Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Somatic Experiencing and Overeating

I want to share just a few thoughts about how Somatic Experiencing may (or may not) relate to patterns of overeating.  

I'm not an expert in diet, nor am I well-versed in the bounty of research that's been done on overeating,  appetite, etc.  So, please take everything I say with a grain of salt.  

But sometimes people ask me if Somatic work can help with overeating.  And here's my answer:

Do you like to eat?  If your first reaction is, "Of course I do, silly, I'm asking you about overeating," then, I see your point.  Of course there are things you like about eating.  But let me be more specific.  When you eat, do you sit down, and pay attention to your food?  Do you take time to enjoy the flavor, to feel the texture and 'crunch' of your food?  Do you enjoy the satisfaction of swallowing and feeling the food land in your belly?
Was that as easy of a yes, or did you find yourself feeling a little bored/uncomfortable with some of those images?

A lot of people mix their eating with other activities- they eat on the go, or as they watch TV, or as they socialize.  All of these are fine things.  What raises my curiosity, however, is the question: How does it feel to imagine eating without distractions, where it's just you and the food?

If there's some stress there, some anxiety, some feelings of "no thank you, I'm not sure why, but that does not sound good to me at all, no sir," then that is where I imagine Somatic Experiencing could help.

Somatic Experiencing doesn't tell you what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, or how much to eat, but it can help separate the act of eating from the stress or anxiety which may currently be associated with it.  It can help lower the stress or anxiety which may precipitate a round of compulsive eating.

And in finding a greater sense of safety in relationship to your body sensation, you may find yourself enjoying the act of eating-- and finishing eating-- even more.

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.

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.