Tag Archives: Autonomic Nervous system

BLOG 51- Love & Anxiety: Tips for tough situations!

Angry woman

Do you ever experience situations cropping up that you just don’t want to deal with? Situations that feel overwhelming and too much to handle? I would guess everyone knows what I mean because periodically having to deal with difficult situations is a part of being human. But that doesn’t mean we enjoy the process. Is there a better way of getting through these difficult situations? A way that feels positive, empowering, and life-giving, instead of impossible, awful and soul sucking? Yes there is, and it is possible to thrive in difficult situations, not just survive them.

The first step to thriving in challenging circumstances is to listen to the messages your body is telling you about this issue, to ask internally what your body expects, or fears, will occur. As stated in earlier blogs, human bodies use the language of sensations and emotions to communicate to the mind/brain, what is being experienced. So bring to mind that phone call, meeting, or that upcoming confrontation, and see what your body “says” about it. Ask the question about what your body fears with true, open curiosity. In response, you may (hear) feel sensations of heaviness and dread, or a shaky, quivery anxiety, or some confusion and collapse.

After asking your body what it expects, if the sensations are those of fear and dread, try identifying the location in your body where those sensations are the strongest. Discover the fear “zip code” if you will. Ask that place what it is specifically afraid will happen, or how you could be harmed? Sometimes you will hear a realistic fear, such as, “she will be mad at me”, or, “I will have to find another place to live”. But often, in current situations, our deep sensations of dread and fear are connected to earlier ages and experiences, times when we had less power and less ability to stand up for ourselves or to clearly state our needs. So if your body answers with a fear that sounds irrational, then you may be dealing with an earlier time and body state. In that case bringing in some form of support would be advised and helpful. Often we didn’t get enough support early in our lives, and adding it now makes a difference.

Sometimes, simply saying the irrational fear aloud helps us calm down because we can perceive that what we fear most likely will not occur. But if saying it aloud does not dispel the fear, try talking back to the fear gently and compassionately. Tell the fear what positive things you will do to make the situation better. Let your body know what it can realistically expect and how you will move forward even in the challenge. This may sound odd, but the body is a sentient being that does not feel or understand the same things that the mind does.

Just paying attention to the sensations that feel negative (they are not negative) allows most people to move through the feelings and to calm down. Paying attention with compassion will cause them to dissipate. When our Autonomic Nervous System ANS Video is in high Sympathetic charge mode, our bodies are full of fearful sensations and soaked in stress hormones. At that point our Neo-cortex can go off-line and we are left swimming in a sea of survival soup and have little rational ability left. Once the sensations related to fear, confusion, and disempowerment dissipate or are reduced and the Sympathetic charge lessens, your rational mind, the Neo-cortex, will come back on-line and help you to figure out the wisest course of action to take in this difficult circumstance.

Another aspect that makes a big difference in how we navigate challenging situations is our attitude toward the difficult circumstance. When we are full of fearful sensations and our ANS is full of Sympathetic arousal, our attitude is usually a negative one. We think things like, ‘its not fair, why is this happening to me, or everything is against me, I can’t catch a break’, etc.  But when we calm our body down and connect body, heart, and mind in unity to deal with the problem, we are able to perceive a more realistic  and more positive view of the situation. With a positive attitude we can think things like, ‘this will help me grow stronger, it can help me be more forgiving’, etc. We have known for years that hardship has great potential to help a person grow in maturity and wisdom. Although, It can also make people bitter. It depends on that person’s focus.

So the next time you face a difficult circumstance, try these tips. See how integrating your body, mind and heart makes for greater empowerment and a more resilient you in the midst of a difficult challenge.

Going Deeper:

1.) What is your Achilles heel? Are there certain situations that are just really hard for you to handle? What kind of support do you have, or bring in when things feel Sucky?

2.) Do you know your own body’s messages? Do you know what happens inside you when things feel safe? What sensations does your body produce when life gets challenging? If you usually only listen to your mind, trying adding hearing the body message, the more info you have the better you can navigate challenges.

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Blog 45: Pleasure Part 3-Exercise:Tell me what you love!

So here is a great  exercise I learned at a Tara Brach conference. Tara Brach She is truly an amazing teacher and human being. This exercise is a great way to feel Enjoyment and Pleasure. It is also a great exercise to deepen loving bonds with partners, children, friends, family, etc. And, of course that will also increase your Pleasure.

EXERCISE:  TELL ME WHAT YOU LOVE!

Try this experiential exercise 1-on-1 with someone you love or desire to grow closer to, a partner, child, or friend.

1-Sit facing each other at a comfortable distance and set a timer on your phone for 2 minutes.

2-Decide which person is going to begin as (A), the Questioner and who is going to be (B), the Answerer.

3- (A) makes comfortable eye contact with (B) and using their name, asks this question. “      ______please tell me what you love?”

4-(B) provides a one word, or a one sentence answer of something they love or really enjoy. I.e. “Nature”, or “Being with you”, etc.

5-(A) registers that they heard this answer with a nod or a thank you, and then pauses for a few seconds and then asks the same question again…___ please tell me what you love?

6- (A) asks the same question, and (B) answers over and over for entire 2 minutes.

7- PAUSE and both A & B check inward with bodies and hearts and notice how the process has shifted any feelings, emotions and sensations so far.

8-Then you switch roles, set the timer for 2 more minutes and (B) begins asking (A) the same question. “_______ please tell me what you love?”

9- Again, PAUSE at the end and notice the pleasure, feelings and emotions this connection has generated in both of you.

10-There is no cross talk or commenting on the other person’s answers, you are just witnessing each other sharing what they love and increasing your emotional resonance.  Which is very Pleasurable.

Please give this and try and let me know how it goes. Couples who do this on a regular basis have a deepened connection and build up their Couple resiliency. This resiliency which helps balance out the effects of the normal relational conflict we all experience. And, kids love this one.

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One of the most deeply bonded couples I know!

GOING DEEPER

  1. What was that exercise like for you? Was there any discomfort in the process? Sometimes intimacy is difficult even though it is what most of us long for in a relationship.
  2. Which role did you enjoy most? What was the difference inside your body and heart when you were the questioner? When you were the answerer?

Blog 43: Love & Anxiety, why Pleasure and Enjoyment matter!

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Adventure – healthy Pleasure

I thought we would take a break from harder topics today and think about something we love, Pleasure and Enjoyment! These these 2 concepts, while related topics, they are not the same thing. Though many of us assume that Pleasure absolutely leads to Enjoyment, this is not always true. Today, we will talk about the difference between Pleasure and Enjoyment and what this difference means to our bodies and Nervous systems, and how this difference deeply impacts our ability to either rest in love, or to flail in the chaotic sea of anxiety.

Let’s start with Pleasure! As I have recounted in prior blogs, healthy Pleasure is the best antidote to chronic stress and high anxiety. I wish more of us lived and experienced healthy Pleasure on a regular basis, if we did, this country would be a very different place. However, my experience as a human/therapist is that most of us do not experience healthy pleasure on a regular basis. America is a country that craves Pleasure, our advertisements are full of promised Pleasures, but we seem to have a difficult relationship between our desire for pleasure and our experiencing of Pleasure. Most people I know are craving Pleasure but enjoying very little of it.
TV Advertising extolls the joys of being rich, driving great cars, eating tasty (often junk) food, drinking beer and other alcohol, and having tons of sex with hot men/women, etc. While these options may seem pleasurable, why do they often bring so little Pleasure? Why do so many people get addicted to alcohol, food, more money, and sex, just to name a few of our advertised Pleasures?  My hypothesis to these questions does not come from a place of judging Pleasure or thinking it is bad and dangerous. My Mennonite heritage used to cause me to fear Pleasure. But those days are over, I have not been a Mennonite for a very long time, and I have learned how critical it is that I have plenty of healthy Pleasure in my life. My hypothesis comes from living, experimenting, and my observations of humanity.

We experience so little Pleasure because many of the things advertised to bring us Pleasure are either not healthy in certain situations/amounts, or are not actually pleasure, but a gateway to addiction. We all know that alcoholism often begins with social drinking or partying in high school/ college. It seems fun and a harmless pastime, a Pleasure even. But anyone who has lived with a human struggling with the weight of alcoholism can tell you there is NO pleasure in any drink they take. An alcoholic now drinks because they have to and because they cannot quit. What began as a Pleasure has become their Master.

Pornography is another example. AAMFT’s website states that 12 million people struggle with sexual addiction, which usually includes the use of pornography and a majority are now addicted to the use of it. (If you think you are not addicted to it, try to stop viewing it for good and you will know the truth.) It is known that pornography has caused many problems in relationships and that it causes people to become sexually attracted too an unreal human body (airbrushed men and women). Pornography is an example of how a healthy Pleasure, sexuality and the beauty of a human body, can become tainted and unhealthy because it has become an addiction. Addictions are often healthy Pleasures miss used, or run amok. Humans can become addicted to booze, drugs, food, work, sex, exercise, etc. So my hypothesis is that healthy Pleasure is often different from TV advertised Pleasures, and a healthy Pleasure is usually not something we are addicted to.

I make this connections because a healthy Pleasure is something we are able to ENJOY! Craving Pleasure is very different from Enjoying Pleasure. Many humans are not even enjoying the Pleasure they do have, but they are craving more Pleasure, so they run from experience to experience, from sexual partner to sexual partner, from new car to another new car, from one type of pornography to another. Desperately craving Pleasure but finding little enjoyment therein.

I repeat, Pleasure is a wonderful gift, we need Pleasure as humans to balance out all the stress and work we experience in life and relationships. Since American’s over-work compared to many other developed countries, it is no wonder we are a Nation that struggles with many addictions. But the Pleasures we need are healthy Pleasures and those we can Enjoy!  Many of us are adding healthy pleasures to our lives but not enjoying them either. Pleasure and enjoyment are not the same thing!

I have learned this truism over the years. I have had lots of healthy (and some unhealthy) Pleasure in my life but I have spent years not enjoying much of it. This happened because I was not living in my body, or living in the present moment, actually experiencing that Pleasure.  Instead, I was living in my head and in my thoughts. I was adding to my to-do list, or planning for the future, or regretting the past, etc., instead of actually feeling the Pleasure I was experiencing in that moment. If you are not in the present moment and living in your body (aware of your body sensations) you will not experience much Pleasure. This is not a hypothesis but a fact borne out by the last 10 years of research and study of the human body.

In closing I have found that most people agree walking on a beach, vacations, a loving relationship, warm baths, being in nature, eating a lovely meal with friends, sharing a great bottle of wine, a good workout or adventure, sports, art, creating, writing, etc., are all healthy Pleasures.  I will not try to suggest I know what your healthy Pleasures are, but I would suggest you find out and make yourself a list.  If you are currently not allowing yourself to experience your Pleasures ask why not. People who have enough play, rest and healthy Pleasure tend to experience less stress, less struggle with addiction, and more enjoyment in life. And, finally, when indulging in your Pleasure try your best to ENJOY it. After all this is why we really crave Pleasure, we want to enjoy our lives!

To learn more about pleasure and health, click this link.  Steps to perfect health, practice pleasure.

Going deeper:

1: What were your formative messages around Pleasure in general? Was healthy Pleasure modeled for you by your parents/caregivers.

2: Do you Enjoy your Pleasure? Can you resonate with the concept of having Pleasure but not Enjoying it? What attitudes or actions can you take to slow down and become aware of your life and your body so that you can actually experience your Pleasures on a regular basis?

 

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Blog 42: Anger & Anxiety # 3-Healthy Anger finally!

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Fight or flight- African Style

Today is the final blog about Anger & Anxiety, at least for now. One final way Anger and Anxiety are linked is that the strong fear of someone being Angry with us, scares the pee out of many of us humans. Unfortunately Anger can be, and often is, used unhealthily to control and manipulate others due to how uncomfortable most humans feel when someone is angry with them. Fear of loved one’s Anger causes great anxiety and often a loss of our sense of self. This is evidenced by how many people placate their angry family member(s), rather than firmly standing their ground and asking for what they really want. Some of my clients are living with an often explosive and angry family member. These clients live in chronic anxiety anticipating the upcoming explosion. The fact that anger’s eruption is somewhat unpredictable just makes the anxiety worse. Many humans would rather temporarily placate, and let go of what we desire, to avoid experiencing the blast of rage that may occur if we stand up for those desires.

I have lived with the fear of Anger a good portion of my life. In the past I lived with an angry family member (who was terribly treated and had a good reason for the anger, but not much control over it.) I have also feared friends and coworkers being angry with me. AND, what has caused even greater problems, I have feared and been blind to my own Anger. It has taken lots of work, with wise and professional support, for me to make peace with Anger and to stop fearing it. I have had to accept my own Anger, and the fact that at times, I can be an angry person. (Which wreaks havoc with my own image of my goodness). Breaking up with the need to be terminally nice, was a related issue, but one I will save for different blog. However, the journey has been well worth the struggle and living on the side of healthy Anger and the acceptance of this strong emotion has brought me great joy and much healthier relationships.

What I have found is that living in fear, and especially, ignorance of our own Anger is a harmful place to be. Unresolved and unaddressed anger leaks out and causes great harm and often, we can get caught in ruts of bitterness and resentment. Both of which cause irreparable harm to our bodies and relationships. I recently have been re-reading old journals and I came across a passage I wrote a while ago when I was really wrestling with my own unhealthy expressions of Anger. Though it is old material, I will include a small portion as it will illustrate my point about the need for healthy Anger better than just giving factual content.

Journal Entry: “Wow, what a journey this has been. Please continue to let the words and concepts of honesty and healing settle deeply into my soul, transcending and traversing any areas of blockage, confusion, or stuck buried resentment or bitterness. I want none of these now, they are not helpful to me, nor are they worthy of me.  For resentment and bitterness are at the core postures of helplessness and victimhood. They are knee-jerk responses that can come after experiencing being harmed, hurt or betrayed, but when I am not willing to deal with or confront the damaging influence. So the energy of angry pain, instead of being worked out through appropriate conflict coming from confrontation and the energetic attempts to make events feel fair and right to both of our body’s and beings, leaks out into stagnant pools of resentment and bitterness. This stuck energy swirls round and round but goes nowhere. These emotions are often a trap of self-pity, and fear of the energetic needs of real human relationships, which are messy & beautiful, harmonious & fractured, joyful & sad. There are seasons in every deep relationships. But resentment and bitterness keep the relationships stuck in dank cold water. The usual  warmth of connection, companionship & sexuality significantly decreased or absent all together.”  END OF ENTRY

Why talk about Anger anyway? Anger is a universal human emotion that often gets a bad rap, mostly because when humans are angry it is very hard to rationally make choices that improve the situation that is causing Anger in the first place. When we are very angry, our net-cortex is mostly off-line. Many times Angry energy causes people to act badly and use Anger for power and control, dominance, etc. No one likes to be scared so we give angry people a wide berth. But Anger is an important aspect of our humanity and an emotion we really need to pay attention to and learn how to properly express if we want to live a healthy and happy existence.

Anger is a good and important emotion. Humans need to be able to experience and express Anger in order to lead healthy lives. Anger is that strong message from our bodies that we feel threatened, that we have been, or are about to be, harmed or hurt. A healthy relationship to our own Anger allows us to perceive the “threat” early on. That allows the anger “energy” to help us say “NO”, or to set a boundary, or worst case, fight back to protect our lives. Allowing yourself to connect to your Anger in a potentially dangerous situation can save your life.

This actually happened to a friend of mine. In her early 20’s she was in a dangerous area late at night and 2 men tried to kidnap her. The driver stayed in the car while the other man tried to drag her into the back seat. Her Anger became her best ally. She felt a surge of adrenaline and rage, and she fought back with such powerful angry energy that she beat her assailant up and yanked out hunks of his hair. The other man drove off in terror, he was so frightened by her rage. (Imagine of the Amazon warrior woman archetype here.) So her ability to access her Anger was her best friend that night.

So in closing, don’t be afraid of your own Anger. It is an important emotion and one that allows us to be fully human. Even the Bible (written over  2000 years ago) has a saying, “Be angry but do not sin.” Practice allowing healthy Anger expression when needed vs. letting it leak out in other ways. Or keeping it inside and poisoning our own bodies.  As always, I am eager to here how it goes. Please write and share about your own journey with Anger!

Going Deeper

1.) Can you describe a time when you felt and expressed your own anger in a healthy and appropriate manner? How did it go? Who are the people who are more open to allowing your healthy expression of any emotion? If you have no one who can do this or very few, adding some new emotionally healthy friendships may be a great idea.

2.) How is your boundary system? In your daily life, how does anger and boundaries interact, if they do at all? Are you able to say NO, and hold your position even if the other person gets angry with you?

Blog 40: Anger & Anxiety- Part 1

In today’s blog we will discuss Anger and Anxiety. Anger is an important emotion experienced by humans of every world culture. However, this strong feeling/emotion is often a tricky feeling to experience and to navigate healthily. We have all seen Anger expressed in unhealthy ways (just watch most action adventure movies) and for this reason Anger has often gotten a bad rap.

We will address healthy Anger in the next blog, but today we will explore how Anger and Anxiety are connected. While it may seem they are opposite emotions — Anger is often experienced as an emotion expanding our energy into the world, and Anxiety as an emotion that contracts us away from the world—they are often linked. So, what is the relationship between Anger and Anxiety?

First off, both Anger and Anxiety are sensations/emotions many of us experience as extremely uncomfortable, and the expression of both emotions are fairly hard to disguise.  Many people experience and express consistent Anxiety as chronic irritation, and may not even understand they are anxious. If you would measure their physiology, (levels of stress hormones and the amount of activation in the Autonomic Nervous Systems—ANS) you find their ANS is agitated and dis-regulated, hence the chronic irritation. If you are feeling happy, content, and life is going well, there is little need to be irritable, is there?

Frankly, Anger is scary for most of us, it is a big, and very powerful sensation and experiencing it can feel like it could swallow us whole. It can be extra difficult for women who are often socialized from babyhood that nice girls don’t get angry. We have often heard angry women being described as that “B” word that has kept many females stuck in the prison of nice. (Yes, I mean Bitch!)  Over the years many a woman has been stopped from angrily voicing her true thoughts and feelings, fearing that label. (Though it seems the new generation of young women are less bothered by it than my generation.) However, voicing our thoughts and feelings is critically important for our emotional and physiological health, as well as for changing things that need to be changed. As the bumper sticker so aptly states, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” I would argue that holds true for men as well. It is often the humans who have behaved against culture norms that have changed our world for the better.

Men often struggle with the emotion of Anger as well. However, often the male struggle is with controlling the expression of Anger, not so much not allowing themselves to feel it. Again, socialization plays a big role in our childhood, as well as our adult, behavior. Generally if you go watch young children at recess, the girls are often giggling and playing together, and the boys are fighting with sticks, or whatever vaguely weapon-shaped objects they can find. It’s our gender differences showing up in our play. Our brain wiring, hormonal systems and socialization are vastly different from that of the opposite sex. If we can understand that and work with those differences instead of stigmatizing each other, the world would be a kinder place.

So many human beings become automatically Anxious when we experience the emotion of Anger, whether it’s our own Anger or the Anger of someone else directed at us. Anger is not often handled well in workplaces, families, etc. Sometimes people get stuck in Anger and are not be able to discharge it healthily, or may not want to let it go. Anger can be a secondary emotion, coming up repeatedly after we have been hurt by another person. Sometimes after being emotionally wounded, it is easier (and often more pleasant) to feel Anger rather than the underlying hurt or sadness, or the helplessness to do anything about the pain of betrayal. Feeling Anger is correlated emotionally with the threat of harm, being stuck in Anger often keeps our bodies stuck in threat physiology, which causes physiological anxiety just by its very nature.

We will explore more about Anger and Anxiety and talk about healthy Anger in part 2 of this blog.  In closing, I encourage my readers to be curious about your own relationship to Anger. How does Anger impact your life, your health, and your relationships? I would love to hear any thoughts people are willing to share.

Angry woman
Frustrated and angry-A big emotion

Going Deeper

1.) What do you think or feel when you read about Anger? Do you have a healthy relationship to your own Anger? What about to your loved one’s Anger? Do you express anger directly, or do you let it leak out in other ways that are less frightening but still cause great damage? (I.e. the silent treatment, passive aggressive behaviors, etc.)

2.) How does your body respond to Anger in general? How does it react to other’s Anger? Do you retract, or do you desire to fight back and defend yourself?

Blog 36: Love & anxiety: Get off the Beaten Path!

Way off the beaten path. Children's village, Uganda Africa
Way off the beaten path. Children’s village, Uganda Africa

It may seem odd that I blog about benefits of traveling, right after one praising stillness and becoming internally peaceful. But I have noticed an interesting correlation. After experiencing times of external and internal stillness, being with, and befriending all of my being, including those parts I find harder to love, this practice fills me with renewed energy and desire to risk engaging with Life and novelty. Travel is a wonderful way to do this.

These thoughts are fresh in my mind as I just returned from traveling for the past few weeks. It was  work travel but I still found it engaging and stimulating. I know some personality types find travel and novelty much more enjoyable and stimulating than other personalities. However, we can all occasionally get off the beaten path even if it’s in our own home town.

Humans seem to struggle with the tendency to fall into ruts. At least those of us living in the developed world. We go to the same coffee shop, take the same road to work, sit in the same seats at the conference table or meeting. The familiar is comfortable to our brains. There is a sense of predictability in sameness that can feel like safety. However, there is a cost to being in a rut. Boredom can set in, and it is so much harder to be fully present when we do the same routine daily. Sleepwalking, or just phoning it in, is so easy when we are on autopilot. Living this way for years at a time can cause some people to make unhealthy choices just to feel something new or to offset the deadening sensation of boredom.

Barbara Brown Taylor http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com talks about this in her wonderful book, “An Altar in the World”, in a chapter on the spiritual practice getting lost. She compares our behavioral ruts to those of dairy cows who walk the same small path back a forth from the barn to the pasture every day. She enthuses about what you can learn about yourself when you are lost, or out of your typical element, and how this can connect us in a sense of shared humanity and Oneness with all things. While it’s easy to notice when we are physically lost, what about when we are emotionally lost? Like after a big unexpected problem, such as an illness, job loss, divorce, etc. From her perspective, the same skills are needed for either kind of lostness. First we must manage our fear and panic, then we locate our existing resources or look for help and support. And, finally we see what this unexpected detour might have to offer. She suggests the loss of control we experience when lost, is well worth the possible gains of greater presence and more self awareness.

I agree with her assessment. That’s one reason I love travel. I find engaging in travel to provide a similar experience to getting lost. Going to a whole new place feels like being lost. We are not sure of all the turns to our destination. (Our GPS, knows but we do not). We need to find new places to fuel our bodies —restaurants or grocery stores — we see things we have never seen before, especially when leaving our own country and entering someone else’s. Here you get to have the experience of being the one butchering their language (unless you are like my friend Margaret who studies the host country’s language before she travels). You are the one who may need to stop and ask for directions, or the one who does not know the local customs or who hands over the wrong brightly colored paper money.

This whole experience of traveling can increase our anxiety levels and for some people this is why they don’t travel. The not-knowing and the possibility of looking foolish is too much for their Nervous System and comfort levels. But even with the increased anxiety, which will usually dissipate quickly if you can just go with the flow, there are so many gifts available in this process. These include; increased resilience, cognitive gains, reversing the coagulation of life caused by chronic sameness (boredom), a better sense of how connected we all are as a human race, and hopefully a dash of humility which tastes bad going down, but is so good for our souls in the long run.

To close I will focus briefly on travel’s gift of increased resilience. What we exercise and work gets stronger, what we don’t atrophies. While most of you have realized this is true of your muscles, from your own experience of exercising, or not exercising. This is also true physiologically. It’s true of our ability to gain increased self-confidence and a greater sense of self-efficacy, which translates to feeling safe in our bodies. Physiological resilience operates just like our muscles, use it or lose it!  Anxiety by its very nature causes most people to narrow their lives and limit their experiences. The more anxious we feel, the more we lose a sense of self-efficacy and safety, and the more we limit and attempt to control our lives. This is moving the wrong direction, away from resiliency and closer to collapse or depression.

Travel is a great way to build the muscle of your physiology and Autonomic Nervous System regulation. The more you “risk” new experiences, not knowing, not being fully in control, and you discover you are fine and in fact feeling more alert and alive than normal, the more your ability to regulate your physiology grows. This translates to increased resiliency. Developmental psychologists have long known that if a child is handed everything he or she desires and never experiences frustration or any minor hardships, that child really struggles to succeed and thrive in adulthood. It’s the very act of being appropriately frustrated and learning how to handle that sensation without a major meltdown, that grows increased resiliency in children. That “muscle” is being developed in them. We are not children anymore, but we all still can benefit from exercising the “muscle” of our ability to tolerate novelty, frustration, uncertainty, and not having things go the way we wanted them to.

I encourage you this week, if you are in a rut, step out of it. Try one of these suggestions. Go to a new coffeeshop, go have a totally new experience, get lost and see how you handle yourself, and/or plan a nice long trip somewhere you have never been. I would love to hear how it goes. 25th comment on this or providing an answer to any of the questions below, gets a Starbucks gift card. 45th comment gets to choose a title and receive credit in blog I create to go with their title.
Going Deeper:

1.) How is your frustration threshold? How do you handle being lost, out of control, or of your usual comfortable element? How does your body respond to novelty? Is there a joy and a sense of vitality, or more of a rush of anxiety and fear? Remember if you can breathe into any uncomfortable situation long enough, it will settle down unless you are in actual danger.

2.) What was your instinctive response to this blog? How much resilience does your ANS have? Are you able to easily bounce back from frustration, disappointment, not getting your way, or not knowing where you are or exactly what to do next? If your resilience is low, never fear, just like your muscles, you can increase it quite quickly if you put in the effort.

Join one of my Real Life Solutions 3 week anxiety reduction workshops held here in San Diego, CA. Mention this blog for a 20% discount.

Love & Anxiety #35: In Praise of Stillness!

Hello everyone, I have been traveling and helping with Somatic trainings for the past few weeks and have not had any time to sit down and put my thoughts to “paper”. But I am back home now and excited to post this  blog. The theme of the last blog was about the need to balance the body states of Stillness and Movement, and the impact each one has on our well-being and anxiety levels. Today we are going to focus solely on the benefits of Stillness. For quite a few reasons, most people find Stillness more challenging to practice than Movement. Except perhaps for those people who love to meditate, or inveterate couch potatoes, and sometimes, people who smoke tons of weed.

Our popular culture praises movement, especially forward movement. You receive lots of kudos, not to mention MONEY, for accomplishing, achieving, being all that you can be, etc.  And, there is nothing wrong with those things. The problems tend to come when we get way out of balance, which at least a few of us are. Movement also feels better to many people. Exercise has been credited to be the absolute best deterrent to aging, and the best support for our emotional well-being. When we are moving, we also send somatic messages of self-efficacy and agency to our reptilian brain via the limbic system. Movement usually feels good.

Stillness on the other hand often speedily brings about an internal sense of discomfort, restlessness, extreme anxiety, or even shame. When we are externally Still, that is usually when our “Stuff” boils up, and in consequence, when we become most aware of it. I don’t think I need to take too much time to define “Stuff” since I am writing to fellow humans. We all have it, our wounds, our stucknesses (is that a word), our extreme emotional states, our fears. For many of us, when we begin a practice of becoming externally Still, our internal world compensates by going bat crap crazy. Years ago when I first began to practice Stillness, it felt like the emotional equivalent of a sewer pipe bursting. It was so messy inside of my body and mind.

This is one reason why a New Year’s resolution to begin to meditate, or to pray more often, usually drops off by January 15th. Sitting Still with our “Stuff” can be really frightening. A while ago Carl Jung wrote quite a bit about “Stuff”. He called it the Shadow self and proposed there are many “gifts” available when we connect with our own Shadow, the disowned and wounded parts of our beings. But most of us hate the wrapping paper on those “gifts” and stow them in a dark closet unopened. As an unfortunate consequence, much of our conscious behavior is often influenced by stress/fear and feelings of which we are not fully aware. Some of the new Neuroscience research suggests at least 80% of our relations with other people are driven by our sub-cortical brain regions. Way before fMRI technology came along, Sigmund Freud, one of Jung’s near contemporaries, intuited this and stated: “That which we repress, we express.”

Slowing down is often a beginning step to the practice of becoming Still. When we slow down and learn how to periodically become externally Still, this is one means for embracing our “Stuff” so it loses its power to direct our behavior outside of our conscious awareness. This is a great growth practice but is usually quite painful so it is easy to avoid doing. A metaphor I use with clients to describe this struggle is, “Water-skilling across the surface of life”. When we move quickly and get a lot done, we do not need to feel those subterranean rumblings that come up from our hearts and bellies in times of stress or pain.

The good news is that at some point, after learning to embrace our “Stuff” while being externally Still, we begin to experience one of the greatest gifts of this process, internal Stillness! Where we can just sit and be, and let thoughts come and go across the sky of our minds like so many fluffy clouds, and feel the peace in our bodies and the goodness of being alive. Or even get to the point where there are no thoughts, just a deep peaceful calm and a quiet joy! This my friends, I propose must feel better than any drug, and is our birthright as a human being living on the earth. Many people who are trapped in the terrible cycle of addiction are just trying to get to this state of quiet peacefulness. For that matter, its a state everyone longs to experience.

When we are able to achieve external and internal Stillness, some of the additional benefits include; the ability to feel the goodness of our lives more deeply, expanded creativity, and a greater ability to be Self-aware and to listen to our bodies. But perhaps the greatest gift is the ability to be present to each moment without judgment or fear!

To close, as a final plug for how great periodic Stillness is, here are a few of the activities Stillness offers that frenetic movement does not: Sleep, hugging, cuddling, nursing a baby, staring into a lover’s eyes, meditating/praying, having a deep and meaningful conversation at the dinner table long after the food is consumed, just to name a few.

So go forth this week and if you usually don’t “do” Stillness, maybe just give it a try for 10 minutes and see what happens. If something you don’t love comes up inside you, remember Jung, and try to see it as a gift from inside of you. If you are already good at being Still, keep it up. The world needs more of you to balance out all the humans racing frenetically about. As always, I would love to hear how it goes.

even butterflies practice stillness at times
even butterflies practice stillness at times

Going Deeper:

1.) What are your instinctive responses to this blog? Is there some resonance in your mind/body, or resistance? If so, what is the root of the resistance?  What did you learn about Stillness in your first family? When you are Still, are you aware of your “Stuff”? If so, are you able to embrace it as an important part of being you?

2.) If you are a meditator or enjoy a form of periodic Stillness, what gifts do you receive from those practices? How did you come to learn how to be Still? Who in your life might you encourage to learn how to be Still that could use the benefit, and the rest?

Love & Anxiety: M & M’s for Reducing Anxiety

One month I was in Maui meditating on a mound of sand- can’t resist that awesome alliteration. When my mind refused to empty, I began thinking about BEING and overall health and what brings those about for me, and my fellow human beings. Giving up on the meditation, I instead concluded that for health and well being, a balanced body, and reduced anxiety, I needed a steady diet of M & M’s! Yes, you heard me correctly. But before you run out to Costco to buy a huge bag of the chocolate candy coated sugar bombs, that is not the right type of M&M’s. I am talking about Movements and Meditations (Any form of relaxed Stillness), those M and M’s. (My fellow sugar lovers are bumming right now).

In order to live in a body with a regulated and healthy Autonomic Nervous System, and to experience health and well being, the human body needs a combination of Stillness, and Kinetic expulsion of energy, better known as movement.  As always, balance occurs by experiencing  the combination of opposites. Stillness and movement are polar opposites. Let’s begin by talking about movement.

Experts have been insisting for years, consistent exercise is the best predictor of long term health. And not just physical, but physiological and emotional health as well. Exercise/movement even slows down age-related cognitive decline. People who exercise regularly are happier and healthier across the board. Now I know you have heard this many times before but I am going to add an additional motivator that may help you begin a regular habit of movement if you don’t already have one. For that we will talk about our lovely Limbic system.

The Limbic system sits on top of our primitive brain stem and regulates many functions. One of them is movement! When you think Limbic system think of your limbs, arms and legs. Those parts of our bodies so integral for self-protective actions. If you trip, hopefully your arms fly out to catch yourself, if you are attacked -and you do not freeze in terror- your arms fly out automatically to punch or push away, and your feet and legs team up to kick or run away. For our early hunter-gatherer ancestors , the ability to move, and often quite quickly, was the difference between living and extinction. As Perry and Szalavitz state in their wonderful book, “Born for love: why empathy is essential and endangered”, “…even in adults, threat or distress shifts control from the rational abstract thinking areas {sic neo-cortex} to the ‘more decisive, rapidly acting central lower regions’ {sic limbic and brain stem}. Under perceived threat we get dumber but faster, which can help us survive running from a bad guy…” These authors help us understand due to the way our body and brains are wired, the ability to move easily is an instinctive precursor to feeling safe in our bodies. This is especially true at a sub-cortical level.

In my experience, as a human and a therapist, because this connection is subcortical and not found in our conscious understanding, we are often unaware of this deep limbic benefit! This is one reason why some of us can keep ignoring the suggestion to exercise. When we understand all the benefits of movement and its ability to bring on a somatic sensation of safety, perhaps we can find some motivation to begin a new habit of consistent movement.

In our current culture the message that movement is needed for health will probably be more easily accepted than my second suggestion. That stillness, and quite a bit of it, is needed for health as well. This may be a harder sell. There is little praise given out for sitting still, unless you are a Buddhist and/or someone who values meditation. (This can include prayer, breath work, or any form of silent stillness.) Most of us are frantically racing about toward the next “thing”, our next task. The idea to sit still and do NOTHING but BE and let ourselves surrender to the moment and to our essential being, this is not a message you hear on TV or at the movies.  However, in order to settle down after all our running around accomplishing things, our bodies need stillness. We need to stop and let our muscles relax and our nerves to stop sending jumpy messages to our brain. We need our digestion to begin again and for our body to go into rejuvenation mode. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is called the “Rest and Digest” system just for that reason. When we come down out of the Sympathetic Charge (movement and action) it is because the Parasympathetic system has kicked in. This is the time that our bodies go into recovery mode. Most anxious people have stomach problems and digestion issues because they are rarely still, they are rarely in the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous system.
Now, to be accurate, you do not need to be fully still to be in Rest & Digest mode, but stillness and meditation have been linked to relaxation and decreased anxiety for years now. One reason for this is that the inside of our body follows the messages sent by the outside of our body. The bracing or relaxing of our muscle/skeletal system (MSS) tell our bellies and brains whether it is safe to relax and calm down. Or, our MSS can tell our insides to be really scared and that maybe we should run like hell. If you have trouble believing this try the following experiment. Sit slumped over, like you are a rag doll. After 20 seconds check in with your internal body and your energy levels and sense of readiness for action.  Now, sit up straight and tall, or better yet, stand up in parade rest like a soldier, chest out head up, with your arms and legs spread out. Now check internally and see what has changed. Notice how this simple posture change, immediately impacts the sensations in your body and how you feel in the world. In my work as a therapist, I can usually tell how my clients are feeling inside merely by observing how they walk in and how they sit in my office. I can tell how tight and braced or loose and relaxed they are by their body movements and how they sit overall.
In meditation/stillness a deep relaxation is possible because your MSS is not sending messages of tension or action to your brain and belly. Try sitting on the edge of your chair in a tense, braced position while attempting to relax. You most likely cannot do it. The outside of your body needs to be in the right posture/to send internal messages that it is safe to relax.

While I could keep going, I will just add one more benefit to adding more stillness into your life. Often people who make a living by being creative (writers/painters/musicians) have shared how being still for a time can really jump start their creativity. When the mind is not leaping from idea to idea and task to task, perhaps there is more opportunity for it to allow the juicy goodness like music, art and books to come up out of our subconscious minds and our souls.

I encourage you this week to pick the M that you have the most difficult time doing and deliberately add more of it into your life. Let me know how it goes.

Eli, meditating in the sand!
Eli, meditating in the sand!

Going Deeper:

1.) Are you a person who really loves action and movement or someone who values quiet, solitude and stillness?  Does the thought of adding lots of the one that is harder for you bring anxiety or excitement? What messages did you get in your Family of Origin (FOO) about movement? How about stillness/meditation?

2.) For those of you who may struggle with movement, do you know what blocks you from consistent movement/exercise? Try being more active for a few weeks and see how that changes how you feel in your daily life.  This can be as simple as adding in a nice easy walk 3-5 times per week, or putting on 3-5 of your favorite songs in a row and dancing in your living room. The Limbic system does not demand intense exercise, just lots of easy moving.

Blog 32: Making New Associations: Moving from Pain to Pleasure.

Big fun for Junior, not so much for kitten junior
Big fun for Junior, not so much for kitten junior

Imagine with me a trip to the Middle East where we see a camel driver and her camel. If the human driver is aware of her camel’s limits and needs, they thrive as a team. But if the driver is only doing what works for her and not paying attention to how the camel is doing, she can damage or kill the camel by overworking it.

This visual analogy can be used to describe our mind’s relationship to the body. The mind drives the camel that is our body and often does not pay attention to how the heavy load we are carrying makes us beyond exhausted.  Instead the mind says, “sure we can take one more load” because the mind does not sense the visceral impact of our physical, social and emotional loads like the body does. Many humans drive their bodies past their limits on a regular basis.

Keeping this analogy in mind, we now move to the subject of this blog- moving from choosing painful things to choosing pleasant things. Of all the recent blog posts about moving from one association to another, this one is more complex than you might imagine. Previous blogs spoke about moving from Duty to Joy, from Scarcity to Plenty, from Craving Certainty to Wanting Wonder, and from Faking it to Living Honestly. Underneath all of these prior blog categories, are the foundational and more basic encompassing categories of Pleasure and Pain. All of the previous associations were in some form about moving toward more pleasure in life and getting away from things that feel unpleasant or even cause pain. (At times pain can be a wakeup call that helps us to grow or learn things, but today’s blog is not about that kind of pain, that is a subject for another blog.)

Scientists tell us that even the most basic bacterium are able to move toward what is pleasant and away from what is unpleasant. I am not sure what a bacteria uses as criteria for knowing pleasure, but we humans have several systems that determine pleasure and pain.

The healthy human body is the most accurate pleasure seeking system, constantly moving us from unpleasant sensations/pain to pleasure all the time. My belly is empty. I feel hunger pangs that are unpleasant, so I move toward the kitchen (Eclipse chocolate cafe if I am feeling frisky). I eat, and I now have pleasant feelings. I am tired, my cortisol levels drop. So I feel really sleepy and I go to bed and I wake up feeling rested and that is pleasant. I could go on, but you get the point. Our bodies are constantly trying to move us toward pleasure and pleasantness using our brains, ANS, and our instincts and drives. A healthy body usually has little problem with this natural process. Beloved children are great examples of trying to live in pleasantness 24/7. Partly because their brains are less developed and their minds are less complex than “grownups”, this is easier for them than for us.

In contrast to our bodies, our mind is a tricky beast. The body if healthy and not traumatized will generally move us toward choices that are more pleasant. However, the mind is not that simple and its motivations and desires can be clouded by many factors, such as projections, FOO messages (FOO stands for Family of Origin, not 1/2 the name of a band) cultural mores, others’ demands, mental illness and drugs, etc.
So, let’s talk about our Minds, the more complex system that humans use to determine pleasure or what is painful. The mind and the brain are not fully synonymous terms, even if they are possibly neighbors residing in a duplex condo in our heads. Neuroscientists will admit, no one knows for sure where the mind is located. We do know that much of our lower brain regions (Limbic and Brain Stem) produce subcortical responses, or in layman’s terms, knee jerk responses. The mind is believed to produce our thoughts. The ability to produce thought is connected with consciousness and our ability to be aware of our inner selves and our outer surroundings.

How do our minds sometimes hinder us from automatically choosing pleasure? Our minds can want two, or more, things all at the same time. We can desire to keep that massage appointment to provide our bodies with much needed self-care. AND, at the same time, we can want to say “yes” to the urgent call from PTA President Patty who needs help with the bake sale that is going on the exact same time as your massage appointment. While we may desire to say “yes” to both options, our motivations for the yes differ. The desire for self-care comes from our own body and ANS, which desire to move toward pleasure, while the need to comply with others, almost always comes from our mind’s desire to keep our social network happy, and to look good to our peers. Both are normal human desires, but the first can lead to a healthier life, while the second, eventually leads to burnout and resentment. (Generally woman struggle most with trying to keep their social circles happy. Our socialization and brain wiring are different from that of our male counterparts).

So, how does this connect with the new association of moving toward pleasure? We will move toward whichever motivation in that moment is given the highest priority by our mind, which usually determines what we desire and will go after. At least until we learn to reconnect with the wealth of intuitive, organic, deep wisdom that dwells in our body’s cells and systems. Our bodies know best when it comes to how much energy we have left to give, how much we should load on our proverbial plates, and how much we are living our lives based upon our truest selves and truest desires. Many of us are living out of false selves, behavioural masks we have been wearing because as children they seemed to bring up more acceptance. So now, we can’t imagine not striving for perfection, or not being the best at everything, or not staying in control 24/7. We often listen to our minds and our social programming and the things that pump up our egos. When we make decisions based solely upon these categories, we often miss the body’s messages. Messages such as “when do we get our needs met, we are so tired, we are lonely, we want to lean on someone, we want to be cherished and cared for, etc.”

My encouragement to you is to begin to listen more closely to the calls and desires of your bodies. And, to set your intentions to choose pleasant sensations over painful ones on a regular basis. The research shows repeatedly, the best antidote to stress/anxiety/trauma is healthy pleasure. Take that walk on the beach, or that hot bath, or get that massage, or acupuncture or cranial sacral appointment. Let your friends support you for once, and find the joy in each simple moment. Life is much more than getting our “to do lists” done and looking good to our bosses or neighbours. If you have not belly laughed or felt deep joy in a while, you probably need more self-care and to pay more attention to your body. Your long term health will thank you, and so will your family and friends. Many of us are stressed out, hot messes mostly because we have not been intentionally choosing pleasure, so pain is often our option by default. Practice paying attention to which system makes most of your choices this week, and choose pleasure as often as you can. Let me know how it goes!

Going deeper:

1.) What are your predominate messages about pleasure? What was your Family of Origin’s (FOO) attitude toward pleasure? What are your healthy pleasures? If you don’t know, you really need to find out for the sake of your body.

2.) What is your relationship to pain or painful events?  Are you able to listen to your pain and learn from it? Can you move away from painful sensations toward pleasant ones, or once pain hits are you stuck there for hours?

Part 2: Making New Associations: Moving from Scarcity to Plenty

So I was running on the beach today, listening Def Leppard, like you do, and a song caught my attention, as an good example for our blog today. We are going back to the idea that each one of us has a worldview and that includes our perception of what is “ENOUGH”, and of the concepts of Plenty and Scarcity. Today’s suggested shift is moving from a perception of scarcity to understanding there is Plenty to go around, moving into the life expanding concept of Plenty, instead of being sucked into the fear vortex of Scarcity. This shift can apply to area of our lives, though time and money first come to mind. We can either believe we live in  Plenty and most often experience a sense of grateful generosity, or live in the fear of never having enough. In so doing, struggle with envy, selfishness and the unhappiness that comes with feeling like you won’t be taken care of by the Universe, God, or those you love. (By the way, I know I am dating myself with the Def Leppard reference;)

The song is called “Get Rocked” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBcsCn9QyUQ and it could possibly serve as an anthem for many Americans. The young man only wants to take care of himself and his own pleasure 24/7. In one amusing stanza, his paramour puts classical music on the radio and he nixes it rudely and suggests a “rock”. Unless she is a robot, I bet he got nothing that day. Selfishness is unappealing to most of us, even as we struggle with it. He was stuck in the idea of Scarcity, that there was not enough pleasure in life and he had to push to get his first, all the time. Well, if he had listened to her classical music for a while, perhaps she might have considered his “rock”, of whatever kind he was suggesting!

Being stuck in a Scarcity mentality causes tremendous anxiety, sometimes selfishness, and often misery. When we believe there is not enough (time, money, possessions, friends, lovers, etc.,) our focus is rigidly fixated on not losing what we have. We can get stuck in a loop of trying hard to get more and keep that more in a pile that we can store and protect. A pile that will provide everything we need forever. The misery comes from a sense there will not be enough for us, NOT from the size of our pile! Please take a minute to let that sink in. It is an important understanding. When we mainly focus on what we do not yet have, or look at our pile as if it were insufficient, it is very hard to feel joy and optimism because our Autonomic Nervous System codes not having enough as a survival issue. Hence, focusing on scarcity, brings great anxiety.
Some of the happiest people I know have a rather small pile in comparison to others, however, their pile is not their focus and they live in grateful generosity and lots of joy. I am also honored to know people who have largish piles, but are so generous and open handed, because they are not stuck in Scarcity or fearfully protecting their pile. If you have a deep abiding sense that there is enough for you, and for others, it is hard to scare you. And, you will probably be willing to expand energy to share your pile with those who seem to be in deepest need. I am not suggesting there is no poverty or terrible places of scarcity in the world, but that there are not so many here where we live. And, we can change some of those if we are willing to live differently. To borrow a concept from a recent #Rob Bell kick ass presentation, the Universe is expanding, it keeps making more. People have children, who have more children, trees make apples that make more trees, etc., the Universe is a expanding self-giving reality. When we live with the understanding of Plenty we can change behaviors and conditions that might be causing scarcity for others less fortunate than ourselves. Just to give one example, food production experts have said for years, if Americans would change their habits and eat less red meat, so much more food could be produced. If you read the Omnivore’s Dilemma, http://www.amazon.com/The-Omnivores-Dilemma-Natural-History/dp/1594200823  he makes the claim the earth could produce enough to feed all human beings if we did things differently.

If you are wondering where you fall on this continuum, because it is one, and we can move back and forth throughout our lives, try giving a small treasured possession or some money away. Or do something for someone expecting nothing back for your time and expanded energy. How you feel will help identify for you, where you might fall.

The point is not that we are bad or defective if we are not living with a sense of Plenty most often, but that we are cutting ourselves off from joy, a sense of safety and a well-spring of gratitude that comes from living with a deep realization of how much we already have. I encourage you to try to notice your most predominate association with these concepts this week. I speak from personal, and professional experience as a therapist the past decade and a half, when humans move away from the concept of Scarcity, their anxiety drops substantially.  May this become your experience this week if you feel stuck. You can even use the sensations that come when you have an  experience of scarcity as your reminder to shift your focus back to Plenty and really look at all that you do have and all the good that is currently in your life.

African Sky Vista
African Sky Vista

Going deeper

1.) Which end of the continuum do you fall closest to much of the time? What sensations do you experience in your body with the thoughts of Scarcity or Plenty?

2.) What were your Family of Origin’s (FOO) most common attitude towards the concepts found in this blog? Did your parents’ differ in their examples to you? Remember, more is caught by a child than taught. How we see our folks act, becomes our normative experience. What do you desire to be your predominate attitude? That is what matters the most.

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