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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cognitive Distortion of the month: Negative Filter

8:42 PM Posted by Stephanie Horgan , ,
In 2014, Dr. Taft and I took turns writing monthly entries on rare diseases, in order to bring more awareness to the psychosocial aspects of living with chronic illness. In 2015, we are going to do a monthly blog entry on various cognitive distortions (although we are off to a late start!). For February, I am writing about the distortion called "negative filter". But first, let's discuss what a cognitive distortion is. It is simply an unhelpful thought pattern that is very common but lead people to feeling stuck in depression or anxiety. Since we are big believers in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) here at Oak Park Behavioral Medicine, we wanted to spend some time looking into the various patterns that trip people up. CBT is a theory that looks at three aspects of a person: thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

A negative filter is when a person views information through a negative lens. The positive aspects of life are disregarded, and the negative aspects are focused on. As you might be able to forsee, this can be particularly depressing when everywhere you look, you see negativity. An example of this distortion is when many things go right at work, but a person gets hung up on the one thing that went wrong during their day. Maybe they overslept, or maybe a meeting didn't go as well as planned, but there were other positive moments throughout the day that got completely overshadowed by this negative event.

Why does this happen, you might ask? Well, we know from research that our brains are wired to react more strongly to negative stimuli than to neutral or positive stimuli. Researchers believe this is an evolutionary behavior that helps us pay attention to the things that may hurt us so that we can survive these threats. Research conducted with married couples has found that the ideal ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions is 5:1. The higher the ratio of positives to negatives, the more stable the marriage tends to be.

When we realize we have this negative filter, what can be done about it? The answer is to simply change our focus and look for positive things, no matter how small they seem. Be intentional about spending a few minutes at the beginning or end of your day to recognize what is going right and what you are thankful for. Then throughout your day, when you find yourself stuck in negative thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and use logic to challenge your thought that you are stuck on. Is it true? Is it helpful? What other perspectives are there? Realizing that you have a the power to change your thoughts and that this can, in turn, change your mood is a main building block of the therapy we do. One particularly helpful suggestion I share with clients is to start a happiness jar, an idea from Elizabeth Gilbert. She is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, and she challenged all her followers to start a daily practice of looking for positives and writing them down. Then find a jar around the house to keep all of these positive slips of paper and read them at the end of each year. The key is to do this as consistently as possible. Do not beat yourself up if you forget. There is nothing too small to be a positive from your day, although some days it may be easier than others to identify things. The overall goal is that you are changing the way your brain is wired, by choosing to look for positives, rather than allowing your negative filter to take over.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?

6:58 PM Posted by Skyler Schuyler , , , , ,
Continuing on the topic of relationships, I thought it would be great opportunity to review several journal articles and get the “expert opinions” on what healthy relationships look like. While many articles featured their own spin and interpretation of positive responses in relationships, many concepts remained the same. Let’s explore these traits!

 According to many marriage and family therapists, emotional responsibility is highly valued for a successful relationship. If someone is unable to take responsibility for their own feelings, pressure is placed on their partner to create personal happiness, wellness and security. The problem with making your partner responsible for your emotions is the likelihood you will experience disappointment. When your partner fails to meet your expectations emotionally, people feel “emotionally abandoned.” Take ownership and responsibility of your feelings and do not ignore your feelings. Another trait for healthy relationships involves empathy and compassion. Partners thrive in relationships when their counterpart show kindness and acceptance regarding personal thoughts and experiences. A simple gesture of compassion and empathy goes a long way to improve your loved one’s day.

Healthy relationships have connections. Both parties need to experience warmth and affection as well as humor and fun. Connecting with someone, especially intimately, can be life changing. Memories are created with connections and draw us closer to our loved ones. Be mindful – connections are both give and take – you have to show your partner warmth, affection and even humor in order to receive these feelings yourself. Essentials for the health and longevity of a relationship include trust and support. Your partner needs to know that they can count on you. Significant others should not be threatened by their partner’s success or happiness, it should be shared. Your support in good and bad situations create lasting impressions for your partner.

Difficult for some, partnerships should be enjoyed both together AND apart. Your well-being should not be dependent on one single person. (But do not confuse emotional dependency for emotional responsibility. Someone’s “need” and “want” can look very different.) It is important to explore your personal interests with support and encouragement from your partner. Another common theme is growth from conflicts. People make mistakes and how you learn from them will be visibly noticeable in your relationship. When you experience conflict with your significant other – which everyone does – do your best to listen first and try to understand your partner’s point of view. It’s not always about being right or having to win.

Last, but certainly not least, is chemistry. Partnerships need to have positive stimulation physically, emotionally and intellectually. While people place different values on these sparks or chemistry, the reality remains that couples need a certain amount of each. As you and your partner explore each other’s needs and desires, a deeper loving energy grows, fueling the flame in your relationship.

So what do we take from all this information? Healthy relationships are constantly moving in a forward motion. You have to adapt AND evolve often. When people get stuck on a single notion, gesture or comment, negative emotional responses tend to develop, leading to the end of a relationship. Healthy relationships are not easy, they take a lot of work and BOTH parties are needed for success. So challenge yourself this week and consider these traits of a healthy relationship. Are you engaging in a healthy relationship? Are there areas you can improve yourself? Remember, change starts with you.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Being fully present in a technological world

8:03 AM Posted by Stephanie Horgan , , , ,
Welcome to the age of technology. Over half of the global adult population is set to own a smartphone by the end of 2015 and over 75% of Americans own them right now. We now can multi-task wherever we go- and are running into each other like crazy. Many of you have seen the video of the man who almost ran into a wild bear on the loose in Los Angeles because he was texting. There is even a city in China that is testing out a special lane on their sidewalks for people texting and walking so others won't bump into them. We have reached a new low, people.


Recently, the staff of "New Tech City", a podcast created by NPR, addressed the issue of how much time we spend on our phone all day. They presented a challenge, starting this first week of February,  called Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out. It asks people to think about the last time they were truly bored- and to figure out how much time they are spending on their phones using on the apps they suggest. I personally downloaded the free app called Moment, which tracks all time spent on your phone, and I was very surprised. What are the effects of filling our minds 24/7 with e-mails, Internet searches, and texts? You can sign up on their website for daily tips to be sent to you; one recent challenge was to have a photo free day, when you don't take photos with your phone. Americans take over 10 billion photos a month, and some think this may actually be harming our memories. I encourage everyone to look into this challenge just to shake things up this month and see if you can change your relationship with your phone.

So what can we do to help ourselves slow down and be present? Ironically, one resource that might help us overcome our bad habit of being attached to our phone and help us focus on the one task of relaxation is the phone itself. I took some time to test out the various apps out there for mindfulness and relaxation and here are my thoughts. I hope you "take some time" to breathe, download one, and start using it regularly to help your brain and body relax.

The Mindfulness App by MindApps ($1.99) This was the first Mindfulness App I bought and have recommended to my patients. I really like the 6 guided mediations that come with the app and give the options of choosing a 3, 5, 15, or 30 minute meditation. It also allows you to set reminders so that you receive a text throughout your day to remind you to meditate or eat mindfully.

Breathe2Relax (free!) This app lets you customize everything but has only one guided meditation that is too repetitive for my liking. It first has you measure the length of your inhale and exhale.  This measurement is used for meditations, and there is a bar on the side that guides the rhythm of your breath. You can choose a background scene as well as background music. There was no option for any guided meditation, it was merely someone counting your breaths and telling you to relax over and over.

Omvana (free!) This app is fully customizable to help you fully relax. There are thousands of audio tracks (most of them must be purchased), sounds, and voices you can mix together too make the perfect meditation for you. It comes with a 5 minute or 20 minute meditation, as well as two instructional guides for beginners.

Calm (free!) This app is customizable- you can choose your scene and the sound for when your session ends. It comes with seven tracks to help give the user an intro to meditation. It also has a free guided body scan that comes in seven different lengths.


Stop, Breathe & Think (free!) I saved the best for last. This is my new favorite app that beats all the others. There is a great intro for those who haven't meditated before that reviews how meditation works and what mindfulness can do for you. It starts by having you check in with yourself and logging your mental, physical, and emotional status. From there, it guides you towards which of the 15 free guided meditations might be good for you. Some of these tracks have different options for length, such as 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, which is great feature.