Sunday, June 30, 2019

Personal training for your nervous system: What does it mean to get 'strong'?

Over the past few years,

many people have asked me what Somatic Experiencing (SE) is.  Sometimes I give a quick two sentence response, sometimes I give a lengthy exposition, and other times I offer an intro session.

One of the most common things I hear from people after I explain the work is "Oh, so it's like mindfulness?"

The answer is yes, but no.  We use the skill of mindfulness, paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come and go.  We strengthen the 'muscle' of mindfulness, improving our sensitivity and awareness to sensations and images we might not have been able to perceive in the past.

But SE isn't mindfulness, and the goal isn't to become more mindful.  If you did, that's a happy side-affect, as there is plenty of research on the benefits of mindfulness and self-awareness.  But that's not my goal when I work with clients.

I'd like to propose something else.  A metaphor to explain what I'm doing when I work with clients.

SE is personal training.  Only, instead of strengthening your muscles and improving your body mechanics, it's strengthening the fundamental abilities of your nervous system, and improving your resilience.

Some functions of the nervous system:

If you look at your sympathetic nervous system and your parasympathetic nervous system, you find an almost unending list of functions.  But here are some big ones:

-Helps you get assertive, speak your mind and set boundaries.

-Helps you exit unsafe situations.

-Helps you motivated, and take care of business

-Helps you calm down and enjoy a peaceful moment.

-Helps you digest your food and have good sleep.

These are mostly behavioral functions, and doesn't even begin to touch on the myriad biological functions of your nervous system.

Obviously this list is grossly incomplete, but just look at those five items.  How fundamental are they to living your best life?  Can you imagine what life would look like if you couldn't do all of those things?

Well, you probably can imagine, because although most of us can do all of those things to some extent, almost all of us are stronger in some areas than others.

Perhaps you're great at setting boundaries and speaking your mind, but it's hard for you to sit down and have a really tender, connected conversation with a loved one without feeling restless.

Or maybe you love connecting with people, eating good food, and watching fun movies, but when you start considering an idea of some big, long-term project, you suddenly feel exhausted and hopeless.

There are a million examples of different patterns out there.  Many people tend to think of these patterns as personality traits.  "I'm a go-getter and I never settle down." or "I'm too nice.  I never want to offend people so I never speak my mind."

I don't think of it that way.  What if those personality patterns were simply what happens when your nervous system is really good at certain functions, and not as good at other functions.

And what if it were possible to train it?  What if your nervous system could learn to get better at feeling excited and motivated, without collapsing?  What if it could get better at relaxing and feeling safe, without needing substances or tv to settle it down?  What if saying "no" to people could become effortless?

Can we train the nervous system?

The way I like to look at my Somatic Experiencing work with people is as personal training for your nervous system.

I had a client (details changed to protect his privacy) who complained of being a pushover at work.  When his colleagues disagreed with him or treated him disrespectfully, he'd leave the situation and fume in his office.  Sometimes he'd find reasons to stay there for hours, and it was affecting his work performance.  He'd be so mad that he wouldn't return work e-mails, but when people tried to talk to him about it he'd avoid confrontation by saying everything was fine.

In my sessions with him, I noticed that as he described this dynamic to me, whenever he got to the a part of the story where he was mad at something, he'd either start laughing, or he'd got really sleepy and distracted.

I realized, this isn't about social skills.  He doesn't need to learn how to speak up for himself.  It's about his nervous system:  When it starts feeling angry, it gets uncomfortable and quickly pivots into humor or into sleepiness to diffuse the intensity.  It doesn't know how to effectively fulfill its function of "get mad, set boundaries."

So I started to work with him on that function.  When I could see he was starting to get mad, I'd help him notice the beginning of that anger before his nervous system kicked in with the laughter or sleepiness.  I'd help him practice noticing the anger at very low levels of intensity, and getting comfortable with it.
We would do multiple 'reps':  We'd notice the anger, then take a break.  Notice the anger a little bit longer, then take a break.

This is unusual, right?  As I describe it, you might be thinking, "this sounds uncomfortable and weird."  I know what you mean.  Please bear with me.

Check this out:  After a few sessions with me, doing these 'reps', he tells me a story.  He tells me that just a few days ago, his work colleagues were being jerks again.  And again, he stormed into his office.
But this time, something was different.  His body was a little more comfortable with how angry he was, which allowed him to reflect on the situation a little bit longer, and gave him the fuel to get back up, go out into the hall again, and confront his colleagues on the matter.

The story has a happy ending:  The colleagues were actually very responsive to his feedback, and were willing to agree to change their behavior.  This was a big win.  The hard part wasn't the confrontation, the hard part was being willing to have it.

I never coached him on when or how to communicate with people.  That's not my job.  I helped him figure out which part of his nervous system wanted to be strengthened, and I helped him work it out.  I made sure we didn't go too fast, or do too many reps.  I made sure we were challenging his system without overwhelming it.

And he got stronger, and things changed for the better.  It was incredibly satisfying work.

If you want to comment or send me an e-mail, I'd love to hear from you.

If you could strengthen your nervous system, what would you work on?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

What do you look for, when you look inside yourself?

This will be a short post- I'm going to write it as a meditative experiment:  Two different ways to look inside.  As with most experiments, I recommend you actually try it yourself, as your results may differ from those of others, or even from the results you'd imagine yourself getting if you only read it.

If you prefer audio, there's a link to a recording at the end of this post.

No need to make yourself comfortable, or anything.  Just come as you are.

If you take a moment to notice your experience of this moment, what are the first few things you notice?  Are there certain thoughts that come up?  Certain sensations in the body?  Emotions?

What about behaviors- how is your breath, how is your body showing up in the moment?

After you let yourself notice a few of those things, ask yourself this:

Now that I've done this scan of my present moment experience, if I were to notice how it feels to be me right now, and let a mental image pop up that represents that feeling, what's the first image that pops into my mind?

If you're not a visual person, what's the first sound that pops into your mind?  Or word?  Or a body posture that represents your current state?

Got it?  Ok, great.  Onto the next half of the experiment.

Continue being yourself.  Good job!

Ok, now you're going to notice your experience of this moment.  The difference is, you're going to specifically scan your experience for anything enjoyable, pleasurable, pleasing, or in some way 'less uncomfortable' than the rest.

Again, it could be pleasant thoughts or hopes.  Things you're noticing visually.  Things that feel good in your body.  Emotional sensations.

Maybe your body posture has something strong in it.  Maybe you're swaying in a pleasing manner.

What feels kinda nice?  If nothing feels nice, what feels less annoying?  Where is it comparatively more enjoyable for your attention to land?

Once you've noticed a few pleasant experiences, ask again,
noticing how it feels to be me right now, what's the first image that pops into my mind?  or word, sound, posture.

And there you go, the experiment is completed.  And the results will be different for everyone.

How did the first image differ from the second?  Was there a difference?

If you'd like to share, please comment below, or let me know personally.

Cheers for now,

p.s. Someone requested an audio version:  Here it is!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

An Introvert's Relief.

I have a theory, about introverts.

You know people, I'm sure, who can happily be around others for hours without burning themselves out.  And then, you know others who can feel exhausted after even a short bout of interpersonal interactions.  You may even be one of those people.

There are many possible reasons for why someone could feel consistently tired or drained after being in social situations.  It can take a lot of brain energy to track all the shifting social dynamics and power structures.  If you deal with anxiety it can take an enormous amount of energy just to 'act normal' (whatever that means) and keep it together.  Sometimes you're just tired, and you might be pushing past that fatigue in order to be social.

My theory is that, for some people, part of the fatigue comes from what their face does when they are socially engaging.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

It's not just about calming down- how to kick your shoes off with flair.

I love that Somatic Experiencing allows people to reconnect with parts of themselves that may have been long forgotten. Rather than simply calming their system, they become more grounded and connected to their system.  

A client walks into my office, perhaps just arriving from their job.  She’s professional, crisp, confident, and utterly unrelaxed. This is the face that we are often taught to wear in the business world:  Strength, focus, and a sore upper back. As a massage therapist I’ve dealt with the stiff backs for 14 years, but now I get to see the other side of things; I get to see how the flip side of that strong, driven professionalism is a level of forward momentum that can be difficult to slow down.  An unstoppable force. An interminable charge forward. It’s hard to enjoy a peaceful moment when your drive is almost throwing you off the rails.
Fast forward to thirty minutes into the session, perhaps three or four sessions in.  The client still comes in professional and confident, but now they are kicking their shoes off.  Instead of choosing the chair they are stretching on the floor, or opting to bounce gently on the yoga ball as we talk.

As they let themselves shift out of their “business face”, they find their mind wandering. They enjoy playful memories they hadn’t thought of in years. The memories lead them to insights about the challenges of today.  Most importantly, they look more like themselves. Peacefully, powerfully themselves.
What’s happening here?  There are many fine ways to explain it, but the way I see it is that this type of person has learned to use their Sympathetic Nervous system to its finest.  They are harnessing the power of their fight-or-flight drives to get things done, to make hard decisions, and to show up as a force of strength in challenging situations.  This is like a superpower. The cost of the superpower is that they can sap their energy reserves. They can overuse their adrenals. They can have difficulty slowing down even once a task is accomplished.  Though they feel exhausted, they are so driven that it becomes hard to rest, and challenging to be fully present in the tender, human moments of the day.

We want those tender moments.  No matter how driven we are, we want to enjoy life.  We want connection. We want joy. What I seek to do in session, then, is to help the nervous system learn how to transition from fight-or-flight into rest and relax.  To develop the skills required to let the heart rate slow, allow the breath to deepen, and the eyes to relax and wander.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t mean trying to ‘calm down’.  Often in a session we’ll actually take some time to really enjoy the charge that comes from working hard, from these accomplishments.  We’ll talk about their biggest achievement of the week, and then I’ll prompt them to notice the emotions and physical sensations that come with that sense of achievement.  The energy coursing through their limbs. The excitement in their chest, and the determination beaming from their eyes. After experiencing the height of that moment, their system will often settle into a peacefulness they hadn’t even realized they were thirsty for.

As a practitioner, this is such a delight for me to witness.  I know that the more they make this transition in session with me, the easier it will be to do it on their own.  They’ll come home from work and actually feel done with work.  And when they come back to tell me a story about taking some time out of their day to sit and gaze at trees in the forest, I’ll know I’m seeing a nervous system returning to harmony.

A brief experiment to give yourself a taste of this state-switch:

  1. Feeling a lot of drive?  Mentally racing through your list of what you have to get done during the day?  Great. Let that happen. And ask yourself this: As you notice how driven you are, check in on your body state.  What does it physically feel like to be so ready to act?  How is your breath? The tension in your belly?  Warmth in your limbs?
  2. Once you start noticing a few physical sensations, allow yourself to shift your focus onto those sensations.  It might be a little intense! Feel the charge of it for a few moments, letting those feelings build to a gentle peak.
  3. When you’re ready to take a break, shift your focus outside of your body.  Let your eyes slowly wander around the room, and let your head follow your gaze.  Notice things in the space that are pleasant to look at. Allow yourself to enjoy looking at them.  Spend a couple minutes with this, moving on to the next lovely focal point any time you feel bored or otherwise ready to move on.  
  4. Notice how your body feels now compared to before.  If you feel unsettled at all, spend more time in step three. If you feel things moving, settling, or anything remotely pleasant, give it some time to sink in, and enjoy.

Good luck!  I want you to enjoy a life that's both as productive, and as full of joy, as you wish.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable

Let’s share something a little on the personal side.

Before I’d ever heard of Somatic Experiencing, I had a problem.  I was one of those people who had really big ideas but just wouldn’t make them happen.  I’d have notebooks that I’d fill with step-by-step outlines of how to change the world, how to develop my business, how to make myself the person I wanted to be.  They were good plans, too, for the most part.

But I wouldn’t see them into reality.  About one in ten of these plans I’d actually begin implementing, throwing myself into it for about two weeks.  After those two weeks, I’d start tapering off.  I’d get distracted by something else, or discouraged by a small glitch in the plan, and before I knew it, that brilliant, exciting project had fallen by the wayside.

I tried a lot of different methods to get over this hurdle- they’d help a bit, but never to the point that I was craving.  It was frustrating, to know that I was a bright guy with some innovative ideas, but to never actually put them into reality- never to prove that they worked.  I didn’t even know why it wasn’t working- I just knew that I wasn’t doing it.

Eventually I hear about Somatic Experiencing through a friend.  She’s been receiving SE for a few weeks, and she tells me about how her practitioner will notice little micro-movements in her body language.  I was fascinated to hear about how playing with these certain micro-movements would bring up all sorts of emotions for her, which would release and allow her to feel awesome.  I was intrigued.

I go in for my own sessions, and it was just as interesting as I’d hoped.  We talked, moved, I had unexpected sensations and feelings.  But I didn’t understand how all of that micro-gesture business was useful.  So I asked my practitioner:  “What’s the point?  How will this help me?”

What he said laid the foundation for what would finally resolve my follow-through problem.  He explained that in our sessions he observed that I was uncomfortable with intensity.  He said that whenever I got excited about something, or angry about something, or fierce in any way, that energy would build to a certain point, and then collapse.  I would unconsciously diffuse the growing tension by changing the subject, trying to be more empathetic, making a joke, or even singing a song.

He said, “Your nervous system is only comfortable with a certain amount of intensity before it reacts and works to diffuse the internal situation.  Your current comfort with intensity isn’t enough to reach that threshold, that energy level where you really start getting things done.  So, you stay pretty still, you don’t get much done.  If you keep coming in for sessions, your comfort with intensity will increase, and you’ll be able to have access to more and more energy and focus, and you’ll start getting more and more done.  You might not even notice it- things will just start happening.”

I was sold.  After all, that’s exactly what I wanted.
I received weekly sessions for three months.  Somewhere around then, I realized something:  Over the past month or two, I had started multiple projects, and continued them.  I’d taken on a new job as a massage instructor that in the past I would have been completely intimidated by.  I found myself noticing when I was angry or sad, and approaching those moods with curiosity rather than avoidance.  In short:  I was more comfortable with intensity, and, lo and behold, things were ‘just happening’.

Everyone’s nervous system is different.  Maybe you’re not comfortable with intensity, or maybe you’re too comfortable with intensity.  Maybe your system needs to learn how to enjoy the pleasurable moments of life.  Maybe it needs to learn diffuse tension and to become more comfortable with stillness.  In any case, how amazing is it that we can gently teach your nervous system to naturally develop itself in these ways?  You don’t need to have some magical insight about your life, you just train, gently but consistently, until life is just different.

That’s what I love about Somatic Experiencing:  It’s not flashy, but it can be deep and it can be long-lasting, and it can make changes in a way that you never would have expected.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

When thinking slows us down

There’s a thing that people love to do.  We love to tell stories, we love to analyze, we love to make meaning.  I’m doing it right now, simply by writing this post.  You’re doing it now, in the back of your mind, as you decide whether or not you you find this article fascinating (give it a moment).  

There’s a great temptation as a Somatic Experiencing client to explain in detail to their practitioner what happened, when, why, how, and how that relates to the current situation.  If we go down that path, though, we can spend the whole hour just sorting out the story.

The thing is, that’s not what we’re trying to do here.  People ask sometimes:  “What’s the difference between SE and therapy?”  That’s a hard question to answer, because there are so many forms of therapy.  But one thing I can say is that SE deals primarily with the present moment experience.

If you’re feeling sad in an SE session, the important thing isn’t why you’re feeling sad, it’s what the sadness feels like.  If you’re relaxing your mind and seeing images of an angry unicorn, I’m not going to ask about your childhood, I’m going to ask what the unicorn is doing.  And if you feel the need to tell me all the reasons your sister is a jerk, what I’m curious about isn’t the reasons, but the anger you’re feeling and the urgency you’re feeling that drives you to give me all of those reasons.

Now, imagine for a moment that you’re telling me about how angry you are at your sister (or brother or partner etc) and why, and I ask you “What does that anger feel like in your body?  Do you have any mental images as you talk about this?”  At first it can feel a little jarring.  After all, you’re trying to tell this great story about how mad you are!

But you decide to bear with me.  You notice that in your body, there’s this intense heat running up and down your face and arms.  Your jaw is tight.  Your fists want to tighten.  You look for mental images and you can see yourself punching a tree, shards of bark flying everywhere.  You start to make meaning again, to explain to me how your sister used to climb trees, but I say, “hold on, one more second:  what happens next in this mental image?”

So you keep watching, and you see the tree explode into sawdust, and you see yourself raise your arms in triumph, and as you see that image, you notice that here in the present moment you’re taking a deep breath, that the heat in your arms has transformed into pleasant tingling, your jaw has loosened and you’re relaxing your back into the chair.  You’re not so angry anymore, in fact you feel good- maybe a little  sad, but also really satisfied.

The thing is, we can tell stories and make meaning for hours, days, or years, and although we can come to some really great conclusions, it can be difficult for  our meaning-making to deeply change our feelings.  It’s not the most effective channel:  It can be like drawing new maps and hoping the roads outside will change to accommodate what you’ve drawn.

When we shift our focus to what we’re actually feeling in the present moment, and simply watch those feelings with curiosity from a safe, calm headspace, they will often shift much more fluidly than we’d expect.  And you’ll find that it’s not about ‘getting rid’ of your uncomfortable feelings, it’s about watching what they become.  Because if you let them, they may surprise you in the best of ways.