Earlier this year in a couple live broadcasts, Dr. Graham Taylor answered questions about multitasking and EPPP exam prep. His two-part series explored some of the common challenges people face when trying to navigate their EPPP preparation around other commitments like family, a job, and internships, and how to effectively overcome these challenges. In the second video, Dr. Taylor considered the dark side of multitasking and shared some research showing that the more you multitask, the worse you become at it.
Research shows that much of what we experience in life is fundamentally ambiguous and open to a variety of interpretations. (For more about that, see our earlier article, ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing.’) One of the ways we make sense of life’s circumstances is by the meanings we ascribe to those circumstances. The problem arises when we impose negative meanings onto our experiences that are based on a distorted view of reality.
Psychologists who have studied human thought and communication have identified some common distortions or “thinking errors” that cause many people negatively to frame their experiences. There are many lists of these thinking errors on the internet, but below are ones I have identified as being the most common and relevant to everyday life.
We often assume that the ability to quickly learn material and master different fields of study comes down to how smart a person is, or how good of a memory they have. But research increasingly suggests that raw talent has very little to do with overall success in life, including success in learning. Instead, success has a lot to do with the strategies and techniques you choose to follow.
Over the years I’ve been blessed to work with TSM in researching the techniques used by various experts who have become leaders. Many of these strategies have been woven into our learning platform.
Whether you’re a high school student studying for a final exam, a college student struggling to keep up in class, or a psychology student preparing to take the EPPP, these learning techniques can make the difference between success and failure. These ten strategies can also spell the difference between a study process that is full of stress and frustration vs. one that is fulfilling and fun.
Mindfulness—moment by moment non-judgmental awareness of the body and its sensations—has been associated with better emotional management and self-regulation. (For a definition of mindfulness, see our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain‘.) Here is just a smattering of the emerging academic research on the relationship between mindfulness and emotional maturity:
- Shauna L. Shapiro, Gary E. Schwartz, and Ginny Bonner, “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 21, no. 6 (December 1, 1998): 581–99, doi:10.1023/A:1018700829825.
- Ortner, C. N., Kilner, S. J., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion, 31(4), 271–283.
- Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the learning to BREATHE program on adolescent emotion regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252–272.
- Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.
But exactly how does mindfulness help with emotional regulation and maturity?
First of all, mindfulness can help us better to manage our emotional states simply by calming us down. Research shows that when mindfulness is practiced in the context of meditative breathing (i.e., spending time taking deep breaths, bringing your entire attention to the present-moment sensation of breathing), it helps to slow down the heart-rate and underscore feelings of safety, and thus to shift the brain away from the types of fight-flight-freeze responses that hijack the higher cognitive functions. (For more about this, see our earlier article “The Power of Positive Breathing.”) When we are calm, we are able to think clearer, and thus not be as subject to emotional impulses.
Secondly, the skills that mindfulness helps us to develop – skills like attentional control, self-awareness and meta-cognition – all involve the same mental muscles involved in emotional maturity and self-regulation.
A third way that mindfulness can help with emotional self-regulation is to increase the gap between stimulus and response. Research shows that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are recognized by the conscious mind. (See our earlier post “The Emotional Body” for evidence of this.) For example, resentment may be felt in a tightening of the neck; fear may be felt in a speeding up of the heart-rate; anxiety may be experienced as an increase in the rhythm of one’s breathing. Because of this link between emotion and physiology, achieving moment-by-moment awareness of the body and its sensations (mindfulness) can give a person advanced warning about ways their emotions are being triggered. This advanced warning gives us time to engage in emotional self-monitoring and ask ourselves what the healthiest response actually is, instead of waiting until our emotions overwhelm us and we simply react. As Viktor Frankl observed in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
A fourth way mindfulness can help regulate emotions was suggested by Dr. Ron Siegel’s in his video “The Science of Mindfulness” below. Dr. Siegel, who is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, explains that often our approach to emotional discomfort is to do things that make us feel happier, and thus to decrease the intensity of discomfort and pain. Mindfulness works the other way round, by increasing our ability to bear with discomfort, both on the physical and emotional level. When our capacity to bear with emotional discomfort is enlarged, we are less likely to react to our emotions or to let them control us.
But how does mindfulness help us bear with emotional discomfort? In the video below (from 32:00 to 39:40) Dr. Siegel shows that mindfulness enables us to develop the cognitive muscles by which we can observe, as if from the outside, the parts that make up emotion. Every emotion is basically a body sensation and a thought. By practicing brain-based mindfulness (moment-by-moment non-judgmental aware of our cognitions), we can notice our thoughts coming and passing, but we don’t have to get drawn up into the thought stream either by fighting them or personalizing them. Instead, we can keep our attention at the sensory level. By being attentive to what is happening at the sensory level, we can notice our body’s sensations, including the sensations created by emotions, but we can treat these sensations in the same way that someone who is meditating might treat a fly or an inch: by objectively observing them but not getting caught up. Thus, when we notice the physiological correlates of emotion as they are experienced in the body, instead of letting these conditions dictate our behavior (i.e., giving into the emotion), and instead of fighting against them (thinking, “Oh my gosh, why am I feeling this!”), we can simply observe and be present with the feeling.
I still remember the night that convinced me I finally needed to join the twenty-first century.
I had just finished a long day helping as a judge for a debate tournament. By the time I finally headed home it was dark. Or at least, I thought I was headed home. However, the further I drove, the less I recognized of my surroundings. As the road progressed further and further up into the mountains, I remembered my young children waiting at a friends’ house for me to collect them. Finally, the road abruptly ended. Literally, it just ended. I had no choice but to turn around and start over.
At about midnight I finally pulled into the drive-way of my friends’ house to collect my tired children. I determined never to let myself get lost again: I would finally invest in a GPS.
Last year I received an invitation to speak at a conference for professionals in the caring professions. The conference was attended by doctors, nurses, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hospital and army chaplains, missionaries, marriage and family therapists, surgeons and students. The topic that the conference organizers had asked me to speak on was “Gratitude During Times of Suffering” and my marching orders were simple: explain how it’s possible to remain thankful in the midst of suffering.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at being thankful when things are going wrong. If I have trouble sleeping, I grumble the next day. If I don’t have enough money to buy something I want, I whine and complain to whoever will listen. If I have a physical injury, everyone in my circle of friends is sure to know about it. So expecting me to give a talk on how to be grateful during times of suffering is kind of like asking ask John Wayne to dance Swan Lake, or asking Justin Bieber to sing the part for Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend is always tearing her down and continually telling her that she’s stupid, unable to cope, that nobody likes her and that she isn’t pretty enough. What would you say to your friend? Obviously you would tell her she should break up with her negative boyfriend, or at least that she should stop paying attention to his continual criticisms.
Even though that is the advice you would give someone else, we often choose to pay attention to an incessant negative monologue about ourselves. The monologue of negativity isn’t coming from another person but from our own brain. Instead of “breaking up” with our negative brain, we pay attention to it.
Every year neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists make more exciting discoveries about the health benefits of gratitude. The research is now clear that if you want to achieve high levels of physical and mental fitness, practicing gratitude is a good place to start.
Before sharing some of this research, it may be helpful to recap the ground we’ve already covered in our ongoing series about gratitude.
Our earlier post How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice looked at six things anyone can do to achieve peace of mind. Step number 6 was to practice gratitude. I referred to research showing that when we choose to focus on all we have to be grateful for, this actually affects material changes in the brain, leading to a happier life and greater levels of mental peace. I built on this in my follow-up post, Gratitude and Your EPPP Prep (Peace of Mind Part 2), by considering the important role gratitude can play in managing stress, including the type of stress that is common among those preparing to take their psychology licensure exam (EPPP). Our post Gratitude as a Way of Seeing added to this understanding by considering why human beings have trouble being grateful for ordinary things. We explored ways to retrain your brain to “see” life in a way permeated with constant thankfulness.
It’s time to build on these previous posts by going deeper into the research on the neurological, psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude. Continue reading
Did you know that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are experienced by the conscious mind? We explored this in our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain,’ where we saw that subtle changes in mood are often experienced first in the body and only afterwards by the conscious mind.
The physiological effect of emotions was demonstrated by a group of scientists at the University of Iowa. The scientists set up a gambling exercise in which participants were asked to pick cards from a red deck or a blue deck. In the course of the game, the participants all eventually realize that over time it’s only possible to win by taking cards from the blue deck. But most people didn’t realize that until turning over 80 cards. However, the significant part of the experiment occurred before each participants consciously realized that the red deck was disadvantaged. About 40 cards into the game, their palms began to sweat when reaching for a card from the red deck—a clear sign of nervousness. Their body knew there was something wrong with the red deck 40 cards before their conscious mind was aware of it.
You may have heard a lot about mindfulness recently in the news and popular magazines. If you’re like a lot of people, you may find yourself becoming confused about what mindfulness even is.
Currently newsstands throughout America are featuring a special edition of Time Magazine devoted to Mindfulness. It includes everything from ways to bring greater intent into your life to recipes for healthy smoothies. On my bookcase I have a little book Moments of Mindfulness in which each page offers an inspiring picture from nature with a short tidbit of positive psychology.
Faced with resources like these, a person might be forgiven for thinking that mindfulness is a blanket term covering anything that makes a person feel good.