Category Archives: Mindfulness

Ruminating: The Mental Health Killer

I teach a course on psychopathology. Each week we consider a different family of problems. We explore anxiety disorders, mood disorders (depression, mania), and anger/explosive disorders in the first few weeks in the class. Later on, we look at eating disorders, addictions, trauma, and psychosis.

While each of the presentations of problems vary widely from each other, there is ONE symptom that almost every person with a mental health problem experiences–repetitive, negative thought patterns. Rumination.

The content of the repetitive thoughts may change depending on the type of problem (i.e., anxious fears, depressive negative thoughts, illicit urges, fears of weight gain, hypervigilance, irritability, etc.) but the heart of the problem in most mental health challenges are negative thought patterns leading to an experience of either impulsivity or paralysis. These patterns can look like obsessional worries about germs (triggering ruminative “why” questions as to the root causes of the obsessions). The pattern can look like repeated negative self-attributions for perceived mistakes. Whatever the pattern, the person finds it difficult to break out of the negative thoughts and attempts at distractions seem futile since the thought or feeling returns in seconds to minutes.

Is there anything that helps?

Yes, there are things that you can do to reduce the “noise” level of these repetitive thoughts. It is important, however, to remember two important factors

  • patterns in place for years or decades are harder to change. Give yourself the grace to fail as you work to change them.
  • As with pain management, the goal should not be the complete elimination of negative thoughts and feelings. Realistically, anxious people will have some anxiety. Depressed people will feel darker thoughts. Addicts will have greater temptations. But lest you give up before you start, this does not mean that you must always suffer as you do now.

Consider the following three steps as a plan of action to address the problem of rumination.

  1. Build a solid foundation of health. Every house needs a foundation if it is going to  last. Your mental health foundation starts with your physical body: Exercise, diet, and sleep. Did you know that daily exercise, getting a good 8 hours of sleep each night, and eating a diet rich in protein supports good mental health and may even prevent re-occurrence of prior problems? Will this solve all your problems. No! But failing to get good sleep and eat a balanced diet of proteins will exacerbate your problems. Sleep is especially needed. The lack of it will multiply your problem. Of course, getting sleep is difficult when you are worrying or depressed. Thus, work to develop a different bed-time routine. Shut off your electronics, do mindless activities like Sudoku, develop rituals that help promote sleep. If you are having trouble with this or your diet or exercise, find a trusted person to review your situation. And avoid all/nothing thinking that often leaves us paralyzed when we can’t reach our goals. On this point, read the next step.
  2. Prepare for change by accepting your struggle. What, I thought this was helping me out of my struggle? Acceptance is the beginning of change. Consider this examples. You struggle with intrusive negative thoughts about your belly. You don’t like how it looks. You’ve tried dieting and exercise, but still it is flabby. Every time you look at yourself, every time your hand rests on your belly, you hear (and feel) that negative narrative. The first step in change is to accept the body you have and to find ways to like it, even love it. Sounds impossible but it is necessary to accept all your parts. This does not mean that you won’t continue to exercise and eat well. Marsha Linehan suggests that one part of change is to accept the problem as it is. In her Dialectical Behavior Therapy model she speaks of choosing willingness over willfulness. Willingness opposes the response “I can’t stand this belly” by saying, “my belly is not as I would like but it is not all of who I am.” “I can’t stand it…” becomes a willful and yet paralyzing response. Whereas acceptance acknowledges the reality and chooses goals that are within one’s power to achieve (e.g., healthy eating choices). Acceptance is not giving up but preparing for realistic change.
  3.  Start to move. Consider these action steps as the beginning movements you undertake in a long process towards the goal:
    1. “So what?” Our ruminations are often filled with interpretations and assumptions. There are times we can challenge them by attacking the veracity of the assumptions. But we can also ask, “so what?” So what if I have OCD? So what if have to fight every day to stay sober? So what if I have to manage my schedule so as to not trigger a bipolar episode? Challenge the worst thing that you are afraid of.
    2. Develop a counter narrative. Rumination is a narrative. Begin by writing and rehearsing a counter narrative. It won’t have much power at first compared to your internalized rumination but it will gain power over time. Work to refine it. Choose to repeat it as often as you see the trigger for the rumination. Make sure your counter narrative doesn’t include self-debasing or invalidating comments. If you have trouble writing one, use Scripture passages that speak of God’s narrative, through Christ, for you. Be encouraged that developing alternative storylines has shown capacity to alter chronic nightmares. If nightmares can be changed, then even more thoughts and feelings during the day.
    3. Practice being present. Much of our lives are run on auto-pilot. When we are in that mode, it is easy to fall into rumination. Work to stay present, to be mindful and attuned to your surroundings. Notice ruminations but let them slide on out of view and bring yourself back to the present. Use your senses that God gave you to enjoy the world he made. Smells, sounds, sights, taste, and touch all give you means to enjoy that world. Start practicing staying in tune with it, a few minutes at a time and build your capacity as you go.


Filed under addiction, christian counseling, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, counseling skills, mental health, Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Physiology of fear

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Image via Wikipedia

Had a conversation regarding fear and anxiety with someone yesterday. In light of that I am resurrecting a post I wrote from 2007 (with a few edits) regarding the physiology of fear. We often view fear as only a spiritual or faith problem. But for those who want to know what is going on in their bodies when they experience fear, consider the following:

(Those interested in other posts on anxiety can search that and related terms in the search box at the upper right hand of this blog)

Am teaching on anxiety, panic, and OCD tonight. Definition of anxiety: Responding to ambiguous stimuli (life situations) by reading them in the worst or most dangerous possible light. The Scriptures teach us that fear and worry are not good things. Time and time again God tells his people not to be afraid. We see that God wants us to see life through a different set of eyes, much as Elisha wanted his servant to see the army of angels instead of their enemies (2 Kings 6). But given the numerous encouragements to not give in to fear, we must admit it is a common struggle for every human being. Some struggle more than others.

What is going on with those whose lives are filled with worry and fear? Are they less spiritual? More sinful? It is easy to say, “buck up” to folks who are anxious–and entirely unhelpful to most. Logical challenges to fear (e.g., really, what is the chance you will die in a plane crash today?) may help some in the moment, but usually don’t get to the root of the matter. Jesus encourages fearful people by pointing them to see life from 40,000 feet. He doesn’t deny risk and suffering but encourages folks to keep their eyes on him. And with Peter, he reaches out to grab him even when he does start looking at the waves.

But what of the physiology of anxiety? What do we know and how does the christian counselor make use of the data?

  1. Fear responses are quickly learned and seemingly etched into the amygdala. One bad experience of food poisoning from a turkey sandwich at Applebees means my stomach tenses a little when I see deli turkey, even without remembering the food poisoning. Imagine what happens if you suffer repeated assaults or worse! The earlier the person is exposed to deep fears, the more likely they suffer from hyperarousal and startle responses.
  2. Neurotransmitters are involved which means you act first and think later. There’s little conscious cognitive processes involved until after anxiety is under way. Fear inducing stimuli lead to immediate neurotransmitter changes that then divert blood from organs to muscles. Tension builds, shallower, less effective breathing begins. Carbon Dioxide levels decrease in the blood stream which in turns creates pain, numbness, and a sense of danger. And so the cycle continues. During and after, we make attributions and so enhance the connections of the feared stimuli and our flight response. The higher the perception of pain, the greater fear/flight response. Despite medical advances, most of our medications either shut down the feed-back loop (beta blockers, anti-anxiety meds like xanax) or attempt to increase the available neurotransmitter serotonin associated with positive outlook.
  3. OCD, in particular, has some probable links to early exposure to viruses such as Strep and Flu. There is a higher incidence of OCD in people born during winter months and who live in colder climates. The link is not clear.
  4. PTSD patients have higher right hemisphere brain activity (than do non-PTSD individuals) when exposed to anxiety provoking stimuli. Further, it appears that trauma patients have greater difficulty coming back to “center” after a trigger. Likely the hypothalamus and other brain structures are overactive in the stress response and do not “cool” down quickly.

That’s just a few things we think we know about the physiology of fear. Now, what do we do with fear from a spiritual standpoint?

  1. Worship. Worship/meditation on other things takes our attention away from the fear stimulus. It forms habits and relationships as we repeat what we want to believe until we actually own it and believe it on its own merits.
  2. Fight. We do challenge our thinking as soon as we can. Yes, the fight/flight chemicals are coursing through our veins but we challenge just the same so we can break some of the connections and the ways we reinforce our fears. One other way we fight may seem a bit odd. We admit there are real things that are scary and overwhelming out there. We do not try to deny the reality of suffering (past or future) but admit it over and over. It is scary to die. I was assaulted in that alley. I am in pain and more may be coming. But, God is with me and it is good to call on him and ask him tough questions about his protection of me.
  3. Stay Present. Being present in the moment is essential to avoiding living in the fear of the past or the future. Some fear is indeed in the present but most are not. When I am able to focus or describe the now, I am less likely to be imagining a future feared event. “Right now I am sitting at my desk and looking at a picture of my children and enjoying the smiles on their faces. Right now I am getting ready for bed and working on a sudoku puzzle and noticing that I am getting tired.”
  4. Work. Building habits where I do not allow myself to run from the feared situations (where appropriate!). Moving myself closer to some of the feared scenarios in a slow and consistent manner. No, this is not flooding (where you are dumped in the pit of snakes because you have a phobia of snakes…). Allow the work to take the time to reorient the deep recesses of the brain. Don’t expect or look for immediate change!


Filed under Anxiety, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling science, counseling skills, Mindfulness

Practicing new ways of feeling?

As you fall asleep, do you have a common thought or feeling pattern? As you wake up? In the shower? We are creatures of habit in this regard–we maintain our perceptions (of self, of the world) even in the light of contradictory information or experiences. This is why a pessimist always expects the worst and a narcissist always expects to be right. If you could categorize all your thoughts and feelings, what would your perception pattern look like? Hypervigilant? Discouraged? Embittered? Hopeful?

Now, can you change this pattern? For example, if you are not inclined to be hopeful, can you practice hopeful responses–even when things really do go south? And if you can change the pattern, what does that change look like?

Here are some of my thoughts…I would love to hear from you about what you do to practice something other than your usual way of looking at the world.

1. It is possible to re-write our narratives. How we talk to ourselves about an event either will solidify a feeling or begin to change it. For example, my wife recently had a sleepless night. She was able to use that time to talk to the Lord even while she was feeling out of sorts. In the morning, she had a positive, if also tired, way of feeling about the night.

2. Change does not look like zero experiences of an old narrative running through our head. Change looks like being able to recognize the old but also a new pattern as well. This change is not merely talking yourself out of one schema and into another. Rather, mindful awareness of threads of your experience that have been there all along get more play and so therefore become more salient over time.

3. Change isn’t permanent. Just as a professional athlete cannot go without practice, we cannot expect effortless maintenance of a new way of feeling.


Filed under counseling, Mindfulness, Psychology, Uncategorized

Guest post on mindfulness

I have a post this am on the Society of Christian Psychology’s blog regarding the topic of mindfulness. I’ve written more here on the topic but you can go here to see my comments on the makings of a Christian Psychology version of mindfulness.

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Chronic pain and the Christian faith

Last night’s Counseling & Physiology class covered the topic of chronic pain. There are a number of syndromes and disorders that cluster around pain as the presenting problem: Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, back pain, etc. Depending on which research study you read, some 9-17% of the population struggles with some form of chronic pain.

While these various forms of pain are quite different, there are some commonalities. Chronic and diffuse pain sufferers frequently experience some form of inflammation, fatigue, sleep disruption, negative mood, and poor memory (its hard to pay attention to new information when you are weighed down by pain). We don’t really know what causes what but we do know that these symptoms form a vicious cycle. If you don’t get restorative sleep, you experience more fatigue, you are more prone to negative thought patterns, your pain levels go up, memory goes down…and thus you don’t sleep well the next night, and so on. Researchers describe this vicious cycle in terms of “allostatic load”–the deleterious effects of chronic stress hormones without restorative sleep.

Because of the diffuse nature of pain (vs. focal) and the lack of obvious objective evidence of that pain (a big red spot, a swollen limb, etc.), chronic pain sufferers and their families struggle to understand whether or not the pain is real and what they are truly capable of doing. How do you measure pain levels? It’s pretty subjective! Thus, it encourages more “I should be able to…” thinking in all parties. Those not suffering chronic pain do more damage by implying that the person is just looking for attention, is just being lazy. Those suffering pain who either deny the pain and try to do too much or refuse to engage the world and withdraw from it do damage to themselves–real physical damage.

As with all physiological problems, one’s mood, one’s perceptions, one’s focus, one’s stress levels impact severity of the problem. While chronic pain is not just in one’s head, how one responds to chronic pain may help alleviate or elevate the pain sensations. Ironically, many pain sufferers resist counseling because they fear that others will believe that their symptoms are all in their head. Those who refuse to acknowledge the psychological factors in pain sensation and management miss out on important means to cope with the pain and to lower pain perceptions.

Chronic pain sufferers must accept the need to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate more rest. They must fight to get the best restorative sleep possible. These are probably their primary practical responses–even above medical treatments (and I’m not knocking medical treatments nor saying that just getting sleep will solve the problem).

One of the biggest challenges for pain sufferers is the matter of hope and faith. When we suffer problems, we often hope they will go away. And when they do not, or only get marginally better, it is easy to slide into despair. Despair usually is the result of things not going the way we hoped or expected they would. Part of dealing with chronic pain is grieving what is lost in order to accept–even enjoy–what strength and health we do have. Without hope, we lose what self-efficacy we once had, thus not doing the basic care-taking activities within our grasp. Interestingly, one of the clearest signs of this struggle is the massive dropouts in pain management research. Frequently, dropouts number about 50% in these studies. This means that before a study gets too far along many are dropping out because they assume the new treatment isn’t going work.

Faith is not that things will go my way right now but that God is in control, cares/protects me, and is working for my ultimate redemption–even when the opposite seems to be true. Faith is acting in a manner consistent with said assumptions even while grieving over real losses. Such faith enables us to be mindful of our thoughts so that we do not practice into beliefs counter to what we have come to know as true.

The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well (asks God for relief, stays in community with others, seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and yet still willing to explore and confront hidden sin in self) begins to see that in the midst of the pain, God is there and providing momentary help. Such a person need not act as if the pain were nothing but will look for and rejoice in 5% improvement, 10% more comfort, etc, rather than demanding complete healing as the determinant as to whether God is present with them in their distress.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Despair, Mindfulness, suffering

Stress & Christian mindfulness, part 2

In the last post I reviewed some simple definitions of mindfulness, including some of the Buddhist ideas behind a version of mindfulness. In this post I want to consider how mindfulness, when reconsidered in the light of Christian thought, can be a valuable part of counseling practice.

A thought about mindfulness and the brain

Let me detour to one more thought about biology and mindfulness. What happens in the brain when a person is practicing mindfulness? Thought and feeling patterns result in neural activity in the brain (or is it the other way around?). Repeated neural activity creates stronger connections between neurons (increased synaptic activity and denser connections with neurons in the same neighborhood. Repeated activity leads to greater blood flow and activation in particular regions of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity.

Thus affective and cognitive patterns can indeed change your brain. Think about this. What patterns of thought do you engage in on a repetitive basis? Do you have a habit of fantasizing? Mulling over bitter or jealous thoughts? While some of these may come naturally to you, what you do with them may actually change or strengthen neural connections in the brain–for better or for worse.

Is mindfulness healthy or relativistic?

Mindfulness, no matter whether you take a religious, consciousness, or relational approach to it, includes the stepping back from shoulds, oughts, and other judgments. One might think that this would be dangerous for Christians. Within Christianity, there are rights and wrongs, truth and lie, righteousness and unrighteousness. The Bible is, among other things, the single guide for Christians to determine how to live for God. SO, it begs the question whether Christians should be wary of anything that seems to let go of shoulds and oughts?

Another view of shoulds and oughts

In my experience, those suffering from anxiety and depression suffer from a disorder of judgments. They are flooded by shoulds and oughts. Their self-talk does not seem to come from the Lord but are already laced with prejudice. “You should have been more vigilant against danger AND you weren’t. You’re a failure.” “You shouldn’t be rebellious BUT you are always a screw-up.” “I shouldn’t have to suffer this way AND God must not care for me.” Notice that most of these forms of judgment are careful consideration of the facts and experiences but well-formed opinions that may be based on only a smidgen of the actual events in their present circumstances.  Notice that these forms of ruminative thinking come in disguise as careful, logical thinking. They are not. What they are narratives–well-practiced narratives–that have an already formed conclusion that we repeat regardless of the actual facts of our lives.

Mindfulness, then, is stepping back from these narratives. Mindfulness is a practiced discipline of just noticing and describing events so as to process them more carefully instead of automatically repeated a script or mantra. Mindfulness provides the opportunity to discover “what is” rather than compound suffering by focusing on what we just assume. Consider Dan Siegel (The Mindful Brain, p. 77)

When the mind grasps onto preconceived ideas it creates a tension within the mind between what is and what “should be.” This tension creates stress and leads to suffering.”

While I’m sure I would vigorously disagree with Siegel on what a preconceived idea is, on what can be healthy “should be’s”, and much more, he has a point worth considering. Have you ever engaged in a fantasy conflictual conversation with someone you are about to meet. You play out yourself winning, being mistreated, standing up for what is right, and so on. Notice how such conversations aren’t useful. They only increase your level of stress because your brain responds to the inner drama as if it were really happening, when it has yet to happen. In this way, Siegel is right. We create tension that leads to suffering.

Using mindfulness in Christian Counseling

I’m running out of room here and won’t be able to do justice, in this post, to the most practical part of mindfulness. [Isn’t that just like us academics. We spend all our time pointing out problems but we never solve anything!]. Mindful practice may include time practicing being present in one’s surroundings. The counselor may encourage clients to take in their surroundings. While many thoughts may race through the brain, the mindful person may choose to not follow them but “drink in” the creation beauty around them–things growing, art, or anything that is a delight to the senses. This form of discipline must be practiced in de-stressed times so that it will be available during a crisis–just like a basketball player practices free-throws over and over so as to make the shot when there is only 1 second left on the clock.

Such work is the work of taking every thought captive. and resting (a la Psalms 131) without grasping after things “too wonderful” for us.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Meditations, Mindfulness

Stress & Christian mindfulness, part 1

I’ve written about mindfulness in the past and based on numbers of folks coming to my blog looking for information about Christianity and mindfulness, I thought I might write just a bit more here. My intention is to write in two parts. Part 1 will cover some basics about stress and the idea of mindfulness. Part 2 will explore how Christian counselors might think critically about the topic and consider its use in their practice.

If this is not a term you are familiar with, you may wish to explore the goodly number of books in your local store discussing the topic. Why the interest? There is clear evidence that mindfulness has positive health benefits by reducing our stress responses to the chaos in our lives. Mindful individuals appear to have greater amounts of patience, able to avoid impulsive responses to stress, process rather than react to emotions, have greater capacities to be curious, open, accepting, and loving.

Stress and your body

It is well-known that small amounts of stress activate the body but larger amounts make us sick. But, did you know that the same biological response system that fights viral intruders activates with high levels of stress? Your immune system works in this manner (okay, my simplistic rendition): Your body senses an intruder. The microphages that come in contact with a virus act like little ants sending messages to their buddies to come and defend the colony. One of the messenger chemicals is interleukin-1. Your resulting fever is evidence that the body is working. But to work this hard, other bodily systems get such down. Your stomach and intestines stop or slow down their contractions, you lose your appetite, sexual drive, you have difficulty thinking clearly. These sick symptoms are more likely the result of your body’s defense mode than the virus that has intruded.

The SAME thing happens with high stress. Your pleasures centers shut down to conserve energy. Such activity decreases clarity of thought and pleasure and thus increases experiences of depression and anxiety. See how a vicious cycle of stress/distress leads to greater symptoms of depression/anxiety–a vicious cycle!

What is mindfulness?

Well, it depends upon who you ask. Definitions range from Buddhist forms of meditation, to being present in the moment, to being aware, to centering prayer, to having a nonjudgmental stance. So, for some it is a religious activity. For others it is a form of consciousness. And still others describe it as a relational “attunement” (e.g., a mother’s awareness of the meaning of her infant’s needs even before the cry; a service dog who picks up subtle clues that it’s owner is about to have a seizure). The truth is that each one of these fragments of definitions captures a little bit of what one observes in someone who is able to, in the moment, stand back from the chaos in their life and not react to it. Such people seem to be alert (not dissociated) to the moment, are being in the moment rather than reacting and doing something, are more likely to be describing events, feelings, perceptions, etc. rather than judging them.

In Dan Siegel’s The Mindful Brain (W.W. Norton, 2007), he lists a number of component parts to mindfulness:

  • Intention (rather than reactive), attention (aware), attitude (open, curious, non-judgmental)
  • Nonreactive to inner experiences (I notice my inner experience, but I am not merely my inner experience)
  • Observation, noticing, describing, labeling
  • Attending to sensations; acting with awareness
  • Either focused attention on the present or merely noticing all that passes through the mind

What about the Buddhist part?

There are two terms you’ll find when reading up on Buddhist meditation: vipassana (insight, clear thinking), samatha (concentration or tranquility). I’m not a Buddhist scholar but I do believe I’m in the ballpark about these next bullet points:

  • The goal is to get beyond (ab0ve) the experience of good and evil; of pleasure and pain to a higher level of experience
  • The goal is personal transformation and character development; awareness leading to the drying up of demands (desires?)

It is important to point out that Buddhism is not the only religion that espouses meditational practices. Christianity, from the beginning of the Church, has promoted the concept of meditation, albeit in significantly different form and purpose.

How ought we Christians to think about it?

Some might suggest that engaging in practices that encourage openness, neutrality (which is a misrepresentation of Buddhist practices) open oneself up to the occult. Others might be suspicious of hidden, subtle belief systems (personal transformation vs. Spirit-led transformation). These are legitimate questions. And yet I contend that we do not need to reject these concerns to acknowledge that God has given all humans the capacity to observe and grasp concepts that are true and right–even if we might staunchly disagree with their personal philosophies. This does not mean we take a concept into our life and practices without considerable critical thinking, but it does mean we are open to learning something that our own tradition has lost, ignored, or deemed unnecessary to healthy living.  I’ll attempt to do just that in the next post.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science, Mindfulness

Two ways to look at suffering

Yesterday, one of our pastors, David Goneau, preached on Acts 13 and made the following point: “Jesus’ Lordship advances through suffering.” His point was that through the book of Acts one cannot miss that the message of Christianity spread through the starter soil of opposition. Consider the cross, Stephen, Peter, Paul, James, etc.

So, there are at least two ways to look at our own suffering and hardships:

1. Not the way it is supposed to be. We rail against trauma, suffering, pain, death, hate, illness and much more because it is not the original design and we know it. Brokenness is something to be fought against; to be resisted at all cost.

2. The starter soil for our maturity. Who hasn’t had the experience of coming through a time of hardship with maturity that we wouldn’t want to give up? Haven’t we heard of those who raise children with disabilities say, “I wouldn’t have asked for this but I wouldn’t go back and change a thing.” Like some seeds that need to be frozen before they can bloom, we need certain forms of stressors to grow in maturity. (Consider the character of one who has nothing but luxury and never has to work!)

Is it hard to hold these two truthes at the same time? Yes! And followers of Jesus look for the day when their maturity will be complete and suffering will be no more–when Christ establishes his kingdom once and forever. Until then, we must try to hold on to both thoughts–to work against suffering everywhere (justice work) and yet allow what suffering we do experience to build character while we look for our relief.


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I have poison ivy. During the day I’m able, sort of, to distract from the constant itch. I want to scratch but I refuse to give in to the temptation. But at night, the itch seems to quadruple in strength. It screams at me: “Scratch me NOW!” And without much thought, I scratch away. Further, itches appear in other spots and I begin to wonder if I will have breakouts elsewhere. Did I touch my eye? What if it shows up there? Oh, and there’s that itch in my groin…” Certainly my mood takes a hit.

This experience got me thinking about cognitive/emotional and relational “itches” that all of us have. They may be desires, fears, beliefs, etc. During the day work enables us to set them aside for a time. But then evening arrives and with less to distract us, they come rushing at us with a vengeance. And we begin to scratch at the itch by ruminating, fantasizing that you have a different life, predicting the worst outcome, impulsively trying to get rid of the problem, or drowning with alcohol, food, or media.

What is your “itch?” Do you have mechanisms to deal with the itch without making it worse by “scratching?” How might you identify the underlying beliefs and “conversations” you have with the itch that make it much more difficult to deal with?

Soon, my poison ivy will be long gone. But many of our emotional itches never stop. Like Nash in the movie version of “A Beautiful Mind”, the itch did not go away even though he was able to distance himself from it and remind himself that he did not need to respond to it.  

This is a part of what it means to “take every thought captive.”

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Physiology Phriday: Your brain and your food

We all love certain kinds of foods and when we eat them, our pleasure quotients increase dramatically. Some recent work in brain imaging suggests that women with propensity for bulimia show “greater activation of key reward regions of the brain” after tasting a chocolate milkshake. These same individuals may also experience decreased activity in parts of the brain that control self-regulation and impulse control (as reported in the April 2009 Monitor on Psychology, pp. 48-49).

This area of research is new and so the results need replication plus interpretation. Does the brain function this way after years of bulimic behavior. Or, does the brain instigate or tempt such behavior (strong reward response plus increased impulsivity) with it’s prior functioning?

Of course, the individual struggling with bulimia cares only a little about the why. They really concern themselves with the what. How do I eat with moderation? How do I not eat for emotional reasons? Unlike alcoholics who can always avoid alcohol, everyone has to eat, and eat everyday.  So, what to do when your brain responds the way it does to food? Here’s a couple of practical ideas to start you down the right path:

1. Get a “coach” or counselor who you will be completely honest with. This coach will help you construct an eating schedule and an array of responses to eating or purging temptations.

2. Construct a realistic eating schedule that avoids avoiding food. Keep a food journal. Be honest. Keep troubleshooting with your coach until you find something that works best for you. Remember to check out your schedule (times and foods allowed) with a nutritionist.

3. Construct and use an array of behavioral responses to eating temptations. These include distractions, connections with others, ways to make the moment better, crisis call opportunities.

4. Develop mindful techniques to focus on eating, on stopping eating, on other forms of pleasure God has given you–even on the difficult emotions that you feel.

5. Identify controlling automatic thoughts and lies in your “script” that drive you in particular emotional and behavioral directions. These can be about your body image, about your relationships, etc. Begin responding to them with truth from God’s point of view. Make sure your coach and others know what truthes you are trying hard to believe.

6. As you recognize triggers, temptations, etc., also identify “ways of escape” offered you by God.

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