This blog describes a structured imagery that evokes past memories of joy and health and integrates them into a relaxation practice to support healing. First, a look at the logic for the practice and then the process of creating your own personal imagery script. A sample audio file is included as a model for creating your MP3 file. The blog is adapted from Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.
“I enjoyed regressing back into my childhood, remembered playing in the rain, making paper sailboats with my brother…. Placing my fingers in a bowl of water and stroking a paper sailboat enabled me to participate in the total experience… I felt tingling sensations all over my body, like tiny bundles of energy exploding inside of me. By the end of the week the simple word “rain” could induce these sensations inside my whole being.”–Student
Daydreaming! We all know how to do it. When we daydream, we feel, sense, hear, and taste our daydream—the image becomes tangible, as if we are living it. A well-developed relaxation image can also include colors, scents, sounds, flavors, temperature, and so forth. Evoking a past memory image of wholeness may contribute significant to healing, as illustrated in Pavlov’s experience with controlled conditioning and with self-healing.
THE POWER OF CONDITIONING
Most of us are probably familiar with the classical conditioning experiment of the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who taught dogs to salivate on cue when they heard a bell ring—even when no food was provided. Pavlov accomplished this by giving the dogs food immediately after ringing a bell. Eventually, the dogs became conditioned to expect the food with the bell and simply hearing the bell ring would induce salivation (shown in Figure 1).
Figure 1. The process of classical conditioning. (Figure adapted from: https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/7-1-learning-by-association-classical-conditioning/)
The conditioning effects of imagery can have an effect on health as well as physiology as reflected in an anecdote told by Theodore Melnechuk about Ivan Pavlov. As an old man, he became quite ill with heart disease and his doctors had no hope of curing him. They took his family aside and told them that the end was near. Pavlov himself, however, was not disheartened. He asked the nurse who was caring for him to bring him a bowl of warm water with a little dirt or mud in it. All day, as he lay in bed, he dabbled one hand in the water, with a dreamy, faraway look on his face. His family was quite sure that he had taken leave of his wits and would die soon. However, the next morning he announced that he felt fine, ate a large breakfast, and sat out in the sun awhile. By the end of the day, when the doctor came to check on him, there was no trace of the heart condition. When asked to explain what he had done, he said that he had reasoned that if he could recall a time when he was completely carefree and happy, it might have some healing benefit for him. As a young boy, he used to spend his summers playing with his friends in a shallow swimming hole in a nearby river. The memory of the warm, slightly muddy water was delightful to him. With his knowledge of the power of conditioned stimuli, he reasoned that having a physical reminder of that water might help him evoke that experience and those blissful feelings, and bring some of those memories into the present time. Using this strategy, he harnessed positive memory and the associated emotions that evoked the associated body changes to bring about his healing.
We all performs many conditioned behaviors every day. Some of these behaviors can have implications for our health and wellness. There may be aspects of allergic reactions that are conditioned. For example, the literature reports that a woman who was allergic to roses developed a severe allergic reaction to a very realistic-looking paper rose, even though she was not allergic to paper. Her body reacted as if the paper rose was real. (Mackenzie, 1886; Vits et al, 2011).
Conditioning can also affect our immune system. When rats were injected with a powerful immune-suppressing drug, while being fed saccharin-flavored water, their immune function showed an immediate drop. After the drug and saccharine water were paired a number of times, the rats were then given just the saccharin water and a harmless injection of salt water. Their immune cells responded exactly as if they had received the drug! The reverse ability, increasing immune cell function, has been shown to be influenced through conditioning (Ader, Cohen & Felten, 1995; Ader and Cohen, 1993).
Belief can also play a role in these scenarios. Bernie Siegel, MD,(2011) has recounted the story of a woman scheduled for chemotherapy who was first given a saline solution, and cautioned that it could cause hair loss. Although this is an unlikely result of a saline injection, given her belief, her hair fell out.
Actions, thoughts, and images affect our physiology.
We often anticipate, react, and form conclusions with incomplete information. Thoughts and images affect our physiology and even our immune system. Re-evoking a positive memory and living in that memory could potentially improve your health. In a remarkable study by a Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, eight men in their 70s lived together for one week, recreating aspects of the world that they had experienced more than 20 years earlier. They were instructed to act as they had in 1959, while the control group was instructed to focus entirely on the present time.
In the experimental group, all the physical cues were reminiscent of the culture twenty years earlier. Black and white television and magazines were from 1959. There were no mirrors to remind them of their current age—only photos on the wall of their younger selves. After a week in which the participants acted as if they were younger and the cues around them evoked their younger selves, 63% of the experimental group had improved their cognitive performance as compared with 44% of the control group. Among participants in the experimental group, even their physical health had improved. Independent raters who looked at the before and after pictures of these participants rated their appearance a little younger than the photos taken before the experiment (Langer, 2009; Grierson, 2014; Friedman, 2015). It is possible that by acting and thinking younger, we actually stay younger!
The limits of our belief are the limits of our experience. This concept underlies the remarkable power of placebo. If one believes a drug or a procedure is helpful, that can have a powerful healing effect (Peper & Harvey, 2017; also see the blog, How effective is treatment? The importance of active placebos).
CREATE YOUR OWN VISUALIZATION
Begin by remembering a time when you felt happy, healthy, and whole. Draw inspiration from Pavlov, who evoked happy memories from his childhood, apparently dramatically changing his health. To develop your personal visualization, set aside the time to recreate a healing memory. Remember a time in your life when you felt healthy and joyous (possibly from your childhood). For some, this might be time in nature or with your family or with friends.
Once you remember the event, re-experience it as if you were there right now. Evoke as many senses as possible. Think of the memory and any associations such as an old teddy bear, a shell from the beach, a favorite song, a certain perfume or some other tangible aspect of the experience. The goal is to recreate the experience as if it was current reality. Olfactory and gustatory cues can be especially powerful. If possible include the actual objects and cues associated with that memory—articles, pictures, music, songs, fragrances, or even food.
Sounds, scents, or touching and objects from that era of your life can deepen your ability to recreate and experience the quality of that memory—to actually be in the memory. These sensory reminders will help to evoke the memory and increase the felt experience. You might find it helpful to review Ellen Langer’s experiment, recreating an environment from twenty years earlier. The actual cues will deepen the experience, just as aromas often evoke specific memories and emotions.
The underlying principle is that memories are associated with conditioned stimuli that evoke the physiological state(s) in the body present when the memory was created.
Once you have created a vivid memory that engenders a sense of wholeness, develop a detailed description of your memory to help you evoke that experience. (For some, the memory calls up a timeless setting—relaxing on a warm beach, sitting in front of the fire on a winter evening, or sailing on a calm day. For others, the sense of trust may be associated with a specific person—someone you love—being with your grandmother, helping your mother bake a cake, or going fishing with your dad.). As you recreate the experience, engage all your senses (images, fragrance, tastes, textures, sounds, kinetics). Stay in your image: see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it, be it and allow the experience to deepen.
Begin by writing up your imagery. Then record the introduction the structured relaxation and follow it with a description that evokes the memory as an MP3 audiofile. Use the following three-step process to create the script for your personal relaxation.
- Describe a time in your past when you felt joy, peace, love, or a sense of integration and wholeness.
- Identify the specific cues or stimuli associated with that memory.
- Write out a detailed description that will evoke your personal memory.
CREATING YOUR AUDIO FILE
In this approach, there are three components to your script: first, a relaxation practice to ease you into your visualization, then the visualization of your memory, closing with a brief script that brings you back into the present moment.
Begin the recording with progressive relaxation—use your favorite process for relaxing, or apply the script included here.
Generally tense the muscles for about 5 to 8 seconds and let go for 15 to 20 seconds as indicated by the …. While tightening and relaxing the muscles, sense the muscle sensations with passive attention. Tense only the muscles that you are instructed to tighten and continue to breathe while tensing and relaxing the muscles. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to feeling the sensations in the specific muscles that you are instructed to tighten or relax.
First, find a comfortable position for relaxation… To fully relax your face, squeeze your eyes shut tight, press your lips and teeth together, and wrinkle up your nose… feel the tightness in your whole face… Now let it go completely and relax… Allow your face to soften, feel the eyes sinking in their sockets, and your breath to flow effortlessly in and out…
Tense both arms by making fists, and extend them straight ahead, while continuing to breathe deeply… study the tension… Now relax and let your arms drop as if you were a rag doll… To relax your shoulders, hunch them toward your ears and tighten your neck, while keeping the rest of your body loose and relaxed… Continue to breathe easily… Allow your shoulders to drop… Feel the weight of your arms… Feel the relaxation flowing from your shoulders, down your arms into your hands and out your fingers…
Now your stomach. Then let go and relax… Arch your back and feel the tightness in the back. Let go and relax….Allow your body to sink comfortably into the surface on which you are resting… Finally, tighten your butt, thighs, calves, and feet by pressing your heels down into the surface where you are lying, curling your toes and squeezing your knees together… Feel the tension as you continue to breathe, keeping your upper body relaxed… Now let go and relax… Allow relaxation to flow through your legs… Be aware of the sensations of letting go…
Feel the deepening relaxation, the calmness and the serenity… Feel each exhalation flowing down and through your arms, chest, and legs… Let the feelings of relaxation and heaviness deepen as you relax more… Notice the developing sense of inner peace… a calm indifference to external events… Let the feelings of relaxation, calmness, and serenity deepen for a few minutes. After a few minutes, evoke your memory of wholeness.
Insert your imagery script here.
Finish with the brief closing script
Allow yourself to just stay in this special place all your own… and know that you can return to this peaceful sanctuary any time you choose to do so. When you are ready to release the imagery, take a deep breath, gently stretch your body, and open your eyes.
Record these this whole script on your cell phone as an MP3 file.
When you record, it often takes a few tries before the pacing is correct. You may find it helpful to listen to the following audio file as a model for to create your own.
LISTENING TO YOUR VISUALIZATION
Create a sanctuary for yourself by turning off your cellphone, adjusting the heat to a comfortable temperature, and ensuring that you will have uninterrupted quiet time for 20 to 30 minutes. Loosen any constricting clothing or jewelry, your glasses, and so on. Settle into a comfortable chair, bed, or setting where you can easily relax. Enjoy letting yourself drift into and relive the memory experience.
Many participants report that this practice is an exceptionally relaxing and nurturing experience, one that supports regeneration. You’ll probably find that the more you practice, the more the relaxation deepens. You may find it helpful to keep notes and observe how you feel after each practice. Although it may feel strange to listen to your own voice, most people find that after a while it becomes more comfortable. After listening to it for a few times, you may want to rerecord the script. Finally, generalize this practice by smiling and evoking the memory scene as much as you desire during the day.
Additional strategies to enhance the relaxation
- Have a massage or take a warm shower or soak and then do the practice. Compare your level of relaxation afterwards to the result of using the audio alone.
- Practice gentle stretches to loosen tight muscles or “shake out” your arms and legs just before doing your relaxation practice.
- Draw or paint the relaxing image or actually go to the location where your memory occurred (if possible) and do your practice. Or practice outdoors in the most relaxing place you can find. Nature can be a great healer.
- Create an atmosphere that helps to evoke and augment your relaxation image (e.g., play background music or use fragrances that you associated with the image).
- Inability to evoke a memory of wholeness. When this occurs, it is as if one draws a blank. This is common, especially if one has experienced abuse or feels depressed. In that case, use the image presented in the script or make one up and create a totally imaginary peaceful image.
- Positive memories of wholeness evoke a bitter/sweet feeling. This occurs when images of wholeness include a loved one who has passed on or who is no longer in your life. On the one hand, this may call up strongly positive feelings, but it may evoke a sense of loss and sadness. If this occurs, simply chose a different memory or create a different script. Let the memory of loss go. Accept your experience and your feelings as much as possible, and know that at least you have been loved. For your image, it may be easier to focus on a natural setting you love—one you associate with peace and tranquility.
- Lack of experience with places in nature. Some people have only urban experiences and find nature alien. See what comes up for you. Does your favorite memory as a city kid recall a day of freedom on your bike or skateboarding, or an afternoon with your playmates? Perhaps you have treasured memories as a teen or an adult of long walks in the city or time spent with close friends. You also have the option of creating new images such as sitting by a fireplace, in a walled garden, or some other scene of peace and safety.
- Difficulty using progressive relaxation. If you’re having trouble isolating a muscle: touch it, stroke it with your hands, and then tense it fully (without strain) and feel the tension in your hands; feel the difference with your hands as you let go of the tension. Or, you may tighten only as much as is needed to feel the tension.
- The desire to stay in the imagery and not wanting to return to reality. If the imagery is much more pleasant than the present, use this process as a stimulus to reorganize your life and set new goals and priorities.
Ader, R. & Cohen, N. (1993). Psychoneuroimmunology, Conditioning,_and_Stress. Annual Review of Psychology, 44(1), 53-85.
Ader, R., Cohen, N. and Felten, D. (1995) Psychoneuroimmunology: Interactions between the Nervous System and the Immune System. The Lancet, 345, 99-103.
Grierson, B. (2014). What if age is nothing more than a mind-set? New York Times Magazine. October 22.
Langer, E. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility . New York: Ballantine Books.
McKenzie, J. (1886). The production of the so-called rose effect by means of an artificial rose, with remarks and historical notes. Am. J. Med. Sci. 91, 45–57
Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness . Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt. ISBN-13: 978-0787293314
Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2017). The fallacy of placebo controlled clinical trials: Are positive outcomes the result of indirect treatment side effects? NeuroRegulation. 4(3–4), 102–113. doi:10.15540/nr.4.3-4.102
Siegel, B. (2011, May). Remarkable recoveries. Retrieved from: http://berniesiegelmd.com/resources/articles/remarkable-recoveries/
In the video interview recorded at the 2018 Conference of the New Psychology Association, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, Erik Peper, PdD, defines biofeedback and suggests three simple breathing and imagery approaches that we can all apply to reduce pain, resentment and improve well-being.
“Although difficult and going against my natural reaction to curl up in the response to my cramps, I stretched out on my back and breathed slowly so that my stomach got bigger with each inhalation. My menstrual pain slowly decreased and disappeared.
“For as long as I remember, I had stomach problems and when I went to doctors, they said, I had acid reflux. I was prescribed medication and nothing worked. The problem of acid reflux got really bad when I went to college and often interfered with my social activities. After learning diaphragmatic breathing so that my stomach expanded instead of my chest, I am free of my symptoms and can even eat the foods that previously triggered the acid reflux.”
In the late 19th earlier part of the 20th century many women were diagnosed with Neurasthenia. The symptoms included fatigue, anxiety, headache, fainting, light headedness, heart palpitation, high blood pressure, neuralgia and depression. It was perceived as a weakness of the nerves. Even though the diagnosis is no longer used, similar symptoms still occur and are aggravated when the abdomen is constricted with a corset or by stylish clothing (see Fig 1).
Figure 1. Wearing a corset squeezes the abdomen.
The constricted waist compromises the functions of digestion and breathing. When the person inhales, the abdomen cannot expand as the diaphragm is flattening and pushing down. Thus, the person is forced to breathe more shallowly by lifting their ribs which increases neck and shoulder tension and the risk of anxiety, heart palpitation, and fatigue. It also can contribute to abdominal discomfort since abdomen is being squeezed by the corset and forcing the abdominal organs upward. It was the reason why the room on top of stairs in the old Victorian houses was call the fainting room (Melissa, 2015).
During inhalation the diaphragm flattens and attempts to descend which increases the pressure of the abdominal content. In some cases this causes the stomach content to be pushed upward into the esophagus which could result in heart burn and acid reflux. To avoid this, health care providers often advice patients with acid reflux to sleep on a slanted bed with the head higher than their feet so that the stomach content flows downward. However, they may not teach the person to wear looser clothing that does not constrict the waist and prevent designer jean syndrome. If the clothing around the waist is loosened, then the abdomen may expand in all directions in response to the downward movement of the diaphragm during inhalation and not squeeze the stomach and thereby pushing its content upward into the esophagus.
Most people have experienced the benefits of loosening the waist when eating a large meal. The moment the stomach is given the room to spread out, you feel more comfortable. If you experienced this, ask yourself, “Could there be a long term cost of keeping my waist constricted?” A constricted waist may be as harmful to our health as having the emergency brake on while driving for a car.
We are usually unaware that shallow rapid breathing in our chest can contribute to symptoms such as anxiety, neck and shoulder tension, heart palpitations, headaches, abdominal discomfort such as heart burn, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, dysmenorrhea and even reduced fertility (Peper, Mason, & Huey, 2017; Domar, Seibel, & Benson, 1990).
Assess whether you are at risk for faulty breathing
Stand up and observe what happens when you take in a big breath and then exhale. Did you feel taller when you inhaled and shorter/smaller when you exhaled?
If the answer is YES, your breathing pattern may compromise your health. Most likely when you inhaled you lifted your chest, slightly arched your back, tightened and raised your shoulders, and lifted your head up while slightly pulling the stomach in. When you exhaled, your body relaxed and collapsed downward and even the stomach may have relaxed and expanded. This is a dysfunctional breathing pattern and the opposite of a breathing pattern that supports health and regeneration as shown in figure 2.
Figure 2. Incorrect and correct breathing. Source unknown.
Observe babies, young children, dogs, and cats when they are peaceful. The abdomen is what moves during breathing. While breathing in, the abdomen expands in all 360 degrees directions and when breathing out, the abdomen constricts and comes in. Similarly when dogs or cats are lying on their sides, their stomach goes up during inhalation and goes down during exhalation.
Many people tend to breathe shallowly in their chest and have forgotten—or cannot– allow their abdomen and lower ribs to widen during inhalation (Peper et al, 2016). These factors include:
- Constriction by the modern corset called “Spanx” to slim the figure or by wearing tight fitting pants. In either case the abdominal content is pushed upward and interferes with normal healthy breathing.
- Maintaining a slim figure by pulling the abdomen (I will look fat when my stomach expands; I will suck it in).
- Avoiding post-surgical abdominal pain by inhibiting abdominal movement. Numerous patients have unknowingly learned to shallowly breathe in their chest to avoid pain at the site of the incision of the abdominal surgery such as for hernia repair or a cesarean operation. This dysfunctional breathing became the new normal unless they actively practice diaphragmatic breathing.
- Slouching as we sit or watch digital screens or look down at our cell phone.
Observe how slouching affects the space in your abdomen.
When you shift from an upright erect position to a slouched or protective position the distance between your pubic bone and the bottom of the sternum (xiphoid process) is significantly reduced.
- Tighten our abdomen to protect ourselves from pain and danger as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Erect versus collapsed posture. There is less space for the abdomen to expand in the protective collapsed position. Reproduced by permission from Clinical Somatics (http://www.clinicalsomatics.ie/).
Regardless why people breathe shallowly in their chest or avoid abdominal and lower rib movement during breathing, by re-establishing normal diaphragmatic breathing many symptoms may be reduced. Numerous students have reported that when they shift to diaphragmatic breathing which means the abdomen and lower ribs expand during inhalation and come in during exhalation as shown in Figure 4, their symptoms such as acid reflux and menstrual cramp significantly decrease.
Figure 4. Diaphragmatic breathing. Reproduced from: www.devang.house/blogs/thejob/belly-breathing-follow-your-gut.
Reduce acid reflux
A 21-year old student, who has had acid reflux (GERD-gastroesophageal reflux diseases) since age 6, observed that she only breathed in her chest and that there were no abdominal movements. When she learned and practiced slower diaphragmatic breathing which allowed her abdomen to expand naturally during inhalation and reduce in size during exhalation her symptoms decreased. The image she used was that her lungs were like a balloon located in her abdomen. To create space for the diaphragm going down, she bought larger size pants so that her abdominal could spread out instead of squeezing her stomach (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Hydraulic model who inhaling without the abdomen expanding increases pressure on the stomach and possibly cause stomach fluids to be pushed into the esophagus.
She practiced diaphragmatic breathing many times during the day. In addition, the moment she felt stressed and tightened her abdomen, she interrupted this tightening and re-established abdominal breathing. Practicing this was very challenging since she had to accept that she would still be attractive even if her stomach expanded during inhalation. She reported that within two weeks her symptom disappeared and upon a year follow-up she has had no more symptoms For a detailed description how this successfully cured irritable bowel syndrome see: https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/
Take control of menstrual cramps
Numerous college students have reported that when they experience menstrual cramps, their natural impulse is to curl up in a protective cocoon. If instead they interrupted this natural protective pattern and lie relaxed on their back with their legs straight out and breathe diaphragmatically with their abdomen expanding and going upward during inhalation, they report a 50 percent decrease in discomfort (Gibney & Peper, 2003). For some the discomfort totally disappears when they place a warm pad on their lower abdomen and focused on breathing slowly about six breaths per minute so that the abdomen goes up when inhaling and goes down when exhaling. At the same time, they also imagine that the air would flow like a stream from their abdomen through their legs and out their feet while exhaling. They observed that as long as they held their abdomen tight the discomfort including the congestive PMS symptoms remained. Yet, the moment they practice abdominal breathing, the congestion and discomfort is decreased. Most likely the expanding and constricting of the abdomen during the diaphragmatic breathing acts as a pump in the abdomen to increase the lymph and venous blood return and improve circulation.
Breathing is the body-mind bridge and offers hope for numerous disorders. Slower diaphragmatic breathing with the corresponding abdomen movement at about six breaths per minute may reduce autonomic dysregulation. It has profound self-healing effects and may increase calmness and relaxation. At the same time, it may reduce heart palpitations, hypertension, asthma, anxiety, and many other symptoms.
DeVault, K.R. & Castell, D.O. (2005). Updated guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 100, 190-200.
Domar, A.D., Seibel, M.M., & Benson, H. (1990). The Mind/Body Program for Infertility: a new behavioral treatment approach for women with infertility. Fertility and sterility, 53(2), 246-249.
Gibney, H.K. & Peper, E. (2003). Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings. Biofeedback, 31(3), 20-24.
Johnson, L.F. & DeMeester, T.R. (1981). Evaluation of elevation of the head of the bed, bethanechol, and antacid foam tablets on gastroesophageal reflux. Digestive Diseases Sciences, 26, 673-680. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7261830
Melissa. (2015). Why women fainted so much in the 19th century. May 20, 2015. Donloaded October 2, 1018. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/05/women-fainted-much-19th-century/
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49.
Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. (45-4)
Most of us are aware that thoughts affect our body; however, we often overlook the impact of this effect. To demonstrate the power of visualization, participants are guided through a lemon imagery. In a study with 131 college students, 94% report an increase in salivation which is a parasympathetic nervous system response. The participants now know–not believe–that visualization affects physiology. Once salivation has been experienced, participants may apply other visualization techniques to change their physiology and behavior. Through visualization we communicate with our autonomic nervous system which can provide a matrix for self-healing and enhanced performance. In addition, the guided practice shows that almost everyone holds their breath when asked to tighten their muscles and some people have difficulty relaxing after tightening. Once aware, the person can and continue to breathe and relax the muscles. Enjoy the guided exercise, Mindbody connection: Lemon Imagery.
*I thank Paul Godina, Jung Lee and Lena Stampfli for participating in the videos.
Adapted from Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt
Richard Harvey, PhD and Erik Peper, PhD
In a technologically modern world, many people have the option of spending 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week continuously interacting via telephone, text, work and personal emails or internet websites and various social media platforms such as Facebook, What’s App, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Snapchat. How many people do we know who work too many hours, watch too many episodes on digital screens, commute too many hours, or fill loneliness with online versions of retail therapy? In the rush of work-a-day survival as well as being nudged and bombarded with social media notifications, or advertisements for material goods, we forget to nurture meaningful friendships and family relationships (Peper and Harvey, 2018). The following ‘values clarification’ practice may help us identify what is most important to us and help keep sight of those things that are most relevant in our lives (Hofmann, 2008; Knott, Ribar, & Duson, 1989; Twohig & Crosby, 2009;. Peper, 2014).
Give yourself about 12 minutes of uninterrupted time to do this practice. Do this practice by yourself, in a group, or with family and friends. Have a piece of paper ready. Be guided by the two video clips at the end of the blog. Begin with the Touch Relaxation and Regeneration Practice to relax and let go of thoughts and worries, then follow it with the Value Clarification Practice.
Touch Relaxation and Regeneration Practice
Turn off your cell phone and let other know not to interrupt for the next 12 minutes, then engage in the following six-minute relaxation exercise. If your attention wanders during the practice, then bring your attention back to the various sensations in your body.
- Sit comfortably, then lift your arms from your lap, holding them parallel to the floor and tighten your arms while making a fist in each hand. While holding your fists tightly closed, keep breathing for a total of 10 seconds before dropping the arms to your lap while you relax all of your muscles. Attend for 20 seconds to the changing sensations in arms and hands as they relax. If your attention wanders bring it back to the sensations in your arm and hands.
- Tighten your buttock muscles and bend your ankles so that the toes move upwards in a direction towards your knees. Keep breathing and hold your toes upwards for 10 seconds and then let the toes move down to the floor, letting go and relaxing all the muscles of the lower trunk and legs. Feel your knees widening and feel your buttock muscles relaxing. Continue attending to the body and muscle sensations for the next 20 seconds. If your attention wanders bring it back to the sensations in your body.
- Tighten your whole body by pressing your knees together, lifting your arms up from your lap, making a fist and wrinkling your face. Hold the tension while continuing to breath for 10 seconds. Let go and relax and feel the whole body sinking and relaxing and being supported by the chair for the next 20 seconds.
- Bring your right hand to your left shoulder. Over the next 10 seconds, inhale for three or four seconds and as you exhale for five or six seconds, with your right hand stroke down your left arm from your shoulder to past your hand. Imagine that the exhaled air is flowing through your arm and out your hand. Repeat at least once more.
- Bring your left hand to your right shoulder. Inhale for three or four seconds and as you exhale for five or six seconds with your left hand stroke down your right arm from your shoulder to past your hand. Imagine that the exhaled air is flowing through your arm and out your hand. Repeat at least once more.
- Bring both hands to the sides of your hips. Inhale for three or four seconds and as you exhale for five or six seconds stroke your legs with your hands from the hips to the ankles. Imagine that the exhaled air is flowing through your legs and out your feet. Repeat a least once more.
- Close your eyes and inhale for three or four seconds, then hold your breath for seven seconds slowly exhale for eight seconds. Imagine as you exhale the air flowing through your arms and out your hands and through your legs and out your feet. Continue breathing easily and slowly such as inhaling for three or four seconds, and out for five to seven seconds. If your attention wanders just bring it back to the sensations going down your arms and legs. Feel the relaxation and peacefulness.
- Take another deep breath and then stretch and continue with the Value Clarification
Value Clarification Practice
Get the paper and pen and do the following Value Clarification Practice.
- Quickly (e.g. 30-60 seconds) list the 10 most important things in your life. For the activity to work, the list must contain 10 important things that may be concrete or abstract, ranging from material things such as a smart phone or a car to immaterial things such as family, love, god, health… If you need to, break up a larger category into smaller pieces. For example, if one item on the list is family, and you only have seven items on the list, assuming you have a family of four, then identify separate family members in order to complete a list of 10 important things.
- To start off, in only 10 seconds, please cross off three items from the list, then explain why you removed those three. If done in a group of people turn to the person explain why you made these choices.
- Next, in only 10 seconds, please cross off three more, then explain why you kept what you kept. If done in a group of people turn to the person explain why you made these choices.
- Finally, in only 10 seconds, please cross off three more, then reveal the one most important thing on your list. Share your choice for the item you kept and how you felt while crossing items from the list or keeping them.
- When engaging with this type of values clarification practice, please remind yourself and others that the items on the list were never gone, they are always in your life to the extent that you can honor the presence of those things in your life.
We have done these exercises with thousands of student and adults. The most common final item on the list is family or an individual family member. Sometimes, categories such as health or god appear, however it is extremely rare that material items make it to the final round. For example, no one would report that their last item is their job, their bank account, their house, or their smart phone. It is common that people have difficulty choosing the last item on their list, often taking more than 10 seconds to choose. For example, they find that they cannot choose between eliminating individual family members. For those who find the activity too difficult, remind them that the exercise is voluntary and meant as a ‘thought experiment’ which they may stop at any time.
Reflect how much of your time is spent nurturing what is most important to you? In many cases we feel compelled to finish some employment priorities instead of making time for nurturing our family relationship. And when we become overwhelmed with work demands, we retreat to sooth our difficulties by checking our email or browsing social media rather than supporting the family connections that are so important to us.
Organize an action plan to honor and support your commitment to the items on your list that you value the most. If possible let other people know what you are doing.
- Describe in detail what you will do in real life and in real time in service to honor and support your relationships with the things that you value.
- Describe in detail what you will do, when you will do it, with whom you will do it, at what time you will do it, and anticipate what will get in the way of doing it. For example, how will you resolve any conflicts between what you plan and what you actually do when there is not enough time to carry out your plans?
- Schedule a time during the following week for feedback about your plans to honor and support the things you value.
Many people experience that it is challenging to make time to honor and support their primary values given the ongoing demands of daily living. To be congruent with our values means making ongoing choices such as listening and sharing experiences with your partner versus binging on videos or, using your smartphone for answering email or texting instead of watching your child play ball.
The values you previously identified are similar to those identified by patients who are in hospice and dying. For them as they look back on their lives, the five most common regret are (Ware, 2009; Ware, 2012):
- I wish I’d the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
Take the time to plan actions that support your identified values. Feel free to watch the following videos that guide you through the activities described here.
Hofmann, S.G. (2008). Acceptance and commitment therapy: New wave or Morita therapy?. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 15(4), 280-285. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2850.2008.00138.x
Knott, J.E., Ribar, M.C. & Duson, B.M. (1989). Thanatopics: Activities and Exercises for Confronting Death, Lexington Books: Lexington, MA. https://www.amazon.com/Thanatopics-Activities-Exercise-Confronting-Death/dp/066920871X
Peper, E. (October 19, 2014). Choices-Creating meaningful days. https://peperperspective.com/2014/10/19/choices-creating-meaningful-days/
Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8. doi:10.15540/nr.5.1.3 http://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/18189/11842
Twohig, M.P. & Crosby, J.M. (2009). Values clarification. In: O’Donohue & W.T., Fisher, J.E., Eds. Cognitive behavior therapy: applying empirically supported techniques in your practice. Wiley: Hoeboken, N.J., p. 681-686.
Ware, B. (2009). Regrets of the dying. https://bronnieware.com/blog/regrets-of-the-dying/
Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Hay House. ISBN: 978-1401940652