Saturday, January 9, 2016

New Year's Resolutions

Each year people attempt to set goals. Unfortunately, many people fall far short of achieving these goals.

Is it laziness? Is it lack of directedness? Do they give up too easily?

Nope, it's none of these.

Around this time of year people start forming their New's Year's resolutions. And, there's sound reasoning why structuring your goals makes sense. Setting a time to begin creates a boundary. And, boundaries help us.

I don't believe in laziness. No one is really ever lazy. They are tired or in dorsal.

I think human beings when they are healthy, are not lazy. A healthy--emotionally, physically and spiritually--healthy human beings love the feeling of being alive. It's in our nature to want this.

Couple things. Titrate your goals. As much as you want to get going, unless you allow your body time to adjust to the changes, you may inadvertently sabotage your efforts.

What am I talking about? You think your goals are all in your head? We've learned from somatic therapy that any challenge we set for ourselves is accompanied by activation, more or less depending on our history.

Activation is an enormously important concept to understand when it comes to setting goals for yourself. You see the higher your activation, the more difficulty you will face in following through on your goals. The reason is that the higher your activation, the more your reptilian brain will be in control--this is despite your best intentions. The lower your activation, the easier it will be to ask yourself to do something, and the more likely you will succeed at doing it.

You see, when we have high activation , the reptilian brain moves into conservation mode. New environments, new behaviours raise our activation. If your reptilian brain is revving too high, it hijacks the left get's harder to think through on the things we want. More of your thinking will be on what the reptilian brain thinks is, sleep, feeling settled emotionally.

What can you do to assure your success? Titrate. Put your goal into small, measureable chunks. As you reach success...maybe engaging in the behaviour at the pace you anticipated...challenge yourself to the next step. If you are not able to follow through on a goal a couple times in a row, move back to an earlier stage. (anyone suffering from anxiety and depression are naturally high in activation)

The higher our activation, the more likely we will engage in old procedures. Any routine behaviour, any response to a stimulus (my mother walking in the door, a TV show, a smile on my friend's face, the sight of a donut) are all accompanied by an internal response. My shoulders rise up, my face turns red, my gut clenches, my arms relax, my feet feel tingly. These are all typical ways our nervous system responds when we think of something, look at something or move towards something.

Any task I undertake, has a series of behaviours that make up a procedure. Brushing my teeth, driving my car, typing on the computer, singing a song are all procedures. I do them seamlessly. But not the first time I did them.
Procedures often take a long time to set in the brain and once they've been imprinted they're the darnest to get out. In fact, procedures never leave us. We always have those pathways.

The general idea is sound, for there is a ton of research that says social support, i.e. satisfying relationships with family, friends and community, is almost a guarantee of a longer and happier life. In contrast, a lack of social support is tied with smoking as a risk factor for heart disease.

The explanation appears to be that connecting with others helps reduce excess levels of stress by reducing its adverse effects on the arteries and immune system. In addition, caring behavior may stimulate a type of hormonal activity that counters stress.

There's a catch to this advice, however . . . you need to be... (continue reading article)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Stress Free with a myShrink Squeeze Ball

myShrink's Personal Musings

I love poking fun at Big Pharma! And even though I have a healthy respect for some medications (I hate pain!), the reality is that anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs are being used as a panacea where therapy clearly could have been the better choice.
In many cases, psychotherapy is not even suggested to the client/patient!*

Squeeze ball approach to stress

Squeeze balls may not be able to cure your anxiety, however the method of channeling pent up energy - the basis for applying the squeeze ball technique - will and can reduce built-up tension.
That's because consciously repeating the "squeeze and release" movement engages the nervous system directly.

This tactile experience bypasses the left brain and acts directly on the right brain. And that's where you need to go to get relief from stress.
Because they're portable (no one will even guess what you're using them for), you can pull them out at the office and quietly squeeze away. Or use it sitting in your favourite easy chair and relax even more.


" it's easier to swallow!"

Get immediate relief without taking a pill!


*For more information on these views check out the page: Questioning Medications.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Being Triggered by Halloween?

Hi Everyone, I thought you might enjoy this article given the time of year. It's about being triggered by scary movies so I thought it might be in keeping with the spirit of Halloween.

For many folks, Halloween is a great fun time. Nonetheless, we don't all experience special days and holidays in the same way.

In my work with clients I've learned that if our trauma is related in any way (even in ways we cannot recall), we can be triggered. For instance, the goulish images, mock death scenes and frightening rituals of Halloween can evoke powerful flashbacks for some folks.

Does this surprise you?

Halloween is celebrated as a way to help us playfully deal with our fears. But if fears are rooted in unresolved trauma we might experience this event a little differently.

You see, if trauma is not resolved both emotionally and psychophysiologically it doesn't matter to the body that it happened years ago. The part of the brain that records trauma doesn't time-stamp it. There are good reasons for this.

The brain needs easy access to information that's critical to our survival. It's important to understand that trauma memories are very different from memories of people, places or book learning. These latter types of memories are prone to, "where did I park that darn' car of mine!"



The Brain that Ate Milwaukee

"How Horror Flicks Make you Scared"

A friend once told me that she used to enjoy horror flicks. Emelia said it was the only time she felt 'normal' because she knew that everyone in the theatre was feeling the same paralyzing fear that she felt every day.

Our tolerance for suspense and what's considered scary is miles away from what it was a mere fifty years ago. Some folks might say, we've become more "sophisticated".

Others suggest we've numbed ourselves to the horrors. With the increasing numbers of stress-related illnesses and the spread of anxiety and depressive related symptoms, this might be the more plausible explanation. It certainly confirms what I see in my therapy office.
You see, nowadays we're way too "activated".

Stress-related illness, anxiety and depression are symptoms of intense levels of activation. And, the higher one's level of activation--that is, the higher our internal rate of buzzing--the less conscious we are of what's around us. It takes more to grab our attention.

Not that we don't notice things. Some folks with high activation are hypervigilant about changes in the environment. But the higher our activation the less choice we have about what we can focus on. It's like seeing all the trees in front of you but failing to realize it's a forest.

But Emelia's comment just might be the biggest clue. With all of us buzzing a little higher these days, it takes a lot more to get an emotional reaction out of us. Horror flicks today more closely "match" our internal rate of activation.

Danger and Activation

Activation is a measure of how dangerous the world appears to us. That's how we get more activated - the brain learns through direct experience. With each negative or traumatic episode our brain buzzes a little higher.

The most important part of the equation is that the higher our activation the more the brain is dominated by the primitive, reptilian brain. The reptilian brain manages basic functions such as eating, breathing and sleeping including the survival mechanisms associated with fight, flight or freeze.

Not that we need to physically move into flight or fight to know we're operating in reptilian mode. We do it seamlessly as fantasies enter our consciousness.

The higher my activation the more I tend to notice things in a movie theatre that for others would be totally unimportant (i.e. where the exit doors are, or how many people are sitting near me). So in effect I've become a little more "street smart". The downside is that I'm less internally reflective, less conscious of social niceties, and less able to concentrate objectively.

It's a strange paradox. While high activation renders us hypervigilant to particular cues in the environment, it can also make us less aware of the wider world around us. That's because more brain resources are being dedicated to survival-related needs. And, none of this is under my conscious control.

Movie Therapy

Movies have the potential to evoke powerful emotions including fears. It's probably why most people go to them. Moreover, our reactions to movies can often illuminate some curious aspects about ourselves.

In fact, I believe some folks experience deeper emotions in movie-land than they do in their everyday lives.

Watching a movie is actually one of the few situations that approaches being in therapy. Indeed, the potential for us to shift emotionally when absorbed in a movie is quite high.

Moreover, choosing the right movie at a critical juncture in one's life can challenge and inspire us.

In the days following the opening of "Rocky" (or "Chariots of Fire") sales of running shoes shot through the roof. And how many couples tried a little harder after watching "Kramer vs Kramer"? Almost everyone could describe at least one movie that has inspired them.

But, not all movies are inspirational and they needn't be. Some are just for fun. As a psychotherapist, I've often "prescribed" such movies as "The Gods Must Be Crazy" or "Analyze This" for resourcing a depressed client between sessions.

frightened man

And then there are those movies that are downright chilling. Even so, sometimes this experience has less to do with the movie and more to do with who's watching it. In other words, it all depends on what's going on in the reptilian brain.

Movies are triggering.

I remember the first time I watched the movie "Speed" and how I was on the edge of my seat when the car chase finally ended. My shoulders were tense, my breathing was shallow, my gut was tight. I wasn't upset though. I was excited. My body was responding in a patterned way, a survival-based pattern that's arisen through the milenium of human evolution.

Terry, a friend of mine, watched the same movie. But his response, although similar, was different than mine. His arousal pattern didn't reach the height that mine did. We know each other well around movie scenes like these and we have our own quirky ways of managing activation. Terry is constantly up and about, fixing this, putting away that, during the action highs and lows.

When I anticipate a scary part coming up, I run into the next room and wait until he says it's safe to come back!

Movies and Your Health

What few people know is that how we experience a suspenseful or scary movie, depends to a large extent upon the health of our nervous system, reflected in how activated we are.

A healthy nervous system that's frightened easily recovers, returning to its baseline (i.e. homeostasis). It bounces back to normal faster.

However, if a nervous system is compromised by too much activation, there is literally not enough "room" to contain increasing excitement or fear. This extra energy spills over into symptoms such as increased anxiety, feeling speedy or wound up, being fidgety or restless.

...that is, until months and years later of unrelenting overstimulation we finally tap out. It's at this point that the body moves into a low arousal state called "dorsal". We're all born with the ability to move into dorsal.

In fact, dorsal is the dominate state we're born with. It's that flat, low energy
state often associated with brain fog. We move into the dorsal state when the nervous system has been compromised with chronically high levels of activation for too long.

You might recognize it if you found it hard to concentrate or focus on task. At the movie theatre you just might find yourself falling asleep.

The level of activation in your nervous system is a gauge of the latter's resiliency. You can think of activation on a continuum ranging from relaxation at one end to increasing tension at the other.

High activation in the nervous system is like a tightly wound coil that's on a hair trigger. The more activated the nervous system, the less likely you'll enjoy the exhilaration of tense movie moments. So, as Emelia became more in tune with her body, she could no longer tolerate the activating charge of over-the-top movie images.

A movie that's too activating for the nervous system can imprint upon your memory so strongly that you may have a hard time letting go - think of the dead girl climbing out of the TV screen in The Ring! A frightening scene can keep you buzzing and haunt you long after the movie's over.

frightened female

There came a point where Emelia, for instance, could no longer handle being at a horror flick. Her body said "no more". She learned that if she saw a scary movie she'd become even more agitated and reclusive in the days that followed. She'd be haunted not only by the graphic images she'd seen but also by flashbacks triggered by her own personal history.

We're not always aware of what triggers us.

A scene from a movie can launch the nervous system into heightened arousal by triggering a traumatic memory that's been totally forgotten. When this happens, you can leave the theatre and have no idea why you're feeling disturbed, agitated or unsettled.

I remember seeing "The Shipping News " for the first time. It was an afternoon matineƩ and the theatre was mildly crowded; I was looking forward to seeing Kevin Spacey, one of my favourite actors. Wouldn't you know it, a few minutes into the movie and I couldn't sit still. I couldn't find a comfortable position, and fidgeted, twitched, and shifted constantly in my seat. I drove my partner nuts!

On the plus side, this provided some good material for a few therapy sessions of my own...

Why we get triggered.

Movies easily trigger our excitement, our fears, and our emotions. In other words, they increase our activation. In the darkness of the cineplex, we can experience a range of sensations and emotions. But, good or bad, that's why we love 'em!

Movies are triggering because the raw images and sounds are processed directly by the reptilian brain.

It's only after this sensory information is processed by the lower brain that the neocortex (i.e. the thinking brain) gets involved (albeit milliseconds later). It's that brief delay between the reptilian brain's reaction and the neocortex's realization (that "it's only a movie") that accounts for why we get triggered.

In other words, when high activation is triggered in an artificial situation like a cineplex, the neocortex ends up having to override the reactions and compulsions of the reptilian

scared male

So you can tell yourself it's only a movie (your cortex is online), but your reptilian brain says otherwise. To the primitive brain, those images are the real deal!

So, here's what happens...

  • The heart beats quickly and forcefully.

  • Hormones flood the bloodstream.

  • Breathing becomes shallow and rapid.

  • The eyes dilate (to better identify the source of danger).

  • Blood is transferred from the surface of the skin to the muscles.

  • And, you get goose bumps all over.

It doesn't matter whether our fears are based in reality or imagination; the nervous system (i.e. the brain) responds in the same way!

One technique that movies use to reel us in is scaring us through the use of sound, including music. They take advantage of the fact that the brain is wired to process each and every note. We can shut our eyes but it's impossible to ignore the soundtrack.

Try closing your eyes during a scary movie. Your body will still get agitated if the score is effective in communicating threat.

From an evolutionary point of view, this all makes sense. The brain is wired this way so we can hear danger approaching even when we're asleep. Sound travels to the "front of the line" claiming our attention, whether we're awake or asleep; it's our built-in "early warning system" for survival. We don't become consciously aware of it (i.e. it doesn't get assessed by the cortex) until after it has been processed by the reptilian brain.

Remarkable, eh?

movie theatre

It was only after Emelia learned how to lower her activation level, that she could return to the joys of carefree movie-watching. Even so, her choices are very different today. They reflect a new appreciation and a wariness for what she allows into her brain--and into her life.

How did she reduce her activation level

Through a body-based therapy. The primitive brain is the power source for our emotions. Body-based psychotherapy works directly with the reptilian brain by accessing and modifying the neural wiring that underlies physical and emotional symptoms.

So the next time you're at the cineplex, here are seven signs to look out for to tell if you've been tirggered:

Seven Signs of Being Triggered

  1. Feeling restless or fidgety in your seat. (High activation)

  2. Feeling an urge to leave the theatre. Or, playing out emergency fantasies in your head. (Both are evidence of fight or flight.) Personally, I think I've played out more fire fantasies than a firefighter!

  3. Finding it hard to stay awake. (Dissociation)

  4. Getting bored when everyone else finds it interesting. (Numbing, associated with dissociation)

  5. Compelled to torque your body in an awkward position or overly leaning to one side. (High activation triggers defensive maneuvers)

  6. Buzzing throughout your body. (Discharge)

  7. Jiggling legs. (Discharge, stuck in a feedback loop)

When you look back at your reactions to a particular movie, remember that your body-based state before see the movie can also have an effect. For instance, if crowds
makes you nervous you may already be in an activated state when the movie starts.

Other things that can influence your movie enjoyment:

  • You normally feel fidgety and restless in public places.

  • You drank too much coffee or tea. (caffeine buzz)

  • You haven't slept for three days and now you're falling asleep. Well, that's a no brainer!

  • You're on a first date. (Congratulations, and good luck!)

  • You're mad at your partner and s/he is sitting beside you!

Tips for calming a revved up nervous system.

If you've become too charged up watching a movie the best strategy--in the short term--is to dial down on your sensory overload. This gives your body an opportunity to discharge the hormonal energy that got triggered. Try lowering the lights, shutting off the radio, having a hot bath with candles, for example.

Don't be surprised if your body still has a few twitches here and there. This is normal. That's how your body releases excess energy.

The long-term solution to reduce your overall activation and forgive the obvious plug, ...the best way I know how, is through a body-based counseling.

So, the next time you go to a movie for pure entertainment, remember you're in for a full body experience. After all, the reptilian brain never sleeps.feareyes_cropped1.jpg

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Holiday Season and Being Triggered

Hello, and welcome to MyShrink's second annual newsletter. That's a bit tongue in cheek, having been a bit delayed in the delivery of my second newsletter :)

I've been on another steep learning curve both Internet-wise and personally. I won't share too much of my personal growth here but just to say that my therapy is going well and I seem to be growing from the inside out!

MyShrink has been growing also. Since my last newsletter we've added preview links, an RSS feed, social bookmarking, the feedback system for articles, the quick learning guide, a new home page (and another one on the way), and my favourite the "Right Brain" moments. We've also added a ton of new comments for the kids...not to mention, 25 more articles since this time last year.

I've been looking at my stats to learn what features of the site people are finding of interest. They tell me you're not clicking on the images. Did I forget to mention it's good for your brain? When you're reading intense text, your brain tires. Looking at an image even if momentarily, shifts your brain into the other hemisphere. It "interrupts the procedure", the patterned way you respond to a this case, the subject matter of what you're reading. feels better.

In this issue, given the season, I thought I'd cover the holidays and being triggered. Uhm. Not the combination most people would think of.

Each year many people enter the holiday season with vows to make it different, to have a balanced holiday and to come out feeling refreshed to start the new year. But the patterns of previous seasons are indelible. In this article I will explain why old patterns are hard to change, why wishing it so, isn't enough.good times at Christmas

The explanation goes to the heart of how change occurs in the brain.

Hope you enjoy it!

Suzanne LaCombe, Ed.D, R.Psych.

P.S.MyShrink is still in "Beta" as I can't yet gurarantee regular commentary or newsletters. This project is being totally funded by me and the money I receive from my sponsors only covers a small portion of the cost. But it's loyal readers like you that help me to a big thanks for that.

Triggers and the holiday season: An oxymoron?"

good times at Christmas
How often do you pair the notion of "triggers" and the holiday season? We all know that Christmas and the New Year's celebrations are about get-togethers and having fun...yeah, let the good times roll!

But few people realize that we can be unknowingly triggered by our experiences of holidays past. It's not likely that all our Christmas seasons or Hanukah's were remembered with the same fondness.

Recall that the earlier a life event occurs the more deeply it's laid down in the nervous system, positively or negatively. Not surprisingly, the deeper the imprint, the stronger the potential trigger effect. In other words, it isn't just the stress of looking for a parking spot at the mall, or hunting down presents that's got us wired.

When you add loud Christmas carols, other stressed shoppers and the myriad of holiday movies to the mix, how can one possibly make sense--literally and/or experientially--of the barrage of sensory stimulation coming our way. You see, all of this affects the nervous system whether we're aware of it or not.

The body has its own memory and it doesn't easily forget. I'm not just talking about the memory of names and places. It's the remembered sense of what events felt like. The sense of them remains. This type of memory doesn't simply fade away; it lingers in the subconconsious, ready to pounce on our unsuspecting psyche.

Let me be frank...

This is how it is for me. I've had such a tough time getting this newsletter done at this time of the year. "Missspelling words, can't form my thoughts, mind going blank" this is what I've had to deal with. (Next year I'm doing this Christmas edition in July just for the feel of it!)

In the midst of all this grief, I solicited the help of my good friend and colleague Dr. Carole. Which brings me to an important support. It really helps to connect with people during times like these.

What's going on here?

Let's talk about triggers. The way the brain is structured, we can't always know why we're being triggered. Some events are just too emotionally overwhelming for the details to be laid down in long-term memory (i.e. explicit memory via the hippocampus).

Sometimes no memory will surface because the event occurred too early in time for it to be available for recall. But that doesn't mean it's not active below the surface. I know that nothing specific is coming up for me, but this internal wandering happens every year at this time. I'm a jumble of emotions; I can't compose a simple newsletter. I'm a bit of a space cadet!

Seeing family over the holidays

Check your pulse. Let the guilt begin! Not everyone's reaction I suppose, but this is a common response to get-togethers with family. We're often challenged in ways we don't comprehend. Feel like a kid? Regressing to earlier behaviours? Choosing or even thinking about doing something different is often accompanied by guilt.

You know, because we have so many associations with being with family, we need to give ourselves a break at some point. Rather than judging, we might name our reaction for how we're being impacted.

What would it feel like to acknowledge the impact of what we've been through without judgment? We've done the very best that we could with what we've been provided with. This isn't a blame game. We really need to notice how we've been triggered, and then to do what we need to do to take good care of ourselves.

What does this mean for you?

Let's step away from it. The first thing you can do is try to avoid misinterpreting this "holiday" state. It's usually temporary feeling so don't get caught up in it unnecessarily. For example, don't make assumptions about your overall emotional health based on this short time frame. Give yourself some time to recover from the season and then see how you fare.

relax at christmasThe second thing you can do is to see your therapist more often. Most therapists are very busy at this time of the year for just this reason. If you are feeling worse, yet overall progressing in your therapy, consider that this time of year is "filling you up".

In other words, it's pushing you outside the normal limits of your capacity. When this happens, whatever state you started the season with (e.g. anxiety, depressed mood, irritability) may get a little worse.

The third thing, consider spending quiet time with a supportive friend. Not every event has to be "over the top". You can also consider spacing out your get-togethers or balancing your energy through contemplation and grounding exercises, such as walking in nature, spending time with your pet, regular hot baths or yoga. The holiday season can be all-consuming, so make sure you leave time for yourself.

After the Holidays

Remember too, that the higher we get cranked up over the season, the "lower we will go" as the holidays come to a close. In other words, the nervous system has a compensatory mechanism. If we've been in a heightened arousal state for a spell, the nervous system will attempt to balance out by down regulating. This is often called the biphasic response.

In doing so, the nervous system tends to overshoot a baseline neutral state and pull you into a flat, low energy state. You'll notice it as feeling extra tired, unmotivated or for some, even feeling depressed.

Try not to read into this "post holiday" state too much. Give yourself a week or two (the length of time depends on the specific nervous system). And, if you know what to expect, then this "rebound" time won't seem so bad.

Therapy in the News

psychotherapy on the couchIs your Shrink right for you?

Illustration by Kim Rosen
Article By C.W. Wolff, Boston Globe
December 16, 2007

One of the reasons I was inspired to create MyShrink was my dissappointment with the way a few people's experience with therapy was going.

Kim Rosen's article hits on some serious problems with how psychotherapy can go awry. If you're fortunate, you might find this article laughable. Unfortunately, this is the reality for some people.

MyShrink Site Updates

Online Counseling

Anxiety Attack Symptoms

Signs of Depression

Define Depression

The Human Nervous System

What is Counseling

Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy

The Therapist Locator

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How to Shrink your Christmas Stress

My, my…this Internet business is more involved than I initially imagined. I've been on a steep learning curve in the last few months. I'm being challenged to the max but having loads of fun.

I wanted to get my first newsletter off before the holidays to say thanks to everyone who's signed up.

MyShrink is still in a development stage so I'd appreciate hearing if you had trouble loading the site, viewing the pages or if you haven't understood some of the concepts. Oh, and not to mention, positive feedback is also welcome.

In this issue, I've got a holiday article and Therapy in the News

Hope you enjoy it!

Suzanne LaCombe, Ed.D, R.Psych.

"Getting snowed under with Christmas advice?"

Now that we're fully into the holiday season we're seeing lots of articles about how to survive the rush of Xmas shopping, office parties, and family dinners. Many advise us to take advantage of the opportunities for reconnecting with significant others, deepening relationships that have been ignored, or making new ones.

The general idea is sound, for there is a ton of research that says social support, i.e. satisfying relationships with family, friends and community, is almost a guarantee of a longer and happier life. In contrast, a lack of social support is tied with smoking as a risk factor for heart disease.

The explanation appears to be that connecting with others helps reduce excess levels of stress by reducing its adverse effects on the arteries and immune system. In addition, caring behavior may stimulate a type of hormonal activity that counters stress.

Here's the catch to this advice:

All these articles presume that you're able to make and sustain the kind of social connections which will ultimately provide these healthy effects. But if you're familiar with the articles in MyShrink you'll realize that our emotional template may just not be up to negotiating the complexities of many and varied relationships.

If your emotional template isn't ready then attempting to put this advice into practise may simply increase your activation and likely just end in disappointment and frustration.

What's a person to do?

Ideally, the holidays are all about bringing joy to the people you care about. My recommendation is to choose your connections wisely. Consider those people you enjoy being around and make it your priority to spend some time with them. As you might guess, this may or may not include family members.

Use your connections with the people you select as a buffer against time spent with those you favour less.

If you are in therapy take heart in the knowledge that you are already learning to deepen your connection with others through the therapeutic relationship.

If only we could give someone the benefit of therapy - now that would be the gift that keeps on giving!

Therapy in the News

Sir Paul McCartney was recently interviewed by Radio Times Magazine. He admits that music has always been therapy for him. But for deeper work he went to the couch, the psychoanalytic couch that is.
(Source: Radiotimes Magazine)

For those local to Vancouver BC, Playwright and Director James Fagan Tait has an adaptation of the Christmas Carol currently showing at the Playhouse. He declared that after analyzing the cause of several failed projects, the common element in all of them was himself. So, he went to professional "shrinkage" for two years and hasn't looked back since. The success of his current play is a testament to the power of personal counseling.
(Source: CBC radio)

myShrink Site Updates

Mind Body in the News

mySpirit in the News

Left Brain