The Stress Band Aid

Stress manifests in each of our lives in unique ways but the underlying process of how we get triggered and react to stress is fairly consistent for all of us. The cycle of stress reactivity starts with a triggering event; something doesn’t go the way you wanted it to. Immediately following the event, the brain perceives a threat and the body contracts into a general feeling of “yuck”. Then the language part of the brain kicks in and starts narrating the event with negative thoughts, opinions, and judgments. Finally we react in an unconscious, habitual way that falls under the categories of fight, flight, freeze, fix or fake.

The Fight, Flight or Freeze Reaction

“Fight, flight or freeze” is common language in our stressed out culture. Most of my clients come to coaching with at least a conceptual understanding of these behaviors, and can quite easily identify them in other people. The fight reaction is simple to spot: someone screaming into a cell phone, slamming doors, flipping the bird or just snarling the lip to put some “stank” on a facial expression. The flight reaction is equally obvious: an adolescent playing video games during finals week, a co-workers preoccupation with next years vacation, or a spouse chronically shopping online for things they don’t need and eating food they’re not hungry for. And then there is the freeze reaction that can be observed in someone: delaying plans, postponing goals and hesitating to make a decision after weeks of making pro’s and con’s lists. We’ve all met these people.

Anyone who begins a mindfulness practice can also begin to see these same patterns play out in their own lives. When thoughts of blame, criticism or anger towards either themselves or the other arise, it’s safe to say they’re leaning toward a fight reaction. When they notice the tendency to withdrawal, repress, zone out or escape into a favorite vice, it can confidently be named the flight reaction.  If someone’s ever felt “paralysis by analysis”, or are prone to rumination, procrastination, and make never-ending excuses for inaction, they intimately understand the freeze reaction.

Because these reactions are inherently unpleasant, heavily charged with “negative energy” and come at a perceptibly high cost, most of my clients find it easier to identify and work with them than the lesser known fix or fake reactions.

For the most part “high performers” have already refined their behavior around polite company and know that an obvious display of fighting or fleeing just isn’t an option. Lashing out or shutting down makes it difficult to upholding the desired social image as a solid business leader, parent, teammate, teacher, community member or all around shiny, good person. For these people, the innate stress reactions begins to take on more nuanced and culturally acceptable forms of aggression- fixing or faking. Although these reactions to stress may be considered more “adaptive coping mechanisms” than the other reaction, they can still get us into some trouble when unchecked.

The Fake Reaction

We all like an upbeat person and there’s plenty of research to support an attitude of gratitude, finding the silver lining and thinking optimistically.  But nobody is happy all the time so when “perfectly positive” becomes a automatic, chronic way of being, you might just be faking yourself out.

To avoid being vulnerable or out of fear of looking like an imposter, some go into a fake reaction of “acting as if”, putting on a happy face and telling everyone they’re doing great when they’re really hurting inside. The act can work for a while but will eventually fall apart.

You know you’re in a fake reaction when you:

  • Find yourself saying, “it is what it is” but still resisting life
  • Saying “yes” to more, even when you’re already at capacity
  • Connect with friends only when you’re feeling “on” but turn into a hermit when you’re “off”
  • Repeating affirmations you don’t believe
  • Pretending to like someone when you don’t and act interested in something that you’re not
  • Embellishing stories to look good
  • Smiling with your face but cursing with your mind
  • Feel pride in your ability to “suck it up”

Faking is intrinsically dishonest, inauthentic and feels bad but there are times where it might unfortunately be appropriate. The term for it is “emotional labor” and it’s often in the job description of employees in industries where it’s deemed necessary to display required emotions toward customers. Some of these jobs include: flight attendant, nurse, doctor, store clerk, call center worker, teacher, social worker as well as most roles in the service industry and media. Emotional labor is correlated to greater rates of fatigue and burnout.

No matter what industry you work in, when your boss asks you in passing, “how are you?” it may not be the time or place to share about your kid’s bad grades or the fight you had with your spouse that morning. But if your habitual answer is still, “good” to a dear friend or family member over coffee, you're faking.

A client of mine was going through an extremely difficult time with his wife who’d given him an ultimatum to either have kids or get divorced. This happened while he was in the middle of a job transition and while they’re house was in escrow. When I inquired about his stress levels and how he was feeling about all of this, he said, “You know, I trust that everything is going to workout just fine. I’ve got to just stay positive. I live on the beach and get to surf three times a week…I’m grateful for so many things.” At one point in my coaching career I might have erupted with pride and admiration for my clients wise perspective during such difficult times. But now, I call B.S. This was a strategy he’d used his whole life and was his clever way to avoid dealing with something that was clearly urgent and stressful. It’s a nice intention to stay positive but in this case it was a band aide on something that clearly needed stitches.

The Fix Reaction

The fix reaction is my personal “go-to reaction” when life gets difficult for me or anyone else in the vicinity. As soon as I feel the twinge of unease, the impulse is to jump into action and immediately make it better. This natural inclination to be assertive and helpful can serve me and others well. But this same strengths can also become a weaknesses when overplayed or used unconsciously to avoid feeling a difficult emotion.

One of my most consistent stress triggers is physical pain. When I’m in pain, I’ll react anxiously by staying up late on Web MD, self-diagnosing symptoms and solving my own personal medical mysteries. I’ve started to name this habitual fix reaction, “Dr. House”. If I don’t catch it, I’ll end up buying every recommended supplement and device on the Internet. I know it’s a fix reaction because by the time Amazon Prime delivers, I already feel better and return it all.

Instead of pausing and acknowledging a moment of difficulty, those caught in the grip of a fix reaction will often bypass the vulnerable emotions by bolstering the ego with actions that reinforce an identity of being capable, competent or even “spiritual”. What could possibly be wrong with this, you might ask? Instead of facing and processing the real fear beneath the stress trigger, the fixer will compensate with self improvement and “overdoing”.  In some cases, the doing, even when seemingly healthy (starting another business, signing up for the next yoga boot camp, doing a juice cleanse or buying a stack of new books) will only temporarily cover up the pain.

Here are some common examples of the fix reaction:

  • Setting unrealistic goals and making long lists that never actually get completed
  • Reading dozens of Self Help books and skipping the exercises
  • Waking up with a hangover and immediately signing up for a marathon
  • Over-eating then promising you’ll exercise twice the next day to compensate 
  • Continuously attending workshops to fix yourself

Fixing can also be our own stress reaction triggered by another’s stress. I get more people approaching me after a presentation saying, “Oh if you could just coach my husband/ daughter/ neighbor, my life would be so much easier!” When someone we care for is struggling, it makes us tense and worried. To ease our own stress, we set out to fix the situation for the other.  “You should get to bed earlier, go on match.com, switch to green tea, and start meditating every morning.” All of these are obviously beneficial when the time is right but honestly, how often have you really appreciated someone else’s unsolicited expert advice when you’re feeling stressed out?

Mindful Discernment

In an old Zen story, a student comes to visit his dying teacher. The student asks: “What is the teaching of your entire lifetime?” The teacher replies: “An appropriate response.”

So how do you know when focusing on something positive, or making an improvement in your life is truly beneficial versus a fix or fake reaction? Only you could know for sure. But in general, if your response to stress is a mindful choice motivated by reflection, intuition and compassion, it will likely serve you well. If you’re reaction is automatic and motivated by avoiding fear, even if it seems healthy and positive, it will probably not be helpful in the long run.  

 
 

Applying mindfulness to stressful events begins by observing the process of first tightening in the body, thinking negative thoughts and then noticing the very initial impulse to fight, flee, freeze, fix or fake. Before we indulge any of these impulses, the practice requires that we pause, soften the body, and then name the stress.

You may try mentally labeling feelings of:

  • “Anger” and the impulse to “fight”
  • “Escaping” and the impulse to “flee”
  • Being “stuck” and the impulse to “freeze”
  • Needing “improvement” and the impulse to “fix”
  • “Hiding” the truth and the impulse to “fake”

Bringing mindfulness to these feelings and impulses with a sense of curiosity and kindness, over and over again eventually leads to greater insight and discernment. Only after fully embracing what is really happening are you able to make an appropriate response. 

Please join me at the Soul of Yoga for an 8 week emersion into mindfulness meditation with the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.

Register Here

Your Performance Story

Imagine you are walking along the sidewalk down a familiar street. Then out of nowhere, you spot a long lost friend from school on the opposite side of the road walking toward you. As your old friend gets closer, you look over and for a brief moment the two of your eyes meet. You put up your hand to wave and your friend puts their head down and continues walking. How do you imagine feeling if this scenario really happened to you? Why would you feel that way?  The diverse responses given by the mPEAK participants illustrate the impact that our story has on our experience.

  • “I’d feel like a loser because I got left hanging”. 
  • “I’d feel OK, I’ve changed a lot over the years so they probably didn’t recognize me.”
  • “I would feel totally bad because maybe they didn’t like me. Maybe I did something to hurt them and didn’t even know it!”
  • “Maybe they’re depressed or sick. Maybe something bad happened to them or someone they loved died recently. I would feel concerned and run across the street to see if they were OK.”

There is no right answer. There is no way you’re supposed to react to this hypothetical situation. The point of the exercise is to show how quickly we all fill in the blanks by telling our own unique story about the same event.  The most simple, objective truth is that someone was walking down the street –that’s it, you made up the rest.

Meaning Making

Something that separates us from animals is that we have brains that can construct elaborate theories and explanations about what is happening in the world and why.  As humans we have a deeply ingrained need to not only understand life's big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when we die? But also the day to day set backs. The better we can understand and explain challenging events such as relationship breakups, business failures, losing streaks or medical problems, the faster we will recover from them. Uncertainty is perceived as bad for survival, so we’ve become extremely proficient at explaining life’s events by making up stories in attempts to understand the great mystery of life. 

The problem is that we interpret these events through the lens of our own limited, highly subjective belief systems and then call it “The Truth”. Take again the example of your old friend walking down the street. Whether you got mad, embarrassed or even felt worried would have been determined by your pre-existing fears, expectations and assumptions about the way people are and the way the world works. These personal projections are not likely to have much at all to do with “The Truth”.

Our belief systems develop over years of accumulating information and experiences such as: emotionally significant events with your family, friends, romances, schoolmates, teachers, work colleagues, interactions with strangers, and time spent in solitude. They can also be influenced culturally by the political and economic systems in which you have lived, as well as media influences from news and idolized images of heroes or cultural icons.

As a metaphor, think of your body as the hardware and your beliefs as the software. Your complex constellations of beliefs are like your own subconscious algorithm that interprets massive amounts of incoming data and variables from your environment, then weaves together a narrative that influences your hardware to take specific actions that supports your story. This is all fine and dandy, unless the story you’re telling about your potential is keeping you locked in fear rather than pursuing your purpose and thriving.

Explanatory style

Positive Psychologists refer to our unique story telling capacity as our “Explanatory Style”, which is defined as “a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative.” There are three main components involved in our explanatory style that are categorized as: Personal, Permanent and Pervasive.

People who tend to have a “Personal Explanatory Style” see themselves as the cause of the events that happen in their life rather than seeing external variables or other people as the cause. "I’m bad at paying my bills on time", opposed to "Those bills can sure sneak up on you".  A “Permanent Explanatory Style” involves explaining the cause of the event as unchangeable or fixed rather than being temporary, flexible or evolving. Someone with this style will use the language of “always” and “never”, for example, “I’m always late to meetings” and “I never forget a face”. Finally, someone with a “Pervasive Explanatory Style” sees a situation as affecting all aspects of life rather than being limited to an isolated event. "I can't do anything right" or "Everything I touch seems to turn to gold".

When someone tends to tell stories about the causes of adverse, "Off PEAK" events as being personal, ("This is all my fault"), pervasive, ("This affects absolutely everything"), and permanent ("This isn't changeable"), they’re referred to as having a “Pessimistic Explanatory Style”.  Conversely, people who generally tend to blame others or acts of nature for negative, "Off PEAK" events and who also believe that such events will end soon without impacting too many other aspects of their lives, display what is called an “Optimistic Explanatory Style”

How do our stories impact our performance you may ask. Well in one study on the difference between optimists and pessimists in sports, psychologist Martin Seligman asked swimmers to swim their best stroke and then told them their times were slightly slower than they actually were. When they swam again, swimmers with an optimistic self-explanatory style swam at approximately the same speed, whereas swimmers with a pessimistic self-explanatory style swam more slowly. When things are going well and our team is winning, for example—no difference in motivation or performance exists between optimists and pessimists. But when things are falling apart—when the team on which we’re playing is losing—pessimists often stop trying.

Limiting Performance Stories

As a competitive rower, Jason came to me for Life Coaching to improve his race time and get out of the rut he’d been in for months. In our first session he reported that he always starts strong and is leading in the first half. "But as soon as the first guy passes me, it all kind of falls apart”, he adds. “I’m just not a come from behind athlete.”  What we figured out in his first session was that the moment he was passed, his “Inner Critical Coach” would start yelling at him and berating him for being a “weak loser”. He believed the story that once the first rower passed, everyone else would pass him too. This story pulled him out of his body –out of the moment, and brought him into his head where there was nothing but worry and panic. This emotional state quickly drained him of his rhythm and flow, causing him to indeed fall toward the back. Jason’s story about not being a come from behind rower became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

By repeatedly telling ourselves a limiting story about our challenges; that it’s our fault, it will always be this way and it will impact everything, we invariably do end up performing poorly. With each additional poor performance we’ve collected more data to reinforce our original limiting beliefs, hardwiring it as our fixed "truth”. If this pattern persists, all motivation disappears and we eventually fall into the trap that psychologists refer to as learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is best illustrated in a study done by Martin Seligman where two dogs were put in separate cages, and only one could learn to press a lever to stop a shock. The second dog didn’t have a lever and received random shocks that it could not control.  This second dog “learned” that he is helpless in the face of shocks. In a following experiment, both dogs are taught a new skill of how to avoid being shocked and both put in cages where they had equal opportunity to stop the shock.  The first dog who was empowered by the confidence of being able to avoid shocks the first time, was able to again avoid the shocks. Although they both had the means to control the shock, the second dog that had not been able to control them the first time, gave up and suffered the shocks without trying to avoid them. It had learned to be helpless even under conditions where it did indeed have control. 

Luckily for Jason and many others, Seligman’s work also shows that humans can pull out of helplessness and re-condition themselves to learn optimism. In essence, we have the power to change our story.

PEAK Performance Story

To make this practice more personally relevant to you and your life, try recalling the most recent occasion where you performed well in life, work or sport. Maybe you set a personal best at Cross Fit, kept up with your fastest friends during the weekend bike ride, nailed a presentation at work or mindfully defused a potential conflict with your significant other. Once you’re in touch with what we refer to in mPEAK as a “PEAK Performance Event”, the practice is to explore the thoughts and stories you told to explain this situation--the how and why of the event.

I offered this same practice to Cheryl, a client of mine who’s “PEAK Performance Events” crescendo was finally weighing herself after her first month of dietary changes to find she’d lost 8 pounds. The thoughts that immediately entered her mind were, “Wow, it’s working! All of my discipline at restaurants, mindful eating and the meal preparation is paying off. I think I might actually reach my goal a few months early and take myself on vacation”. Without intending to, Cheryl’s Performance Story displayed all the factors of an optimistic explanatory style. The results were within her control, the factors for her success were stable and her confidence in this area impacts her whole being. If Cheryl would have instead just chalked her success up to good luck or told the story that this was an easy month and her personal trainer was responsible for everything, she would have likely had a very different experience during month two. But the internal performance story Cheryl told about her experience improved her self-efficacy, the belief in her ability to succeed and she was able to keep her momentum of healthy behavior change.  So how is it that our mental stories about events improve our performance and our odds of success? We don't quite know for sure so we just call it the "placebo effect"...

Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.
— Henry Ford

There are hundreds of studies that show how the “placebo effect”, or positive expectation about a treatment can significantly impact the patient’s experience of pain and their healing outcome.  And what is the placebo effect if not the confidence in a belief –an optimistic story that everything is going to turn out OK.

Consider a study by Harvard's Ellen Langer that shows how the belief of how much exercise we are getting has an effect on how our bodies actually look. A group of very active maids who reportedly didn’t believe they got any exercise were divided into two groups. One group was told nothing and the other was informed that their daily cleaning activities met regular exercise recommendations. No other directions or interventions were given. A month later the group who now believed they were exercising had a drop in systolic blood pressure, weight, waist-to-hip ratio, and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.

Another example is a study that showed how people’s beliefs about aging might contribute more to their health than the physiological factors doctors typically focus on. In a 20 year longitudinal studying of a group of 650 people lead by Becca Levy found that those who told a positive story about the aging process lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who were negative about it.  To put that in perspective, improving cholesterol and blood pressure typically improves life span by four years and exercising, maintaining healthy weight and refraining from smoking will add only one to three.

Working With Your Performance Story

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
— Wayne Dyer

The distinctions between various explanatory styles can be useful in understanding our own patterns of story telling, but the point of the mPEAK curriculum isn’t necessarily to turn all pessimistic stories into optimistic ones. In another blog I discussed how our Character Strength could be our greatest weaknesses when overplayed. This can also be true of “blind optimism”. As the name implies, blindness, or lack of mindfulness can lead to optimists being overconfident, careless and even cause a reduction in effort if one believes their ability eliminates the need for practice.

The real point of mindfulness practice is to simply be more aware of the stories we tell ourselves about our successes and failures and to notice the impact these stories have on our experiences and outcomes. mPEAK participants are encouraged to see their story as just that –a story.  Their practice then is to get curious about the conditioned beliefs and assumptions that underlie the stories and begin to see what’s really true for them in that moment. With this new awareness, participants have a greater capacity to detach from old stories and tell new stories that are authentic, realistic and more beneficial. 

Here is an evidence-based method to shift perspectives and the dispute the beliefs behind limiting performance stories.

ABCDE Method

A.    Adversity: Describe a recent “Off PEAK Performance Event”. Be specific, accurate and objective in your description.

B.    Beliefs: Write down the internal story you were telling yourself in the midst of the Adversity. What was running through your mind?

C.     Consequences: Record the Consequences of your Beliefs (what did you feel and what did you do?). Really feel and then list all of the emotions you experienced and as many reactions as you can identify.

D.    Dispute: Generate evidence to point out the inaccuracy in your Beliefs by brainstorming several alternative beliefs about the adversity that could also be true. Be creative!

E.     Energy: Try each new belief or perspective on and write a few sentences about how this new story has changed your energy. What happened to your mood and energy? What solutions did you see that you didn’t see before?

The Deep Well of Motivation

Your Well of Being

Imagine yourself standing in a field of green grass next to a well. In your hand, you’re holding a pebble that represents your intentions for practicing mindfulness. This is how participants begin class #1 of the mPEAK course.  As the guided visualization continues, participants release the pebble into the well and as it hits the surface of the water, they become aware of what they want or hope to get out of the course. Typically this first layer reveals something they want to change or improve: overcome stage fright, control their temper at work, stop procrastinating on writing their book or work with an injury that’s been holding them back. As they watch the pebble continue to sink deeper, another layer of intentions are revealed. These are often performance related goals such as shaving time off their race, improving their golf putt or leading their company in a new direction. But as the pebble sinks even deeper into the well of their being, all the way to the sandy bottom, everything becomes very still and their hearts deepest intentions start to become clear. “What is it you really, really want?” The answers that arise from these depths are often unexpected and even surprise some of the participants, “I originally thought what I wanted was to learn to focus better but I guess what I really want is to take better care of myself.” Others say they want to speak authentically and connect more deeply with the people in their lives.  They want to be happy and feel peace in their lives.

Motivation for Practice

Nobody chooses to sit down and close their eyes for thirty minutes in the middle of their busy life for no reason. Whether you’re able to articulate it or not, if you’re interested in mindfulness practice, chances are it’s because you have an intention to feel better in some way. This intention is actually the key to long term, sustainable practice.

Your intention is your desire- it’s what you hope to get out of committing to a mindfulness practice. Going hand in hand with intention is your motivation, which is the deeper reason of why you want to get what you want. We could say that intention is the compass and motivation is the fuel. Those with strong intentions and motivation consistently bring focus and zest to their practice. But without a clearly articulated intention, it’s easy to lose site of the purpose of practice. Motivation inevitably wanes and sitting for any extended periods of silence becomes a dull and meaningless chore.

The science of motivation is an interesting field and goes far beyond studying the difference between those who have it and those who don’t. According to Self Determination Theory, the most prominent theory of human motivation, not all motivations are created equally and the type of motivation one has impacts not only how they perform but also how they experience their life. The two main types of motivation can be divided into extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. To better understand, lets look at how the body uses various types of fuel for movement compared to how we use different depths of motivation to fuel our intentions.

The Fuel for Growth & Change

In the body, there are three different physiological mechanisms to metabolize fuel for physical activity. The Phospholitic System is the simplest system that uses creatine for short bursts of high intensity sprints lasting about 10 seconds or less. Then there is the Glycolitic Anaerobic system that burns carbohydrates in the form of glycogen for high intensity work lasting a few minutes.  Finally there is the most complex system of Oxidative Aerobic metabolism. It is slower to act and burns fats for moderate intensity, long duration events. This is the mechanism that fuels the body to go the distance.

Metaphorically this corresponds to the three different kinds of fuel that motivate both performance and mindfulness practice. The extrinsic motivators can be divided into fear based and reward based, while intrinsic motivation comes from the inherent desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge. It is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for reward.

Like the Phospholitic system, fear based motivation will give you a short term burst of energy to get out of pain, avoid punishment and to overcome feelings of shame or deficiency. However, once you’ve gotten far enough away from the fear, motivation dries up. Extrinsic reward based motivations, like the Glycolytic system will take you a bit further than fear, but not the full distance. Competing in a race, looking fit for a wedding or making more money can definitely be motivating. However, once the reward is no longer available- meaning the competition, event or goal has ended… so is the motivation. And even if you were successful, according to the theory of hedonic adaptation, your desires and expectations will rise in tandem with what you’ve accomplished, offering a zero sum when it comes to personal fulfillment.

To extend the warning just a bit further, Deci & Ryan, the developers of Self Determination Theory, discovered that if any of the 3 external ambitions —fame, money, or beauty—was exceptionally high for an individual relative to the 3 inner ambitions—personal growth, community contribution, and meaningful relationships—the person was more likely to display poorer, less stable mental health. For example, having an unusually strong desire for material success was associated with depression, anxiety, narcissism, and poorer social functioning. By contrast, strong aspirations for any of the intrinsic motivations—were positively associated with well-being. And, those that strongly cared to contribute to their community had higher self-esteem and greater vitality.

Tapping Into Intrinsic Motivation

Tapping into the deepest part of your well will reveal your intrinsic motivation, which is the key to a committed mindfulness practice in support of your evolving performance in life, work or sport. To better understand these deep-driving forces, lets take a look at the motivations of some of the traditional “high performing elite” of mindfulness training. For thousands of years the intention of mindfulness practitioners has been to attain liberation or enlightenment and the motivation behind it­ --to end suffering for all sentient beings. This radical expression of motivation may be a bit lofty for most mPEAK participants but is absolutely required to follow the rigors of the monastic path or even complete an extended silent retreat for that matter.  This deep motivation to be of service to others has the power to fuel the monastic lifestyle of daily study, practice and renunciation that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Fortunately for the casual meditator, we don’t have to begin with this level of motivation to see benefits from our mindfulness practice… but we do need something! Along the wide spectrum of motivation, liberation or self-actualization are on one end and fame, money and beauty are the far other.  Most participants of mPEAK find themselves somewhere in the middle, which is a perfect place to start.

According to Deci and Ryan, there are three psychological needs that intrinsically motivate us to initiate any behavior. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological and include: the need for competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness.

Autonomy

The first factor of intrinsic motivation is Autonomy- the energy that comes from making a commitment to taking full responsibility for directing ones own life according to personal beliefs & values.  When stressed, most people shift to an unconscious reactive mode and lose their sense of self-directed, autonomy over their life. Deeply held values go out the window, replaced by basic survival mechanisms. This feeling of being “out of control” is followed by irrational thinking, impulsive actions and unintended behavior.  Rather than take responsibility, the tendency is to blame others and sink into a state of helplessness. Through mindfulness practice, we can experience a new level of autonomy and personal responsibility by becoming aware of our conditioned stress patterns and fully owning our choice in the way we respond to these challenging life events. Over time a practitioner can more easily align his or her actions with deeply held values, even under difficult circumstances.

Competence

Competence is the second quality of intrinsic motivation and is the positive reinforcement that comes from experiencing your own skillfulness while engaged in a challenging activity.  There is an inherent energy available in the process of progressing towards mastery over something that truly matters to you.  This is the kind of motivation displayed by Forest Gump who “just felt like running”. It comes from the love of the journey, not the destination. As mindfulness practice deepens, merging with your favorite performance activity into a state of flow becomes more accessible.  Even noticing the progress in meditation practice over an 8 week period can provide mPEAK participants an upward spiral of motivation fueled by an increasing sense of competence.  Being able to sit for longer periods, getting distracted less and gaining insight into the workings of the mind are all inherently enjoyable and make it more likely to continue practicing.

Relatedness

Finally the last factor for intrinsic motivation is Relatedness, which is the connection to others and a feeling of belongingness to a larger community.  Again, this desire to be of service to others driven by the realization of interconnectedness and unity is the traditional motivation that’s fueled monastic practice for centuries. The intention to communicate better with your spouse, be more patient with your children, work better with your team or to serve your community are all examples of deep intrinsic motivation that will ensure continued progress along your path.

Home Practice

  1. To leverage your own personal motivations, try reflecting on your deepest intentions for practice. Once your settled into your meditation posture, close your eyes, take a few breaths and contemplate the following questions: What is it that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?" Stay on these questions for a while with curiosity around what answers naturally bubble up without trying to figure it out with your mind. If no specific answers surface, don't worry, simply stay with the open questions. This may be awkward at first, since when we ask questions we usually expect to know the answers right away. Trust that the questions themselves are working even—or especially—when we don't have immediate answers. If and when answers do come up, acknowledge them as they arise and stay with whatever thoughts and feelings they may bring. After a few minutes, you can let go of the intention setting and continue with your regular practice.
  2. At the end of your formal meditation practice, take a few minutes again to recall whatever motivations came up in the beginning of the practice. Then offer what is traditionally referred to as a “Dedication of Merit”. If your main motivation is to decrease work related stress, you may say to yourself, “May this practice bring ease into my workday. May this practice help me pause before I speak to challenging co-workers”. If your primary drive to practice is to improve your relationship you may choose to a dedication of: “May this practice open my heart and allow me to see the perspective of my loved one.” Try it out and see what comes up for you…

Mindful Use Of Character Strengths

Try thinking of someone you admire that has been uber successful in an area that you value. You could think about your favorite athlete, the CEO of your dream job, a world leader or famous peacemaker. How would you explain this person’s character? Maybe words like charismatic, full of zest, compassionate, humble or creative come to mind. Chances are, you would describe this person by their unique strengths and values. Character strengths have been a popular topic in Positive Psychology for the past decade and in the mPEAK program we offer a unique mindfulness-based perspective on how participants can best use their strengths to improve their performance and wellbeing.

Character Strengths

According to strengths researcher, Chris Peterson, “Character strengths are viewed as capacities of cognition, conation, affect, and behavior—the psychological ingredients for displaying virtues or human goodness.”

The Center for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), defines strengths as “our pre-existing patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that are authentic, energizing, and which lead to our best performance”. What is meant by authentic is that the strength feels like “the real you”.  These are qualities that come naturally to you, that you enjoy using and that are often related to your life purpose. When it’s said that strengths are energizing, it means that when you are using your strengths, there will be a sense of aliveness and excitement. People using their strengths tend to be more communicative, animated and enthusiastic. Using your strengths is associated with a long list of well-researched benefits including better performance and greater wellbeing. Utilizing your unique strengths enhances well-being because you’re doing what you naturally do best, which helps generate feelings of autonomy, competence, confidence, and self-esteem. Performance is enhanced because using strengths encourages the experience of “flow”, rather than struggling upriver against the currents of your natural capacities.

So where do your strengths come from? According to Positive Psychologist researcher, Robert Biswas Diener, strengths can be looked at as a product of evolution. That means that “certain qualities—those that are useful for individual and group functioning, such as leadership, creativity, and forgiveness—may actually have biological roots as well as be handed down to us through socialization.” Essentially, we each possess innate capacities or things that come naturally to us and we have likely continued to develop these because they came easier than other things and we were likely praised for them.

There are many ways to uncover your own top character strengths including several reputable online assessments. One place you might start is the VIA Character Institute, which will give you a free print out of your top 25 strengths in order. But an official questionnaire isn’t required to get a good sense of your strengths. In the UCSD mPEAK course we have participants simply reflect on an area of high performance and brainstorm a list of strengths they use most. When people get stuck in this exercise because of an “Inner Critic” that blocks access to acknowledging their strengths, or because they have an over dominant strength of “humility”, we ask them the question, “what would your friends, co-workers, coaches or teammates say if they were asked to describe who you are at your best? In just seconds, everyone’s pens are busy making lists.

The Strength for Mindfulness Practice

“The practice of mindfulness is strengths and the practice of strengths is mindfulness. They cannot be separated. To practice mindful breathing or walking is to exercise self-regulation. To express a curious and kindly openness to the present moment experience is to practice mindfulness. To deploy strengths in a mindful way is to strengthen mindfulness, and a strong mindfulness is a recipe for more balanced and mindful strengths use.” ~ Ryan Niemiec

Learning how to leverage your Character Strengths can directly support your mindfulness practice by energizing your meditations and helping you creatively overcome obstacles to practicing. Let’s take for example my top three strengths from the VIA Character survey: Love of Learning, Zest and Curiosity. When I first started meditating, I had a voracious appetite for the perennial teachings from all the major traditions and great masters. Driven by this deep Love of Learning, I was exposed to many different perspectives on various mindfulness teachings and was able to cognitively grasp deep philosophical concepts.  This knowledge inspired me to meditate and to implement what I was learning into my life in the hopes that I would eventually gain real wisdom.

These strengths have also helped me work with the many inevitable hindrances to mindfulness practice. Anyone who’s committed several years to just sitting around watching their breath will tell you that there are dry periods of boredom, doubt and ambivalence along the path. During these times, Zest has provided the muscle to pull me out of the dark hole and again rise with new energy and commitment. Another strength, Curiosity has also been a great asset. Besides being classified as a strength, Curiosity is also one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Foundational Attitude of Mindfulness. When the sabotaging part of my brain says, “I don’t feel like meditating today,” rather than automatically throwing it all to the wind, my curiosity says, “oh, what’s that about?” It is this willingness to playfully explore the sometimes deep, hidden stressors or tricky resistance that keeps me on track.

Being Mindful of your Character Strengths

Using our personal strengths can enhance our mindfulness but mindfulness can also help us better use our strengths in life, work or sport. In the mPEAK program, participants become aware of how and when they are using their strengths and the results that they’re getting so that they can understand how to use them to the best effect.

The informal practice the mPEAK participants use is called “Strengths Spotting” which is the practice of purposefully bringing mindful attention to what strengths are working well in either their own performance or in the performance of others around them. When directed towards others, Strengths Spotting is a powerful practice for counteracting our evolutionarily inherited negativity bias and cultivating the ability to look for the positive rather than for what is annoying or broken.

According to Strength Researcher Alex Lindley, when we are practicing strength spotting with our co-workers, teammates or family, we attempt to name or label what it is about a person that shines. This can be done in conversation with someone you know but it can also be done while observing the way people interact from a distance. It requires us to take a deep and non-judgmental look at the people around us and ask the question of ourselves, “what does that person do well?”. Test it out for yourself and see what happens when you hold people in what humanist psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” and choose to see them for their strengths rather than judge them for their weakness. Participants regularly report a greater sense of connection, empathy, compassion and report.

Bringing mindful awareness to our own strengths means paying closer attention to what we refer to in mPEAK as “PEAK Performance Events” and flow experiences. By waking up to the experiences of being "on" and then curiously mining those experiences for strengths, participants start learning how to further develop and refine their strengths as well as create more opportunities to use them.

According to the Center for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), Realize 2 Assessment, my own highest realized strengths are Mission, Growth, Self Awareness, Empathic Connection, Spotlight, Enabler and Listener. Each of these strengths has a direct positive impact on my commitment to mindfulness practice as well as how I show up in relationships, how I perform at the gym and in my work as a Life Coach. Again, strengths represent who we are when we’re at our best and there’s value in learning to leverage them to increase performance.

However for many who are already “high achievers”, the real growth opportunity lies not in continuing to embellish strengths but rather mindfully marshalling their use.

Strengths out of Balance

We’ve all heard the phrase, “your greatest strengths can be your greatest weaknesses.” Has that ever been true for you? Let’s take a look at how strengths can be both an asset and a liability to your performance, depending on how you use them. Here’s the description of someone, like me, who wields the CAPP strength of Spotlight. “You enjoy being the centre of attention. Whether in a meeting or in a social gathering, you naturally speak up and hold the floor. You like holding people's interest and focus, and usually find this easy to do. You find that you can get people to listen to you and keep their attention - whatever else might be going on.”

With this strength I’ve been able to get up in front of teams and large organizations, facilitate workshops and give presentations to hundreds of skeptical strangers. Given that public speaking is generally a fear greater than death, I’d say this strength is generally serving me well. But it doesn’t always. There is a shadow side of being in the spotlight, as we know from the lives of movie stars and sports celebrities. Even at it's worst, my Spotlight is hardly paparazzi worthy, but it has gotten me in enough trouble to warrant continual mindful management.

In my 20’s when my need for the spotlight was the strongest, I was attracted to dating girls whose strengths naturally included being a good audience to the "Pete Show".  With all the charisma of a frat guy with a new philosophy fetish, I would dominate conversation on double dates and woo the crowds at dinner parties. While telling tales of wild adventure, sharing esoteric theories and violently flaunting my charm, my date and all other poor bystanders were inevitably left in the dust. When my strength of Spotlight was out of balance, there was no room for anyone else to show up and be heard. In the end, I learned the hard way that this is NOT the best strategy for making real connections.

Even a seemingly noble, ethically grounded strengths can be dangerous when out of balance. My strength of Mission has been a North Star guiding my personal practice and professional path as a coach over the years. A “man on a mission” is usually a desirable trait and exactly what’s needed to make real change in the world. But when the strength of Mission is overplayed in my life, everything else that doesn’t perfectly align or directly contribute to furthering my vision is neglected. This includes family, friends, significant others, finances, fun and upkeep of the home. I’ve found that a myopic pursuit of meaning and purpose can lead to isolation and frustration, not the higher performance we're looking for.

In my many years as a coach I've worked with big hearted, compassionate animal lovers who's strength out of balance lead her to adopt so many stray creatures she could no longer house them, afford to feed them or ever even consider leaving the house for a vacation. I've coached a fitness enthusiasts who's self regulation out of balance constantly bordered on control freak, a single woman who's fierce independence closed her down to receiving any kind of support from men and an interior decorator who's attention to detail started showing up as OCD. With mindfulness, each of these people were able to become aware of what it felt like to use their strengths in and out of balance and gained the power to intentionally dial them up or dial them back to fit the circumstances...and this my friends is power.

Beginning to Work With Your Strengths

By now it’s pretty clear that mindfulness and strengths work together to enhance performance and create more opportunities for flow. If you’d like to explore how using strengths could support you along your path, follow these 4 steps:

1.     Discover Your Strengths. There are several strength assessments including the CAPP Realize 2, VIA Character, and the Clifton Strength Finder 2.0. You can also choose to do a self-evaluation by brainstorming what you see as your strengths or by doing a strengths interview and asking others who know you well.

2.     Practice Mindfulness of Strengths. Start intentionally becoming more aware of when and where you’re naturally using your strengths. Take note of the impact they have on your attitude and energy. You may also become aware of how they impact others around you.

3.     Apply Your Strengths. Start intentionally using your top strengths at work, in your relationships, and toward your personal goals.

4.     Manage Your Strengths. Mindfully monitor their use, making sure you don’t under or over play them.

Working With Pain & Injury

“Suck it up, the whole teams back hurts!” With my youthful pride and dedication being challenged, I obediently listened to my coach and jogged back to the huddle. I continued to go to football practice. I continued to lift heavy weights. I stopped complaining and took the pain like a man. But when I started asking my mom to tie my shoes before school because I couldn’t bend at the waist, the tough guy act had to end. I was only sixteen when I had my first spine surgery. Like many others, it was my pain that lead me to the path of mindfulness. Pain, whether physical, mental or emotional is a part of the human journey, but seems to be even more inevitable and frequent in high achievers.  Those who consistently take risks and stretch their edges in life, work or sport eventually go too far. The trial ends in error, and pain is a result. How we deal with pain is up to us.

The Mindful Ice Bucket Challenge

“Masochistic” is a word that’s been jokingly used by participants of the mPEAK program. What they’re referring to is an exercise we call the Ice Bucket Challenge. But in this experiment, rather than quickly dumping cold water on someone’s head, we have them slowly submerge a hand in a bucket of ice for as long as they can tolerate.

During the first round of this exercise, participants are instructed to distract themselves from sensations. “Try thinking about a Hawaiian vacation, count backwards, do math problems in your head-- just don’t think about your cold hand.”

In contrast, the instructions of the second round are to pay full attention to the hand in the bucket of ice, monitoring sensations of burning, stinging, or tingling. Participants are also told to notice what kind of story is in their mind while feeling these sensations. “Are you feeling particularly averse to this? Hoping it will end soon? Or maybe it feels refreshing or even soothing? Watch your thoughts, your physical sensations, and any emotional response you have to the experiment.”

Some report thoughts encouraging them to stick it out for a certain amount of time. “Wait until the person next to me pulls out…or maybe until after the ice melts”. Others conjure up images of black, frostbitten fingers and report feeling scared that they might damage their skin. But it’s not all that dramatic. One person was reminded of the previous winter where she’d been building snowmen and a memory of falling off her skis and being buried in a pile of snow. Most participants say that after awhile they can not only tolerate the pain easier, but even express curiosity in the way the sensations arise, change and fade away without any real thoughts or emotions attached to them. The point of the practice isn’t to think any certain way, or have any particular experience; it’s simply to notice what goes on in their mind when they feel unpleasant sensations.

When this same experiment was done in research settings, what was found was that in the early minutes of having your hand in the ice water, distraction techniques work better than mindfulness: You’re less aware of the discomfort because you’re telling yourself a story, or remembering something, or having a fantasy. But after the hand is in the cold water for a while, mindfulness becomes much more powerful than distraction for tolerating the pain. You can only run from the sensations for so long!

Pain & Suffering

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Physical pain is the response of the body and the nervous system to a huge range of stimuli that are perceived as noxious, damaging, or dangerous. But he looks at pain from three different dimensions: the physical, or sensory component; the emotional, or affective component— how we feel about the sensation; and the cognitive component—the meaning we attribute to our pain.

When I injured my back in 1992 there was real and intense physical discomfort. Lifting even small objects caused my back to go into spasm. Sitting for any length of time resulted in aching and compression and walking set my left leg on fire with searing nerve pain. This physical pain topped out at a 10 for a long period but it’s difficult to say if it was more intense than the emotional and mental components of the pain.

After my operation, I lost more than just muscle mass and physical function. Without my strength and the ability to compete, I had no idea who I was. Up until then, I was my body. I was my strength. It was this identity that won me the respect of my peers and the attention from girls. And at age sixteen, that was all that mattered to me. Now, I was nobody. Pretty sure I was doomed to be fat, friendless and lost, I watched the football games from the sidelines that season, depressed and embarrassed.

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary uninstructed person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows.”    –The Buddha

Pain and stress reinforce each other in a negative feedback loop. Chronic pain leads to emotional stress as it interferes with daily life, causing a person to worry about being able to do their job, play with their kids or participate in regular recreational activities. This emotional stress erodes the immune system over time, increases inflammation and magnifies the perception of pain. More pain equals even more fear-based rumination and it’s a down hill spiral from there.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

The habitual reaction to any stressor, including physical pain is to either fight or flee. We get angry at the doctor, pharmacist or insurance company. We feel betrayed by our body and mad that we hurt. Some people attempt to escape by overusing prescription drugs and numbing out with any combination of their favorite vices. It’s quite normal to want to get rid of the pain but according to Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, it’s actually this desperate desire to escape the pain that causes our suffering.

From the perspective of mindfulness, the goal isn’t to resist or try to get rid of pain. The practice is instead about changing your relationship to the pain by opening up to it and paying attention to it in a new way. You “put out the welcome mat,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. We allow or accept the pain, because it’s already there.

Mindfulness of pain is the ability to observe the sensations of pain without identifying with the pain. When you realize you can rest in awareness, the pain may be just as severe, but you’re now cultivating equanimity and a degree of wisdom. There is a question that is often posed, “is awareness of pain, in pain?” After sitting in meditation, we see that the answer is “no”. You may begin seeing the pain as an impermanent, ever-changing dance of sensations. “It throbs over here, now it aches a little over there. Now it’s burning and sharp…oh, now it’s gone. Here it is again but not as bad.” There is an awareness that it is not pleasant. But the interpretation that “the pain is killing me, or ruining my career”, and all the emotions and dramas that go with it, are seen for what they are –just thoughts. In that seeing, they often lose their power over us.

The Science of Mindfulness & Pain

A Wake Forest University study conducted by Fadel Zeidan used MRI scans to show that just 4 days of meditation training lead to an approximately 40 percent reduction in acute pain intensity ratings during meditation when compared with non-meditation. But even when mindfulness meditation doesn’t work to decrease pain, such as in some chronic pain conditions, it often still works to improve quality of life along with improving our ability to cope with chronic pain. Take for example, a small research study with 63 rheumatoid arthritis patients. After two months of mindfulness training, the patients' physical symptoms did not disappear, but they reported feeling better. Scores of psychological distress dropped 30 percent.

So how does meditation work with acute pain? According to the study by Zeidan, four areas of the brain involved in pain processing or emotional and behavioral regulation have been shown to have differing activity levels during and after meditation. The primary somatosensory cortex, anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex all experienced altered levels of activation due to meditation. The primary somatosensory cortex is the region of the brain directly involved in pain processing. If an athlete sprains her ankle, this area of the brain figures out where the pain is and registers the initial pain level. Then the anterior insula, the brain region involved in perceiving and regulating the body functions such as heart rate and blood pressure, appraises the pain in the body. After the athlete’s ankle has been sprained, the insula judges how painful the resulting injury is.

Then the anterior cingulate cortex comes in to regulate the athletes emotional response to the injury, making them feel angry, scared, or frustrated. Finally, the prefrontal cortex, the executive command center of the brain, takes all the information and guides thoughts and actions, including the inhibition of inappropriate thoughts, distractions, and feelings. After beginning to feel angry, the athlete responds or reacts in some way.

The research by Zeidan showed that meditation alters these four areas of the brain associated with the perception of pain. By decreasing activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, the pain processing area, and increasing activity in the three other regions, pain is reduced. Assuming the athlete who sprained her ankle meditates, she would have a reduction in activity in the pain processing area of the brain, meaning the sprain won’t hurt as much from the beginning. She would also have increased activity in the pain and emotion regulating areas of the brain. She won’t judge the pain to be as strong, and she will regulate her emotional response to the pain as well as her behaviors.

The Benefits of Practicing with Chronic Pain

It’s hard to say if meditation has directly decreased the chronic pain I still have resulting from my back injuries years ago. But there’s no doubt in my mind it’s had indirect benefits on the way I respond to pain. By learning to observe and let go of limiting stories about my pain, I’ve been able to suffer less and work with pain in more beneficial ways. I can acknowledge my fear of re-injuring myself as just a fear –and not the truth, which has helped me build the confidence to start physically moving in a wider range of motion, improving function and decrease pain. On the other hand there have also been times I’ve noticed my habitual tendency to ignore limitations and instead of pushing through the pain, I can offer myself the rest and treatment I need. And finally, I’ve been able to find meaning in my experience of pain and tell a new story about my injury. I’m not a victim of pain; instead I can see how pain has been a powerful teacher and sent me on a healing journey. Through it all I’ve leaned wisdom and compassion and am grateful for the path I’m on because of it.