admin, Author at Embodied Living

If you get easily annoyed or lose your temper it may not be anger. Shame is a painful, visceral emotion, that may lurk behind. But what can you do about anger when it is a cover for shame?

 

Anger in the pandemic

We are living in the strangest time in living history. The coronavirus pandemic has required that we all make changes. And this situation and the virus may have affected us in many other ways.

We are in forced confinement with our spouse, partner or even our kids, that may be too close for comfort. Our usual coping strategies, of travel, socialising etc may have been taken away from us. We are in a situation where we are more isolated, even in the safety of our own home.

 

What can we do about anger?

If you find yourself shouting more, getting irate on the phone, barely able to hide your annoyance at that stranger who passed you a little too close in the street, or full of rage of the increase in footfall on your usual walking routes. Perhaps you have become meaner. For many of us, anger is easier to do than what may be lurking beneath: shame.

Shame is a difficult emotion and perhaps one of the last taboos in our society. Shame is an acutely painful feeling of feeling fundamentally wrong or inadequate. A deeply held belief about our unworthiness or lack of ‘goodness’ as a person.

 

We cover it up

In fact, it can be an incredibly painful experience, especially when there are layers of shame that have built up over the years. And if we were shamed or humiliated as a child, intentionally or otherwise, and it wasn’t contained or seen. If we carry these layers of shame into our adult life, and a situation or event, often in relationships, triggers it we can have a strong physiological reaction. It can feel like a weight or dread in our stomach, we may feel nauseous or actually be sick, or faint. We might tremble, or feel dizzy. All said, shame wants to make us hide, to disappear.

Of course, something as terrible as this often cannot be tolerated. So we do something else instead. Often that involves us getting angry.

This might come out as bursts of irritability or even rage: at our loved ones, or at strangers. Though loved ones are often ‘safer’ so they may get the brunt of it. And then we feel terrible. This increases the shame experience and propagates the cycle of shame.

 

Where else the anger might appear

Another way that anger comes out, perhaps in a more passive-aggressive or certainly indirect way, is through blame. We project the shame onto others and blame them. We split the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and, for the slightest perceived indiscretion, the other becomes all bad. So we turn against family and friends. People around us cannot tolerate this unfair treatment. So we become more isolated. And our shame is triggered.

 

The purpose of shame

Guilt is a sense that ‘I have done something wrong’ rather than the ‘I am wrong’ of shame. Both, believe it or not, are prosocial emotions in that they have a healthy purpose in humans. Shame is there as an indicator that we have done or said something, or behaved in some way, that may cause us to risk our position in our group, family or society as a whole. So this terrible feeling, acts as an impetus for us to change and therefore belong. It is prosocial in that it increases our connectedness to others.

 

Origins of shame

We can experience shame very early in life, in pre-verbal stages in fact. As early as 15 months, an infant can have a visceral experience of being defective. Perhaps if a mother is unresponsive, neglectful or intrusive. The pre-verbal origins might explain why the visceral quality, the felt experience, of shame is do debilitating. The posture of collapse that shame brings about, initiates a similar collapse in our nervous system: vagal syncope. We go into freeze mode or disconnection and dissociation. All this happens outside of our conscious awareness, precisely because of the pre-verbal, beyond words and thought, origins of shame.

 

Causes and sources of shame

Causes of shame are multitudinous and happen at all ages and stages of life. Some examples might be: our body or our bodily functions; sex and sexuality; relationships; achievements or lack of achievement. Parental rejection is a certain source of shame but so are high expectations or punishment. These experiences of punishing external figures can be internalised as a bad object that continues to punish and shame us, in a self-propagating way, for the rest of our lives. And shame is massively linked to trauma of all types. Trauma and the fear of being shamed can lead to the ‘vagal syncope’ that Peter Levine talks about where our body and our mind shut down.

 

Secrecy and isolation

Shame multiplies with secrecy, isolation, and judgement. But it also demands us to keep quiet. But if we can be brave enough to talk about our shame with a caring other, we can start to shed its despotic layers. Shame often gets caught up with other, positive or negative, emotions. This might be desire, or pleasure; fear or anger; pride or sadness. Perhaps this is when shame becomes particularly toxic. Think about the young woman in whom shame has become bound with pleasure, who experiences overwhelming negative states in love making with her husband. Or the young man who is not able to experience any pride in what he does becomes shame is linked with it.

 

What can you do about anger linked with shame

Whilst anger often presents instead of shame, anger can also be bound with shame. If our early sources of shame involve anger, ours or others, the vicious cycle will be compounded when we experience anger as a defence against shame. You can probably imagine how toxic and debilitating this experience can be for someone. Caught in a cycle of explosive outbursts beyond their control and then overwhelmed into shutdown by those outbursts.

Here are some important things to consider to break the cycle of shame:

  1. Understand the complex nature of shame – it is an emotion that is at the heart of trauma and causes more trauma. It is internalised and often self-propagating and there may be layers of it. Its causes can also be trans-generational – shame in families that has not directly impacted us, can be passed on and internalised.
  2. Talk – shame thrives on silence and secrecy. But also judgement. So it is important to find an empathetic, non-judgemental other to whom you can tell your story.
  3. Healthy pride – it is said that the internal extinguisher for the fire of shame is healthy pride. We often, in our culture, have an unhealthy relationship with pride. But healthy pride – being able to celebrate and recognised our qualities, successes and achievements – is a powerful antidote to shame.
  4. Posture – unconsciously, in small or significant ways, when our shame is triggered, we adopt a certain posture that kind of sucks us deeper into shame. This posture is closed and collapsed and our head and eyes are downwards. By changing our posture and keeping upright with an open chest and eyes looking upwards, we can take at least some control.
  5. Breathing and HRV – shame throws us into chaos. This is a state of physiological incoherence. By learning breathing techniques to increase our heart rate variability, and coherence, we can begin to break the debilitating cycle of shame.
  6. Seek therapy – for all of the above reasons, therapy can be a useful resource to deal with shame.

 

Here is a useful infographic that explains shame in relation to guilt.

What can you do about anger when it is triggered by shame

How many of us at this point during the pandemic are not feeling right? If you’re not feeling like yourself, it can be a strange feeling. But whilst each of us will be experiencing things differently, the common thread may be that we are acting in ways that are not typical.

 

not feeling like yourself
conflict within causes stress

How we might be feeling

We usually think that our sense of self is a constant unified thing. That there should be harmony and unification. But the reality for each of us, to some extent or other, is that of conflict. Who has not had the experience of being in conflict? Perhaps about a decision we have to make, perhaps about a relationship? It’s like a part of us wants something and another part wants the opposite.

 

Parts in conflict

This sense of parts of ourself in conflict is playing out in the world at large. Look at the extremes operating publicly in a liberal country like the US. Whilst Joe Biden calls for calm and civility, that is a big ask for human beings. We are ruled by difference, by polarity. And this plays out in those inner conflicts where we have polarised parts driven to behave in opposite extremes. Part of us wants to ask our friend out for a walk, but another part is being incredibly stubborn about something. We might have all the best intentions to eat better, or lose weight, yet part of us just keeps heading for the couch or reaching for the chocolate.

 

When opposites don’t attract

It’s a well-known aphorism isn’t it: opposites attract. Well, they do until they don’t and mostly they don’t. As human beings we really have a problem with difference. And when that difference is in us we can protect ourselves by becoming blind to it. Of course, our inner critic or internalised bad object may protest quite loudly, but we do our best to silence or ignore it.

 

Reasons for not feeling like yourself

This lack of inner alignment or balance can manifest in well-observed ways in all of us. We may be intellectual not sporty – or vice versa. We may be good at doing, keeping busy, but crumble when we need to sit still. We may be very rational and lack intuition or creativity, or perhaps we are arty and creative and people see us as a little flaky. It may be that we are seen as passive and easy going or we may come across as bossy or domineering. As a man we may be overly masculine and lack a more feminine side and a woman may have overly developed her femininity and deny herself the power of her own masculine side. And then there is the tendency to activity or receptivity. Perhaps we are great at putting others first or helping them, but poor at asking for help ourselves?

 

Polarities within families

We can categorise the polarities in our being into four broad types. Firstly, we are born out of difference. We are the product of a mother and a father. Two different people, two different genders. And then there is the whole realm of difference in the families of our mother and of our father. If both of our parents are balanced and well-integrated as people, in a loving family environment we have a chance, as children, that all parts our self will be seen, accepted and validated.

If you are not feeling like yourself, perhaps you have lost your temper or have been overly critical of your kids. ‘Oh god, I am becoming just like my mother/father’ is not uncommonly heard amongst some of us! Yet, if our parents stay together (or split amicably) and love each other, we can more easily integrate and balance those parts of our parents and our families with which we identify. This means that if we behave in ways that we are not so proud of, we are kinder to ourselves.

 

Family divides

But if our parents hate each other, or parts of each other’s families, we will be in conflict with those aspects of any of them which we recognise in ourselves. This may mean that we feel shame or disgust at our self, or to protect our self from shame, we may project onto others and see those qualities in people around us.

Either way we become split. This can result in a self-propagating cycle of shame where we either withdraw from relationships and have increasing feelings of unworthiness. Or we may become angry or hateful of others.

 

How to begin to feel better

Whilst our culture pretends that difference is not an issue, it also likes to have quick fixes and bulleted lists for self-help! Making deep changes within our self is not easy and neither are self-help suggestions, because we are all different. No two of us will be doing a ‘problem’ in the same way, nor would we have constructed or developed the problem for the same reason.

But here are some considerations for when you are not feeling like yourself.

  1. Awareness matters

The first step is perhaps to begin to develop awareness of these polarities that exist within us, but with a healthy dose of self-compassion. True change only comes from a place of acceptance. Once we accept something within us, that we may well not like, we have a chance of changing it.

 

  1. Practise self-compassion when you’re not feeling like yourself

self-compassion when you're not feeling like yourself
self-compassion

Once we become more aware of conflicting parts within our self, it is important to learn to be kind to our self. Otherwise, greater awareness can simply bring more self-loathing or criticism. For instance, remind yourself that just because your behaviour sometimes reminds you of your mother or father, it does not mean that you are globally like them. You are more than your behaviour. Learn to see the positives in the aspect of yourself that you don’t like. For instance, a tendency to be critical of self or others often has a positive intention of wanting them to be better.

This self-hypnosis on ‘Loving Yourself’ might be nice to practise.

 

 

  1. Talk to someone who loves you

The best antidote for shame, an emotion often at the heart of difference, is to be seen by someone we love. Truly seen. If you can be brave enough to talk about aspects of your behaviour or thoughts that you don’t like, with someone you know believes in you, it can be transformative. To be seen in our shame or disgust, and accepted, helps to discharge it. Loving others may also see things differently – we are usually our own worst judge.

 

  1. Work on your HRV and coherence

Heart rate variability (HRV) is an important measure of coherence. If we can train our system into coherence we are integrating neurological imbalances such as sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and increasing vagal tone.  The neurological and psychological state that this achieves means that we are more resilient to stress and more able to make the changes we want in our life.

 

  1. Integrate your polarities

I believe we are driven to achieve balance and integrate all parts of our self so that we can become whole. All of us, regardless of the difficulties and traumas we have faced in our life, are able to become who we truly are. It is through achieving alignment on all levels of our being that we can move forward in life and be more able to face life’s inevitable challenges. A good psychotherapist can help you on this journey.

 

More reading when you are not feeling like yourself:

More articles on low self-esteem

When I sit back and think over the last 10 months since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And when I think about myself and my client base. I can see that many of us have faced, or are facing, an epiphany. If we listen to this, we can begin to face our worst fears and develop resilience and a more complete sense of self.

 

We all have difficulties in the pandemic

Covid has affected all of us. With the chronic uncertainty, our anxiety has shot up. For many, three lockdowns later, a certain kind of depression is starting to kick in. The lack of social contact and inability to pursue things that once gave us pleasure, is taking its toll.

Our basic needs are not being met

Many are angry. Our basic human needs are not being met. We have an innate drive for meaning, satisfaction, pleasure and connection. And the pandemic is stealing many of the means for meeting these. Yet when we cannot change the things around us, the only thing we have left to change is our self.

 

Covid is helping us to face our worst fears

And for those that have realised this, I am seeing that the coronavirus crisis is helping us to face our worst fears and complexes. When our normal defence mechanisms and coping strategies are stripped away, anxiety ensues. However if we listen to that, as a symptom of something deeper that needs listening to, we can begin an important and vital journey.

 

We need help

Those brave enough to do this, seek help. For we cannot do this alone. Our problem is operating at a deeply unconscious level and we need another to see into that particular window of our psyche.

 

I’m not feeling like myself

So many have come to me, saying “I am not feeling like myself, at all”. Do any of us. We might be getting more angry. Or lack motivation for our work, despite feeling grateful that we still have work. Perhaps we are having trouble sleeping, or are drinking too much. We might be getting more obsessive in our behaviour or habits. Whatever it is that we notice that is not normal. This is our system calling for help.

 

Epiphanies

For those that have listened and decided to do something about it. They have noticed that they overcome old phobias or maybe increased their tolerance of others who are different to them. They have put things in perspective and been able to find more balance at work and in life. Or they have addressed traumas from their past that they buried and tried to forget a long time ago.

They feel more at peace than ever.

 

More information

Read more about Coping with Covid.

Access our free online course – Coping with Covid.

Contact me about one to one work.

How are doing ? No really, how are you doing? You may be bewildered about how to cope with the highs and lows of Covid. But one thing is sure as we head into lockdown again: none of us are feeling like ourselves.  I have had so many therapy clients say that to me. And I recognise it myself.

Look around you.  Some of us are quieter, others louder. Some are eating more; others are out running in the icy conditions. Some are being kinder, whilst others seem to be uncharacteristically mean. You might be ranting about how the government is making mistakes because of covid restrictions. I might be meditating myself up my own backside.

 

Defence mechanisms

Ultimately, whatever our way of coping – even if that is unallayed optimism – it won’t work all that well to help us cope with the highs and lows of Covid. We learn coping mechanisms early on in life. These strategies serve us well – they defend us from ‘life threatening’ situations. When we are young, that simply means parental disapproval. So we become the good girl or boy, or the clown, or we get busy. And it works; until it doesn’t. In fact, often our uncharacteristic ways of coping, are our last line of defence, and they only end up causing us more problems. We become so used to keeping our anxieties at bay by staying busy, that when covid strips away all our avenues of choice, we are forced to face painful reality.

 

Even stoicism doesn’t help with the highs and lows of Covid

Stoicism is the haven of many. But even that can create more problems. When its rationalism and objectivity become a defence mechanism, it can end up just being another way to avoid painful emotions.

 

A little help

Children often turn to a transitional object when things get difficult. Did you ever have a comfort blanket or a favourite toy from which you were inseparable? Only to be told by your parents that one day you put it down never to pick up again.

My transitional object, at two years of age, was a china dog. I remember it vividly. I feel my deep abiding love for the inanimate animal. This Christmas my dad saw the exact same dog in a local charity shop and bought it for me. I was so excited. Yet when I opened it, though I was delighted with its beautiful design, I did not get the comfort that my two-year-old clearly did.

 

Comfort in Covid

What can help us cope with the highs and lows of Covid? Give us real comfort and solace in these unprecedented times? We are living with a threat. This elevates our fear, fight, flight response – activates our sympathetic nervous system and causes our parasympathetic response to go offline.

However, this threat is different. It is chronic, persistent, and invisible. It strips us of control and activates a trauma response. Covid-19 is at risk of doing as much damage to our mental health as it is to our physical health. But we can become more resilient.

 

Developing resilience

True resilience is not Pollyanna optimism, or denial. Rather it is developing an ability to face the reality of the situation. As the Covid crisis (and its long tail of mental health problems, job losses, economic upset) is likely to get worse before it gets better. And undertaking activities and practices to help us cope; then we might be able to crawl back, rather than bounce back, to comforting normality.

 

Some ideas to help you cope

We are all different and what works for one of us, won’t suit another. You will know the best ways to cope in difficult times but here are some ideas that have worked for me or others.

  1. Walking (in nature) – we all know walking is good for us. But physical exercise that involves rhythmic movement and connection with the earth helps the body process trauma and helps with anxiety and depression. If we are able to be in nature whilst we walk, we start to benefit from tuning in to a healing frequency that sooths us on a deep level. Healing vibrations carried by the colour green reach into us and can even positively affect our DNA. And plants and trees have a type of consciousness that can touch us, if we let it. A daily walk is an important part of managing the highs and lows of covid.
  2. Yoga – whilst in the west we have deformed yoga into yet more body beautiful fitness regime, real yoga is something very different. It may not even include physical postures (asana) but mantra, chanting, service/work, breathing practices, and meditation. Stepping onto the true path of yoga can bring us closer to our real self and build enduring resilience. It can keep us balanced and uplifted, even as we enter our third lockdown.
  3. Satsang – this is something that we do in any kind of spiritual discipline. It is where we seek out the company of people where we can seek out, talk about and understand the truth. A group of like-minded folks committed to understanding the deeper meanings of life and question reality. Whilst being supported by belonging to a connected tribe.
  4. Cleansing practices – the coronavirus crisis is bringing up a lot of negative energy in the world and in each of us. It can manifest in radical changes in peoples’ behaviours, which can mean we get upset or hurt. Practices to clear out such negative energy can be useful. This might include yogic practices such as the kriyas or burning sage (smudging) or palo santo sticks. Chanting powerful mantras – such as OM or om mani padme hum – are far more effective for clearing the mind than affirmations.  I have been doing a weekly havan during the last 9 months or so. This type of fire ceremony uses thermal energy and sound to purifiy and harmonise the air and ourselves. There are more, but perhaps these are just some to help protect your energy during this crisis.
  5. Helping others – if each of us could commit to helping at least one other during these times it would have a tremendous impact, not just on the wider community, but also on ourselves.
  6. Enjoying a hobby – perhaps you already have something you love doing but haven’t had the time or inclination to do it. Or maybe you have picked up a new interest during this year of covid? Hobbies are a fantastic way to engage with something we love and keep our mind focused. They keep our brains and our selves healthy and can even end up benefiting others anyway.
  7. New channels for connection – keeping connection is probably the most important way, for most of us, to get through the highs and lows of covid. But we may have to be creative in looking into new channels to communicate or stay in connection with others. Zoom is the obvious one. But remember skype, and WhatsApp is fantastic for messaging, phone and video calls. Social media is healthy and positive if used in the right ways.
  8. Animals – whilst I am not advocating adopting a dog during lockdown, there are many ways that we can get animal companionship or inspiration. You could help a friend or family member with their dog (or cat)  – respecting bubbles of course. You could look into the wide variety of furry and non-furry animals that can be terrifically interesting to keep. Looking after something else, and having physical contact (even if they don’t have fur) can enrich your life.

Read more ideas about Coping with the highs and lows of Covid.

There are many reports of people having more frequent and more vivid and unusual dreams during this pandemic. Whilst I personally haven’t seen much of a change (mine are always offbeat), I began to wonder why this increase in COVID dreams might be the case for others.

The main function of dreams

I have always been interested in dreams. However, since studying psychoanalysis during the past year, I have more understanding of the depth that dreams contain. Freud called dreams the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ and said that the main function of dreaming is to keep us asleep.

During a dream, content from our unconscious can be presented in a way that is acceptable or digestible to the more conscious part of our mind. This partly explains why dreams can seem so weird. To ensure this presentability, our mind codes our dreams with symbols and other content is switched to ensure that the dream gets past our internal censor. Remember, the unconscious mind is far from middle class!

Night terrors – when dreams fail

If this process fails, we end up in a night terror and are woken from the dream. This is a sign that our capacity to dream has been overwhelmed by the indigestible stuff from the unconscious. This might partly explain the nature of our COVID dreams.

Creative acts

Freud said “ the function of a dream is fulfilment of a wish to appease a worry. When this works, an anxiety is satisfied, and you can sleep”. This is how dreams keep us asleep. Clever, eh? Today, we have elaborated on this understanding and dreams are seen as creative acts of psychic work to resolve conflicts or challenges, and even come up with something new. As a chemistry student many years ago, I remember being told about Kekule’s dream of a serpent devouring its tail (the ancient alchemical symbol of the ouroborus) which lead to his discovery of the benzene ring.

Understanding our dreams

However, these are not the only reasons to understand our dreams. Dreams are made of darker stuff sometimes, a wish to satisfy an instinct from the darkness of the Id. And our id holds the most ‘terrible’ instincts, even of ‘murderous’ intent. I am talking of the baby’s rage for a withholding breast. On thing is certain though, dreams have very personal meanings and you cannot look them up in a dream dictionary to understand them. Whilst there may be universal symbols at play within them, even these have deeply personal relevance.

Multiple layers of meaning

For example, I recently had an extremely upsetting dream that involved a snake. In part of the dream, the snake was cut into many pieces that were still alive and crawling around the floor. This dream would have different meanings for others, especially with such an ancient symbol of a serpent. However, I own a pet snake which I love dearly, and I have also taken up carving as an art form. One dream has multiple layers of meaning. But one (superficial) meaning of this dream for me, was a wish to not harm my pet whilst I am carving. It was a warning which alleviated this worry.

Why are we having covid dreams?

Overtly it seemed to me that the increase in vivid and strange COVID dreams was because of the trauma of COVID-19 that is around us on a daily basis. The content of dreams is often influenced by our day or recent events on our life – Freud called these top down dreams. Others are more ‘bottom up’ and come direct from the subconscious.

Knowing this explains our covid dreams another way. With less going on in our daily lives, more bottom up material is coming from the depths of our unconscious mind (if it can get past the censor in unusual ways) which is just weirder and more vivid. Freud tells us:

“Every dream that is in the process of formation makes a demand upon the ego for the satisfaction of an instinct, if the dream originates from the id, for a solution of a conflict, the removal of a doubt or the forming of an intention if the dream originates from a residue of preconscious activity from waking life. The sleeping ego is however focused on the wish to remain asleep. It feels this demand as a disturbance and seeks to get rid of it. The ego succeeds in doing this by what appears to be an act of compliance; it meets the demand with what is, in the circumstances, the harmless fulfilment of a wish and so gets rid of it.”

Interpreting dreams

So what chance do we have of making sense of such weirdness? It’s not easy, as you might guess. Despite what the abundance of dream dictionaries and the like seem to tell us. The manifest content is the story we remember and write down or tell our therapist. Yet it is the ‘latent’ content which we need to understand, the hidden message in the dream. By understanding this we have clues to our unconscious conflicts that, in a process like psychotherapy, can greatly aid in our self-development and progress.

To search for the hidden messages, here are a few tips:

  1. Look out for displacement – this is where the emphasis is moved from one item in the dream to another. So that something that seems meaningless is given great focus or there is serious anxiety in something bland
  2. Condensation – the free associations and the links that the dreamer is encouraged to make when thinking about the dream. Or perhaps noticing the play on words in dreams
  3. Secondary revision – how we wrap up the story of the dream (and maybe distort it). I did this with my snake dream (there was more to it).
  4. Symbols (considerations of representability) – this is the visual way metaphor and simile are represented in dreams (a way of by-passing the censor). It is usually an item that represents something completely different. But remember, these are often very individual.

Example dream

Maybe it would help with a recent example from a client. (I have permission, though am keeping all detail anonymous). My client dreamed he was walking down a mountain side. The path was winding and rocky and with big boulders and gaps to navigate precariously. The client found himself with a baby, there were onlookers who seemed to be family and friends and who were not threatening. The client had a dilemma – he wanted to get safely down the mountainside to the base, he wanted to do it for himself but in a way that kept the baby safe. In the dream was distracted by some beautiful pattern in the stones and rocks. The only way he could do it was to hand the baby over to the onlookers, for a moment while he negotiated certain rocks and treacherous parts. But he did not feel he could trust the onlookers with the baby. He wished he could trust them enough to hold the baby for a moment.

Mountain dreams

Overtly the client thought this dream represented a difficult patch in life that he was trying to navigate. But let’s look a bit more deeply, bearing in mind I am no dream expert. The client was going down a mountain, which might represent descent into the work into the unconscious that he was undertaking in therapy. There were onlookers who were friendly. Dreams often reverse things, so this could represent people in his life who he perceives do not have such benign or neutral intent. There was a baby that he was responsible for.

Beginning an interpretation of covid dreams

Notice how the client got more fixated on the beauty or preciousness of the pattern in the stones on the path. This might signify that the baby was something precious to him. What does the baby signify? It might be a symbol. My client is a young man and not yet a father, the baby might symbolise something precious to him. On one level, the baby might represent me, his therapist, and his wish to protect me (he recognised feeling something like this towards me at times, which is not uncommon in the client-therapist transference). I am something ‘precious’ to him and am going on a descent into his unconscious mind with him, he might fear for me of what we might find there.

Freud said that aspects or objects in dreams are aspects of our own mind. Babies are vulnerable but more importantly, dependent. So, given that my client was entering a very important phase in therapy where he was becoming more dependent on a benign caregiver (a vital and delicate part of the therapeutic process), the baby might represent this dependent part of himself. This of course is himself as a baby. And he fears of letting this baby go to others (me the therapist) whom he can’t trust in this crucial and delicate phase.

Play on words

Of course, another layer could be the play on words: in the double bind he experiences in the dream, he is ‘left holding the baby’. Which is a phrase that means “you are put in a situation where you are the sole person responsible for something, often in an unfair way because other people fail or refuse to take responsibility for it”. This might relate to people in his life and general pattern currently and in the past.

Layer upon layer

Remember that there are multiple layers of meaning in a single dream, and we can keep unpacking it. And in addition, the meaning may be different at different times in our life. Then there are traumatic dreams, which are less useful. Rather like the trauma response itself, these dreams repeat and repeat, often in very disturbing ways. This traumatic repetition is an effort to re-experience the trauma so that we can finally take control. However, it often leads to more trauma.

Hopefully this gives you a taste of the power of dreams to help us navigate our problems in life. In psychotherapy dreams can be a useful tool to initiate dialogue with the unreachable unconscious. Through this we can begin to understand the unconscious conflicts and anxieties that disturb our happiness. But there is no one size fits all approach. The therapist needs to do careful and informed work with the client to extract the personal meanings from dreams.

 

More help during COVID-19

Read more about what might help you cope in this pandemic.

What do you do to be less stressed? Before Covid-19, I used to sit around in coffee shops as regularly as possible. I would sit and watch life pass by, think and daydream – and sometimes write. Having thought about why was drawn to do this, I realised it is part of what I call the broad ‘margin’ that I like in my life. To steal a pinch from Thoreau. At its heart, I think it is all about ‘being’. Certainly being less stressed.

Creating margin

So, I ask myself, what do I do now instead to create this kind of margin in my life where I be less stressed? Two things came to mind. During lockdown I found a new hobby. Carving wood. I carve mostly pendants for jewellery and I find it beautifully consuming in a non-thinking way. I have this piece of wood, which I have found (responsibly) storm-fallen in local woods, which I know somewhat intimately. And out of which emerges something miraculous: perhaps an animal, or a symbol.

When I carve, my mind is quiet. Yes, at times the odd difficult thought emerges, but I let it go. The process of being with the natural element, takes me right back to the wood in which I found it. I can smell the trees, hear the sounds of nature and silence around me. Feel engulfed by the wood. I am not stressed in the this place. In walking with no aim in mind in that wood, I sometimes find interesting pieces to work with. In carving, I kind of have an aim, but the carving emerges, and I am not always in control. I enjoy the whole process because I puts me more into a ‘being’ mode than a ‘doing’ mode. This is a less stressful mode.

Too much time doing

I think we spend too much time ‘doing’. In this mode we are active, starting things, under pressure and a bit wired. We are more likely to be stressed. With this in mind, I watched people when I was out and about today. Coming and going, hurrying and queueing. And as I watched them I thought about the yogic concept of the gunas.  I started to notice which guna was predominant in each person. In the West certainly, we have a culture that encourages, rewards, and shapes us for doing. People often have a posture that mirrors a forward moving. go getting, achieving culture: sway back, knees hyperextended, a tense lateral myofascial line that throws the pelvis out of alignment and head hanging forward off the neck.

Existing or being?

People often simply don’t know how to ‘just be’. And their reactions to feeling stressed or overwhelmed is to do more, to keep themselves busy. Almost like if they stopped, they wouldn’t exist anymore. Of course, when they come to therapy, their body and/or their mind have already begun to ‘breakdown’ in some way. So, as I noticed the older lady behind me, who’s impatience I could feel even before she began trying to push in front of me. Or the stressed looks on shoppers faces busily scanning catalogues, or the harassed mum who quickly gulped down her takeaway coffee and was quickly on to the next task at hand. I could see ‘doing’ was written on the somatic structure of peoples’ faces, posture, body.

How can you ‘be’ more?

So I realise that margin and space is so important to me in my life.I can just ‘be’ in that space. So how can you create this type of margin in your own life? Thoreau himself went into the woods. What will you find that works? Let us know by posting in the comments below so that we can all be inspired!

For me this margin IS life. I have space to ‘be’. Of the gunas, Sattvic is light, space, lucidity, harmony. You can’t buy it or earn it by doing more or trying harder. You have to learn to be and let go of some doing and having. Perhaps this is the hardest lesson of all. Animals can be great teachers in this respect. Spend time with a cat, or a dog, or any animal and they will soon start to teach you!

 

Enjoyed reading this? Read more about stress here and happiness here.

The coronavirus crisis is forcing us to face something which human beings excel at avoiding. Death is the biggest taboo of them all and one which we spend a lifetime denying.

Many are writing about trauma during the COVID-19 crisis. We are in the midst of a trauma and that trauma is being triggered by many everyday things now. But I believe that what is even more important in our response to this crisis is our unconscious fear of death.

Read the full article on LifeLabs.

In order to help with the symptoms of trauma we need to think of the trauma response as being an accelerator. I often remind my clients that trauma is something our body does. Our body has floored the accelerator pedal (so to speak) and we have forgotten that we even have a brake.

Trauma as undischarged energy

Trauma is our body’s natural response to an unnatural situation. Think of the tiny mouse who gets pounced on by the cat. Suddenly it is trapped in sharp jaws and knows it might die. A huge surge of energy rushes through its body as accelerator hormones are released that pump blood and expand lung capacity. It is like a nuclear bomb went off inside its body. This energy prepares the mouse to flee at the first opportunity (or fight if this was a larger animal). The moment the cat drops the mouse it runs faster than it ever has to survive. And the energy bomb is dissipated. The ‘hyper-arousal’ of trauma has served its purpose.

Fall asleep

Sometimes something else happens. When released from the jaws of hell, the mouse looks like it is dead. The animal feigns death. This is less well known side of the trauma response – ‘to fall asleep’. Many animals do this as a survival mechanism. It lies on the floor completely dead. The cat walks away. But the moment the mouse senses a millimetre of safety, it springs up and races off. However, if you were to watch closer, for longer, at some point you would see the little creature jerk and throw itself around in a strange sort of way. This is the mouse discharging the energy of the trauma response. This discharge means the mouse can get back to its normal life with no lasting after effects from the nuclear bomb which has just gone off inside of it.

Symptoms of undischarged trauma

Humans are often not so fortunate. Our natural instincts can be interrupted by our logic and our higher mind. Practically, this means that we are often left with the symptoms of undischarged trauma in our bodies that stay with us long after the traumatising event. In fact, they may lie dormant, but only until another trauma event triggers this energy again.

Diagram: (Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

This diagram is commonly used to help us understand heightened brain/body reactions during adversity. The dotted lines show a healthy nervous system. This being one which is able to self-regulate and maintain an arousal level (following a difficult event) that is within manageable or normal levels. When we experience trauma, this can induce a heightened energetic response in our system (as described above) and can mean that our ability to self-regulate is compromised. This is more likely to be the case if we have had earlier trauma, including disruptions in our early attachment needs.

 

 

From Hyper to hypo

This response to trauma pushes us into one of two states, which we will inevitably fluctuate between. Hyperarousal (the ‘stuck on’ position) is where our sympathetic nervous system is in charge and is characterised by an excessive energy response. This will present itself in symptoms of anxiety, panic, fear, hypervigilance and emotional flooding. We may feel rage or anger, restless and hyperactive and it will be difficult to eat, sleep or concentrate.

However, human beings cannot maintain this state for too long. Our system takes over and plunges us into the exhausted state of hypo arousal. This is where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and in particular the dorsal vagal complex of the vagus nerve. Effectively this is the equivalent of the animal’s ‘feign death’ mode. Here we will feel depressed and tired, have more feelings of negativity and worthlessness, feel disoriented and disconnected. A sense of flatness or numbness will take over and we won’t feel like doing anything, we may also sleep a lot. Indeed we may even feel we don’t have a future. We are, in effect, emotionally dead.

Fluctuating between extremes

Again, our bodies won’t let us stay here too long. So we may be driven to risky (even suicidal) behaviour to feel alive again.

What I often find is that people often find one state more intolerable than the other, and therefore have more of a default position of ‘switched on’ or ‘switched off’. It goes without saying that both of these extremes are confusing and disturbing to us, and to those around us. People say ‘I feel like I am going mad’, they feel messed up and long to be normal. It is a chaotic state. Of course, this layer of shame doesn’t help.

Understanding the energetic response

Nevertheless, understanding the science behind this response helps to understand the disturbing nature of these symptoms. It is vital to learn to build resources in our self that will help us to manage the chaotic nature of undischarged trauma. This will help to protect us (and others) from further harm.

Risky behaviour increases with the trauma response

Without learning how to ‘self-regulate’ we will be at risk from taking actions that somehow help us manage these states but cause us more problems. We may take an overdose if we are so frightened by the thought of carrying on with these symptoms. We may smoke or drink more to help alleviate some of the distress, or become addicted to some other process or substance. These are more risky ways of managing the post-traumatic symptoms that lead to more shame, which will only feed the cycle.

Taking refuge in our self

Our body, and unconscious mind, already have all the resources within them to help us self-regulate the trauma response and find safety. By learning, or being reminded about, the resources we have within we can find and apply the brake on trauma. We can learn when to apply the accelerator and when to use the brake to steer our self into safety.

Applying the brake and the accelerator

Whilst there are different techniques to use for the hyper state and the hypo state, there is one that can work well for either. There is a muscle inside the middle of our body, which attaches to the heart via a central tendon, and also links up with the ventral vagal complex of the vagus nerve. In short, this muscle helps to engage the newest branch of the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘smart vagus’ – the self-regulation centre. This muscle is the diaphragm, the primary muscle of respiration.

However we cannot just breathe our way out of trauma we have to do it in a very specific way. If we can learn to breathe using the full range (25-30 cm ) of our diaphragm, through our nostrils at a rate of around five breaths a minute (that is a 12 sec breath in and out) we can find a balance point between the brake and the accelerator. For this balance, certainly to begin with, there should be no pauses at the end of the inhalation or exhalation, just a smooth flowing of in-breath into out-breath. Like an undulating wave. It is from here that we can reach coherence and begin to find ‘normal’ again.

A simple practice to achieve coherence and balance

I usually teach my clients to reach this state in a number of steps. But I usually start by teaching them to find and engage with their diaphragm.

The following is a simple practice and the best way to do this:

Listen to a podcast of the practice here.

  1. Lie on the floor on your front with your body in a straight line. (it is important that you lie on a hard surface rather than a bed).
  2. Bend your arms at your elbows and rest your forehead or side of your face on your hands.
  3. Make sure you allow a few moments to get as comfortable as possible here.
  4. Make sure your mouth is closed, lips together, and you are breathing through your nostrils.
  5. Be aware of your body lying on the floor and the contact between your body and the floor.
  6. Become aware of your breathing, and notice your abdomen pushing into the floor as you breathe in. It releases as you breathe out.
  7. Keep your awareness on this feeling of your belly pushing into the floor as you breathe.
  8. After a few minutes, you can start to exaggerate this movement and push your belly even more into the floor by drawing deeper breaths. (if at any point you feel uncomfortable or have dizziness stop for a moment and come back to the practice later).
  9. Continue this practice for as long you can. And repeat every day if possible for a while.

 

Changing default habits

Remember that the trauma response is a habit that our body has gotten into when it is triggered. You can begin to change any pattern if you practice the new resourceful behaviour for a minimum 20 minutes for a minimum of 21 days (I usually say a month, continuously, with Sunday off!). This is like restoring your mobile phone to its factory default settings. You remember to breathe how you were born to breathe. You take the first step at re-connecting with the resources within that are your human heritage as an embodied being.

This article was first published on Counselling Directory.

During a crisis situation, like Covid-19, our tendency to take risks can increase. Trauma can trigger states where risky behaviour has a kind of softening effect on the crisis we are experiencing. Invariably, it can also make us feel more alive. However cheating on our partner only brings us more problems in the long run. So why do we cheat?

Why do we cheat?

I have many people who come to me who are in an extra marital affair currently, or who have had one. And this situation invariably affects self-esteem. Yes the new relationship makes them feel loved and valued. Perhaps because these needs are not being met in the primary relationship. But close on the heels of that pleasure is the cauldron of problems that beleaguers the person. And for some the guilt and shame can be unbearable.

Who cheats?

According the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (9.8.2013) 57 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women will have an extramarital affair. So, considering the total number of marriages involved at least one partner will have an affair in approximately 80 per cent of all marriages. (stats here: http://www.dearpeggy.com/2-affairs/statistics.html). With this many marriages affected, it’s unreasonable to think affairs are due only to the failures and shortcomings of individual ‘bad’ partners.

Why we cheat

Why do we cheat? It is always because of some need that is not being met in the current relationship. Perhaps your wife is cold and distant and doesn’t want sex anymore? Perhaps your partner is unable to express himself emotionally, or doesn’t do feelings? Or perhaps he is too needy and since the baby has come along, turns elsewhere for attention. We all have needs for connection, for intimacy. As well as for touch and for passion.

Things are different these days. Women in their 40s are doing a lot of the initiation. And divorce is on the rise for couples in their 60s. We change. And sometimes the other does not change so much. So we feel stuck or not understood. We need to be seen by another. We all long to be validated, and recognised on a deep level by another soul. This is especially true if we did not have these needs met in our childhood.

 

Attachment theory

And then there is attachment theory.  It is said that 40-50% of us are insecurely attached. We may be avoidant, with an almost obsessive need for independence as we had to rely on ourselves so much in childhood. Or we were abused physically, emotionally or sexually. Or we may be anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied) in our attachment. This is because we got inconsistent care in childhood. Needless to say, our ‘hope’ for love and care was dashed time and time again, by a mother who was unavailable herself (depressed, alcoholic etc).

So we cope. We are excellent at coping from a very young age, we have an inbuilt survival mechanism. The need for love and being cared for can feel like life or death. This desperate need for intimacy or sexual connection ends up making us fearful (literally) of intimacy or too needy and dependent on it. Both styles, I find, set us up for affairs. Insecure attachment style goes hand in hand with lower self esteem. So, the self esteem was already low, before the affair.

Intention and behaviour

I am not excusing the behaviour in any way. but the ‘intention’ behind it is positive (and to the limbic brain, can feel like life or death): to get the person what they truly, deeply need. This is not a conscious, rational choice (this need) it is wired into the circuits of the right brain, wired so deeply that it can override the superego’s objections to having an affair.

Nevertheless, the judgements of society and culture, pale in comparison to how we judge ourselves. Affairs can shatter marriages. And make the one who strayed, and the one left behind deeply unhappy. So, given that, the behaviour needs changing.

 

Healing the wounds

People need help to heal the underlying wounds in the relationship to change the relationship so needs are met. Surprisingly, 30% or more of marriages with a known affair, do survive. But usually both of them also need help in healing the underlying childhood ‘scars’ that created the impetus. The low self-esteem which is a presenting factor in most, has now usually gotten far worse post-affair thereby setting a sensitivity for more affairs.

Our relationship can survive an affair – with help

But the truly beautiful thing is, that for the bravest of couples, who honestly, authentically, courageously work through all this (themselves, the marriage) this crisis can be the catalyst for changing the relationship. The old stagnant relationship can be changed to one that is unrecognisable from the one that was decimated. It can be a route to individuation, differentiation, growth to self – for both partners. Although I am certainly NOT advocating an affair in the cause of ‘personal growth’. Given that most of us in the West today will have two or three committed relationships in our life, ‘for those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person.’ (Esther Perel, After the Storm)

Resources: A Passionate Marriage by David Snarch

Resources

  1. More about relationships on our blog
  2. More about David Snarch and how sex inevitably dies in long-term relationships
  3. A wonderful video from Esther Perel

As we cope with the change of Covid-19 we might find our selves in strange states of emotional upheaval. Regulating our emotional arousal levels is a skill we can learn.

You might be coping and working, and perhaps you are even busy. But you might find yourself alternating between anxiety and tiredness, overwhelm and lack of motivation.

Here are some practices to help.

Watch the video on Psychologies LifeLabs

Find other resources to help you cope with a crisis here.