Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The most effective container

In my view and experience having a relational home offers the most effective container for any dysregulation. As Bonnie Badenoch put it, we draw on our inner community in order to self regulate (soothe ourself). On the outside, it looks like we’re self regulating, but we are in fact always co-regulating, whether another person is there with us physically or not. If we’ve been relatively securely attached to our care givers and others, this gives us a fantastic solid start in life which we later draw on again and again and again. The ACE study, among many others, demonstrates the price we pay when we haven’t had this solid beginning.

So, the hard science is in, we are relational creatures who are interdependent, therefore we need each other, going it alone all the time is not good for us, but it’s like many of us haven’t got the memo. People are continually shamed for not changing, not ‘growing up’, or ‘moving on’. But without the safety and warmth that a relational home can provide, we’ll stay in whatever protective defenses we’ve developed because it just won’t be safe enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and make any changes that we need to make.


Being able to contain our emotions, and grow a bigger container, so we increase our window of tolerance is crucial. We’re not going to release anger for ever more, because like all emotions, we need anger in certain circumstances, but we can release the anger that has become stuck when we are triggered about certain experiences we’ve had. Wishing that we didn’t have certain emotions is futile, learning how to live with them and use them for our benefit is absolutely essential for our mental and physical health.

As practitioners we can practise all the interventions and exercises we want, but if we don’t provide a relational home to ‘hold’ any dysregulation, either in ourselves or the client, they’re next to useless. At worst we’ll project and blame the client, calling them resistant and all sorts of things, instead of taking a good hard long look at what we need to change.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Not on shaky ground

I have been doing Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) on and off since the beginning of 2012. TRE operates on the basis that the body, if allowed to, will naturally shake off the tonic immobility (freeze) response, in the form of tremors. The body will shake involuntarily for however long it needs to and this will usually be followed by deep shuddering breaths and a return to homeostasis (relaxation). Wild animals shake all the time, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t survive for very long. They would become hypervigilant, constantly responding to perceived, rather than real danger, which eventually exhausts their systems. This hypervigilance, a symptom also present in traumatised humans, makes them vulnerable to real danger because their responsiveness is not as sharp or quick as it could be if they were well rested and more able to recognise the signs of true and present danger.

Human animals have become so far removed from their instincts and wilder nature that if they were to start shaking and tremoring, some might panic and think something is horribly wrong and others might think it’s weird and frightening. Here in Ireland, when people go into shock, they’re often told to eat something sweet to help calm the shaking that naturally occurs.  So we repress the shaking out of ignorance, lack of knowledge or because we don’t want to feel embarrassed or shamed by others who don’t understand what’s happening, which is why education is so desperately needed about how our bodies, brains and minds respond to stress and how we can release that stress so it doesn’t accumulate and cause illness. I don't think there is a human alive who hasn't been traumatised so it is crucial that trauma is normalised.


As with any modality you need to proceed safely and gently and TRE is no different. In fact, in my experience TRE is even more powerful than other modalities I’ve tried. What I mean by that is that it can melt those frozen parts of us too/very quickly and we can subsequently feel overwhelmed and very agitated. This might happen after you’ve completed the exercises, not necessarily during, which is why it’s important to pace yourself and preferably find someone who you can co-regulate with. 

If you think of every time you’ve been overwhelmed or received a shock over your lifetime and you haven’t released those experiences from your nervous system, they build up, and up, and up, they’re like a volcano waiting to explode. The fuller our barrels are, the more overwhelm we can experience when we start to empty those barrels. In our very understandable rush to feel better and get rid of our pain once and for all, we can go hell bent for leather, which only ever backfires.

Recovering from trauma can’t be done alone, it is absolutely crucial to have some support for our journey. The same is true for life, we are an interdependent species, we need each other and we are trying to pretend otherwise which is not working! Most of us, worldwide, live in cultures that value and admire independence, self reliance and going it alone over being supposedly ‘too’ needy. It is probably fair to say that this point of view is more common in so-called ‘developed’ counties. You have to wonder about the standards we measure that development, sometimes I think it’s purely economical. The fact that the term needy even exists is so telling.

I listened to an excellent webinar by Bonnie Badenoch recently and she talked about the myth of self regulation. What she said really resonated with me. Most of us have come to believe that needing others makes us weak, that the goal is to be able to do everything by ourselves. But I truly believe that we weren’t meant to go it alone, just look at a little baby and how they thrive when their care giver is attuned and mirrors them or an infant that is abused or neglected and left to “self soothe”. There is some difference between the two and how their lives pan out.

The fact is, if we weren’t soothed when we were young, it is extremely difficult later in life to learn how to relax and calm ourselves, though not impossible. When we can calm ourselves as adults, it’s because we have an inner community that we can draw upon according to Bonnie Badenoch and I agree wholeheartedly. So, even though on the outside it looks like we’re ‘self regulating’, we’re still co-regulating because we’re drawing on internal resources that were shared and given with love by others. We internalise everything, the good and the bad. The care and warmth we receive stays with us, as does the neglect and abuse, until we work through it and transform it.

Sadly, some people don’t even have one warm and nurturing person that they can call upon, but maybe they have something else for the time being, such as a pet, nature etc. What is essential though, is reaching out and finding someone who is safe and nurturing, I don’t think there’s any substitute for other loving human beings in our life. I think everyone deserves and needs to have at least one person in their lifetime who provides them with warmth, validation and safety. 

A practice that I’ve found extremely helpful is pendulation. The practice is from somatic experiencing, which was developed by Peter Levine. When we swing our attention back and forth between tension and relaxation for example, we are pendulating between the two, which helps us stay with the difficult sensations a bit longer without becoming overwhelmed. I often do the constructive rest pose (which is from yoga and very similar to the position in TRE at the end of the exercises) and if I notice my legs starting to tremor, much more gently than if I had done TRE, I know my body is releasing some stress. To help with any possible overwhelm and to help co-regulate my system, I scan my body to find a place of relaxation or a place that feels neutral and swing my attention back and forth between the shaking and the neutral/relaxed place which works really well. I also plant my feet firmly on the ground so even though my body might be shaking, I’m not on ‘shaky ground’. I push my feet firmly into the floor as many times as I need to in order to ground myself and feel more regulated. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Let a feeling crack you open

I wanted to share this excellent post by Jeff Foster on feelings. I think this is what any good therapy, or life, ultimately and eventually teaches us: not to fight/resist/avoid/numb or dread our feelings. I know it's not easy to learn how to do this, in fact it's excruciatingly hard sometimes, but I believe it is essential. You can find out more about Jeff here.




Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A resourcing exercise

I learned this resourcing exercise last month from Jess Angland, who is an excellent facilitator. Write down all your external resources on different pieces of paper and include 3 or 4 things about why that particular thing/person resources you. Your resources can be anything at all. For example, you might pick nature and say it resources you because it's calm, beautiful, you can be yourself, it energises you and so on.

* click on image for bigger size

Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look ~ Marcus Aurelius

Then write down what your internal resources are. It doesn't matter how many resources you come up with, what matters are the resources you have now and drawing on them when you need them. Sit on a chair and put the pieces of paper you have written on all around you and see how this exercise makes you feel. Usually you will feel more resourced than you think, but of course it can also bring up what we really want and what we don't have and that's ok too. You can tap on anything that this exercise brings up for you.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The container exercise

I’ll say right up front, I don’t like the container exercise and have never used it with clients. If you don’t know it, it’s where you put things that are upsetting you (supposedly temporarily) so you can go back and deal with them later/at a more appropriate time. The container can be any receptacle that you can imagine, any size, colour etc. This tool is used, in my opinion, for the therapist, not the client.

If only our minds and bodies were as neat and tidy as keeping things in a container until we’re ready to deal with them. There are two main issues I have with this exercise and they are 1. triggers and 2. the inability or unwillingness of a practitioner to wade into the swamp with us. Just because something is in a container and we’ve put it on planet Mars, doesn’t mean we’re not going to be triggered by what’s inside it between sessions or at any time for that matter. What we really need are self regulating skills in order to help calm and soothe our nervous system not more tools to help us dissociate and avoid (which it says it’s not for, but that’s what too often happens), many of us are already excellent at doing that. We also need what Robert Stolorow calls; a relational home, so don’t settle for anything less in therapy.

The real reason I’m writing this post though is because this tool was used with me this year and I informed the practitioner of my opinions about it. I was willing to give it one more go just in case it worked this time (against my better judgement) and also because he wasn’t listening to me nor was he taking my concerns seriously, so I fell into the trap of people pleasing. It’s obviously a tool he uses a lot and he did not seem open to not using it or using something else instead.
The issues inside my container kept ‘leaking’ of course, because they need and want to be heard and this was not taken to kindly by the practitioner. He got frustrated with the fact that I wasn’t behaving, i.e. leaving things inside my container so he could get on with the resource work. Only trouble is I didn’t feel resourced and he just wasn’t able to handle this fact. Seems he missed the memo that I was supposed to be the one being resourced and the very basics of any therapy; listening, was missing. This is called countertransference in therapy and it is not a case of if but when it will come up, so all practitioners need to be willing to deal with it.

Clients can often become a performing monkey in order to massage a practitioner’s ego, instead of being true to themselves and being firm about what works and what doesn’t. I stayed firm in my knowing that this particular tool just doesn’t work for me. I had given it the umpteenth chance in order to prove I wasn’t “stubborn” or “difficult” (a covert form of people pleasing). Always, always, trust your instincts/gut, you’ll be so glad you did. I think the person we're most often angry with is our self when we don't listen to that voice.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fear

Fear has a valuable place in our lives. There are times when fear is absolutely necessary to alert us to danger, so we can take action. There is no way we can get rid of or release our fear forever, and why would we want to? I think the real issue here is the fear of a real threat and the fear of a perceived threat.

What happens when we’re traumatised is that an external threat becomes internalised. And the internalised threat is not the actual event that occurred, it is the experience(s) of emotions such as fear, shame, grief and difficult physical sensations such as dread, collapse and tight guts that are encoded in our bodies and brains at the time of the event. These are the threats we don’t want to feel and avoid like the plague. And, as a result, we remain in hyper or hypoaroused states without returning to homeostasis. This is why psychiatrist Ivor Browne calls trauma; unexperienced experience.
But we need to learn to face these difficult emotions and physical sensations so they lose their threatening sting. We can do it gently, safely and slowly, but do it we must in order to switch off the alert/danger button inside our bodies. If there were true danger, we’d be getting ready to act, if we could. With perceived danger or threat, we have a lot more power than we think to disarm it. I have found somatic experiencing, EFT, mindfulness, and other body based techniques that combine the latest neuroscientific research very good.

I was listening to a seminar recently on compassion fatigue by Eric Gentry and he said another name for his seminar could be “The Owner’s Manual for Regulating your Autonomic Nervous System”. Being able to regulate our nervous system, i.e. calm and soothe ourselves, is the most valuable skill that we can all learn and have. It is priceless in terms of creating good physical and mental health.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

My Bill of Rights

1. I have the right to be me.

2. I have the right to put myself first.

3. I have the right to be safe.

4. I have the right to love and be loved.

5. I have the right to be treated with respect.

6. I have the right to be - NOT PERFECT.

7. I have the right to be angry and protest if I am treated unfairly or abusively by anyone.

8. I have the right to my own privacy.

9. I have the right to have my own opinions, to express them, and to be taken seriously.

10. I have the right to earn and control my own money.

11. I have the right to ask questions about anything that affects my life.

12. I have the right to make decisions that affect me.

13. I have the right to grow and change (and that includes changing my mind). 

14. I have the right to say NO.

15. I have the right to make mistakes.

16. I have the right to NOT be responsible for other adults' problems.

17 I have the right not to be liked by everyone.

18. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO CONTROL MY OWN LIFE AND TO CHANGE IT IF I AM NOT HAPPY WITH IT AS IT IS

Thanks to Jess Angland for giving me this. You can tap on anything that reading these rights brings up for you.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pacing yourself

It is really important to pace the rate at which we (re)connect with our body. Our body is the repository of all the experiences we’ve ever had. Many of those experiences have not been fully processed or felt because they were too overwhelming and we just weren’t, and maybe still aren’t, ready to face them. So, it takes time to wade back in, we need to go very gently so we don’t get overwhelmed.


There has been some criticism of mindfulness for this very reason. However, I don’t believe that mindfulness is the issue, the speed at which we reconnect to ourself is. Reconnection is the only viable option for us because remaining disconnected takes a huge toll on our physical and mental health. There are various tools and techniques that you can use to reconnect with yourself, it’s about finding what fits for you at any moment in time. I’ve found the work of Peter Levine to be great, his book In an Unspoken Voice has some excellent exercises for releasing traumatic stress. Tara Brach’s work is also very good and both she and Levine talk about the importance of going at a safe pace and pendulating between places that feel safe and unsafe in the body.