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Science for the Journey
Volume 1.01



Every day, (many times a day- in fact), we adopt explanations to help us make sense of what
is happening in our lives. -We define our experience of reality.

Depending on the content of the explanations we choose, these explanations can lead us
towards a reality that empowers us and makes us happy, or has the opposite effect.

Our challenge is to first make this process of adopting explanations a conscious one, and
second, to choose those explanations that most serve and improve our lives.

This newsletter is designed to help you meet these challenges. The first article- Conscious
will explain the neurochemical and psychological processes behind how our thoughts
become our reality. Then, check out Cognitive Distortions, to see if your thought patterns
might be leading to a depressing reality you don't want. You probably won't have all of them, but each of us have at least a few.

Finally, if you'd like a live experience of how the latest neuroscience can help you to rewire your brain towards improved mental and physical health, see below to join me for my next workshop- "Finding Tranquility in Trying Times".

Best of luck in this next step on your journey.

Alicia Ruelaz Maher, M.D.

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Finding Tranquility in Trying Times

Are you sailing thru difficulties with peace and joy?
Would you like to??

Participants will walk away with tools and techniques to immediately create improved mental, physical and spiritual health now!

When: Thursday, August 13, 2009, 7-9 p.m.
Where: 235 Avenida del Norte
             Redondo Beach, CA
Fee: $25 pre-registration online/ $30 at the door
Click here for more information/ to register

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Conscious Reality

How What You Think Leads to What You Experience

woman walking down steps to beachOnce, while working in the psychiatric emergency room, a distraught man came rushing in yelling that someone had stolen his heart.

He spat into his hand.

"See, it's just water!" He exclaimed. "That proves someone took it!"

Needless to say, I failed to make the connection.

Nor did I find myself convinced when the next patient complained that her cat was blatantly trying to deceive her. He was lying to her about being hungry when she knew the cat was getting food from elsewhere. Luckily, she was still feeding him while trying to control her anger over this trickery.

The worst belief, for the ER staff, was when several people in the LA area decided that witches wanted to use their excrement to make potions. They collected their feces in plastic bags and carried them around until they found a 'safe' place to dispose of them. There must have been a shortage of safe disposal places so they came into the ER with bags of feces tied around their necks because they'd collected more than they could carry.

Would you believe that we all do this? We probably aren't on our way to a psychiatric emergency room with bags of feces around our necks complaining about our lying cat or missing heart. But, all of us come up with explanations to make sense of our world. We can easily see how unfortunate it is for those with mental illness who may be unable to change
their thoughts that cause distress. But isn't it even more unfortunate for those of us who can choose our explanations and decide to hold on to the distressing ones?

Let's look at some everyday examples.

You did not get a job you wanted. In your head, you automatically choose an explanation. Maybe you decide the employer did not recognize your talents or maybe you decide you just aren't good enough.

The guy you are interested in did not call. Why didn't he call? Do you choose to believe that he might be really busy? Or do you jump to feeling that you're ugly and boring?

These particular examples may or may not be familiar to you, but what is certain is that we each find within ourselves what seems to be true. We often do that by accepting what other people tell us, by what we ourselves observe, or by absorbing the thought patterns of those we're around.

Before we know it, those thoughts we habitually choose form a pattern of explaining our individual reality. There is a scientific explanation for this process. On a very simple level, the brain is comprised of cells known as neurons. When triggered by an experience, these neurons release certain neurochemicals. These neurochemicals carry their message to another neuron, creating a pathway. This pathway can then be followed again when that same experience is perceived. This process can be unconscious or conscious. The unconscious, primitive, part of our brain will cause us to automatically run, fight or freeze when we see a large animal coming towards us. But, we also have a another part of our brain that has the ability to label the experience and make conscious decisions about what to do, rather than merely follow the instinctual pathways. Maybe that large animal is a dog that you've come to love. Your choice to see that animal as friend, rather than foe, allows you to stay put and reach out to it. It is this part of our brain that allows us to process information to learn new things and can be used to guide those neurons to make new pathways.

Let's look at a common example - learning to ride a bicycle. As you are first learning, you are having new thoughts and experiences that through repetition, lay down a pathway: keeping your balance, one foot goes up while the other foot goes down, steering, etc. Soon, you find that you no longer have to "think" about what you are doing because a pathway has been formed and you simply start responding appropriately to certain triggers. (I hope that if you ever decide to learn how to ride a motorcycle, you will be a little quicker than I was, and you'll create a new pathway that won't lead to automatically putting your feet on the ground to stop the motorcycle!)

In the same way, experiences can lead to a pathway of certain thoughts, or explanations. You don't have to decide what it means each time that a car with flashing lights is coming up behind you and wonder what to do about it. You immediately label- "police officer" and know that they want you to pull over.

So, are we prisoners of the pathways that we've laid down up to this point in life? No!

Though you may have developed certain pathways that cause you to respond to experiences with particular thoughts, you DO have the ability to develop new thoughts in response to those same triggers. With practice, you can recognize the problematic thoughts and choose more beneficial ones, and doing so will create new pathways that can override the old pathways. The more you use these new patterns, the stronger they will become, until they are more natural to you than the less desired ones. Eventually, your brain will naturally use them first, the way you naturally use your right hand if you're right handed.

This is not just my opinion. It is science, and in fact, recent neuroscience research suggests the brain is much more changeable than was previously realized. Knowing this, we can feel empowered to choose what is more consistent with what we desire.

Step #2: Choosing Explanations That Most Serve And Improve Our Lives

Here is the payoff: If a thought that you have is not working for you, you can choose to change it. Like riding a bike, it will not feel natural at first, but eventually it can become automatic.
He does not want to go out with me again? My old pattern might be to think that means that I am unworthy, but I am going to change that pattern and instead realize that the value I offer is not realized by everyone, but that doesn't diminish the value.

How do you know if your thoughts need changing? The answer is pretty simple: by how the thoughts make you feel. This basic premise is one of the theories behind cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, a type of psychotherapy developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960's.

It works like this: We each have experiences. We interpret those experiences through our thoughts. Those thoughts produce in us specific feelings. It is not our experiences that cause our feelings; our thoughts do.

The following example illustrates this point:
Home prices are going down. Whether you are looking to buy or sell a home is going to produce a thought: this is a good opportunity or I am going to suffer financial loss. Which thought you have is going to lead to a feeling - happy or scared. But the fact that home prices are going down is really neutral - that fact doesn't make you happy or scared without the
intervention of thoughts.

Let me give you a personal example.
Some time ago, after a miscommunication (oddly enough between two psychiatrists who are supposed to be experts in communication), I was left stranded for four hours without a ride. My automatic reaction would have been to be furious, thinking of all that I needed to get done. But, I recognized this pattern and instead, chose a thought that produced in me a different feeling. I chose to believe that this must have happened for a reason. With that thought in mind, I set out to discover what that reason might be. I found a new market, got advice from a colleague further along in the same career, and made a new friend. I actually had better conversations than I usually do with people, wondering if my reason for being there was to meet them. Obviously, this type of thinking made me feel better.

Are you ready to change your thoughts? The first step is to become conscious of the automatic thoughts you are having now. Check out "Cognitive Distortions" below to see if your thought patterns are distorted towards making you unhappy and then change those thoughts to ones that are more in line with the life you want!

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Cognitive Distortions

The Thoughts to Watch Out For

wooden path through bambooThese are the top 10 ways of thinking that lead people to react to life’s circumstances with a feeling of being down. Do you do any of these? The answer is yes- we all do. Notice which ones you’re most likely to use. The more you are able to label what you are doing, the more you realize you can choose a different thought. One that might make you feel better.

OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. If a bird craps on your window, you think that they are always crapping on your window, ignoring the many days that they haven’t.

DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. Someone giving you a compliment is ‘just being nice’. This allows you to maintain a negative belief even if it is contradicted.

ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-or-white categories. For example, if your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. This is done through mind reading- (you assume the motivation behind someone’s actions) and fortune telling- (you assume a negative outcome for an event)

CATASTROPHIZING: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other’s imperfections). This is also called “the binocular trick."

EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn't, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders.

LABELING: instead of describing an error, you attach a label- “I’m a loser”, “she’s a jerk”.

PERSONALIZATION: you assume yourself to be responsible for an outside event. You confuse influence with control. (my child got an F because I am a terrible mother).

-Adapted from Feeling Good, David Burns, M.D, Avon Books, 1999. An excellent and easily utilized resource for understanding and applying cognitive therapy techniques.

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