Treasure The Pleasure

Treasure The Pleasure

One of the themes of MindSurgery London’s May Mindfulness course has been Treasure the Pleasure. So often we rush from one end of our day to the other without feeling like we’ve had many moments of pleasure at all. The world we live in now is always selling us the next best thing – bigger, better, brighter, the idea that the real treasure is somewhere around the corner.  Now more than ever, we need to skill of paying attention, and that includes paying attention to and appreciating the small pleasures of our day.

It is easy to dismiss this as happy-clappy nonsense, but the brain has an in-built negativity bias; it’s like Velcro for the bad things that happen to us, and like Teflon for the good.  The makes perfect evolutionary sense. Our brains evolved to keep us alive; the brain’s number one priority is our survival.  For early humans roaming the Savannah, trying to look for food while avoiding predators, the brain evolved to pick out the negative information and give it greater weight.  After all, we would live to see another day without nice juicy berries (good information) but we definitely wouldn’t if we were eaten by a tiger (negative information)! In other words, the negativity bias, the tendency that things of a negative nature have a greater impact on our psychological state than positive ones, helped to keep us alive.

We are now living in a modern world, where most of us don’t have to worry about our immediate survival, but we still have the same old hardware of the brain, making us more responsive to negative information.  But there are things we can do to combat this. The daily practise of ‘treasuring the pleasure’, or engaging our full attention and focus, being present in that moment, on the small pleasures of our day can help to balance out this bias. We don’t need to wait for the big pleasures in life – the next holiday, the next job promotion, a fancy meal out – but instead we can learn to get maximum positive effect out of the everyday pleasures; the sound of birdsong, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, a moment of connection with a loved one.

And this brings us to the question of method – how? Mindfulness is the perfect skill to bring to this challenge as it helps us to pay attention in a particular way, on purpose, and without judgement. We can use the mindfulness practice of the senses to really drop down into being mode, and disengage from thinking mode. By focusing on our senses – the feel of the warmth of the coffee mug, the smell of the coffee, the taste of the first sip. By bringing our attention and focus to these elements of our present experience, we are directly experiencing the small pleasure, instead of gulping back our coffee while rushing around the kitchen, hunting for the house keys. By making this a habit throughout our day, we can go some way in redressing the balance of the negativity bias. We can nourish ourselves with these small acts, adding to our bank of positive experiences, ensuring that there is capital to be drawn on in times of stress or challenge. And like stringing pearls together on a necklace, they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Renowned Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem Canal Bank Walk, captures this with beautiful brevity and invites us to  ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal.’ 

 

(c) MindSurgery London 2017

 

 

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Rumination:’Chewing the Mental Cud’

Cow 2

Have you ever watched a cow chew the cud? The mechanic, circular movement of the jaw; the dead-eyed stare; the seemingly never-ending sameness of the action. The word “ruminate” derives from the Latin word for chewing cud, a process in which some animals grind up, swallow, then regurgitate and rechew their food. Similarly,  as humans, we can all have a tendency to  ruminate or mull over a situation, turning it over and over in our heads.    It becomes rumination and not problem solving when we no longer have any new ideas about solving the problem, but replay the situation in our minds regardless.  When ruminating we tend to focus on causes and consequences rather than solutions; why has this happened to me or what will happen in the future rather than how can I solve this. We all ruminate to a greater or lesser degree; think about a conversation you’ve had with, say, your boss at work, a conversation that didn’t go the way you’d hoped. You turn it over and over in your mind, worrying at it, second-guessing and teasing out meanings that may or may not be real. The gift keeps on giving – we have all had the experience of thinking back on something that irritated or annoyed us, and feeling irritated and annoyed all over again even if the event happened quite a while back.

We ruminate because we are trying to come up with a solution, or trying to make sense of something.  Sometimes it can feel as if we are stuck in a rut of rumination that we cannot get out of.  In my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, I regularly see how rumination is linked to anxiety and depression.  This is supported by large scale research which shows that excessive rumination on negative events acts as a mediating factor between a negative life event and stress and is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety.  In other words, a bad thing can happen in your life, but if you have a tendency to ruminate on this, you are much more likely to experience higher stress and increased risk of developing anxiety and depression. It is not only what happens, but how you process what happened that is important.

It is not just our mental well-being that suffers if we ruminate excessively, it also has a negative impact on the rest of our bodies.  Ruminating on  a stressful event can extend cortisol stress responses and keep the physical stress responses including pounding heart, breathlessness, sweatiness, feeling flushed or light headed going for longer too.   In this way, repeated rumination can have a negative impact on our physical health.

Breaking the habit of rumination

What can we do to break the habit of rumination? Seeing a Clinical Psychologist for a limited number of sessions can help change thinking habits.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT is one of the approaches that you are likely to learn in sessions to give you practical strategies for managing your thoughts in a more helpful way.  Mindfulness based therapies can also be a very helpful approach to manage rumination as it teaches us not to attach to thoughts, and helps us to take a step back from the cycle of rumination.

Aside from individual sessions with a Clinical Psychologist, there are also practical first steps that you can take now to reduce rumination:

  1. Become aware of when you are ruminating.  ‘Thought catching’ or identifying that you are ruminating is the first step towards change. Take time to check in with your mind throughout the day and see what it is doing.
  2. Once you catch yourself ruminating, label it as such by saying to yourself ‘I’m engaging in rumination now’ thus creating a distance between you and your thoughts.
  3. Distraction and switching activities can also be a good way to start to break the cycle of rumination.  Beware of passive activities like watching TV or surfing the Internet as these are prime times when our minds can slip into ruminating without us being aware.   If you sit on the couch with the TV on, but really you are ruminating on an argument with a loved one, then you need to do something to focus your attention elsewhere. Get up and engage your attention with another task – plan your day, make a call, do a crossword, decide what to cook for dinner…it can be as mundane or marvellous an activity as you like as long as it involves focusing your attention somewhere else.
  4. Go for a walk – it may be what your granny told you but there is research to show that going for a walk in a nature filled area is correlated with lower levels of rumination. The nature bit is important, just going for a walk around the block won’t do it – research has shown that urban walks did not have the same effect on rumination as a walk in a natural environment. Go walk in your local park, a forest, or a farm – you might even meet those cows, ruminating, while you free yourself from it!

© Copyright MindSurgeryLondon Ltd. 2016

MindSurgery London provides individual therapy sessions and also runs events for well-being and mental health. For further information please contact us at mindsurgerylondon@gmail.com.

References

Kinderman P, Schwannauer M, Pontin E, Tai S (2013) Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076564

Zoccola, P. M., Figueroa, W. S., Rabideau, E. M., Woody, A. & Benencia, F. (2014). Differential effects of poststressor rumination and distraction on cortisol and C-reactive protein. Health Psychology, 33, 1606-1609. doi:10.1037/hea0000019

Gianferante, D., Thoma, M. V., Hanlin, L., Chen, X, Breines, J,. Zoccola, P. M., & Rohleder, N. (2014). Post-stress rumination predicts HPA axis responses to repeated stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 49, 244-252. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.07.021

Zoccola, P. M., Rabideau, E. M., Figueroa, W. S., & Woody, A. (2014). Cardiovascular and affective consequences of ruminating on a performance stressor depend on mode of thought. Stress and Health, 30, 188-197. doi:10.1002/smi.2588

Bratman, G.N. , Hamilton , J.P., Hahn , K.S, Daily, G.C & Gross, J. (2015).  Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS. 

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567.full.pdf

 

The Desire Myth: The things you never knew about sexual desire

The Desire Myth: The things you never knew about sexual desire

What if we were missing some vital information on desire and how it works in our bodies? What if this information could help us view our bodies and our sex lives differently?

In my clinical practice as a Psycho-Sexologist and Clinical Psychologist, I see many women who feel that something is very wrong with them if they don’t experience sexual desire in the way that they expect.  They complain of low libido, low sex drive, no interest in sex….

Behind these complaints is often the idea is that desire is something innate, something that we feel or that we don’t, something that is spontaneous and cannot be forced.  But where do these ideas come from? Popular culture, magazines, films, all portray desire as something we can think of as spontaneous desire.  Spontaneous desire is high adrenaline, it’s exciting, it’s ripping each others clothes off.. it’s Hollywood, it’s porn, it’s advertising, it’s pop songs.

But, is there more to desire than this? Our understandings of sex and desire have been changing slowly over the past 50 years, since Master’s and Johnson’s pioneering sex research.  More recent theory and research led by Rosemary Basson, Clinical Professor at University of British Columbia, and her colleagues, introduced the concept of responsive sexual desire.

Responsive desire is when the motivation to have sex begins AFTER something sexy has started happening. For example, you are sitting on the couch watching TV, not thinking about sex at all, not feeling remotely horny, and your partner leans over and starts kissing your shoulder, your neck, and you think, ‘Mm thats nice’, and things continue and after a while you feel desire, ‘in the mood’. That’s responsive desire. You are responding to the context and situation. Desire has come out of an openness to go with what feels good.

Desire can be spontaneous or responsive. Desire is not a pre-requisite for sex, it can follow with an openness to see what feels good. Of course there are reasons that some men and women don’t experience either spontaneous or responsive desire, and that can be very difficult, but more about that in another post..

Spontaneous desire is more common a style in men, and responsive desire more common in women, but both men and women can experience both at different times.  Women’s desire tends to be more varied and more sensitive to context. Relationship dynamics, mood, intimacy, and how we feel about our bodies, all play an important role in women’s sexual response.

Research on style of responsive versus spontaneous desire in men and women and found that about 30% of women and 5% of men experience their sexual desire as more or less exclusively responsive, while about 15% of women and 75% of men experience their desire as more or less exclusively spontaneous. About half of women experience some combination of both spontaneous and responsive desire, depending on the context.

Why do we need to know this?

Media and popular culture and even out-dated academic research may have us believe that if, as women, we don’t feel desire in the way that it is most commonly culturally portrayed then SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH US… Responsive desire doesn’t translate so well onto the screen or into cultural media. It’s a slower burn. But it is absolutely just as normal as spontaneous desire.

Understanding responsive and spontaneous sexual desire can change how, as women, we view ourselves and our sex lives. It saddens me when I see women who are so quick to label themselves and their bodies as faulty in some way, when it is perfectly normal to not feel spontaneous desire much or any of the time. And of course, this can lead to a vicious circle where some women feel that they are not meeting some imagined sexual standard in terms of desire and sex drive, so then feel less sexy, and are less likely to experience desire.  If they believe that spontaneous desire is the one true desire, then they can often abort any sexual activity without going with the flow to see if desire follows….

Men, what does this mean for you?

Often the male partners I see feel that their partner’s lack of spontaneous desire means that she has gone off them, or are no longer attracted to them.  At the beginning of a relationship, sex is commonly more frequent, and spontaneous desire is more common in both men and women. With time, as the relationship progresses, frequency of sexual activity reduces, and also the responsive style of desire can become more dominant for some women. Men, be reassured that simply because she does not experience desire in the same pattern as you, this does not (necessarily!) mean she is not attracted to you or that she has low libido.

Take charge of your sex life!

There is nothing more guaranteed to kill any kind of desire than the belief that you are somehow broken or faulty.  Language matters. The more you and your partner label you as being somehow ‘deficient’ in desire, the less opportunities you have to escape this label. So, embrace your desire style, whatever it is. If responsive desire is more common for you, think with your partner about how you can create situations so that you are open to responsive desire.

Let’s start breaking down the dominance of spontaneous desire. Let’s stop buying into the idea that desire is one dimensional.

So perhaps the question to ask your partner is not ‘are you in the mood tonight darling?’ But rather, are you up for seeing if you get into the mood…

Mindsurgery London provides individual sessions, face-to-face and over Skype, for a range of psychosexual issues. See http://www.mindsurgerylondon.co.uk for more details.