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.”

 

 

New Year's Evolutions

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Stars over time, by Zach Dischner via Flickr

I’ve talked in this space about moving from habit to choice, and how Rubenfeld Synergy and other mindfulness work helps to stop ourselves before we engage in an old habit, and have the option to do something else.

But if we are, as the man said, what we repeatedly do, then habits are what most profoundly shape us. At this time of year when there is a lot of pressure to “start fresh” with New Year’s resolutions, fraught with unrealistic fitness goals and promises we rarely manage to maintain past February, it’s important to look at how move from from habit, to choice, to better habits, in a way that is not doomed to failure.

Try this experiment this year: instead of making New Year’s resolutions like “get in shape,” “finish my novel,” and “call my mother more often,” consider making a single, specific habit-changing move each month. Establishing a new habit – or breaking an old one – takes time; the 21-day number turns out to be a myth, but doing something for many days in a row does help cement it. Starting on my birthday this year, I managed to establish a daily meditation practice after years of struggling. I even took off for the week of Christmas, and have gotten back on it again without any trouble.

How did I do it? Not by promising myself a 20 minute session every day. I got a meditation timer app for my phone, chose a pleasant sounding chime, set up a place to do it where I’d be comfortable, and pledged five minutes a day, preferably in the morning right when I wake up.

It worked, because the goal was specific, achievable, and not too time-consuming. Doing just five minutes meant that it wasn’t much time out of my day, so I didn’t have to really “set aside time” for it. (Now that I’m up to 7 minutes, I feel like a champ!) Doing it in the morning means I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, and light my candle, and though I’m barely awake I’m awake enough to sit still for five minutes, and then I feel the accomplishment of having done it. Doing it every day…makes it into a new habit, one that’s peaceful, good for me, and expandable. (I’m planning to go up to 10 minutes soon.)

You’re going to be much more successful, for example, if you decide to, say, not eat after 8pm for a month, or change out your lunchtime bag of chips for an apple, than if you decide to “change your diet.” Small, specific changes, sustained over a period, tend to accumulate.

So enjoy your New Year’s celebrations! Do whatever you do, make toasts, and make resolutions if that’s your thing. (I’ll be doing it. It’s a habit. 😉 But this year, see if lasting change is possible. Start small. Listen to your body. And hey, let me know how it goes.

Happy New Year, everyone.

New Year’s Evolutions

5290873034_786ec5eba8_b

Stars over time, by Zach Dischner via Flickr

I’ve talked in this space about moving from habit to choice, and how Rubenfeld Synergy and other mindfulness work helps to stop ourselves before we engage in an old habit, and have the option to do something else.

But if we are, as the man said, what we repeatedly do, then habits are what most profoundly shape us. At this time of year when there is a lot of pressure to “start fresh” with New Year’s resolutions, fraught with unrealistic fitness goals and promises we rarely manage to maintain past February, it’s important to look at how move from from habit, to choice, to better habits, in a way that is not doomed to failure.

Try this experiment this year: instead of making New Year’s resolutions like “get in shape,” “finish my novel,” and “call my mother more often,” consider making a single, specific habit-changing move each month. Establishing a new habit – or breaking an old one – takes time; the 21-day number turns out to be a myth, but doing something for many days in a row does help cement it. Starting on my birthday this year, I managed to establish a daily meditation practice after years of struggling. I even took off for the week of Christmas, and have gotten back on it again without any trouble.

How did I do it? Not by promising myself a 20 minute session every day. I got a meditation timer app for my phone, chose a pleasant sounding chime, set up a place to do it where I’d be comfortable, and pledged five minutes a day, preferably in the morning right when I wake up.

It worked, because the goal was specific, achievable, and not too time-consuming. Doing just five minutes meant that it wasn’t much time out of my day, so I didn’t have to really “set aside time” for it. (Now that I’m up to 7 minutes, I feel like a champ!) Doing it in the morning means I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, and light my candle, and though I’m barely awake I’m awake enough to sit still for five minutes, and then I feel the accomplishment of having done it. Doing it every day…makes it into a new habit, one that’s peaceful, good for me, and expandable. (I’m planning to go up to 10 minutes soon.)

You’re going to be much more successful, for example, if you decide to, say, not eat after 8pm for a month, or change out your lunchtime bag of chips for an apple, than if you decide to “change your diet.” Small, specific changes, sustained over a period, tend to accumulate.

So enjoy your New Year’s celebrations! Do whatever you do, make toasts, and make resolutions if that’s your thing. (I’ll be doing it. It’s a habit. 😉 But this year, see if lasting change is possible. Start small. Listen to your body. And hey, let me know how it goes.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Listening to your heart may be more literal than you think

A man in Brazil, having received a cardiac implant, found – not all that surprisingly – that his body image shifted: he had the odd feeling off having a heart in his belly rather than his chest. But rather more surprisingly, the introduction of the implant “seemed to have markedly altered certain social and emotional skills,” according to David Robson at BBC Future. The article that came out this week, “The mind-bending effects of feeling two hearts,” delves into recent research that shows that our hearts – and body-awareness in general – have a more profound effect on our emotional functioning than even the poets may have known.

A recent experiment asked participants to count their own heartbeats, without putting their hands over their hearts or having any other aid in perceiving them. About 1 in 4 people get something like 50% accuracy; some folks are not very good at perceiving what’s going on inside of them, as I have observed in my own practice. A few, though – also around 1-4 – can achieve an accuracy of 80%. This ability, incidentally, is called introception, a word I’ll definitely be adopting.

After this, the groups were asked to do a series of tests around emotional awareness. The results were astounding:

People with more bodily awareness tend have more intense reactions to emotive pictures and report being more greatly moved by them; they are also better at describing their feelings. Importantly, this sensitivity seems to extend to others’ feelings – they are better at recognising emotions in others’ faces – and they are also quicker to learn to avoid a threat, such as a small electric shock in the lab, perhaps because those more intense bodily feelings saturate their memories, making the aversion more visceral.

In another study aimed at looking at intuition, people who had a more accurate sense of their hearts followed their intuition more. They were asked to pick cards that would win them money if they matched the color of a card on the table. “The game was rigged so that you were slightly more likely to win from two of the decks, and lose if you picked from the other two. Dunn [the researcher] found that the people who could track their heartbeat with the most accuracy would tend to pick from certain decks, whereas those with poor interoception were more likely to choose at random.”

It is not so much that the hunches the more body-aware people followed were always right – quite the contrary. It is more than they tended to follow their hearts, as the saying goes, more often. People with increased body awareness are being found to have richer emotional awareness as well, resulting in a richer experience of life. And those with reduced bodily awareness – including those with certain neurological flaws in the connection between the body and the brain – can suffer everything from depression to depersonalization disorders.

Naturally all of this is exciting for someone who works primarily on helping people increase their body awareness. It is also no wonder that Rubenfeld Synergy can be so powerful: tuning in to the body’s sensations can unlock emotions that are lying dormant and allow them to flow when they have been trapped.

What happens when you listen to your heart?

How can you keep those resolutions going?

Happy New Year!

For many, coming out of the dark time of the Winter Solstice and into the New Year is a time of renewal. After the excesses of the holidays, we look back at the year behind us and make promises to ourselves. This year, we say, we’ll be better. Stronger, fitter, thinner, richer. We’ll pay attention to our loved ones more, we’ll meditate every day. And often, it isn’t too long before those resolutions fall by the wayside, and we’re back to our old habits.

Synergists believe that our habits are a result of messages that are deeply embedded in our bodies. Just as we learn the most basic things – walking, running, driving – through repetition and muscle memory, so other things get embedded in our bodies. Our habits become, as it were, automated. These habits can be positive: people who make a habit of running in the mornings, for example, often report the automatic feeling of getting out of bed, getting their gear and shoes on, going out the door and letting their feet take them, regardless of the weather. But if you’re like many of us, you probably recognize negative habits more easily: your hand reaching into the potato chip bag while watching a comforting TV show, or raising your voice when someone you love does that annoying thing you hate. Recovering alcoholics sometimes talk about the way their bodies would stand up, walk to where they kept their liquor, open a bottle, pour a drink, and begin sipping it, all without thinking.

Our bodies are excellent at automating processes: it’s why most of us don’t have to think about how to walk every time we walk to the kitchen, nor how to drive to our workplaces when we’ve been driving there every day for more than a month. Unfortunatey, though, this automation means that we can end up living lives that are largely *unconscious*: we get up, eat, go to work, raise our families, all without thinking. We get stuck in habits that harm us: we drink too much, or eat junk, or ignore our loved ones, or cheat on our spouses.

Many clients I see come in with the question, “Why do I keep doing this thing, when I know that it’s bad for me and makes me feel awful?” By teaching them to listen to their bodies’ messages, I help them to move out of their unhealthy habits and into *choice*. When you begin to listen to your body, to really pay attention, you can find the triggers for those automated processes – and short-circuit them. Even more than that: you can learn to program new, better habits into your system, so that you can make those resolutions stick.

If you’re interested in making a change, contact me for a free phone consultation, or make an appointment. I look forward to keeping in touch throughout a renewing, transformative 2014!