Why Most New Year's Resolutions Are Horrible

By Dr. Jonathan Kaplan

Many of us make health-related New Year’s resolutions--earnest promises to exercise more, stop smoking, drink less, eat more veggies, lose weight, etc.  While I admire our collective attempts at self-improvement, I also know that there are many problems with how we approach setting such intentions.  In fact, given how most of us pursue these goals, I’ve come to consider most New Year’s Resolutions to be pretty horrible things.  

Let’s do a little quiz.  Let’s take one of your New Year’s resolutions.  Does it involve any of the following?:

Stop making bad New Year's resolutions!

Stop making bad New Year's resolutions!

  • Losing weight
  • Exercising more
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking less
  • Eating healthier

If so, then it’s probably a horrible resolution.  “But, what could possibly be wrong with wanting to get fit?”, you ask.  Unfortunately, given how we approach this intention, there are three main problems.  

First, we often have a corrosive belief underlying our intention to be more healthy.  If you’re trying to get fit in order to look better, then what you’re doing is reinforcing a mental message that you’re somehow not OK the way that you are.  You’re contributing to a fundamental belief in your own unworthiness, which just isn’t true.  You’re beautiful.  You’re worthy.  You’re lovable.  Truly.  You’re better off trying to reconcile yourself to the reality of your own amazingness rather than lose 30 pounds.  If you do want to lose weight, then focus on how it feels in your body to move and carry less pounds.  Most likely, this will feel good, naturally.  You don’t have to berate yourself in order to be healthy.  

The second reason why New Year’s resolutions are terrible is that they are often based on literal, arbitrary rules disconnected from physical experience, life circumstances, and physiological reality.  That is, we devise a particular guideline to follow, then do our best to meet it regardless of the consequences.  Suppose I resolve to eat a salad every day.  While seemingly noble from a vegetarian perspective, what if I don’t like the taste of salad?  What if I add so much dressing that it defeats the purpose of losing weight?  What if there is no place to get fresh veggies near me?  Ideally, behavior connected to a New Year’s resolution is grounded in our real experience of the world, not just what our mind tells us to do.  

Finally, many resolutions focus on stopping a problematic behavior without an understanding of its function.  For example, many people want to quit smoking, eat less sweets, or drink less alcohol, but all of these behaviors help us feel better in the short-term.  Sure, we later cough up a lung, or crash from a sugar high, or feel hung-over.  But in the moment, they all serve a function--to help us feel less stressed.  So, we need replacement behaviors to serve this same purpose.  If you’re not going to smoke in order to reduce stress, then what are you going to do in the moments when you would be reaching for a cigarette?

So, what are the parameters in making a good New Year’s resolution?  Make sure that it is...

  • based on a positive view of yourself 
  • connected with your personal values
  • grounded in your experience in the world
  • describes what you’re going to do (not just what you’re trying to avoid)

With these guidelines in mind, you're better able to create (and adhere to) resolutions that will change your life.  

A Helpful New Year's Resolution: Praising Your Children

By Dr. Cecily Anders

Any time your child engages in a positive behavior that you want your child to repeat again in the future, it is beneficial to both you and your child to praise that behavior.  Praised behaviors are repeated behaviors.  When I work with children in therapy, a behavior that is praised is frequently repeated in future sessions.  Parents often have concerns and questions about praising their children.  Hopefully, this post will help you feel comfortable praising your child more frequently, but also at the right time.

Often parents say, “But I don’t want to praise my child for engaging in a behavior that most children are able to do without praise.”  When praising, it doesn’t matter how small or obvious the behavior is, you should still praise the behavior if you would like your child to repeat the behavior again in the future.  For instance, you can praise a child for not interrupting you while you were on the phone or for sitting still while riding in the car.  A child learns from praise and also feels rewarded from praise.  Most likely, other children learned that they should engage in “obvious” behaviors because someone praised them for those behaviors at some point in their lives.

Some parents say, “My child has been misbehaving all day.  I can’t praise my child after doing one little thing right.”   This is exactly when you should praise a child.  Your child is paying attention to when s/he has your attention.  Your child wants to be praised and receive your positive attention.  If you only give your child praise once during the day, your child is going to remember that event and will most likely repeat that one behavior again in the future.  In addition, always make sure to state what the child did correctly during the praise and this will make it perfectly clear to your child what you would like your child to do again in the future.  For example, you might say, “Thank you so for picking up your toys before going to bed.  You did an excellent job.”   You can include non-verbal praise like a warm smile or a hug.  Praise is about shaping your child’s behavior.  The more you let your child know the behaviors you prefer, by pointing them out right after your child does them, the more you will see those behaviors in the future. 

If you really want to challenge yourself, you can begin praising everyone in your life more.  Teenagers, significant others, coworkers and friends all appreciate and respond to genuine, warm praise.  Notice the wonderful behaviors going on around you and verbally reward away!  You might just be surprised and delighted by how often those behaviors are repeated in the future. 

OCD in Children and Teens: What Parents Can Do to Help

By Dr. Cecily Anders

When people have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), they often engage in rituals or compulsions that help them to immediately decrease their anxiety.  These compulsions might include cleaning, straightening, checking, or movement rituals (such as opening and closing a door multiple times).  Often a child with OCD will have a thought such as, “If I don’t wash my hands right now, I will die.”  So the reasons that children engage in the rituals are quite terrifying to them.  Many parents believe that compulsions or rituals help to decrease their child’s anxiety in a helpful way.  In the short term, a compulsion or ritual can be highly rewarding for the child, especially in the beginning when the ritual doesn’t take too long to complete. However, over time, the rituals may become more elaborate and time consuming.  Once the rituals become more time consuming, then the child and parents are able to see the down side of this coping mechanism. 

With OCD in particular, working as a team with your child is a great way to help him or her better manage the symptoms. Together, you and your child can make an agreement to eliminate compulsions.  If you see your child engaging in a compulsion, gently encourage him or her to try a different way to manage the anxiety using coping mechanisms that are frequently taught during therapy.  If you also learn these helpful coping behaviors, then you can help better coach your child at home.  Even though your child has made an agreement with you, frequent reminders will still be needed because the emotions and urges experienced by your child will be intense, thus making teamwork an essential part of OCD therapy.

Children and teens have a difficult time behaving in ways that will benefit them long-term.  A helpful role for parents in this situation is to think about the long-term benefits for their child.  Each opportunity to sit with anxiety, rather than engage in the compulsion, will teach your child that the anxiety is tolerable and that these scary future events will not actually happen to him or her.  The short-term management of anxiety after a distressing thought appears will lead to better long-term management of your child’s OCD symptoms. 

A lot of parents find it difficult to watch their children suffer.  Resisting the urge to act on a compulsion will feel unpleasant to your child, especially in the beginning when the compulsions are easier.  You may also want to “fix” a situation for your child so that they don’t feel an urge to engage in a compulsion, such as you are always the person to open a door so that your child doesn’t feel the urge to open and close the door multiple times.  However, once one urge is “fixed”, another will pop up until you are overwhelmed with having to “fix” a number of previously smaller situations.  Again, your role is to think long-term, rather than short-term.  Everyone would prefer a quick fix for his or her child that does not involve any suffering.  However, treatment often does feel uncomfortable at first.  For example, we give our children vaccines, which involve a painful shot, so that they don’t develop life-threatening diseases later.  Remember, that you are a team and you can also share your feelings about how hard it is to change and try out more helpful behaviors that have long-term benefits.  Together, teamwork can help your child. 

 

The SPARK Model of Mindfulness Training

By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

For the recently published book Becoming Mindful: Integrating Mindfulness into Your Psychiatric PracticeDr. Doris Chang and I wrote a chapter on developing mindfulness practices for patients.  As part of our contribution, I shared a model for mindfulness practice that I’ve developed based on my work with patients and my own personal practice.  Represented by the acronym SPARK, this model involves 5 distinct steps for practice:

  • Stopping (or Slowing Down)
  • Perceiving
  • Allowing
  • Reflecting
  • Knowing

Stopping (or Slowing Down)

Oftentimes, our attention is divided across multiple activities or simply “turned off” as we’re immersed in a mind-numbing experience, like watching TV.  In order to begin our mindfulness practice, we need to make a conscious decision to stop or slow down what we’re doing.  This deliberate act signifies that we are going to start paying attention.  

Perceiving

Next, we need an object of attention.  We need to pay attention to something.  The particular object can vary depending on your practice and intention.  If you’re new to meditation, you might begin by paying attention to the physical sensations of breathing.  If you’re at a nice restaurant, you might savor the flavors of your meal.  If you’re interested in dieting or losing weight, you might notice feelings of hunger, thirst, and satiety.  Here, it is important to pay exquisite attention and really linger over the experience.  

Allowing

As part of the practice, we cultivate acceptance of all experiences--whatever is present and whatever is absent.  In fact, this attitude is more important than whatever you noticed in the second stage of practice.  Of course, the mind finds many ways to resist this way of being.  How do we deal with this resistance?  In mindfulness circles, the simple instruction is often to “let it go.”  While this makes sense for some people, many can be left wondering exactly how to do that (including me).  If you’re one of those people, it’s helpful to provide some simple encouragement, such as “It’s OK that...” or “Yes” relative to whatever you notice.  

Reflecting

Mindfulness practice is not the same as developing one-pointed concentration.  In fact, self-reflection is a significant part of cultivating mindfulness.  So, we can inquire of our experiences and/or make observations of what we notice.  In guiding my patients in mindfulness meditation, I might prompt them to dialogue with difficult emotions by posing questions such as “What do you want me to know?” or “How can I help?”  Questions such as these deepen our practice and set the stage for the development of...

Knowing

Through our practice and embodied inquiry, we develop a better understanding of ourselves and the world.  This wisdom is not characterized as discursive musings or logically plausible hypotheses.  Rather, it emerges as a profound truth that resonates with the heart, body, and mind.  

 

If you’d like to learn more about this model, please check out our chapter, "Mindfulness in Practice: Incorporating Mindfulness Inside and Outside of Sessions," in Becoming Mindful, available here: Awesome New Mindfulness Book for Psychotherapists.

 

ACT for Adolescents

By Cecily Anders, Psy.D.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a relatively new form of cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Rather than addressing specific psychiatric disorders, ACT posits that the nature of our difficulties is rooted in psychological rigidity:  problems develop when we become stuck in rumination, painful emotions, or behavioral avoidance.  To promote helping us get unstuck, ACT encourages people to develop skills in six areas:  acceptance, cognitive defusion, contact with the present moment, self-as-context, values and committed action.  This constellation of skills is represented in what is affectionately known as the “ACT hexaflex”, as shown below (Hayes et al., 2006).  ACT has been growing in popularity due to the expanding body of research that demonstrates its efficacy and effectiveness.  Further, I have seen its helpfulness with many of my clients, especially adolescents. 

Hexaflex.png

There are three ways to deliver ACT to adolescents.  The first way uses the original ACT hexaflex, the second way uses the DNA-V model (developed by Louise Hayes specifically for teens), and the third way uses a mixture of both models based on the preferences of the practitioner and the client.  In this post, I will be comparing the “traditional” hexaflex model to the DNA-V model.

For anyone who already knows the hexaflex model, the DNA-V model might initially lead to some discomfort (unless of course you are in an enlightened stage of absolute defusion from your mind).  There are some new components and certain areas of the hexaflex are more emphasized than other areas.  When I first encountered the DNA-V model, I had thoughts such as, “This doesn’t make any sense.  I can already tell I’m not going to like this.”  However, I stepped into my Noticer space to realize that my Advisor was overprotecting me from a new idea that might be helpful to my adolescent clients.  I then tried to be adventurous (by moving into Discoverer mode) and took action to learn more about these potentially useful and fun metaphors.     

DNA-V

While exploring, I learned that values lie at the heart of the DNA-V model, which invites teens to regularly check-in and notice if they are listening to and working towards the most important parts of their lives.  To facilitate this process, various modes of being are available, including the Discoverer, Noticer, and Advisor.  The client’s goal is to learn to move between these spaces in order to gain more flexibility.  In the session, the client is asked to walk into the different areas, which are labeled on the floor with pieces of paper.  This on-going movement helps teens to realize that they can choose to move into one of these spaces at any time at their own discretion. The Discoverer space involves risk taking, adventure, exploration, movement and action towards values.  In this mode, teens can grow and develop by taking up a new hobby, making a new friend, or learning about a subject that interests them. Next, the Noticer space is similar to mindfulness with a particular focus on noticing body sensations, emotions, and thoughts from the Advisor.  Within this space, teens are better able to appreciate life around them and also slow down in order to make well thought out (rather than impulsive) decisions. Finally, the Advisor is akin to the Mind metaphor, which is often used in the traditional hexaflex model.   The Advisor helps teens to stay safe and to learn useful information efficiently; however, the Advisor sometimes leads teens to be inflexible and rigidly follow rules as well.  One of the main goals of ACT is teach teens to partner with their Advisor when it is being helpful and to step away from their Advisor (into another space) when it is leading to inflexibility. 

Initially, it might appear that this model is dissimilar from the ACT hexaflex.  However, upon closer examination, we find that the same ACT processes are present, but packaged in a more client-friendly way.   Acceptance and defusion involve using both the Advisor and the Noticer, while contact with the present moment and committed action use all three areas (Discoverer, Noticer, and Advisor). 

Outside of the circle lies the Self Context and the Social Context.  The Self Context is similar to the self as context from the hexaflex, but the Social Context is a new area that is developmentally helpful for adolescents (and possibly adults as well).  The Social Context includes a focus on attachment and social groups.  I consider this to be a built in value that encourages the development of social skills to help create stronger social networks.

Ultimately, the DNA-V model is more developmentally appropriate for adolescents than the hexaflex model.  DNA-V includes two key developmental components, the Discoverer and Social Context.  Adolescents are encouraged to actively explore their environment, try-on different values, and experiment with different kinds of behavior.  Further, they are invited to attend to their social network, which is a very powerful and healing force for this age group.  Most importantly, this model includes metaphors and activities that involve movement, play, and silliness.  During therapy, teens are moving around the room and sitting on the floor to engage in experiential activities.  As adolescents become adults, it is important for them to remember and nourish the little kid that is inside each of us.  For more detailed information on the DNA-V model, please explore Louise Hayes’ (2015) book cited below.

Citations

Hayes, S.C., Luoma, J., Bond, F., Masuda, A., and Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes, and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1 - 25.

Hayes, L. L., & Ciarrochi, J. (2015). The Thriving Adolescent: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Positive Psychology to Help Teens Manage Emotions, Achieve Goals, and Build Connection. New Harbinger Publications.

 

 

Meditation + Anxiety

By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

Meditation can be quite challenging for people with anxiety difficulties.  In addition to the usual difficulty with concentration, they can be overly sensitive to physical sensations, jittery, and prone to rumination.  As a result, seated breath meditation--the typical starting point for newbies--often becomes too frustrating or overly provocative.  Indeed, many just give-up and resolve never to meditate again.  [Of course, a breath focus might be a useful exposure exercise, but it is not one that is initially relaxing.]

Fortunately, there are many kinds of meditation available.  And, there are a few that are particularly helpful in cultivating relaxation for people with anxiety:

Sound Meditation:  Listen to sounds in the environment.  While sound ultimately is perceived internally through listening, the apparent focus is external to the body and thus less anxiety-provoking.

Walking Meditation:  Pay attention to the physical sensations of walking by noting shifting body weight, tensing muscles in the legs, and the “lift, move, place” of each foot.  It is a more active meditation because you’re physically moving and the object of meditation keeps changing.  

Word Focus:  Repeat an anchor word or phrase in one’s mind.  Based on Herbert Benson’s work on the relaxation response, this style of meditation provides a verbal object of focus, which occupies the thinking mind.  I advise people to pick two simple words and synchronize their repetition with each breath in and out.  For example, you might inhale while thinking the word “one” and exhale while thinking the word “peace.”  I also like Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion:  “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.  Breathing out, I smile.”  

Last month, I started recording professional, guided meditations, available on our website and Insight Timer.  My inaugural meditation, Sound Meditation, is 9 minutes long and can be found here:  Resources.  Give it a try and let me know what you think--or hear.  :-)

 

Meeting People

By Jessica MacDonald, Ph.D.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social phobia or social anxiety affects about 7% of adults (Kessler et al., 2005). Many of my clients report experiencing social anxiety, and reveal some feelings and behaviors that reinforce social anxiety and keep my client from experiencing social success.  Below are some tips for overcoming these behaviors and meeting new people:

 

  • Be open to others. The first step in showing that you are receptive to talking to someone is to make eye contact. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of cell phones, making eye contact is more difficult. If you are at an event, party, coffee shop, etc. and don’t know anyone, don’t reach for your phone. Look at people. Some people will be looking down at their phones but some won’t. Make eye contact and smile. You may find that they smile back, or even come up to you (or you may go up to them) and start a conversation.

 

  • Embrace your fear of rejection. This is the core difficulty in meeting someone new. Fear of rejection is a universal experience, and a difficult emotion to feel. However, this experience gets easier with practice. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, had a fear of meeting women. By applying the theories underlying fear extinction in behavioral psychology, Ellis made himself approach one hundred and thirty women and talk to them for one minute. While it was a very uncomfortable experience at first, Ellis learned that he did not die from doing something fear-inducing and that his fear of rejection subsided over time. He even got a date! With repeated exposure to your fear, you will actually reduce your feelings of fear.

 

  • Avoid avoidance. Frequently, when I ask clients if they went to that acquaintance’s party or that class that none of their friends wanted to go to, they say no, stating that it was too anxiety-producing. While not going to the party or class can temporarily feel good and relieve anxiety, unfortunately this avoidance behavior can actually reinforce and strengthen anxiety and lead to avoidance of future opportunities to meet new people. In session we discuss ways toexperience and manage anxiety while embracing social experiences.

 

Overcoming these fears and avoidance behaviors is not easy, but is absolutely achievable. If you are interested in learning more about techniques to overcome social anxiety, please contact us.  

Mindfulness for Busy New Yorkers

Central Park

By Jessica MacDonald, Ph.D.

For many people coming to the center, they are eager to try mindfulness. For most it’s great, until they try to fit it in to their daily schedule. And then it gets tough. Between working nine, ten, eleven hours a day, having a family and/or social life, exercising, cooking, cleaning, eating, and sleeping, it seems like there’s not enough time for the things we absolutely have to do, never mind want to do. It’s easy to become frustrated and give up. However, with just a tiny bit of effort, you can incorporate mindfulness into your life within your current schedule:

Here are some exercises to bring mindfulness into your daily life.

  • Morning Coffee (or tea)?  As you drink, focus on the taste, aroma, and sensation of drinking and the feeling of the cup in your hand.
  • Taking a taxi or Uber? Put down your phone and look out the window. Pay attention to the sights and sounds of the city. Notice them without judgement, letting go of any thoughts. Notice what it feels like to be moving.
  •  Walking home? Try a walking meditation:  Start by feeling the connection of your feet to the ground and your feet to the rest of your body: legs, torso, arms, shoulders, neck and head. Now bring your attention to your right leg. Shift your weight to this leg and lift your left leg up. Move this leg forward and gently and deliberately place it back on the ground. Repeat this process. Bring your attention to the sensations in your feet, from the soles to the toes, as you place them on the ground and lift them back up. Notice any thoughts, feelings, worries or concerns that come, and let them go.
  • Eating at your desk? Take a minute to eat mindfully. Observe your sandwich with a gentle curiosity. What does it look like? What color or colors is it?  What does it smell like?  What’s it texture? Now take a bite. What does it feel like to chew it? What does it taste like?

With a little bit of work and practice, you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. If you are interested in learning more about these techniques or other methods of incorporating mindfulness into your day, please feel subscribe to our monthly newsletter.