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Creating Lasting Change with Brain Science

A Mindful Approach With Couples

Brent Atkinson

Atkinson_spot-smOver the years, I’ve come to recognize that there’s no one-shot, magic-bullet approach to retraining the human brain. Instead, I’ve developed a process that systematically combines what we know about the power of the emotional brain, the particular strengths of the rational mind, the mechanics of mindfulness meditation, and the brain’s impressive flexibility to help clients learn to calm their nervous systems and navigate their lives more effectively. This process includes:

  1. Conscious pursuit of understanding and change. We need to use our conscious minds to understand our lives, develop ideas about what is healthy and unhealthy, and pursue concrete changes that move us toward health and well-being.

  2. Stress reduction and rejuvenation. We need to develop nervous system inclinations that reduce stress, relax the mind, and rejuvenate the body.

  3. Distress tolerance and self-regulation. We need to develop nervous system inclinations that help us tolerate the inevitable stress that accompanies making difficult changes and self-regulate in emotionally charged situations.

  4. Emotional accessibility. We need to develop nervous system inclinations that produce feelings that connect us to others.

At our treatment center for couples, my colleagues and I begin stress reduction and rejuvenation in the first week of therapy, asking partners to start mindfulness classes in conjunction with therapy. While mindfulness training alone won’t heal broken relationships, we consider it an indispensable part of the relationship improvement process. Years of experience have taught us that there’s only so much that we can do with clients whose default nervous system impulses and inclinations keep them perpetually stressed, edgy, and preoccupied.

While partners engage in their first eight weeks of mindfulness classes, we use therapy sessions to engage them in the conscious pursuit of understanding and change. Specifically, we help partners:

  • become aware of studies suggesting that people who believe their partners are “the main problem” are usually mistaken,

  • consider evidence suggesting that this mistake is of no small consequence to relationships,

  • become receptive to our opinion that their habits have been as damaging to the relationship as their partner’s habits,

  • listen with an open mind as we paint a clear picture and gave examples of their problematic habits,

  • understand why it’s in their own best interest to explicitly acknowledge and accept responsibility for their roles in the deterioration of their relationships, and

  • become determined to develop the full set of habits that are characteristic of people who know how to get their partners to treat them well.

We help partners accept mutual responsibility while in the presence of each other. Then we move on to identify the underlying needs, worries, fears, and insecurities that are beneath their previous blaming and defensive postures, and we help them talk about these vulnerable feelings without accusation or blame.

The combination of stress reduction and rejuvenation (facilitated through mindfulness classes) and conscious pursuit of understanding and change (during therapy sessions) is powerful, and couples often make significant strides in the first two months of therapy. But in my experience, that’s rarely enough. Up to this point, the shifts that clients make during sessions are heavily therapist dependent. We help partners self-regulate during sessions. We create the conditions that enable them to connect with vulnerable feelings. The biggest challenge for them is still ahead: learning to rewire their brains to produce automatic inclinations that enable them to do these things on their own. This is hard, gutsy work, but it can produce substantial change, so we help clients walk the arduous path toward self-regulation through exercises in distress tolerance and self-soothing and in emotional accessibility.

Read more about how lasting change is possible in Brent's full article, “The Great Deception: We are Less in Control than We Think,” in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

Topic: Mindfulness

Tags: brain science | Brent Atkinson | emotional brain | mindfulness meditation | neuroplasticity | neuroscience | the human brain

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