Using Flow States to Move from Anxiety and Depression to Optimal States of Thriving
Carol Kershaw and Bill Wade
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Anxiety and depression have been difficult issues to find lasting cures. Around the world, the number of those who suffer with these afflictions grows each year. Traditional treatment paradigms have explored improving cognitions, developing insight, resolving trauma, and balancing neurotransmitters. While psychotropic medications and psychotherapy have been helpful, many people find themselves on cocktails of medicine and have a history of utilizing many therapeutic experiences without enduring change. The clinical imperative is to shift symptom patterns into solution states that reflect emotional regulation mastery (Rossouw, 2014).
Habitual negative mental states often rigidly pattern and evolve into a personality trait over time.
When clients are in negative states, it is difficult for them to rebound from the sudden insults of life, and they can lose their internal locus of control. It becomes challenging to rationally perceive options in a difficult situation (van der Kolk, 2014). Habitual negative mental states often rigidly pattern and evolve into a personality trait over time. Life challenges, including the onset of illness, loss, trauma or chronic stress, can result in “action immobilization”. The fight/flight/freeze/faint response blocks a neurological reset so that one’s sense of perspective freezes and confusion reigns. It is as if a person is living in the past by repeating the same mental habits and mindsets learned long ago of rumination, depression and anxiety, and avoiding risk each day.
With the explosion of neuroscience discoveries over the last 20 years, mental health is evolving a new paradigm stemming from the neuro-revolution in psychology that views anxiety and depression from a new perspective. Rather than focusing on imbalanced neurotransmitters and cognitive symptoms, which keeps people stuck in the past, perceiving these issues in terms of the brain’s neuroplasticity and its electrical functioning provides new intervention tools (Doidge, 2015). We now know that brain cells are in constant electrical communication and that the brain has enormous potential to heal, change, grow and develop throughout life. The process of creating new cellular connections becomes a source of healing. These connections can be intentionally strengthened or weakened with attention. By using competitive plasticity to override a natural tendency to ruminate, running anxious or depressive movies in the mind, the brain can be taught to use the same internal visual system to change states, condition them, and change the mental theater by using competing states. This is the process of using the mind to change the brain (Doidge, 2015; Kershaw & Wade, 2012).
The new focus in psychology is on understanding brainwave patterns that affect mental and emotional health, mind states and personal narrative. When inner states shift toward the positive, thought patterns improve which “turn on” previously inactive brain circuits. Then the task is to learn how to shift and train attention to stay in desired mental states for longer periods of time—once clients understand how to develop this mental flexibility, changing their personal problem narrative is easier. Due to the brain’s ability to form new connections (neuroplasticity), neuroscience discoveries are showing that the brain can be rewired to stay in happiness and calm for longer periods of time (Schwartz and Gladding, 2011). The key is to build a better brain through specific training that move us from living in survival states to higher level mental states of self-compassion, generosity, flexibility, warmth, and belly-laugh humor. These higher mental states often need to be activated by the clinician as well as inner resources of the client such as courage, persistence, facing fears, and following through on achieving goals.
The heart produces an electric field 600 times as large as the brain’s and extends farther outside the body.
This paradigm has its roots in the new science that examines the body/mind connection through the electromagnetic system of the brain and body. All cells give off electricity, creating a measurable electrical field that surrounds the body. An electroencephalograph measures the brain’s electricity, and an electrocardiogram assesses the heart’s electricity. Each organ system creates an electric field as well (Oschmann, 2000; Wisneski & Anderson, 2009). The brain emits a strong electric field that reaches outside the body. The heart produces an electric field 600 times as large as the brain’s and extends farther outside the body. Research from the HeartMath Institute (https://www.heartmath.org/) has demonstrated the impact of emotional states of anger, resentment, love, and compassion on the energy field of the heart: negative states, for example, lead to incoherent brain and heart waves, while love, compassion, generosity, and calm lead to coherent functioning (McCraty, Atkinson, Tomasino, & Bradley, 2009). As well as these inner states being reflected in the brain’s EEG, they are also reflected in blood flow, neurotransmitters, and body chemicals. Under stress, the brain resorts to functioning in higher beta states of anxiety that run around 23-35 Hz (Seo & Lee, 2010). Chronic stress often moves the brain into a dissociation from theta states of 4–7 Hz . This shift creates foggy thinking and sometimes frustration, disappointment, and depression (Jena, 2015).
A feeling of threat causes blood to pool in the center of the body and away from the extremities, so temperature lowers. Stress causes the brain to release cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, the feel-good and motivation chemical, are lowered, and the brain actually shrinks under these conditions. Balance can be restored according to how an individual pays attention to inner thoughts, feelings, and life experience.
Another element in the new paradigm comes from a concept called state-dependent memory and learning, which was first proposed by Donald Goodwin and colleagues at the Washington University Department of Psychiatry in 1969, and in the research from neurofeedback over the last 20 years. Goodwin and his colleagues conducted a research study focusing on memory and alcohol (Goodwin, Powell, Bremer, Hoine, & Stern, 1969). They asked a group of college student volunteers to drink to inebriation and then memorize a list of nonsense syllables. Upon sobering up, the researchers asked the students to repeat what they memorized, which they failed to do. Without allowing them any time for review of the words, the researchers required their subjects to become drunk again. This time the students easily repeated the list of words. The results of the study demonstrated that information is encoded in a state of mind. When needing to recall learned material, or an emotional resource like feeling confidant, an individual must re-enter the same state of mind in which it was learned or experienced (Goodwin et al., 1969). Therefore, in order to access the mind’s ability to come up with generative solutions and overcome depression and anxiety, a change in state of mind is required.
Research in neuroscience has discovered that neural pathways are laid down with experience, activate with habitual patterned thought, and shrink from non-use. The oft-quoted maxim that neurons that fire together wire together (Hebb, 1949) describes the establishment of neural pathways. Neuroscience has since contributed an additional maxim—neurons that fire apart, wire apart—meaning that when we change an activity or develop a new way of thinking, different pathways emerge. Accepting negative feelings are important to mental health. But, rather than regularly running Stephen King-type horror movies of the mind, positive mental states that are practiced lead to more positive behaviors connected to an imagined future that clients want to create.[Content protected for subscribers only]
This has been an excerpt from The Neuropsychotherapist. For more of this article and other great reading please consider subscribing.