Using Your Whole Brain to Avoid Drama

A few months back, my sister and I were chatting about how she had learned to cope with her kids’ misbehavior and meltdowns. Unlike the old school European tactics of our parents, she had discovered a way that built a level of self awareness in her children even some adults lack. This magical teaching tool is No-Drama Discipline (image above) written by two of psychology’s leading experts in parenting.

I decided I wanted to read this book not because I am or will be a parent anytime soon nor because it is required reading for my grad school endeavors. What appealed to me about it was gaining another level of understanding the way in which our brains react to emotional situations. While it may be geared toward parents trying not to psychologically scar their children in the process of raising them, its tools can be applied to almost any relational conflict in life.

The WHOLE brain…

The authors speak of the brain in two parts – an upstairs and a downstairs. This rather simple separation makes sense in terms of our reactions. Think of your upstairs brain as your rational, intellectual side that likes to problem solve and think through things before it reacts. It’s the part that has had many millennia of trial and error to evolve into the task master that it is. The downstairs brain is your primitive, reptilian side that reacts immediately and strongly to things that stimulate it. It’s governed by emotional reflexes and, if left to its own devices, would have kept us from ever becoming “human.” The whole-brain approach these experts describe is getting the upstairs and downstairs to work together in order to build a positive sense of self, accountability and resilience, delayed gratification and a host of other mindful things in children.

Adults can have trouble integrating their upstairs and downstairs brains too. We have ALL been there; a situation where reason flies out the window and we would sooner punch a wall than ask questions. That’s the downstairs brain running the show. This reactivity is noted by the authors as being a plea for help or a sign that a child doesn’t know how to process and express the BIG feelings that have overwhelmed him or her in that moment. Adults, too, can have trouble articulating BIG feelings, especially if there is a level of vulnerability involved. What it boils down to is if you punch that wall, will you still be loved? If you are at your lowest, will people still be there for you? If you are your worst self, can you still be lovable? The answers to these questions are in the following steps.

Step 1 – The Connection Cycle

In dealing with relational conflict, the authors emphasize tuning in to the mind beneath the behavior (77).  This is focusing not on what the person has done or said, but on the underlying why. This is sometimes easier said than done; however in the initial moments of the behavior’s aftermath, connecting with the other person begins to communicate a sense of comfort. The connection cycle begins with a physical touch, followed by validating where the other person is emotionally, listening to what they have to say and then reflecting on it. This first step demonstrates that you know the person may be in a bad way at the moment, but you are there and willing to understand them. This approach teaches our kids how to love through good times and bad, as well as promotes the secure attachment vital for their healthy, future adult relationships. Cue the word adult..

Step 2 – A little Redirection

Connection is very much about being in the present moment. While you can’t bend time to undo the offending or upsetting behavior, the “moment” doesn’t have to define the other person, the relationship or life as you both know it. With connection established, you now have a firm grip on why the downstairs brain ran amok. In order to get the upstairs brain on board to resolve the situation, the authors refer to a series of strategies in redirection. I’ve chosen the ones that best apply to adult conflict.

Reduce words – Do not nag, lecture or harp on what happened, since the why behind the behavior is known. Do not do this days, weeks or months after the conflict either. People tune out or conversely, ruminate on the negative. No one feels good in the end.

Describe, don’t preach – I’ve placed this after the above because it relates to what you say. Just describe what you observe. Take all the emotional language, assumptions and judgement out of it. If anything, ask them to help you understand what happened.

Embrace emotions -You want to make sure they know it’s okay to feel BIG emotions, but they are not a license to ACT. This is done through setting boundaries i.e. the standards of behavior that are okay and not okay, while also maintaining connection and being empathetic (97).

Emphasize the positive – Give your focus and attention to behavior you want to see repeated. Statements like “I love it when you…” or “It makes me so happy when we…” open up a dialogue that redirects from the negative thing that happened.

Creatively approach the situation – Humor and playfulness are just as fun in adulthood as they are in childhood. While some situations may be serious, there are still ways of poking fun at ourselves (e.g. Wow, I was being a crazy pants back there!) or at the circumstances (e.g. I feel like this Emoji face right now…and then doing it).

The last strategy of redirection involves teaching mindfulness. One important tool is the do-over defined as a second chance at handling a situation, which is meant to build a child’s empathy and mindfulness. Ask questions like, What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? Ask yourself those same questions.

Mindfulness is the most honest resolution to any relational conflict.

Reading this book allowed me to understand the why behind the demise of a close friendship. It also helped me to have a difficult conversation with someone I cared for deeply with more presence and understanding than if I let my hurt feelings do the talking. Moreover, it paints conflict resolution as a warm and nurturing experience; something I never experienced growing up, but I can now model for my present and future relationships. This book is LIFE!

 

To order a copy: https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/034554806X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to be mindful with a mind that’s full in 2017

Welcome to the end of the first week of the New Year. I am not alone in saying that 2016 presented its fair share of obstacles, life altering experiences and game changing events. None of us want a repeater in 2017. Last week, I set out to create an image of how I wanted this year to unfold. Within this image was a list of intentions to guide me along the process. Why not resolutions, you ask? There is a huge difference between resolving something and intending to act. The former implies that there is something wrong; that there is unfinished business hindering you from getting to where you want to be. To make such a list drives into your consciousness all the failures, road blocks and let downs of years’ past. Intentions are purposeful actions. I intend to hug strangers, eat broccoli, travel to Cuba and so on. Intentions allow you to be mindful even if the rest of your brain is locked up in the junk of 2016.

Doing for ME above all others…

One of the most powerful intentions I put on that list, which set the tone for all the others that followed was doing for ME above all others. This is huge! I am an empath and a nurturer. My profession by definition draws on both these qualities, sometimes to depletion point. Oftentimes, I forget myself and my own needs. Therefore, placing ME at the top of my intentions keeps me mindful of number 1. Channeling that nurture inward allows my higher self to steer me forward. She’s the one with the clear voice and my best intentions in mind. Her judgement of situations and people is never cloudy. She is my gut and she is always spot on. If this is too woo-woo for some of you, let me rephrase it as learning to put your needs first. If it puts you last on the list, just say NO.

Walk away from other people’s tornadoes…

You cannot take on or personalize other people’s struggles in this life. Once again, the empathic nurturing self wants to provide solutions, love the pain away, walk alongside them in their process. What you need to realize is that it is their process, not yours and trying to invite yourself into the tornado leaves a destructive path in its wake. As my post on unconditional love explored, it’s okay to walk away.

Any kind of day can be made better by working out…

I told myself whenever I was feeling off in some way or another, I would do a quick workout and then re-evaluate how I was feeling. Being in your physical body prevents you from ruminating and that form of distraction can reset your nervous system in profound ways. Feel good hormones called endorphins surge through your system every time you exercise. Why not take advantage of nature’s mood elevators? Who here has 15-20 minutes a day to feel good? I DO!!

Fantasize like a 5-year old…

Small children fantasize 24/7. Their play incorporates a ton of make believe and they love telling long drawn out stories of what they envision their future/fantasy selves to be like. My niece is always telling me her I want to be a princess fantasy complete with what her hair will look like and the types of rooms in her home. Why is it so hard for us adults to do the same? The inability to fantasize about certain things I desire for myself is like telling my inner 5 year old not to dream because I don’t believe it will come true.  There is power in falling in love with that story or as a close friend put it watching the movie of your life play out all the while rooting for the heroine – YOU. I intend to tell myself elaborate stories of future me with as many details as possible and enjoy the vision in progress.

As my list took form, I felt an energetic shift within myself. The first week of the New Year has been an optimistic one not because anything profound has actually happened, but because I feel more at home within myself than ever before. Let the above intentions guide you in making a list of your own. See what shifts occur within you. This is YOUR year.

My Social Clock is Ticking

Depending on the society you live in and/or culture you identify in, there are certain expectations of accomplishment by the milestone ages of young adulthood. Much like the tell tale biological clock, the social clock ticks away throughout the lifespan signaling you to get your shit together with the rest of your age group. Career establishment, finding a life partner, starting a family, buying a home and so forth are markers set in a chronological order determined by society (hence it being a social clock). The biggest enforcers of this clock are within families i.e. your parents. They will assess you as you progress through young adulthood and give verbal reminders of where you “should” be by the age you are. They make fun comparisons to other people in your age group, usually friends and relatives who have accomplished what you have not. Society doesn’t do you any favors either, as the media drills what is appropriate for your chronological section of the population. Suddenly, the guy in the Lowes commercial kind of looks like you, as he sands down his deck and gets ready to grill some food for his family. The 20 something year old actress with her swollen baby bump stands next to the mid 30’s journalist with a smaller bump and they compare pregnancy symptoms and the helpfulness of their respective partners. You get the picture.

What happens when you haven’t satisfied all the “shoulds” for the age that you are? This is an existential exploration that some are perfectly okay with (i.e. they don’t care) and others derive extreme distress from. Here is where it gets personal.

I spent the bulk of my 20s in suspended animation. I don’t want to say it was time wasted; however, my eating disorder coupled with maladaptive cognitive distortions kept me from really establishing myself in the world as a career person, continuing my education or having a healthy romantic relationship. It wasn’t until my 30th year that I entered “the game.” I recovered, met and entered into what became a long term cohabitative relationship and went back to school to establish a more stable career. Now 35, I am at another transition point. The career is established, but my mind and body yearn for something more. I decided to go back to school again to make that happen. The relationship is no longer and the biological yearnings have kicked up their volume three-fold. I’m the healthiest physically I have ever been in my life, but emotionally I feel like I am in what psychologist Erikson described as the conflict of young adulthood – intimacy vs. isolation. His theory notes that a secure identity makes intimacy possible because you will be able to open your own self up to a permanent commitment to a partner, share in their interests and values as well as be faithful and develop love. If intimacy isn’t achieved, then isolation is the result, which for those who rejected intimacy or had insecure identity produces a sense of self-absorption or loneliness at the other extreme. You’re essentially in a state of searching for the ONE…beginning with YOU!

All those self-help books and talk shows do have a point when they stress being in a relationship with and loving yourself first before anyone else can love you. Attraction and passion come a lot more easily than compassion and love. American society is very attraction and passion driven. The latter two qualities are only possible if you have a secure sense of yourself. Starting from childhood, how your parents raised you will determine what sense of self you develop by early adulthood. Did they make you feel warm, supported and safe? Or were they nurturing in practical ways, but not very emotionally demonstrative of their love? Were they absentee due to work or their own life struggles, making you feel like you were last on the priority list? Although many people can still have a healthy self concept in some pretty gnarly childhood circumstances, the warm, supportive parenting style i.e. authoritative is going to set you up for success in the intimacy department.

Your parents might play a huge part in setting you up for success or failure, but taking responsibility for your own actions, thoughts and feeling is also important. Doing the work to build a secure sense of yourself. In exploring some of my existential issues, I find myself wishing I belonged in the “I don’t care” group who continue along their life path paying no mind at all to the social clock. The thing is, they have created their own social clock or as the English expression goes “they walk to the beat of their own drum.” Live for you; not for others’ expectations. I find that I haven’t been doing enough of the former and I’m not alone. And as if we need any more motivation, know that the buildup of stress hormones in the blood at this early age can cause your organs and body systems to fail sooner by the time you make it to a ripe old age. So, take a deep breath, let go of the distress and open your heart to loving you and creating a time line of goals that resonate with your needs and desires, separate from family, culture or society. The time is now…

 

 

Massage for a Broken Heart

This too shall pass…

One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.

When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.

Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.

Brain and pain rhyme for a reason, kids.

One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body.  Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.

The profession of FIXING

The therapeutic relationship between client and therapist can get tricky when there is transference. This is a psychological phenomenon where an unconscious redirection of feelings occurs between people. These feelings are usually rooted in a relationship pattern from childhood yet unresolved. Some level of transference is normal and quite common. For instance, a client might pick a therapist who reminds them of their mother, transferring that role of nurturer onto them. However, when transference gets in the way of the therapeutic work it can put professional ethics and boundaries into question.

Today was the first time I let transference affect my work. I ended up resenting a client over something that had absolutely nothing to do with me. Here is what happened.

My client had literally no range of motion in his neck. He could neither actively nor passively turn or flex his neck any way but straight forward. I had never encountered this level of rigidity before, but I was inspired by the challenge. During our intake, he told me he had a stiff neck more years than I had been alive. With a slight sarcasm he said, “Let’s see what you can do.” In that moment, my client became my father, a man I had attempted to please my entire life to no avail. The emotions surrounding being constantly not good enough followed with that transference. His statement became a dare to see if I could FIX him. An affront to my skills set and experience. A sign that I was being set up for dismissal. Of course, I accepted the challenge determined to prove him wrong.

See daddy, I know something; lots of somethings.

I dug into my tool box of techniques and, while manually supporting the weight of his head with one hand, I used the strength of my fingers and fist to try and “melt” the cement strips that were his neck muscles. I worked methodically and repetitively on every muscle I could access in the posterior and anterior neck. With each little glimmer of movement, I became hopeful that his range would improve. By the time the massage ended though, I had only been able to get limited improvement. I didn’t FIX his problem. FAIL.

The thing is, the dare he posed to me was probably based on a presumption that the massage was not going to do anything for him. He arrived closed off to the work and with an unwillingness for change. When one is not open to change, nothing changes. Case in point, his stiff neck stayed as rigid as ever. As I gave him advice on aftercare, he kind of grunted and waved his hand in the air at me. It’s unfortunate that he disregarded my expertise, but I didn’t have to take it so personally.

The resentment bubbled up as the rest of the day progressed and like a good little masochist, I started to feel guilty about my transference. My more experienced colleague reminded me that our job as massage therapists is not to FIX people, despite our innermost desire at times to see an outcome immediate; a change enacted from our work in the flesh, so that we can feel a sense of accomplishment. I have that glitch within my matrix. I love it when a client says to me, “Oh my god, I feel like I have a new body” and other things to that affect after coming to me in some state of restriction/imbalance/rickety-ness. I should have derived my sense of accomplishment from the sheer fact that I gave him the best care possible despite his limitations. I’m taking today as a humbling reminder that I am not in the profession of FIXING. All I can do is invite them into a therapeutic environment, where they can feel safe to let go. Beyond that, I can only FIX myself.