Q & A with Jennifer Baker from Active Therapeutic Solutions
I often find myself getting stuck in a pattern of ruminating thoughts, many of which are distressing and end up causing anxiety, which can lead to self-destructive behaviors. What are ways to break this cycle?
This is a really good question and is more complex than just this brief generalization I am going to give can summarize-so bear with me! In my experience, intrusive thoughts that seem negative, or when you feel like you are ‘beating yourself up’, originate in the body, long before you actually hear them in the brain. My current late night reading, Why Therapy Works-Using our minds to change our brains by Louis Cozolino, speaks to this in a direct, uncomplicated way.
One thing most people don’t know is that the body ‘feels’ and then we ‘think’ to try to figure it out. I am therefore I think, instead of the other way around! Go figure!
So those negative thoughts may actually be a warning signal from the body that you have moved from feeling connected/safe (Social Engagement System) to uncomfortable/unsafe (Sympathetic or Parasympathetic). This is a sweeping generalization of the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges (2011) for the sake of brevity. When there is a shift in the nervous system, it means there is something you are feeling/seeing/neurocepting outside yourself or interocepting, noticing inside yourself, that has caused this change (the Orienting Response) and then your brain is trying to make sense of it, which can include this narrative of self-talk in the conscious mind (Porges, 2011; Levine, 1997). As you can see Peter Levine’s book: Waking the tiger; healing trauma, is my other late night read!
I will walk you through an example with an ‘oldie but goodie’ skill that works, summarized in my words, from Lou’s book:
You missed your daily exercise and you are feeling out of sorts, slow, and down on yourself. You didn’t get your daily mood regulating endorphins (and don’t forget dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin), and you are mentally beating yourself up. You start feeling anxiety and reach for your usual maladaptive coping skill: food/alcohol/cigarettes/whatever.
Most of you have heard this before as a helpful skill from Alcoholics Anonymous, but if you haven’t, this is a self-check to see if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. The thought behind this is that your current internal state is triggering you to get your attention and needs a little TLC or what Louis Cozolino (2016) terms ‘reparenting and redirecting’. He goes on to say HALT reminds us to engage in a loving relationship with ourselves and to act as a parent would; show up to our inner self with love and say, “I can see something is wrong, tell me what’s happening-how can I help?”
Cozolino continues on to detail that this interrupts your ‘internal cause and effect’ chain of behaviors and is a way to ‘use your mind to change your brain’. He specifically points out that by focusing on your internal state (interoception) with what you need- to be heard, felt, seen, and express how you are feeling in a healthy way as opposed to reaching for your ‘reflexive’ action of self-destructive behaviors, allows you to replace them with more healthy and self-care oriented, adaptations (2016).
When you take care of yourself in a loving, kind, gentle way you ‘fill up your tank’ of distress tolerance and can handle things that life throws your way. Don’t forget that your Story (narrative of self-talk) follows your State (of your nervous system, that is-thank you Deb Dana!) and anxiety is a way of your body trying to tell you something.
I am going to titrate down a bottom line taken from (just a few of the many!) pioneers in psychotherapy: Just Notice. Become curious about your internal goings-on and sit with it for a minute. Choose to be still and allow your body to move through what you are feeling (I tell my clients choosing to ‘do nothing’ is also an action). You’ll notice when you do, usually something will shift! You may then be able to think more clearly and make a more ‘self-care’ oriented choice. Your body wants to feel good, that’s how we are wired, towards wellness and being connected with others. (Levine, 1997; Porges, 2011).
Cozolino, Louis. (2016) Why therapy works: Using our minds to change our brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Levine, Peter. (1997) Waking the tiger; healing trauma. Berkeley, Ca: North Atlantic Books.
Porges, Stephen. (2011) The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Jennifer Baker LPC RPT ACS