Big men do cry – and it saves lives

Offshore_oil_drilling_inspection

No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

The Body Keeps the Score – but we knew that

18693771Yesterday I finished Bessel van der Kolk’s monumental work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This book, the result of more than three decades of research, direct service, and tireless curiosity by this Dutch psychiatrist, tracks the development of the profession’s understanding (or more often, lack of understanding) of post-traumatic stress. The most important piece for me: that the effective treatment of trauma requires not just a top-down approach (i.e., the use of talk therapy or other language and mind-based techniques), but a bottom-up approach as well. In short, the traumatized person needs healing that addresses their bodies as well as their minds.

Van der Kolk covers many bottom-up approaches, including yoga, theater, body psychotherapies like Somatic Experiencing, and even massage, and delves into the neuroscience, clinical data, and long-term outcomes of how it all works. The book is a tremendous win for bodymind modalities like Rubenfeld Synergy, which works with gentle touch and movement to help clients reconnect with their bodies and access the memories, emotions, and stories that live there. But it’s also a validation for me of the practices I’ve been doing with my more traumatized clients.

For those who suffer from the common long-term effects of PTSD, getting into your body is no mean feat. Dissociation – the sense of “leaving your body,” even to the point of feeling like you’re observing it from the outside – can happen easily; I’ve seen a few clients who “zone out” or dissociate merely from being asked to pay attention to their feet. Numbing, another common symptom, means such clients often can’t feel their body much at all – nor the emotions connected to it. For people who have flashbacks and experience what happened to them not as a story that happened long ago, but as an immediate, present, and intensely terrifying series of sensory impressions, anything that gets them in touch with their bodies too quickly – such as touch – is out of the question.

Among the multitudinous pearls of wisdom I got from this book was a word for what I do when this is the case: pendulation. Taken from Peter Levine, Dr. van der Kolk’s friend and colleague who developed Somatic Experiencing, pendulation refers to helping a traumatized person dip a toe, as it were, in and out of the intensity of memory. By guiding the client toward the experience that needs integration, then backing away from it before their tolerance runs out, a practitioner can help a traumatized person gradually approach and come to befriend previously intolerable feelings.

So if you come to me with a trauma history, I might keep us in chairs for a while rather than going to the table right away. I might ask you to pay attention to your breath, but might back off even from that if I sense that you’re starting to feel anxious or “leaving the room.” It’s a delicate balance, but little by little, we get back in touch with ourselves, and regain the strength, as van der Kolk repeatedly says, “to know what we know and feel what we feel.”

 

 

The Christmas miracle of expectations

expectations

Image by Kate Brady via Flickr

It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.

In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.

The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.

It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.

It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.

 

[Rerun] Things Without (Shame)

I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Monday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

Owning yourself fully: Bessel van der Kolk and healing trauma through the body

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.

-Bessel van der Kolk

In the course of thinking about Rubenfeld Synergy Method in the context of trauma, I’ve been looking at the marvelous Bessel van der Kolk, known by many in the area as the head of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being late last year, and the result is a remarkable look into the man’s life, work, and personality. He has been working with trauma since his time with Vietnam veterans at a VA hospital during his training as a psychiatrist. It was there that he first became fascinated with the idea what trauma is and what it does for us: a soldier refused to take the drugs prescribed for nightmares, because to him, the nightmares were a way of keeping the memory of his friends alive.

His recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is being cited more and more in the healing circles I travel in. It is an exploration of a lifetime working with people who have become living memorials in some way: their bodies unchanging testaments of traumatic events. Trauma, he says, happens when the mind is unable to synthesize a narrative about what has happened, and the events get “stuck” in the body, replaying themselves. Even Darwin, as early as 1872, wrote “how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.”

I have seen this phenomenon in my practice, where clients often cannot feel what is happening in their bodies, or are unaware of what their bodies are doing, or they “leave the room,” in essence, dissociating whenever their awareness is called to their bodies. The experiences that they have had there are too intense to be repeatedly endured, and they have found ways to disconnect from their somatic experience. And so the process of addressing trauma somatically starts with helping people reconnect with their bodies in ways that can begin to feel safe.

van der Kolk has worked with yoga, eye movement therapy, and other somatic practices to help people return to their bodies. “It was very striking in our yoga study,” he says, “even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.” In his work, as in Rubenfeld Synergy, van der Kolk has found that “something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” It can take a while to help someone reconnect with their own breath, to have a sense of their skin and bones and muscles, to have a relationship to their own sensations and emotions that is not simply another way of triggering the trauma. But the research is clearer and clearer that returning people to their bodies is a clear route out of the cycle.

One of my favorite bits of the interview was about stress hormones and their value, and how what really prevents overwhelming experiences from becoming trauma is movement:

“The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations…What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system.

But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active and they like to help and they like to do things and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.”

This links back to a post I wrote years ago that continues to be popular, about trauma and streaming. When action is possible in a moment of crisis, it is less likely to become “stuck.” But when trauma is repeated, or when movement or action isn’t safe, then the event or events can become “frozen” in the body, stuck in a repeat loop until we can return a sense of safety to the body, and a sense of consciousness to the ongoing experience of being embodied.

Except for a small number of practitioners, the connection between trauma and the body is a minority voice in psychology. Luckily, it is expanding, but it has taken some time. I am hoping to connect with Dr. van der Kolk and the Trauma Center soon to talk about how Rubenfeld Synergy can contribute to this process of healing from trauma. For now, I recommend listening to the whole interview here , or reading the transcript here.

Trying to manage pain? F*** it!

Research shows that swearing helps us to manage pain better. We’ve all had the experience of dropping something on our foot and yelling out a few choice Anglo-Saxon words. Scientists used to believe that doing so focused us more on the negative, and therefore decreased tolerance of pain. New research, however, shows that on the contrary, people who swore while experiencing pain were able to tolerate it for longer, and reported feeling less pain than those who repeated a neutral word.

swearing-294391_1280I’m reminded of a practice client I had a long time back, who was having an intense emotional experience in her life. Standing at her head, I asked her what she was aware of, and her answer was “F*** it!” Encouraged by this plainly authentic response, I mirrored it to her, encouraging her to allow that feeling to flow. Turned out that phrase was everywhere inside her, needing to get out, be felt, and be voiced.

This research brings a new dimension to that session: the idea that giving someone permission to spout profanity when in extremis can help not only release the painful emotions, but make doing so less painful. Anger, too – often associated with such outbursts – can be a powerful way to feel some control over something that hurts.

If the body speaks in metaphors, then swears are one way for the body to release steam. Nice to see work being done on how our use of language relates to our physical and emotional experience.

Dartmouth suggests more research on body-mind therapies!

A number of sources over the past few days are reporting a recommendation from Dartmouth investigators Peter Payne, SEP, and Mardi Crane-Godreau, PhD, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that body/mind therapies such as Somatic Experiencing be subjected to more rigorous scientific research to examine their efficacy in the treatment of trauma.

I am a big fan of this idea, given that often, the work that I do and its adjuncts are often left in the dark when it comes to scientific inquiry. Skeptics like to place some healing modalities in the “quackery” category, which tends to create a circularly reasoned loop: these things are not backed by good science, therefore they must be unworthy of study, and therefore no science gets done.

The team at Dartmouth is interested in looking into the connection between the well-known effects of stress on morbidity in association with conditions such as cancer, and the relief of stress and associated trauma that is often seen in mental health modalities that incorporate the body. As this science advances, I hope to see more and more of these types of studies coming out of respected institutions, and giving us a more data-driven sense of how this stuff works.

Rewiring your brain out of pain

When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

How our minds can make us young again

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

This remarkable article, “What if Age is Just a Mindset?”, about the work of psychologist Ellen Langer, ran this week in the New York Times. Its basic idea – that our minds have more power over the youth and health of our bodies than we’ve dared to imagine – is one that is near and dear to me and my work in ways that any readers of this blog already know.

[Langer]’s one of the people at Harvard who really gets it…That health and illness are much more rooted in our minds and in our hearts and how we experience ourselves in the world than our models even begin to understand.

Langer – a plainly dynamic and driven woman from the Bronx who reminds me not a little of Ilana Rubenfeld in this profile – has done experiments throughout her career that show the ways that our mindset can profoundly affect our physical health. Over time, “she came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological ‘prime’ — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.”

Perhaps the most famous of these experiments occurred in 1981, when Langer took a group of people in their 70s, and put them in a temporary time-warp: for five days, they lived, behaved, and were immersed in an environment that mirrored 1959. They were asked not just to reminisce, but to speak and behave as if they were 22 years younger. At the end of the five days, by several biological metrics, “they were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had ‘put their mind in an earlier time,’ and their bodies went along for the ride.”

They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.

In the course of many years of work, Langer has continued to find that “mind-set manipulation can counteract presumed physiological limits,” with the ultimate goal being to “return the control of our health back to ourselves.”

Like Rubenfeld Synergists, Langer also places a strong importance on mindfulness, “on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual‘ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

The implications of her work are profound for those of us who work in the knowledge that when we help shift people’s relationship to their bodies, we can help them change how their bodies move in the world – and therefore, how rich and engaged their lives are.

Read the whole article and marvel at the implications here.

 

Stand like Wonder Woman, and change your life

More research, this time out of Harvard Business School, is emerging around the ways in which body language, body position, and other clear, controllable physical actions can not only change the way others think and feel about us, but how we feel and think about ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s research showed a two-minute change in body posture changed hormone levels in the body, affected self-confidence, and influenced job interviewers.

I’ve talked here some about Ilana Rubenfeld’s principle that the way you move in your body is the way you move in your life. The video below is a fantastic TED talk that shows how this is literally true.

In Cuddy’s experiments, just two minutes of assuming “power poses” significantly raised testosterone levels, lowered cortisol levels, improved people’s sense of self-worth and made interviewers much more likely to want to hire them. Two minutes of sitting curled up and making themselves small had the opposite effect: lowered testosterone, elevated cortisol, feelings of insecurity, and unattractiveness for hiring.

The implications of this would be almost alarming if they weren’t so accessible. In my work, we do a lot of imagining around what different options might be like. What if a client who has spent his whole life with his shoulders curled around his body could open up? What would that feel like? What might become possible? We might talk to the physical pain that trying this would be likely to cause: what protective mechanism has his body had in place for so long, but might be ready to let go and become something else?

For some, this process of healing, of becoming, can be slow, but it is possible. This science shows how it works. What is remarkable to me is how the power positions are all about being open, taking up space, being seen. Opening yourself up like this is exposing – relating back to the Brene Brown talks I’ve linked to here before on vulnerability. This relationship between vulnerability and power continues to intrigue me, and I’m sure you’ll hear more from me about it in this space.

For now, though, watch below, and don’t miss Cuddy’s own story, near the end, of how she, personally, overcome near-crippling self-doubt.