Huddol Lifecast Interview Hosted by Mark Stolow
“Our brains are extremely social.” We have extensive cortical regions and networks dedicated to what neuroscientists refer to as “the social brain.” “How one brain interacts with another has important effects on how the brain functions…We can come to believe this view not because we are therapists and we believe in this idea; this scientifically validated perspective is true because of evolution…Social interactions are one of the most powerful forms of experience that help shape how the brain gives rise to the mind” (Daniel Siegel). “Attachment science tells us that we are as human beings essentially relational and emotional beings; so then the most powerful way to grow as human beings is to go into that relational emotional channel… and create new experiences that help us learn to regulate our emotions differently; engage with others differently; help us learn to put together our inner reality in a more coherent and positive way” (Sue Johnson). Interpersonal connection through psychotherapy can have profoundly healing and corrective affects on our neurobiology. We’re a social species.
Have you ever sworn never to be like your parents only to find yourself replicating some embarrassing mannerism your parents do? Maybe you let a dad joke slip, or picked up one of your mom’s habits? You’re not alone; it happens to the best of us –er, actually, all of us. (Fun fact: did you know studies show dad jokes are actually funnier when you follow them up with prerecorded laughter? Anyways, I digress…)
We’re social creatures and have evolved by surviving and thriving in social contexts for hundreds of thousands of years. Because of this, a vast amount of our brain centres are dedicated to processing socially relevant information. In fact, neuroscientists refer to this circuitry as the “social brain,” which encompasses neurological regions responsible for helping us experience others through our senses, recognize and interpret facial expressions, and predict social behavior (largely through our emotions). All of these brain systems begin to come online in early childhood, when our brains are most rapidly developing and being shaped by our environments, a big part of which is usually comprised of our parents!
Because our ancestors started walking upright, which shifted our anatomy, human heads need to be small enough to fit through the birth canal, so a great deal of our brain development and the cortical shaping that will influence us for the rest of our lives, happens outside the womb during our first years of life. Since we’re among the most immature species at birth, we have an innate (survival) need for caregivers. This is why there are built in biological functions like bonding hormones oxytocin –often referred to as the “love hormone”— which gets released during hugging, kissing, sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. These processes are all natural instincts to foster strong attachments and survival and the nature of our early relationships is thought to shape our attachment style later in life.
Research has shown that the dynamics of one’s attachment with their primary caregiver(s) is the basis of one’s “attachment style,” which greatly influences their behavior in subsequent significant relationships. This is most prominent in romantic relationships, as we learn how to love from our relationship with our parents. Children are also little sponges in that they absorb everything around them, and quickly learn social and cultural norms (e.g. such as gender roles, habits of daily life, emotion regulation, patience/impatience, communication patterns –criticism or compassion, how to argue, how to apologize/or not, etc.) from what their parents model to them (ever notice how fast your kids pick up your unintentional profane slip of the tongue?). Children closely observe their parents’ relational dynamics, which forms the basis of what they know to be normal in relationships. This social shaping, coupled with the child’s attachment style, forms a “relationship template” that they subconsciously go out and seek to replicate in other relationships. Actually, the “chemistry” in romantic relationships has been attributed to this process of relational reenactment, or finding similar relational conditions to what you grew up accustomed to. It’s been said that the greater the chemistry, the more comfortable and familiar the person is to you, and the more likely they are to be like your primary caregiver(s) in some subconscious way, usually in terms of attachment style. If you’ve ever wondered where your tastes and habits in relationships come from, learning your attachment style might be a good place to start (check out a self-assessment quiz at https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/ ). You often have your parents to thank in some part!
As a couple’s therapist, I often find myself having discussions about people’s love languages and how to help one’s partner translate their expression of love into the other partner’s way of receiving love. The concept of love languages was introduced by Psychologist, Gary Chapman, in his (1995) book, “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.” His work has since gained a great deal of traction and has been adapted to a website and a love language quiz, which is widely accessible to couples in need of a relationship tune-up.
To outline the concept briefly, there are thought to be five predominant ways in which we give and receive love: through acts of service(e.g. pumping your partner’s gas), gifts, words of affirmation (communicating interest and understanding), quality time, and physical touch. While we may enjoy all of these in relationships, usually one speaks us most profoundly –perhaps a type of affection we became accustomed to receiving in childhood, or more commonly, a means of affection we may not have received enough of growing up. I’ve found it’s a wonderfully, simplistic, universal framework for conceptualizing human affection that generalizes well to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, genders, and sexualities.
In addition to this model, I think it’s important to consider each partner’s personality types, as one’s orientation toward extraversion or introversion also tends to influence how they may exhibit affection. For instance, extraverts thrive in social, larger group settings and tend to express themselves better verbally, while introverts thrive in one-on-one or smaller group interactions, can require personal time for self-reflection, and tend to express themselves better in writing. Within the context of affection in relationships, this distinction can help explain a lot, since the modality in which we communicate is becoming more central to our daily interactions in our modern world.
In real life, this could look like an extroverted partner who expresses words of affirmation a great deal in person, but becomes more reserved over phone, video, or text communication, which can shift the dynamic of the relationship entirely (e.g. in the context of a long-distance relationship that relies heavily on written communication), leaving the other partner wondering. And vice versa: an introverted partner may seem slightly reserved in person but more expressive over phone, video, or text. (E.g. maybe this is why he’s not texting the words she’s hoping to hear, and maybe she’s coming across as more forward over text than she would in person.) It’s easy for each partner to take this personally if the subtleties of personality style are overlooked, but this added lens offers greater objectivity about what’s transpiring in the relationship: they’re more likely to express affection in a manner consistent with their personality types. This helps the long-distance couple understand that the extraverted partner is likely to resume being affectionate once they’re together in person again, and that the introverted partner really is expressive in their own way. Of course this is just one of many examples of how personality type may manifest in relationships. There are some stereotypical gender and cultural differences, (e.g. men tending to be less expressive over text; some cultures tend to be less emotionally expressive in general), but these generalizations don’t apply to everyone. Another take away is the realization that much of what happens in life and relationships is not personal, but often more about what’s going on for the other person, which is a powerful antidote to counter reactivity in relationships.
When you feel urged to do something compulsive, do the opposite: practice non-action. This is one of the surest ways to undo patterned behaviour. A practice in non-action could be meditation. Meditation is helpful because it’s an alternative behaviour, which conditions a new response. It also affects neurological and chemical changes in the brain, thereby creating new neural pathways to help you stick with your alternative responses (vs. compulsive reactions) over time.
Urges, such as chemical cravings for substances, as seen in addiction, or behavioural clinging for attachment in cases of relational trauma, only last at their peak intensity for about fifteen minutes. If we can do something else to ride the wave of discomfort, we can allow it to pass without acting reflexively, which gives us greater freedom to choose a mindful response. We may have to practice this again and again throughout a particularly difficult hour, day, or week, but it is not a futile effort, as it will help you gain mastery over the urges that once controlled you, just as one masters a tough meditation.
In this way, much of life can be seen as a walking meditation. Embrace it mindfully and learn to surf!
CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is one of the more established psychotherapeutic modalities that’s been shown to be effective in the treatment of various concerns, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, among many others. But CBT isn’t just a treatment for those experiencing psychological distress; we can all use CBT-based practices to enhance our everyday lives.
CBT largely involves exploring our relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours –reality checks we could all use a healthy dose of from time to time. One exercise that might be particularly useful in our daily grind is to start identifying “cognitive distortions,” or mental habits.
Our brains and our bodies like to be as efficient as possible. We’re built to conserve precious resources. We have a finite amount of energy available for daily expenditure. Something along the same lines as the reasoning behind Steve Jobs wearing the same outfit each day…to cut down on extraneous decision-making mental activity. So our brains become efficient by creating mental shortcuts, or mental habits whichbecome physically reinforced. Neurological pathways that are used most often become stronger and myelinated(i.e. covered with a protective fatty sheath) making them lightening fast (i.e. more subconscious) and more easily activated for super-charged mental habit action. A similar analogy is how our most frequently used muscles become the strongest and most dominant. This allows many of our most common mental actions to become automated (e.g. just how driving a car becomes second nature once we become pros at it). Such mental efficiency is the reason we’re able to accomplish so many wonderful things in a day, but it comes with the downfall of making us susceptible to erroneous thinking. Below is a list of the most common “cognitive distortions” we all do. If you can catch yourself in the act, you can notice when your thinking may be unrealistic in order to come back to a more balanced appraisal of the situation.
- All-or-nothing thinking (either/or, pass/fail thinking; perfectionism): seeing things as black and white and failing to see grey areas. E.g. using words like “always” and “never” as descriptors.
- Overgeneralization: making a very broad conclusion based on a single event; expecting the same result to reoccur in future situations. Seeing a single event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Labeling and mislabeling: Attributing a person’s behaviour to his or her personality or character. E.g. “He cut me off in traffic. He’s a jerk.” “She yelled at me, she must be an angry person.”
- Mental filter (selective attention): Only focusing on negative aspects of a situation and ignoring possible positives. Only focusing on information that confirms what you already believe. E.g. “I forgot a few of my lines. The whole presentation was a disaster.”
- Disqualifying the positive: Rejecting positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or another. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. E.g. “That person is only flattering me because they’re my friend.”
- Jumping to conclusions: Making hasty assumptions without thoroughly checking the facts.
- Mind reading: Assuming what other people are thinking (and intending) without really knowing or checking it out. (And/or expecting others to know what you are thinking without clearly telling them).
- The fortune teller error: Anticipating that things will turn out a certain way and being convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
- Magnification (catastrophizing or minimization): Making things out to be worse than they really are. Magnification of the negative: emphasizing possible weaknesses, failures, and threats. Minimizing the positive: deemphasizing possible successes, strengths, or opportunities.
- Emotional reasoning: Assuming that your emotions necessarily reflect facts and reality. (E.g. “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”)
- ‘Should’ statements: Thinking you’re morally obligated to do things. Using “should” and “shouldn’t” statements to motivate behaviour and avoid guilt. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is disempowerment and guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
- Personalization (or self-centred thinking): Interpreting things as being necessarily and intentionally about you. Over-focusing on oneself and ignoring how events relate to others and the world. Taking things personally without checking them out. Being easily offended. Interpreting most things to be about yourself or personally referring to you.
- Self-Blaming: Taking too much responsibility for situations you don’t have control over. Seeing yourself as the cause of some external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.
- Other-Blaming: Holding others responsible for things done to you that they may not have control over.
- Double standards: Holding yourself to a different standard than you would apply to someone else.
- The fallacy of fairness: Expecting that life should always work out fairly.
- Catastrophization: Over-exaggerating; making something seem worse than it is.
*We at Heartfulness Psychotherapy appreciate that CBT isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We recognize that other approaches can be equally as effective and integrate flexible treatment options into our programs. Different strokes for different folks. 🙂
I’ve recently noticed a trend in my office: middle-aged people have been seeking me out because their drinking has become problematic. Their partners have expressed concern and they’re left wondering in bewilderment how it ever got to this point. They’re intelligent, motivated, successful, caring men and women leading generally satisfying lives as partners, parents, and professionals. They may have even seen a therapist or two already in the past in an effort to uncover possible issues from early life difficulties, seemingly to little effect. They wonder how our work together could possibly be any different.
What I’ve noticed is that many of these clients tend to share some commonalities:
- They bore easily; they’re often restless and on the move
- They’re energetic and talkative, often dominating the conversation and changing topics, perhaps interrupting frequently
- They’re forgetful and/or struggle with time management and attending appointments
- They’re generally quite interesting as they can share a flurry of ideas concurrently*
- They’re quite intelligent* and high-functioning,* but may have had a history of being disruptive in grade school (and may have developed a complex about frequently being reprimanded*)
- Perhaps they’ve wondered if they might have some attention deficits, but nothing’s ever come of this consideration or early childhood assessment*
- They may be quite sensitive*
These characteristics are commonly seen in individuals with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (in addition to other diagnostic criteria). ADHD is frequently identified in young boys who exhibit behavioural disruptions in grade school, but less so in girls who tend to present somewhat differently (likely in part due to differential influences in socialization).
Perhaps parents from previous generations feared medicating their children and/or the stigma that might have accompanied seeking formal psychological assessment and diagnosis. In other cases, high-functioning intelligent children may have kept up with their academics, without much commitment to formal study practices, and thus flew under the radar. For various reasons, some people make it all the way into middle-aged adulthood without ever having their ADHD identified (or symptoms thereof, as it’s possible to experience symptoms on the spectrum without qualifying for a formal diagnosis).
Oftentimes such individuals resort to self-medicating symptoms they didn’t realize they were dealing with by using alcohol and other drugs to help with increased focus, productivity, and to escape the flurry of thoughts they’re so inundated by in order to unwind before bed. When thinking about ADHD, we seldom fully appreciate how exhausting it can be to have to constantly moderate attention away from countless distractions, personal “notes to self,” and new ideas, all within seconds just in time to return to the conversation at hand and appear attentive to the person in front of you! Seeing ADHD in this light helps me understand the high correlation with concurrent addiction.
Many factors contribute to the susceptibility and development of addiction; among them, genetic, psychological, sociological, and existential influences. It is also well known that most cases of addiction tend to correlate with some form of psychological trauma. To this end, addiction is often about self-medicating symptoms of distress. In therapy, while it’s essential to approach addiction from a trauma-sensitive lens, it’s also important to consider possible unidentified mental health concerns –likely also tied to trauma, which may independently perpetuate the cycle of addiction if left unaddressed.
Another important thing to realize is that addictive tendencies are degenerative in nature. Long-term substance abuse can create cumulative health impairments. Addictive tendencies can be progressive as they become ingrained behaviourally and neurologically (i.e. physically reinforced in the brain). As we age, we tend to lose water weight, so substances like alcohol can have greater influence than expected. It’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that substance abuse habits started in youth can subtly escalate over time, as greater tolerance and dependence develops –all of which can contribute to middle-age problem drinking.
If you’re wondering whether your substance use could be an issue, consider:
- Is it interfering with your relationships and other commitments?
- Do you continue to ‘use’ despite significant adverse consequences?
- Is the use compulsive?
- Do you experience craving and preoccupation?
- Is it difficult or impossible to control the amount or frequency of use?
- Have others expressed concern?
Therapy can be helpful in identifying and learning to manage symptoms of addiction and ADHD. Sometimes simply acknowledging such concerns can be a first step that brings considerable relief. If you think you could be affected by similar challenges, reach out to a regulated healthcare professional to see how you could be supported and what options are available.