Trying to manage pain? F*** it!

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Research shows that swearing helps us to manage pain better. We’ve all had the experience of dropping something on our foot and yelling out a few choice Anglo-Saxon words. Scientists used to believe that doing so focused us more on the negative, and therefore decreased tolerance of pain. New research, however, shows that on the contrary, people who swore while experiencing pain were able to tolerate it for longer, and reported feeling less pain than those who repeated a neutral word.

swearing-294391_1280I’m reminded of a practice client I had a long time back, who was having an intense emotional experience in her life. Standing at her head, I asked her what she was aware of, and her answer was “F*** it!” Encouraged by this plainly authentic response, I mirrored it to her, encouraging her to allow that feeling to flow. Turned out that phrase was everywhere inside her, needing to get out, be felt, and be voiced.

This research brings a new dimension to that session: the idea that giving someone permission to spout profanity when in extremis can help not only release the painful emotions, but make doing so less painful. Anger, too – often associated with such outbursts – can be a powerful way to feel some control over something that hurts.

If the body speaks in metaphors, then swears are one way for the body to release steam. Nice to see work being done on how our use of language relates to our physical and emotional experience.

Dartmouth suggests more research on body-mind therapies!

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A number of sources over the past few days are reporting a recommendation from Dartmouth investigators Peter Payne, SEP, and Mardi Crane-Godreau, PhD, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that body/mind therapies such as Somatic Experiencing be subjected to more rigorous scientific research to examine their efficacy in the treatment of trauma.

I am a big fan of this idea, given that often, the work that I do and its adjuncts are often left in the dark when it comes to scientific inquiry. Skeptics like to place some healing modalities in the “quackery” category, which tends to create a circularly reasoned loop: these things are not backed by good science, therefore they must be unworthy of study, and therefore no science gets done.

The team at Dartmouth is interested in looking into the connection between the well-known effects of stress on morbidity in association with conditions such as cancer, and the relief of stress and associated trauma that is often seen in mental health modalities that incorporate the body. As this science advances, I hope to see more and more of these types of studies coming out of respected institutions, and giving us a more data-driven sense of how this stuff works.

Rewiring your brain out of pain

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When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

Season of Light

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Image by Nic McPhee on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/ziUEh

Light in the darkness

If you believe the astronomical calendar, we were through the darkest time of the year as of yesterday morning, December 22, when the day after the longest night dawned. From here on out, the days get longer and longer, the dark coming a little later every day. But especially for those of us who live in more northerly climes, we know that in our subjective reality, it’s going to get darker from here: the winter is long and hard, and February seems to the time that sufferers of SAD and other types of depression have the worst time.

The holidays are a patch of light in this darkness: for millennia, humans who lived in places where winter covers the earth for a long, dark, cold and scarce period have gathered at this time to bring their resources of fire, food, and fellowship together and huddle close against the encroaching dark. Saturnalia, Yule, Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and others are celebrations that center on the Winter Solstice, or that are observed around the same time and have, at their centers, the symbology of light in the darkness.

With the Solstice passed, Hannukah underway, Christmas on the near horizon, New Year’s Day next week (more light and fireworks!), and Kwanzaa thereafter with its seven candles for the seven principles, the holiday season brings us firmly together in the toughest time of the year to face our fears, strengthen family relationships, and share our light with one another.

This year, I am in sunny southern CA, which is an odd place to celebrate, as Irving Berlin long ago noted. But as I watch the Santa Anas blow outside the window here, and prepare to celebrate with my partner and his family, I feel that same need calling from the depths of my own body memory, from my ancestors (nearly all from Northern Europe), and from the movement of the earth: to draw together, to find the light, to joyfully fatten ourselves against the cold and to laugh and sing against the dark.

Whatever draws you together this season, I hope it brings you joy, warmth, love and light.

Listening to your heart may be more literal than you think

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A man in Brazil, having received a cardiac implant, found – not all that surprisingly – that his body image shifted: he had the odd feeling off having a heart in his belly rather than his chest. But rather more surprisingly, the introduction of the implant “seemed to have markedly altered certain social and emotional skills,” according to David Robson at BBC Future. The article that came out this week, “The mind-bending effects of feeling two hearts,” delves into recent research that shows that our hearts – and body-awareness in general – have a more profound effect on our emotional functioning than even the poets may have known.

A recent experiment asked participants to count their own heartbeats, without putting their hands over their hearts or having any other aid in perceiving them. About 1 in 4 people get something like 50% accuracy; some folks are not very good at perceiving what’s going on inside of them, as I have observed in my own practice. A few, though – also around 1-4 – can achieve an accuracy of 80%. This ability, incidentally, is called introception, a word I’ll definitely be adopting.

After this, the groups were asked to do a series of tests around emotional awareness. The results were astounding:

People with more bodily awareness tend have more intense reactions to emotive pictures and report being more greatly moved by them; they are also better at describing their feelings. Importantly, this sensitivity seems to extend to others’ feelings – they are better at recognising emotions in others’ faces – and they are also quicker to learn to avoid a threat, such as a small electric shock in the lab, perhaps because those more intense bodily feelings saturate their memories, making the aversion more visceral.

In another study aimed at looking at intuition, people who had a more accurate sense of their hearts followed their intuition more. They were asked to pick cards that would win them money if they matched the color of a card on the table. “The game was rigged so that you were slightly more likely to win from two of the decks, and lose if you picked from the other two. Dunn [the researcher] found that the people who could track their heartbeat with the most accuracy would tend to pick from certain decks, whereas those with poor interoception were more likely to choose at random.”

It is not so much that the hunches the more body-aware people followed were always right – quite the contrary. It is more than they tended to follow their hearts, as the saying goes, more often. People with increased body awareness are being found to have richer emotional awareness as well, resulting in a richer experience of life. And those with reduced bodily awareness – including those with certain neurological flaws in the connection between the body and the brain – can suffer everything from depression to depersonalization disorders.

Naturally all of this is exciting for someone who works primarily on helping people increase their body awareness. It is also no wonder that Rubenfeld Synergy can be so powerful: tuning in to the body’s sensations can unlock emotions that are lying dormant and allow them to flow when they have been trapped.

What happens when you listen to your heart?

5 Things Not to Do If You’re Over 40

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Image Copyright Brian Robertson

Last month, I hit the big 4-0. While I don’t go in much for chronological age meaning anything, there are tremendous cultural tropes around what it means to turn 20, to turn 30, to turn 40. 40 always seems more momentous, perhaps because, in this day and age when we are living longer and delaying things like marriage and child-rearing more and more, 40 is still an undeniable start of mid-life: fertility drops precipitously, you’re out of the coveted youth target demographic, and magazines start to tell you what you should and should not do at your advanced age.

I am undergoing a lot of changes around this milestone, personally and professionally, and it is definitely a journey. But my transition to 40 wouldn’t be complete without my giving you, my readers, some unsolicited advice in the form of a listicle.

5 Things Not to Do If You’re Over 40

1. Let other people tell you what you should and should not wear. Magazines and online lists love to tell “women over 35″ or whatever (as if we were a monolith) what we should wear. Respectfully, I say: f— that. If you want to wear leopard capris and gladiator sandals, go for it. If you want to show off your cleavage, or wear skinny jeans, or bedeck your arms in a bunch of bangles, strut your stuff! If you like high-necked tops, if you feel best in your sweatpants, if you’re a guy who wants to wear skirts or a woman who wants to wear a suit, if you want to go out in the street looking like Bozo the Clown, it is absolutely none of my business, nor that of any media outlet. Wear what makes you feel awesome, no matter your age!

2. Hate your own body. Many of us spend our teen years, 20s, 30s, hell, our entire lives – hating their bodies. Turning 40 turned me on to a number of things, but one of them was letting go of the idea of perfection. This is my body. I live in it. The best I can do is take care of it, be kind to it, move it around a lot, and listen to its song. Cursing myself for having stretch marks (since I was 13!) or cellulite or too big a butt or too small breasts or whatever is a waste of time and emotional energy. With each passing year I keep getting stronger, more graceful, more aware of myself in space, and the more I love my body the more it gives back.

3. Lie about your age. Being forever 29 is not a virtue; it’s a way of buying into the dominant culture’s obsession with remaining young forever. It’s true that you are as young as you feel, and lying about your age doesn’t make you seem wiser for your years: it makes you seem shallow. Age, after all, is where we learn who we are, and what things about ourselves we can and cannot change. In this process we can refine our energies and choose what we spend our time on more wisely. I choose to spend more time being who I am, where and when I am.

4. Be a grown-up. 40 is an age where it’s easy to imagine that you should have learned everything by now, that you have no more growing to do, that you should Be An Adult, Dammit, And No More Screwing Around. While responsible adulthood is a good thing to aspire to, being 40 doesn’t mean you no longer get to play, learn, evolve, change your mind radically, or take up a new hobby or life-threatening sport. Behaving youthfully has been shown to actually keep you young, and a flexible, open mind and active body tend to be self-perpetuating.

5. Believe You Should Have Arrived By Now. Some people are late bloomers. My favorite example is Grandma Moses, who only started painting in earnest at age 78 and became an icon of American art. One of my major anxieties about hitting 40 is this notion that I Haven’t Done Anything Yet: I haven’t published a novel, or started a family, or Built a Career. (Notice all of these things in Initial Caps, and how seriously I take them. :) But I’ve done many things that other people haven’t: run a small business, directed several plays, acted in several others, sung at Symphony Hall. I’ve had an adventurous life so far, and it’s been a winding path with no clear destination. It’s my belief that all lives are basically like that: there is no arrival. Wherever you go, there you are. 40 is a milestone, but not a millstone. Don’t worry about whether you’ve arrived. You’re still on the journey.

What things do you want to keep in mind as you get older?

 

What if we could not waste one more moment hating our bodies?

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Image by Andrea Perrish-Geyer

Image by Andrea Perrish-Geyer

A moving column in CNN last month revealed the thing that the dying often regret the most: all the time they spent hating their own bodies.

Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain, shared her experiences of talking with the dying. A 75-year-old woman dying of cancer just wants one more piece of caramel cake. But her diet, even in her last days, is being severely restricted.

‘Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick.’

She looked up and this time tears trembled along her bottom eyelids.

‘But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?’

Even in this very article, the ironic click bait that comes in the midst of this statement is a linked line that says, “The link between fat and cancer.” It seems that nothing, not even an article explicitly about how we should appreciate our bodies more, can escape fat-shaming.

But Egan makes the read worth it.

What does it mean that so many voices out there insist that the body is something to despise because it is too fat, sinful, ugly, sexual, old or brown? That we teach each other, in thousands of blatant and quiet ways, to think we are shameful? That our bodies are something to be overcome, beaten into submission or to be despised?

How do these voices telling us that we are supposed to hate our bodies affect our notions of how we care for the sick, disabled, elderly, children, mothers, soldiers, workers, immigrants, men and women? What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.

How we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other. How we treat our own bodies is how we treat ourselves. How can you treat your own body with more gentleness, more forgiveness, more enjoyment, more dancing?

How our minds can make us young again

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Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

This remarkable article, “What if Age is Just a Mindset?”, about the work of psychologist Ellen Langer, ran this week in the New York Times. Its basic idea – that our minds have more power over the youth and health of our bodies than we’ve dared to imagine – is one that is near and dear to me and my work in ways that any readers of this blog already know.

[Langer]’s one of the people at Harvard who really gets it…That health and illness are much more rooted in our minds and in our hearts and how we experience ourselves in the world than our models even begin to understand.

Langer – a plainly dynamic and driven woman from the Bronx who reminds me not a little of Ilana Rubenfeld in this profile – has done experiments throughout her career that show the ways that our mindset can profoundly affect our physical health. Over time, “she came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological ‘prime’ — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.”

Perhaps the most famous of these experiments occurred in 1981, when Langer took a group of people in their 70s, and put them in a temporary time-warp: for five days, they lived, behaved, and were immersed in an environment that mirrored 1959. They were asked not just to reminisce, but to speak and behave as if they were 22 years younger. At the end of the five days, by several biological metrics, “they were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had ‘put their mind in an earlier time,’ and their bodies went along for the ride.”

They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.

In the course of many years of work, Langer has continued to find that “mind-set manipulation can counteract presumed physiological limits,” with the ultimate goal being to “return the control of our health back to ourselves.”

Like Rubenfeld Synergists, Langer also places a strong importance on mindfulness, “on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual‘ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

The implications of her work are profound for those of us who work in the knowledge that when we help shift people’s relationship to their bodies, we can help them change how their bodies move in the world – and therefore, how rich and engaged their lives are.

Read the whole article and marvel at the implications here.

 

Hugs, but only if you want them.

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More and more articles lately on consent culture and how to raise a generation of people who are secure in their own bodily autonomy, and respect others’ as well. Here’s one I liked this week: Why I Will Never Tell My Daughter to Give You a Hug.

In short: forcing kids to hug and kiss or be hugged and kiss when they don’t want to is a seemingly innocent part of an overall culture where we’re made to believe that our bodies are not our own.

If there’s one thing I’d like every child on the planet to learn and internalize, it is this:

Your body is yours. It is your home, your best friend, and the physical instrument of your will and your heart. If someone violates it, that is wrong.

In my work with clients, I try to help them connect with that place in themselves where their bodies – which they may see as burdens, as betrayers, as sites of pain, as limiting lumps of clay – are in fact their healers, their guardians, their homes, and their places of possibility. Having and feeling control over when and how you are touched is a huge part of the process of bringing a body back together with the mind that inhabits it.

Contact me if this sounds like something you could use help with. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sexism hurts all of us.

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I stumbled across this entire series a few days ago. The first part is about how women often experience sexism. This second part, below, is about how boys and men are affected.

While I powerfully related to the part about women’s experiences, the part about men’s really touched me. From my time in high school, when I took it upon myself to defend my gay best friend from relentless bullying, through today, where I work with so many men who have spent their lives in a culture that has made them feel they must live up to unrealistic ideals of masculinity, and, like so many women, are trying to find their own value in the bodies and minds and hearts that they have.

The artist is Rasenth at Tumblr.

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