Chicken and egg take two

Which comes first, the thought or the feeling?  Do our thoughts actually create our feelings?  Or does a sensation in the body give rise to a thought, which would suggest that feelings come first?

One of the things I have learned in my studies is that when you have an apparent dichotomy, you can bring the level of analysis down to a finer view and the dichotomy will disappear.  Okay, that’s a fancy way of saying that most things look different when you take a different point of view.

So ages ago, psychologists theorized that a sensation in the body was just that, until the person gave it a label and then it became an emotion.  Much later, pioneers in the cognitive therapy movement suggested that what we THINK can dramatically affect how we feel;  specifically, we can generate a whole lot of personal distress by thinking distressing thoughts.  That doesn’t address the question of where those thoughts actually arise, though.  Lowen (check out the lowen foundation for his writings, and audio and video recordings….http://http://lowenfoundation.org/index.html) was ahead of his time, really, in pointing out that the neural activity of a thought likely arises from a sensation in the body.   Damasio offers a variety of clinical and scientific support for this…that the FEELING of what happens is what creates our thinking and our behaviour.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES ANY OF THIS MAKE?

Okay, I am getting there.   You know that I love the theoretical but the practical is infinitely more, well, useful.   What it means is that everyone has a piece of the truth.  In your own experience, you can point to times when thinking about something in an unhelpful way has made you feel worse than you were feeling before.  So that part is verifiable with experience.   And when you develop your body awareness so that sensations register on your consciousness, it becomes apparent that there are links between body sensations and at least some of the thoughts that seem to arise spontaneously.   Here’s a pretty crude example:   You start to notice an empty feeling in your belly, and then there are some noises from in there, and at the same time, you suddenly notice that someone in an office down the hall must have popped popcorn (that should be illegal unless they plan to share) and you have a thought…..Maybe I’ll go out for lunch.    It would be hard to argue that the internal sensations, the external stimulation and the thought were unrelated.

Try it…try to see what connections you can find between your thoughts and your body sensations.   Or just your thoughts and your feelings (emotions, or overall mood states).   Notice when your thinking is affecting your feeling state.  Notice what thoughts arise when you experience particular body states.   See if you can figure out which is chicken, and which is egg.

So tired…..

I’ve been sick this winter, actually, officially sick with a diagnosis and antibiotics and all of that.   While I am healing well, I am left with lower-than-usual energy and a sense that fatigue overtakes me quickly.

One of the mindfulness practices I learned while taking Dr. Bill Cook’s Body-Mind Awareness program back in 2009 was about attending to where in the body intention arises.   That sounded terribly foreign to me at first;  if I intend to get up from my chair, it seems to me that the intention arises in my thoughts.  But no, if I am careful, take time, and bring attention to my body with the question, I can actually sense into my body where and how that intention arises.

So with this fatigue, I have been using this practice to locate “tired” in my body.  This is probably easier than the intention to change position.  What I notice is this:   my mind will say something like, Oh, I feel tired….then I turn my attention to my body.  Where in my body do I sense this “tired?”  What is it like?   When have I felt something like this before?   What does it remind me of…and what else might be there, along with “tired?”

That last question is a good one.  What else is in there, in this felt sense that I have labelled, perhaps too quickly, as “tired?”  On Saturday, I took to the dog for his weekend walk along the river.  We plowed through shin-deep snow, watching the sun come up through snow clouds, and feeling the barely freezing temperature rise a bit and fall a bit, shifting the nature of the precipitation.  When I turned to walk back to the car, calling for the dog, I was suddenly aware of sensation in my calves, like melting butter, achingly draining to my heels….there it was!  That was my fatigue.   Internally, I named it and asked, what else is there?  As I breathed into my belly and let my attention rise from my legs to my abdomen and diaphragm and chest, I realized that there was more there.   I felt a sensation that I labelled tears;  tension that I wanted to discharge in my core, tension in my pelvis that hard sobbing would release.  So there was more than tired;  there was a deep tension of holding back sadness, right there.

Tired happens when you have been sick.  Tired also happens when things feel like just too much, and when you need to cry and you don’t give yourself the space to really experience those feelings.  Having to “hold in” and “hold on” to yourself to keep those tears in check is a really exhausting way to live.

When you feel tired, where in your body do you notice it?  What else is in there?

It doesn’t take much for me to feel wiped out these days.  But how do I know that I am tired?

Chicken, egg or something else?

Where do our feelings come from?  And why do we have them?  Lots of time, we might wish we didn’t…feeling deeply sad or rageful or terrified are not comfortable ways to be in our bodies.  We might wish those feelings away.  So why were we made or evolved to have them, anyway?

Okay, those are a couple of Big Questions.   If you have been reading here, you know I have a fondness for the way that Antonio Damasio explains the whole “feelings” thing.  He gets right down to the molecular level and talks about how the body works continuously to keep us alive, to maintain blood chemistry that is compatible with life, to keep our behaviour within limits that will keep us alive, and to activate systems to make dramatic changes when necessary for our survival.
But are our emotions necessary for our survival?  He says probably yes. We apparently cannot even make the simplest decision without our capacity for feelings.   Emotions are a movement in the body-mind (not his term) that result from an accumulation of smaller movements of energy and information, many of which have to do with keeping the body alive.  Emotion is an “image” in the body-mind (he uses that term broadly, to mean any thought, idea, picture, or felt sense) and when we become aware, in our consciousness, of that emotion, then it becomes a feeling.  Everyone doesn’t use this same set of definitions but it is useful to separate emotion and feeling when we are trying to figure out what’s going on with us personally.

Dan Stern talks about categorical emotions but he means feelings.  These are the usual:  happy, sad, angry, afraid, disgusted.  He also talks about “vitality affects” which refers more to the overall energy level you may be experiencing.   You may be low in vitality early in the day, but your overall feeling may pick up somewhat.  We experience these overall “feelings” much more consistently than we have categorical emotions.  Both vitality affects and emotions (feelings) are important, but we tend to ignore the everyday vitality stuff unless it is markedly out of our usual realm.

The point of all of this talk is this:  we have emotions/feelings and we have overall vitality affects, which some people will refer to as ‘mood.’   We have these experiences because they are related to keeping our bodies alive.  But, because we are human beings, we actually make a whole lot more use of our emotions than just staying alive.  Emotions, including both categorical emotion and vitality affects, give our lives colour.  They help us to make decisions, to approach or avoid situations or people, to engage in particular behaviour or react when certain stimuli are present.  We also influence our emotions consciously.   We choose a lot of our activities for the effect we expect them to have on our emotional experience.  For example, we go to movies to be excited, to feel good, to get scared, or to enjoy being with a friend while sharing this emotional experience.  We watch TV because we are ‘bored’ or because we need to be distracted from our thoughts.  We call a friend when we need contact to feel different than we do.  We call our mothers because we need to stop feeling guilty.   Many of our behaviours are motivated by a desire to change our feeling state.

The interesting thing is this:  we THINK that we are in control of our emotional lives, and in fact, we do influence our feelings a lot.  But the connections between what we think, do and feel is part of a hierarchy in the nervous system.  This part, the conscious and modifiable part, is higher on the phylogenetic scale than the part of the system that is just about sustaining life.   That’s probably obvious….feeling happy isn’t a requirement of life, but an adequate oxygen-CO2 balance in the blood is.   So even though we think we are making all kinds of changes to our ‘feeling’ life, the essential and essentially unknowable substrate is how our body is keeping us alive.

So why did I start out talking about chickens and eggs?  This post has taken on a life of its own…I was originally going to compare Al Lowen’s assertion that all thoughts have their beginning as a feeling or sensation in the body to the cognitive behavioural tenet that our feelings are the product of our thoughts.   I guess I still have that post to write…another day.

Fight, flight, freeze….or interact!

Nexus, Colorado’s Holistic Health and Spirituality Journal.

This link goes to an interview with Dr. Stephen Porges about his polyvagal theory.  This is a way of looking at the parasympathetic nervous system that helps to explain a lot about how people respond to traumatizing events or situations.

The old story was that we have two pathways in our involuntary nervous sytem, the sympathetic, or the arousing system, and the parasympathetic, or the calming system.  The sympathetic was activated by a sabre-toothed tiger leaping at us (or someone stomping on the brakes ahead of us on the bridge) and we were inspired to fight or run away.   The parasympathetic went into action in opposition, calming our bodies down when the tiger was gone or we had outrun him.   Turns out that this “either-or” model probably doesn’t really describe how things actually happen in the nervous system.  The model worked pretty well clinically;  people who were stressed had over-active sympathetic systems and needed to do relaxation exercises to activate their calming system.  When Herbert Benson labeled this the Relaxation Response in the 1960’s, it was a breakthrough and it still works pretty well when we are simply talking about external overstress and calming the body.

However, the realities of life in a body that has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) were not really accounted for by this model.  For example, people who have been traumatized will often experience hyper arousal and hyper-vigilance.  That’s consistent with the opposition model.  But on the other hand, PTSD victims will also often be numbed, hypo-aroused, emotionally empty or frozen.  This can happen with or without being dissociated or depersonalized.  The old model just cannot account for how a person could have TOO MUCH activity in the parasympathetic system.

So Porges’ polyvagal theory is hierarchical rather than simply oppositional.  He posits that there are three distinct aspects to the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve, and that these developed in the mammalian nervous system concurrently with our social and emotional behaviour.  That is, the physiology of the nervous system develops as a cause and an effect of behaviour.  The three parts are responsible for different aspects of functioning;  communication, mobilization, and immobilization.  Social connection requires visual and auditory attention and expression;  this part of the system ennervates the face, mobilizing the mouth and eyes, making it possible to listen and to speak, and to make eye contact.  The mobilization system makes fight or flight possible, while the immobilization system enables the organism to “play dead’ or to feign death or syncope to the degree that a potential aggressor will lose interest.

The most interesting (to me) part of this model is that the social interaction system is connected to our sympathetic nervous system.   Look here at what Stephen Porges said in the interview when asked about how this works:

I’ve heard the human mind described as a paranoid instrument. The premise is that when we are living in our senses, in the here and now, we usually feel safe, but our thinking mind often throws scary impressions in front of us, as if it’s anticipating some threat.
SP: I’ll address that by describing to you a part of our nervous system that is entirely focused on responding to other people, even other mammals like dogs and cats. This is not the same part of the nervous system that can put us into states of enlightenment or ecstasy. In a sense, this is a very grounded component of our nervous system. It engages contact with certain levels of senses that are not the ones that you’re describing. It’s where we are feeling our bodily information from inside our organs. This information from the body actually travels through nerves up through the brain stem and radiates upward to our cortex. This part of the nervous system provides a contact with reality; it regulates our bodily state, so we become alert and engaged. That does not include all of human experience, but it does include most of what we call social interactions. We can say that the social interactions are a very important component of our psychological experience as human beings. And this system, the social engagement system, is what determines the quality of those interactions—the features that we show other people, the facial expression, the intonation of our voice, the head nods, even the hand movements, are part of this. And if I turn my head away while I’m talking to you, if I talk in a monotone without any intonation, or if I drop my eyes, will you have a visceral response? How do you feel when I do that?
RD: It feels like you’re not very present, like you’re withdrawing or you’re disconnected.
SP: Disconnected, which may be interpreted by the other person as evaluative, not liking, not being motivated to engage, condescending or suspicious. So these facial gestures, which for some people are purely physiological responses, are now interpreted with a moral or, at least, a motivational overlay. This may or may not be true. Social engagement is a unique and very powerful component of our interactions.

As a therapist, I am very interested in how to make “safety” for my clients.  As a person, I am interested in how to help myself feel connected and comfortable in my world.  When I can see a person looking away, unable or unwilling to connect socially, I can now think of this as a function of the autonomic nervous system, not just voluntary behaviour.  If a person has a trauma history, then these elements of their social interaction may be a manifestation of their struggle….and imagine how it can keep on influencing relationships!   Plus this model has a lot to tell us about how our awareness of our bodies influences our sense of safety and the ability to soften into our lives and connect with others.

Hmm, lots to ponder…..if you want more, I suggest http://www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

When I’m feeling blue…..

There is something about feeling miserable that seems to be uniquely human.  Emotional misery seems to be a gift that humans get along with being human.  Okay, I have to back off from that and say that I really don’t know about other primates, and I have also heard recently that elephants exhibit behaviour that can be interpreted as grieving.  But when I think about my goofy Labrador retriever, Max, I don’t see him suffering emotional pain because of something he did, or something I did, or something that might happen in the future.

However, the people I know all are capable of that kind of suffering.  Our capacity to think has permitted us to think about things that actually make us FEEL bad.   Have you ever noticed that you can be going about your day, all is well, everything is normal, and you suddenly have a thought….and all hell breaks loose in your inner life.   Perhaps the thought is an obviously catastrophic one (“Maybe my plane will crash when I take my trip next month”) or maybe it is less obvious (“My partner won’t like my new haircut”) but then it cascades into a whole series of thoughts (“And if he doesn’t like my haircut, maybe he won’t like me, and he’ll leave me, and I’ll be alone and how will I make it, and nobody will ever love me, and I won’t be able to survive…”).

That might sound like an exaggeration but I swear to you, it isn’t.   While we often are unaware (mindless) of the cascade of thoughts, images, and subsequent sensations and feelings in our bodies, they are still happening.  And that’s one of the ways in which a vague dislike of your new haircut can turn into a full-blown emotional meltdown.

Now we are all intelligent people, of course, and we KNOW in our intellectual selves that our partners are not likely to leave us and we are not likely to be destroyed because of a bad haircut.  The thing is, the part of the brain/mind/body that is doing this thinking and feeling is NOT our higher intellectual selves.   We react on a body (somatic) level to our thoughts and also to our body sensations.  Many body functions have associated sensations that are just below the level of our awareness.  Your body is busy all the time maintaining itself;  keeping proper blood chemistry, blood pressure, hormonal balance, particular cellular tensions and various chemical and electrical communications.  When something is a bit out of whack in this process of homeostasis, then you may feel a bit “off.”  You probably have no idea why, so your mind gets busy developing some cause.  Humans do that;  it is how we make sense of the world.  However, these perceived “causes” may actually be irrelevant to what you are experiencing. If you are already feeling “off” and you get a bad haircut, well, you know what can happen.

So… How do we prevent emotional meltdowns, with all of their pain and suffering and the interpersonal fallout that is inevitable?  How do we separate the thoughts that hurt us from our normal, everyday functioning?

First, we start to become aware of ourselves as BODIES.  We are not a person who happens to live in a body, but the body you live in actually IS you.  Any increasing level of body awareness is helpful;  the practice of mindfulness, meditation, contemplative movement such as yoga, all of these practices can help develop body awareness.  At  the same time, one can learn to watch the activity of the mind.  Watching isn’t the same as getting involved in it, but is simply observing….”Oh, there I go, thinking…..Oh, yes, that’s a memory.   Oh, I can see that my mind is trying to make a to-do list again…”  and gently bringing your attention back to awareness.

Tomorrow:  ways to use a bioenergetic approach to developing self awareness..

By the way, if you are interested in how our bodies shape our minds, you might like Antonio Damasio’s book, The Feeling of What Happens:  Body and emotion in the making of consciousness.

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