I promised myself I would post a blog once a week; here it is a month later. Other than life as usual, what happened was a weekend in the Adirondacks, teaching almost every Saturday, and Mom turned 94.
One of my distinct childhood memories of Mom was when she took me to the doctor to get shots. I hated them and was afraid of them, but I could deal with then if I turned my face into her chest and she held me as the pain was administered. She and I knew by instinct something that is no longer fashionable to know: we can’t do it alone, either as children or as adults.
Which is my topic for this post, and I’m glad that Time Magazine just published a relevant article about resilience called “Bounce Back.” (Same issue as “Who Killed Summer Vacation?” as the cover story; think the subjects are related?)
In my last post, entitled “Just a Miracle” I wrote about a client who got dramatic results simply by being joined by another aware human being. Today, I’d like to explain some of how that works in the nervous system. Often when I get all excited about the science behind healing, people ask me, “Who cares?” So I will also explain why I care.
If you’ve been reading my posts, we’ve already established that a nervous system which spends a lot of time in an aroused state–think “fight or flight” or think everyday life on most jobs or most families–can not bring the bodymind into a healing process. In order to heal, you need to regain your ability to be in a physiologically peaceful state. Your skin has receptors which are linked directly to neural networks for embodied self-awareness and can help them grow. The presence of a calm person, especially if it includes safe touch, increases parasympathetic relaxation, lowers blood pressure and heart rate and induces the secretion of oxytocin. All of that reduces anxiety and depression. Thanks, Mom.
Ah, oxytocin, the feel-good hormone and neurotransmitter. It’s what is secreted when moms breastfeed their babies, or partners make love, or you get (or give) a massage, or if anyone (male or female alike) affiliate with others or come to their aid. (I’m getting this information from The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness” Rediscovering the Lost Art of Body Sense by Alan Fogel.) Oxytocin works with others of your body’s opiods to reduce pain and restore the body to normal functioning. Its presence even increases the number of oxytocin receptors in the brain. There is, of course, a corresponding reduction of cortisol and other chemicals of stress that eventually break down the body.
If you remember, my client was in severe pain in her abdominal area, and I placed a hand underneath her as well as over her, holding her on both sides. We paid attention together to where she hurt. I could actually feel it with my hand and told her so. Going towards our pain or fear is the last thing most of us want to do, but it turns out that when we let ourselves feel it while we experience the inner resource of our own presence and/or the outer resource of another person, pain eases.
“It may seem counterintuitive…, but feeling one’s pain or fear in the subjective emotional present activates the homeostatic recovery system of the body so that it has the opportunity to take care of itself.” (Fogel, p. 161). Researchers have found that pain decreases when someone tells you it will diminish (thanks again, Mom). Fear and pain lesson also when you can feel them at the same time as you consider what you can do about them.
Telling the truth about your pain can decrease it. I’ve seen this over and over again: when a client articulates what is actually going on for them, no matter how “negative,” their body will find more ease and more breath. The suppression of pain hurts and gets in the way of healing. In the next blog post, I’ll talk about how words are part of the healing process.
It may not be possible to allow yourself to feel your pain or your “negative” emotions all by yourself. This is not because you are a sissy but because you are a human being with millennia of evolution behind you. Sorry, macho Marlboro man, your attitude is good for only one circumstance in life: you are in dire danger and you actually are all alone. Then you can fight, flee or if that doesn’t work, go numbly into freeze. Actually, that is what most of us do not only because that is what is valued in our culture, but because we grow up in circumstances of not getting help for our needs and traumas.
Even though I knew all of the above, the Time article made it all very clear in a new way:
It doesn’t take a predator to trigger a stress response in modern humans. Some research shows that even feelings of social pain–like rejection and loneliness–zoom along the same neural pathways as fear. “This notion that I’m going to be rejected or fail or won’t be accepted by the group activates the same circuits as if I saw a wolf,” [Dr. Steven Southwick at the Yale School of Medicine] says. It’s an evolutionary hanger-on from when our ancestors survived only in groups. (p.40)
Why does it matter to know this? Because too many of us think we are somehow at fault or deficient if we can’t deal with our stressors all by ourselves. Our macho Marlboro man values have seeped into all of us. I see rape survivor clients feeling ashamed that the can’t just get over it by themselves. I see overloaded, overworked people in many professions feeling that it’s their fault if they can’t hack being exploited. If we don’t know the science behind how we function, how can we return to a balanced way of life?
I know people who go from one health care practitioner to another, all of whom are doing good things for them, but no one is addressing this one crucial issue: are you so overwhelmed that you are not even present in your body? Do you think, at this point of having done everything else right (like nutrition, exercise, acupuncture, medical care, meditation, etc. etc.) the answer will come from what someone else does to you instead of with you?
Mostly what I did for the client with abdominal pain is be a bridge for her to be able to land in herself. Then the healing neurochemicals could circulate in her body; then beneficial neural nets could get activated and start to grow; then she could stay present to her pain and to herself at once; then she could heal. It wasn’t magic, but to our distorted modern sense of how life works, it was a miracle.