What is my purpose and why does seeking it matter?

As a young woman working in the predominately male corporate culture, I struggled to find purpose, or meaning, in the work that I did to reduce the frustration, among many other mixed emotions, that I felt on a daily basis.  In fact, I still have a framed print hanging on a wall in my home from a previous employer reflecting a vision that resonated with me on a deep soul level:  Discovery & Hope.  It was also at this same employer that I experienced what has come to be referred to as ‘sexual misconduct’ today.

When I reflect back on that time of my life, one of the things that stands out for me is how I still managed to get up every morning and feel motivated to go to work.  I really enjoyed what I was doing and was able to remind myself that what I was doing was closely tied to improving the health and well-being of others, which was a personal value of mine.  So, although my work conditions were not mentally and emotionally healthy, creating meaning out of the actual work I was doing seemed to propel me forward in life.

Now, flash forward many years later, including a mid-life career change to better align my personal values and gifts with how I engage in the workforce, what weighs on my mind is the rise in the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.  I know, through my studies on the normal, natural developmental stages of life that memory loss is to be expected and is a normal part of the aging process.  However, what may not be so well understood is the underlying causes of dementia.  What is coming to light is that chronic stress is associated with damage to a critical part of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, and memory loss and may predict progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.

So, when I became aware of recent research suggesting that cultivating a sense of purpose, or meaning in our lives demonstrated a 30% reduction in the risk of developing dementia, it caught my attention!  I don’t believe there is any corresponding research showing such a significant reduction in risk by using any currently available prescription medications when it comes to this age-related disease.  Even more encouraging is that this research suggests that the results are independent of psychological distress, in other words, even if you find yourself in a mentally and emotionally stressful environment, if you are leading a meaningful and goal-driven life, this sense of purpose may be protecting your brain against the risk of developing dementia.

With this new discovery comes hope.  If you feel lost or sense your purpose in life is not so clear, therapy can be a resource.  I know it personally helped me to get in touch with my needs and values, identify false or limiting beliefs I had collected along the way, and gain clarity on aligning my personal priorities and professional goals.  Sometimes we just need to create a sacred place for the exploration to reconnect with our own inner wisdom and ask a fellow journey(wo)men to assist in fine tuning our sense of purpose and meaning to serve as a guide on the journey toward lasting body, mind, and spirit well-being.

If you would like to read more about this emerging research, click on the link below:

My New Year’s Intention – The Time’s Up for Shame!

As I have written about in the past, I am not a big fan of making resolutions for the New Year.  I find that such resolutions often bring with them failure, self-judgment and self-criticism, and ultimately shame when I might step away from such rigid demands on myself.  Sounds more like a recipe for depression than self-improvement if you ask me!  Which made me wonder if that is why many of us don’t bother with setting resolutions and, if we are brave enough to attempt them, why so many of us don’t succeed in such undertakings.  Could it be more about being hard on ourselves versus the unrealistic goals that we tend to set for ourselves at this time of year?  Or is it the shame that holds us back?  Or might it be a combination of both?

So, when I sat in reflection of my self-improvement efforts in 2017 in order to create a vision for myself in 2018 that is more intentional, motivating, and empowering, I found myself drawn so strongly to the #MeToo Movement that is now evolving into the “Time’s Up” campaign!  What felt so powerfully moving to me was the act of shining a light on the shame, that is transferred to someone who experiences one of the most natural, normal, adaptive, human responses to a body-mind breaking situation, so that shame can be given back to the rightful owner, the transgressor.  When we find ourselves in a situation that appears threatening, whether to our physical bodies or to our physical circumstances like our livelihoods, our bodies/brains know what to do to survive without much thought.  The first automatic survival response is to flee and when the mind realizes that might not be possible, it considers fighting for its life.  When the mind suspects it might not survive the fight, it freezes, even sometimes fainting, as a defense mechanism to try and trick the predator into thinking they are dead and leave (them alone).  And, of course, when we freeze – or faint – our voices go silent.

It is only when the “after” (survival) thoughts arrive that we begin the real battle, because we unknowingly took on the trangressor’s shame as our own.  The thoughts get really loud while our voices remain silent, for fear that we won’t be heard and supported and, instead blamed and rejected.  Anxiety and depression present themselves and become the unwelcome visitors in our daily lives and homes.  When we can experience the acceptance and support of others, we can then begin the journey of healing, bringing more acceptance and compassion towards ourselves.  When we can see the shame as not ours and give it back to the one who transferred it to us, we can begin to accept that we are human and we did what we had to do to survive at that time.  And now we can move forward and thrive, by embracing – maybe even expressing gratitude towards – our vulnerability as one of the strongest parts of ourselves, the part that helped us survive to live another day and become a part of a movement and campaign that has the energy to transform the world.

So, my intention is 2018 is be a compassionate support for those brave souls that are able to honor their vulnerable parts by speaking up, identifying and talking about shameful words and behaviors.  I intend to stay connected to the well of compassion for myself as the perfectly flawed human that I am, leading by example, showing others that self-compassion is the first, last, and every step in between on the path of healing.  Connecting to our ability to experience self-compassion while, at the same time, holding shame in the light is the true recipe for individual self-improvement and inner peace as well as contributing to the elevation of the collective consciousness of the world.

If you are interested in reading the recent research showing that self-compassion is more effective than the more established strategies of acceptance and reappraisal in decreasing depression, click on the link below:

Thanksgiving Day Football – Why I will NOT be watching!

I can remember watching football as young as 7 or 8 years of age because it was where we could find our father on Sundays.  My dad would be so engrossed in the games that we could stand behind him and say “Dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad” and not get a response.  However, if you said something “Wow, that was a good catch”, he would turn around, look at you, and say something like “Yes, it was”.  So we learned very early on that if we wanted our father’s attention it was best to join him in his world and a lot of his world revolved around sports.

Living in the southern part of New Jersey, I found myself surrounded by Philadelphia Eagles fans, although my father was/is a die-hard New York fan.  I quickly joined the ranks of Eagles fans and it was something that my husband and I had in common.  By 1990, I had joined his Fantasy Football team and my partner and I were the only women in the league.  My interest and knowledge of the sport became a source of pride for me.  That all changed two years ago when I saw the movie Concussion.  If you are a huge football fan, you may want to stop reading now.

In this movie, Will Smith plays the forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu that discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is a neurodegenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s disease that arises from repeated head trauma.  He embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma, even with the players wearing helmets and a professional football league rule against helmet-to-helmet contact.  Subsequent research of deceased former high school, college, and professional football players showed that 177 out of 202 players were diagnosed with CTE, with the disease being diagnosed in 110 out of 111 (or 99%!) of the former NFL football players.  This data hurt my mind and body!

CTE can only be diagnosed via autopsy so identifying the signs and symptoms much earlier is vital.  This knowledge made me think about our little ones and their beautiful developing brains.  Then I came across even more recent research looking at the mental and behavioral challenges experienced in adulthood that might be tied back to playing tackle football before the age of twelve.  Researchers questioned 214 men whose only organized sport participation growing up was football.  The results reflect that those who started playing tackle football before the age of twelve were 33% more likely to show signs of depression and about 28% more likely to have behavioral problems in adulthood.  Lead author of this research Dr. Michael Alosco writes “Research on the effects of football on the brain is now at a point where it cannot be ignored.”

Well, I for one no longer am ignoring the data.  After more than 40 years of being a dedicated fan, I have stopped watching football this year.  Instead I have joined the ranks of mental health professionals who work to help relieve the suffering that comes from the symptoms of depression and behavioral challenges and raise the awareness and collective consciousness around the underlying causes of such suffering.  So this Thanksgiving, you will not find me in front of the TV watching a sport that appears to value the almighty buck more than the mind-body health of the players.  I still greatly value team sports and supporting the community it creates and I hope that this research will encourage new ways of playing that dramatically reduce or eliminate the inherent risk of concussions.  Until then, I am learning to enjoy the time I have freed up on my Sundays by connecting with like-minded souls.

If you would like to read more about this research, below are two links.  Click on the first link to read about the research based upon the autopsies.  Click on the second link to read about the research on playing tackle football before the age of twelve.

 

Loneliness – when acceptance and connection are elusive

Why is it that we can be surrounded by people – even our friends and family – and yet still feel alone?  Research has suggested that loneliness is more common than we might think, with 80% of children and 40% of seniors experiencing it.  Loneliness results when we believe if we reveal our true self to others that we will not be accepted and, instead, will be judged negatively.  To avoid the emotional pain of rejection – or lack of acceptance – we either wear masks and pretend to be someone we are not and/or tend to pull back and isolate ourselves, cutting off our life-giving connection to ourselves and others.

As a young person, I often felt different from the people I found myself surrounded by.  People would tell me that I shouldn’t feel the way I felt or that I should pursue a particular career because it was the smart thing to do, implying if I didn’t want to pursue it that I must be dumb.  I spent a great deal of my life trying to fit in, hiding my emotions and behaving in ways that I was told was right.  I remember talking to friends about feeling like I was a square peg trying to fit in a round hole and they would look at me with a funny look on their faces.  I just kept thinking that if I continue to put myself out there I will eventually find my place in the world.  So I kept searching and searching, trying on different masks to see if I could find the “right” one.  Ultimately, my search for acceptance left me exhausted and full of self-doubt!

I found my way into therapy and spent several years on a journey of self-discovery.  This journey took me deep, to the roots of where the seeds of my beliefs came from so I could understand why I was looking for external validation versus allowing the expression of my authentic self.  Once I understood where my beliefs came from and why they developed, I then got the opportunity to question them to decide if I still believed them or if they actually weren’t my beliefs in the first place.  Once I was able to get to a place where I could embrace (yes, accept!) my uniqueness and stop trying to conform just to fit in, I found a greater sense of peace.  This inner peace brought me more ease when interacting with others, reducing the judgment both of myself and others.  And once I got a taste of that felt sense of inner peace, ease, and acceptance, my way of being in the world changed and opened the door for a deeper connection in all of my relationships.  I was able to relatively quickly find my tribe where I no longer had to put on any masks because they appreciated my energetic vibe just where it was.

As a social species, humans grow when we feel accepted, connected, and supported on our journey to remain true to our purpose in life and the expression of our unique talents in the creation of the meaning of our purpose.  If we feel stuck and alone, it may be a sign that we are disconnected from our authentic being, chasing that elusive sense of acceptance from others.  What we might need is some time and space to work on accepting ourselves.  And what research is showing is that reaching out and asking for help through therapy might just be a way to alleviate the pain of loneliness and deepen our felt sense of connection.

If you would like to read some of the research about why increasing our understanding of loneliness matters, click on the link below:

 

Perfectionism – is self-compassion the antidote?

Growing up in a dysfunctional, toxic family environment left deep, ingrained patterns of thinking and acting to avoid the uncomfortable, powerful emotions that boiled just beneath the surface, until my ability to stuff them down and sit on them didn’t work.  It was at those times that the emotions would come out – and come out strong – to the point of overwhelming me and any one near me!  What I came to learn is that I worked very hard – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to be perfect, to do everything right so I would avoid disappointment and feel that elusive sense of acceptance from others.  Now I understand that a common human condition is imperfection and from that deep understanding, I am able to tap into a reservoir of self-compassion to remind myself that we reach perfection when our spirit leaves the human body.

So, as long as I am alive, I have come to accept the fact that I will make mistakes, even some that may hurt others although it is not my intention to do so.  Coming from this place of acceptance that I am not perfect, I am able to not only express forgiveness and kindness to myself, I am more easily able to reach out to others with that same sense of compassion for their humanness.

Don’t get me wrong, getting to this point was not a short trip or an easy one, but it has been well worth the journey.  I was my own worst critic, as many of us are, and would judge myself harshly for a long time.  No matter how much I accomplished, it never felt like it was enough or good enough.  The first step in being kinder to myself was to reflect on why I was so judgmental in the first place.  Well, as you can probably guess, I learned it from my family.  And it wasn’t only from my family, it was a bigger, broader experience of society’s judgment and subtle messages that to be accepted, we must be perfect.  Once I was aware of my inner critic and why and where she grew from, I could then own my suffering that this inner critic created.

In recognizing the suffering, I began to get curious about the emotions that came up, such as fear of being criticized, losing the acceptance of others, guilt, and the sense of being less than and unworthy of the acceptance I so needed.  As I sat with these uncomfortable feelings and explored what messages came from these powerful emotions, I started to ask how they might be trying to serve me in some way.  I learned that feeling guilty was a guide that led me back to my authentic self whenever I might find myself straying away in my thoughts and actions.  Sitting with criticism informed me that it is important to be open to the feedback of others because sometimes we are blind (and deaf) to our behaviors and words, specifically how those behaviors and words might impact another.  I also discovered that when I would be criticized by others, I was simply acting as a mirror to reflect back the other person’s felt sense of inadequacy, so it really wasn’t about me.

When sitting with the fear of losing the acceptance of others, I realized it was because I really feared accepting myself.  Somewhere down the line I was told I was different, because I was so emotional, which was projected on to me as I was “irrational” and thus not acceptable.  When I began to challenge this message and not only accept but embrace my emotional self, I also began to accept the idea that being perfect does not mean you will be accepted by everyone.  I looked at how I comforted others when they experienced making a mistake and tried offering that same comfort and compassion to myself.  With practice, I began to internalize that we innately all try to do our best with the gifts and limitations we have and when I viewed the human experience from this more balanced – logical and emotional – perspective, I felt a deep sense of peace within.

So the journey took time for me to stare my fears in the face, accept my humanity completely, and practice self-compassion when I find myself feeling the pain of suffering.  Now when my fears come up, I no longer try to ignore it and instead invite it in so I can engage in a dialogue with it.  At first, I might feel overwhelmed and I now recognize in these moments that the emotion is coming to me so strong because I may have been ignoring before it when it tried to get my attention more subtly in the past.  When this happens, I might have to sit a little longer and take a couple of extra deep breaths before the conversation can begin in earnest.  As I engage with my powerful emotions, a common theme emerges, that reminds me that I am not alone and that most people would have a similar response, even if they are not ready to admit it.  When I am able to accept I am human and express my gratitude for my emotions as the intelligent guides they are, self-compassion floods in to soothe my momentary suffering and helps to release the grip of judgment and perfectionism.

More and more research is being done to explore the effects of deepening our ability to have self-compassion as it is showing a strong association with mental well-being.  It is being shown to reduce self-criticism, judgment, self-blame and isolation, therefore, increasing acceptance and connection.  Should you be interested in reading more about the results of recent research on the benefits of supporting the development of self-compassion, click on the link below:

 

Transgenerational trauma transmission – What does our childhood experiences tell us about our future health, both body and mind?

The month of May was proclaimed National Mental Health Awareness Month back in 2013 and, as I indicated in my last Talk Therapy reflection in March, I want to share more about the research around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the resulting developmental trauma, and the long-term impact on body-mind health.  The intention behind this reflection is to bring more awareness to the underlying causes of dis-ease and, through such awareness, expand our collective capacity for compassion for those suffering from the effects of early childhood trauma.  It is only through more education and awareness that our society will move in the direction of prevention by aligning resources with ways to stop the causes and turn away from just focusing on the treatment of the symptoms.

I also want to mention right up front that it is not my intention to place blame as that would be an attempt to simplify a very complex human condition.  As one of my dear colleagues once said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.  However, when we know better, we do better.”  Therefore, as you read this reflection and maybe read more about the research on this topic, I hope you will come to see, as I did, that our traumatic experiences are not isolated and, in fact, most likely emanate from past generations living through similar experiences without the resources that are available today.

The first ACE study that began in 1995 was conducted in collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization in southern California.  The participants, over 17,000 patients with health insurance were asked to complete a confidential questionnaire that asked about childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction to identify any relationships between specific ACE and known risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol/drug abuse, for chronic disease.  Since this first study, many studies have been done to validate the original results, using larger and more diverse population samples to assess if the exposure to ACE increases the risk of adult disease and disability. If you are interested in reading more, the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/journal.html) contains a listing of journal articles by topic area.

The original study included seven categories of ACE, including abuse (physical, psychological, sexual), domestic violence (violence against mother), and household dysfunction due to any members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned.  Future studies expanded the ACE categories to include family dysfunction due to divorce and to track alcohol and other drug abuse separately.

What all of these studies have come to show is that ACEs are more common than any of us would want to know.  These studies have also shown that a majority of ACEs are not experienced in isolation, meaning that if children experienced one ACE they probably experienced more than one ACE, guiding future research to investigate the cumulative impact of multiple childhood traumas on the development of disease.  In addition, the higher the cumulative ACE score, the greater association with many mental, physical, emotional, and social problems, including substance use and abuse.

Expanding our awareness of what constitutes an ACE and the fact that ACEs impact the neurodevelopment of children, disrupting the healthy development of the human nervous system, begins to open our minds and hearts.  Deepening our understanding further that a damaged nervous system may guide children toward unhealthy coping strategies to survive the complex traumas they have lived through, opens the door to compassion, instead of judgment and punishment, by helping us all to realize that these unhealthy behaviors were not a choice these children made, but were normal, natural adaptive responses to inhumane conditions that they found themselves in by no choice of their own.

If you are interested in learning more about how ACEs are being assessed or to determine your own ACE score, click on the ACE SCORE CALCULATOR button below.

If you would like to read a summary of the ACEs study data presented by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including prevention efforts based upon this growing awareness and understanding of developmental trauma, click on the SAMHSA button below.

 

What will it really take to reduce drug abuse in the world?

No, not more law enforcement efforts to reduce the production and transportation of illegal drugs.  This question has a basic economic component – as long as the demand is greater than the supply, the war on drugs will be lost.  So, how do we reduce the demand for drugs?  We must learn why people turn to drugs in the first place and we must stop buying into the belief that drug addiction is a disease and one that affects only the weak!

I have always felt that more compassion and understanding were needed for people who found themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol, not punishment, and yet, I wasn’t aware of the research that might support my feelings.  Then I read Dr. Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, and I felt so validated in my view of this deeply concerning human experience.  This book opened my eyes and my heart to the underlying reasons that someone might turn to substances to soothe a painful internal landscape.  What Dr. Maté highlights is that addiction is a normal, natural response to emotional loss which is traumatizing to the human spirit. In other words, addiction soothes the pain of trauma.  So, drugs work – even if only to temporarily separate, or dissociate from the internal emotional pain of our traumatizing experiences.  And sometimes drugs may be the only reliable source of comfort that is available.  Sad, but true and I know many people find this fact hard to believe, especially when they have not walked in the shoes of the people they judge.  Then, when it happens in our own families, it becomes even harder to accept because we must take some accountability and responsibility for the depth of the pain that our loved ones feel.

Now, not all individuals that experience early childhood trauma will turn to drugs, so further research is needed to better understand the relationship between adverse childhood events and dissociation through addiction to manage overwhelming, painful emotions.  What some more recent research has shown is that there is another factor to consider in the equation, alexithymia.  A normal part of our development as children is learning how to understand and express emotions in order to regulate our emotional environment and we learn this by observing and exchanging emotions with our caregivers.  However, when children experience developmental trauma this lesson is impossible to learn, impairing our ability to deal with our emotional experiences and alexithymia develops, which is simply the difficulty to identify, describe, and feel our emotional states.

Early research suggested that men may experience alexithymia more than women, possibly due to the underlying beliefs found in a patriarchal societal culture that values logic and reason over intuition and emotion.  However, with the emerging research that is looking at the association between trauma, alexithymia and dissociation in the role of addiction, it appears that trauma disrupts the ability to process emotions in both genders equally.  Patriarchy only adds another layer of complexity, as this culture informs men – and thus women trying to succeed in a man’s world – that emotions are not valued and reflect some weakness in character.

These research findings bring much awareness to how the human spirit needs emotional connection with others who can nurture both our rational and intuitive intelligence, both our ability to feel and to understand our emotions, and ultimately express our emotions so that our actions can be guided, and not driven by them.  I found this research quite calming to my own spirit, not only because it validated my personal experience but because it validates a new approach to healing addiction, one that comes from a place of compassion and great appreciation for the resiliency of the human spirit instead of through further traumatization supported by the current, failing war on drugs.  This new approach is growing from a broader and deeper understanding of what is considered developmental trauma, which I will write more about in my next Talk Therapy reflection, and the need to help people put words to their powerful, sometimes overwhelming, emotional experiences of the past in order to face the pain and fear head on, because if you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it.

We all can make a difference in reducing the demand for drugs and decrease the incidence of addiction.  My recommendation in doing so is to look into the research that supports that addiction is a symptom, not a disease.  From this deeper understanding, embrace the idea that we are all born with emotions and emotions are a significant part of our intelligence.  Once there, commit to being a better role model to the people in your life by openly expressing your emotions and not just the “positive” ones – all of them, including disappointment, rage, guilt, shame – as all emotions are vital parts of our wholeness and well-being.

If you want to take the first step on the path of deeper understanding of addiction, click on the link below to read a recent study that explores the relationship between developmental trauma, dissociation, and alexithymia:

Can talking about your emotions improve your heart health?

A significant part of my family culture viewed emotional expression as unacceptable or, at least, unnecessary and would disengage or withdraw from anyone that openly displayed emotions.  Also, any public display of affection (PDA) was discouraged, so, as a young child, I learned to ignore my emotions to be accepted by my family.  It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I began to realize I struggled to ‘control’ my emotions and, when I couldn’t, my self-talk became very judgmental, making me think there was something wrong with me because I had these emotions that would leak out at the most inappropriate times.

I had a lot of practice at separating my physical sensations as precursors to full blown emotions from the thoughts my mind would form in response, telling myself often that you must be logical and rational and not move forward from an emotional or “irrational” experience.  I got skilled at ignoring even some basic biological needs, such as hunger as these experiences were not emanating from the mind’s rational control.  Now, learning to compartmentalize in this way is not necessarily detrimental in the moment.  In fact, it can be quite helpful in times of chaos or crisis.  However, after years of trying to follow the family rules of minimal emotional expression, I began to experience a degradation of my physical health, including an increase in my weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and “bad” cholesterol levels.  And, as I mentioned, my emotions began exposing themselves more frequently, many times when I least expected them to do so.

It was at that point that I began searching for ways to get healthier, such as changing my diet and increasing exercise in my daily routine.  I also began traditional psychotherapy.  What I came to discover was that the level of stress I was experiencing was magnified by disowning my emotional self and trying to bring my emotions under rational control.  What I didn’t know at that time was that my amygdala, an area of the brain linked to stress, was in a heightened state of alert to danger, working overtime and causing a chain reaction of inflammation in my body.  When I began to learn how to befriend my feelings and not view them as the enemy that needs to be conquered, I started to sense an experience of relief.  As I got curious about my emotions and the messages behind them, I was able to begin to embrace the wisdom of my body and allow my emotions to have a voice in my decision-making and relationships.

Now, this wasn’t a quick and easy process.  I had to challenge not only my transgenerational, long-held family belief that emotions are BAD and I had to do so within a larger, societal culture that values the logical over the emotional.  Yet, with courage and support, the more I did, the better I felt.  Initially, I felt like an outsider or worse a traitor within my family.  It was also difficult at first to even identify the powerful emotions that I was experiencing as most of the time they were masked by anger.  As I learned to be more patient and accepting of myself, I was able to notice where I felt the emotions in my body and with the help of my psychotherapist, I was able to find a name for what I was feeling and explore why such emotions were arising.  Many times the sensations I would experience in my body would be pain in my head (i.e., tension headaches) or heaviness in my chest, around my heart, making it difficult to breathe.

As I got better at observing my body responses and understanding the messages behind my emotions, I was able to honor the wisdom and guidance being offered, instead of resisting, denying, or stuffing down my emotions.  I learned to listen more deeply to my body and respond to situations by integrating both the intelligence of the logical and the emotional parts of my mind.  As I did, my body rewarded me with an overall improvement in my physical health, including a lowering of my blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol levels.  I also found that I didn’t need to spend so much energy trying to control my emotions, as my emotions became more naturally balanced and felt less overwhelming.  My personal experience convinced me that when we fear rejection or abandonment from our tribe and/or behave in ways to feel accepted by the people around us although those behaviors are uncomfortable and distressing our bodies try to absorb the chronic psychological stress of trying to “fit in and be someone we are not to avoid the emotional pain that might come from being different (and unacceptable).

So when a new research study was published in The Lancet, due to my own personal experience, it didn’t come as a surprise to me that the results reflect a link between how the brain manages stress and an increase in the risk of heart disease.  I always felt that there was a connection between the emotional pain of heart break (in other words, rejection and lack of acceptance) and the leading cause of death, heart dis-ease!

To read more about this new research, click the link below:

 

“Reversed Attunement” – what is it, how does it impact the body-mind connection, and how can breathing help?

When I reflect on my childhood, I now realize that my parents struggled to accept themselves and each other, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that I instinctively found myself adapting to their moods, doing what I could to get their attention, to feel seen, valued, and accepted as part of the family and to maintain peace in the house.  It was the normal, natural human survival instinct kicking in – the need for connection.  Unfortunately, no matter how good I got at becoming aware of their moods and adjusting accordingly, peace was elusive and anxiety was palpable.  Ultimately, my parents divorced, but that didn’t end the war and, in fact, just fanned the flames of the fire instead.  I then spent many years attempting to navigate two homes, trying to please my parents separately, but always falling short, fertilizing a growing belief that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, it will never be (good) enough.

What I experienced in my family I now refer to as “reversed attunement”, because I tuned into my parents emotional needs to survive instead of my parents being aware of my needs as a child to support my growth.  What I learned on my journey is that my parents were also victims of “reversed attunement” and, as such, didn’t know any other way of being when they had children of their own.  In fact, one of the family rules passed through the generations in my family was “children are to be seen, not heard”, so the children in my family learned creative ways to be noticed and heard, to ensure they were not left behind.

What we now know is that humans are wired for connection with a basic human need to be accepted and included, whether in a family, tribe, or some other group.  And when group members are attuned to each other, that is aware of and responsive to the emotional needs of its members, then healthy growth is possible.  Yet, this attunement needs to be initiated, led, or modeled by the elders to the children, not the other way around.  If the elders are not capable of attunement, the children will sense the disconnection and their bodies will perceive it as a threat to their survival.  If children do not feel accepted and valued, especially within their nuclear families, they experience feelings of rejection or abandonment and do not have the rational capacity yet to figure out why, leading the body to absorb the distress, creating an experience of tension and anxiety.  This physiological reaction in the body is referred to as the fight-or-flight response or acute stress response.  Without the ability of the mind to understand this distress response in the body and with the chronic nature of the anxiety, the mind begins to distance itself from the body, ignoring the innate wisdom of the body, creating a separation or dissociation between the mind and the body, pushing the painful feelings down beneath the surface of awareness.

In this chronic state of anxiety, the body is seeking connection and desires to belong, yet the mind says it is not safe, keeping the body in a heightened state of alertness to possible danger.  When the body is under such distress, the breath becomes very shallow, which supports the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that prepares us to either run away from danger or to fight it.  It prevents the logical part of our minds from fully participating in the assessment of any situation, building a larger divide between the body and the mind.  But when we begin to understand and embrace that this divide has a purpose – to keep us safe – then, from this place of compassion, we can explore ways to realign the body and the mind, creating space for the expression of our fears, beliefs, and a fuller, deeper, and more expansive breath.

When I first began my healing journey away from disconnection and anxiety, I started with psychotherapy alone, where the focus was on my mind, specifically my thoughts and beliefs that were underneath my anxiety.  This process helped me to gain a greater understanding of why I believed what I did, but it didn’t really address or relieve the long-held tension in my body.  It wasn’t until I began to integrate yoga, and specifically the conscious breathing that is integral to a yoga practice, that I was able to get in touch with the depth of my anxiety.  What I learned was that I was experiencing “reversed breathing”, which was a result and a reflection of experiencing “reversed attunement”.  When I would inhale, I would suck my belly in and when I exhaled, I would let my belly out.  I came to learn that the natural, human breath is facilitated by the diaphragm, which engages and presses down on the inhale, creating space for the lungs to fully expand, and, as such, inflates not only the chest and ribs, but the belly too.  Then, on the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up into the chest in its resting dome shape, as the belly and chest deflate and soften.  Reconnecting to this natural breathing pattern wasn’t always easy and took practice.  Sometimes it made me feel claustrophobic or lightheaded.  But with a little patience and compassion for myself, I soon noticed a shift.  When I would practice releasing my exhales for a longer period of time than my inhales, I noticed a tangible release of tension in my body.  I now know that is because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that supports the relaxation response in the body.   I slowly became more aware of the long-held tension in my body, how my anxiety would highjack my ability to think and speak, and how, if I simply took a full, conscious breath, I would create space to choose to respond instead of react to situations.

As I continued to practice bringing awareness to my breath, I used my breath as a resource to help calm my body when my mind became anxious, which allowed my logical mind to stay present and reflect on what was creating the anxiety.  With this internal resource, I was able to prevent the dissociation of the mind-body and bring them back into alignment, breathing through those old, familiar feelings of disconnection.  With the support of my breath, I am able to remind myself that I am worthy of connection and acceptance, whose early childhood experience of “reversed attunement” has expanded my capacity to be attuned to and compassionate towards others.

If you are interested in reading more about the benefits of integrating conscious breathing exercises into psychotherapy, click on the button below to read a recent research article that speaks to this topic.

Can talking to animals help heal our hearts?

My family and friends laugh when I have a conversation with my two dogs.  They tell me that they think it’s funny that I speak for them, putting words in their mouths, in response to what I ask them or tell them.  Yes, it may seem funny to others, but I have always known that talking to my animals makes me feel better.  And now we are learning that it not only helps us but also makes them happy too!

When I look into the eyes of my dogs, I feel my heart open and I can quickly forget what I was doing, where I was going, or what time it is!  I find spending time with my animals, talking to them and petting them makes me happy, even calming and soothing no matter what might be going on in that moment.  I know I am not alone in my experience, as I have heard many stories from other people who describe similar responses.  So it is no wonder that so many of us own pets, whether dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, snakes, pigs, horses, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, hamsters, rats, lizards, ferrets, or other species.

However, the health benefits of pet ownership have only more recently been scientifically researched and the results have its critics.  The good news is that our laws are not waiting for the research to provide the definitive answer and allow for the designation of ‘emotional support animal’ to be viewed as a ‘reasonable accommodation’ under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.  But you can’t simply say your pet is an emotional support animal and bring it with you everywhere.  And, now that animals can be designated as emotional support, I have found that many people are confused between the different names given to animals that provide support or service to us.  So what is an emotional support animal, maybe say compared to a service or therapy animal, and what does the current research suggest as to the underlying mechanism to why animals just plain make us humans feel better?

The American Disability Act (ADA) defines what a service animal is and these animals are limited to dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks for someone with either a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  Some examples of animals that would fall under this definition include a Guide Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog, and Seizure Response Dog as these dogs have been rigorously trained to perform work directly related to an individual’s disability.

Therapy animals also receive extensive training and are usually found in a clinical setting and are integrated into the plan for treatment to improve a person’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and/or social functioning.  Therapy dogs are trained to socialize in various settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, and interact with a variety of people, so it is important that their temperament is stable and friendly in these unpredictable environments.

On the other hand, emotional support animals do not fall under the ADA, are not considered service animals, and are not limited to dogs.  Some other names you might hear used to describe emotional support animals include comfort animals or companion animals and these animals do not have any special training.  I believe it is from the comfort, unconditional affection, and connection that are experienced during the human-animal interaction that has led to the recognition of this designation of animals.  In fact, as a therapist, I have had emotional support animals join me in session with clients and I have seen how such a relationship can benefit treatment.

When I think about the role that animals have played in my own life since I was a child, I remember having different pets throughout my life, including dogs, cats, turtles, and fish, and I can think of many fond times that I had with them.  And I also can recall times when my animals felt like the only connection I had.  When I was stressed out because my parents were fighting again or afraid because I was left alone at night, if I could pet my dog or snuggle with my cat, I was able to tolerate my anxiety and fear better.  Just having them close to me brought me comfort, reminding me I wasn’t alone or unloved.

I have also witnessed firsthand the change that can occur in the present moment when my family and friends encounter animals, literally releasing any anger, frustration, and/or sadness they may be experiencing when asked to hold or pet an animal.  It seems like the animal is an emotional magnet, drawing the powerful emotions out of the human and allowing them to dissolve into thin air.  I even had a friend tell me once that the bonding experience between a human and a pet is the same as the bonding experience between humans and their newborn babies, which got me wondering, could this be true?

I finally looked into the research to see what it might have to say about what exactly it is that draws humans into human-animal encounters and if such a connection has the same potential to help heal broken hearts as the human connection.  What I found out is simple yet fascinating, offering much hope to the current fragmented, disconnected state of the world today and it seems my friend might be right!

It seems that human-animal interactions activate the production of oxytocin, which is the human hormone associated with bonding and the increased felt sense of trust, empathy, and loyalty, not only in the human but the animal.  So as we connect with our animals, we get a shot of oxytocin, which then supports our ability to navigate and endure social stressors.  It has been shown previously that oxytocin is released in humans when we make eye contact with each other and now the research is supporting that the same holds true with our animals.  Current research has also shown that petting or any other pleasant tactile interaction with animals causes oxytocin to be released.  And, apparently, we get a shot of oxytocin even if we only interact with an animal one time; however, longer-term relationships seem to produce more potent and long-lasting effects.

So, with this new found external validation of my own internal experience, I now make sure I look deeply into my dogs’ eyes when I talk to or pet them, knowing I am bringing more happiness into all of our lives.  And I have been telling everyone that will listen to me animals do bring emotional support to our lives, so stop and talk with them to get your daily dose of oxytocin in order to bring a smile to your face and in your heart!

So if you too want to encourage others to talk to animals, click on the link below to read what the research on human-animal interaction has to say!