Instead of reacting with anger, can I ask a question that gives me a better understanding of the situation? If I discover something that I didn’t know, will that little bit of extra information keep me from making a snap judgment and help me respond thoughtfully instead of reacting harshly?

Learning to choose between responses takes time and practice. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart recommend this sequence:

  • Stop
  • Breathe: Release physical tension
  • Reflect: What are your automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, or distorted thinking styles? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is it to my advantage to think this way?
  • Am I catastrophizing?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?
  • Can I handle it?

Thoughts, feelings and behaviors all influence each other, in a feedback loop. By questioning habitual thought patterns, we can subtly shift how we feel, and eventually, how we act. Think of it as the way you might shift weight on your end of the seesaw, to keep it balanced or to let it fall. It’s your choice.

Don’t just be thankful – say it!

I’ll never forget the boss I once had who told me that he preferred to have employees who didn’t need to be praised. That’s right – he didn’t ever want to say “Good job!” The only positive feedback I ever received from him came after I had organized a huge (and successful) event for major clients. He said quietly, “That went well.”

Needless to say, that job was not a highlight of my life. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I needed a pep talk every day, or wanted to be told how great I was all the time. It’s just that it helps to know that people appreciate you and believe in you.

It turns out that my boss’ managerial style was not in the best interests of the business either. Some recent research reported on Inc.com shows a strong correlation between employee recognition and good business results. Companies that place importance on recognizing and rewarding their employees measure significantly better in productivity, employee engagement and customer service. The most successful companies tie employee recognition to the organization’s values, and also make sure that people are acknowledged by their peers as wells as their superiors.

I’m sure there are workers who don’t need or want to be praised, publicly or privately; but words of gratitude, a simple thank-you, can never be wrong. Expressions of gratitude can be powerful for their giver and their recipient, as well as the people around them. Just because you were doing your job doesn’t mean gratitude is out of order.

Writing a letter of gratitude to a previously unrecognized benefactor is an assignment I give my stress management students each semester. I can’t take credit for the idea; I got it from Martin Seligman. (Thank you, Dr. Seligman!) For most students, this is a deeply meaningful exercise; many write letters of appreciation to former teachers, parents, coaches and friends. Some write to public figures who have influenced them. For everyone, the letter is an opportunity to say “thank you”, either for the first time, or in a more formal way than they ever have before.

There is a great deal of research around the health benefits of practicing gratitude, much of it by Robert Emmons at U.C. Davis. But the rewards go beyond physical health. For some people, practicing gratitude means they are more likely to be making progress on achieving their personal goals; for others, daily gratitude practice leads to increases in energy, enthusiasm and attentiveness; and for children, thinking gratefully leads to more positive attitudes about school.

If you are curious about how the practice of gratitude might improve your life, you can be a part of a new project spearheaded by U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis. “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” is a 3-year, $5.6 million endeavor that includes as one component,  an interactive, on-line gratitude journal. At the website Thnx4.org, you can register and start keeping a 2-week journal, which will be shared with others on the site and become part of the larger research project.

In the meantime, perhaps we can all expand our practice of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. In addition to expressing thanks for our food, our many blessings and our families, maybe we can each take a moment to remember and thank someone who helped set us on the right path, or was there for us at a crucial time, or just showed kindness when we needed it most.

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” — Albert Schweitzer

What it means to be happy humans

Today I attended a discussion on the question, “Are we losing our humanity?” It was a wide-ranging conversation on what it means to be human, how the study of humanities serves us, and what it means to put the humanities into practice in daily life.

One of the many topics that came up was reading, and the importance of reading in helping us develop as human beings. One of the panelists commented that “reading is the vehicle for getting us into narrative,” and that narratives (stories) teach us about human behavior, which can be the basis for discussions about society.

This reminded me of something that my children’s elementary school principal used to say: “Reading is the way in, writing is the way out.” Although she never specified in and out of what, I have some ideas on it in the context of what I heard today: Reading is the way in to your mind, to your inner self, to a deeper understanding of life. Writing (and other forms of expression, especially speaking) is the way out to the world, out to society, out of yourself and into your community.

So to “do” humanities involves engagement in the world. But that’s another area that troubled some of today’s panelists – what is true engagement, true connection, in today’s world? Technology allows us to “talk” all the time, but does it help us listen, truly listen, to others? Certainly we’ve seen that the decline of listening has made us less tolerant of others’ opinions, and less likely to change our own.

Part of that issue is the shrinking of people’s attention spans. We communicate in ever more truncated “language”, we engage in shorter and shorter bursts of activity, and our brains are changing accordingly. Many of us would be hard-pressed to sit and listen to someone for any length of time. In order to be fully engaged as citizens of the world and members of our communities do we need to reverse that trend? Should we be re-training our brains to be able to pay attention and focus for longer periods? There was talk today of the “slow reading” movement – literally an attempt to get people to “move away from the computer” for a while and sit with a book, reading slowly and carefully, even re-reading favorite texts.

Modern life has been made easier by technology and by many of the societal changes that have occurred; but I don’t think that people are really much happier than they were two or three generations ago. Martin Seligman and others who study happiness have developed a three-part model of what happiness is. It includes positive emotion (the kind that comes from having pleasurable experiences), engagement (being in the “flow”, fully absorbed by some activity), and meaning. Tweeting and texting and multi-tasking might provide moments of pleasure, but I doubt that they can generate that feeling of flow that comes with full engagement, let alone supply meaning to our lives.

Engagement and meaning are more likely to be found in reading a book that touches something in your soul; listening to music that moves you; seeing a piece of art or a play that provokes ideas or controversy; writing a letter or a journal; or learning something new. The ways that we assimilate those experiences and make them a part of us opens the door for a deeper connection with others and something larger than ourselves. That’s what makes us happy.

So maybe the question is, are the humanities the key to more happiness in life?