Gratitude: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

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By Carissa Weber MA, LPC, CSAC

If you follow me over at Facebook, you know I’ve been doing a lot of talking about gratitude. For those of you that haven’t been following, you might be wondering why I am doing a post all about gratitude. In all honesty, gratitude is a very important topic to cover when it comes to rewiring our brain, improving our mental health, and helping us feel connected to those people in our life.

According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, gratitude means “a feeling of appreciation or thanks.” (2021). This is as simple as it gets folks. Gratitude is all about that feeling of appreciation.

When we talk about gratitude with mental health, gratitude is really important. Why is that? Gratitude changes our brain in several different ways. Let’s start off with the prefrontal cortex. Gratitude actually starts here to make the biggest impact. It is here when we hear someone tell us “thank you” (or we even think how grateful we are for something), our prefrontal cortex lights up like a Christmas Tree. It starts to register that gratitude as a fact (wait, what?!). As the gratitude is being processed as a fact, it changes other parts of our brain.

Credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

The next impact gratitude makes in the brain is within our favorite part: that darn amygdala. As we express gratitude, something magical happens. That darn amygdala has an increase in activity, an increase in impulsivity, but a decrease in the triple F response. How does that work? Let me explain.

As that darn amygdala starts to identify the feelings it is experiencing (like gratitude), it is being flooded with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These feel-good neurotransmitters help that darn amygdala pay attention more to the “positive” emotions (such as joy, content, and thankfulness), rather than the “negative” emotions (like sadness, loneliness, and despair).

Despite popular belief, no emotion is “positive” or “negative.” All emotions serve a purpose and provide you with information about things you are experiencing. The use of “positive” and “negative” in this post is strictly to help identify the difference between emotions.

Now that those feel-good neurotransmitters are hard at work making your darn amygdala focus on emotions supported by the facts of the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus starts to change. The hippocampus begins the process of syncing up with the gratitude the prefrontal cortex has identified. This allows the hippocampus store this information and the memories that come from it. The hypothalamus can then help the hippocampus pull these positive memories back to the front of your brain, helping you feel good days, weeks, months, even years after that gratitude was first identified.

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There is something else that is cool happening in our brain when experience gratitude: motivation. Come again? When we hear that external validation from someone, and our brain is flooded with the feel-good neurotransmitters, that darn amygdala starts to enjoy that feeling. Needless to say, that darn amygdala likes it so much that it will start to tell you to start doing things that increases your chances of feeling that gratitude again. By showing (and sharing) gratitude, you can improve your motivation to get things done!

The benefits are not just felt emotionally, but physically. If you recall our discussion on the insula, the insula helps the adrenal gland change our body’s responses. When we feel gratitude (or someone shares gratitude with us), we can notice a decrease in our heart rate. This is a well known sign of our body relaxing. It can also lower our blood pressure and improve our oxygen rates. This allows us to think clearer and process information faster.

Another side effect of gratitude is it’s ability to help us feel closer to the people around us. Have you ever received a gift from someone “just because?” Do you still remember it? I still remember the guy who bought me a coffee “just because.” Even though he was a complete stranger, and I never saw him again, my brain did this awesome thing where I suddenly remember I am not alone in this world. Just remember that good this allows our brain to release oxytocin and feel connected to something, anything.

Now, what happens when you show someone gratitude? Great question! By saying “thank you” or “I’m happy you’re here” helps their brain release that same oxytocin that our’s does when we say it. What excites me about this chunk of information is that when we show gratitude to someone we are not just improving our own mental health, but we are improving the mental health of another person!

Coping Skills Alert

I think it is important for us to talk about how we can incorporate gratitude into our daily lives. Now before you go and say “but Carissa, wouldn’t that be like toxic positivity?” listen to me. Gratitude and toxic positivity share a similar vein, but are two different things.

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First, gratitude is based in objective facts that people can also prove. Toxic positivity? Now that is based in negative cognitive distortions that often discredit the facts. Second, gratitude is an action that we take, whereas toxic positivity keeps up feeling stuck and avoiding what we need to do. Third, gratitude initiates bonding and brain healing while toxic positivity increases mental health symptoms and promotes burnout.

Now, on to how to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine.

Gratitude should be practiced on a daily basis. I’m going to meet you before the question is even asked: there is always something to be grateful for! I tell my clients in session that identifying five things to be grateful for a day in the morning helps you:

  • Set a realistic mindset for your whole day
  • Reduces the physical symptoms of anxiety
  • Decreases the negative thought patterns of depression
  • Improves your ability to make decisions during your day

Before we start to think about what we are thankful for, we need a way to record these things. Whether it is in your daily planner, in a journal, on your phone, or your social media accounts, have a place that you can document what you are grateful for. Why? This helps you get into a healthy pattern as well as offers accountability to sticking with this new routine. Plus, if you are having one of those days where you are feeling hopeless and your darn amygdala has you stuck, you have a reference to jump start that hippocampus!

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Now, we get to write down those gratitudes! Gratitude does not need to be big, huge actions offered by people. Gratitude can come from small actions throughout our day. They can also be things we do for ourselves (yup, I’m calling all of us out that discredit what we do for ourselves) and for others.

I want to thank you for joining me on this short (and sweet) journey about how gratitude can impact not just our mental health, but those around us. This simple skill is something that will help you feel better in the moment, and last for years to come.

To recap this post:

– Gratitude is the art of showing appreciation

– Gratitude reshapes your brain, improves your anxiety response, and your decision making skills

– Showing gratitude towards others also positively impacts the person you are showing gratitude to

– Practicing gratitude on a daily basis has lasting effects

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What the Heck is Self-Care?

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

The phrase, self-care, has been said pretty darn often lately. Every social media post seems to talk about “taking time for self-care.” Heck, even my posts talk about self-care (check out mindfulness: the art of becoming calm, cool, and collected) So I feel it is time to answer that question you have: what in the heck is self-care?

Self-care is a broad, blanket term that is simply defined as “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health” (Oxford, 2009). Many of us practice this without giving it much thought. For example, did you change your underwear today? That is a way we take care of our health. Did you eat at least one piece of food today? Again, you are preserving your health by doing an action that continues your life.

When we talk about the above definition, we have to understand the why. Self-care is, essentially, self-preservation. Self-care is what we do to keep our bodies healthy, feeling connected to the world around us, and developing comfort with our lives. Without self-care, we simply cannot exist.

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The basic building blocks of self-care are: physical, mental, and social. Think about it, these are all needed to maintain a certain level of health in order to keep surviving. Even if we think about our pets, what happens if they are missing one of these things?

With physical self-care (which I think is the easiest type of self-care), there are actions we do to ensure our body can keep living. These particular actions do something to our brains. When our brain (in particular, that darn amygdala), senses we are in stress, it raises the alarm to the rest of the body. If you recall from my post, Fight-Flight-Freeze: the Ultimate Coping Skill, that darn amygdala releases a whole slew of neurotransmitters into the brain that tells our body that we are stressed. When we engage in activities of physical self-care, our darn amygdala tells the adrenal gland that is safe to relax. Do you know what that means? That means our brain releases GABA to calm your body down, glutamate to decrease muscle tension, and dopamine to say “congratulations! You accomplished staying alive!”

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There are plenty of things that constitute physical self-care. These things include (but are not limited to):

  • Brushing your teeth at least once a day
  • Changing your clothes daily
  • Taking a bath/shower on a regular basis
  • Getting in those 8 hours of sleep
  • Eating food from every food group once a day
  • Participating in art of seeing your doctor/dentist/therapist on a consistent basis
  • Completing one task on your to-do list
  • Cleaning one part of your living space
  • Engaging in physical activities for at least 30 minutes
  • Staying hydrated (with water of course!)
  • Including break times in your daily routine
  • Taking care of your pets and plants

I bet some of these things you are saying “I do those already.” To that, I say “Thank you!” When we engage in these activities on a regular basis, we do a couple of things for our brains. First, we are establishing a routine our hippocampus can store into memory. Second, that memory then allows that darn amygdala to know what to expect next, which decreases symptoms of anxiety. Third, the prefrontal cortex can use these items of self-care to check the facts to prove to that darn amygdala that the world is not coming to the end. Fourth, the insula (remember, the part of our brain responsible for coordination), becomes more active. This means we are developing muscle memory and are less likely to forget how to do something. Finally, we increase the size of our hippocampus. Whoah, that is a lot of benefits!

Think those benefits are awesome? I haven’t even gotten to the part of mental self-care! Mental self-care is exactly that: things we do that take care of our emotional health. Just like we talked about above, when we are experiencing stress or burnout, the stress neurotransmitters and cortisol are having a hay day in our brain. When we engage in just 15 minutes of mental self-care on a daily basis, we are:

credit to Carissa Weber at http://www.thatdarnamygdala.com
  • Increasing the size of your hypothalamus, which allows us to recall memories faster
  • Decreasing our heart rate, which slows down the production of cortisol
  • Releasing serotonin into our brain
  • Reducing the activity in that darn amygdala
  • Increasing the activity in our prefrontal cortex
  • Improving the oxygen exchange rate, which decreases the triple F response
  • Releasing endorphins which decreases our physical bain levels while feel good at the same time

I told you that there were going to be more benefits! Now, what constitutes as mental self-care? I’m happy you asked! There is a whole list of them (again, this is not an all-inclusive list:

  • Taking time to practice mindful breathing
  • Tell a joke (and laugh at it)
  • Taking a break from looking at a screen
  • Listening to your favorite song
  • exercising
  • Validating what you are experiencing
  • Taking a warm bath/shower, just to relax
  • Participating in stretching or yoga
  • Engaging in a hobby you enjoy
  • Reading a favorite book
  • Taking a walk in nature

I know we have talked about how participating in both physical and mental self-care can change your mental health, but there are more changes to come! We also have to take care of our social health. Social health is when we participate with the people (or pets) around us. When we engage with the people around us, we release the neurotransmitter, oxytocin. This amazing little neurotransmitter helps us feel connected and safe with the people around us. It also aids in creating an emotional bond and trust. The best part of oxytocin? It helps our darn amygdala remember that we are accepted and appreciated. I bet you can take a guess what that does for our self-esteem, confidence, and overall mental health. You got it! It boosts it all!

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When it comes to boosting oxytocin, there are activities we can engage in. Even engaging in these activities for a mere 20 minutes a day can reap all the above benefits. These activities include (but not limited to):

  • Petting an animal friend
  • talking with someone you care about
  • validating someone’s feelings
  • Engaging in volunteer opportunities
  • Spending one-on-one time with someone important in your life
  • Participating in a club/sport with other people
Credit to Breanna Dlask at Breanna Dlask Photography

Looking at these lists, you may notice something. There is a bit of overlap. Why is that? Because many of these activities can release more than just one type of feel good neurotransmitter. For example, if you go horse riding with a club of friends, you are releasing dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin all the while releasing endorphins. Isn’t self-care awesome!

Now, if you are super busy (like me), you may think self-care is one thing you can sacrifice to make the rest of the demands placed on you. Let me tell you now: YOU CANNOT DO THAT!! Remember that post I did on burnout? Yeah, that happens if you don’t take time for self-care.

But when the heck do I find the time to do self-care? Great question! As we have talked about in all of my other posts, we know it takes 66 days to make anything a habit that sticks. Many of these self-care things are things you are already doing. But what about the things I know I need to do but can’t find the time to do it?

That is where those famous SMART goals come in to play. In case you missed them, SMART goals are goals that are:

  • Specific in intention
  • Measurable (meaning they have a time frame to complete them)
  • Actually attainable
  • Realistic in nature
  • Trackable

These goals are super beneficial when you are trying to create a new habit because they start small and build off of the progress you area already making. By setting one small self-care SMART goal each week, you are preparing your brain to release dopamine (because you accomplished something), serotonin (because there was joy in that accomplishment), endorphins (since you got your body moving), and maybe even some oxytocin (if that goal connected you with people).

Let’s look at an example, shall we? Let’s set the SMART goal of brushing our teeth five times in one week. It is a simple goal, but if your depression is reigning supreme, it is a tough one. This goals is a SMART goal for the following reasons:

  • S – it is specific (we will brush our teeth)
  • M – We can measure if we meet this goal (by putting a number on it, we can count if it gets done or not)
  • A – We know we can meet this goal (missing two days isn’t that bad, right?)
  • R – This goal is realistic (especially since the dentist says we should be brushing twice a day and flossing to boot)
  • T – We can track the progress towards this goal (we can mark it in a calendar when we did brush our teeth)

Using SMART goals can be helpful when we are trying to make self-care a regular kind of thing in your life. This, along with understanding the things that energize you (like food, friends, or quiet time), will help you make a change in your mental health journey for the better. Thank you so much for taking time with me to learn about why self-care is so important.

To recap this post:

– Self-care is the act of preserving ourselves

– Self-care supports our physical, mental, and social health

– You can use SMART goals to help make self-care a regular part of your life

Bonus Material

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With your purchase of the worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over the information about self-care, ideas to use, and SMART goals. Enjoy!

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Burnout and Why it is a Big Deal

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

No different than toxic positivity, burnout is one of those words I’m hearing more and more in my private practice. When you look at all the stress going on in the world, it is no wonder the phrase, “feeling burnt to a crisp” is one I hear at least once a day.

But what does it mean to be burnt out? Many of you in the human service field (like teachers, nurses, police, firefighters, social workers, you know, the people that help others) may have heard it, done trainings on it, and have heard management talk about ways to prevent burnout. In this post, we are going to cover the science of burnout and ways to heal from it. I hope you are ready for it!

What is burnout? Probably the best place to start is to define it, am I right? When I looked up the official diagnosis, several answers come up. The very first one (courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary) is “the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.” For all you gear heads out there, this makes sense. How on Earth does this relate to a human being?

Having enough working knowledge of engines to make sense of this definition, let me explain. An engine needs a fuel source to work. For example, if your car doesn’t have fuel (whether it is gas, diesel, spent vegetable oil, electric, I could go on), you’re car isn’t going to go anywhere. Sometimes, the engine looses fuel because we are busy using it. Other times (and in stressful situations), the engine can loose fuel from a leak somewhere in the system.

When an engine looses fuel from a source outside of running it dry, a trusty mechanic has to search through many things. Maybe a gasket (which is used to support moving parts of an engine) has dried up and that is the source of the leak. Perhaps the float in the carburetor (which is responsible for metering how much fuel enters the carb), sank in the float bowl, so gas is spewing everywhere (ask me why I know about this). Yet, another issue could be the fuel line busted somewhere along the way.

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I think I gave enough examples from an engine not having enough fuel to tie it back into the science of burnout. When we talk about burnout in humans, we talk about how prolonged exposure to stress can “drain the tank.” Personally, I think the above example lends itself well to the science behind burnout.

When we talk about burnout, we have to talk about where it starts in the brain. Can you guess where burnout starts? If you said “it starts in that darn amygdala,” you would be incorrect. Wait, what?! You got it! We start to experience burnout first in our prefrontal cortex.

I bet you are asking “but Carissa, the stress response starts in that darn amygdala, what gives?” Well, you are partially right. If you recall from my post, Fight-Flight-Freeze: The Ultimate Coping Skill, the stress response does start in that darn amygdala. When we experience a long-term stressor (oh, like working short-handed during a pandemic for the last year or so), our prefrontal cortex chimes in. The prefrontal cortex takes a lot of cues from what is going on inside of the brain.

Time to reference my awesome engine analogy! The prefrontal cortex is like the engine’s diagnostic computer. It checks in with the system (the hippocampus, hypothalamus, that darn amygdala, the insula, and all the neurotransmitters), on a regular basis. Typically, it calls bullshit on that darn amygdala’s check engine light. When it starts to notice other symptoms, it starts to panic a bit.

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Some of these diagnostic symptoms can come from a poor air sensor (which would be the prolonged release of acetylcholine and norepinephrine). This could come as symptoms of tight muscles, racing heart all the time, and being stuck in the Triple-F response. It could also be that that darn gasket (being the hippocampus) dried up. We can tell that is the case when we struggle to remember things or only remember the bad things. Another diagnostic symptoms that computer recognizes is a stuck float (in this case, the thalamus). We know that is the case because adrenaline is dumping into our system, which leaves us feeling like we have nothing left to give.

With all of this happening, the prefrontal cortex starts to acknowledge that there indeed is a problem. It starts to push aside any sort of positive feedback it is taking in, focusing on the facts the rest of the brain is throwing at it. As this starts to happen, we notice some of the typical symptoms of a stress response:

  • Restlessness
  • Decrease ability to sleep (or sleeping all the time)
  • Stomach upset
  • Finding little to no joy in activities
  • Feeling “on edge”
  • Poor memory
  • Symptoms of depression (example, feeling worthless, hopeless, and sad)
  • Feeling irritable

Once these symptoms hang around for a while, the prefrontal cortex struggles with motivation (thanks to the lack or rest and restorative sleep), the ability to keep the brain focused (because the brain has been flooded with cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline for an extended period of time), and even the ability to remain positive (dare I say, even boarder on the line of toxic positivity).

After a few weeks of noticing the signs that there may be a system failure, the prefrontal cortex does something out of character: it goes offline. Just like a computer chip in your car, it just stops working. Now, if this was an engine, you may notice the car not turning over when you try to start it, or maybe it just comes to a stop for no reason. The same thing goes for your brain. You will notice emotional regulation goes right out the window. The connection your prefrontal cortex had with any other part of your brain just seems to be gone. Heck, your thalamus starts to feel bad for you and starts releasing dopamine randomly. It may help, but ultimately, it is like oil flooding an engine: not helpful.

As the prefrontal cortex goes down, that darn amygdala tries to get this ol’ engine of a brain to restart. That’s right, it takes control. It makes impulsive decisions about reactions. Prime example: being super cynical about things changing. We’ve been there before, but that isn’t quite the top of burnout, engine exploding we’re gearing up for (see what I did there?).

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A few more weeks go by. The prefrontal cortex’s check engine light is still on. At this stage of the game, we have entered the stage of denial. Just like with our car, we ignore the check engine light, thinking it isn’t that big of a deal. As this is going on, sleep deprivation kicks in. We start to experience our emotions in a more intense way. This is because the hippocampus has started to shrink under all the pressure. Even that darn amygdala is shrinking. It might be firing on all cylinders, but the walls are closing in on it.

By this stage of stress and burnout, many people start to report chronic headaches (I wonder why), constant muscle tension, and an overall sense of helplessness. Studies have shown at this stage of the game, people’s immune system starts to shut down, making you more susceptible to getting sick. The depression symptoms are really starting to kick in and kick your butt. You may even notice you are isolating yourself more and more.

“You cannot pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

– Norm Kelly

Now, a few more weeks pass and your prefrontal cortex decides it is no longer playing games. With cortisol levels higher than ever, a nonstop flow of adrenaline and norepinephrine, the prefrontal cortex says it is done. That darn amygdala panics, and tries to rally the rest of the brain. Unfortunately, the limbic system is drained. This collapse of the limbic system tells your body there is no hope. Nothing left to give. Your brain forgets it’s coping skills, your body goes into “survival” mode, and that’s it. Mental health reigns supreme and lets the depression and anxiety dictate your life.

Now that we know the signs and symptoms of burnout, and a general timeline of how it happens, we now have to look at what do we do to prevent it.

Coping Skills Alert

Before I get started on the list of things in your control to prevent burnout, I need to preface something. There are things within our control to help prevent burnout, and there are things outside of our control. Things outside of our control (like work, medical concerns, family stress), play a role in developing burnout. Unfortunately, we cannot force our employers to change their policies (don’t get me wrong, we need to), or tell our body to stop being sick. This portion is about what WE can control.

Preventing burnout comes down to a few things:

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Now, this is all easier said than done. If you are like me (a busy full-time parent that also holds down a full-time career, a fun side gig, a small farm, a marriage, and a partridge in a pear tree), you’re probably wondering “How on Earth do I make a routine when I work 80 hours a week?” I get it. You’re exhausted. Your motivation goes out the window the moment you finally sit. You feel defeated before you even get started. But there is something to be said about practice (there I go again with that P word). By starting small, and allowing yourself to reward yourself for the routine you are implementing, your brain starts to get it.

The prefrontal cortex starts to light up. It tells the thalamus to turn that routine into a habit and reminds the hippocampus to release dopamine when you do it. It helps that darn amygdala to know what to expect from your day, letting it free up some more serotonin. It allows the insula to use the GABA in your brain to relax those tense muscles and decrease those tension headaches. Dare I say it, you start to feel life is kinda enjoyable.

Ready to make a routine that helps you enjoy life? Click here!

What about if you are currently burnt to the level of the frozen pizza you forgot about in the oven? Recovering from burnout is a timely process that must be done. The sooner you are able to recognize burnout is happening, the easier it is to recover from it.

Once you are able to recognize and label burnout is happening, you are on the path to heal. I tell all my clients that are experiencing burnout to:

  • Rest
  • Identify stressors you can change or eliminate for a short period of time
  • Engage in activities that give you energy
  • Vocalize what you may need help with

Rest is the hardest thing for people to follow through on because their brain is in autopilot, trying to accomplish everything. Rest isn’t just taking a few days away from life. Rest is allowing yourself to slow down and not feel guilty about it (feeling a bit called out? Good!). Rest can look like allowing yourself an extra hour of sleep, taking some of your hard earned paid time off and make a long weekend, participating in activities that give you energy (see the list below). Yes, you may feel guilty or ashamed that you cannot be Superman right now, but resting allows your brain (and body) a chance to start to heal.

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Next, we need to look at what is in our control to get that ol’ engine running again. That means, exploring what stress we can remove from our lives. In the moment, we may not be able to identify anything that can be taken off. That is where we need to look at the whole picture. Something as small as someone else doing the grocery shopping or asking for an extension on a project can offer a little bit of relief. That little bit of relief can go a long way. It is like putting enough gas in the tank until we can get to the next gas station.

Now, on to everyone’s favorite burnout preventer: activities that give us energy. This isn’t just the hobbies we used to enjoy, but activities of daily living. You know, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, putting on something besides sweatpants. Another activity that gives us energy is eating food. If you recall from my post, The Feel Good Neurotransmitters and How to Release Them, we need nutrition from our diet to create serotonin. Even if we don’t feel like eating, if we choose to eat something that turns into serotonin, we are helping heal from burnout.

As we move on in this burnout adventure, we need to talk about asking for help. As much as your darn amygdala might say you don’t need the help, we know it is lying to you. Asking for help helps heal burnout in a couple different ways. First, it allows you to connect with someone (yippee for oxytocin!). Next, it helps you use interpersonal effectiveness skills to prevent feeling alone. Finally, it helps reduce your stress level by delegating things to other people so you can heal.

Big question time: what if you see someone clearly struggling from burnout? How do I help them? That is a great question. When reaching out to someone who is not acting like their normal self, it is important to first listen to what they are saying. Don’t try to solve their problem right away, just listen.

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Next, offer them some external validation. This can be in the form of words (like “you’ve been working so hard, no wonder you feel so run down”), the form of gifts (to show them that you care and are here for them), or offer to help in a way they need it. I remember struggling with burnout early in my career. I was a toddler mom with a brand new baby at home. Between studying for board exams, getting in my licensure hours, and working full-time, I was more burnt than overcooked bacon. When my friend simply offered to drop off dinner once a week, it did so much good. Not only did I get a chance to talk to someone, but the responsibility for that night was so much lighter. It was a small gesture, but it was something that really helped me heal my burnout.

Holy cow Batman! This post got super long! I want to thank you for sticking with me until the end of it. Burnout is something ALL people can experience, no matter what job they have, how much money they make, or their gender. Hopefully this article has helped you understand the importance of scheduling in your own self-care so you can continue to be you.

To recap this post:

– Burnout is when you experience prolonged stress

– Burnout occurs over time

– It takes time to heal from burnout

– Don’t forget to practice self-care and to check in on your friends

Bonus Material

Handouts are created to help you remember the facts of each post and help you implement the coping skill into your life. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over the definition of burnout, the stages of burnout, and what is in your control to prevent burnout. Enjoy!

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The one-time payment option allows you to get all the handouts in one neat file, or with each post.

References

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Toxic Positivity: Why it Matters

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Toxic positivity is a new phrase in the therapy world. I hear it all too often in my office “I’m trying to be positive all the time, but it just doesn’t work.” Have you heard of toxic positivity? Today’s post is going over toxic positivity and how to avoid it without discounting the good things that are actually happening.

First things first, what is toxic positivity? I bet “it doesn’t mean what you think it means.” (Thank you Inigo Montoya for this quote!!). Toxic positivity is a term that has really gained in popularity over the last five years. Toxic positivity is defined as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations” (Quintero and Long, 2021). That is a mouthful. To shorten it up: toxic positivity is a form of the cognitive distortion, overgeneralizing.

According to this definition, toxic positivity is different than someone who is optimistic. People who utilize toxic positivity use the cognitive distortion, overgeneralizing, to dismiss any emotion that comes as negative. When we dismiss our emotions, we are ignoring crucial information about what we are experience. Therefore, we are invalidating ourselves when we cover up our experience.

“there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions. They are all emotions with information about what we are experiencing.”

– Carissa Weber

How does the practice of toxic positivity impact the brain? Well, that is a question I am prepared to answer! If you recall from my posts, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected and Realistic Affirmations: The Hardest Emotional Regulation Tool, we talked about how positive thoughts impact the brain. When we feel happiness, joy, or experience a compliment, our prefrontal cortex signals the brain to release the feel good neurotransmitters, which tells the adrenal gland to stop producing the stress hormone, cortisol. With cortisol low, we can experience those emotions everyone labels as positive.

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Now, when toxic positivity comes in to play, the brain does something a bit different. When we deny those tough emotions, our brain knows. That darn amygdala starts to send of the red flag and say “this emotions is wrong to feel!” So, on top of the adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol released by these already strong emotions, That darn amygdala just told the thalamus to increase the intensity of those feelings.

By this time, the prefrontal cortex is shaking its head, commenting “we don’t have to do this!,” but the rest of the limbic system is already on board with that darn amygdala. As that darn amygdala is running the show, and the neurotransmitters and stress hormones are dictating how we feel, we may notice a couple different things:

  • Feeling overwhelmed and anxious, but not knowing why
  • Avoiding our natural support system
  • An overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, but you can’t put your finger on as to why you feel like this

As we talked about in my post all about validation, we know that when we avoid our feelings and deny what is happening, we are invalidating ourselves! What does that lead to? You guessed it: negative core beliefs, increased anxiety symptoms, increased depressive symptoms, and poor self-esteem.

What does toxic positivity look like? It looks a lot like:

  • Hiding your true feelings
  • Dismissing feelings so you can “just get through this”
  • Feeling guilty for how you are feeling
  • Minimizing the experience you are having
  • Constantly comparing your situation to other people’s situation
  • People-pleasing behaviors as to show people “everything is awesome!” (thank you Lego Movie!)
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Our own toxic positivity may even rub off on others. Did you know that? How many of us have experienced someone saying “you know, it could be worse.”? Maybe you have even told someone to “just stay positive!” One I’ve heard over and over again in my office is “it is what it is.” These phrases are all signs that you are not comfortable with other people’s strong emotions.

Feeling a bit called out by the above paragraph? Good! That means that you are in a place to explore ways to change!

Coping skills alert!

How do you tell the difference between accepting positive things that are happening and toxic positivity? What a great question! Many of you might be wondering how you can help your prefrontal cortex help that darn amygdala get the point that emotions are okay to experience. Let’s start first by understanding emotion identification.

Believe it or not, many people struggle to identify emotions. Sure, they can pinpoint happy, excited, angry, and all those simple ones. We can identify them as they are part of the six basic emotions that everyone feels: happy, sad, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust. It is from these six emotions that we can break them down into almost 3000 identifiable emotions (Holy Cow Batman!)

So, how do we know what we are feeling if there are that many? Two ways: first by identifying the physical sensation we are experiencing and, second, by tying that back to what we know certain feelings physically feel like. Example, if I were to break wind in public (just an example here folks!), I know my face would get red, my body would feel restless, I would avert eye contact with the person across the isle from me, and I would find my posture is trying to make me small. These physical sensations are the Hallmark of embarrassment. Embarrassment essentially is the combination of fear, sadness, surprise, and a tad of anger.

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Let’s try another example, shall we? Let’s say you get home and the house is clean. On top of that, you find flowers in a vase, a cake in the oven, and your significant other dressed nicely. Your eyes dart to the calendar. Shit! You totally forgot that it is your anniversary (true story). Physically, you feel the same physical sensations as embarrassment, but you also are now experiencing a tight chest, a lump in your throat, and a sudden rush of energy that makes you want to hide. Is it possible that the feeling you are experiencing is shame? Yeah, it isn’t a proud moment when you forget your anniversary.

If you are good at identifying the physical feeling, but don’t actually know the name for the feeling, relying on a feelings wheel might be helpful. What is a feelings wheel? It is a pretty neat tool that lays out some of the more common emotions (not all 3000) to help you label what you are feeling.

Want access to a great feelings wheel? Click here to join our worksheet membership!

Now that we have gone over labeling our emotions, we need to talk about experiencing our emotions. In my last post, Internal and External Validation, we discussed the importance of experiencing our emotions. It is tough, but it is something that helps us process the information our emotions have for us to provide a reaction to the situation we are facing. When we experience our emotions, we must be realistic about what we are feeling. Great example: is it realistic to be happy when our favorite kid puts a baseball through a closed window? No. Is it realistic to feel angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed by it? Yes.

P.S. – you can experience more than one emotion at a time. What?! It is true. There are tons of situations that call for multiple emotions. One that pops into my head immediately is an unexpected trip to the emergency room. It is normal to be nervous about what is going to happen, but also relieved that you will soon have an answer about what is wrong with you. You can also have joy when you find out that your ankle is just sprained, and not broke, but also fear about the medical bill that will be in your mailbox in a few weeks. Remember, as humans, we are complex emotional beings.

Now that we can experience the emotions, we must be able to identify a helpful reaction to those emotions. That is where we can refer back to several different posts (like those for distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and mindfulness) to channel the information the emotions are giving us to come up with a reaction that will be the most beneficial to us. Wait, we can react in a non-impulsive way? Yes you can! With practice (there I go again!), you can help your prefrontal cortex tell that darn amygdala to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine!

Who would have thought that toxic positivity could take up so much time? I’m so happy that you could take time to learn more about how to challenge toxic positivity in your life and start feeling your emotions. It isn’t comfortable at first, but with practice, it will decrease the intensity of those hard emotional experiences.

To recap this post:

– Toxic Positivity is a cognitive distortion

– Toxic Positivity actually increases distressful feelings

– There are no “good” or “bad” emotions. They all serve a purpose

-Acknowledging your emotions reduces anxiety and depression symptoms

Bonus Material

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With your premium content subscription, you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over common toxic positivity phrases and how to change them to something a bit more brain friendly. Enjoy!

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References

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How to Say “No” and Feel Good About it

Credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to say “no?” Why is that? I know many of us (including myself) struggle with the idea that we are able to (and sometimes have to) say no. If you are one of those people who struggle with that famous 2-letter word, this post is just for you!

Although not officially a DBT skill, the art of saying “no” could very easliy be considered one. Why? Well, let me tell you! Saying that formitable word fits right in with interpersonal effectiveness skills (like maintaining healthy and respectful boundaries with people). It also takes a hint from distress tolerance skills (oh you know, like identifying what you don’t need), and helps identify with emotional regulation skills.

Missed the DBT posts? Check them out here:

DBT and Distress Tolerance Skills

The Power of Emotional Regulation

Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills

credit to Carissa Weber at http://www.thatdarnamygdala.com

The art of saying “no” could also very well be part of the CBT skill set as well. This simple phrase can be seen in Socratic questioning (and understanding why no is a great answer to some questions), identifying unhealthy thought patterns that make it hard to say “no,” or even using facts to calm down that darn amygdala. Regardless of what skillset you want to use, being able to say “no” has to start with PRACTICE!

Where in our brain is it that makes this polite decline so hard to say? Well, like so many other research I have done, there is minimal research out there on the impact of this word on the brain. So, naturally, I explore the alternatives. After a few weeks of researching, I discovered there was more research done on the anticipation of rejection than there was on hearing this two-letter rejection.

Rejection is a powerful emotion. Even just hearing the word invokes a response. According to The University of Michigan, rejection plays a huge role in saying “no” as well as in hearing the word “no.” What role is that? The role of pain.

In 2013, U of M showed that being rejected (for example, when we hear “no”) creates a reaction in the brain identical to physical pain. Say what? You got it! If we hear “no” when we weren’t prepared for it, our darn amygdala processes the emotion the hippocampus sends to it (in this case, rejection) and triggers a new part of our brain. This new part, called the pregenual cingulate cortex, plays a pretty big role in identifying our moods based on events we are experiencing.

Credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

Quick note: the pregenual cingulate cortex is located between the frontal lobe of our brain and the hippocampus. It wraps around that darn amygdala and helps it confirm or deny the feelings we are experiencing. When you are struggling with depression, brain activity is significantly stunted in the pregenual cingulate cortex, which is why scientists believe this may be why we struggle with apathy when we are depressed. The pregenual cingulate cortex also helps us apply what we learn to situations.

Okay, back on track. After that darn amygdala recognizes the emotion we are experiencing, the pregenual cingulate cortex says “holy cow Batman! You are experiencing pain! Let me fix that!” How does it fix that? Simple. It triggers the release of the neurotransmitter, endorphin. If you recall from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, endorphins are responsible for decreasing the sensation of pain. It does this by releasing a chemical in our brain called opioids

Before you go “I didn’t take any drugs!” let’s talk about opioids that naturally occur in the brain. This naturally occurring opioid is known as mu-opioid. When we are in pain, physical pain, our brain releases mu-opioids into our brain to help reduce the pain. For example: runner’s high. When the endorphins release when we run, it is trickling mu-opioid into our brain that says “this isn’t so bad, keep going!”

The same mu-opioid is released when we are experiencing rejection. For some people, their brain releases more mu-opioid than others. How can we tell? When we say “no” to someone and they say “that’s okay.” While the next person goes “why don’t you love me?” we know the first person is getting more mu-opioid based a: on their acceptance of our response, and b: when we stick their head in an MRI the pregenual cingulate cortex is light up like a Christmas tree. The latter response of, “why don’t you love me?” Not so much.

Credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

So now that we understand why it is hard to hear “no,” why is it hard to say it? Think about it. When we are denying someone their request, we are ultimately dishing out rejection. Our hypothalamus and hippocampus remember what rejection feels like. For those people pleasers out there, the feeling of rejection can be as painful as a busted arm. Why would we, a good person, reject someone?

Our brain has a way of protecting us. By using a cognitive distortion (oh like the example of overgeneralizing above), our darn amygdala is trying to protect us from any sort of pain and discomfort by justifying what the pregenual cingulate cortex is doing. Sometimes, those cognitive distortions end up costing us something: like our self-esteem, money in lots of cases and perhaps even a busted arm.

Have you ever noticed when your self-esteem really sucks that it is harder to say no? When our self-esteem is shot, so is our pregenual cingulate cortex. It isn’t firing like it should, which helps that darn amygdala do whatever it kinda feels like. To protect ourselves from feeling rejected, we tend to compromise our boundaries, time, and energy to ensure people will not reject us. Boss asks you to stay late? Of course you will! Kids are screaming they want something different than what you cooked for dinner? To get them to shut up and eat, of course I’ll make a second (or third or fourth) meal. Wish someone would tell you that you’re amazing? I will jump tall buildings in a single bound to hear it!

The thing is, all of this external validation we are trying to get makes our brain give us the feel good neurotransmitters we are craving to kick-start our brain into gear. That is why we love receiving praise from people that we are doing a good job. The issue with external validation is we cannot count on it. Let’s use covid for example, shall we? How many of us suddenly started working from home, homeschooling our kids, learning new ways to shop and interact with people, all while working during a pandemic? How did it feel when your boss gave you a certificate to order pizza? I don’t know about you, but that pizza party came about one year too late!

Coping Skills Alert!

This late external validation can also come across as feeling rejection. So how do we handle the most powerful two-letter word in the dictionary? Despite popular belief, avoiding people when we want to say no is not the answer (shock and awe!). This simple two-letter word is in our human dialogue for a reason:

  • It helps us provide a natural boundary for when we need time to recharge our energy
  • It allows us to participate in activities that are more in tune with our goals, our beliefs, and our safe support network
  • Make our needs known (and meet them)
  • Taking back the power and control over our mental health, and most importantly, our life!

Simply put, No is a powerful action word. In order to use this word, we first must know what our needs are. Needless to say, self reflection is crucial in order for us to be comfortable saying no. How do we do this? We have to use one of the many skills we have already talked about the practice slowing down one and thinking before we offer an answer. STOPP is one of my favorite skills to use the help identify what our needs are! Another one would be wise mind.

Need to learn more about practicing these skills? Check out my post: What’s With All of This Repetition?

Once we know what we need, we next need to use our interpersonal effectiveness skills to be able to clearly, assertively, and respectfully decline a person’s request. Keeping our communication clear and assertive will ensure we are being as nice as possible about saying no. For all those people who like the phrases “I don’t know” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure,” that isn’t clear. If anything, this releases the stress hormone, cortisol, and the person you’re communicating with, increasing their own symptoms of anxiety.

“No, in itself, is a complete sentence!”

– Carissa Weber

Another thing to keep in mind about clear communication is that you don’t necessarily have to elaborate as to why you are saying no. No, in itself, is a complete sentence! Think about that for a moment. The answer no is a complete sentence. If you feel compelled to explain why you are unable to say yes, keep your explanation to the point. You don’t need to go over how your aunt’s dog is sick. If it doesn’t entail direct information as to why you’re saying no, you don’t have to say it.

If you can’t get over your people pleasing just yet, this would be a great time to offer the person you are saying no to an alternative that is respectful of your time, your boundaries, and your own needs. For example, if I have a friend who wants me to hang out at the same time I already have something else scheduled, I can show gratitude for the offer and extend the alternative that we hang out on a different day. This alternative is respectful of my time and my plans I already had in place, but allowing someone to know I would have availability on a different day.

Saying no will be tricky and uncomfortable at first, especially when you’re use to being a “yes-man.” Remember, it takes 66 days to change a routine. You know what that means? You got it! That means you actually have to practice saying no on a regular basis for it to feel comfortable, safe, and overall, confident.

I want to thank you for allowing me to help you gain confidence in the ability to say no. This is something we all struggle with at some point in time. It is my hope for you that this information will help you gain the understanding as to why no is hard to say all while gaining confidence in being able to say it.

To recap this post:

– Saying “No” triggers the fear of rejection

– That Darn Amygdala and the pregenual cingulate cortex work together to help us feel confident and secure when we have to hear “no”

– Saying “No” becomes easier with practice

References

Image Sources

Internal and external validation

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

I’ve mentioned in my last couple posts the idea of external validation. Naturally, I feel this may need to be elaborated on. Why? Because it is important stuff! Also, because I have a hunch that you may not quiet understand the two types of validation and their important role in mental health.

First off, what in the world is validation? If we go on what the dictionary says, the definition of validation is “the action of checking or proving the validity or accuracy of something.” I want to draw attention to the whole “checking or proving” part. This is exactly what our prefrontal cortex is looking for! The definition of validation is all about having facts our prefrontal cortex can check and know they are real.

Not only does validation help our prefrontal cortex, it helps our hippocampus and hypothalamus store these facts as memories. As the hippocampus stores those memories, it assigns emotions to those facts. That means, when our darn amygdala decides to show it’s colors, we have facts that would help the prefrontal cortex have a strong voice and say “Amygdala, shut up!”

Another cool thing about validation is the ability it has to release the feel good neurotransmitters just when we remember that validating fact. How? Let’s review some of the information we talked about in my post, The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitters and How to Release Them.

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First, you have oxytocin. Did you know when you remember a neutral fact (or dare I say it: a positive fact) someone says to you, your brain releases oxytocin? Even if you aren’t physically with that person, that release of oxytocin reminds your darn amygdala that you are not alone and have someone supporting you, somewhere, in someway, in your life.

Next, you have serotonin. We have talked a lot about how serotonin improves our ability to feel joy, be happy, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. When we are given validation by someone, we can feel our heart rate increase (partially in thanks to endorphins and norepinephrine), get a warm feeling inside, and feel a small spark of joy.

Want to learn more about how neurotransmitters affect our mental health? Check out my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain

Dopamine also has a hand in validation. Can you guess it’s role? If you said that hearing validation on something you are working on helps you feel accomplished, then you are are on the right track! The dopamine released during a validating comment improves motivation to keep going (true story).

I mentioned endorphins and norepinephrine above, but there is still more to be said about them. When we hear someone say “I’m proud of you,” we notice a decrease in physical pain. Why? The endorphins that are released naturally reduce physical pain receptors and actually release our own form of opioid: mu-opioid. Norepinephrine is responsible for the physical response we have when we hear these positive words from other people. It all comes together to help our prefrontal cortex mount a defense to that darn amygdala when it says “Nothing I do matters, I’m alone, and no one likes me.”

Now, there are two types of validation: internal and external. Are you familiar with the difference?

First, let’s start with external validation. Why? Well, it is way more common than internal, and it is easier to find. External validation is the validation of experiences and emotions we receive from sources outside of us. This included family members, co-workers, teachers, and likes on our recent TikTok video (true story). As humans, we naturally seek out external validation for several reasons:

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  • Increased sense of acceptance and belonging
  • Improved communication about needs
  • Sense of safety and bonding with our peers

As discussed above, the release of feel good neurotransmitters helps improve our mood and self-confidence.

Now, we have the elusive internal validation. Why do I say elusive? Well, think about it. How often to you validate your emotions and experiences compared to how often you offer external validation to your best friend? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Internal validation is how we validate our own experiences and emotions. Yup, that means acknowledgement of what you are feeling. I say this one is harder to do because this means you are using your own facts to validate yourself. If you struggle with self-esteem, you may not necessarily believe facts could actually be positive AND realistic.

Needless to say, we need to have a healthy balance of both internal and external validation in our lives. If we are heavy on the external validation and light on the internal validation, what could happen? You got it: our brain’s reliance on an unrealistic expectation that external validation is the only way to feel happiness, joy, and all those other positive emotions.

How do we validate ourselves without it coming across as insincere, bragging, or even boastful? That is a great question! I think I have to refer you back to my post, Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills to first reflect on the difference in assertive and aggressive communication. Once you understand that assertiveness isn’t aggressiveness, then we can move on to the next step.

Coping Skills Alert

I am going to focus more on internal validation rather than external validation in this coping skill. My posts all about Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills did a great job about increasing our confidence in asking for what we want and/or need. I think it is time for us to focus more about how to ask for what we need from ourselves.

When we start to validate ourselves, it is going to feel awkward, maybe weird, and everything in between. Remember, this is a new skill that requires practice. It will take time for it to feel natural. With that little disclaimer given, let’s move on!

You will be happy to hear that there isn’t a crazy acronym for this (yippee!!!), but there are some rules to remember when it comes to treating yourself with kindness and validating your own experiences:

  • Be present with yourself!
    • This means you have to actually feel your feelings. Not avoid them, ignore them, or dissociate when they are present. You actually have to sit with your feelings, label them, and experience them. Want to learn more about how to be mindful of your feelings? Check out my post, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected
  • Reflect on what you are experiencing!
    • To reflect means to label what you are feeling accurately rather than guessing. For example, if someone close passes away, labeling your grief, sadness, and denial of their passing would be accurate compared to just feeling sad. Reflection just doesn’t happen with our emotions, it has to happen with what we are physically feeling. When we label our physical sensations (like a tight stomach or tense jaw for example), we are drawing attention to the whole experience
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  • Use your hippocampus!
    • Sometimes, we need to allow our hippocampus to review memories of times where we have felt the same way to help identify all that we are feeling. By doing so, we are also helping our prefrontal cortex draw on past facts to help you in a tough situation. This can help you validate strengths you have used in the past, as well as problem-solve situations that can increase your distress levels.
  • Remember: Everyone has emotions!
    • I feel like one of the biggest troubles with mental health is the idea that we all are supposed to be happy all the time. We really need to normalize the idea that we all have emotions. Emotions are not good or bad, they are just there. When we normalize how we are feeling, that means we are giving yourself the same patience we give to others when they experience the same emotions. Believe it our not, you deserve that same kindness.
  • Be honest with yourself!
    • Better known as radical genuineness in the therapy world, being honest about what you are feeling is a key in validating yourself. Many people try to lie about what they are experiencing (cue toxic positivity to enter the conversation) as a way to avoid feeling these hard, “negative” emotions. When we discredit these tough emotions, we also deny our experience. How invalidating is that?!
  • Take an educated guess!
    • There are situations where we truly don’t know , or can’t label, the emotions we are experiencing. This is where we prime our brain with some oxytocin, dig deep into into our hippocampus and ask “how would someone feel in this situation? Is that what I’m currently feeling?” By doing this, you are taking internal validation one step further by decreasing the shame of (ready for it?) being human and having a human experience!

I want to thank you for hanging in there for this post on the two styles of validation. With practice, you can ask for the validation you need to feel appreciated while offering yourself the validation you deserve! I believe in you!

To recap this post:

– Validation is the art of collecting facts for our prefrontal cortex

– External validation comes from people around us

– Internal validation comes from within

– There must be a balance of both external and internal validation to have self-confidence

Bonus Material!

Handouts are created to help you remember the facts of each post and help you implement the coping skill into your life. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over the definition of validation, the differences between external and internal validation, how to validate yourself. Enjoy!

Get the one-time payment plan

The one-time payment option allows you to get all the handouts in one neat file, or with each post.

References

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Using Journaling to Track Your Mental Health

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Many of us enjoy seeing progress. Whether it is progress in projects, progress in physical stamina, or even progress in our jobs, progress is clear information that we are obviously doing something right. What about your mental health ? Are you able to easily track the progress you make towards mental wealth? Many people struggle to see changes in their mental health. Changes happen over time, not instantly.

Journaling is such a powerful tool. Over the last couple of posts, we have discovered how mental health journaling is a skill that plays many roles. In today’s post, I want to talk more about one of those roles: tracking our progress and identifying patterns.

Want to learn more about how to make journaling work for you? Check out Journaling with a Purpose!

Throughout my blog, I have made note of the importance of setting weekly goals. Just like we talked the post, Depression and All That Jazz, goals assist us in getting motivated to create change in our life, release the feel-good neurotransmitters to help us improve our self-esteem and allow our brain to have structure to reduce symptoms of anxiety. What’s really cool about journaling is that it helps accomplish all three. Let me explain more.

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With journaling, you are slowly writing down things that have happened in your day–to-day life. Depending on the style of journaling you use, you are activating your prefrontal cortex to pull all sorts of memories of the day from your hippocampus. As we actively engage in reflection, we’re giving our brain a second chance to release some of those feel-good neurotransmitters. When we do this, we are providing that darn amygdala with evidence to either validate our experience from the day, or to use that information to grow and react in a different way in the future.

Tracking our mental health with journaling doesn’t stop just at the daily reflection. Journaling offers our brain a dopamine release every time we go back and read through it. How does it do that? I’m happy you asked! Let’s use the example of gratitude journaling for a minute. When you consistently practice gratitude journaling, you are creating a list of things that you can use as a resource in the future. For example, let’s say you are just having “one of those days.” One of those days when nothing goes right, nothing is working the way it should, and you knew it was going to be a bad day from the moment you opened your eyes. When you read back through your gratitude journal, you are priming your brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Remember what happens when we release dopamine? You got it! Those stress neurotransmitters, adrenaline and norepinephrine, are slowly put to rest. This means our stress levels decrease the more we reflect on our gratitudes.

Missed out on the other journaling posts? Never fear! You can find them here:

Mental Health Journaling: Why it Works

Types of Journaling: Why You Should Care

Now, let’s say you use journaling prompts like Journaling with a Purpose! use. You are still tracking your mental health as it is giving you crucial information on healthy coping skills and the times that you have used them effectively. As we reflect on how you answered those guided journaling prompts, your hippocampus and hypothalamus start to pull the memory in which you used that coping skill. What does that do? It helps your prefrontal cortex create a new pathway to talk to that darn amygdala and remind it to stop being a drama queen. This same tracking also helps our brain rewire itself as we are reusing the information you have learned. Practice (there I go again, sneaking in that dirty little word) is what is needed for your brain to learn a new way to react.

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This reflection and tracking help us with our mental health in another way: identifying patterns in our behaviors. If we use a journaling style, like bullet journaling, it can help us clearly outline certain behaviors, feelings, or even situations that trigger us to react in a certain way. As we are able to recognize these patterns, we are able to help that tournament the and prefrontal cortex to look at what healthy coping skills we need to use. Learn more about these coping skills in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Why it Works or in Distress Tolerance and how Wise Mind Helps us Accept What is Going on) to help create a change that makes life easier for us.

When we identify patterns in our behaviors or actions, it supplies our brain with some pretty crucial information. For our prefrontal cortex, it helps us identify things we are able to control and change. In our hippocampus, it helps connect the emotion with the memory that we will experience in the future. For the hypothalamus, it can communicate with the prefrontal cortex on identifying how to respond to strong emotions. Lastly, the information used in identifying patterns allows that danrn amygdala to slow its butt down and take a que from of the rest of the limbic system.

Confused by that last paragraph? Don’t be! Check out the post that explains it all:

The Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively)

The other benefit to identifying patterns is an unfortunate but crucial one. Identifying patterns can help us improve our mental health by changing behaviors in our control and can show us if our mental health is backsliding. When we journal, we can look for those little nuances that could predict a relapse to anxious symptoms, debilitating depression, and an overall sense of being out of control. By identifying these patterns, we can have the control in our fingertips to create a positive change so those symptoms do not plague us for nearly as long as they would’ve previously.

Who would have thought that a simple coping skill, like journaling, could provide so much more than just an outlet for emotions? Science did! I want to thank you for taking time to read this post and gather more information for your prefrontal cortex to decide if journaling is a coping skill you need to have in your life. Do you want help making journaling part of your life? Come check out Journaling with a Purpose! to learn more about our program designed to do just that.

To recap this post:

– Journaling can help release feel good neurotransmitters when you reflect on what you have written

– Journaling helps track patterns that support mental health growth

– Journaling helps us keep track of patterns we want to change

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GIVE a bit to Yourself in Relational Effectiveness

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Hello and welcome back to the series of posts on interpersonal effectiveness skills. Today, were talking about a very important part of interpersonal effectiveness: relational effectiveness. What is relational effectiveness? I’m happy you asked! Let’s start exploring how we use relational effectiveness every day in our lives.

Missed out on the last posts? Check them out here:

Interpersonal Effectiveness

FAST ways to Self-Respect Effectiveness

Relational effectiveness is part of the pillar of interpersonal effectiveness that we use in DBT treatment. By definition, relational effectiveness is our ability to interact with other people. When you think about it, the way we interact with people can say a lot about what we are experiencing. For example, if we’re having a nasty day and we are cranky, we may come across as bitter or blunt to the people we talk to. Even if we try to “put on a smile,” our body language may say ‘just leave me the hell alone!”

The goal of relational effectiveness skills is to ensure healthy communication is happening between you and another person.

– Carissa Weber

The science behind why relational effectiveness skills work isn’t outlined in one or two specific studies. Rather, it is outlined through various studies of human interaction. Now, as I’ve been doing research for this particular post, it is been hard to differentiate how different communication styles impact the brain versus how different kinds communication impacts the brain. Either way, these communications with people have a very similar way of working in our brain.

Almost all of our verbal communication involves our prefrontal cortex (that amazing part of our brain that helps us process objective facts), the insula (which we learned about helps process our spatial awareness), and other parts of our brain used for our sensory needs (like the occipital lobe for what we see, our parietal lobe for how we process movement, and the temporal lobe for our hearing). These integral parts are responsible not just for formatting how we will communicate with a person (whether it is verbally or through our body language), but also in how we listen to and process the information the other person is giving us.

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This is where that darn amygdala comes in. As the rest of the brain is trying to stay with the facts (and just the facts) the senses are giving us, that darn amygdala is combing through the hippocampus and hypothalamus to find how we have reacted to this information in the past. This is what helps puts emotion in to our reactions.

So as you are calmly talking to someone, and your darn amygdala picks up on something iy may or may not like (for example, the other person mentions they dislike pizza and you would eat pizza for every meal every day), it may tell the thalamus to impulsively lead the charge to belittle someone for not agreeing with you. Likewise, that darn amygdala may have found a memory stored away when you had a bad pizza experience (seriously, I don’t think there is a bad pizza experience out there), it may relay to your prefrontal cortex to talk about that experience instead.

During this time, the prefrontal cortex is like “Whoa! Look what you just did to that person!” It gives you flashes of sensory information that tells that darn amygdala you did a wrong (insert a sad face here). This leaves us nurturing those negative core beliefs and cognitive distortions, ultimately leading to us feeling bad about ourselves.

Missed out on learning about core beliefs and cognitive distortions? Check out my post: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Why it Works

Coping Skills Alert

This is where the skill, GIVE comes in. You guessed it: another acronym!! What is GIVE? Great question! GIVE is a set of rules we can use to help keep our relationships healthy or engage in new relationships in a healthy way. Let me explain a bit more.

GIVE helps us remain respectful to the people we are interacting with and helps guide our body language to convey the same amount of respect and interest we expect from others. Not only does this ensure your prefrontal cortex and your insula have accurate information, this allows the triple-f response to not become activated by that darn amygdala’s ultimate dream of not being rejected.

As we start off this acronym, let’s start at the beginning with G: gentleness. Some of you may be wondering, gentleness in a conversation? How so? Let me explain it through an example. Have you ever known what you want to ask someone, like to help out with the dishes, but rather than asking, you just tell them to do it? When we look at this example, we aren’t asking for assistance, we are telling them they will assist us. When we do this, we are not taking into consideration the other person’s needs or even their ability to meet our needs.

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Being gentle with people means we must be able to tolerate if someone tells us they cannot fulfill our need. That assertive boundary they are placing (which is a healthy coping skill) needs to be respected. This leads into another part of being gentle: acceptance. Refraining from making threats, laying down guilt trips, or using manipulative language to co-hearse somebody to violate their own boundary to meet your needs it is not being gentle. Likewise, if someone is using the same exact behaviors and communication tactics, they are not being gentle with you.

The next letter, I, represents being interested. How many of us have had conversations with people and we truly are not interested in what they are talking about? As a parent, I can tell you I may or may not have tuned out conversation’s my children have had about their favorite movie after they’ve talked about it a thousand times in that day. In reality, when we do this we are disengaged from the actual conversation and meeting our needs or the needs of the person we are talking to. Using active listening skills, like head nods or repeating back what you heard, allows another person to physically see that you are invested in that conversation.

The skill of being interested and engaged in conversation also brings up an important skill: patience. Often times, we want to relate to the people were talking to by interjecting our opinion, our experiences with the same topic, or share something that popped randomly into our brain. By showing patients and refraining from those sudden urges allows the other person to feel connected with you. Do you know what that means? That means the release of oxytocin in our brain! That oxytocin release will help both you and this other person develop trust and respect between one another!

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Moving on, we have the letter V. Validation is huge when it comes to nurturing healthy relationships. Validating someone else’s feelings is called external validation. This is where we demonstrate our unbiased attention and acknowledge what another person is experiencing. As we validate people, we are being sensitive to their needs. We are also acknowledging limitations that may prevent another person from meeting our needs. When was the last time you received external validation? Do you remember how you physically felt you received it? For me, when somebody lets me know that I have heard what they are saying, I can feel the dopamine and serotonin being released as a smile comes across my face. That external validation allows me to know that I am helping someone their needs.

Last but not least, we have the letter E. The capital E represents easy. Come again? When we talk about easy in building healthy relationships, we are relating more to an easy manner of discussion. When we approach people in a relaxed manner, we are engaging people in a softer, dare I say it, gentler way. By sharing humor and relaxing our body posture, we are creating an inviting area to discuss how to meet one another’s needs.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes some situations call for urgency. For example, if we’re getting ready to leave the house and I can’t find my wallet, there will be an urgent request to help me find where my wallet ran off to (note to self: always check the play kitchen oven!). But this is done only when there is urgency to a situation and constantly coming to people in a pressured way can make it hard for them to connect with what you really need. This is where practicing some good old fashion distress tolerance prior to asking for help can improve your communication.

How can we practice GIVE? That is a great question! This acronym seems more like a guideline versus an actual practicing skill. Rest assured, you can still check in with yourself prior to engaging with people to ensure you are able to be gentle, interested, prepared to validate people, and take a relaxed approach. This thinking before acting takes time and practice to master (there is that dirty “P” word again!). As you slow down and check in with this acronym before and during a conversation, your prefrontal cortex will start to identify facts about the situation that will support or disprove how you are currently reacting. Do you know what that means? That means it is slowly taking the driver’s wheel from that darn and putting itself in charge!

I want to thank you for your time in reading this post. Interpersonal effectiveness skills can be difficult to conquer. But when we slow down, take a breath, and take accountability for how we are reacting, we can grow healthy relationships that are supportive!

To recap this post:

– Relational effectiveness pertains to developing and maintaining healthy and supportive relationships

– Communication with people include both verbal and nonverbal cues

– GIVE will help you identify ways to help meet your needs while being respectful and gentle with the people around you

Bonus Material!

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With your premium content subscription, you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over relational effectiveness, GIVE, and ways to practice it on a daily basis. Enjoy!

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References

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FAST ways to Self- Respect Effectiveness

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Welcome to the third installation of interpersonal effectiveness skills! I’m so happy you were able to join us and learn more about how these set of important skills can:

  • Improve how we interact and communicate with the people (and the world) around us
  • Identify and ask for our needs to be met in a respectful (and assertive way)
  • Gain the ability to remain responsible for our own reactions, not for others

Want to learn more about interpersonal effectiveness skills? Check out my previous posts:

Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills

DEARMAN: How Can I be Objective with What I Want

In this post, I will be talking about a crucial part of interpersonal effectiveness: self-respect. Now, this may be a touchy post for people to read, mostly because a lot of us struggle with this novel idea of respecting ourselves. Don’t worry! This post is designed specifically to help you start to take those small steps to recognize where you deserve self-respect. You ready for it? Let’s go!

Self-respect has become an infamous sign of not loving ourselves. This is a common (and dare I say popular) belief that is taking over our world. By nature, humans are people pleasers and strive for acceptance and love. When we feel rejected or abandoned, it is easy to turn our frustration inward. This frustration soon fuels that darn amygdala to do something about it. Unfortunately, what that darn amygdala does is something we don’t like.

That darn, stubborn, and impulsive amygdala does not like rejection. It turns to our good friends, cognitive distortions, to figure out why we were rejected. As you recall from my previous posts, that darn amygdala asked FAST to keep us safe. Sometimes, that darn amygdala justifies its actions by pointing out things about ourselves that we truly dislike.

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This, in turn, initiates the process of creating negative core beliefs about ourselves. The more our darn amygdala feels rejection, avoidance, or even conflict from people, the more strength those core beliefs gain. Now, some of you may be saying “I get that Carissa, I know how to challenge that.” But do we really? When you look at the stats out there, 85% of adults world-wide (that’s right, world-wide) report issues with their self-esteems (Nyguen, 2019). That number is massive!! Negative core beliefs and the reaffirmation of them through how our darn amygdala filters information leads to how we view ourselves and how we should be treated by people around us.

For those of you who got the opportunity to miss out on the formative years of being a teenager, self-esteem is having confidence in your own worth and abilities. We have all experienced, at some point in our lives, being unsure of ourselves. But if you find yourself constantly doubting yourself, avoiding doing things you are unsure of, or even saying hurtful things about yourself, you may have low self-esteem.

Anyways, back on track. A study was done in 2017 by UCL (University College of London) to track where self-esteem originates in the brain. When study participants were faced with negative situations, like rejection, as well as positive situations, like being accepted, what researchers found was pretty darn cool: people who struggled with a sense of self had lower function in their prefrontal cortex. In fact, only one part of their prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas Tree: the Insula. What the heck is that? The insula is this amazing part of the brain that is responsible for self-awareness: both physically and emotionally. It can support spatial awareness, taste, sensation, and processing pain. It also plays a huge role in addiction, but that is for another time.

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When we have low self-esteem (in turn, now self-respect), the insula is totally confused about what it needs to do because it is receiving information from the thalamus (thanks to the filtering of that darn amygdala), that we are in pain and afraid. This makes us question what we really need because the sensory input doesn’t match the message that darn amygdala is sending.

What was interesting in this study is people who had a stronger sense of self and confidence in their ability had less insula activity and more prefrontal cortex activity. Even when they were experiencing rejection, their prefrontal cortex was still able to remain in control. Notably, these are the same test subjects that shared they felt good about themselves and what they believed.

So how does this trace back to interpersonal effectiveness skills? Have you ever heard of the saying “treat others the way you want to be treated”? We often treat people with respect, but do not extend the same curtesy to ourselves. When our darn amygdala has the insula in hyperdrive, we really get hard on ourselves and start hating everything wrong with us. Here is a news flash: we all have stuff wrong with us!

Need help on talking to yourself kindly? Check out my post: Realistic Affirmations: The Hardest Emotional Regulation Skill

Using self-respect in day-to-day life is crucial as it safe guards us against several things:

  • maladaptive coping skills like using illegal substances, choking that annoying co-worker, or self-harming behavior
  • overstepping boundaries we need to keep to maintain our physical and mental health
  • Engaging in unhealthy relationships
  • Ignoring our basic needs in order to be accepted
  • Increase symptoms of anxiety and depression

As we start to engage in self-respect, we are acknowledging we have basic human needs, just like everyone else. Self-respect allows us to be fair to ourselves while being respectful to other people. Self respect gives us the ability to be honest and assertive when communicating with people around us. Lastly, self-respect gives us a chance to become comfortable in our own skin.

Self-respect is more than just how comfortable we are with ourselves. It is also how we portray ourselves to people. Think about it for a minute. How we communicate to people around us (you know, like taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions) says a lot about the comfort level we have with ourselves. It is also the base for developing trusting relationships. Self-respect is one of the most important things we can develop.

Coping Skill Alert

One way we can assure we have self-respect when we communicate with other people is to follow the rule of FAST. This rule will help you be kind to yourself, while not taking on more responsibility than you need to in order to keep a relationship healthy. What I love about FAST is it is a road map to check in with yourself to ensure you are treating yourself with the same respect you are showing other people.

Like every other good therapy skill, FAST is an acronym (I bet you’re loving acronyms by now!). Let us dive in and start taking a look!

Created by Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

First, the letter F. F stands for treating yourself fairly. In conversations, people who struggle with self-respect tend to become passive about their needs. Maybe you have put other people’s needs before your own, even if you have a legitimate need and the other person has just a want (are you feeling called out? It’s okay, I just called myself out)? Perhaps you talk down about yourself or even down play your own natural abilities (like that amazing talent of knowing where everything is in your house?)? When we treat ourselves fairly and acknowledge our needs, we are giving ourselves permission to be human.

Created by Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

The letter A is more of a don’t do. A stands for apologies. Are you known for excessively apologizing? Do you even apologize to the wall when you walk into it? I know I have done it. When we over-apologize, we invalidate our own experience. We also give that darn amygdala information that confirms those pesky core beliefs and tear down our self-esteem. Now, apply that to a conversation with a person. We are carrying all of this unnecessary weight in the hopes that someone will validate us. Don’t get me wrong, we need to apologize when we really are in the wrong (like me eating the last piece of chocolate after realizing it was promised to one of my kids), but over-apologizing continues to leave us in a cycle of worthlessness and depression.

Created by Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

I really love S. S is the beginning of sticking to your values. As we’ve pointed out in earlier posts, humans are herd animals. We crave acceptance from the people around us. Unfortunately, at times, this means we sacrifice our belief system in order to be accepted and validated by those around us. DON’T DO THAT! Part of having relationships with people mean there will be conflict. Shoot, there may even be judgement. But that is okay. Know why? Because every person is an individual. We are allowed to have differences in opinions, to value different things. We can be respectful how we share (or hear) another’s value system. You are a human and have the right to be true to who you are!

Created by Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

Last, we have T. The letter T in FAST represents truthfulness. Even though being honest in a conversation is a gimme, let’s talk a bit more about what truthfulness looks like. When you are talking to a person, we are relaying information that represents you and your experience. If you are over-exaggerating, omitting crucial pieces of your experience, or even tell that “little white lie” to spare someone’s feelings, you are not being honest. When the person you are communicating with discover these little discrepancies, their trust in you will be tested (or broken depending on how big the lie is). When we come out and are authentic about who we are and why we need what we need, it allows another person to help us. Talk about a respect builder!

This post contained a lot of information about the importance of self-respect! I want to thank you for letting me help you on your journey towards mental health. Some parts of this journey are not comfortable, but these are the parts that allow us to grow!

To recap this post:

– Self-respect is having confidence in yourself and dignity in your work

– Self-respect plays a role in how we communicate with people around us

– FAST is a way to ensure you are maintaining respect for yourself and others

Bonus Material

Get the Worksheet Bundle!

With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) go over the skill FAST and questions to ask yourself to ensure you are using FAST. Enjoy!

Get the one-time payment option

The one-time payment option allows you to get all the handouts in one neat file, or with each post.

References

  • Jan Will, Geert, Rutledge, Robb, Moutoussis, Michael, Dolan, Raymond (2017). Neural and computational processes underlying dynamic changes in self-esteem. Retrieved from https://elifesciences.org/articles/28098
  • Nguyen Dat Tan, Wright E. Pamela, Dedding Christine, Pham Tam Thi, Bunders Joske (2019). Low Self-Esteem and Its Association With Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation in Vietnamese Secondary School Students: A Cross-Sectional Study. Frontiers in Psychiatry,10, 2019, pg 698 https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00698
  • Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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DEAR MAN: How I can be Objective with What I Want

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Welcome back to this series of posts on interpersonal effectiveness! I’m so happy you decided to take a deeper look at what interpersonal effectiveness is and how to use it in your daily life. In my last post, Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills, we discussed:

  • Interpersonal effectiveness is how we interact and communicate with the world around us

  • Stress and cognitive distortions can filter how we interact with people

  • By slowing down, we can improve our connection with people around us

Interpersonal effectiveness is a foundation in DBT, and is something everyone can benefit from. In this post, we are going to talk about one part of interpersonal effectiveness: objective effectiveness. This particular set of skills is all about the most effective way to identify what you need out of your relationships. It’s all about how to ask for those needs, and (most importantly), how to resolve any issues with the person you are communicating with if your needs cannot be met (wait, did I just describe assertive communication?).

Confused about what DBT is? Check out my previous posts:

DBT and Distress Tolerance Skills

Improving your Distress Tolerance Skills, One TIPP (or two) at a Time

Distress Tolerance and Learning to ACCEPTS it

Distress Tolerance and how Wise Mind Helps us Accept What is Going on

When you think about it, objective effectiveness plays a role in every part of our life: working with co-workers, parenting our children (or parenting our parents), interacting with strangers, even talking to a store associate when you can’t find the toilet paper. Needless to say (especially in the last case), this is a very important skill to learn.

How does objective effectiveness work in the brain? That is a great question! While I was preparing to write the post, I searched high and low about the impact of objective effectiveness on the brain. Low and behold (just like my post, Why is Change So Hard?), finding research directly related to objective effectiveness is at best difficult. Why do you think that is? Could it be because objective effectiveness, like it’s parent skillset, interpersonal effectiveness, is constantly happening? Perhaps. Upon further digging, I found some information about how objective effectiveness impacts the brain in another therapy theory: attachment theory.

credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

To make it brief, attachment theory is the study of how we, as humans, attach to other humans. There are four types of attachment, all surrounding how secure we feel in asking for our needs to be met. When we feel safe, secure, and confident with the people around us, our brains release the neurotransmitters oxytocin, GABA, and glutamate. As our brains do this, the prefrontal cortex is able to pass information through the thalamus to the hippocampus, saying “This is so nice! People are so loving and caring.” In turn, this allows our darn amygdala to put down any cognitive distortions that are being used when we take in information. Now, if we aren’t so secure with the people around us, that darn amygdala is going to trigger the release of the hormone, cortisol. If you remember from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, you’ll know this triggers that darn amygdala to go on high alert. The cognitive distortion filters come out and suddenly our prefrontal cortex is scrambling to figure out if there are any facts to disprove the information that is being funneled in by that darn amygdala.

There are a lot of things that can impact our connections with other people. Examples of this include an abuse history, emotionally neglectful relationships, poor past experiences with customer services, substance use, and a partridge in a pear tree. These events shrink our hippocampus and make it so that it remembers the bad situations. Since we can only remember the bad, we don’t trust that the people around us can meet our needs. This can throw our interpersonal effectiveness skills out the window.

Stay tuned for a future post all about attachment theory and how it impacts your mental health

If you have found yourself experiencing any of the above, you know how hard it can be to trust that what you want (and need) out of a relationship will actually happen. That is where DEAR MAN comes in to play. DEAR MAN is a coping skill that allows us to:

  • challenge the information the hippocampus has stored about getting your needs met
  • identify what we need from the relationship
  • how to ask for our needs in a respectful way
  • providing ourselves with respect

Are the science terms throwing you off? Start of with my first post to help you understand the terminology:

The Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively)

Doesn’t that sound like a great idea? I think it does. I’m all about finding a way we can rewire the brain so we can feel good, mentally, again. Part of feeling good is having relationships we can rely on (and release oxytocin with). That is why DEAR MAN is an important skill: it helps us realize we are not alone.

Coping skills alert!

If you have not guessed it yet, DEAR MAN is another acronym. There sure are a lot of acronyms in therapy, aren’t there? That doesn’t mean that they don’t have science behind why they work! DEAR MAN outlines all the steps we need to make objective effectiveness work in our relationships. By practicing these steps (all that darn practicing sure is flexing that limbic system!) you will be able to improve your ability to communicate clearly with people around you (better known as assertive communication).

“D” stands for describing things objectively. We’ve talked about the importance of finding the objective facts in many previous posts. By sharing what we objectively need, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t need to sift through all of the other information bombarding it to know what the point of focus needs to be. This gives that darn amygdala little time and little information to try to filter the information and go off catastrophizing things again. The end result of being objective means the person you are communicating with will have the information to be on the same page as you. What does that mean? That means oxytocin can be released and action can be sparked by the person you are communicating with!

“E” represents express. This one I can feel readers tighten up about. Expressing ourselves mean we have to own those feelings. For example, if I am the only one taking out the garbage in my house, it is simple for me to say “you guys are so lazy! Why am I the only one who does this?” Now, did I express myself? Most definitely. Did I take ownership of how I was feeling? Absolutely not! If anything, my language was more on the abusive side than helpful. Let’s look at that situation now from an angle where I take ownership. If I am the only one taking the garbage out and I need help, I could say “I’m feeling so frustrated because the garbage is always full. Can we talk about how to fix that?” We took ownership of how we were feeling (the “I feel” part) and shared what was causing the feeling (the garbage being full). We also expressed what we needed to do to resolve that feeling (the talking about how to fix it part). “I feel” statements are great because we are labeling emotions, not reacting to them.

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“A” ties right in there with express. A is for assertiveness. For people who are more passive in their communication, assertiveness may feel aggressive. Rest assured, when we are assertive, we are not aggressive. My above example about my family being lazy? That is aggressive. How can you tell? Reread that example and say, out-loud, how your body reacted to that statement. Did you tense up? Start to feel anxious? Were you ready to pull out your dukes and fight back? Yup, those are all signs of aggressive language. Assertive language comes from being clear about what you can and cannot do. Another great example? Making dinner. If someone asks “hey, can you make dinner tonight?” what would be an passive response? Perhaps that passive response would be “I don’t know if I can” and then goes on to avoid any communication with that person prior to dinner. An aggressive response would be “Stop putting the work on me! You know I hate cooking!” Both of these responses leave us with extra stress that isn’t needed. Now an assertive response would be like “I won’t be able to make dinner as I’m working late.” That response is clear, is honest, and expresses why you cannot meet that need. How does that help the brain? It helps because we are vocalizing a boundary to help keep our mental health, healthy.

“R” is the all-important reinforcement. When we engage in any conversation, we naturally do things that reward people we are talking to. Think about it: When we say “thank you” or when we let the person we are talking to know how their help in meeting our goals will impact us, we are rewarding people. You know what that means: feel good neurotransmitter release! This act of getting our goals met gives us a dump of oxytocin (which helps us feel connected and respected), a sprinkle of serotonin (because getting our needs met makes us happy), large helping of dopamine (because we accomplished something), and all served with a side of GABA (responsible for calming us down when we make that connection). Maybe it is just me, but I think the science proves the R is the most important step of DEAR MAN!

Time to move on to the M in DEAR MAN. “M” is all about the mindfulness. Before you say “didn’t we talk about mindfulness already in Mindfulness: The Art of Being Calm, Cool, and Collected?”, hear me out. Mindfulness in a conversation is a tad different than the mindfulness we talked about as a coping skill. In general, mindfulness is all about being present in the moment and moving distractions aside to do so. In the case of mindfulness in conversation, we are staying focused on our goal and avoiding getting sidetracked. Putting our prefrontal cortex to work, we are prioritizing our goals before other things get done. A great example of this would be our pesky to-do list. When we pick one thing to do at a time, and focus just on that task, we are being mindful of that task. So when we are in conversation, and that person says “lets talk about what kind of dinner you’re going to bring home tonight,” you can use the E in DEAR MAN to say “I do want to talk about dinner, but after we finish setting up who is taking care of the garbage today.” This assertiveness may make you start to feel like a broken record (especially if you are talking with someone who is trying to multi task too many things), but it is this broken record feeling that is helping you keep your eyes on the prize of meeting your goal.

Now, if someone comes at you verbally because you are holding your boundary: use some good ol’ fashion distress tolerance to ignore their attempts to build a barrier to your goals. Use techniques to calm your body down, ask to take a break from the conversation, DO NOT ENGAGE IN BULLYING BEHAVIOR, use radical acceptance, or try opposite action. Part of being mindful in a conversation is to understand conflict can, and may, happen. That is okay. Conflict doesn’t mean someone isn’t able to meet your needs, they may need more information on what your needs are.

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Our verbal language is not the only way we communicate our needs to people. Our appearance and body language can signal our needs as well. That is where the second “A” comes into play. A stands for appearing confident. When our body language meets our verbal communication, it provides our prefrontal cortex with a clear message as to what is being asked. Standing tall, giving good eye contact, and avoiding unnecessary fidgeting or hand gestures, will allow the person you’re communicating with to understand clearly what your goals are of the communication. So if we are someone who tends to crack their knuckles when we feel nervous and anxious, we may come across in a conversation that we are not assertive with what we need. Let’s hope that everybody’s prefrontal cortex has been given a clear message by showing we are confident in what we know that we need.

We finally made it to the letter “N”! Before we get there, I want to thank you for sticking it out with this post. There is a lot of science behind effectively communicating and meeting our needs. All of that science will help you better understand why these steps are so important for developing objective effectiveness. Now on to the letter N!

“N” stands for negotiation. When we are talking with another person, you may find out through their communication they might not be able to fully meet your needs, however, are willing to come up with a compromise to meet the majority of your needs. This is where it’s important to negotiate the goals that are most important to you. Let’s put this in example form shall we? Let’s say we go to work this week and we get bombarded with projects, extra tasks, and other little meetings above what we usually do. If we are able to negotiate, we will be able to assertively say to our boss “I can handle this extra work for a week, but this cannot be the new normal.” When we do this, we are speaking assertively, identifying what we are able to do, and able to compromise on special occasions. When we communicate this, we are showing the person we are connecting with that we are willing to be flexible while still meeting what our goal is. Another example of this could be seen in the garbage example we used earlier. I can easily communicate with my family “hey, I have no problem doing the garbage, but if somebody could take it out before it overflows when I’m not home, that would be appreciated.” Note how I was assertive with my need that I can’t be the only person doing garbage. Also note in this example that I offered flexibility and a compromise. When we look at this same step in our brain, what we are doing is activating our hypothalamus to pair the appropriate emotion with the action and information we are seeing. In essence, we are actively rewiring the brain!

Whew! That was a lot of information! I am so proud that you took the time to invest in your mental health by reading how to use objective effectiveness in your day-to-day communication. The journey through interpersonal effectiveness is a hard one as these skills typically require us to communicate with other people. I assure you, when you invest in these skill sets, your brain will thank you!

To recap this post:

– Objective effectiveness is a skill set to help us identify and meet our needs when conversing with other people

– DEAR MAN allows us to effectively communicate our needs, and have the met too!

– Utilizing objective effectiveness allows our brains to release oxytocin and feel secure in our communication and attachment with people around us

Bonus Material

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