Tag Archives: anxiety

Resistance as a Protective Mechanism – Part 1

modern artWhen we were young, many of us learned that certain emotions are bad or wrong to feel or express. For instance, if we expressed naturally arising emotions such as frustration, fear, or sadness, perhaps our parents believed those emotions are harmful and so attempted to squelch their expression. Similarly, if we expressed joy, excitement, or exuberance, believe it or not, sometimes our parents can believe those emotions are also wrong to express in excess, and so they will teach us (in a variety of creative ways) that the expression of those energies is not acceptable.

As young children, we depend upon our caregivers for survival. This means that our basic autonomic survival mechanisms will engage when our caregivers strongly disapprove of something we are doing or expressing, and we’ll begin to mold ourselves in whatever ways are necessary to meet their expectations and demands. If our caregivers clearly do not want us to feel or express certain emotions, we will begin to resist or repress those emotions whenever they arise in us. This resistance/repression is actually an internal protective mechanism formed to keep us safe—that is, safely away from feeling or expressing the emotions we aren’t allowed to feel, given our circumstances. This protective mechanism becomes ingrained and autonomic; that is, it will be triggered automatically whenever these “dangerous” emotions begin to arise in us, effectively keeping us away from feeling or expressing them. The amazing thing is all this happens without our conscious minds needing to do anything!

freeimages.co.uk medical imagesIt turns out that it takes quite a bit of energy to repress natural emotion, and we experience this resistance as various kinds of suffering. The suffering can take the form of anxiety, rage, depression, shame, blame, self-reproach, fear, restlessness, and any other multitude of unpleasant (or downright awful) experiences. The confusion here is that we often label these experiences as “emotions.” But these forms of suffering are NOT true emotions. Quite the opposite is the case. These states are instead the inner experience of the repression of natural emotion. The suffering itself actually forms the protective mechanism we have developed to keep us away from feeling the underlying emotion. (I should note here as well that these states don’t just protect us from feeling unwanted emotion, but they can also protect us from feeling the overwhelming energy and sensations associated with unintegrated trauma. I’ll be discussing that topic in Part 2 of this post.)

So, what is important about this distinction between emotion and states of suffering? Well, if you have been around the block in the self-help world, I’m sure you’ve heard by now how important it is to “feel your emotions.” But, the problem is if you think that the rage, the anxiety, the shame, the depression, the restlessness, etc., are the emotions everyone is telling you you’re supposed to be feeling, you might be wondering when the healing is going to start because you still feel like crap even though you keep feeling all these “emotions.” After all, you are feeling these things… over and over again… so shouldn’t you be healing by now?

The issue here is that you are not actually feeling the energy (the emotion) that you have repressed. Rather, what is happening is your protective mechanism is being triggered. The rage, the shame, the anxiety, the depression… none of these are the underlying emotion. You are experiencing what it feels like to resist and repress the emotion, and it hurts—a lot.

The natural energy (the true emotion), when actually experienced and allowed to move in a way that is not overwhelming, feels nothing at all like these forms of suffering. In fact, when I started to feel authentic emotion, it was hard for me to even label it because it was so different than what I had been experiencing (depression) for so many years. A dandelion 3real emotion, when felt fully, rises in me like a wave, crests, and then naturally dissipates. It is simply an energy wave with a certain “flavor” that moves through me. It is powerful, yes, but it does not continually spin and never resolve. Actually, in my experience, it feels good to feel real emotion, no matter what flavor that emotion might take.

It is actually very easy to distinguish between states of suffering and the movement of real emotion. States of suffering such as I described above (rage, shame, anxiety, depression, etc.) will come in repeating patterns. The feelings will be triggered and arise over and over again, with no real resolution, no matter how much they are “felt.” There will be patterned thoughts, beliefs, and physiological/physical changes that arise at the same time. Also, the states will probably escalate over time because it takes more and more energy to repress more and more emotion, thus greater suffering is present in the resistance and repression. In contrast, a real emotion is a one-time deal. It will move through like a wave, and it will do so rather quickly. That doesn’t mean a similar emotion won’t arise again, but it won’t feel like it’s the same thing happening over and over again with no resolution or progress.

Because these states of suffering become repeating patterns that get more intense over time, they are often labeled as mental illnesses such as anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Eventually, the suffering can also become a significant contributor to physical diseases and disorders, such as autoimmune conditions, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, inflammatory conditions, and more.

Perhaps by now you can see how these states of suffering distract us away from experiencing the underlying emotion because we become focused on the suffering itself. Our attention turns toward trying to get rid of the suffering. We take drugs to treat the depression and anxiety and chronic pain. We read self-help books to try to fix our “destructive belief systems.” But because we unconsciously believe that the underlying emotions are wrong or dangerous to feel, our suffering—which is the protective mechanism itself—is actually designed to distract us away from feeling the original emotion. That’s its job! Essentially, we become hypnotized by our own suffering. As you can see, our protective mechanisms are very effective at keeping us away from the emotions we aren’t supposed to feel.

The rubber meets the road in our healing journey when we finally turn toward those aspects of ourselves that are suffering and meet them in a different way. The rage, the anxiety, the shame, the depression… when these protective mechanisms are met with curiosity rather than animosity, we begin to realize how they served us in the past and continue to serve us even today. At the same time, we can also see clearly the ways in which these protective mechanisms no longer serve us, and in fact hurt us and hurt others in deep and profound ways. It is when we are able hold both of these truths in our hearts that something else—another option—becomes possible. Through this process, the protective mechanisms can begin to let go, and when they do, the energy that is underneath them will come to the surface to be felt and integrated. I have found this to be the crux of healing this kind of core wound.

turtleIn Part 2 of this post, I’ll be discussing this same topic in a more nuanced way as it relates to trauma. To say that suppressing emotion is how and why we form these protective mechanisms is actually incomplete and bit simplistic. With trauma, the sensations and feelings we experience are literally overwhelming—so overwhelming that we are unable to integrate and process them at the time of the experience. Our system then isolates that unintegrated energy (so that we can continue to function) and forms protective mechanisms to keep us away from re-experiencing the overwhelm. I’ll be exploring this in more depth in Part 2. Stay tuned!

With love,
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Turning Towards

A healthy human being is characterized by a wider and wider capacity to experience [with presence] emotion and blends of emotion.” ~Dr. Keith Witt, Integral Psychologist

This assertion from Dr. Witt may sound simple, but I believe it to be extremely profound in its implications. In fact, I think it is key to understanding truly transformational healing and how it occurs. Dr. Witt and Jeff Salzman discuss this topic in Jeff’s Daily Evolver podcast episode entitled, “Transforming Trauma Into Power.” (I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety.)

What does it mean to have a wider and wider capacity to experience and be present with emotion? What is so challenging about it? And why is this capacity so essential for transformational healing?

Having the capacity to be present with our emotions means we have cultivated the ability to turn towards our unwanted feelings, pain, and other undesired material, as opposed to turning away through denial, distraction, or dissociation. One of the reasons this is so difficult is it goes against our most basic survival and instinctual drives, such as our ability to dissociate when experiencing a traumatic event. If we have used a response such as dissociation in the past and it worked to get us through a traumatic situation, our system will remember this success and use dissociation over and over again whenever it perceives danger (real or not). And this response will happen automatically and often unconsciously. That is, most of us are not even aware when we are dissociating.

Another reason it is difficult for us to turn towards our pain is we are often taught that certain emotions are bad and others are good. When we judge our emotions (and therefore ourselves) in this way, we tend to suppress those emotions which we have labeled as wrong. We do this in a variety of ways. We might dissociate (as already discussed above), go into denial, or use distraction (food, TV, drugs, alcohol, shopping, etc.). We might also shame ourselves in an attempt to control our feelings.

Why is it important to build the capacity to turn towards our pain? When we suppress our emotions or are otherwise unable to be present with our painful experiences, symptoms will eventually arise such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, psychosis, physical & immune system ailments, and in cases of extreme trauma, PTSD symptoms. The way to truly heal is to turn toward our pain and be present with the associated emotions and sensations. If we are able to meet our pain with compassionate understanding and radical acceptance, the energy of the held trauma naturally begins to metabolize, integrate, and heal.

One way to be present with our painful experiences is through what is called resourcing. This is a way of holding a resourced or healthy, powerful feeling in the body simultaneously with a challenging feeling in the body. Holding the two together in this way allows for integration and healing. Dr. Witt describes a simple practice in the podcast (at around the 36-minute mark) which you can try today that utilizes this principle.

I love what Jeff Salzman said when he describes this process for himself: “Whenever I find myself in a depression or anxiety or an anger vortex, I say, ‘This is good news! Here I have this ball of energy, and I have the opportunity to actually turn towards it and move into it.'” It is that willingness and that capacity to “turn towards” that results in growth and healing. It’s not just that you metabolize the experience and now it’s no longer a “block” or no longer causing symptoms. It’s that you actually heal with a big “H,” meaning you grow and you evolve. And that, I believe, is an important part of what life is all about.

Blessings,
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Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me

In Part 1 of this series (Depression/Bipolar Part 1 – Why Traditional Western Therapies Weren’t Enough for Me), I explained why the traditional western therapeutic approach to treating mood disorders (in my case, depression and/or bipolar II, depending on which psychiatrist you ask) wasn’t enough for me. With the traditional approach, I was merely surviving, but not thriving. In this post, I’d like to share what is working for me. But before I go into that, I’d like to make clear that I don’t mean to imply that I am now happy at all times with never a moment of depression. Yes, it’s true I can now say that I finally understand what it means to truly live and that I have experienced and continue to experience true joy, creativity, passion, gratitude, and love to depths I had never dreamed of before. Yet, I still have times when I will sink into the depths of depression. Even now, my mind sometimes falls into those old habitual thought patterns that have been engrained over the course of 35+ years. These times are much less common and don’t last nearly as long, but they still happen. So maybe it would be more accurate to say that the approach I’m about to describe is simply a process that I suspect won’t end at some final destination where I am eternally blissful in every moment of every day. Perhaps that state of being is possible, but I’m not holding my breath. My sister, who is the CEO of a small business, recently shared an insight which illustrates this idea. She has been noticing that many young people fresh out of college have the expectation that they should be able to find a job in which they will be happy all the time. She pointed out that this is simply an unrealistic expectation, and that no matter how much you love your job, not every day will be perfect. There will be days when you wonder why you didn’t just stay in bed. (My sister is wise.  That’s why I call her Yoda.) The same is true for me with my mood. I’m a work in progress. Still, the approach I’m using now has been so life-changing and so much more effective than the traditional approach that I feel it’s worth sharing in hopes that it might resonate with some of you struggling with similar issues.

Everything started to change for me during my training in the therapy I now practice called Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST). This training wasn’t your typical class. It was organized into ten, five-day modules spread out over almost two years, which means there were about two months between each module to give us time to integrate what we experienced/learned into our everyday lives. I quickly learned that in order to be an effective practitioner of this therapy, I needed to live the teachings myself. To be honest, this was the only way I could prove to myself that this therapy really works. I wasn’t going to practice a therapy based on someone else’s stories or just accept without question the underlying theories. I needed first-hand experience. And so I decided to dive in head first, allow myself to embrace the experience, and see where it led me. It was over the course of those two years — with support through my group training and from individual BCST therapists — that I began to transform. I discovered that the therapy I was learning to give to others was the key to addressing my own issues, most prominently the debilitating depression I had been living with since I was a young child. Below is an explanation of the three main components that have been vital for me in this process.

  • Listening to my body with curiosity and appreciation. One of the most important steps I took was to simply feel and listen to my body with curiosity and appreciation. This is easier said than done, believe me. To do this, I first had to let go of all the analysis about why I was depressed. My teachers called this “letting go of the story.” After many years of therapy, self-help books, and personal growth seminars, I could easily name all of my underlying belief systems which I was sure were contributing to my depression. I could list my childhood traumas or talk about my parents until I was blue in the face. Unfortunately, that approach was largely ineffective for me. I also had to let go of the idea that there was something wrong with me that I had to battle and eliminate. The key for me was a change in perspective from one of judgment and pathologizing to one of appreciation. I began to recognize the incredible intelligence behind how I managed my experiences. I realized that I had made it this far for good reason, and that whatever I had been doing worked. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be around to debate it. So with this perspective, I started to listen to my body in a way I never had before. I let go of the story and started listening and looking for the intelligence in my system. A whole new world opened up. I was (and continue to be) amazed at the incredible intelligence at work behind my so-called detrimental “patterns” and “belief systems.” Bit by bit, simply by listening to my body, I experienced more and more ah-ha moments where I realized certain patterns I had always hated in myself are actually very intelligent responses to my particular life circumstances. These reflexive patterns are how I managed and currently manage my experiences to survive and to fulfill specific vital needs — and they work. This change of perspective was a huge key for me because my bind of self-hate was finally released. Once I stopped fighting and hating myself, other possibilities I could not previously see began to open up.
  • Connecting to the underlying healing forces & who I really am. One of the focuses of BCST is supporting the underlying intelligence/healing forces/healing ability of the body. As a practitioner, I can actually feel these forces at work in a client’s body. But in order to feel these forces in someone else, I needed to feel them in myself first. And as I started listening to my own body with curiosity and appreciation, I started to palpably feel these forces at work within myself. This connection to the underlying intelligence of my system led me to felt-sense connection to who I really am at a core level — the one underneath the depression — the one who could heal my own heart and mind.  I suppose some people might call this core level the “soul” or “spirit.”  Whatever you call it, this connection to the center of who I am somehow led me to the insight that I am the one with my own answers. In fact, I am the only one with my own answers. I have found that, for me, working with my depression is not about fighting it; rather, the work is about staying connected to my core or center. For me, this is a tangible experience with incredible results. The more I focus on staying connected with that core part myself rather than on fighting my depression, the more my state of being is one of joy, love, gratitude, beauty, creativity, and inspiration.
  • Surrounding myself with proper support. The most critical part of this process for me has been having the right kind of support. Basically, I need people around me who can recognize and reflect back to me who I really am at the core level. In addition, these people all share the following qualities:
  • They recognize that I am unique. They know that what will work for me will be unique to me. There are no cookie-cutter solutions.
  • They realize that I have my own answers. They are not there to give me answers or advice. Instead, they support me in finding my own unique path to healing.
  • They have a perspective of appreciation rather than pathologizing. They are not interested in fixing me or making me better.
  • They trust and recognize the underlying intelligence at work in my system and know that they do not “know better” than that intelligence.
  • They trust my process and are neutral as to the outcome or results.
  • They can see who I really am at the core level.

Of course, many of these people were classmates in the BCST training, my teachers, or therapists who had done the training. I have also found a few amazing friends who share these qualities. Having these people in my life is vitally important because they can see through all of my crap to who I really am, even when I cannot. Oftentimes, it is that reflection of my core self that helps bring me out of my states of despair and back to a connection with my center. These people are rare, but they’re out there.

My hope is that some of you reading this post might resonate with some of what I’ve shared of my experiences. If so, I’d encourage you to first find people to support you who have the qualities I listed above. It’s easy to find all sorts of people who think they have your answers and want to fix you. You might even feel like you need to be fixed! But for me, it was important to find those people who recognized that I have my own answers and know that the keys to my own healing are inside of me. That is true empowerment. That is how I learned to take real responsibility for my own health.

Aloha,
Penny

Depression/Bipolar Part 1 – Why Traditional Western Therapies Weren’t Enough for Me

You might think from the title that this post will be yet another rant from one of those woo-woo types who wants to rid the world of the evils of western medicine, particularly in regard to mood disorders such as depression or bipolar. It’s true, my husband recently declared that I am officially now “one of those woo-woo people.” Ah, well. Even if I have crossed over into woo-woo land, I still like to think I can… well, think. And the truth is that I have seen medications and good counseling save far too many lives to discount these treatments so easily. I have one friend in particular who says that when she found the right medication to treat her mood disorder, she finally felt like she could be more of who she really is and at long last knew what it felt like to truly live. Still, in my particular experience with depression (or bipolar II, as it was diagnosed by one psychiatrist), I found that medications and psychological talk therapy were not enough. What does “not enough” mean? Well, these treatments did help me to survive because they gave me enough of a boost to refrain from committing suicide (a real plus!). But the truth is, I still felt directionless, hopeless, and without passion or vitality. I could not see the beauty around me. I did not feel gratitude for my life nor see a greater purpose. I did not feel true joy, love, or inner peace. I was surviving, but not thriving. And so I knew I had to find another approach (in addition to all I was already doing) if I ever wanted my life to be about more than always struggling to keep my head just above the water so as not to drown.

Some of you might also be wondering why medications and talk therapy haven’t been enough for you. Perhaps you might still have a glimmer of hope that there must be some way for you, too, to begin to thrive, not just survive. In this post (Part 1 of 2), I’d like to share some of the reasons the typical western approach to treating mood disorders (diagnose, medicate, and support with psychological therapy) wasn’t the cure-all I’d hoped it would be for me. In my next post (Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me), I’ll talk about what did work for me and why.

1.  Fight, Fight, Fight!!  Wait, who am I fighting again? For me, a big component of my depression was self hate. I suppose there are some people who are depressed and also love themselves unconditionally, but I would venture to say that would be a rare person. Usually, there is some component of self loathing, even if it is simply because we hate ourselves for not being able to just be happy already. The way I was taught in therapy and support groups was to look at my depression as a disease, as something somehow separate from me which I had to battle and eliminate. After all, if mood disorders are diseases like cancer, then we have to fight them! That’s what we do to survive — fight and destroy! But for me, seeing my depression as something to battle ended up backfiring. One reason it backfired was because of that pesky self-hate component to my depression. It turns out that “my depression” and “me” weren’t actually all that easy to separate. In the end, all I succeeded in doing was beating myself into a bloody pulp (emotionally speaking). You see, it turned out the battle I was fighting was with myself, not with some entity called “depression” lurking within me. The truth is there was no such entity. There was only me, a person experiencing depression. All I was doing was heaping another dose of self hate on top of the large, steaming pile I’d already created. This was one case where I had to stop fighting to win the battle.

2.  I’m complicated, thank you very much. Seeing depression and other mood disorders as diseases also has another effect: categorization. The doctor needs to label your disease (give you a diagnosis) in order to prescribe the correct medications and provide the right kind of counseling to treat the disease. I must say, I despised this process. I did not want to be labeled. Some part of me screamed inside that I am a unique individual, that what has gotten me to this point in my life is complicated and not so easily analyzable and medicated away. I found the idea of being put into some sort of box called “depression” or “bipolar II” (as if that explains everything and can now be managed appropriately) to be wholly inadequate. I am not a puzzle to be solved. Where was the recognition of me, a real, live, unique person? This kind of recognition was missing in this whole process, and it turned out it was critical for my recovery.

3.  Medicate my troubles away. Not so much. I want to emphasize again that medications are absolutely critical for some people. Sometimes it comes down to life or death, literally. My intent here is to share my experience, not convince anyone to take or not take medication. With that said, I have found that for me medications just aren’t the answer. Part of the issue, I admit, is that I have a real problem with the fact that we just don’t know much about what these things are doing to us. As I said, we’re complicated. These drugs do much more to us than help treat our mood disorders (as is evidenced by the numerous so-called side effects, which are actually just effects of these medications). But even more importantly, when I finally found the supposedly “right” drug combination according to my psychiatrist (after many horrendous wrong combinations), the effect was a numbing of my feelings. I could not feel the lows anymore, but I also could not feel the joys. To me, this wasn’t living. I admit I could have tried more combinations. But there came a point for me when I said to myself, “This isn’t worth it. I need to do this another way.” I knew deep inside this wasn’t the right path for me.

4.  Analyze, Analyze, Analyze!!  Wait, I’m dizzy. Through approaches such as talk therapy, self-help & spiritual books, and personal growth seminars, I began to make all sorts of amazing discoveries about my underlying (and previously unconscious) belief systems. I discovered what they were, where they came from, and why and how they contributed to my depression and every other aspect of my life. This was transformative and really the beginning of finding my way back to the land of the living. After all, awareness brings with it the opportunity for change. But then I fell into what I lovingly refer to as the “self-help trap.” Here’s how it goes: 1) I see a belief system in myself like “I’m not worthy” affecting my behavior and running my life.  2) I understand where it came from and that it “no longer serves me,” as all the self-help gurus so helpfully point out.  3) I nonetheless still behave/feel the same way, regardless of this awareness. I don’t know why. It’s ridiculous!  4) I become disgusted with myself for behaving/feeling the same way yet again.  5) I beat myself into a bloody emotional pulp for doing the same damn thing over and over again.  6) I feel depressed because I’ve just beat myself up AND I’m a self-help failure. And down the rabbit hole I go. This obviously doesn’t work for me. I had to stop analyzing myself into a hole.

So where did all of this leave me? Alive, but barely. I certainly wouldn’t describe my state of being as truly living. But hope springs eternal (at least on my good days)! I thought there surely must be another approach that would work for me. I couldn’t possibly be the only one thrashing about aimlessly in the self-help rabbit hole. In my next post (Depression/Bipolar Part 2 – What’s Working for Me), I’ll delve into what actually did work for me. Who knows? Maybe it will support you on your journey as well. Stay tuned.

Aloha,
Penny