It was magical.
We celebrated the 11th anniversary of our meeting. We soaked up the beauty of the mountains, sweat our tushes off on the cross country trails and treated ourselves to great meals. We walked into the apartment after being away, with loads of laundry and a ton of organizing to do before Monday hit. Then, I looked over at the counter and saw 2 large rotten bananas, ugh.... then, in the spirit of continuing our celebration, I decided that I'd make them into a loaf of banana bread, as it's one of my husband's favorites and I thought it would be a nice way to end the weekend.
The process through which our minds go from "Ugh, rotten bananas" to "Ooh! Banana bread" or "So many lemons" to "Yay! Lemonade" is called reframing and according to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky it is one of the three habits that lead to increased happiness, the other two being choosing to be kind and generous and our ability to express gratitude. I stumbled upon her research while reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World written by Douglas Carlton Abrams that chronicled 5 days of discussions about happiness between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
When I read this section of the book, it hit me that I reframe easily and I work best with patients that learn this tool quickly, even if I am not teaching it directly. Oftentimes, people shift their views of what is possible and what may have been a causative factor in their illness while working with me. I think, in a weird way, that I require this of them. People that don't have the ability to get out of their own way frustrate me endlessly. The victim mentality doesn't work for me. However, when I think about this, is reframing so easy?
Really - rotten bananas to banana bread is simple but how should we go about reframing illness, death and hardship? And, how long should we take to do so? Is there a time limit? I don't have a ready answer to these questions. What I do know is that reframing doesn't just lead to increased happiness as Lyubomirsky says - it also helps people heal faster. Yes, you read that right - reframing helps people heal faster. Maybe it does this through increased happiness; maybe endorphins get released - I don't know but I have seen this too many times for it to be a coincidence.
I had a patient come in for migraines about 2 years ago. On her very first visit she said to me: "I have these migraines, my mother had them too, I am afraid to turn into her because now I have a daughter and don't want to treat my daughter the way my mother treated me". Migraines passed down through generations are common, even when they are not genetic. In my experience, they are very often a learned behavior. I shared this information with her and then asked her to tell me how she was different from her mother. Her eyes lit up and she shared some basic information and then I followed up with: "If you are not your mother, then why do you have migraines?" She broke down into tears and said that she needed them to insure that she doesn't become her mother. She needed to prove that she could react differently in the same situation. Once she realized this, she had an immediate sense of gratitude for her migraines for allowing her to learn such a lesson. I treated her maybe 2 or 3 more times before her 15-year history of migraines disappeared. We are still in contact and she hasn't had another migraine since.
I have treated patients with migraines since my very first patient at school 12 or so years ago, with varying success. One person still comes to mind that I wasn't able to help and what is remarkable about her is that each time we broached the subject of how she might choose to view her headaches and migraines differently, she was defensive and got angry. I wish I had been able to reach her in a way that allowed her to feel safe to reframe her situation but I simply wasn't able. I feel that it would have been a key to her health and wellbeing.
Are you able to reframe?
Can you see your problem through a different lens?
When you're burnt out, reframing can seem impossible. Part of burnout is the loss of some of the function of the logical part of your brain which leads to a lessened ability to sort through emotional situations with a logical lens. So, with highly stressed and burnt out folk, we always start by practicing with silly stories like rotten bananas and banana bread. We work through how to reframe the little things in life and if they're also an acupuncture patient, we treat that stress so that their brain will work fully again.
If you know anyone else suffering from an inability to reframe, send them this article, it might just spark a revolution :)
*Updated Oct 2019