The Fork in the Road

We take paths every day.
We all have regular paths that we take. Our path to work. Our path to the store. Our running route. Humans tend to be creatures of habit and continue what is most familiar to them, including in our thinking and behavior. Like an efficient path to work, some of those thoughts and behaviors are chosen among alternatives as the best, and so we stick with a good thing. Other thoughts and behaviors we have are far less beneficial, yet we repeat them anyway.

Despite wanting to be different, we go down the same path each time, wondering how we got there again and again. Perhaps you even know how you got there, but feel powerless to prevent it.

This is a source of frustration for my clients. “Why do I keep…?” is a question I hear often. The explanation is simple; the remedy less so.

Resetting the GPS
You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. OR, you know where you want to go and you know one way to get there, but there is construction and you need an alternate route. Or, your ex lives in that area and you want to minimize the chances of running into him/her. What do you do?

Nowadays, we use a GPS, most typically on our phones. SO convenient! It used to be pretty high-tech to look a destination up on MapQuest and print it out. Remember when we used to call somewhere ahead of time and get directions from a person?

Sometimes we need a GPS for our lives. How do I get to a place of peace with my parents? How do I stop losing my temper at work? How do I stop taking things so personally? In order to reach a new destination, or find our favorite destinations better, we have to forge a new path. Therapy can be a sort of GPS for people who want to change, but don’t know how.

At a social gathering, if someone asks what I do for a living, they might say, “I think everyone needs therapy.” Actually, I don’t agree. Someone who  1.) knows what they are doing wrong, 2.) can identify alternatives, and  3.) begins using the alternatives with continued success – probably doesn’t need therapy. That being said, many of us get stuck at one time or another. Therapy helps a person understand where and why they keep getting stuck, then attempts to solve the problem from that heart of the matter.  If you’re not stuck, you don’t need therapy.

The Fork in the Road
In order to not take the same path that doesn’t work time after time, it is important to find the place where we start to go wrong. Is it in our behavior? Or does it begin with a single thought? Or even with a twinge of feeling? Change in our thoughts and behavior begins at the Fork in the Road.

The Fork in the Road is what I call that place of awareness just before we are about to default to our typical solutions that don’t work well. It is the place where we can stand for a moment and consider our move. We can say “usually at this time, I go this way.” But we can also see an alternative: “This is the path I keep wishing I would take.” At this interface between the two options (there might be more options, or “paths”), we can make a conscious decision to do things differently.

Recognizing the Fork in the Road
Most people agree that if they could just get to that point of awareness and insight, they might make a different decision. Repeating the same dysfunction over and over is like blowing past the fork and making a beeline down the usual path. Then you’re standing breathless and maybe injured well down that worn and beaten path wondering how you got here again. Recognizing the fork is the most difficult part of change.

I have identified two main ways that we are able to find the Fork in the Road, Retro-Analysis and Body Awareness.

Sounds pretty fancy, doesn’t it? And trendy, like some new therapy all the celebrities are doing in NYC, as described by a lifestyle editor in Vogue. Not so much.

Retro-Analysis is examining after-the-fact what went wrong, and the events leading up to it, in order to develop a familiarity with the pattern.

If we develop a familiarity with the pattern, we can recognize it, and eventually anticipate it when the familiar cues begin. It is a lot like hearing the same song over and over. Eventually, you pick up on the words, the melody, and develop a keen awareness of how many beats go by before that cymbal smash. It isn’t even conscious.

In Retro-Analysis, we examine what happened first, what was the response, happened then…? And so on. When we do this work, we see how the same triggers and responses put us on the same paths. We may not be able to change the occurrence of the triggers, but we can absolutely retrain our response. Spotting the trigger and becoming aware of how it impacts us puts us at the powerful Fork in the Road. Then, if we identify and practice new thoughts or behaviors, we set down a new path – the goal most people bring to therapy.

Body Awareness
There has been a lot in the news lately about mindfulness, but the concept of mindfulness is not actually new at all. It has been practiced by monks and Native Americans for ages. Mindfulness refers to an ability to be acutely present in our body and in our current environment. With that presence comes a keen awareness of what is going on around and in us. One way to be mindful is to connect with our body and its signals.

Our body gives us signals to how we are feeling, physically, mentally, and emotionally. We have an opportunity to respond or to ignore those cues. Some don’t even feel those cues until we learn how. It takes time and practice, just like training ourselves to remember our dreams.  Have you ever heard that if you want to remember your dreams better, keep a notepad/pencil by your bed and record even the smallest snippets of remembered info? If we do this, we send a subtle cue to our brain to begin attaching to memories of our dreams and we start to remember more and more of our dreams.

To increase body awareness, learn and practice diaphragmatic breathing. You can online search under diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, deep breathing and get explanations, instructions, even video tutorials on how to breathe in this specific way. In short, it is the single-most drug-free effective way to calm our body processes, relieve anxiety, and become more present in our bodies.

I love deep breathing and teach it to whomever will let me. It comes up in nearly all of my sessions at one time or another. There are so many uses for deep breathing that it is an essential tool to have in your toolbox. It will take you a few minutes a day for about two weeks to learn it. If you practice it to get better and better after the two weeks, it will more quickly and effectively do the trick.

To practice for the first time, sit in a quiet place with minimal distraction and exhale slowly and fully. Your lips will be pursed slightly, and you will make a noise that sounds a lot like waves, or like a white noise machine. Really exhale. Exhale beyond when you think you should be done. Really empty out. Once you are empty, allow your body a slow inhale. This should come naturally, since you’ve emptied yourself of air and the body will naturally want to draw air back in. Follow with another extra-long exhale. Allow a natural, slow intake of air. Repeat.

By pushing past that initial exhale point, you engage the diaphragm, which is a muscle at the base of your esophagus. When the diaphragm is strong, it pulls and pushes air in and out of the body with more force and ease. It is used in singing to hold a note and in speech therapy to get sound out. It is also used in martial arts, yoga, and countless other scenarios. With deep breathing, we eliminate carbon dioxide more effectively and allow more oxygen to enter the body. Oxygen helps our circulatory system run more efficiently and the more blood/oxygen the brain receives, the clearer it can think and problem-solve.

Some methods recommend counting as you breathe in and out. I find this distracting. Most methods also teach from the inhale. However, I have found inexperienced deep breathers cannot take in a deep inhale in a relaxed way, whereas it is easier for most people to exhale deeply. Once you exhale deeply, the inhale takes care of itself.

Do this for roughly 10-20 breaths, or about 1-3 minutes. (Really – it only takes that long, which means the “I didn’t have time to practice” excuse can’t apply.) In about 2 weeks, it should start to become more natural and more rhythmic. Hopefully, and most importantly, you will feel a shift in which you can tell you have altered yourself physically. When I demonstrate this breathing method to clients, I am often amused by how the pace and tone in my voice changes after the demonstration. I go from energetic, enthusiastic about teaching the technique, and impatient to get out all the information… to mellow and relaxed. Not “out of it;” in fact, I would say I feel more aware and attentive to my surroundings.  I have been deep breathing for 15 years, so 3 breaths can get me this alteration. Please keep in mind that it will take time and practice to feel the powerful effects of deep breathing. Clients tell me time and again how helpful and effective deep breathing has been in their well-being.

Once you have learned the technique, use it on a regular basis, NOT WHEN STRESSED OR UPSET. Use it when you are out of breath. Use it after you’ve been talking a lot (because talking uses a lot of oxygen). Use it when you are having trouble thinking or remembering, or when you simply have a lot on your mind. Use it when you are in bed, before you fall asleep, to help relax your body and mind. At some point, you should try using it when you are frustrated, stressed, or have trouble sleeping to see if it helps you.

Primarily, though, diaphragmatic breathing is used to prevent reaching stressed states.

Back to Body Awareness…
With diaphragmatic breathing in place, there are several other techniques used to enhance body awareness.

1.) During the process of deep breathing, notice tensions (tight muscles) or feelings of being off-balance (sitting more to the left, for example), or tightness in the chest. Pay attention to whether it feels difficult to be still. Don’t criticize any of these things, though you might adjust your position to relax better. Just observe and practice breathing, being still, and mindful.

2.) Pay attention to fidgets and ask those body parts to let go and relax. Do you pick at your fingernails, bounce your leg, play with buttons or threads on your clothing? Notice it, don’t criticize it, and ask those parts of your body to let go and be still.

3.) Take good care of your body through diet and exercise to cleanse the body of pollutants that throw off its sensors. Pay attention to how food and exercise affects you. Some people are sensitive to the foods they eat. Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety, sugar can cause fatigue, to name a few…

An Exercise Example: After a hard workout, I might be hungry and tired for a couple of days. Being hungry and tired make me cranky, overwhelmed, and teary. If I wasn’t aware of the body processes, I might allow my brain to follow the negative thoughts I have while cranky and overwhelmed and sink deeper into those thoughts. If I know I’m tired from pushing my body too hard, then I know that for a couple of days I am going to be off and need to recalibrate, and I can remind myself that those thoughts are about being tired and less a reflection of my life. I can thereby not worsen those thoughts and help them pass by as my mood improves as my body heals. Additionally, many of the documented symptoms of Overtraining look exactly like the documented symptoms for Depression.

My clinical training taught me to believe that people come into session with their own answers. My job as a clinician is not to hear your problems, then consult my vast library of knowledge to provide you with information on how to better yourself and your life. Rather, it is to guide you in an exploration process to find what works for you and develop that into strategies that you keep in your toolbox. A well-equipped toolbox allows you to walk away from therapy with the ability to apply your tools to various concerns.

Being able to see our patterns more clearly and catch ourselves at the Fork in the Road is an incredibly useful tool that empowers us in countless ways.