The problem of self calming : some reflections on activation and calming

Recently my sister and I were discussing our childhood. Her words were this when talking about my mother : “she was like a tornado”.. to be honest it was hard to relax around my Mum.. I got my foot burned on one caravanning holiday when she left a bucket of boiling water underneath the table I was drawing on while cleaning the floor and I stepped into it and got 3rd degree burns.. now another more attentive child, perhaps not so ‘lost’ in her own world or passion of the moment may have seen it and averted disaster.

I learned in time to try to use substances to calm me down or take the edge off.. my parents used alcohol for this purpose at the end of each working day and we were encouraged to do the same.. for me it ended in addiction and I am happy I got to put alcohol, drugs and cigarettes down in 1993 but I still find looking for comfort in food just comes naturally…

I had a discussion with a friend over the past week in which she said that being told to ‘be calm’ or ‘calm down’ is a sure trigger for becoming less calm….it might be like telling a person with really bad insect bites not to scratch without some other kind of soothing being offered such as balm for the soreness. Balm for the uncalm might be words like “I am sorry its so uncomfortable right now” or “that must have been very distressing” validation, empathy causes the increase of oxytocin and the reduction of cortisol.

I don’t know what would have calmed my mother during one of her frenzies or OCD rampages…its taking me years to know I don’t have to clear up and wash all the dishes immediately I stop eating or cooking.. one of my ways of being seen was to run around after Mum cleaning up after she got home from her job at her dress shop every day around 6 pm. Later in my recovery I had a dream in which the dream young me was all wired up through the shoulder with a wire coat hanger.. What a powerful metaphor for how entwined I was body, mind and psyche with family energy patterns of looking good and over drive…

Calming for me now comes with writing in which I tap into and release the stored vibrational charge of feeling; in writing poetry, in listening to music, it comes in nature (as I share ad infinitum here); with my dog; with calm loving friends who are emotionally present and honest with true open hearts..

Triggers for me are : criticism, the disapproving stare (flared nostrils and hard dark stare often proceeded one of my Mum’s rages.) I can forgive my Mum in a way now as I know she never got lovingly contained or mirrored and she carried so much from the maternal generational legacy of buried built up stress and repressed emotions…that was impossible to contain. I can forgive my Dad for not knowing how to cope with it, and so checking out… and I can understand the deep roots of my anxious avoidant attachment style which at other times can be disordered..

Calm is only coming slowly but it is coming… I am still activated but only by the old triggers and stepping down from them is becoming quicker and easier as learn where my wound and necessary boundaries and self soothing strategies lay.

We are vulnerable

To be human and to be alive is probably to be vulnerable.  Its a thought that I had today after re reading a prayer I wrote earlier asking for help to overcome fear.  I wondered after reading it if I had been asking for something that is only possible for moments rather than as an ongoing state of being a world so often fraught with insecurity and peril.  My question Isn’t a bit too much of an ask for us to have it together all the time and not struggle with the inherent insecurities in our lives?

That said a lot of what we expect to experience is based on past experience, so if in the past things didn’t go well or we were hurt this becomes our point of view or expectation and we do need boundaries and self care and some protection, just not so much that we limit our ability to live and love and forward move and grow in this life.

I became a fan of Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron a few months after my last serious accident in 2005.  I was recommended to read her book When Things Fall Apart by a friend who had also nearly lost her life and the central message of her teaching involves not erecting defences against what she calls ‘the soft tender sore spot’ in one’s heart.  Pema claims that it is part of our human nature to always be struggling to get some solid ground under our feet but paradoxically the more we strive for this the more we can become attached to things being a certain way and then we just end up suffering more. The more defences we erect against pain too, the less we become connected to our pain as it is a central tenant of Buddhism that we look to our mutuality and inter dependence with other human’s and all living things and all living beings are vulnerable and suffer.  The Buddhists recognise a seamless web of interconnection between every living thing that we only split and divide and pay a price for so doing in neurosis.  Its only in embracing this inherent insecurity that we have a chance of finding some inner security and happiness.  The Buddhists also recognise that it is through opening to our pain and suffering instead of defending against it that we experience our interconnection with others, so opening our hearts is actually a powerful practice not only to heal but also to reconnect to our essential oneness not only with humans but also with nature and cycles of birth, growth, loss, death, change and transformation that are involve in all of creation.

With these thoughts in mind I am sharing tonight an excerpt from The Pocket Pema Chodron.  

No Happy Ending

In one of the first teachings I ever heard, the teacher said, “I don’t know why you came here, but I want to tell you right now that the basis of this whole teaching is that you’re never going to get it all together.”   I felt a little like he had just slapped me in the face or thrown cold water over my head, but I’ve always remembered it.  There isn’t going to be some precious future time when all the loose ends will be tied up.  Even thought it was shocking to me, it rang true.  One of the things that keeps us unhappy is this continual searching for pleasure or security, searching for a little more comfortable situation, either at the domestic level or at the level of mental peace.

Learning to bear the storm, to find a centre in the middle of the storm or change, that is what an opening up practice is about. Its not always easy to stop defending our selves or reacting from primitive parts of our brain to find less reactivity in the middle of chaos or change, but its definitely worth a try, as is, in our moments of darkness and pain the recognition that despite the aloneness we may feel so many other suffers and struggle just like us and experience loss and feelings of insecurity in failing to get it all together too.

Remaining Steady

Emotional turmoil begins with an initial perception – a sight, sound, thought – which gives rise to a feeling of comfort or discomfort.  This is the subtlest level of shenpa, the subtlest stage of getting hooked.  Energetically there is a perceptible pull; its like wanting to scratch an itch.  We don’t have to be advanced meditators to catch this.

The initial tug of “for” or “against” is the first place we can remain steady as a log.  Just experience the tug and relax into the restlessness of the energy, without fanning this ember with thoughts.  If we can stay present with the rawness of our direct experience, emotional energy can move through us without getting stuck.  Of course, this isn’t easy and takes practice.

Today`s prayer

Crossed Hands

Dear God

Please help me to quell the fears and anxieties in my heart

Please help me not to be paralysed by a negative view or perception

Or allow past loss to colour every new interaction

Painting it black

Let me remember

That the present is not always like the past

That the past comes into awareness

Only for me to see it

And bless it on its way

Taking the lesson at the heart

And leaving any fear behind

Help me to realise

That an acknowledged past

Has only the power over me

That I choose to give it

Help me every day

To choose love over fear

And belief over doubt

Courage over insecurity

What is right in front of us

These are just some thoughts I have contemplating this afternoon.  Why is that when life places things before us, right under our noses so to speak we end up rejecting them, or we dismiss them and think our meaning or life or purpose exists in some far off place or grand project rather than what is served up to us by life?

It seems so easy to wake up each morning (for me) with a negative monologue running around in my head.  Listing all of my defects, all the reasons why I cannot participate and then when life does not go according to plan, say a person is late I can start to rebel and think of how I can wrest back control so as not to be so inconvenienced.  But then my anxiety grows and there is an inner tussle or an argument.  If I was just patient and did not allow my triggers to kick in, displaced my attention on something else the anxiety and negative reaction would no longer be the focus and my mood shifts.  Well I actually tried this today and I just let the cascade of anxious reactions in my body run their course instead of reacting or trying to change the circumstance or person and in time everything worked out fine.

For me these insights could all be coming to light as in a days time Mars opposes the Sun exactly at 4 degrees of Aquarius and Leo shedding a full moon light on my deeply entrenched Mars (action/frustration/assertiveness) patterns.   I saw a lot today about not only this event to day but also about past time knee jerk reactions which ended up making my life just way more difficult where as if I could have contained my feelings in a more effective way rather than knee jerking the pain both to myself and to others could have been minimised. What I have learned lately is that its okay to be angry but its not okay just to lash out, for one thing most people are not going to understand the intensity of the response containing as it does a backlog of feelings from a host of other events and experiences.   And once I can find my words in a more assertive way I have a far better chance of being heard and taken seriously.  I also do not end up re-enacting the rage or anger on my own body where it causes me even more pain or anxiety or depression.

So today I am saying a big ‘Thank You’ to Mars retrograde.  I do appreciate the lessons tough as they seem to have been over past weeks and years, being frustrated or delayed was not a reason to give up but a reason to keep digging and seeking or looking for the lesson in the delay or experience in order that I could grow through the process.

 

Another clash with my brother

My brother called last night to tell me my sister was finally admitted to the care facility at the hospital.   I made the mistake of trying to address some of what I had found out had triggered my sister feeling so anxious with him and he just shut me down.  The first thing that triggered my reaction of feeling so angry were the words ‘she was in a highly irrational state’ this from a man whose daughter said to me ‘Dad will rationalise until the cows come home.’  He then said he didnt want to get involved in any complicated analysis of what my sister is thinking and feeling, it was in no way complex, she was terrified of not ‘measuring up’ something her best friend told me when I let her know my sis was in hospital.

I had to end the conversation with my brother as I was so angry and I woke at 4 am feeling how the anger was sitting in my body and I ended up growling like a wild lion in the middle of the night and then when I settled down my little dog Jasper gave a little bark.  I know he picks up on things as when my brother came around the other day and invaldiated me he left the room immediately we sat down to talk.  Gotta love how animals just act on their instincts as far as humans are concerned.

When I called my sister’s friend back and got angry she got panicked and said ‘don’t get angry with him, he’s just putting up defences and its not only his loss but his sister’s loss as well.’  I wasnt bothered by her trying to calm me down, it was for my own good and is a sign when I dialogued with my inner child/self I need to have stronger boundaries around him and lower expectations.  I should have learned this by now as long time followers will know I’ve been here countless times before.

When I have expressed either sadness or anger with my brother its like he has seen it as some kind of flaw, error or weakness in me. My therapist said as much yesterday.  I then become the ‘bad’ one (for being angry/’mad’) and need to be distanced from which can leave me questioning if I really am bad and sane at all.  Around his family I am constantly made to feel lower than pond scum, and his wife is a rigid narcissist with a lot of blocked feelings and looks upon hugs and other displays of affection as weakness.

Truth is this morning I felt sadness and compassion for my brother but not enough to want to have contact with him much.  I want to handle all my own affairs independently although I did ask him for some help as Mum’s ashes have still not been collected and there is so much to do with sorting out her unit and my sister’s collapse means its not possible for her to do it and I understand why.  But part of me doesnt want to spend any extended time in his company. I felt hatred for him last night and murderous rage to be totally honest!

I know staying angry with my brother probably wont help and will only do me damage.  Good thing was last night I saw how it affected me bodily and in my gut and digestion.   It took a lot of work to get going today as I was awake from 4 to 6 am and then up at 8.30.  But I am getting through.  The mowing people came to clear the yard today and I was able to speak to my nephew who gets how I feel and is so supportive in encouraging me to keep good boundaries.  His advise was ‘to put on my Scobby Do mask’ with my brother.  I am not a good mask wearer would just rather keep a distance but I know letting out my emotions with him is not a good idea as it is not with any narcissist who sees feelings as a sign of irrationality and weakness.  What is most important is that I don’t end up making myself feel bad or wrong for feeling or finding healthy ways to express and contain them.

Teach me to care and not to care (too much)!

It’s not easy for me to even write the above headliner for this post.  I feel that at all times I need to have compassion for others and that it may be my responsibility to do something to make things better, after all isn’t that what open hearted, caring people do?  That said I know when I get into trouble by being over concerned for another person’s suffering.  It then affects me a lot and makes it harder for me to live my life, I may also feel that if I don’t show enough empathy or compassion I am being mean or may lose connection or love when really I may just be trying to draw a boundary between not over giving and my own needs.

In the early days of my last relationship a lot of it was given over to hearing all about the pain of my ex’s past failed relationship with a girlfriend who went into a psychosis.  I am not entirely clear but I am sure drugs of some kind were involved at the time.  I was abstinent then for over 13 years of sobriety and knowing I was a sober person in recovery attracted him to me, while we were together he tried to ‘pretend’ he wasn’t in to drinking or drugging though I would never put that kind of pressure on a relationship ever as my ex husband drank moderately throughout all the 11 years of our marrage.  I had alarm bells go off when he was down playing not only this last person he was in relationship with as well as his ex wife, saying all kinds of things about her and how she let him down which turned out to be all untrue when I found out the real story a few months after our relationship ended.  Toward the end I also heard he had been drinking and drugging behind my back and then trying to blame me for putting pressure on him NOT To which I NEVER did.

Anyway, all throughout the relationship I was often pressured to give up my boundary if I was to gain his love.  He made it clear early on that his needs came first.   I was to keep in line and support him as he needed it and it was made clear that if I got ‘over emotional’ I would be shut out, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.  Sadly I was starting to grieve so many of my earlier losses just before I met him and that relationship gave me an opportunity to lift the lid on a lot of pain that I was then shamed and blamed for.   I was told that I must do therapy but it was out of the question for him….

Long story short I ended up giving myself away to be loved and in the end losing myself along the way while unconsciously blaming myself for not measuring up.  And now that I am thinking of trying to have a relationship again a lot of this is rearing its head…..I have a lot of fears based on past things he said to me that still dog me even though several therapists have pointed out to me that they were not reasonable nor true.

This time around I know I need to take care of me and keep my boundaries strong.   I can be compassionate but not fall for sob stories, even after that last relationship I got scammed on internet sites twice for not large sums of money (but considerable ones).  I ended up putting a boundary in place with the first guy and was foolish to trust the second one when he said it was just a loan to cover an over extension that would be paid back in a few weeks. It was just another lesson in a different form.

Anyway it was while thinking of this issue that I just picked up Bev Aisbett’s book on 30 Days 30 Ways to Overcome Anxiety and it opened to page 158 of Day 23 entitled “None of Your Beeswax” a chapter devoted to the dangers of people pleasing (which she points out is very common to people experiencing anxiety, in her words “especially if LITTLE YOU is seeing others as having POWER over you”).

if you’re trying to keep everyone happy (usually at your own expense) then you’re either letting people wander all over your space, doing what they like in YOUR territory, or you’re jumping the fence to fix their broken tape or dig up their weeds while they LET YOU.

RESCUING is another form of people pleasing.  It means you spend a lot of time worrying about others’ problems, advising them, jumping in to help them if you think they aren’t up to doing things themselves.

While all this sounds NOBLE it can, in fact, be a big factor in keeping your OVERWHELMED and ANXIOUS.  That is because you’re not only trying to meet your own needs (if at all) but you are also second guessing the needs of OTHERS.

Freeing yourself from wobbly boundaries is the undertanding that you can’t really SAVE anyone; nor is it your job.  It is also the understanding that what others do is not yours to TAKE ON BOARD, nor CONTROL.

The only way for a person to solve his or her problem is first to OWN it and take RESPONSIBILITY for it.  Not everyone one WILL do that but basically, if it’s not YOUR problem, it’s not yours to SOLVE.

The only thing you have CONTROL over is how you RESPOND to their behavior.

When you spend less time worrying about what someone ELSE is doing, you have more time to get you sorted

According to Aisbett a key clue to the fact we may have lost a boundary or over run it is : feelings of resentment during or after an interaction.  When working with boundaries we also need to be honest about when reactions are coming out of a fear of disapproval from someone.  We need to be fearless and honest in stating our limit about what we need and don’t need as well and this can be threatening or triggering if we fear abandonment due to past issues.

As I look back to my difficult relationship with my ex I can now see he had no problem with setting his own boundaries and I am sure I had lesson in this regard.  A failure of empathy though is an issue which can be damaging.

We can show empathy to someone without feeling like we need to fix or solve things for them.  Showing empathy actually has been proved to increase the production of feel good hormones such as oxytocin.  But when empathy becomes over care, over concern and over giving, it soon becomes problematic and may come from a refusal at times to take care of our own life.  It may also be a strong contributing factor to anxiety.

Letting go of numb

The following extract comes from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge : Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.  Interestingly it concerns a woman who Tara was working with in therapy who as a young child had her long hair cut off by her mother as it was too much bother. I was sharing in a post a few days ago how this also happened to me and the trauma of it was felt when I went to the hairdresser late last week following my Mum’s death.   The woman in question, Jane, had also had her mother die a few years before the time she was seeing Tara.  In therapy she was sharing how the pain of this event had awakened in her heart through intense feelings of fear, felt as a claw “pulling and tearing at my heart”.  What followed was an outburst of anger towards her mother for subjecting Jane to this ordeal.

The anger soon turned into deep sadness as Tara worked with Jane encouraging her to feel the pain and grief deeply in her body, and in time it transformed into peace.  Jane had reached some deeply powerful realisations as a result.

Brach writes the following in her book :

Carl Jung wrote, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived life of the parents.”  The outer domain of our unlived life includes all the places where we’ve held back from pursuing and manifesting our potential – in education and career, in relationships and creativity.  But it is the inner domain of our unlived life that sets this suffering in motion.  Here we find raw sensations, the longings and hurts, the passions and fears that we have not allowed ourselves to feel. When we pull away from the energetic basis of our experience, we turn away from the truth of what is.  We make a terrible bargain.  When we separate from the felt sense of our pain, we also separate from the visceral experience of love that allows for true intimacy with others.  We cut ourselves off from the sensory aliveness that connects us with the natural world.  When there is unlived life, we can’t take good care of ourselves, our children, our world.

The feelings you are trying to ignore are like a screaming child who has been sent to her room.  You can put earplugs in and barricade yourself in the farthest end of the house, but the body and the unconscious mind don’t forget.  Maybe you feel tension or guilt.  Maybe…. you are baffled by intimacy or haunted by a sense of meaninglessness. Maybe you fixate on all the things you need to get done.  You can’t live in a spontaneous way because your body and mind are still reacting to the presence of your distressed child.  Everythingy ou do to ignore her, including becoming numb, only strengthens your link with her.  Your very felt sense of who you are …is fused with the experience of pushing away a central part of your life or running from it.

In shutting down the passion, hurt and pain she had experienced as a young girl whose precious hair was butchered, Jane had locked herself into a numb and anxious fragment of who she was.  Yet something in her was calling her to live more fully.  By beginning to contact her body’s experience, by touching ground, she was opening the door to what she had been running from.

Traumas of this kind may seem inconsequential, but really they are not.  Something was done to us we didn’t want or need and had no power over and feelings do remain.   The true self in Jane probably loved her long hair,  it wasn’t all just about ego and looking a certain way, hair does hold our power and is connected to our heads which are such a vital part of our being. To be subjected to something that upset us and then to be laughed at for reacting (as Jane was) leaves a scar and a powerful subliminal message.  Going numb to it does not mean the feelings go away, they need to be dealt with, with compassion and sensitivity.

Replicated trauma : understanding how trauma is carried in the family

The following is part verbatim excerpt from Chapter Three : The Family Mind of It Didn’t Start With You, part is a summary I have made using some of Mark Wolynn’s text.   The earlier part of this chapter addressed interruptions in the mother – child bond.  I will share that in another post.  This one shows different ways traumas can imprint and play out across generations.

The repetition of trauma is not always an exact replica of the original event.  In a family in which someone has committed a crime, for example, someone born in a later generation could atone for that crime without realising that he or she is doing so.  A man named John came to see me shortly after being released from prison.  He had served three years for embezzlement – a crime he claimed he did not commit.  At trial, John had pleaded not guilty, but because of the weight of the evidence against him – a false accusation made by his former business associate – he was advised by his attorney to accept a plea bargain.  The moment he entered my office, John appeared agitated.  His jaw was clenched, and he flung his coat against the back of the chair.  He revealed that he had been framed, and was now obsessed with thoughts of revenge.  As we discussed his family situation, it came to light that a generation back in the 1960s, his father had been accused of murdering his business partner, but had been acquitted at trial on a technicality.  Everyone in the family knew that the father was guilty, but they never spoke about it.  Given my experience with inherited family trauma, it wasnt surprising to learn that John was the same age his father was when he went to trial.  Justice was finally served, but the wrong person paid the price.

Bert Hellinger (a renowned German psychotherapist who developed what is called Family Constellation Therapy) believes that the mechanism behind these repetitions is unconscious loyalty, and views (this) as the cause of much suffering in families.  Unable to identify the source of their symptoms as belonging to an earlier generation, people often assume that the source of their problem is their own life experience, and are left helpless to find a solution.  Hellinger teaches that everyone has the same right to belong in a family system, and that no one can be excluded for any reason.  This includes the alcoholic grandfather who left our grandmother impoverished, the stillborn brother whose death broke our mother’s heart, and even the neighbor child our father accidentally killed as he backed out of the driveway  – they all belong in our family.  The list goes on.

Even people we wouldn’t normally include in your family system must be included.  If someone harmed or murdered or took advantage of a member of our family, that person must be included.  Likewise, if somebody in our family harmed or murdered or took advantage of someone, the victim would also need to be included….

Earlier partners of our parents and grandparents also belong.  By their dying or leaving or having been left, an opening is created that allows for our mother, father, or grandfather to enter the system, and ultimately allows for us to be born.

Hellinger has observed that when someone is rejected or left out of the family system, that person can be represented by a later member of the system.  The later person might share or repeat the earlier person’s fate by behaving similarly or by repeating some aspect of the excluded person’s suffering.  If, for example, your grandfather is rejected in the family because of his drinking, gambling and philandering, it is possible that one or more of these behaviors will be adopted by one of his descendants.  In this way, family suffering continues into subsequent generations.

…Hellinger stresses that we must each carry our own fate, regardless of its severity.  No one can attempt to take on the fate of a parent, grandparent, sibling, uncle, or aunt without some type of suffering ensuing.  Hellinger uses the word “entanglement” to describe this kind of suffering.  When entangled, you unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if they were your own.

(Wolynn goes on to explain in subsequent paragraphs how each child in the same family can inherit different trauma regardless of similarities in upbringing.  The first born is likely to carry unresolved father wounds, the first born daughter what is unresolved with the mother.  The reverse can also be true.  Later children are likely to carry different traumas, or elements of the grandparent’s traumas.

Eg a woman who is first born marries an emotionally unavailable controlling man – similar to how she sees her father- and so shares the dynamic with her mother.  The second daughter may carry the unexpressed anger of her mother.  The trauma is the same but each carry different aspects of it.  One daughter may reject the father the other does not (this happened in my own family with my great great grandfather younger siblings embraced him despite his addiction and PTSD my own great grandmother got as far away as she could with her daughter, my grandmother.   That separation pattern in my family has continued down 3 generations.)

Later children can carry unresolved traumas of the grandparents.  In the same family, either the third or fourth daughter might never marry, fearing she will be controlled by a man she does not love.

With a break in the mother child bond among siblings, each child might express his or her disconnection in different ways.  One becomes a people pleaser (fearing separation and rejection for making waves) another feeling trying to connect is useless pushes people away.  Another child might isolate and have little contact with the family.

Wolynn writes that he has seem that when several siblings have a break in the mother bond they often express anger or jealousy, or feel disconnected from each other.  The older child resents the younger when seeing them given what they cannot remember they got (early holding and bonding) because they were then too young to remember.  The older may then blame the younger or be mean or abusive or rejecting to them.

Wolynn adds that some children are lucky enough to escape, carrying very little of the trauma of the past.  Some get more of what they need (bonding, attention, affection and love) while others miss out due to different things happening in the family when they are born and being raised and having a different kind of connection with each parent.  There are no hard and fast rules, says Wolynn and explorations needs to take place to uncover what trauma we may be carrying.

One becomes disentangled from such traumas through becoming aware of past family hisotry, by learning to self soothe, and use healing imagery and sentences, gaining insight into wounds, entanglements and blocks and giving back the burden to whom it belongs.    I will share some of these strategies in later posts and share also more of the next chapter which addresses the power of language in addressing trauma.

Third installment : Three generations of Shared Family History : the Family Body : research into inherited stress and trauma responses

Here is the third and final installment from Chapter 2 of Mark Wolynn’s book It Didn’t Start With You which concludes his coverage of genetic research shedding light on how stress and trauma are passed on through at least three generations :

It’s only recently that scientists have begun to understand the biological processes that occur when trauma is inherited.  To learn more, researchers turned to animal studies….Chemical changes in the blood, brain, ova and sperm of mice are now being linked to behavioural patterns, such as anxiety and depression, in later generations.  Studies performed on offspring, for example, have shown that trauma, such as the stress of maternal separation, caused gene expression changes that can be traced for three generations.

In one such study, researchers prevented females from nurturing their pups for up to three hours a day during the first two weeks of life.  Later in life, their offspring exhibited behaviors similar to what we call depression in humans.  The symptoms seemed to worsen as the mice age.  Surprisingly, some of the males did not express the behavior themselves, but appeared to epigenetically transmit the behavioral changes to their female offspring.  The researchers also discovered altered methylation and gene expression changes in the stressed mice.  Among the genes involved was the CRF2 gene, which regulates anxiety in both mice and humans.  The researchers also found that the germs cells – the precursor egg and sperm cells – as well as the brains of the offspring were affected by the stress of being separated from their mothers.  In another experiment….offspring that received low levels of maternal care were more anxious and more reactive to stress in adulthood than were the rats that received high levels of maternal care.  The stress pattern was observed in multiple generations.

It’s common knowledge that infants who have been separated from their mothers can experience challenges as a result.  In studies involving male mice, pups that were separated from their mothers exhibited lifelong increases in stress susceptibility and generated offpsring  that exhibited similar stress patterns over several generations.  (In one study).. conducted at the Brain Research Institute of the University of Zurich in 2014, researchers subjected male mice to repeated and prolonged periods of increased stress by separating them from their mothers.  Afterward, the traumatised mice exhibited a number of depression like symptoms.  The researchers then had the mice reproduce and discovered that pups in the second and third generation showed the same symptoms of trauma despite never having experienced it themselves.

(Similarly)…. high numbers of microRNA – genetic material that regulate gene expression – (were) present in the sperm, blood and hippocampi of the traumatised mice..(and)…in those of the second generation……Although mice in the third generation expressed the same symptoms of trauma as did their fathers and grandfathers. elevated numbers of microRNA were not detected.

In a later study published in 2016, Mansuy and her colleagues were able to show that trauma symptoms could be reversed in the mice after they lived in a positive, low stress environment as adults.  Not only did the mice’s behaviors improve, they also experienced changes in DNA methylation, which prevented symptoms from being passed to the next generation.  The implications of this study are particularly significant.  In later chapters we’ll learn how to create positive images and enriching experiences that can help reverse stress patterns that may have affected our family for multiple generations.

What makes the mouse research so intriguing is that science can now substantiate how the challenges experienced in one generation can become the legacy transmitted to the next.  In a study involving the offspring of stressed male mice conduucted at Emory University School of Medicine in 2013, researchers discovered that traumatic memories could be passed own to subsequent generations throgh epigentic changes that occur in DNA.  Mice in one generation were trained to fear a cherry blossom-like scent.. Each time they were exposed to the smell they simultaneously received an electric shock.  After a while, the shocked mice had a greater amount of small receptors associated with that particular scent, enabling them to detect it at lower concentrations.  They also had enlarged brain areas devoted to those receptors.  Researchers were also able to identify changes in the mice’s sperm.

The most intriguing aspect of the study is what occured in the next two generations.  Both the pups and the grandpups, when exposed to the blossom odour, became jumpy and avoided it, despite never having experienced it before.  They also exhibited the same brain changes. The mice appeared to inherit not only the sensitivity to the scent, but also the fear response associated with it.

Brian Dias, one of the researchers of the study, suggests that “there’s something in the sperm that is informing or allowing that information to be inherited.” He and his team noted abornmally low DNA methylation in both the sperm of the father mice and the sperm of the offspring.   Although the exact mechanism for how a parent’s traumatic experience gets stored in the DNA is still under investigation.    Dias says, “it behooves ancestors to inform their offspring that a particular environment was a negative environment for them.”

Ths particular study provides compelling evidence for what the researchers term “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,” the notion that behaviours can pass from one generation to another.  When I work with families in my pratice, I often see recurring patterns of illness, depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, and financial hardship, and always feel compelled to look deeper.  What unexplored event in a previous generation drives the behavior of the man who loses all his money at the racetrack, or the woman who chooses to be intimate only with married men?  How have their genetic inheritances been influences?

…..

Given that a generation in humans is approximately twenty years, the results from human studies spanning multiple generations are still pending.  However, with the research demonstrating that stress can be transmitted through at least three generations of mice, the researchers surmise that children born to human parents who experienced a traumatic or stressful event would also likely pass the pattern down not only to their children, but to their grandchildren as well.  Uncannily the Bible in numbers 14-18, appears to corroborate the claims of modern science – or vice versa – that the sins, iniquities, or consequences of the parents can affect the children up to the third and fourth generations.  Specificially, the New Living translation states : “the LORD is slow to anger and filed with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. But he does not excuse the guilty.  He lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected – even children in the third and fourth generations.”

As new discoveries in epigentics are revealed, new information about how to mitigate the transgenerational effects of trauma could become standard practice.  Researchers are now finding that our thoughts, inner images and daily practices, such as visualisation and meditation can change the way our genes express, an idea we will examine in more detail in the next chapter.

The idea that we relive family traumas may well be at the core of what psychiatrist Norman Doidge alludes to in his breakthrough book  he Brain That Changes Itself when he writes “Psychotherapy is about about turning our ghosts into ancestors.”  By identifying the source of our generationl traumas Dr. Doidge suggests that our ghosts can “go from haunting us to become part of our history.”

To be continued

Voices from inside anxiety and depression

If we struggle with issues such as anxiety and depression its helpful to the ones who KNOW, those souls who also struggled and suffered and found a way out or through the experience.  There are a lot of people and voices outside there who have known the pain, isolation and profound suffering that anxiety and depression can bring.  Matt Haig is one such voice and he published a book in 2015 called Reasons to Stay Alive where he speaks candidly about his experience and of how there is life and hope on the other side of that long dark tunnel of depression.  Matt believes his depression and anxiety came to him as learning experiences leading him on an inward path of self discovery and uncovery.  He doesn’t believe in medication as a long term solution for himself, for in his case it didn’t work but he appreciates that each of us have our own pathway to travel and medication helps others.

For now, I do what I know keeps me just about level. Exercise definately helps me, as does yoga and absorbing myself in something or someone I love, so I keep doing those things.  I suppose, in the absence of universal certainties, we are our own best laboratory.

The following excerpt comes from the chapter Pretty Normal Childhood in which he speaks of death anxieties he had around losing both parents when he was young.  In this chapter he shares how a throw away unkind comment from a girl in school who he liked sent him into a downward spiral and I am sure many of us can relate to this. At that age we don’t have any filters against such comments and we are longing for love and acceptance, so criticism hits hard and can be deeply internalised.

In the final paragraph of that chapter, Matt writes :

I didn’t totally fit in. I kind of disintegrated around people, and became what they wanted me to be.  But paradoxically, I felt an intensity inside me all the time.  I didn’t know what it was, but it kept building, like water behind a dam.  Later, when I was properly depressed and anxious, I saw the illness as an accumulation of all that thwarted intensity.  A kind of breaking through. As though, if you find it hard to let yourself be free, your self breaks in, flooding your mind in an attempt to drown out all those failed half versions of yourself.

A few chapters along he speaks of how more men kill themselves as a result of depression that women, the reason, men are conditioned to see depression as a sign of weakness and ‘are reluctant to seek help’.  The prohibition Boys Dont Cry plays a huge part in this in fostering an untruth that limits and encloses boys and men in a prison.  Matt’s way out, as it is for those of us who suffer, men and women, is to talk and listen and encourage both.  He reminds us that depression doesnt make us outcasts from humanity but just normal humans.  Depression can come to be associated with who we are when really it is a experience which happens to us.

It took me more than a decade to be able to talk openly, properly, to everyone, about my experience.  I soon discovered the act of talking is in itself a therapy.  Where talk exists so does hope.

Finding our voice in depression is a way out, or at least a way of connecting, once we can connect we feel less alone.  There are so many other souls out there who have walked this pathway, we just have to open our minds, hearts and mouths to find them.

In other chapters Matt writes a letter to his depressed self from the self who finally came through the depression, telling that former version of himself he will come through it. This is not what depression, anxiety and panic attacks tell us every day we suffer them.  Instead they tell us the pain will never end and it will destroy us.   I am not naive about depression and know we all have to do our own inner work and find our own ways to come through.  I nevertheless like to recommend voices of those who can be guides or forces of encouragement for other undergoing their own dark night.  Matt Haig is just one of these many voices.