Befriend your Nervous System

Befriend your Nervous System

 

Our brain is wired to constantly scan for potential dangers and safety in our surroundings, even if we do so without realizing it. We read thousands of social cues when we interact with others, such as facial expressions, voice tones, body language, and more. Dr Stephen Porgers developed the Polyvagal Theory which describes the process of the neural circuits assessing whether the situations are dangerous or safe. He called it neuroception. This ability to distinguish cues of safety, danger, life-threatening situations, or people in a split second is learned throughout our early childhood development stages by observing our caregivers and from life experiences.

In Polyvagal Theory, there are three stages of the autonomic nervous system: Immobilization, Mobilization, and Social Engagement. Deb Dana, a US social worker and expert in Polyvagal theory, describes these three responses as an autonomic ladder. When we are at the top of the ladder there is a state of social engagement. We feel calm and want to connect or interact with others. When our bodies sense signs of danger, we move to the middle of the ladder. At this Mobilization stage, our heart rate speeds up, our breath is short, and our body will release adrenaline to prepare us for harm. We might ruminate with negative thoughts, feel anxious, and want to run away or lash out. While we continue to encounter extreme life-threatening danger, our nervous system starts to perform intensely. When all else fails, we will fall to the bottom of the ladder to the Immobilization mode causing us to become frozen, numb, dissociated, shut down, or collapse. You might describe ourselves as hopeless, helpless, abandoned, lonely, or too tired to think or act.

We shift up and down on different levels of the Polyvagal “ladder” every day. By being aware of what ladder level we are on at any given moment and understanding how we move between levels, we can be in control to move up if we are on a lower part of the ladder. We can set a specific time-out moment to check our status according to the schedule. When we notice that we are in the middle or bottom of the ladder we can say to ourselves, “Thank you, nervous system, for trying to protect me from danger. I am safe now.” Then we can do the activities that help us move up to the top of the ladder such as taking a break, going for a walk, doing some exercise, or having something to eat or drink. Social engagement behaviours will occur when the neuroception is feeling safe. 

Here is an example of shifting through different states of the ladder. I was enjoying a conversation with my close friends, feeling happy and connected (top of the ladder). The conversation turned to the current COVID situation and I started comparing my life to their friend’s life overseas. I started to feel frustrated that I haven’t seen my family for over two years or even been able to travel abroad (moving down the ladder). I disconnected from the conversation and was not able to pay attention to what my friend was saying (shutting down and moving to the bottom of the ladder). After dinner, I took a walk with my friend and felt more relaxed (beginning to move up the ladder). I started to tune in to the conversation again. I talked about the possibility of travelling and goals for the future (back to the top of the ladder). 

When we befriend our autonomic nervous system, we can then begin to understand our internal response patterns. When we are aware of our movement on the Polyvagal “ladder,” we can successfully manoeuvre to safety and connection. 

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Nonviolent Communication

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication

 

Healthy, productive communication is crucial to keep any relationship strong. Dr. John Gottman, the renowned psychologist and relationship researcher, determined that there are four kinds of communication habits that are the most destructive and biggest predictors of relationship demise. Dr. Gottman referred to those four traits as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and they are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Based on the “Four Horsemen,” Dr. Gottman and his research team can predict the probability of a divorce with over 90% accuracy within 15 minutes of observing the communications patterns of a couple during conflicts.

Conflicts, in any kind of relationship, are inevitable, normal, and even necessary. Having conflict is not the problem, but rather dealing with those conflicts is the key to defining the quality of the relationship. Each disagreement can be seen as an opportunity for couples to either achieve deeper connections or the possibility to tear their relationship apart. When conflicts happen, please ask yourself, do you want to argue for a win or want to connect and be heard? If you choose to connect, then we need to practice expressing our thoughts and needs with healthier communications skills. 

One of my favourite models of communication for solving personal conflicts is Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). The objective of NVC is to have a sincere and frank conversation while paying attention with empathy and handling potential disputes with respect and thoughtfulness. The basis of Nonviolent Communication is being ready to recognize and proceed towards matters in a non-judgemental way.

Following four fundamental steps can help us to master the art of NVC. The steps are Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests, from the book, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Let’s examine each one individually. 

Observations: Making observations is the act of describing factual information about what happened without judgments or interpretations. For example, instead of saying “He is a bad player,” you can say, “He did not make any goals in the past two games.” Or instead of saying, “You are so sloppy,” a person can say, “You did not change your clothes for three days.” Without emotional or judgmental words, the listener will most likely understand the detail being illustrated.

Feelings: Express your emotions not your thoughts. For example, instead of saying, “I feel misunderstood,” which includes an interpretation of behaviour, one could simply say, “I feel frustrated.” The key is to focus on words that describe our inner emotions. Sentences starting with, “I feel like,” or “I feel that,” usually end with describing our thoughts or interpretations of another person’s feelings or actions.

Needs: Negative feelings are caused by unfulfilled needs. State your needs rather than the other person’s actions as the cause. The key is to connect our inner values and focus on words that describe shared human experiences. For example, one can say, “I feel annoyed because I need more support,” rather than, “I feel annoyed because you don’t do the laundry.” 

Requests: Ask clearly in positive action language. The request must be doable and specific. The key is to focus on what we want instead of what we don’t want. For example, instead of saying, “Please don’t invade my privacy,” one could say, “Would you knock on my door before coming in?”

Here is another example of a wife using NVC to express her concerns. 

“This is the third weekend in a row that you worked during the weekend (OBSERVATION). I feel sad because we don’t have the chance to spend some time together (FEELINGS). It is important for me to feel connected with you (NEEDS). Would you please come home earlier and we can have dinner together (REQUESTS)?”

Nonviolent Communication is a process for us to understand and take responsibility for our own feelings, needs, and inner experiences before communicating with others. It begins with observing the situation, recognizing our feelings, followed by connecting with our needs, and finally proposing the request specifically. Hopefully, the listener will empathize with us, fostering understanding and creating a connection that leads to meeting everyone’s needs. Learning NVC is similar to learning a new language. With practice, a person can speak fluently in Nonviolent Communication in no time. 

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Say No To Emotional Blackmail

Say No To Emotional Blackmail

 

Are you always a “Yes” person? If the answer is yes, maybe you will realize people around you always ask you to do something for them and you are the one who doesn’t know how to say no. If you don’t do what other people ask then you might feel very guilty and are probably concerned that something bad will happen as a result. If this seems familiar then you are probably engaged in a cycle of Emotional Blackmail. 

What is Emotional Blackmail?

In the book “Emotional Blackmail,” Susan Forward and Donna Frazier, defined it as the condition when someone uses fear, obligations, and guilt to manipulate another person to give in to their demands. Emotional Blackmailers utilize a person’s fear of displeasing others to compel them to capitulate to the blackmailer’s demands, while also making those who don’t comply feel guilty.

It usually happens to two people with close relationships, especially between parents and children. Knowing that someone close to them wants love or approval, blackmailers may threaten to withhold affection or take them away altogether, making the other person feel that they must earn them by agreement. Some emotionally immature parents use emotional blackmail to control their children often because those parents have low self-esteem caused by a difficult childhood. Those parents can only feel loved and important when their children fulfill all their demands. 

It’s natural for children to try anything to feel connected to their parents. Receiving approval or affirmation from parents creates connections that make children feel more secure. As they  grow up in these manipulative relationships, they might develop core beliefs such as, “What I need is not important,” as well as, “If I don’t do what my parents ask, then I am a bad person.” However, if a person always puts other people‘s needs before their own then sooner or later they might neglect their own emotions and needs.

Since they have given up recognizing their own feelings and demands, others have no obligation to be responsible for their mental health. As a person starts to pay attention to their own feelings and needs, they start to love and take care of themselves. When one starts to know how to reject others for self-protection, they will start to feel their inner strength, which empowers them. During this process, others will also learn how to interact and respect those feelings and boundaries. 

How to Respond

If a person suspects that they are engaging in the emotional blackmail process, they can use the SOS principles, which stands for Stop, Observe and Strategize.

Stop: Do not respond immediately and give some time to think and step away from the pressure. A person could say, “I don’t have an answer for you right now. I need some time to think about it.” Once a person stops complying with the demands in order to calm their fears and deal with the guilt, they can regain control over the situation and their life. 

Observe: Become an observer of both oneself and the other person. Explore the demands objectively and be aware of internal thoughts and feelings. 

Strategize: Use strategies such as non-defensive communications to present boundaries to the blackmailer and hold ground no matter how the other person reacts. You could say, “I am sorry you are upset, let’s talk about it when you feel calmer” or “Maybe you are right, but I think we just see things differently.”

Building Emotional Boundaries

Some people feel very guilty when their parents have negative emotions. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and never build emotional boundaries. However, everyone should only be responsible for their own feelings, not others. When we say no to people, the rejected person might feel hurt and upset. However, it is precisely at this moment that a person needs to accept and allow themselves to be responsible for managing their own emotions and feelings.

If someone is too guilty to take care of their own needs then they are living the life of other people’s expectations, thus making the purpose of life just worrying about how to satisfy others. A person can be kind and caring to others but at the same time avoid over sacrificing. He or she is only responsible for his or her own behavior and actions, not for other people’s emotions. If only one person is allowed to express their feelings and needs in a relationship then the relationship is no longer healthy or balanced. 

Emotional boundaries should also be flexible and not on a thin deadline. Sometimes the boundaries will change, depending on the situation. We all need to learn how to express ourselves, guard our boundaries, and escape from emotional manipulation to live our own life. Otherwise, we may fall victim to Emotional Blackmail.

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Nonviolent Communication

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Negative Emotions can be Good for You

Negative Emotions can be Good for You

“How can I get rid of those negative feelings and just be happy?” I have often heard this question asked by clients. We live in a culture that tells everyone to pursue happiness by eliminating negative feelings, staying positive. If you feel depressed, society will see you as somehow defective or weak. In fact, each emotion is a very useful signal, especially those negative emotions, because they send us information and try to tell us what we really desire. Anxiety and anger are only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface is the core need that wants to be heard. For example, if you feel angry, maybe someone has encroached on your boundaries. Anger helps you to fight for yourself or others. If you feel guilty it might mean that you have done something wrong and you want to correct your behaviours. If you feel fear, it’s warning you to look for danger and activates a fight or flight response to deal with the threats. If you feel sad, it tells you that you might lose something very important in your life and you need support and understanding from others. If you feel bored, maybe it’s because you are not getting the challenges and stimulation you need. All the negative emotions are our protectors, giving us clues to pay attention to what is important in our lives and the things we need to change.

Sometimes people might say that if we don’t feel any emotions then we won’t have any painful feelings. However, numbing your emotions might allow one to block out the pain, but it also disconnects you from joy and love. The reality is that all the things that make life meaningful come with pain. For example, in a relationship, you will enjoy wonderful feelings like excitement and joy and you will also experience disappointment as well as frustration.     There is no such thing as the perfect relationship and life always gives us things that we don’t want, such as illnesses and injuries. The aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to help people effectively handle the inevitable pain while living a rich and meaningful life.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy describe thoughts and emotions with weather metaphors and the self as a sky. The weather changes constantly, but no matter how bad the weather is, even the most destructive tornado can not hurt the sky in any way and the sky always has room for it. Sometimes we can’t see the sky because it’s shrouded by the darkest clouds. But if we rise high enough above those clouds, sooner or later we will reach a clear sky. However, when emotional storms come, people tend to adopt an autopilot mode. For example, when anger shows up, people might yell or lash out, say hurtful things or storm out of the room, but feel guilty after the emotional storm has passed. Those people are allowing anger to push them around like a puppet on a string. Self-awareness is the first step to switching off the autopilot. Next time, when any of the difficult thoughts and feelings come up, just take a moment to acknowledge, to accept, and make room for them, say to yourself, “here is anger” or “I am having thoughts that I am not good enough”. By labelling thoughts and feelings, it can help to switch from autopilot mode and consciously choose how one would like to respond to the challenges of that situation. Anxiety or anger may still persist but the emotional storm is no longer in control.

If you look for changes in your life, start with welcoming and accepting all the parts in you including the darker parts you always try to avoid. Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists in the 20th century, once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”.

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Nonviolent Communication

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Trauma

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Traumatic and stressful events in everyday life are very prevalent. Quarrelling with friends, being scolded by others, parents divorcing, emotional neglect, domestic violence, loss of loved ones, natural disasters, serious injury, and major illnesses are all situations that may cause different degrees of psychological trauma. Although the medical term for trauma is narrowly defined for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), it does not mean that other seemingly “minor” experiences are not traumatic. When an event or series of events overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, they can cause a person to become unable to process the events emotionally, cognitively and physically, causing trauma to occur. There are many treatment methods for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One method is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which has emerged in the United States in recent years. EMDR is one of the more effective treatment methods, but it should be offered by mental health clinicians with recognized professional training.

How did EMDR start?

Thirty years ago Dr Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, discovered a connection between eye movement and persistent distressing memories. Dr Shapiro invented the concept of “bilateral stimulation.” She started with guiding the patient with particular eye movements. As a result, it helped the patients feel less overwhelmed by strong emotions, while the brain reprocessed the memory, which is similar to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycles during sleep. Nowadays, research has shown that other kinds of bilateral movements, such as through ears or hands, can also relieve emotions and restart the brain’s reconsolidation abilities.

How does EMDR work?

Here’s an example. Mr Wong witnessed a car accident while crossing the street. He saw a pedestrian get hit by a car and was covered in blood. Since then, he couldn’t take the same road again. He would constantly have flashbacks of the scenes and feel panic whenever he sees a car driving fast or whenever someone is jaywalking, triggering him to re-experience the trauma again. Usually, the human brain has the ability to process emotions and memories, however, traumatic memories are different from regular ones. The cognitive brain knows the event has happened in the past but the emotional brain thinks the person is still in danger as a result of activating the “Flight-Flight-Freeze” stress responses. When the brain’s processing is blocked, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions seem frozen in time, causing the patient to be constantly in pain.

Every time the traumatic memory is retrieved, it comes up the same way in its own neural net as an isolated and dysfunctional stored memory. As we activate the trauma network while adding the bilateral stimulation which will stimulate both sides of the brain, more neurons light up, even those that have never been fired before. Therapeutic changes are the result of the processing of these traumatic memories within larger adaptive networks, which allows the brain to resume its natural healing process. Once these processes of reconsolidation are completed, the memories are still remembered, but the emotional charge which is connected to the experience will be reduced or alleviated.

Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?

EMDR can be applied to children and adults of all ages. EMDR therapists address a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the following challenges:

– Anxiety, Panic attacks, and Phobias
– Depression
– Eating disorders
– Grief and loss
– Trauma and PTSD
– Sexual assault
– Sleep disturbance
– Substance abuse and addiction
– Violence and abuse

Our negative experiences in the past affect us all. We feel pain because of losing someone, we may have low self-esteem because of emotional failures, we lose self-confidence because of embarrassments or rejections, we need to be perfect because of high expectations from parents, and more. These distressing events affect memories, and memories affect our emotions, physical sensations, and how we perceive ourselves. EMDR is an evidence-based treatment that can help people reprocess memories, restore positive beliefs and enable resilience in life.

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Nonviolent Communication

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Trauma

Understanding the effects of Early Memories