Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Using will power to change our behavior, or teaching our bodies so will isn't necessary.

You know how it's really hard to notice certain cultural norms until someone points them out to you?  For instance, some expression you use until someone explains why it's rude, and then suddenly you notice how common that expression is, even as you do your best not to use it anymore.

I feel kind of like that about the concept of top-down healing, which I'll explain in a moment.  "Top-down" healing is a norm in how we think about personal growth that's so built-in to our way of thinking that we may not even think there could be anything else.

I'll explain.

A top-down approach to change is one where you look at the problem or goal, decide how you'd like to behave in order to get to where you want to be, and then you implement that plan.  

As an example, a top-down approach to managing anxiety might be to take 10 deep breaths every time you feel anxious.  Your body is having an anxiety response, but your mind steps in, takes charge, and works to redirect that anxious energy.

Think about any problem you might have, in particular with emotions, communication, or how you react to life.  I bet as you think about how you'd like to solve it, you're almost always thinking about how you'd like to behave differently, and coming up with strategies to make sure you behave that way.

That's top-down, and it's great!  There are a lot of top-down strategies that work really well, and are invaluable to know how to use.


It's not the only way, and I think it's useful to know when we have other options.  In this case, there's another approach.  Let's call it the bottom-up approach.

What's a bottom-up approach?  Essentially, rather than using the mind to try and affect your body and behavior, you start with an awareness of the body with the intention to support the mind.

A bottom-up approach can take more work up front, but can save you a lot of effort and will power down the line.  

Going back to the anxiety example:  Suppose you know that every couple weeks you find yourself feeling anxious.  Your heart starts pounding, your body releases cortisol, and your fight-or-flight system starts kicking in.

You have the top-down tricks up your sleeve should you start getting anxious, but that whole process isn't very fun.  What it you want to reduce the frequency with which you get anxious in the first place?  Or reduce the intensity?

A bottom-up approach could look like this:  On a day when you're not feeling particularly stressed, you might take some time to notice what feels good in your body.  Where are you feeling settled? What feels comfortable, enjoyable, or at ease?

This might be difficult at first, but over days or weeks of practice, taking a couple minutes here and there, you may start finding it easier and easier to find those pleasant, safe sensations.

By tracking with your pleasant body experience, you're actually creating new brain pathways, indicating to your brain that pleasant, safe experiences are actually important and worth paying attention.

Now, because you've built this foundation of enjoyable awareness, your body has a new resource next time it's feeling anxious.  Perhaps it will still get anxious, but maybe now it has an easier pathway out of anxiety.  Or maybe you'll notice the anxiety, but your connection to the pleasurable sensations can temper the intensity of the discomfort just a little bit. 

This is just one example of what a bottom-up process could look like.  And it's not always intuitive in our culture.

However, if you can start asking the question:  "How could I support my body in being able to handle this problem, without needing a direct intervention from my mind?" then you may slowly start collecting strategies that can make you more and more resilient and adaptable, and over time perhaps you'll find yourself referring to that list of top-down tools less and less.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

How to be there for each other during the time of Covid-19.

Just to name up front:  I don't have any easy answers for this.  This is a hard time for a lot of people, and it's affecting everyone differently.  Not to mention, everyone is so different; I can't magically predict what's going to help one person.

That being said, there are certain patterns in mammals, and certain things that tend to be helpful, and I'd like to name them here so that you can keep them in mind when you're trying to be there for a loved one.  Perhaps, knowing them as you do, you'll be able to find a personalized way to apply what I share here.

So, without further ado, how can we be there for each other during the time of Covid-19?

A trauma-therapist colleague of mine recently said something that felt spot on:  There are three conditions which, when all are present, greatly increase the likelihood of the person later feeling traumatic symptoms.

1.  Immobility.
2.  Overwhelm.
3. Aloneness/disconnection.  

If someone feels trapped, if the intensity of the situation is beyond what they are comfortable coping with, and if they don't have a trusted someone there to help them out, this can be really hard on their nervous system.  We want to help our loved ones avoid being in this position.

How can we help prevent these traumatic effects in others?  Let's go one at a time.

1. Immobility

This could be literal or figurative immobility.  I.e. If someone has a broken leg or the exit to a room they're in is blocked, then the nervous system may feel the sense of "I can't move".  However, on a less literal level, when you're at work all day and you fear getting in trouble if you leave, that also counts as immobility. 

And if you're making yourself stay at home to reduce risk of spreading a virus, well, you better believe that can feel like immobility.  

Imagine then that your friend or partner is feeling super cooped up and trapped.  They are pacing, they are complaining about how there's nowhere to go, they seem like they are trying to hold in a powder keg of energy.  What do you do?

The short answer is anything that can help their nervous system be aware of the options.  They don't have to have absolute freedom in order to feel more free.   Different things will work for different people.  Some examples:
-Go for a walk, preferably somewhere new (novelty tells the body things aren't stuck/trapped)
-Look to the horizon.  The body often feels more threatened if it can't see any distance...if you have a window with a view where you can see into the distance, take some time to relax into can communicate safety and freedom to the body.
-Using visualization:  Even if you're choosing not to go outside at all, reminding yourself that it's technically possible to, and imagining going wherever you'd most like to go may help the body settle it's immobility response a bit.
-Exercise, whatever makes you feel good and strong.

You get the idea- it's not just cognitive stuff, it's actually feeling the sense of possibility in your body.  We don't necessarily feel trapped in our room when we sleep at night, because we know we could get up and leave.  If we did feel trapped, it would be easy enough to go test the door, make sure it's unlocked, and then leave it open a crack while we sleep.
We want to offer that same, visceral reassurance to ourselves or our loved ones when we're feeling stuck.

2. Overwhelm
Overwhelm is "too much too fast".  It's when there's more going on (internally or externally) than you can handle.  Classic example here is watching the news.  If you watch one scary story on the news and then turn it off, you may sigh and say "Wow, that's really scary.  I'm going to go do XYZ to make sure that doesn't happen to me."  
On the other hand, if you watch 10 different scary stories on the news without taking that moment to pause and integrate and feel your fear, you may eventually turn it off and just feel frozen and numb.  It was too much to process- your nervous system got overwhelmed.

How can we help each other with overwhelm?  Well, if we nip it in the bud, great!  If we can get someone out of the house before they get completely stir-crazy, or if we can invite a break from watching news before they get totally swamped in it, then great.

But suppose they are already overwhelmed?  They are either frozen, staring blankly at the wall, or maybe going on a tirade about how bad everything is, listing everything wrong in the world.  

This is where your skills in empathy are most needed:
-Can you name the emotion they are feeling, or get them to name the emotion?  Naming an emotion seems to be one of the fastest ways to shift the feeling from the panic parts of the brain into the more safe-feeling cognitive parts of the brain.
-Can you offer them the chance to be in the moment rather than in trauma-brain?  For example, simply cooking together while listening to some engaging music; or playing catch; or bird-watching can all be great ways to shift out of overwhelm and into the present moment. 
-Getting moving and looking around is also a fast way to settle our bodies.

3. Alone-ness.
We are social beings. We can derive a great deal of comfort from looking around us and knowing that, should things go bad, there are people who will step up and take care of things.  That may mean cooking us meals when we are sick, or handling money issues, or simply keeping us company when we are upset.

If your loved ones are feeling isolated, either because they live alone, or because they aren't currently on good terms with the people they live with, offering them company, companionship, conversation can be huge.  Nothing fancy required.

Letting them know what you'll do if things go bad can also count for a lot:  Are you able to cook for them if they get sick?  Will you be available to drive them to the doctor?  Think about what kinds of support you feel confident you can offer, and, if your relationship allows for it, let them know.

If it's your partner, it's possible that they may still feel lonely despite your connection.  Try not to take this personally...we are tribal beings after all.  If you can help remind them of which friends or family often make them feel the best, you might help them muster up the courage to reach out for connection.  If you've already made your own support clear, offering your partner the gift of their other friends can be a pretty powerful, humble gift.


That's all I've got for now.  Like I said, it's pretty broad advice, but I hope it gets you thinking, and maybe it will help you notice with more clarity what you and your loved ones are needing when things are getting tough.

If you have questions about application of this in specific situations, please feel free to write me:

Good luck with everything!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Changing uncomfortable feelings.

This is going to be a short post.  It's really just an experiment; it will work differently for everyone.

The aim of the experiment is to see if, by doing a short visualization, you can change an uncomfortable feeling to be less uncomfortable.

Can you notice any uncomfortable feelings right now?  Maybe a lingering grumpiness in your gut from some offense earlier in the day?

What does it feel like?  Is it tight, or loose?   Warm, or cool?  Does it have a shape, color, or texture?

Now that you know what the uncomfortable feeling feels like, ask yourself this question:  What's the first image that comes to your mind when you ask "What's the opposite of that uncomfortable feeling?"

Is it a star?  A smell?  An easing in your body?  A donkey kicking a barrel?  It doesn't matter if it's a picture, a feeling, a thought, or a sound- just notice the uncomfortable feeling, ask for the opposite, and see what the first thing is that appears.

Now that you have it, sit with it for a moment.  How does your body feel as you see/feel that image?  How does it feel as you see/feel that image for more than a few moments, even as long as 30 seconds, noticing your breath as you notice the image.

And of course, how does the original uncomfortable feeling change?  Does it increase?  Decrease?  Shift in some certain quality?

That's the experiment:  What happens to the uncomfortable feeling when you introduce yourself to its opposite.

Let me know how it goes.