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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

The River of Well-Being

Well known psychiatrist, professor and author Dr. Dan Siegel researches and teaches on neurological integration for optimal health. A concept of his that I find useful is his “River of Well-Being.” He uses this metaphor to illustrate the ways stress, personality, trauma history and attachment styles can impact our relationships with self, God and others. When we are operating at an optimal stress level, which is the proper amount of pressure to keep us moving forward toward our goals without feeling either under-stimulated or overwhelmed, we are sailing in the middle of the river, capable of flexible thinking and responses, with all of the areas of our brain engaged in a state of modulated, regulated arousal. When we experience too much stress, and are pushed out of our window of tolerance, we tend to move towards the outer banks of the river. We may veer towards the banks of rigidity, where we become inflexible and controlling to deal with our fears, or towards the banks of chaos, where we pull in maladaptive coping skills to numb and medicate the messiness and turbulence of our overwhelm. Existing issues like eating disorders, addictions, anxiety or depression intensify as we careen along the banks of the river trying to find a safe harbor.

Making our way back to the middle of the river requires us to practice the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness involves an awareness of being in the present moment and a willingness to experience and accept whatever is happening in that moment. Acceptance of the present moment does not necessarily mean we are happy with what is happening, or that we don’t desire to address our situation to make it better, but that we are willing to observe without prejudice what is ACTUALLY occurring rather than expending energy refusing to look at or deal with it. Being curious about our current experience while suspending judgment of self or others allows us to notice information that we might otherwise have missed, and opens our mind and body to a more flexible and possibly helpful response going forward than we might otherwise have been able to realize and excecute.

Ways to practice mindfulness include using the five senses to notice what you are experiencing in the present: what do you taste, touch, see, smell or hear? If you are outside, you may choose to notice the breeze on your skin, or the sound of the birds singing, or the way ground feels under your feet. You might experiment with essential oils to see which scents you find calming or energizing. Notice any body sensations you experience as you use your five senses to ground yourself in the moment. Another avenue into mindfulness is focusing on your breath. Does the length of your inhale match your exhale? Are you breathing deeply or in a more shallow manner? Practice expanding your stomach with each inhale by contracting your diaphragm, the large muscle between your lungs and abdomen. Yoga, stretching, meditation, centering prayer, and progressive muscle relaxation are other ways to improve mindfulness. When beginning any new practice, set small, reasonable goals, which are more likely to be attainable and sustainable than a huge shift will be. For instance, meditating for two minutes a day, adding a minute or two every few days until you have built your routine up to twenty minutes allows you to progress incrementally without feeing discouraged and giving up.

Take a look at Dr. Siegel’s website for resources on practicing mindfulness, including videos and recorded meditations:

Research shows that improving mindfulness promotes neural integration and achieves the same effect as having an earned secure attachment style. The more secure and integrated we become, the better we are able to effectively remain in the center of the river of wellbeing, without becoming stuck along the banks of rigidity or chaos.

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