The Power of Curiosity

Curiosity can serve as an incredibly powerful tool in helping us learn to regulate our emotions, and in helping us access greater compassion for ourselves and others. At times, we all experience feelings of overwhelm related to intense emotions. It can feel as though our emotions have hijacked our system, and we no longer feel we have control of our actions in the ways we normally would. Many people, understandably, have the inclination to try and turn off or suppress intense emotions, imagining that doing so might calm the feelings of overwhelm. However, often this approach backfires, and as the strong emotions feel dismissed or constrained, they find other detrimental ways to manifest, and lash out even more -- sometimes in obvious ways, but often in more subtle or indirect ways. 

Emotions are Adaptive and Serve as Important Messengers

Emotions, even intense ones, are not a bad thing. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that emotions are there for a reason, they are adaptive, and help us realize and act on our needs. So at their core, even emotions that seem to cause us harm have some underlying good or self-protective intentions. That is not to say that we cannot, or should not, work to express and understand our emotions in a more productive or effective way, only to say that if we look hard enough, our emotions are trying to give us important information about our needs and the world around us. More often, it is how we react to the feeling of intense emotions that causes the problem, and not the emotion itself.

This is where curiosity can be such a powerful tool. Let’s imagine intense anger has shown up. The more we try to turn it off or push it down, the more intense it becomes. If we are somehow able to suppress it, it may show up in other more passive, but still unhelpful ways. The anger wants to be heard, it is trying to communicate something important, and does not want to be ignored or silenced. How might our relationship with the anger shift if we got curious about what it was trying to tell us? If we turned toward the anger and said something along the lines of, “I know you’re here for a good reason, that you have something important to tell me, and that at your core you’re trying to help or protect me. What has happened that has so upset you? What are you worried or concerned about?” For some, this kind of internal dialogue can seem silly at first. But, simple as it is, this acknowledgement and validation can go a long way in calming the anger, and in making it feel seen, heard, and appreciated. This makes it easier to hear the important message the anger is trying to convey, while creating enough distance from the anger (the anger is not me, it is only a part of me) so as not to feel hijacked by it. 

Curiosity Builds a Bridge to a more Mindful Space

If when we have intense emotions we can move into this curious stance, know and appreciate these intense emotions have core good intentions, and look for what those good intentions are -- this approach often automatically positions us in a more mindful place. Mindfulness is all about being able to be present in the here and now, to fully observe and acknowledge what is going on, while occupying a non-judgmental stance. Mindfulness requires us to occupy more of an observer’s role, to step far enough outside of the situation to see it in a more holistic way, but to still remain connected, aware, and present. In the case of witnessing our emotions, the analogy of watching clouds pass through the sky or twigs down a stream, noticing them, but not holding too tightly to them or thinking they are the whole picture, is often used. But telling people to be more mindful doesn’t always translate easily. However, curiosity builds a bridge to a more mindful awareness. Whether it is searching for the good intentions underneath your own intense emotions, or asking yourself the same thing about a partner’s emotions or other people in your life, curiosity can help you be more present, more aware, and help emotions or other people feel valued, seen, and heard in the ways we all desire to feel valued, seen, and heard. 

How to Begin Approaching Emotions with more Curiosity 

While many find this conceptually easy to grasp, it is often more difficult to integrate into daily life. Especially when intense emotions come up, it can be challenging to remember to try and get curious and to turn toward the emotions with warmth, compassion, and curiosity. This is where it is useful to remember that connections in the brain strengthen over time, and so practice, as unglamorous as it can be, is imperative in creating change. We make connections in our brain, and the more certain connections are used or repeated, the stronger and more automatic they become. Thus, if whenever we have experienced intense anger in the past, we automatically moved fully into the emotion and lashed out at ourselves or those around us, instead of getting curious about what the anger was trying to communicate to us, this becomes a very ingrained, almost automatic response that is difficult to change. 

A good way to start changing this connection and building up a new way of responding is to start getting curious about less intense emotional responses. If you wait until you are feeling overwhelmed to try and implement this new approach, it will likely be very challenging. If instead, you start to be more aware of less intense emotions throughout your day, and search for the important information they convey about your needs, and work on getting those needs met, you will slowly build up a new way of responding that with enough practice will be easier to access even in the face of very intense emotional reactions.

Written by: Kevin McLaughlin, MCS

References

Fayn, K., Silvia, P. J., Erbas, Y., Tiliopoulos, N., & Kuppens, P. (2018). Nuanced aesthetic emotions: Emotion differentiation is related to knowledge of the arts and curiosity. Cognition and Emotion, 32(3), 593-599.

Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self-alienation. Routledge.

Haselton, M. G., & Ketelaar, T. (2006). Irrational emotions or emotional wisdom? The evolutionary psychology of affect and social behavior. Affect in social thinking and behavior, 8, 21.

Ivtzan, I., Gardner, H. E., & Smailova, Z. (2011). Mindfulness meditation and curiosity: The contributing factors to wellbeing and the process of closing the self-discrepancy gap. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(3).

Kashdan, T. B., Afram, A., Brown, K. W., Birnbeck, M., & Drvoshanov, M. (2011). Curiosity enhances the role of mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to existential threat. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(8), 1227-1232.

Leonard, N. H., & Harvey, M. (2007). The trait of curiosity as a predictor of emotional intelligence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(7), 1545-1561.

Nesse, R. M. (1990). Evolutionary explanations of emotions. Human nature, 1(3), 261-289.

Shariff, A. F., & Tracy, J. L. (2011). What are emotion expressions for?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 395-399.

Hustl+Flow: Igniting the fire within

I was introduced to Hustl+Flow, a community-focused fitness and wellness collective in Uptown Waterloo, when starting at Exhale Therapy. I met the owner Courtney several weeks ago and loved her ideas around wellness and movement so I knew I had to try a class. With a busy schedule as a therapist in a new clinic, I am always looking for ways to enhance my own self-care regime while also finding group workouts that are body-positive for my clients.

From the moment I walked into the doors of Hustl+Flow this morning I felt like a member, a family member. I was greeted by a friendly receptionist who was just as excited as I was for my first experience at a spin class. All around there were clothing items for purchase with positive phrases encouraging movement and self-love. I was totally at home. Courtney greeted me with a huge hug and proceeded to greet two others who walked in after me, by name with hugs and words of encouragement while they headed to class. I was taken on a class and studio tour by another wonderful employee who made me feel so welcomed and encouraged. She helped me pick shoes for my ride and told me all about what I could expect in class.

Upon entering class I was asked by two of the other class members if I needed help adjusting my bike or clipping in. The employee followed me in and explained the bike to me with helping me adjust it in a way that was enthusiastic and discrete enough that I wasn’t embarrassed at all to be a first-time rider in the class. Everyone around had high levels of energy that was euphoric and put me in the mood for the class. The instructor Lilly introduced herself with confidence and explained the different hand positions on the bike for those of us that were newer to the class or needed a refresher. When the class started the lights dimmed and the music flowed intensely through the room. The other riders were cheering and encouraging through the whole first song and I was totally present in the room. For the next 45 minutes I sweat, laughed, drank lots of water and felt strong. Lilly praised all the riders in the room by name throughout the class and used language to encouraged everyone to do the best they can. Not once did Lilly make me feel ashamed for taking the breaks I needed for water or for listening to my body when it was being pushed to capacity in a moment. She showed high levels of energy throughout and often used the phrase “take what you need from this class.” I listened and did just that.

What I needed was 45-minutes of being present with my body, being out of my head and not thinking of all the to-do-list items I had for that day. I also needed to be around strong and positive people as a reminder that this was not about who spun the fastest or added the most resistance, rather it was about supporting each other in our movement. I was surrounded by total strangers but felt encouraged and motivated to take on my day. I needed this.

For anyone struggling with getting back into their movement of choice or doing something for themselves, the best suggestion I can give is to not think too much about it and to just try it. For those struggling with comparisons, know that at Hustl+Flow no one cares when you take a break or can’t do a particular movement. You showing up is what they care about and if you do, you’ll be a member of their Hustl community. Lastly, being that I work with eating disorders I think it is important to note the fear of getting involved in activity and movement in recovery. It can be a slippery slope for many. At Hustl+Flow, the instructor Lilly not once used language that shamed my body or anyone else’s body. She made everyone in the room feel powerful and strong with their fitness level. At the end of class I had the opportunity to connect with her. We shared our stories of both fitness and mental health.

My experience at Hustl+Flow was inspirational, uplifting and powerful. I booked my next class as soon as I got home and highly recommend this to anyone looking for a movement based self-care activity. Thank you, Courtney, Lilly and all others who made my first experience at Hustl a magical one. See you for Slow Flow!

Writer: Alyssa Durbin

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ICED Conference Blog

Eating disorders are life-threatening mental illnesses that can have significant impacts on physiological health, quality of life and psychological functioning. As an eating disorder therapist and researcher, it is imperative to my practice that I stay informed of the latest models of treatment, new findings and ongoing debates in the field.

For two years in a row, I have had the opportunity to attend the International Conference for Eating Disorders in Chicago (2018) and New York City (2019). This conference is held by the Academy for Eating Disorders annually to bring professionals across different disciplines and researchers together to discuss new findings in the field, offer education sessions and have important discussions that foster new thought in this field of interest. Given that I am both a clinician and researcher in eating disorders, this conference is one of my favourite events to attend each year.

Given that approximately half of my work in private-practice involves treating eating disorders, I thought I would share my thought-process on how I decide which treatment models to use with my clients suffering with eating disorders and disordered eating.

What do the experts and researchers say?

Manualized treatment, manualized treatment, manualized treatment! Most experts in the field will agree that using a manual for treatment and keeping to manualized treatment protocol is the most effective way to treat mental illnesses like eating disorders. What is missed here is that researched treatment has to be manualized and standardized in order to effectively measure outcomes of change. The most researched manualized treatment protocol is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Eating Disorders developed by Christopher Fairburn and added to by researchers like Glenn Waller, Phillipa Hay and Timothy Walsh. This is a 20-session protocol that works through normalized eating habits and symptom management while also addressing maintaining factors of the eating disorders such as perfectionism, mood and event-related changes, body image distortions and preoccupations with weight.  

At these conferences, several manualized treatments were introduced and endorsed as being effective in treating eating disorders. With so many different approaches it is often confusing which is best to use. CBT-E? EFT? DBT?

What are my own findings with this work?

People are not predictable and thus one manualized therapy is not always appropriate. Situations and experiences come up in people’s lives that have to be addressed in an effort to not only keep them on track with recovery but to effectively meet their needs in any given session. Although there are several manualized evidence-based treatment interventions to use, I assess my client’s needs on a session-by-session basis and if there is no response or change with a specific protocol I begin to consider other protocols or interventions that may be more effective. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one of the most researched interventions for eating disorders, however, Emotion-Focused Therapy and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy can also be extremely useful when one is presenting with difficult emotions, impulsivity or interpersonal problems.

In addition to manualized treatment, another factor that influences the success of treatment is therapeutic rapport. It is so important that clients feel safe and develop a trusting relationship with their therapist prior to doing work with them. Thus, instead of sticking to a manualized treatment protocol in the beginning, building trust and rapport while assessing the needs of the client is also important in considering the best treatment intervention.

Solution: Finding a middle-path!

The conference provided me with greater knowledge and perspective when treating these challenging disorders. It also provided me with insight that there isn’t one way to “properly treat” an eating disorder. Rather, finding a middle path in establishing a rapport with my clients, assessing their needs and using the most appropriate treatment intervention (manualized or not) is necessary!

Writer: Alyssa Durbin