Erin Olivo: Emotional Literacy

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December 9, 2014

Erin Olivo: Emotional Literacy

Dr. Erin Olivo December 9, 2014

Erin Olivo, PhD, is a psychotherapist and assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. With Sounds True, she has recently released the new book Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life. In this episode, Tami Simon and Erin discuss the evolutionary roots and value of our emotions. They also speak about the cyclical nature of emotions and how they can affect us in seemingly contradictory waves. Finally, Tami and Erin talk about how we approach emotional reactivity as parents—as well as ways to teach our children how to healthily approach their own emotions. (63 minutes)

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Also By Author

Being Mindful of Not Being Mindful

Modern life is chock-full of habits of mind that get in the way of mindfulness. Be on the lookout for them in your own life. Steering clear of them will be part of practicing mindfulness.

Here are some of the most common things that pull people out of mindfulness:

  • Thinking about the past (literally taking you out of the moment)
  • Thinking about the future (ditto)
  • Multitasking
  • Judging, analyzing, criticizing, or evaluating
  • Attaching to thoughts or observations
  • Pushing away thoughts or observations
  • Having a lack of intention
  • Having a lack of compassion
  • Being in denial

 

WISE MIND LIVING PRACTICE

Catch Yourself Being Judge-y

Judgment is one of the most common ways to pull yourself out of mindfulness. Whether you are judging your experience as good, bad, or ugly, it’s an obstacle to be fully present in the moment. And you do it all the time. Everyone does. The way to do it less — the way to not let judging interfere with your ability to be mindful — is to increase your awareness of when you are judging.

Try spending a few days noticing all the judgments you make throughout the day. About anything and everything: “What the hell is that lady wearing?” “Yuck, this food is gross!” “I should not be the one handling this!” Any time you catch yourself playing Judge Judy, notice it, label it as a judgment, and resist the temptation to judge yourself for being judgmental. Then try to tell yourself the same story but with neutral (nonjudgmental) language: “Her shirt is bright.” “Oh, that is bitter.” “I have a task that I do not like.” With enough practice, you’ll begin to make that kind of switch automatically — in mindfulness practice as well as in life.

 

Looking for more great reads?

 

Excerpted from Wise Mind Living by Erin Olivo

Erin Olivo, PhD, MHD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University. She has a psychotherapy practice in New York City. See erinolivo.com.

Erin Olivo: Emotional Literacy

Erin Olivo, PhD, is a psychotherapist and assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. With Sounds True, she has recently released the new book Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life. In this episode, Tami Simon and Erin discuss the evolutionary roots and value of our emotions. They also speak about the cyclical nature of emotions and how they can affect us in seemingly contradictory waves. Finally, Tami and Erin talk about how we approach emotional reactivity as parents—as well as ways to teach our children how to healthily approach their own emotions. (63 minutes)

Why You Should Start Cultivating Mindfulness Now ̵...

Dear friends, please enjoy this inspiring article from clinical psychologist and Sounds True author Erin Olivo on the many benefits of cultivating mindfulness in our lives. Erin is author of the excellent audio learning program entitled Free Yourself from Anxiety: A Mind-Body Prescription, in which she offers a series of simple, yet very effective guided meditations for relaxation and resilience.

Why You Should Start Cultivating Mindfulness Now – by Erin Olivo, PhD, MPH

Have you noticed how the term mindfulness is popping up everywhere? It’s no longer just reserved for Buddhist retreats and Yoga Journal articles. Mindfulness is the hot topic at the office for coping with stress, and the media can’t seem to get enough of it—Time magazine’s cover story this week is on “The Mindful Revolution,” The Huffington Post has a “GPS for the Soul” section, and a search on The New York Times comes up with almost 200 articles on mindfulness in the past year. Mindfulness has clearly reached buzzworthy status.

The first time I heard the term mindfulness was in 1993 while I was getting my masters degree in social work. But it was after reading Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, M.D. that I had my “aha” moment with mindfulness. This book explained the unique psychological contributions of the teachings of Buddhism (including mindfulness meditation) and how to combine them with psychotherapy. I was getting my Ph.D. in psychology at the time, and that was exactly what I wanted to do.

So why should you start cultivating mindfulness now? Not because it’s trendy, but because it’s key to Wise Mind Living. If you want to live a balanced life and make choices from Wise Mind, practicing mindfulness is one of the most fundamental skills you’ll need.

But first you need to understand exactly what mindfulness is. In its essence, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, accepting it without judgment, and not thinking about the past or future.

There have been countless books written about mindfulness, and you can check out my Resources section for some recommendations. However, I suggest you start by reading this article from Women’s Health that gives a concise introduction to the concept of mindfulness. As the article says, practicing mindfulness can be done any place at any time, and you can bring mindful awareness to any activity.

Over time, the more you practice mindfulness, the more focused and connected to yourself and others you’ll become. Ultimately this will lead to a sense of heightened awareness. A recent New York Times article discussed how mindfulness trains the mind to stay on task and avoid distraction:

“Your ability to recognize what your mind is engaging with, and control that, is really a core strength,” said Peter Malinowski, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. “For some people who begin mindfulness training, it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality, that they have the ability to stay focused on something else, for instance their breathing, and let that emotion or thought just pass by.”

So my homework assignment for you is to set aside 10-15 minutes each day to start your mindfulness practice. Many people find that listening to a guided meditation in the beginning is quite helpful, and you can try using my Mindfulness Practice audio meditation.

If you’d rather do it on your own without a guide, then try this simple exercise. Get into a comfortable position, sit still and just pay attention to your breath. We focus on breath because it’s always there, which means you can always observe it because it’s a part of you, and it’s neutral. When thoughts enter your mind that pull you away from concentrating on your breath, just try to let them come and go like clouds passing through the sky. Don’t try and figure out what they mean, just observe.

And don’t try to change your breath in any way, just pay attention to how it feels. Try to notice how your breath comes and goes in your body. While you’re doing this you’ll likely notice that simply observing the rise and fall of your breath gives you a feeling of calmness when you focus on it, very similar to the way you feel when watching the waves at the beach.

Ideally you’ll incorporate this practice into your everyday life, because bringing mindfulness to your choices will make you more likely to follow through and succeed! Just remember that mindfulness meditation is a skill that does require practice, and the longer you do it the greater the benefits it will produce.

Mindfully,

Erin

Contemplation

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Buddhist psychotherapist Bruce Tift is a master at holding these two seemingly contradictory views, and—ready for this?—he does so “without any hope of resolution.” In this podcast, Tami Simon and Bruce Tift talk about how, in his work with clients, he skillfully embraces both the developmental view of psychotherapy and the fruitional view of Vajrayana Buddhism, the blind spots that come with each approach, and how combining them can help people avoid these pitfalls. 

Tune in as they discuss unconditional openness, and how it is important to be “open to being closed”; how neurosis requires disembodiment, and further, how our neurosis is fundamentally an avoidance strategy—“a substitute for experiential intensity”; our complaints about other people (especially our relationship partners) as opportunities to take responsibility for our own feelings of disturbance (instead of blaming other people for upsetting us); how to engage in “unconditional practices,” such as the practice of unconditional openness, unconditional embodiment, and unconditional kindness; and more.

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Unwinding Trauma and PTSD: The Nervous System, Somatic...

The mind-body connection is still a new concept in Western medicine. Descartes’s declaration “I think, therefore I am” encouraged many to view the mind as separate from and superior to the bodyfor almost 400 years! So, to understand the discovery of feedback loops in the nervous system linking body and mind is to undergo a major paradigm shift, with radical implications for how we view and treat conditions like trauma and PTSD—and how you can empower yourself around your own healing journey.

Why Embodiment Decreases for Trauma Survivors

Until trauma survivors feel their safety has been truly restored, their nervous system relies on defensive mechanisms like dissociation, numbing out, or immobilization. This can feel subjectively like becoming a two-dimensional “stick figure” energetically, with a body that’s barely there.

If you feel like you’re not really inhabiting your body, know that it’s not your fault and you probably had very good historical reasons to leave it. With recent advances in mind-body therapies and somatic psychology, however, there are many ways—when you’re ready—to safely return to experiencing your fully embodied self. 

Perhaps the most popular of these therapies is Somatic Experiencing®.

What Is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing is a form of therapy originally developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It proceeds from the premise that trauma is not just “in your head.” Though you may feel off-kilter psychologically in the wake of trauma, you’re not “crazy”you have a nervous system that has been put into overdrive.

The body can’t distinguish physical trauma from mental or emotional trauma, and this leads the brain, once you’ve had trauma, to get stuck in a state of believing that you’re in perpetual danger.

Without a way to shake off the effects of having been in a dangerous situation in the past, trauma survivors disconnect from their bodies; the trauma gets “frozen” inside. With this frozenness in the body, your emotions can become dysregulated easily; you might at times feel spacey, agitated, depressed, panicky, collapsed—or all of the above.

Again, it’s not your fault that any of this is happening: dissociating and numbing are a natural  defense mechanism. Still, it may take some work, often within a therapeutic container, to start to “thaw” the frozenness or unwind the trauma.

Somatic Experiencing practitioners help clients increase their awareness of their kinesthetic, embodied experience, and lead them through techniques to gradually release stresses that have been locked into the body. Allowing both physical responses and emotions to come through, bit by bit, restores psychological balance and can help resolve even long-term PTSD.

How It All Works: Polyvagal Theory

Neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Stephen Porges synthesized Polyvagal Theory as a way to explain human behavior in terms of the evolution of our autonomic nervous system. It not only provides a biological frame for parts of Somatic Experiencing, it has helped therapists develop a host of somatically attuned interventions and refined the way they interact with clients.

The centerpiece of Polyvagal Theory is the vagus nerve. This long nerve mediates what Porges calls the “social engagement” system. The vagus nerve’s ventral branch supports social engagement: a calm and playful, pro-social state. Its dorsal branch supports the opposite: immobilization (characterized by dissociation, depression, numbness, or “freeze.”)

If you undergo a trauma, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve activates a state of immobilization. On the other hand, when you feel safe and embodied, your parasympathetic nervous system functions smoothly and you can (ideally) engage socially. What makes all this possible is neuroception, perception that takes place without our conscious awareness, tipping us from safety into other modes, like fight, flight, or freeze.

Clinicians trained in Polyvagal Theory support clients in making shifts in their autonomic responses, from “freeze” and shutdown to fight or flight—to safety—in order to restore a healthy range of responses and the feeling of being safe. 

Practicing co-regulation with their clients helps the clients to re-establish inner safety and other positive feeling states.

How You Can Increase Your Embodiment

Trauma severs us from our body, and embodiment brings us back. 

Embodiment practices like somatic therapies, qigong, and various athletic activities are some of the best medicine around for the nervous system. Even just taking a long walk while paying attention to your feet making contact with the earth can be quite supportive.

Sounds True also has created The Healing Trauma Program to offer support for your healing. The course has a faculty of 13 esteemed trauma experts—including Somatic Experiencing founder Dr. Peter Levine, Polyvagal Theory expert Deb Dana, Dr. Gabor Maté, Konda Mason, Thomas Hübl, and many others. The program takes place over nine months and is truly an immersion into the world of trauma recovery, with teachings, guided practices, live practice sessions and Live Q&As. Find out more about The Healing Trauma Program.

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