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Training Ourselves to be Optimists: Positive Psychology

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet…Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” — Stephen Hawking, American physicist and author

Difficult life circumstances can contribute to mental illness, making hope of recovery seem unlikely. However, growing evidence shows that positive psychological attributes like optimism are associated with a longer and healthier life.

Optimism can be defined as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes. This positive state of mind allows people in difficult professions to be more resilient when work becomes stressful, and leads to more fulfillment in life. Studies establishing the link between optimism and health beg the question: Is it possible to train ourselves to become optimistic?

Observing Depression in Dogs

sad dog

For starters, we know that it’s possible for people and animals to learn pessimism. In India, elephant trainers will tie up a baby elephant and let it struggle for days before it learns it is not strong enough to break the rope. This lesson stays with the animal long after it grows into a hulking adult. A fully grown elephant could easily break the rope and escape, but it never tries to do so.

These kinds of observations inspired formal experiments involving dogs who similarly stopped taking action, even when minimal effort on their part could prevent a painful electric shock. Dr. Martin Seligman was researching the causes of depression and pessimism in humans, and he demonstrated that these dogs had been conditioned to believe they had no hope of avoiding the pain they experienced. 

There was also some good news from these experiments: to Seligman’s surprise, some dogs were not dismayed so easily. As psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson explains in his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, “What we learn from Seligman’s brilliant dog experiments is that suffering is separate from pain. We all feel pain. But how much does that pain bother us? How much must we suffer? It depends entirely on our own resiliency.”

Inspired by his findings, Seligman set out to determine what made some dogs more resilient. While we can only speculate about the inner workings of a dog’s mind, when something bad happens in our own lives, humans seek to explain it. Seligman and other researchers have identified three ways that humans do this: by making assumptions about how long pain will last (permanent/transient), whether we are responsible for it (personal/impersonal), and what areas of our life it affects (pervasive/local).

Relearning Optimism

In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman explains how pessimistic explanations lead to passivity and dejection while optimistic explanations lead to action and increased energy. Just as we can learn to view our stress response as helpful, we can learn to maintain positive emotions amidst negative events. However, it takes work. Seligman suggests looking at the link between our beliefs surrounding an adverse event and what we do in response to these beliefs. He argues that becoming aware of this link is the first step in changing our explanatory style.

Optimism fights depression. Seligman defines optimism as having three core tenants: 

  1. Good stuff lasts (bad stuff doesn’t)
  2. Good stuff is caused by me (bad stuff just happens)
  3. Good stuff spreads (bad stuff is isolated)

To practice bringing optimism to the forefront of one’s mind, Seligman recommends his “ABC” journaling exercise. In this exercise, a person records an Adverse event that happened to them, their Beliefs surrounding the event, and the Consequences of their actions based on those beliefs. 

You can try this exercise on your own. Whenever something bad happens to you over the next few days, write it down. These may be as small as, “I missed the bus,” or as large as, “My partner broke up with me.” Next, write down your beliefs about the event. Does it affect your life in the long-run? Is it your fault or someone else’s? Does it affect other areas of your life? Seligman says that activities like this can help us recognize our own reflexive feelings (like those of the shocked dogs) and change our actions in turn—hopefully allowing us to break free of ties that have seemed to bind us.

Cummins Behavioral Health Systems aims to inspire hope of recovery and to help those we serve achieve their goals and aspirations. Of course, self-talk is not the end. Problem solving, negotiating, and asserting yourself are also key to fighting depression. It all begins with these kinds of small steps, best attempted with help from a mental health professional.

Or, as Stephen Hawking once put it: 

“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up—there’s a way out.”

light-tunnel

Looking for more posts that can help you learn optimism and resiliency? Here are some articles you might enjoy!

Laughter: Do It Just for the Health of It!
Journaling: A Simple Way to Manage Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Calm Down Quick With this Simple Trick: Extended Exhale

Yoga, meditation

What is 4-7-8 breathing?

“Unlike the heart’s one-dimensional, slow-to-fast continuum, there are many distinct types of breaths: regular, excited, sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing, sobbing. We wondered if different subtypes of neurons within the respiratory control center might be in charge of generating these different types of breath.” 

Practicing the 4-7-8 breathing technique 

Dr. Andrew Weil developed the 4-7-8 breathing technique to help with reducing anxiety, insomnia, and controlling/reducing anger responses.

This technique asks a person to focus on taking a long, deep inhalation for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, then exhaling slowly (making a ‘whooshing’ breath sound) for eight seconds.  Structured, rhythmic breathing like this is central to many meditation and yoga practices as it promotes relaxation and mindfulness.

Breathing is special because it is both an automatic reflex and a voluntary action.  Our breathing speeds up when we’re afraid and slows down when we’re calm, all without conscious effort.  When we apply conscious effort to slow our breath, it can slow down those negative stressful feelings as well.

Yoga Specialist Becky Mann

Yoga Instructor Becky Mann explores breathwork with her clients while easy poses help reconnect to emotions within the body. As Becky says, “There are issues in our tissues!”  Becky guides her clients with soothing, instructive visualizations like this:

As you inhale, feel your lungs expand…feel your rib cage rise with cool air entering the nostrils. As you exhale down to the last whisper of breath, feel the belly soften and feel the warm air leave the nostrils.

Breathing exercises are so effective they have been adapted for use by the US Military. Try their ‘Box Breathing’ technique as well:  Inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, and wait for four seconds before repeating.   Like a square or ‘box’, this breathing technique consists of four parts of equal length.

Experiment with these structured techniques to find a style that works for you! Thank you to Tara Treatment Center’s Becky Mann:  Learn more about Becky’s specialized practice here.

Yoga facilitator Anne Halleck stretchingInterested in the application of Yoga and breathing exercises to mental health?  Check out Anne Halleck’s blog article here.

 

Some say Yoga is simple physical exercises. They’re wrong.

Bringing Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Into Mental Health Practice

The Body Keeps The Score Chapter 16:  Yoga & Learning to Inhabit Your Body

In The Body Keeps the Score, Trauma Expert Bessel Van Der Kolk explains the effects of trauma by recounting his first meeting with a patient we’ll refer to as ‘Sarah’.  She was breathing quickly, her legs were shaking, and she was too nervous to talk.  Sarah had been abused by both her parents growing up, and carried the resulting shock well into adulthood at the age of 27.  What can help individuals like these, who are too traumatized for traditional talk therapy?   

Working with the Breath

Dr. Van Der Kolk says that Heart Rate Variability (or HRV) plays a crucial role in our response to trauma. Healthy people typically have high HRV, which means their pulse fluctuates rapidly in response to external stimuli. This reflects a well-functioning nervous system which is able to change in balance with our environment. High-HRV individuals can moderate their emotions by controlling their breathing, allowing them to stay calm and engaged in the present moment.
 

In contrast, survivors like Sarah tend to be stuck in their traumatic past, taking rapid short breaths out of worry that their trauma may return–even when the threat has long subsided.  This causes poor HRV, a state in which changes in breathing take much longer to affect emotion. Poor HRV has negative effects on thinking and feeling, and it also contributes to heart disease and cancer. Luckily, techniques exist which allow us to regain some control over our reactions to triggering stimuli.

Therapist & Yogi Anne Halleck finds that combining these two practices allows her clients to make progress rapidly.  She reports that yoga can teach powerful techniques to utilize the breath and improve mindfulness.  She says,

“I blend yoga and therapy to different degrees depending on the needs of each client. I often introduce mindfulness and practices such as calming breathing or meditation into individual and group therapy in order to approach mental health in a more holistic and integrative way…There is a lot more to yoga than yoga pants and being flexible!”
 
 
Chat Conversation 

Anne is specially certified as a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher.  This therapy was highlighted in The Body Keeps the Score, which highlights new technologies linking the body and the brain.  We’ve learned that the prefrontal cortex is not where trauma is being stored.  It’s actually being stored in the nonverbal—even preverbal part of the brain, suggesting that a more integrative approach may be more successful than talk therapy alone.  Van Der Kolk presents several work-arounds to reconnect with the body, with ourselves, and with others. 

The good news:  Sarah began yoga for the trauma she had experienced and recovered, in a yoga group just like Anne Halleck’s.  While Van Der Kolk discusses many promising new approaches, yoga remains among the best at treating PTSD and improving clinical measurements like Heart Rate Variability. 

Trauma Sensitive Yoga

It looks like the evidence supports Anne’s observations.  Learn more about PTSD, HRV, and yoga in this video.  If mind-body approaches like yoga have helped your mental health (or a loved one’s), let others know by sharing this post! 

Peer Professionals Proving the Power of Vulnerability: The Elephant In Our Field

The Elephant in the Room

Time to talk about the elephant in the room.  It’s uncomfortable for most professionals to acknowledge, but everyone working in the field of mental health has a deep personal connection to mental health issues.  The few who are brave enough to embrace their personal stories offer special insights, and help others in our community find recovery as well.

In “The Power of Vulnerability“, Brené Brown makes a powerful (if paradoxical) point about embracing what we’re most ashamed of, rather than running from it.  In Indiana, peer recovery specialists have learned to help others by exposing their own vulnerabilities.  On a crusade against stigma, peer specialists like (Cummins’ own) Debbie Roman, Justin Beattey, Jason Grant Padgett, and Brandon George exemplify the power of humility and servant leadership in our community by sharing their own personal stories of recovery.    What exactly makes peers so effective–and why aren’t they used more in Indiana?

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.” 
―Brené Brown

Brene Brown giving a TED talk about The Power of Vulnerability
Brené Brown's TED Talk: "The Power of Vulnerability"

Peer-Based Recovery Supports Defined

A Peer-Based Recovery Support (PBRS) such as a Recovery Coach (CAPRC) or Certified Recovery Specialist (CRS) is an individual who uses lived experience to provide both hope and options for those experiencing severe addiction and/or mental health issues.  These individuals exemplify Brené Brown’s now classic TED Talk;  by openly discussing their own experiences with mental health, they’ve turned their perceived liability into their greatest strength.

A Peer serves as a companion and mentor in the early stages of recovery, identifying and connecting with local recovery mutual-aid societies in an effort to facilitate a self-directed shift from formal to informal supports and relationships.  At this time, Medicaid funding for credentialed specialists with lived experience is extremely limited, despite research proving their increased efficacy.

Debbie Roman:  In The Know

 “It isn’t work to me”, Debbie shrugs with a modest smile. “It’s my passion.”  Debbie is a great example of a peer recovery specialist, whose humility and openness makes recovery much more accessible for countless others.  She explains,

“We simply meet people where they’re at.  I see what we do as holding their hand and walking with them until they are strong enough to walk the rest of their journey on their own.  Peer Support is about empowering people to find their own healing, their way.  This is why people like peer programs in the first place

For a long time, Peer Recovery Specialists were rare in Indiana. Thanks partly to Justin Beattey, that is starting to change.  He and a few others have had some great ideas and have been pioneering increased utilization of peer specialists across the state.”  

Justin Beattey, Jason Grant Padgett on Embracing Vulnerability

Justin Beattey is project manager for the Indiana Association of Peer Recovery Support Services (IAPRSS).  Justin explains, “The first immediate barrier for those of us with substance use problems is the argument that ‘you don’t understand’.  Peer supports provide non-clinical services based on our own personal experiences.  Working with us, that initial barrier is torn down right away–Simply put, I DO understand because I’ve been there myself.  Justin also works with the IAIC to advocate statewide for peer-based recovery services.  

Jason Grant Padgett (pictured here with Phil Valentine and Nick Nagel)

Jason Grant Padgett is the Peer Support Supervisor at Tippecanoe Quick Response Team and a Certified Addictions Peer Recovery Coach at Home with Hope, Inc.  (He is also the former Director at Transforming Adolescents & Families in Indiana APG and at Grace United Methodist Church), Jason stresses that the most important thing is collaboration between the academic professionals and the peer professionals.  They complement each other, and both are fundamentally important to this field.  He explains, 

“What I would like to see personally–if you look back through the seventies, most treatment centers were once staffed entirely with people in recovery themselves.  That said, I think the clinical/academic side is definitely needed in this field as well.  A major barrier is the Medicaid billing issue, but the biggest obstacle is the stigma around mental health issues like these in the first place.  People with substance use disorders tend to wear it like a badge of honor, while the mental health side of the field is more shy and apprehensive.  Ultimately we need both sides to really address stigma.

The Upcoming Key Consumer Conference will be able to show some of the mounting evidence in support of the efficacy of peer recovery services.”

KEY Consumer Organization’s Annual Consumer Conference:  April 19th!

KEY Consumers’ Executive Director Sarah Gunther explains their peer-oriented nature,  “We’re a consumer-run organization, we are all consumers of mental health services here.” Cummins Behavioral Health Systems is pleased to announce it has partnered with KEY Consumer Organization to present their experience with the employment of peer recovery specialists through a series of workshops.

The keynote speaker at this year’s Key Consumer Conference is Brandon George, Director of Indiana Addiction Issues Coalition (IAIC).  As a person in long-term recovery himself, Brandon has dedicated his life (both personally and professionally) to fighting addiction and promoting recovery. His personal experience, education and professional accomplishments give him the perspective to see both sides of recovery.  The KEY Consumer Organization Annual Consumer Conference is coming up April 19, 2019. Call the office at 317-550-0060 or email officemgr@keyconsumer.org to request a registration packet.

The provider/administrative track will have break-out sessions focused on peer-providers working in mental health programs. This track will cover a host of material, including information about peer-providers in agency settings and management and supervision of peer-providers. The sessions will include Engagement and Connection: The Ultimate Value of Peer Support; Hiring Practices: Finding A Peer Support Specialist; Effective Supervision of the Peer Recovery Specialist: Support and Development to retain the Peer Workforce; and Ethics of Peer Recovery Services.

“Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

―Brené Brown

Do you know a mental health professional who openly embraces personal experience with mental health struggles?  When we come together in the spirit of peer fellowship (to talk about the elephant in the room) we help make recovery possible for everyone in our community. Please acknowledge their efforts and bravery with your support by sharing this article!