Alzheimer's blog

Negative thinking can take the joy out of life for caregivers

By Angela Lunde April 17, 2012

I appreciated a recent comment from Marchelel, who validated Lucille's feelings of guilt around placing her mom in a nursing home. Marchelel told of her own struggle with placing her mom in a nursing home until she realized that she was part of the problem.

For a long time, Marchelel believed that she ought to be taking care of her mom.  But at some point she changed the conversation in her head. Marchelel says that she was able to move her mom when her thoughts focused on the additional care her mom would receive, and the mother/daughter time they would get back again.

Last week, I attended a conference featuring Amit Sood, M.D., associate director of Complementary and Integrative Medicine and chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at Mayo Clinic.

He talked about the concept of retooling your inner dialogue and building resilience. Like Marchelel, the road to resilience and greater joy may lie in transforming the conversations we have in our head. Let me share a bit of what I learned.

Our mind seems to be wired to focus on what's wrong, or what could go wrong. This leads to stress. Furthermore, stress results from an interface between the actual events in our life and how we perceive them (our thoughts).

As caregivers, there are many things you can't change or control. Yet, each of us has the option to control our perceptions and ultimately feel more joy in our life.

Dr. Sood explains that there are two key elements of perception that directly impact our personal well-being — attention and interpretation.

At times, our attention will be on external things such as seeing our loved one rummaging through old papers, or noticing a dog walking outside our house, or a new flower that has sprouted in our garden.

Or, our attention can be internally focused where our mind is aimlessly opening up open files of unresolved issues we have stored in our mind.

Research studies suggest that our attention will instinctively focus on threats and imperfections first. These can be external such as seeing an accident on the road ahead. But all too often our attention is internal in the form of hurts, guilt, regrets, worries of the past, and fear for the future.

Dr. Sood conceptualizes these threats of the mind as attention black holes — a combination of negative thoughts, rumination, avoidant responses and often catastrophizing. These black holes take over our attention, and consequently draw joy away from our life.

He's not suggesting that we never worry or that we should not think about the challenges that lie ahead. He's simply stating that we spend excess time in negative patterns of thinking. This robs us of joy and a bit more ease in our life.

The good news is that we can decrease stress and increase resilience by retooling the mind. Dr. Sood offers many pearls for daily practice. Here are some examples:

  • When you awake (first thing), think of five people you're grateful for. Alternatively, make a collage with photos of five people you're grateful for. Spend a few minutes thinking about the blessings they each offer you. Doing this every morning provides an immediately available alternative to negative ruminations that often fill our head before we are even out of bed. This is the practice of Joyful Attention.
  • Take a walk in nature each day if possible. Look closely at the details of a tree trunk, the petals of a wild flower, listen closely to the sounds. Just by being in nature you are engaging a part of the brain associated with joy. This is the practice of Joyful Attention.
  • When you're out somewhere, look at the faces of the first twenty or so people you see. Smile, and say to yourself, "I wish you well". Remember, you're channeling attention away from the ruminations of the mind and practicing presence. Try it and see if you feel any differently. This is the practice of Kind Attention.

Like any new habit, it may feel awkward, tedious and even silly at first. But if you're open to it, you're beginning to make space for greater compassion, acceptance, love and forgiveness.

To find out more about Dr. Sood's book, "Train Your Brain, Engage Your Heart, Transform Your Life", go to http://www.amazon.com/Train-Your-Brain-Engage-Heart-Transform-Life/dp/1452898057

"Control of my thoughts, regular meditation, exercise, and "time" to adjust have helped me come to a certain amount of tranquility."
Helen — blog reader

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Apr. 17, 2012