Connection and positive triggers

When I am feeling wobbly and am struggling, the most powerful thing that can help me is the feeling of being connected to someone who cares. It is something I have struggled with a lot of my life and so when it happens, it feels pretty magical and special. I have found it a bit easier to find that connection in nature, with animals and birds than with people on the whole.

It is one of the main things I learned about in Compassion Focused Therapy which I wrote about a while back. Connection links us to a soothing mechanism in our brains that helps with turning down our threat system – the “smoke alarm” that is usually what cause so much trouble for me.

The problem with interpersonal trauma and that caused by people you trust especially, is that this soothing system is also linked to more threat and danger. So soothing starts to feel impossible. Especially in the presence of other human beings. And so begins a great deal of isolation and difficulty connecting with other people.

But with compassion focused therapy I learned to gently begin exploring connection in a safe way. I started by practicing, using imagery to try to imagine what a feeling of safe connection with a “perfect safe space” would be like and later on to what connection to a “perfect compassionate companion” would be like.

This very quickly gave me lots to work with in terms of working out what I didn’t like about this feeling and why I didn’t trust even this imaginary creature! But as I practice, I learn to more easily identify and feel more comfortable with that feeling. I have learned to treasure these magical moments of soothing connection as they become more available to me. Not only for what they are, but also because they show me how things can change for me.

One of the most memorable such magical moments for me was realising I really trusted my then-therapist. Realising I could tell her the most difficult thing I could think of using my words, and face to face – a way I rarely communicate actual feelings, nevermind ones this overwhelming. I don’t think I had ever been that vulnerable or shown my whole self to someone like that before. And to my extraordinary relief, she responded in the most compassionate and understanding way possible. I know therapy isn’t all about “breakthrough moments” but this moment felt exactly like that – though I know that if we hadn’t then maintained a trusting a relationship for months afterwards, I doubt I’d still feel anything had shifted.

It was a moment when trust had just pushed through the surface of the soil where it had been nurtured and poked its little leaves out. It was still very fragile and needed to be made stronger but that was the moment it suddenly became visible.

I formed a trusting connection whilst truly vulnerable and the power of that still remains. There are times when I try to use compassion focused therapy meditations or imagery exercises and I cannot. There are times when I feel entirely unreachable. But there are also times I feel almost unreachable.  During those times, the recordings I have of imagery exercises read aloud by my therapist are more able to reach me than anything else. I feel able to let her voice in when noone elses’ will be allowed. I am able to listen at first and then when I feel a bit more ready, able to listen and follow the “safe space” exercise. But only with this recording, of this person, from this time in my life.

Moments of connection do not just happen in therapy, but also in my real life relationships – and more so, now I practice these exercises – a photo, a card or a little trinket given to me by someone who cares for me can also do a similar thing.  As can photos of those special moments in nature when I suddenly felt safe, free and soothed by the beauty in front of me.

When we talk about trauma, we often talk about triggers – things that connect us again with a difficult or dangerous time, that throw our brains into that threat-focused state. I like to think of reminders of these magical moments as “positive triggers”. And like the other kind, they can be smells, sounds, sights or tastes. I use smells (lavender) when using my “safe space” imagery to try to link that feeling of safeness to a smell I can take with me wherever I go in everyday life. And I know that the light shining through the leaves of various trees in my safe space imagery, is something that feels extra special when I encounter the same light and trees in real life. We do have to nurture these positive triggers a lot more than we do the other kind that seem so easy to form and so difficult to shed, but we can do and they can make a difference in dark times.

 

I’ve created these little cards specifically to try and start the seeds of some positive triggers for people who are struggling.  Instead of sending a card-sized card, these little designs are credit-card sized to fit easily in a wallet. They can be carried with them wherever they go and remind them of the person who cares for them and sent them the card.

They are made from recycled cotton t-shirts – so you could add some drops of your favourite smelly to them (maybe on the back so as not to discolour the design), they look pretty (I hope!), they feel nice and they have a little space on the back for a crisis number, a personal message from a friend or other reminder. You can get matching stickers as an extra reminder to place on a phone cover, at your work desk or somewhere else helpful.

If you are are currently committed to, or on a journey of developing self-compassion and able to handle such a gesture, you could even buy one for yourself!

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When it changed.

A version of this post is also published on “The Mighty” here.

I have long been fascinated and moved by the beauty and complexity of biology. All through school, I lapped up popular science books and TV documentaries like a starved cat confronted with a bowl of cream. I studied it at uni, I loved it so much I did a PhD. And once I had recovered from the PhD, I went back to loving it again.

For most of my life, the most emotional you would actually see me in public (most of the time) was when listening to science seminars – anything from quantum physics, molecules, natural history to astronomy. I’d get shivers down my spine and tears, actual tears of Awe.

Although I stopped wanting to do the routine science stuff that fits pieces into that picture, I have never stopped looking adoringly at it.

So when I’ve thought about my mental, psychological or emotional health in the past, I’ve very much focused on the biological explanations. I knew there were limitations, social aspects to consider, and that the brain is so complex we may never understand it fully. But it was always my focus. It felt comfortable, interesting and right.

I think this was only partly because of my love of science. I think it was also because it made it easier to keep the focus mainly on me. My response to events, my faulty thinking, my difficulties coping and my personal vulnerabilities. This focus made things easier to manage. It’s less messy to only deal with your own head and not to get stuck in the murky waters of politics, society and power structures too.

I alternated between feeling like the most accomplished Vulcan in the universe who was fully disconnected from emotions; and experiencing utterly uncontrollable overwhelming feelings that came from nowhere.

And at both ends of the spectrum, it felt like my brain was somehow not like other people’s. Either people didn’t get the hurricane in my head or they seemed so vulnerable and needy compared to my ability to not let things faze me. The disconnection was with myself but with everyone else too. All around, counsellors, psychologists and other people (especially other girls & women) seemed to speak a language I could understand but not speak.

They talked of ‘processing’, ‘needing to express’, ‘bottling up’ or pushing down’ feelings. They often wanted to talk about their feelings, even when there were no solutions to be gained or any new information to add by doing so. I always tried to listen when people needed me to, and hoped it helped, but I never fully understood what they were getting from it.

So a biochemical explanation felt so right intuitively to me. It’s exactly how everything felt. Like random wonky wrong chemistry.

And then something changed for me.

I read “The compassionate mind“, a book by Prof Paul Gilbert. It changed me by letting me start somewhere familiar. It started from what was a deceptively biological perspective – evolution.  We are born more vulnerable and stay more vulnerable longer than most other mammals. Then follows a no-nonsense explanation of how the human brain works because of this vulnerability. It creates a physiological need for safeness, bonding and compassion that is firmly and biochemically embedded in our bodies and our minds and is as vital for survival as food, shelter or water.

I should confess I balled my eyes out through the whole book. And I got through it faster than any book I’ve ever read before. I think my brain had been lulled into feeling like it was on comfortable ground and then it got smacked in its little brain-face with something earth-shatteringly different. And something it couldn’t find a defence against. Suddenly I didn’t have to understand the language of emotions to get it. I didn’t need touchy feely language or to connect with the spiritual or the intangible in order to get what everyone else what talking about.

Through this lens my past approaches to therapy suddenly became really obviously deficient. I had continued to avoid my emotions by talking and engaging with an illness. This had given me validation for my pain, access to support and a level of understanding from others, but one which didn’t necessarily require me, or anyone else having to stay present with my actual emotional needs. I talked about irrational thoughts and about symptoms and “doing something nice for myself”. I spent years trying to prop up my brain with drugs, challenging my inaccurate thoughts and trying to change my behaviours. It helped to some extent, but my brain hadn’t actually been experiencing anything physiologically different, despite all this. None of these things were interacting with that soothing, bonding, safeness and contentment system I’d been reading about.

I realised I needed an intervention that my brain would understand and experience at a biochemical and physiological level that was fine-tuned to the systems evolution had created. Ones created precisely to down-regulate the brain’s ‘things are going wrong” system. Pills thought to increase neurotransmitters throughout the brain (and body) or to reduce the activity of neurons, may help (and may even be life-saving) – but they did not, by themselves, give my brain anything new to work with.
This was the first step on a journey of change, recovery, compassion and indeed more biology. I will tell you more next time because, in keeping with my new more self-compassionate path, I think and I feel I’ve typed enough for one day.

Resilience

It’s not us, it’s you

You’re weak and slightly wrong

You need more ‘resilience’

or you’re going to break the bank

You see, your flesh and blood are problems

You bleed when you are cut

Your brittle bones keep breaking

Everytime you’re hit by a truck

And look, when we push you,

You always seem to fall

It’s okay, though we can help you

To live in our world

 

We can take all your bones out,

Fill you full of gold,

Replace your nerves with steel wires,

To build a cage for your soul

We can wait for a while but try not to take too long

Come back when you are ready

to live in our world.

Making newspaper into yarn

A version of this post has also been published on “The Mighty” here.

The process I go through to make my newspaper yarn designs mirrors my therapy and recovery journey. It has mainly been about building a new way of “being”.  I can’t change my brain or my history, but I can try to dismantle some of the power held by the stories that make up my ingrained feelings, thoughts and behaviours. The stories that do not help me to thrive (though they have helped me survive). It’s not possible to get rid of these well-rehearsed stories so it’s more about accepting why they are there and reshaping my response to them by not buying into them. To create something new from these stories.

Much like recovery or therapy, the process can be painful, difficult and tedious.

So I take stories that seem so sure of themselves, printed in black and white and presenting themselves as fact. And to start I crumple the paper, to soften and ready it for the process. I liken this to the fact that sometimes it is a “breakdown” or crisis, or some other major event that triggers me to seek help. The softening produced by this crumpling is the safeness and calming created in a trusted therapeutic and in safe supportive social relationships.

Without this, the process will just result in the paper ripping apart.

I then cut strips of paper, paying attention to the colours they contain and the slow process of twisting it through my fingers to turn it into yarn begins. I keep the colours I want and mould the paper yarn using my fingers – a part of my physical body.

In the same way, experience of new feelings and ways of being have to be felt with your body to truly understand and learn. Our feelings are real physiological, biological things that happen inside our bodies. All the thinking in the world cannot change your feelings. We need that embodied experience to really learn new ways of feeling.

We can learn from hearing about something or seeing something done but we only really understand when we do it ourselves. It seems to me we often concentrate on the words and thoughts of our lives and can easily forget the spaces in between, where our essence of simply “being” resides. I think this is where compassion, soothing and connection acts, on the spaces between the words. Only in embracing the whole can we recover a fulfilling life.

This is a slow, messy process resulting in ink-stained, sore fingers but it’s needed to create something new. I can create anything from this yarn. It was once a set story (full of bad news and trauma) as well as sometimes misinformation. It is now flexible, pliable, stronger and more beautiful and can be used to create any design. The words have got new meanings in their new contexts as part of the yarn itself, or lifted from the newspaper to be given new life as little tags on golden thread.

We are not our history. We can be so much more.

Facing Shame

This event organised by Kia Kaha Psychotherapy came at a perfect time for me. I was finishing therapy and wanted some continuing link to the ideas and concepts I had found so helpful and that I was working with in therapy (particularly the compassionate mind approach to therapy).

You can see the video “Facing Shame” herehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ZCedVuB0g I don’t want to give anything away, so I am leaving the link here without comment for you to ponder on.

Professor Paul Gilbert (@profpaulgilbert), founder of The Compassionate Mind Foundation and Compassion Focused Therapy, spoke at the event on the subject of shame.

On being accepted and loved

He makes the case that we come into this world completely helpless. We have biological needs that can only be obtained if someone cares and values us enough to nurture us. Our brains are pretty much hardwired to need to be valued because we actually can’t do anything for ourselves as newborns and we are relatively helpless for a long time compared to other animals.

When others think of us positively, they are less likely to attack us, or reject us in providing the care we need to grow and develop. These feelings of being cared for/rejected are regulated by hormones that affect our biology in a very tangible way.

For a long time I have not seen the true value of the “soft” feelings. Warmth, care, kindness and love didn’t seem to sound as important as food, clean water, shelter, education. But when we look at how we come into this world, it’s clear that our survival, our brain and our development is inextricably linked to these feelings. As such they are as much a human physiological need as food or water, (especially as our brains are developing), rather than some touchy-feely stuff that can be safely ignored while you attend to “more important” things. Maybe not a revelation to everyone, but it is for many who maybe have struggled to get these needs met.

Compassionate mind model of the brain

The feelings of warmth, safeness and connection are part of one of the three major systems/drives in the “compassionate mind” model.

The “soothing system” is one we share with mammals and it is one of contentment, rather than one of excitement. It makes me think of a cat stretching gently whilst lying by a fire, purring contentedly. There is a lot you can say about society in the west today, but I don’t think many people would agree that contentment is something we value as much as achievement and obtaining new technologies and Stuff. I mean I am content with my mobile phone but since I got it, at least five new versions have come out that are not (as far as I can tell) dramatically different to mine.

And that is likely due to our “drive system”, which is focused on resources, money, status, pursuing, achieving and consuming. The final system is the “threat system” which is all about protection, safety-seeking, fight, flight, freeze, submit. This system is fast and takes over quickly when we reach the ends of our tethers. It pretty much prevents a lot of logical thinking, because, well, when faced with immediate danger, such as a hungry lion, it’s probably best to act quickly, rather than have a meeting or research the problem. But like a smoke alarm, it is sensitive and goes off to “be safe, rather than sorry” and while we can try to balance this with the drive system, the soothing system is really much better equipped to reset the smoke alarm.

Obviously we need all these parts of our selves. Being content won’t get us the food we need to survive – we need drive. We need the threat system that helps us run faster and longer when our lives depend on it. And our survival also depends on the soothing system and our ability to cooperate and to connect with people who we can depend on. But they need to be in balance. Constantly feeling threatened is an exhausting way to live and  just surviving, doesn’t help us to feel happy or fulfilled.

Shame

Shame, the feeling that we might be cast out of the family of human beings, or that we are not worthy, switches on our threat system making us more likely to be aggressive or angry. It can increase our drive system and the need to achieve things, make more money, gain more power, obtain more Things, take drugs that excite us and do reckless things that keep us feeling exhilarated (which can be unsustainable). But it can also decrease our drive, when the stress of the shame makes us feel low and depressed.

Interestingly people who feel shame talk about being defective, rather than not meeting certain standards eg. “I am bad/evil”, not “I am not as good as I should be”.  It doesn’t seem to be about what you can do, but what you are – which is the sort of language that feels permanent and un-fixable, unlike a behaviour that could be changed. It’s easy to see why these feelings might be extremely powerful. In fact Prof Gilbert argues that shame is toxic-it stops us feeling connected. We feel unsafe, unlovable, unacceptable, isolated and unhappy. When we feel shame in interactions with others, we start acting as if we are threatened – either aggressively or submissively, which can then mean our relationship is damaged and not knowing how to repair that damage or feeling ashamed of the damage caused, means things spiral out of control.

What about the idea that shame is a way of making sure people behave in socially acceptable ways – that is a helpful emotion for social cohesion?

It seems to me that society is moving away from shame-based approaches to encourage people to act in way that is helpful for society. In general, we are moving from corporal punishment, smacking children and black and white rules for behaviour towards regulating or understanding anti-social, less desirable, or unhelpful behaviours and trying to help people change these. But the desire to judge some as ‘not worthy’ and write them off or treat them as if they don’t have the same rights as everyone else is not far below the surface and with the simplicity and certainty shame and judgement brings, I can see why.

What Prof Gilbert tells us about the difference between shame and guilt, seems to describe this shift. In terms of shame, we see behaviours that make people hide or avoid showing themselves – to make themselves seem acceptable, because that is the threat. This is the brain sensing the threat that we might be cast out of society and left to fend for ourselves and doing anything it can to maintain that place. Shame causes us to want to avoid responsibility, blame the victim, get angry with anyone who stumbles across the bad thing we have done. Because shame is so overwhelming and powerful an emotion that reaches into our core and tells us we are inherently defective.

Of course, it is possible to feel this shame, even when we have done nothing wrong. For example abuse survivors often feel overwhelming shame, but this burden is not theirs, it is the way the abuser has learned to cope with the shame of what they are doing – to pass it on to the victim and avoid responsibility for their actions.

In contrast, guilt is focused on the damage done by our behaviour, and empathy with the person we might have hurt. We are still human, but we have done something terrible. This is altogether a much less overwhelming emotion than shame. It is more likely we will be able to own up to something and take responsibility if we feel guilt for something we have done. The brain will not be detecting the extreme threat of being cast out of society in the same way. Indeed Prof. Gilbert mentioned that criminals that exhibit more guilt are much less likely to reoffend than those who feel more shame for what they have done. Which of course, brings up a lot of questions about our prison system, punishment and rehabilitation which are beyond the scope of this post.

Compassion

Unsurprisingly to work with an emotion that is toxic to connections and relationships, the tools for the job seem to be about cultivating empathy and connection again and bringing down that threatening sense that we are defective, or about to be demoted from our status as a human. This safeness can be experienced by activating the soothing system in safe, respectful compassionate relationships. But what if you have never related to anyone like this and don’t know how to feel safe, no matter how compassionate the other person is?

The good news is that it is possible to activate the soothing system by yourself. Compassion focused therapy (CFT), harnesses the power of our imagination to begin fertilising the ground for the cultivation of safe relationships. As Prof Gilbert explains, we are very good at tricking our brains into reacting to imaginary things – an erotic imagining about someone we have a crush on or that slice of chocolate cake we really want to eat. Our brains and our bodies react to these imaginings as if they are real. And similarly, yelling and judging ourselves, makes us feel under threat and bullied – releasing stress hormones, despite the absence of an external bully.

So CFT is about imagery, about creating feelings of safeness, of being “okay”, while working with the resistance we might feel to these scenarios in the context of a healthy respectful therapeutic relationship. As we learn to activate the soothing system in therapy and in our minds, our brains can relax a little and we can start to feel safe in relationships we make in “real  life”, allowing us to find healthy social connections, to trust and to take responsibility where we have wronged others, or to discard shame that doesn’t belong to us, where we have been abused.

We can then learn to give compassion, receive compassion in healthy relationships and also and importantly, we can learn to give compassion to ourselves (and be willing to receive it).

Prof Gilbert always seems keen to emphasise the courage involved in compassion. It’s not the soft option – far from it. Compassion does require that we are sensitive to suffering. That we notice it. But to approach that suffering, to face those demons, to look into distress and to engage with it and try to prevent or alleviate the pain requires courage and dedication. It is not brave to ignore the cries of someone stuck in a fire or to push our pain down deep and pretend we are fine. It is brave to enter a house on fire to rescue someone or to look deep into our pain and validate and try to soothe it.

I love the idea that therapists are there to en-courage clients – to help us to be courageous in facing our demons, and sometimes to model this courage and “hold” it for us.

Dr Mary Welford – working with compassion in schools

Dr Welford presented the work she had been doing in schools. When using the compassionate mind model with children, adaptations needed to be made. The 3 systems, were each represented by an icon that children could understand. So the drive system was represented by Buzz Lightyear, a danger sign for the threat system and a picture of people connecting/embracing was used to represent the soothing system. Children were introduced to the idea that they were like a mobile phone with apps on it. They could decide which app was being used and if it was unhelpful try to use a different app. So if you were using your “threat app” and everything was still going wrong, maybe switching to the “connection app” and trying to connect with the other person might help more.

The most important point I picked up from this really interesting talk was that it was often a teacher that people remembered when trying to remember a time that someone was compassionate to them. Surely just another reminder about how important teachers are to the emotional wellbeing of children and that they need the space and time to engage in this vital part of their role as well as to cultivate compassion for themselves.

Dr Michelle Cree – working with perinatal shame and compassion 

My sincere apologies to Dr Michelle Cree (and anyone who wanted to read about her talk), who presented an interesting talk on her work with shame and compassion in a perinatal setting. Although I did find the topic interesting, by this time in the afternoon my brain fog was descending and I have very few notes on this work. But there’s a book link here if you want to read more!

I do remember thinking how important this work was. It was good for the mother, but being able to positively influence a person’s mental health before they are even born has to have the potential to reap big rewards for the people involved and for society.

This quote especially stuck with me.

“If we can hear the mother’s cries, then she can hear her baby’s cries” (Ghosts in the Nursery – Fraiberg).

In a similar vein, I would love to see similar work done with young carers, as the burden of care-giving at a young age can be as overwhelming to us as parenthood can be. There are likely to be many similarities around responsibility, self-compassion and guilt/shame and it’s an area that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

I was interested to learn that pregnancy itself causes an increase in the activity of the threat system (presumed to be due to the increased vulnerability to predators), which could potentially start triggering past issues as well causing generalised anxiety. I was also fascinated to learn that the soothing system, part of which involves the bonding hormone, oxytocin has a more complex role, which has a dark side. If we have experienced trauma or negative events connected with the soothing/bonding system, the massive influx of oxytocin around pregnancy and birth can trigger very difficult feelings and memories in us in an unexpected and alarming way. 20160117_223701

I really enjoyed this event and learned a lot about shame and compassion and it is always life-affirming to spend time in the company of people interested in compassion. The settings in which the CFT approach can be applied seem to be endless. I look forward to my own journey with compassion as well as hopefully seeing more of this work reaching more parts of society as time goes on.

The Compassionate Mind Foundation is where you will find more information, events, training and links to the research. I haven’t read a great deal of the research, but my own very detailed qualitative and subjective trial of n=1 is showing promising results!

I will leave it up to you to interpret the evidence base, in terms of impact but a read of “The compassionate mind” certainly puts up a very strong argument for CFT and similar approaches. We know that good outcomes usually come together with social support, emotional resilience and good therapeutic relationships and that bad outcomes usually come from social isolation so I don’t doubt the likely benefits.

I am also not sure the research will ever truly be able to capture the full impact of something that goes to the heart of being human –  helping people feel safe, trust others and connect. It feels to me too amorphous a concept, but there are plenty of people with a great deal of compassion, dedication, courage, determination and intellect doing their best to quantify and conceptualise it as much as is possible and I am hopeful that this work yields great results in terms of ways to help alleviate suffering on this planet.

Fall in love with ordinary

I recently completed a Mindful Self Compassion course with a lovely lady called Annette (http://www.annetteboden.co.uk/mindful-self-compassion) . I will do a post about the course itself when I have some more energy but one of the poems she read to us on the course was “Aimless Love” by Billy Collins.

Billy Collins falls in love with a mouse, a seamstress, a bowl of broth and his soap among other things. We all fall in love on holiday, when we see new beautiful things. But our eyes are so used to our everyday surroundings, it takes effort to notice anything really. That’s okay, it would be extremely hard work to always have to consciously do everything. I wouldn’t know where to begin with walking, for example. And that’s super efficient and excellent, but it does mean the brain is set up to take a lot for granted. On top of that it gets a bit carried away with imagined problems or thinking about the past. Both useful things our brains do to keep us safe, help us achieve our goals and learn lessons but sometimes we struggle to pay much attention to the present moment because of this. And isn’t that kind of where life is?

The poem reminded me of a horrible day walking back from an appointment when exhausted and lost in anxious thoughts. I looked down at my boots and saw they were covered in cut grass. Suddenly I was brought into the present moment. I do like the smell of cut grass and something about the grass all over my boots made me smile. I think it made me feel the delight of getting messy as a kid.

Now obviously no amount of wet blades of grass ruining your boots is going to solve your problems, but it did make one of my many moments of life on planet earth pleasant, nay delightful even. There are plenty of mundane, boring and distressing moments so it’s good to add some weight to the right side of the scales. And the more you do it, and the more you notice it, the more your brain looks for and finds these (sometimes slightly ridiculous) little lovely things and the more lovely moments you have. And you don’t have to go anywhere special to find them. In fact I have found quite a few just sat on my sofa staring out the window.

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So I thought I would make a list of ordinary things I have fallen in love with. Do add your loves in the comments or on twitter or instagram if you would like to share….   #fallinlovewithordinary

 

The purples, greens, black and white of magpie wings, spread wide against clear blue sky.

Magpies – urban peacocks

The moon visible during daylight

The fuzzy bottom of the bumblebee

The tiny landscapes of tree trunks and branches

Newly emerging tiny leaves and baby pine cones

Sunlight through petals

A tiny ant scaling a green mountain

The perfect dandelion clock

The delicate skeleton leaf

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