Harnessing the Power of Habits

By Molly Keeton Parnell, PhD

As the end of 2015 approaches, many set goals for 2016. New Year’s resolutions are a common practice yet are met with varying degrees of success. Some find resolutions to be a powerful step toward positive change. Others put energy into setting them but do not achieve them. And still others do not even bother with the process, as time has shown their past resolutions to be unsuccessful.

In her latest book, Gretchen Rubin devotes herself to the study of habits. She defines a habit as “a behavior that is recurrent, is cued by a specific context, often happens without much awareness or conscious intent, and is acquired through frequent repetition”. Once something becomes a habit it requires no decision on our part because the decision has already been made. A parent who walks their child to school every day does not decide each day how to get them to school. It is a habit to walk, so each day they walk. Deviating from this plan requires a new decision, such as deciding to drive on a particularly cold day.

It takes a decision and willpower to get the habit started. But once ingrained, habits free us from having to make decisions or harness our willpower. Rubin describes the power of habits to be similar to cruise control. When they work to our benefit, we can relax into them and save our mental energy for other things.

Rubin posits that there are four tendencies related habit formation. We can think of these similarly to personality types, and each of us will fit into one general tendency. Knowing your tendency may be helpful when striving to reach a new goal. The four types include upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels.

UPHOLDERS develop habits the most easily of any of the tendencies. While it is not easy for any person to develop a new habit, upholders simply follow through.  They are quite responsive to both inner and outer expectations. Once an upholder makes a commitment, s/he does not seem to struggle against it. Whether it is a plan that only affects themselves or if an agreement has been made with others, upholders complete the task at hand (and often times finish early). Upholders prefer to know what is expected and to fully understand the rules.

QUESTIONERS respond to expectations that make sense to them. They do not blindly follow what is being asked but instead evaluate it based on their own sense of reason. It needs to appear logical and fair in order for the questioner to get on board with it, and as such, they are not as influenced by outer expectations. In most cases they need to do their own research and make up their own mind before signing on for a new habit. A questioner will not just begin an exercise program or start taking a new vitamin because they are “supposed to”. For a questioner to develop a new habit, they must believe in it.  Rubin notes that this tendency can go in two different directions, with some questioners having more of an upholding style and others having a rebelling style.

OBLIGERS are people who will do what is expected of them by others but often have a difficult time acting in accordance with internal expectations. Their motivation comes from outside accountability. They are very reliable people. Obligers react positively to deadlines, avoiding late fees, and fear letting others down. They may feel that a promise to oneself can easily be broken but that a promise made to others is sacred. Obligers can trick their way into forming new habits by setting up external accountability, such as by taking a class where there will be deadlines and expectations. Obligers also do well in finding an accountability partner, who will check in with them on their goals and progress.

REBELS are a group that strongly resists expectations, whether internally or externally defined. Rebels are drawn toward personal freedom, and choice is a key component of this. They tend to react against anything that feels like control, even if this is self-control.  While rebels resist doing things that they feel they are expected to do, they can still accomplish great things. The key for a rebel may be finding the right trick to get around their rebellious attitude. Rubin provides several useful examples of strategies that may work for rebels. For example, a rebel who wants to make better financial decisions may react against the idea of a budget, but may find authentic motivation in resisting clever marketing strategies that could manipulate them to spend their money.  A rebel who aims to exercise may not succeed in taking a class where attendance is expected and an instructor tells them what to do but may succeed by designing their own workouts that they feel free to complete on an unconventional schedule. For rebels things can also go the opposite way, and Rubin points out that some rebels may do fairly well with authority because it gives them something to push against. Overall, rebels may be best served by not thinking of something as a habit, which becomes a “have to”, but rather by making a choice each time about doing a behavior. This may keep it fresh, interesting, and freedom-filled for them.

Rubin claims that people tend to fall into one type consistently and do not seem to change over time or across circumstance. As this is a new construct system, research does not exist to verify the veracity of her claim. I suspect that these tendencies may fall on somewhat of a bell-curve, with the extreme types of upholder and rebel making up a small percentage of the population and the middle ground of questioner and obliger fitting the vast majority.


Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin (2015)

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Take Two Laps Around the Block and Call Me in the Morning

  by Lisa Anyan Smith, Ph.D.

Years ago, as a budding mental health professional, I took a job at a residential treatment center for emotionally and behaviorally challenged youths.  I lived and worked alongside teens at a rural camp, where we slept in cabins. The teens hauled water, carried wood, trekked between the living quarters and classrooms, tended the grounds, and stoked the wood stoves that heated our dwellings through the cold winter nights. We set out on long therapeutic hikes and participated in team building exercises in the forest. A therapeutic magic seemed to transpire when those kids participated in physical activities together outdoors.

Years later as a parent, I again recognized the value of getting kids outdoors to work and play. Anecdotal evidence from fellow parents reinforced my belief in the importance of fresh air, exercise, and play to children’s well-being. When my children were young, I noticed a tremendous difference in their moods and behavior when they ran around outside with other kids, as opposed to those dreary rainy days when they were stuck indoors.

Later still, feeling stressed and depressed due to some life transitions, a friend recommended that I join a local outdoor club. I tentatively signed up for a hike up and down Kennesaw Mountain. I felt unsure of my abilities and reticent about joining the circle of strangers gathered at the base of the mountain. But I introduced myself, the group set off, and up the mountain we went. I was out of my league, unprepared physically and mentally, and I huffed and puffed to keep up with the group. From time to time one of the others would wait for me, check to see if I was okay, or murmur words of encouragement. I was exhausted by the time we finished, but as I staggered back to my car I noticed something: I felt fantastic! I was in a great mood, my stress had melted away, and I had gained a tremendous sense of accomplishment. You’d think I had scaled Mount Everest.

Countless research has confirmed the benefits of exercise on mental health. Cardiovascular exercise – physical activity that raises the heart rate – has been shown to increase endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain which transmit electrical signals within the nervous system. Endorphins interact with receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. In addition to decreased feelings of pain, endorphins lead to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Endorphins have been suggested as modulators of the so-called “runner’s high” that athletes achieve with prolonged exercise. When you need an emotional lift or need to blow off some steam after a stressful day, a brisk 30-minute walk can help. Physical activity stimulates those endorphins which may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. You may also feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem.

Exercise also promotes better sleep, by helping you fall asleep faster and deepening your sleep. Regular physical activity can leave you feeling energized and looking better, which may have a positive effect on your sex life. But there’s more to it than that. Regular physical activity can lead to enhanced arousal for women. And men who exercise regularly are less likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction than are men who don’t exercise.

There is a plethora of scientific evidence to support the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. In addition, two landmark studies have found promising evidence that a walk in the park may provide cognitive benefits and also improve mood for individuals with clinical depression. Finally, a third groundbreaking study brings together the trifecta of exercise, being outdoors, and social support in reducing depression and stress.

The first study was led by Marc Berman with partners from the University of Michigan and Stanford University. This research examined the effect of nature walks on cognition and mood in people with major depression. “Our study showed that participants with clinical depression demonstrated improved memory performance after a walk in nature, compared to a walk in a busy urban environment,” said Dr. Berman, who cautioned that such walks are not a replacement for existing and well-validated treatments for clinical depression, such as psychotherapy and drug treatment. This research is part of a cognitive science field known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which proposes that people concentrate better after spending time in nature or looking at scenes of nature. The reason, according to ART, is that people interacting with peaceful nature settings aren’t bombarded with external distractions that relentlessly tax their working memory and attention systems. In nature settings, the brain can relax and enter a state of contemplativeness that helps to restore or refresh those cognitive capacities.

In the second study we will examine, a 2012 followup to the initial experiment, researchers explored whether a nature walk would provide similar cognitive benefits, and also improve mood, for people with clinical depression. Subjects (all having a diagnosis of clinical depression) participated in a two-part experiment that involved walking in a quiet nature setting and in a noisy urban setting.  They were randomly assigned to go for an hour-long walk in a woodland park or traffic-heavy portions of a downtown metropolis. After completing their walk, they completed a series of mental tests to measure their attention and short-term/working memory and were re-assessed for mood. A week later the participants repeated the entire procedure, walking in the location that was not visited in the first session.

Participants exhibited a 16 percent increase in attention and working memory after the nature walk relative to the urban walk. However, interestingly, interacting with nature did not alleviate depressive mood to any noticeable degree over urban walks, as negative mood decreased and positive mood increased after both walks to a significant and equal extent. In other words, walking outdoors decreased depressive symptoms whether the outdoor setting was in the quiet woods or the noisy downtown area. The mood elevating effect of exercising outdoors was significant despite the setting.

Finally, a brand new study indicates that what I witnessed in the rustic teen treatment center, in watching children play, and in my own experiences with hiking in a group, are indeed real phenomena.  This new finding suggests that group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being, according to the study conducted by the University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute, and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom.

Researchers evaluated 1,991 participants from the Walking for Health program in England, which helps facilitate nearly 3,000 weekly walks and draws more than 70,000 regular walkers a year. The study found that group walks in nature were associated with significantly less depression, perceived stress, and negative affect and greater positive affect and mental well-being. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment especially seemed to see a mood boost after outdoor group walks. “We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside but there haven’t been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being,” says senior author Sara Warber, M.D. “Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster. Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression. Group walks in local natural environments may make a potentially important contribution to public health and be beneficial in helping people cope with stress and experience improved emotions.


So grab a friend or two, lace up your walking shoes, and get outside! Even if you live in the city, an urban walk with a group of companions can elevate your mood and calm your stress. Of course, outdoor exercise with a group is but one tool in a well-stocked stress-busting and depression-lifting toolbox. Treating clinical depression and anxiety may also require other tools, including psychotherapy and/or medication. Talk to your therapist about how outdoor group exercise can be a helpful adjunct to your healthy coping regimen.

Recommended Reading

Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out by Jonah McDonald 

60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Atlanta: Including Marietta, Lawrenceville, and Peachtree City by Randy Golden and Pam Golden


Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The Cognitive Effects of Interacting with Nature. Psychological Science., 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x.

Berman, MG, Kross, E, Krpan, KM, Askren, MK, Burson, A, Deldin, PJ, Kaplan, S, Sherdell, L, Gotlib, IH, and Jonides, J. Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2012.

Marselle Melissa R., Irvine Katherine N., and Warber Sara L. Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study. Ecopsychology, September 2014.

The benefits of physical activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html

Posted in 2014 Articles, Anxiety, Depression, Lisa's Articles, Mind-body-spirit Integration, Physical Health & Wellness | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Neuroscience?

by Molly Keeton Parnell, PhD

 A few days ago I had an experience that has become quite familiar to me. I was reading Brene´ Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection” and she made the following statement: “Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions…” While she quickly moved on to talk more in depth about shame, I was stuck on her initial declaration and immediately wondered “Why? What purpose does shame serve?” I reasoned that if an emotion is actually primal, then it must fulfill some very basic function, and the most basic of our functions is our animal instinct towards survival.

It has always been my belief that people, on some level, make sense. I believe this despite the fact that it appears to be a nearly universal human experience to do things that do not SEEM to make sense. I see it in myself, and I see it in others. We constantly thwart our desires to do what is in our best good (exercise, eat a healthy diet, be more direct, have a less judgmental attitude, etc.) and then label ourselves unmotivated, lazy, or even masochistic when we do not reach our goals. I have always been curious about the underlying motivations that may not be apparent. If we say we want one thing but then do the opposite, surely there must be some reason for this.

In my fifth year of graduate school I finally came across an author who addressed this phenomenon. George Kelly says that humans prefer predictability – or a sense of control over the future – above all else. In protecting this sense of control, we may sabotage our efforts towards positive change to preserve the comfort of what is known. A person with a drinking problem may be well aware that quitting alcohol would help them in many ways (less tension at home, less trouble at work, lower chance of legal problems, feeling like a success instead of a failure everyday, etc.). Those things certainly sound good, but they are also unknowns. And sometimes the human mind will opt for a bad outcome that is guaranteed rather than an unpredictable outcome that might be good.

Kelly provided me with a framework that helped, but it was not until I met Jon Connelly and Courtney Armstrong that I really found my “A-ha”. Everything that I know about neuroscience I have learned from these two people. Understanding the way that our brains developed helps to explain what motivates them. Neuroscience highlights that sometimes what is driving us is very different than what our thinking minds are aware of.

Here is what you need to know for the purposes of this article: the vast majority of the mind’s processes – an estimated 98% – is out of our awareness and functions on the same level as a goat. The brain has evolved over time and can be divided into three main sections. The first two of these (reptilian and mammalian brains) have survival as their only concern. They control the automatic functions of the body (breathing, temperature regulation) as well as the control and expression of emotion, response to danger, and short term memory. The third and most recently evolved portion of the brain is the neo-cortex, which is highly developed in humans. The cortex excels at analysis, logic, and intellectual pursuits but is always overridden by the reptilian and mammalian brains.

Therefore, while our thinking mind may seem primary (due to our constant buzz of thoughts), it is absolutely NOT in charge. While you may find yourself pondering creative ideas, setting goals, or reflecting on an interesting book that you read, there is actually a goat behind the driver’s seat saying “danger bad, food good.”

This system works great for keeping us alive. If there is danger to our physical well-being, our more primitive instincts kick in, and we take action to increase our chances of survival. However, for humans things can go awry in two main ways. First, our brains are over-determined to notice threat, so we may mistake stress for danger or even perceive danger when none actually exists. While an argument with a good friend may deserve careful attention, it does not necessarily require the nervous system to go into overdrive, complete with racing heart and surging levels of stress hormones. Yet, we have probably all had the experience of noticing that our response is out of proportion to the situation.

A second way in which things get complicated for humans is our ability to remember, imagine, and interpret. We oftentimes look back on an event and draw conclusions based on the data we are privy to. But these conclusions are rarely accurate, especially if the situation was highly stressful.

Here is an example. One night in college I awoke to a very loud noise. A piece of the plaster ceiling in the bathroom next to me had crashed to the floor. I, however, thought an intruder was in the house and lay there frozen in fear. After some time passed with no further signs of danger, I finally felt brave enough to investigate. I quickly realized what had occurred and felt huge relief. However, over time I found myself frequently going back to the event and wondering “what if…” A situation that came only from living in an old house turned into fodder for worry. My anxiety came from knowing that in the face of perceived danger I had done NOTHING. I hadn’t hidden under the bed, run out the back door, picked up something to use as a weapon, or grabbed the phone and dialed 911. This experience created an uncertainty for me, a fear that I could not trust my instincts in the case of an actual threat. Many years later I finally learned that it had been my primitive mind that determined my response.

The human animal is so primed towards survival that it will employ one of the following responses when threatened: flight, fight or FREEZE. Because the noise was just 3 feet away on the other side of a door, my instinct determined that there was not time to flee the situation. And not having a weapon nearby, my chance of surviving a fight was not so great. But did you know that a mouse captured by a cat will just play “dead” in the cat’s mouth? By going limp, there is a very good chance that the cat will get bored and drop the mouse. Additionally, the mouse is much less likely to receive a puncture wound to a vital organ by letting its body relax rather than staying rigid (this is why people and animals instinctively void the bladder and bowels when in danger).

Our brains create emotion in order to cause an action to increase our odds of survival. We feel fear so that our bodies will become alert, and blood will go to our extremities to make it possible to run fast away from danger. We feel shame in order to prevent us from doing things that would have us ostracized from the safety of our pack and left alone in the woods (something Brene´ Brown apparently addresses in some of her other writings). We feel anger so that a surge of hormones will rush through our body giving us the strength and motivation to fight. But as humans, we look back on those emotions with judgment and label ourselves weak, needy, or overly aggressive. We tell ourselves a story based on only a fraction of the information. Part of the recovery process from a traumatic event is re-writing our interpretations to account for all of the data. This may include acknowledging that real danger existed (or even that the primitive mind believed that it did) and that we acted out of our instinct to survive.

I love neuroscience because I am in absolute awe of the human body. Learning more about the mind and its way of prioritizing seems to normalize many of our responses. I have found that this type of information gives my clients greater respect for themselves and greater compassion for their reactions. Neuroscience helps us to understand that we are programmed first towards survival and highlights the difference between choice and response. In the story I shared above, I did not choose my response. My emotional brain chose it for me, based on something I wasn’t even aware of (the freeze tactic).

If we are going to recognize the moments in which we did not have the ability to choose our response (traumatic events as well as post traumatic responses), then let us also acknowledge when we do have choice (the moments in life when we face stress but not danger). Our emotional minds prime us toward a certain type of bias and response, but we do have a degree of control. Think of it like driving a car – I don’t have power over the mechanics of the engine, but I do still determine where the car goes.

Better understanding the workings of the brain helps us to know about the vehicle that we are driving – or really the vehicle that is driving us. However, this is just a starting point because our ability to choose a reaction and then alter our brain’s response patterns is very real. In our daily lives, we can always employ techniques to help us respond in more desirable ways (commit to just listening when the boss criticizes your work rather than telling her what you really think, leave the room and take a few deep breaths when your child rolls her eyes at you). We can use our own creativity and support from friends to come up with a list of strategies that can really help in these moments of stress. There are also ways to change how our brain responds to stress. Meditation and mindfulness practice have been found to create actual structural changes in the brain. There are also certain types of psychotherapy that seem to better connect with and alter the messages from the emotional brain, such as hypnosis, Rapid Resolution Therapy, EMDR and memory reconsolidation, among others

Neuroscience may tell us why we feel unpleasant emotions, such as fear, shame and rage. And perhaps our ability to express love, compassion and altruism could simply be explained as mechanisms that connect us to our pack, better preserving our odds of survival. But what about joy, humor, creativity? I have not yet come across any scientific explanations for these uniquely human gifts, and I sort of hope that I never do. Because while you may be able to drive your car to the Grand Canyon, there are really no words to capture the experience of looking out on its vast beauty.

Posted in 2014 Articles, Mind-body-spirit Integration, Molly's Articles | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Letting Go

“If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was.”  This quote, widely attributed to Richard Bach of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” fame, conveys the meaning of a proverb that appears in many cultures and languages.  I remember the quote being reproduced on the inspirational posters of my youth.  It was soon parodied by cynics:  “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, hunt it down and kill it.”

The cynical version of this quote illustrates (however crudely) the difficulty that many of us have with letting go.  Letting go of unhealthy relationships, of anger, of jealousy, of addictions, of coping mechanisms that no longer serve us well, can be difficult to accomplish.  Why is it so difficult for some of us to “just let it go”?  What can we do to ease the process of letting go?

Letting go can be a challenge because we, as human beings, are creatures of habit.  There is some comfort in the familiar.  Shedding old, destructive patterns or behaviors can leave us feeling as vulnerable as a small child throwing away a tattered and filthy blanket.  Although logically we may reason that we are better off without it, emotionally we can be left feeling bare.  Yet letting go is a process that we all must face at one time or another.  We must let go of the old in order to invite in the new.  Like the child who must say goodbye to the beloved blanket, we must bid farewell to what is holding us back developmentally.  Letting go is growth.  Letting go is akin to rock climbing, in which you must let go of a toehold in order to reach the next height. Reaching, striving – we must let go in order to find our next step.

Yes, you say, I understand that I must let go.  But how?  The following steps can assist you on your journey toward letting go.

Embrace the shadow:

We all possess a dark side, the part of us that we often prefer to remain hidden from the world.  Karl Jung referred to that portion of us that we fail to see or know as the “shadow.” That which we refuse to examine does not disappear; on the contrary it takes on a greater power until it erupts in a harmful way.  For example, repressed anger can result in displaced aggression.  Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow, posits that “to refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents” (p. 26).  Through self-examination we can cultivate awareness of the shadow, and through ritual or creativity we can discharge the shadow energy in a healthy manner.

Awareness of the grip that we have on unwelcome thoughts, feelings, or relationships – and the grip that they have on us – is crucial to the process of learning to let them go.  For example, we all experience anger at some time or another.  Holding on to anger can negatively impact our general sense of happiness, relationships with others, and physical health.  Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, likens anger to a howling baby, suffering and crying.  He encourages us to be mindful of the anger, to cradle and embrace the baby. Once we have accepted the anger and acknowledged it as our own, we can work with it. We can realize compassion for the target of our anger and feel better.

Let go of having to control:

Taoism is a manner of living in harmony with Tao, the Way of the Universe.  Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, urges us to see the value in being humble.  If action seems called for, he asks us to consider nonaction. If we feel that grasping will help us acquire what we need or want, he counsels us to let go and be patient.

A cornerstone of many successful 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, involves letting go of control.  The Serenity Prayer urges those seeking relief to be granted “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  This idea can also be expressed in the notion of surrendering to win.  A friend of mine likens letting go to dropping the rope in a tug-of-war contest.  When competitors on both sides are pulling equally on the rope, a stalemate ensues.  When one side drops the rope, movement occurs immediately.  While the side that drops the rope may not “win,” the action still leads to change.

Grieve your losses

Take the time to honor the process of letting go and moving on. It may be helpful to recognize the stages of grieving identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Keep in mind that there is no timetable for grief and that your process will be different from others’. Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged that the stages do not necessarily occur in chronological order. It is common to cycle back through the stages before finally landing upon acceptance. Be patient with yourself.  Have compassion for your journey.  Walk, talk, draw, paint, or find other ways to tap into your thoughts and memories.  Allow painful memories to enter your consciousness – with support if needed.  I am reminded of the mantra in the beloved children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury:  “Can’t go around it, can’t go under it…. Gotta go through it!”


In trying to let go of a grudge toward another person, think about apologizing and asking for forgiveness.  Letting go of your past involves allowing yourself to be vulnerable.  Or, it may be forgiveness of yourself that will set you on the path toward letting go. Be honest with yourself and others. If you have made mistakes, admit them. Forgiveness can be freeing. Forgiveness, at least in terms of interpersonal dynamics, appears to have benefits for both individual health and relationships. Research suggests that forgiveness  “may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance.” (Witvliet, et al.)

Move forward to let go of the past

It has been said that time heals all wounds. Trust that letting go will occur if you open yourself to that possibility.  Look outside of yourself. Move outside of your comfort zone. Volunteering to help others in your community will aid in moving forward. Do something different! Taking a class at the local community college, learning a new language, or starting a new hobby will focus your attention on the present and assist in letting go of the past.

Isn’t that what we wanted all along

Freedom like a stone

Maybe we were wrong

But I can say goodbye

Now that the passion’s died

Still it comes so slow

The letting go 

Melissa Etheridge, “The Letting Go”

References and Suggested Reading:

Borysenko, Joan, Inner Peace for Busy Women: Balancing Work, Family, and Your Inner Life (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2003).

Hoff, Benjamin, The Tao of Pooh (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1983).

Johnson, Robert, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying (London: Routledge, 1969).

Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Stephen Mitchell) New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Thich Nhat Hahn, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001).

Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness of harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117

Posted in 2012 Articles, Grief & Loss, Lisa's Articles, Relationships & Intimacy | Leave a comment

The Thinking Mind

by Molly Keeton Parnell, Ph.D.

“Mind, body, and breath complete the circle of life”

This is what my yoga instructor stated last week as we were moving into Savasana, or the meditation portion of the class. This observation gave me pause for a moment and then quickly resonated as true. I was immediately aware of how much more time my mind spends actively thinking compared to the miniscule amount of time that I spend just “being” in my body and with my breath. For a moment, I was absolutely captivated by the fact that while we are equally mind, body and breath, the mind takes about 99.9% of the airtime. I suddenly had the image of a horse drawn carriage with the coach using a whip to keep the horse going. The mind is like that coach, whipping the attention back to itself over and over and over again. If the mind even begins to wander towards a moment of quiet, there’s that crack of the whip and we are again deeply entrenched in thought. On the contrary, for most of us the body only demands attention in the case of physical discomfort (and even then, the mind never stops going full speed. It may just share some of the real estate with awareness of body). And it seems that the breath almost never dominates our attention, unless there is some respiratory illness or perhaps a panic attack, where the ability to breathe is perceived to be diminished. In fact, a panic attack is a good example of the connection between mind, body, and breath because of how quickly the mind jumps in to perpetuate the sense of panic. Shortness of breath may be a cause of concern, but it only turns into a full blown anxiety attack when the mind starts putting negative labels on the feelings in the body, which causes an intensifying of bodily sensations that lead to more panicked feelings in the mind, and so forth. Just thoughts of not having enough breath leads to what feels like a physical reality of not having enough breath.

And yes, I had all of these thoughts while I was SUPPOSED to be headed into a meditative state. The irony was not lost on me. I redirected my focus to my breath, yet my mind continued to think about the way it was thinking, about the way that humans seem to be programmed, about my grocery list and messy house, and how well this thinking vs. being struggle would fit into the article that I needed to write. Sensing that my restless and hyper brain was not easily inclined to getting quiet, I opted to give way to trying to force it to happen and instead to simply notice the way that my mind seems to work. I was immediately aware of the desire to let go of thinking and the sense of panic that my mind felt at that notion – the fear of letting go. I then felt frustration that this seems to be such a difficult task, wondering if it is only difficult for me and why I haven’t mastered it at this point in my life and emotional growth. As I started to berate myself for this, I noticed what my mind had done. By beating myself up for my lack of meditation skill I was remaining active in my mind. My mind had tricked me into staying mentally focused by distracting me with the oldest trick in the book – self-criticism. While I did not have the breath-body experience that I wished for, I learned something significant about the various ways the mind manages to stay primary and also found inspiration for this article!

So, what is it that compels us to think, think, think? To think about thinking? To think about how to not think (now, there’s a no-win puzzle for you!)? What is responsible for the non-stop dialogue of the brain, the million thoughts a minute diatribe wherein I can go rapid-fire from thoughts of my to do list, to pondering my spirituality, to worrying about getting my article written quickly, to beating myself up for my habit of procrastinating, to wondering what purpose procrastination serves for me and if I’ll ever find a better way, to reflecting that perhaps I could practice self-acceptance related to procrastination and simply accept it as a part of life?

It turns out that the source of the 24-7-365, not-a-millisecond-off running monologue is the left hemisphere of the brain. You may have heard that left brain dominant people are better at math and right brain people are the artists of the world. And perhaps it is true that people are generally more dominant in one side than the other, but the reality is we all have two hemispheres that work together as a whole yet have dramatically different purposes and functions. In cases where the two halves of the brain have been surgically separated (by cutting the corpus callosum, or the structure that connects the two sides) the right and left hemispheres have been found to operate as two separate brains, each with distinct personalities. In humans with a normally functioning corpus callosum, the two hemispheres of the brain are “more appropriately viewed as two complementary halves of a whole” and “virtually every cognitive behavior we exhibit involves activity in both hemispheres – they simply do it differently” (Bolte Taylor, p. 29). However, scientists still do not fully understand the way the two halves work together. While it was long believed that the corpus callosum created communication between the two hemispheres, recent research supports the idea that the corpus callosum may actually be serving to keep the two halves divided.

The Left Hemisphere

My experience in yoga class can be well understood by knowing the dominance of the left hemisphere and its instinct to remain in the driver’s seat of the mind. The job of the left brain is to sort, organize, and analyze all incoming information. When stimuli is received through our senses (eyes, ears, etc.), the left brain categorizes and notes distinctions, or where things are different. For example, it is your left brain that is interested in better understanding the differences between your two hemispheres.  (Your right brain is in the moment, feeling peaceful, and doesn’t really care what part does what)!

The left brain is “linear and methodical” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31) and sees the details rather than the whole. The left brain manages our interactions with the world by time streaming every piece of data. It both sorts things according to the proper sequence (i.e. we put on our socks before our shoes) and organizes events in their proper place in time (i.e. past, present, and future).

The mechanism by which the left brain completes its duty of sorting, organizing and analyzing is through language. The left brain contains our language centers, which utilize words to define and categorize, or break the big picture down into data bits that are distinct and manageable. For example, Bolte Taylor points out that when out in nature, our left brain sees and labels the distinct parts of all that we see, such as stem, petal, and leaf. The left hemisphere then organizes those details back into the whole to see a flower. It “… thrives on weaving facts and details into a story” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31). It uses deductive reasoning and creates an understanding of the world in this way (i.e. if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C).

The left mind’s language centers help us to understand that letters form words and that words form sentences. It is the left hemisphere that comprehends the meanings of these words and sentences, but it can only do so in a literal way. If I say that my friend is really cool, the left brain might want to give her a blanket, whereas the right brain understands the more subtle interpretation of this phrase. We need our right hemisphere to help translate things like humor or sarcasm as well as for interpreting non-verbal communication.

Our left brains also think in ways that become patterned based on incoming sensory information. Neurological circuits are developed and then run mostly automatically. These circuits allow us to take in information efficiently without having to break what we are sensing down into the individual pieces and then reconstruct those pieces into a whole. So, when I see an object that can be easily held in the hand that contains buttons with numbers, I know it is a telephone even though there is wide variation in the way different phones look. Each time one of these neurological circuits is stimulated, it becomes more engrained and then takes less outside stimulation to run in the future. Our left hemisphere then becomes quite adept at prediction, not only predicting how objects may function (a phone will ring) but also how we will feel, react, or respond to things based on the past. Thus, our left brain may give us a story such as “I always turn in my assignments late”, which then gets replayed and strengthened every time the topic of an assignment floats through the mind.

In receiving all sensory stimuli as distinct parts, the left hemisphere also focuses on the separation between ourselves and others. This half of the brain contains the “ego center”, which defines the self as “I” and defines what we do, think, and feel as “I am”. Our constant brain chatter helps us to rehearse and memorize the details of our lives, such as our names, occupations, relationship status, values, preferences, etc. As it is the job of the left hemisphere to categorize, all data is sorted into dichotomous classes such as “good”, “bad”, “like”, or “dislike”. The left hemisphere similarly engages in constant comparison between ourselves and others, using a comparable hierarchy for “better”, “worse”, “success”, “failure”, etc. While the right brain sees connection and wholeness and holds the intuitive knowledge that we are perfect just the way we are, the “… ego mind revels in our individuality, honors our uniqueness, and strives for independence” (Bolte Taylor, p. 33). Guess who wins when it comes to our self-concept? You got it – the left hemisphere.

The Inner Critic and Judge

Byron Brown states:

This is the courtroom of life. And you are the one who is on trial… The judge is a part of your mind… it also lives through your body and your energy. The judge is a master of words, and yet you can feel it in your belly, your shoulders, and your jaw without any awareness of words. The judge is both pervasive and invisible. It speaks to you from commercials on TV, magazine ads and movies, as well as from the expression on your partner’s face, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the tone in your supervisor’s voice (Brown, p. 14).

The inner critic is the part of the mind that continuously and constantly evaluates, compares, judges, criticizes, blames and attacks us and others. The inner critic is always on call to condemn any of our innermost thoughts, beliefs, feelings or desires or which it disapproves. Nothing gets by the critic. It is rigid and perfectionistic, so most of our feelings, beliefs, and thoughts do not escape its judgment. The inner critic is always present but also invisible. It presents its point of view as fact rather than opinion.

The inner critic uses every piece of information ever taken in (from your caretakers, cultural group, school system, church, etc.) about how one is supposed to operate in the world. It is guided by the harsh and punishing attitudes of the environment in which we live. It compares you to yourself – your past self, your future self, the self you should be. It compares you to others, others to you, and others to others.

The inner critic excels in the ego center of the left hemisphere of the brain. The ego exists based on the concept of “I”. When we use the word “I”, we are generally referring to where we live, what we do for a living, what our relationship status is, what our hobbies include, etc. So, I might say I am a psychologist. I am a sister. I am American. I love movies. I might say that I am introverted, I am compassionate, I am a procrastinator. These things are part of my life circumstance, value system, and personality, but are they me? Are we able to say who we are without going down the list of where we came from, what we do, and what we believe ourselves to be?

According to Brown there is a way to quiet the inner critic. To begin the process of “disengaging from self-judgment…” you must begin “knowing yourself as a living soul” (Brown, p. XVII). Perhaps the best way to do this is to learn more about the right side of the brain.


The Right Hemisphere

While our left brains maintain dominance throughout most of our lives, it may actually be our right hemispheres that are primary. We come into this world right hemisphere dominant and remain that way until we are about two years old. Furthermore, for all humans at all stages of life, sensory information goes first to the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), next to the right hemisphere and lastly to the left hemisphere. Information from the heart and the gut (both of which contain neurotransmitters) also goes to the right hemisphere of the brain before the left. This flow of data seems to prove that “… although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (Bolte Taylor, p. 19).

The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor that takes in multiple sources of information simultaneously, comprehending at once the “big picture”. The right side contains our emotional sense of self and is responsible for relationships and emotional attachments. The right hemisphere sees the implicit meanings in things and is the part that responds to poetry, metaphor, and humor. It interprets non-verbal communication, such as tone and facial expression. The right hemisphere does not speak in words but rather in images, symbols, pictures and metaphors. If you have ever had an “A ha” moment where a light bulb of understanding suddenly illuminates, that occurs in the right hemisphere.

Our right hemispheres see the connections between things rather than the boundaries that separate. It sees how parts make up a whole. We have our right hemisphere to thank for the gift of empathy, or the ability to place ourselves in the position of another and imagine what their experience might be.

It is our right mind that gives us the ability to remember with crystal clarity certain isolated moments that have significance in our emotional lives (i.e. the first time you exchanged the words “I love you” with your partner or where you were when you heard about the September 11th attacks). The right mind takes in information in relation to other pieces of information and “… Borders between specific entities are softened, and complex mental collages can be recalled in their entirety as combinations of images, kinesthetics, and physiology” (Bolte Taylor, p. 30).

After Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist who had devoted her professional life to studying the brain, suffered a stroke resulting in the total (but temporary) shut down of the left hemisphere of her brain she realized that

…deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time. I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of the brain (p. 111).

Bolte Taylor learned that in her pre-stroke life, her personality had been dominated by the left side of the brain and by the tendency to judge and analyze. The experience of the stroke taught her that the two sides of the brain not only function in different ways with different types of perception and thought but also contain different types of interpretations for what is perceived. In short, Taylor’s experience revealed that the two hemispheres have quite different value systems and personalities. She found that the right hemisphere is “…completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world” (Bolte Taylor, p. 133) and that “…peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind” (Bolte Taylor, p. 111).

However, “left brain is dominant, speedy, and prone to rush in with words and symbols and prefers not to relinquish tasks to its mute partner unless it really dislikes the job or is unable to do it” (Edwards, Courtesy of Courtney Armstrong). How to silence the left mind is a question that Bolte Taylor does not answer. Is it possible to completely silence the inner critic and live completely in each moment?  Is this the goal or should we simply strive for a better balance between the two halves? These are not questions that I can answer for you, but I can invite you to take better notice of the inner critic and when its voice begins to take over.

Without awareness of the way our brains are structured, the judging part remains invisible, which makes it very, very powerful. It brings to mind one of my favorite movie quotes from the movie The Usual Suspects. It goes something like this…. “What is the smartest move the Devil ever made? To make man think he didn’t exist”. I am not trying to make a religious point here but simply articulate that a force is far more powerful when we don’t even fully understand that it is present. Various forms of oppression have been weakened greatly and social systems changed just through consciousness raising, or helping those being oppressed to understand the larger system of power. When something is unseen, how can it be challenged and overcome? Just simply recognizing that the inner critic is a part of the brain rather than some omnipotent messenger of truth does a great deal to lessen its hold.

Brown points out that while we are in the habit of defining ourselves as the “I” – the one who was born in Atlanta, is bad about procrastinating, works as a psychologist and can’t figure out how to keep a clean house – who we really are is a soul. Our right brain seems to be more in contact with that soul and to recognize that as a soul we cannot be compared to any other soul and deemed better or worse. On a soul level we have worth and value that must be separated from the specific details of our lives. We must fully take in that the “uniqueness of the soul is inherent in who you are at birth; it is not achieved, not can it be destroyed, and it is not dependent on your appearance or anything you do” (Brown, p. 31).

To learn more about what life could be like with soul awareness, I invite you to watch Jill Bolte Taylor describe her experiences of living in her brain’s right hemisphere.


Some of the information in this article came from a presentation by Courtney Armstrong, LPC of Chattanooga, TN. Thank you, Courtney, for helping me to better understand this exciting topic.

Other sources include:

Bolte Taylor, Jill (2009). My Stroke of Insight. New York: Plume/Penguin.

Brown, Byron (1999).  Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within. Boston: Shambala.

Edwards, Betty (1999). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin Books.

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