This article is part 3 of a continuing series about Active Pause. In part 2, I showed how the pause is part and parcel of the process of integrating our experience. Here, I will be describing it as a redefining moment. It is a perspective I like to share with clients, to put our work in context.
Social distancing and separation are a big part of what is needed to deal with the pandemic. In this short conversation, Serge Prengel and Stephen W. Porges talk about how to counter their effects because we still need to be sensitive to our nervous system’s need to socially engage and connect. While we need to isolate to slow down the progress of the virus, we still need to connect, to co-regulate. Steve and Serge discuss ways to mitigate our need to connect. Noting our evolutionary need for facial expression and vocal intonation, they said that using the telephone and video conferencing tools are far better than texting and email (which strip the human factors from the words).
Sarah and David sit across from me. Their chairs are far apart and turned towards me. They escape eye contact by focusing on me. It’s our first session. Tension is evident and felt, in all senses. This is a well- known situation when couples start therapy that stems from normative embarrassment and difficulty seeking help. During our first conversation, I listen to them while trying to feel the energy and atmosphere in the room. I look inwards, feel my body, my breath. I resonate with myself and with them. The room feels cramped, stiff. There’s a sense of heaviness. The atmosphere is remote, and it seems cold. I notice that neither of them is breathing, and it affects my breathing, which also halts. Out of awareness and inner resonance, despite the tension I breathe deeply. I reflect to the couple: "There’s so much tension in the room," and then I take a deep breath again which allows Sarah and David to breathe as well, to release some of the difficulty, and start discussing what's in their hearts.
My Mum recently asked my partner and I what we were doing for Christmas. I was slightly surprised to find myself announcing that I was cancelling Christmas this year. Here we were, together in late summer, celebrating my stepdad’s 70th birthday. I was more than happy to get together, to mark midwinter, to mark the passing year, maybe, but I had no desire to mark the 25th December.
Our ideas of how the holidays should go can be a sticky combination of tradition, experience, marketing, and . . . fiction. Year after year I see my clients reflect the stresses of the season as old issues surface and old patterns take hold. Just around the corner from Halloween, the body starts to brace for the inevitable and resiliency disappears. Conflicting feelings of anticipation and anxiety show up in the body as a tangle of shoulder-neck-jaw tension, low back pain, random injuries, and general uptightness. In order to extend the good work beyond our ninety- minute session, I’ve developed a simple somatic strategy to change the holiday dynamic.
“When I was a child, Christmas happened on Christmas Eve. Mom, dad, sister, and I piled into the car and drove around the empty streets looking for Rudolf’s nose. I remember the silence illuminated by twinkling Christmas trees in windows and the slow, steady headlamps of whatever Chrysler dad was driving that year. But we were looking for the special light. The red one. Since we lived beneath the flightpath of the San Jose airport, it was not hard to find red blinking lights in the sky. Every year the question remained, “Which one is Rudolf’s nose?” It didn’t matter. My sister, Jenny, and I usually pointed one out and exclaimed, "There it is!" Mom and dad always answered with, “Let’s drive around a bit more, look at the neighborhood Christmas lights to give Santa time to bring your presents.” We did not complain because we knew that gifts were waiting under the tree when we returned home. It was like magic.
It’s already starting. Holiday decorations are showing up at the stores, music is playing at the mall, pumpkin lattes abound. The cultural and familial buildup to this season is magnified every year and, for many people, becomes totally overwhelming. The experience of “too much” can replicate traumatic overwhelm in our nervous system, creating a whole season of nervous system dysregulation. This dysregulation then creates heightened emotions and reactivity (“What!? They didn’t make a vegan pumpkin pie??!”), depression and anxiety (“They don’t like my gift or I have to get the perfect gift”) and often a desire to literally escape the season’s events (fleeing by not going to the party) or a desire to dissociate (fleeing by leaving your body - I’ll just be on my phone for the whole dinner). How can we assist our clients and ourselves in navigating this extended stressful season?
“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” “Put on your oxygen mask first.” Phrases like these suggest an overly simplistic and logical approach to navigating what might be a stressful holiday season in our lives, but as the readers of this publication are well aware, there is a difference between the cognitive understanding of something and the embodied experience of it.
To start, I think it’s useful to understand what compassion is and what it is not. My working definition of compassion represents tender, empathic, and caring sentiments. It involves loving feelings that emerge when an injury (physical, emotional, or spiritual) is recognized and nurtured. Compassion is bringing a concerned, reinforcing spirit in the presence of wounding.
Matthew Appleton in conversation with Emma PalmerThe 8th and 9th of June 2019 will see the hosting of a fascinating two-day conference here in Bristol in England. The Human Baby, Human Being: Contributions from the emerging field of pre and perinatal psychology conference is being organised by Conscious Embodiment Training and ehealth Learning. An important aim of this landmark event is to bring together professionals interested in the long-term effects of prenatal and birth experiences.