Cross-posted on the Huffington Post here.
It's so easy to make someone's anxiety worse. But so, so possible to make it better, and not just in the short term, either. Every time you truly support someone who's having anxiety to feel safe you're helping them feel better in the long term, too.
First I'm going to show you the steps. Then I'm going to explain some things. Then I'm going to elaborate on the steps.
Explaining Some Things
A couple of important concepts to grasp right off the bat:
Anxiety is a body state. It is not a frame a mind. It is not a thought. It is not a choice. Anxiety is governed by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is outside of conscious control. This is the involuntary system, the same one that keeps your heart beating, governs the body processes you don't have to think about to keep them going. Just like all pain is outside of conscious control, anxiety is pain in the body. It's a weird pain, yes. But there's a whole concrete system of nerves and organs and brain stuff (the brain is a concrete thing, like a heart or liver, not a collection of ethereal thoughts and ideas, and parts of it extend into the body through nerves) that is the physical state we call "anxiety" (See here, here, and here).
So, suggesting to someone that they should will their anxiety away is tantamount to telling them to will their sprained ankle or heart attack or appendicitis away: "Come on, let's go! You're choosing to feel pain! Just stop it!" You wouldn't do that, right? So don't do it when someone is suffering the pain of anxiety (or depression, either, but we're talking about anxiety right now), either (for more detail on the science behind this see this excellent report for lay people by research psychiatrist Stephen Porges, here).
Anxiety is involuntary. It arises because the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has been exposed to something that's thrown it into a state of activation. This may or may not be something that your loved one even notices with their cognitive/conscious brain. The job of the ANS is to respond to things before the brain has time to figure out what to do, because that's just too slow for survival. The ANS evolved to keep us safe. It's an emergency response system. The brain is too slow to be counted on. By the time the brain figures out which way to run, you're tiger food.
When someone has suffered an overwhelming experience but for one reason or another wasn't able to run or fight off the threat, then the system can get "stuck," so when a similar threat or something that contains an element of the threat pops up in the environment, the system turns the automatic, ANS threat response back on. This is all kind of complicated neurobiology stuff and I'm trying to keep this short, so just see any of the links I've provided in this article if you'd like more detail.
The ANS is seeking safety. That's it in a nutshell. In order for the anxiety state to ease, a sense of safety must be achieved. Particularly if the original trauma(s) happened inside a relationship or human interaction (some example: emotional abuse, physical abuse, rape, infidelity, traumatic birth, traumatic death) it's very important that the relational response to the anxiety state be one that seeks to help the person suffering to feel safe.
This cannot be stressed too much: It does not matter what's "logical." It doesn't matter what's "rational." You are not dealing with the cerebral or prefrontal cortex (the "executive function" part of the brain) here. You're dealing with the involuntary nervous system. So it's that you must seek to soothe.
As Stephen Porges, the eminent researcher in neuropychiology and trauma says in "NEUROCEPTION: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety":
"Independent of conscious awareness, the nervous system evaluates risk in the environment and regulates the expression of adaptive behavior to match the neuroception of an environment that is safe, dangerous, or life threatening. . . A neuroception of safety is necessary before social engagement behaviors can occur. These behaviors are accompanied by the benefits of the physiological states associated with social support (http://stephenporges.com/images/neuroception.pdf).
Remember, the trigger to the nervous system activation that is causing your person's anxiety may have been something they didn't even consciously see, feel, or hear, so asking them why this is happening may not be helpful. Just help them feel safe, and later on they may figure it out.
Elaboration on the Steps
Provide safety, emotional and physical. Whatever that means to them.
What does your person need right now to feel safe? To be held? Or to not be touched at all? This can be so variable, from person to person and even from one time to another with the same person. This is because, again, the ANS is not the cerebral cortex. There are variables neither of you may even notice. So just try to figure out with your brain and intuition what would help your person to feel safe right now, and do that.
Don't judge! (Even if you think the anxiety is "about" you.)
Under no circumstances should you tell your person reasons why they should not be feeling what they're feeling. Again, you need to conceive of this as a physical pain, which it is, and use the same standards you would for empathy with that.
Don't get all logical about why your person "shouldn't" be having their pain!
This is kind of an extension of #1. Logic is not going to help. The Autonomic Nervous System does not speak that language. Yours doesn't either, and it's pretty likely one day you'll also have an ANS response that needs this kind of help, so get your karma in line now and communicate with the your person's Autonomic Nervous System gently and lovingly, with no judgement or "shoulds."
Communicate respect for what your person is experiencing in the moment:
These are all good phrases. They're not the only good phrases, but hopefully you get the idea. They are not judgemental. They show you're listening and you care, and that the most helpful thing. Also, check that your body language agrees with your words: Turn toward your person. Stop doing other things. Look them in the eye, if they're comfortable with that, and if not, still avoid looking at a screen or book or whatever. Just be there, and be present. But if they want to be alone, then definitely respect that.
Communicate gently, but not condescendingly. This includes body language.
One last note. If you find that you are having feelings of anxiety in your own body, or racing or negative thoughts, then it may be that some prior experience of your own (whether you remember it or not) is affecting your ability to be present and create safety for your person, and if that's the case then you may need to seek some expert practice for yourself. And that's good! None of us are supposed to be in this alone. We did not evolve as solitary creatures roaming the plains and forests. We evolved in communities, in groups, in couples, so that's how we're hardwired, to work together. Responding to one another with kindness and empathy has real, physiological benefits, and every time you respond to your anxious person well, gently, and nonjudgmentally you're helping them rewire their brain and nervous system for less anxiety. It just takes time, love, and patience. And here you are reading this, so clearly you care. And caring is half of what's needed. The other half? Just learned skills. And now you've got some.
Happy Valentine's Day.
Here's what I'm doing today. I don't have a mate or a date this year, and that's cool with me. I've decided make the day an opportunity to remind myself that every cell and wisp of us benefits from love, and that the primary and most constant source of love is our own internal love engines. Our hearts. Our hearts that need to glow for ourselves, too. So, if I have a thought or feeling that is not supportive and loving of myself, I'm noticing it, then stopping it and instead smiling at the part of myself that the internal editor was trying to dis. I'm keeping this quote from James Hollis in my awareness, and smiling at every part of myself that has not been supported by capitalist, patriarchal culture and society. I'm appreciating all my quirks and soaking them in light and love. And I'm wishing the same for all of you.
Also, I'm making Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies (using Kakao chocolate), my mother's hamburger pie (my favorite comfort dish; with local, grassfed beef and organic everything), and having either a glass of red wine or a Side Project beer that I picked up yesterday. (Note: mentioning the brands is not for product placement, but to emphasize that for me, spreading the love by using local goods and those that are created without labor exploitation or overuse of resources is part of what makes my heart glow; and also that I'm treating myself right!)
“We are not here to fit in, be well balanced, or provide exempla for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being. As the gods intended, we are here to become more and more ourselves.”
― James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life
#valentines #loveallourparts #loveourselves #love #hearts #thingsofmine#survivor
#trauma #healing #oyster #pearl #acorn #valentine2016
Cross-posted on Huffington Post here
Here's the thing about this saying, attributed to Lao Tzu (just below, in quotes), and others like it, which are very popular on the interwebs: It's (unintentionally) blaming people with anxiety or depression for their own anxiety or depression, and it's ignoring the importance of the body in experience.
"If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present."
Unless there's something I'm not getting, the gist is that if a person is depressed or anxious, their problem is they are not living in the present moment, that their thoughts are in the past or the future, and, therefore, it follows, their depression or anxiety would disappear if they would just bring their thoughts into the present.
So what's wrong with that? . . . Click here to read the rest of this esssay on Margaret's Huffington Post Blog!
There is a rich field of experience available to you right now. Full of light and dark, diverse characters, wild landscapes, secret rooms, and magic.
Maybe you don't remember your dreams very often. That's ok. Rest assured, everyone dreams 5-7 times every night. But like other practices of embodiment and mindfulness, developing vivid remembering takes practice and exercise.
Maybe you dream a lot. Maybe your dreams feel overwhelming. These techniques may help with that, too. Dreams are your psyche's attempts to bring you into balance, to move you toward growth and healing. If your dreams contain traumatic memory material that feels too intense of frightening to meet on your own it may be a good idea to find a therapist versed in addressing how trauma is held in the body to walk with you as you begin.
When you're ready, whatever portal you're standing on the threshold of, I'm here to offer you a straightforward path, with simple steps, to begin your dream practice tonight.
Dreams are not just random neuronal firing. Nor are they just rehashings of waking events. Far from it. The dream field is a tremendous resource for understanding ourselves. Our ego, our conscious mind, sometimes over zealously wants to protect us from truth and growth and so we avoid dealing with those elements that the deeper mindbody is always in touch with. Those elements arise in the dream field. We just have to learn how to work with them.
Forget dream dictionaries. They are too rigid. They do not account for your personal experience and associations, and often are culture bound.
Get Familiar with Some Archetypes. Yes, there are elements and figures that transcend culture, that will be interpreted very similarly whether they are dreamed by a person in the Congo, the Netherlands, or the US. Carl Jung believed these were innate, hereditary, and universal (see The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche and this brief rundown). For instance, water is almost always representative of the Unconscious or the Great Mother; a lion is (almost) always the regal and powerful representative of the animal Queendom (even if the person has never seen or heard of a lion in waking life) though both of these would be enhanced in analysis by the dreamer's associations with them in waking life. And yes, it can be useful to look up what a thing has traditionally represented, in all cultures or perhaps in the culture(s) of your own ancestors. Much of Western psychology has been rather ethnocentrically stuck on the European, especially the Greek, gods and goddesses as the representative archetypal characters. But of course there is a whole world of archetype. Also, there has been a patriarchal gaze forming the Western interpretation of these archetypes, and it's time we looked deeper. Discovering which ones you connect with most is a fun part of the journey. Your dreams can help you in this.
Honor Your Own Associations to Dream Images. This is what no dream dictionary can give you. What do you feel, what do you think of, what is your experience of that thing from the dream? Below these Seven Steps I'll detail an example of working with associations.
Seven Steps to Working with Your Dreams, Tonight
You may watch what arises with each item, meeting each with love and compassion. Let the monkey mind take a break, try not to follow a thought around. Take your time. Slow way down. See how each initial sensation moves and changes. There may be healing taking place, and there's no need to rush or interfere with that.
Here's that dream and association example I mentioned above:
I am in the water, kind of a lake that's connected to a river. Lots of people are swimming. It's a river and lake. I look toward shore and there is my grandmother, swimming out. She's too old for this! Why is she doing this? Then I see her favorite basket floating near by. I swim over to it to get it for her. She keeps swimming out, though. I am hoping I can help her somehow.
Then a current takes me, starts pulling me off to the left, away from her. I worry it's going to pull me into the river and away, maybe Mamaw too. I'm scared. But I have tossed the basket to her, and she is okay.
I'm swimming back, along the shore on my left. I see Mamaw in front of me. Someone is helping her swim through the arch of a low willow-like tree that's hanging over and partially into the water. It seems like a poor path to me, but I go through, too.
Using as example just two (though there are many more!) major elements of the dream, the water and the grandmother, we can ask ourselves these questions:
And so, what are this dreamer's associations with these elements?
Water: Grew up on the water, on a river and a lake; loves the water very much, but was in a riptide as a child, in the ocean; survived and my love of water wasn't (overtly, consciously) affected.
Grandmother: Generally positive but conflicted relationship with this actual grandmother, who has been dead several years. Also, the dreamer has been researching this grandmother's ancestry recently. Thinks of this as the "colder" grandmother.
Grandmother's generally: Great Mother, Earth Mother, Sweat Lodge, Comfort, Magic
Then we would play with the interplay of these associational meanings, archetypal meanings, the dreamer's life, and what arises in the dreamer's body as sensation and emotion as we play look at these dream events and images.
This is the part where we notice what the body says in response to this process of playing with the dream. As an dream event is contemplated or discussed, what arises in the body (more about this in the steps below)?
And let's keep in mind, reorganization/healing of the deep body (autonomic nervous system) and the spirit (what is my life? what am I supposed to be doing? what is the Universe telling me? who am I?) are both communicated to us through that profound resonance we can feel, as bodily sensation and awe.
Traditionally, dreaming has been interpreted as something that happens in the brain. My proposal is that dreaming happens with the whole body, just like everything else we do. Somatic psychotherapies, which are based on the natural protective functions that humans share with all animals and that help us respond to events and survive through fight, flight, or collapse, recognize that healing ourselves is not just a matter of learning to think "right," but that we also need to engage the body in the healing process. When that fight or flight response is thwarted the energy generated in the attempt to survive can get "stuck" in the body, causing all kinds of symptoms, including what we know as anxiety, post traumatic stress responses, and even physical ailments like autoimmune disorders.
In my private psychotherapy practice I work with Somatic Experiencing methods (link), with dreams, and of course with thoughts and mindfulness to help initiate healing on all levels. I've noticed that dreams can "follow" the healing progress, introduce elements that the conscious mind hadn't considered, or remembered, or felt worthy of. These elements and what we draw from them can be so radically profound that the entire course of the person's self-concept, narrative, conception of possibility, internal landscape, embodied sense of self can transform.
In embodied dream work we notice not only the narrative, the symbols, and the associations of dreams, we also work with what arises in the body while in response to them. And then we work with that just as we would work with responses to what happens in waking life. It's the integration of the traditional, Jungian-influenced dream work and the work with the body (as in Somatic Experiencing) that is so very powerful.
But in order for our dreams to help us we have to engage them. They want to be engage. They reward our engagement. The more we engage them, the more we remember them, and the more they will show us and help us grow into our truest and most authentic selves.
The Third Party in Dream Work
One last word. It can be that our ego's resistance to certain truths is so strong that when we try to work with some dream messages on our own we'll remain blind to the real meaning. That is where a good therapist or analyst comes in. I personally have had many moments when my wonderful therapist said something about a dream of mine and I felt my whole body react in awe to that one connection. This is a gift for which I am so grateful.
So go forth tonight into the land of dreams. Go forth with your pad and pencil, your list of Seven Steps and engage your deepest self in dreams. It is a tremendously rewarding practice.
Later, we'll explore the aspects of this subject in more depth.
Margaret Howard, MFA, LCSW
I am a psychotherapist, writer, grandmother, and dreamer.
Cover image: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Queen of the Night, from the stage set for Mozart's Magic Flute