What’s Wrong with Negative Emotions?

March 12th, 2014

14-1119_NegEmotionsCategorization of emotions into positive and negative—that is, seeing them as black and white—may not benefit us. Perhaps we can see emotions of all kinds as human experiences that give us information about ourselves. Emotions can also be a motivator for our actions and a precursor to reactions. For example, fear is supposed to warn us and help us prepare for danger, ultimately bringing us closer to safety. Anger can tell us when something feels wrong, which might give us the urge and strength to deal with an issue that we might otherwise ignore. Sadness can inform us about the pain of our loss and help us to look a little closer at it. Although they may feel uncomfortable, all of these emotions are completely normal and important. In fact, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross points out that there are five emotional stages that we all must go through in order to overcome grief; the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She explains that if we don’t get in touch with each feeling during each stage, we might get stuck in one of them and suffer even more.1

Sometimes emotions don’t tell us the truth. When we are stuck or triggered emotionally, our feelings might not tell us the whole truth, for example,when you are trapped in your grief and tell yourself additional stories, like Nobody will ever love me. I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. These beliefs are probably not correct, don’t serve you, and prolong your feelings of sadness. However, you might not know how to change the beliefs.

When you are scared of entering an elevator or afraid of dogs, or feel timid while driving on the freeway, you might have an overproductive fear that expresses itself through phobias or emotional roller coasters. The fear no longer tells you the truth because you are not in a dangerous situation, yet still your fear might lead you to believe that you are unsafe. This can be due to a prior trauma response that is on constant “protection replay mode.” “A trigger is anything that sets you off emotionally and activates memories of your trauma. It’s particular to you and what your experience has been.”2

Susanne-Babbel_Negative-Emotions-Q1Your emotions and your body are more connected than you might think. Robert Scaer explains that “feelings” have a physical cause and that physical sensations and emotional thoughts are inseparable.3 If you have been in an accident or a natural disaster, experienced abuse, or undergone any other trauma, your sensations might keep signaling your nervous system to stay in protective mode by preparing to fight, run away, or be still (fight-flight-freeze mode). It takes any sensory signal, such as sound, sight, smell, taste, or touch—but also inner conditions—to turn on the “alarm system,” and without thinking, you might automatically revert to “survival mode” by reacting from fear or other emotions. 

What can you do when your emotions don’t always inform you correctly? The first step is to be aware of your emotions and become a nonjudgmental observer. If excess anxiety is a problem for you, notice when and in what circumstances you become anxious.

Being compassionate toward yourself will help you ride the wave of anxiety, for example, accepting and naming your feelings in this way: Yeah, that’s my anxiety; it’s familiar. I’ve been here before, and it won’t kill me.

Giving “negative” feelings attention and acknowledging them (without necessarily acting on them) can set them free, whereas ignoring or minimizing them, being afraid of them, or denying them will only harbor symptoms in the long run. Eugene Gendlin developed a technique called “focusing,” in which he suggests, “Don’t go into the problem,”4 but access your felt sense instead. What do you sense in your body? You might sense butterflies in your stomach when you are scared. You might feel constriction in your chest. Instead of avoiding it, he suggests to stay with it until the feelings shift. “The ‘problems’ inside you are only those parts of the process that have been stopped, and the aim of focusing is to unstop them and get the process moving again.”5


  1. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving. Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
  2. Jasmin Lee Cori, Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life(Cambridge, MA: Marlowe & Company, 2007), 30.
  3. Robert Scaer, 8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).
  4. Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam Dell, 1978), 201.
  5. Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam Dell, 1978), 77.

Fear of Success

June 12th, 2013

Fear of Success

“Why are some people afraid to succeed but not to fail? Why are some more afraid of failure? How can one learn to embrace these two fears? What is the difference between them?”

A young Canadian woman wrote to me recently with these inquiries. I thought they were excellent questions, and decided to share my thoughts and findings here.

We are all so complex, and the way we react to situations and anticipate results is based on many physiological and psychological factors. So many, in fact, that it can be difficult to generalize why different personality types might handle success versus failure in such drastically polarized ways.

As a psychologist specializing in trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) I’ve had firsthand experience coaching clients whose past experience feeds their current fear of success. For them, the excitement of success feels uncomfortably close to the feeling of arousal they experienced when subjected to a traumatic event or multiple events. (This feeling of arousal can be linked to sexuality, in certain cases where trauma has been experienced in that realm, but that is not always the case.) People who have experienced trauma may associate the excitement of success with the same physiological reactions as trauma. They avoid subjecting themselves to excitement-inducing circumstances, which causes them to be almost phobic about success.

Susanne-Babbel_Fear-of-Success-Q1There is another layer to the fear of success. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the road to success involves risks such as “getting one’s hopes up” – which threatens to lead to disappointment. And many of us-especially if we’ve been subject to verbal abuse-have been told we were losers our whole lives, in one way or another. We have internalized that feedback and feel that we don’t deserve success. Even those of us who were not abused or otherwise traumatized often associate success with uncomfortable things such as competition and its evil twin, envy.

In order to have a healthy relationship with success (and it’s flip side, failure, or disappointment), the first step is to learn to differentiate between feelings of excitement and a “trauma reaction.”



Here is an easy exercise:

  1. Recall an event where you were successful or excited when you were younger, and notice what you are feeling and sensing in your memory. Stay with the sensation of for 5 minutes.
  2. Recall an event where you were successful and excited recently in your life, and notice what you are feeling and sensing. Stay with this sensation of for 5 minutes.
  3. Now tap into the sensation of a memory of an overwhelming situation. I suggest not to start with a truly traumatic event, at least not without a therapist’s support. Start with something only moderately disturbing to you.
  4. Now, go back to visualizing your success story. Do you notice a difference?

While corresponding with the young Canadian woman, I asked her to do look up bodily response to fear and excitement and let me know what she found. This is what she wrote back:

“I was looking up how the body responds to fear, and it said that when we sense fear the brain transmits signals and our nervous system kicks, in causing our breathing to quicken, our heart race to increase… we become sweaty, and we run on instinct. When we get excited or enthusiastic, doesn’t our nervous system work the same way?”

I assured her that, yes, the physical reactions to stress and to excitement are very similar. So, when we experience a traumatic event—such as a car accident or a school bullying incident—our body associates the fear we experience with the same physiological feelings we get while excited. Once we have been through enough trauma, we start to avoid those types of situations that trigger memories of fear. For this reason, trauma victims can tend to avoid excitement, and that can lead them to avoid success.

I work with trauma victims to get past their fears and associations and help them embrace and follow the path to success and healthy recovery.

Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse

March 19th, 2013

Susane-Babbel_Childhood-Sexual-Abuse_TherapyThere are various types of traumatic events that can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Sexual abuse is a particularly sinister type of trauma because of the shame it instills in the victim. With childhood sexual abuse, victims are often too young to know how to express what is happening and seek out help. When not properly treated, this can result in a lifetime of PTSD, depression and anxiety.

The trauma that results from sexual abuse is a syndrome that affects not just the victim and their family, but all of our society. Because sexual abuse, molestation and rape are such shame-filled concepts, our culture tends to suppress information about them.

According to childtrauma.org, in the U.S. one out of three females and one out of five males have been victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18 years. And according to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (AAETS), 30% of all male children are molested in some way, compared to 40% of females.

Some of the most startling statistics unearthed during research into sexual abuse are that children are three times as likely to be victims of rape than adults, and stranger abuse constitutes by far the minority of cases. It is more likely for a child to experience sexual abuse at the hands of a family member or another supposedly trustworthy adult.

Sexual abuse is a truly democratic issue. It affects children and adults across ethnic, socioeconomic, educational, religious, and regional lines.

Susanne-Babbel, MFT, Therapy, Childhood Sexual AbuseExactly what constitutes “sexual abuse”?
The Incest Survivors Resource Network states that “the erotic use of a child, whether physically or emotionally, is sexual exploitation in the fullest meaning of the term, even if no bodily contact is ever made.” It’s important to notice this clause about “no sexual contact.” Often, victims of sexual abuse will try to downplay their experience by saying that it “wasn’t that bad.” It’s vital to recognize that abuse comes in many shapes, colors and sizes and that all abuse is bad.

Outcomes of sexual abuse
By far the most common effect of sexual abuse is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms can extend far into adulthood and can include withdrawn behavior, reenactment of the traumatic event, avoidance of circumstances that remind one of the event, and physiological hyper-reactivity.

Another legacy of sexual abuse is that children abused at any early age often become hyper-sexualized or sexually reactive. Issues with promiscuity and poor self-esteem are unfortunately common reactions to early sexual abuse.

Substance abuse is a common outcome of sexual abuse. In fact, according to the AAETS, “specialists in the addiction field (alcohol, drugs and eating disorders) estimate that up to 90 percent of their patients have a known history of some form of abuse.”

Specific symptoms of sexual abuse:
(citation, the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress)

  • Withdrawal and mistrust of adults
  • Suicidality
  • Difficulty relating to others except in sexual or seductive ways
  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things sexual or physical
  • Sleep problems, nightmares, fears of going to bed
  • Frequent accidents or self-injurious behaviors
  • Refusal to go to school, or to the doctor, or home
  • Secretiveness or unusual aggressiveness
  • Sexual components to drawings and games
  • Neurotic reactions (obsessions, compulsiveness, phobias)
  • Habit disorders (biting, rocking)
  • Unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Prostitution
  • Forcing sexual acts on other children
  • Extreme fear of being touched
  • Unwillingness to submit to physical examination

Studies have shown that children who experience sexual abuse tend to recover quicker and with better results if they have a supportive, caring adult (ideally a parent) consistently in their life.

Because most child sexual abusers were once abused themselves, it’s crucial for victims of sexual abuse to seek counseling and care so that they don’t end up repeating the pattern themselves.

Restful Sleep, a guided meditation.

February 21st, 2013

Listening to this recording regularly can help you to cultivate a state of relaxation, let go of your thoughts and allow your body to rest so that your sleep might become more and more effortless.

The recording of Dr. Babbel’s CD’s started upon the request of her clients who found her voice soothing and comforting. As she continued to create guided meditations for her clients she was encouraged to make them public so that others might benefit from them as well. The intention of the CD is not only to create restful sleep but also to reach a sense of calmness, tranquility, and peacefulness.

Dr. Babbel is a certified client-centered hypnotherapist, licensed psychotherapist with a private proactive in San Francisco, and many articles related to trauma for Psychology Today Blog.

This CD is intended to enhance your sleep and to help you relax. It is NOT intended to be a substitute for any medical or psychological care. If you have any kind of mental, emotional, physical or neurological condition, we suggest you consult with a physician or therapist and use this CD under their supervision. Those with a history of seizure, epilepsy, or clinical depression should consult a physician before using this product. Do not use the CD while driving, operating any machinery, or when you need to be alert. Only listen to it when you can safely relax or sleep. Using the CD is at your own risk and Dr. Babbel does not assume any responsibility for any improper use of this CD. 


Trauma: Incest

February 13th, 2013

Incest as a form of abuse can be challenging to define, as it differs from culture to culture. Perceptions of incest vary across societies, and the degree of taboo around incest—not to mention the legal ramifications—depends largely on where you are from. In some cultures (and eras), marrying your first cousin is a perfectly acceptable practice.

In this article we’ll focus on the contemporary Western attitude toward and definition of incest. According to Incest: The Nature and Origin of the Taboo, by Emile Durkheim (tr.1963), “The incest taboo is and has been one of the most common of all cultural taboos, both in current nations and many past societies.”

Incest is a type of sexual abuse that can (but does not always) include sexual intercourse, sexually inappropriate acts, or the abuse of power based on sexual activity between blood relatives. The important thing to remember is that incest is a form of sexual abuse. As a form of abuse, it is highly damaging to a child’s psyche and most often results in prolonged Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Feminist.com says that “Incest and sexual abuse of children take many forms and may include sexually suggestive language; prolonged kissing, looking, and petting; vaginal and/or anal intercourse; and oral sex. Because sexual contact is often achieved without overt physical force, there may be no obvious signs of physical harm.”

Incest is a reprehensible form of abuse not just because it is cloaked in shame and stigma, but because this type of sexual abuse in particular affects young victims by implicating and damaging their primary support system. This can be very confusing for children who have been taught to be wary of strangers, but to trust in family. Because they are in the beginning stages of developing their value systems and trust models, the betrayal of incest can be utterly confusing, if not permanently damaging, to a child’s delicate psyche.

The statistics on incest are extremely difficult to pinpoint because most cases of incest are never reported due to the intense level of shame associated with this type of sexual abuse. Aside from the misdirected shame that victims of incest often feel, there is increased pressure to keep it a secret because of fear of disrupting the family dynamic or experiencing blame or anger from other family members. However, it’s believed that the most common form of incest happens between older male relatives and younger females.

PTSD as a result of incest can result in a variety of coping mechanisms including

  • Self-injury
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Issues with disassociation
  • Promiscuity

The most important thing to remember when dealing with those who have suffered incest (especially if the victim is yourself) is that shame and guilt, while a common response, is not an appropriate one. The biggest immediate help you can offer to a victim of incest is to listen with respect and compassion… and belief. In other words, the first step is always to believe the victim.

RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) has a protocol in terms of who a victim can feel safe reporting an incest situation to:

  • A parent
  • A teacher
  • A school counselor
  • A friend’s parent
  • Your doctor
  • Your minister (or pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, etc.)

To report suspected incest to authorities, call Child Protective Services (See this directory.)

How to report child abuse and incest: http://www.americanhumane.org/about-us/newsroom/fact-sheets/reporting-child-abuse-neglect.html

A Child Within Us Wants to Talk

November 14th, 2012
Your Inner Child

Your Inner Child

Many of us have a younger part within us, also called the “inner child”, that has not been heard, seen, or treated the way it wanted or hoped for in her/his live. As a result, whether it is an inner child, adolescent, or younger adult, feelings of being ignored, abandoned, or not loved may be retained. The memories of these unresolved feelings are carried into our adult life and often become buried in the subconscious. However, the younger part within us remains waiting to be found, to be listened to and to be nurtured, and keeps acting out in attempt to be discovered and attended to.

Anna described having a deep sense of loneliness and struggling with depression. When she searched for the answers of where these feelings originated, she discovered her 9 year old inner child. Her little girl was feeling lonely, bored, and sad, waiting in her room for her mother to arrive from work, even though she knew she was going to be yelled at. Her mother was working many hours and wrapped in her fatigue and worries, she became blind to what her daughter needed. During this time this young girl came to a few conclusions and beliefs about herself, her parents, and the world around her. One conclusion was that she had to stay busy to distract from her pain; the other decision she made was that she needed to please her mother as much as she could in hope to be loved in return. A pattern of having to please everyone and staying busy had been ingrained to the current day and she eventually forgot where these habits were coming from.

Anna decided to contact her “inner child” and began to have age appropriately conversations with her. These dialogues felt strange at first and building a connection between the inner child and the adult took time and trust, and did not go smoothly in the beginning. But after a while, they both formed a beautiful relationship in which little Anna was finally heard and was able to express herself. Although Anna’s work did not change her childhood, it changed her habits and perceptions because she recognized that her habits were coping techniques that had no functions anymore. She also realized that loneliness was an old feeling that lingered inside of her and unconsciously colored most of her experiences. As her relationship with herself improved, so did her feelings of lonesomeness, her relationships with others and the world around her changed in return.

Depending on children’s ages they do not always interpret their environment and parents’ actions correctly. When connecting to the younger part, false memories can be uncovered and give the inner child a chance to understand and make sense of something that was misunderstood in the past. For example, a pregnant mother told the story of her 4 year old daughter Sophia who believed that she no longer was needed because her sister was going to be born in a few months. In a straightforward way Sophia claimed that it wouldn’t matter if she died. The surprised mother told her that it would matter and that she is the best thing that ever happened to her. Her daughter replied “but you have Mikaela now”, to which she explained that Mikaela could never replace her and that she could love both of them. Children are not always able to make sense of their situation the way an adult can and therefore sometimes form beliefs that are not based on reality but their conceptual ability.

Many leading authors such as John Bradshaw, Erika J. Chopich and Margaret Paul, Whitfield and 12 step programs have written about the importance of building a relationship with the “inner child” and found that it can help with many issues including loneliness, fears, depression and raising confidence. The journey of discovering younger parts within us can be surprising and awkward at first but may also be very rewarding.

The Power of Being You

September 20th, 2012
Power of Being you

Power of Being you

Giving too much of yourself and saying yes too often is something many people are accustomed to doing to avoid conflicts and feelings of guilt. A sincere desire to give is wonderful, however, there’s a distinction between giving of yourself and giving up yourself. Ignoring your own desires and views may not only deny “who you are” but, over time, may lead to resenting others, feeling fatigued or anxious, and experiencing stress induced physical symptoms.

The pattern of avoiding conflicts and pleasing others without considering your own needs is typical for someone who was not allowed to say no in his or her family – being criticized, yelled at, or abused in childhood. Bradshaw, an inner child specialist, adds that this pattern might also stem from not having been able to properly complete the toddler phase between 18 months to three years. While still feeling dependant, toddlers are trying to separate from their parents to explore their autonomy by opposing their parents. These interactions are often interpreted as power struggles by parents whose patience is pushed to the edge. If parents do not know how to model healthy ways to handle frustrations and set appropriate limits, children might not be able to test their power successfully. As a result they may end up having difficulty saying no to others or even asking for what they want without feeling great remorse or shame. As adults they might continue this particular pattern without knowing where their behavior originated.

One of the most helpful ways of gaining back a sense of “power of being you” is to spend time with your “inner child” that still needs to complete this toddler phase effectively. The best way to access your inner child is when you are still and quiet such as in a state of meditation or self-hypnosis. Before you start, set an intention of how you want to feel. Additionally, telling yourself that you are looking from the here and now is important so that you don’t regress during this exercise.  Also remember that you are not in the same situation you were during childhood. If going back to childhood memories brings up traumatic experiences, I would advise you to have the support of a psychotherapist.

When you are in a relaxed position, ask your inner child to come forward – the child that that holds the original pain of what you are currently struggling with. For example, if you want to resolve your issue of needing to stand up for yourself, you need to connect to the child that is linked to the time you learned not to stand up for yourself. Our subconscious holds “inner children” that are of various ages and therefore a different child may come forward at different times. With a little practice, connecting with your inner child becomes easier and you might receive an image, a sensation, or recall a scenario from your past where you were hurt or needed attention.

Once your inner child appears, do not push or force your inner child to do anything – just observe her and let him or her guide you for a while. Stay with it and notice what is happening as you pay attention. Even though you would think the child knows you, it needs to learn to trust and to get to know you. Often people are not sure what to do or say. Test out what your inner child responds to and value the child’s accomplishments. Say something nurturing and comforting like “I am here for you;” or “It is Okay to say no, to be mad or sad, and to explore;” and “I will make sure you don’t get hurt.” Be patient as all new skills require time and practice.

To help this process, try to gather information about each of your developmental stages and find out as much as you can about your childhood. Additionally, I encourage you to debrief your experience with someone that you can trust and who will support you. Once you have completed the toddler stage successfully, you can reclaim the power of being you and saying “yes” to your own desires and opinions. As you respect your own desires and boundaries and stop repressing them, you might experience increased energy, less anxiety, and less stress on your body. Even more, others have a chance to see who you really are and get to know you on a deeper level.

Compassion Fatigue Bodily Symptoms of Empathy

July 4th, 2012
Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue

Medical professionals such as physicians, nurses, psychotherapists, and emergency workers, who help traumatized patients may develop their own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms as an indirect response to their patient’s suffering. This phenomenon has been referred to as compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatic stress.

A survey showed that “86.9% of emergency response personnel reported symptoms after exposure to highly distressing events with traumatized people” . . . [and] . . . “90% of new physicians, between 30 to 39 years old, say that their family life has suffered as a result of their work”. When health care professionals struggle with their responses to the trauma suffered by their patients, their mental health, relationships, effectiveness at work, and their physical health can suffer.

Caregivers who reported experiencing compassion fatigue, expressed such feelings as, “I frequently dissociated and felt that I walked around in an altered state. I didn’t realize that I had been in a gray space all year. That had sort of creeped in” and “It got to the point where I would feel physically sick before the appointment and feeling nauseous.” Others described that they picked up their client’s symptoms and explained that they had “tightness in the exact same spot” as their clients and continued to carry the sensation sometimes for days. One psychotherapist expressed, “I am the empathy lady from the old Star Trek episode and get may be 45 % hit of what my patients might be feeling 100% of.”

The helpers symptoms, frequently unnoticed, may range from psychological issues such as dissociation, anger, anxiety, sleep disturbances, nightmares, to feeling powerless. However, professionals may also experience physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, general constriction, bodily temperature changes, dizziness, fainting spells, and impaired hearing. All important warning signals for the caregiver that need to be addressed or otherwise might lead to health issues or burnout.

Researchers and authors such as Babette Rothschild, Charles Figley, Laurie Anne Pearlman and Karen Saakvitne, and B. Hudnall Stamm have recognized that medical personnel and psychologists may experience trauma symptoms similar to those of their clients. They speculate that the emotional impact of hearing traumatic stories could be transmitted through deep psychological processes within empathy. Further, Babette Rothschild hypothesizes that it is the unconscious empathy, the empathy outside awareness and control that might interfere with the well being of the caregiver.

Hearing and witnessing horrific stories of abuse and other traumas can be very stressful and trauma experts have found that self-care techniques, both psychological and somatic, can reduce susceptibility to the internalization of traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. Bernstein indicates that paying attention to and being aware of physiological signals and somatic counter transference such as “dizziness, emptiness, hunger, fullness, claustrophobia, sleepiness, pain, restlessness, sexual arousal, and so forth” can be an important method of preventing and managing compassion fatigue. Somatic countertransference entails the psychotherapist’s reaction to a client with bodily responses such as sensations, emotions, and images that can only be noticed through body awareness. Since somatic countertransference is often neglected in both the literature and in the caregiver’s training, many are not aware of the somatic countertransference elicited in the helper-patient relationship.

Reducing compassion fatigue means not fighting the symptoms but working with  feelings which occur during and after the interactions with the traumatized patient. One psychotherapist shared;  “If I start to not feel my body, I pause and just take a moment.” There is a lot to take in. Giving oneself permission to take a break for a short time and taking care of oneself, may not only help the caregiver but may also provide a role model of self-care for the patient. Taking a break might be just to stop and feel one’s body, asking the patient to slow down, taking a deep breath, or making a small movement, which are forms of regulating the nervous system and decreasing the stress of working with traumatized patients.

Since caregivers commonly dissociate, staying connected or reconnecting to one’s identity and physical presence has been rated as very important as well. Some professional helpers use visual or kinesthetic reminders of their lives outside of their work. Visual reminders might be placing pictures of family, certificates, and favorite artwork in the office. Whereas kinesthetic reminders bring awareness back to the body and might be accomplished by feeling one’s feed on the floor, intentionally fiddling with a wedding ring or holding the office chair. One caregiver expressed, every time she closes the office door she uses the door as a kinesthetic reminder and says, “This is my life outside and that’s where I’m entering.”

Studies have also shown that the attitude toward life such a sense of humor, self confidence, being curious, focusing on the positive, and feeling gratitude ranked high in being helpful in treating traumatized people. Additionally, support, supervision, balancing work and private life, relaxation techniques, and vacation time have been useful.

Research indicates that caregivers are not immune to trauma and might experience compassion fatigue. A better understanding and knowledge about this phenomenon as well as self care techniques that include both psychological and somatic tools can help caregivers to more effectively deal with patients’ sufferings.

Susanne Babbel, MFT, PhD is a licensed marriage and family therapist, somatic psychotherapist, and workshop leader in San Francisco. If you would like further information on this topic please visit her website: www.bodyconversations.com

4 Steps to Recognize Internal “Alarm signals”: A Pathway to Forgiveness

February 24th, 2010


Learning to recognize and respond to our internal “alarm signals” which assess every situation and inform us about appropriate reactions to follow, might help us to let go of grudges and to forgive another person.

A woman, whom I will call Laureen, expressed that she noticed getting upset at her friend’s comment made a day ago. Time had passed and rehashing their conversation did not seem to be the right solution. She believed that her friend had no intention of hurting her, yet her anger would not subside. Laureen explained that she just wanted to forgive her friend but did not know how.

Forgiveness is accepting what happened in the past and what someone did, not holding on or dwelling on it anymore. Forgiveness does not mean denying important feelings such as anger or sadness. In fact, in order to access forgiveness, connecting and paying attention to anger is often a necessary step. Yet people who have been abused or had poor role models in their lives are often not comfortable with their own anger. Because anger was not safe to express but necessary in the circumstances to suppress, feelings of anger were avoided. Not showing anger could be a conditioned cultural response as well.

Ideally, Laureen would have felt comfortable to talk to her friend and express her feelings, if not immediately, a short time after their encounter. However, she wanted to look at her anger and her difficulty in forgiving. Forgiveness is not an act of kindness for others; it is the coming to peace for ourselves. According to Frederic Loskin’s research, holding grudges can negatively impact one’s health, whereas forgiveness has beneficial health effects.

With a method called Somatic Experiencing, Laureen discovered that her friend’s comment had triggered Laureen’s childhood memories when danger was a reoccurring theme. She discovered that holding on to her anger was a subconscious survival method — an attempt to prepare her for a possible reoccurring “attack.” She noticed that her state of anger put her into a fight mode whereas forgiveness would have meant being relaxed and not ready to act. Her session revealed that because her “alarm sensor” did not indicate her hurt and anger immediately, her subconscious decided to hold on to her delayed emotions so that next time she would be ready to protect herself.

Everyone has a built-in alarm system, monitored by the Limbic Brain, that indicates when we might be in danger or not. This alarm system prepares us to react quickly with a fight, flight (escape), or freeze (shutting down feelings) response. When the situation appears to be danger free, we go back to our “base” state. Over time our experiences form associations so that we can analyze new situations even faster. However, Psychological Trauma or conditioned cultural responses may result in a delayed reaction of our “alarm sensor.” People can find themselves reacting hours or days later rather than reacting in the moment. Because it was always dangerous or they were not allowed to express their emotions they might have learned to suppress their alarm system.
On the other hand, with repeated trauma the limbic brain might also habitually overreact and perceive a threat when there is not one. For example, a combat veteran might jump into a bush when he/she hears a car backfire even though there is no current danger.

Laureen realized that she needed to recognize her alarm signals so that she could react in the moment.

What follows are 4 powerful steps that she used to improve her “alarm system”:

1) She visualized her conversation with her friend.
2) Then she began noticing what she was sensing in her body when her friend made the comment. Laureen became aware of tension in her stomach. It is not only our thoughts that give us our warning signals but our bodily sensations as well. These sensations might appear in different forms such as headaches, shoulder pain, and other physical symptoms. This exercise can also help a person to differentiate between the here and now versus past painful memories.
3) Laureen paused and became the kind observer of her tension.
4) She now knew that her stomach would send her warning signals she needed to listen to. Laureen reported that she felt her stomach again in another conversation but this time she paused for a minute and recognized she was getting irritated again. This time she had the choice to speak up and decided to address her irritation immediately. Her tension and anger were resolved and she no longer needed to hang on to her feelings of anger towards her friend in order to protect herself.

Forgiveness is part of a healing process in which we take responsibility for what we are feeling. We free ourselves of the people who might have hurt us.

Recognizing our internal alarm signals and paying attention to our “warning” sensations can pave the path to forgiveness and, as a result, have additional health benefits.

Follow these 4 simple steps for an alarm signal tune-up:

1.    Visualize the situation that is distressing.
2.    Notice what you feel in your body.
3.    Observe your sensations without judgment, especially if they bring up painful memories from the past.
4.    Return to the original situation or picture another similar situation. Notice what you are feeling. Recognize sensations that signal an opportunity to make a new and different choice. Appreciate your body’s wisdom and commit to noticing its alarm signals earlier, honoring them (not suppressing them), and expressing yourself honestly with kindness toward others and yourself.

Depression and neurotransmitters

May 7th, 2009

Interview with Barbara Clark continued.

Dr. Babbel:

I often ask my clients who suffer from depression and/or anxiety to get a neurotransmitter test to make sure their concerns are not based on some kind of nutritional deficits. Could you briefly explain 1) what neurotransmitters and Beta Endorphins are, 2) how they relate to depression and anxiety and 3) what to look for in a neurotransmitter test?

Barbara Clark:

The center of the nervous system is the brain, which contains over 100 billion specialized cells called neurons. The nervous system also contains very important chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell the heart to beat, the lungs to breathe, and the stomach to digest. Neurotransmitters are also necessary for thought processes, emotions, and other essential body functions including sleep, energy, and fear.

Depressive and anxiety disorders are among the most common neurotransmitter-related conditions. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay signals between nerve cells, called “neurons”. They are present throughout the body and are required for proper brain and body functions. Serious health problems, including depression and anxiety, can occur when neurotransmitter levels are too high or too low.

Every neurotransmitter behaves differently. Some neurotransmitters are inhibitory and tend to calm, while others are excitatory and stimulate the brain. Deficiencies involving the central nervous system’s neurotransmitters – serotonin and norepinephrine- appear to be involved in the development of depressive disorders. Disruptions in other neurotransmitters, like GABA (the central nervous system’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter), epinephrine, glutamate and histamine may be associated with anxiety disorders.

Environmental and biological factors – including stress, poor diet, neurotoxins, or genetics – can cause imbalances in the levels of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. These imbalances can trigger or exacerbate depressive symptoms.

Endorphins are endogenous opioid polypeptide compounds. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during strenuous exercise, excitement, pain and orgasm and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a sense of well being. Endorphins work as “natural pain relievers “and they are actually a complex of at least fifteen potent brain and body chemicals that all amplify pleasure and make pain tolerable. Endorphin depletion is caused by physical or emotional pain, or both.  You could have been born with an endorphin deficiency, too much stress may drain the endorphins, and typically women have lower endorphin levels than men. Taking a supplemental blend of the 9 essential amino acids under the supervision of a health care provider, a good multivitamin, B vitamins and eating a protein-rich diet (proteins are precursors to amino-acids) can help get the endorphins into a more balanced state. Ideally these steps need to be supervised by an appropriate health care provider.

Neurotransmitter test:
There are laboratories who do urine testing for neurotransmitter (Neuro Science, www.neuroRelief.com) and there are laboratories who have testing available for blood platelet serotonin and catecholamines

(Vitamin Diagnostics) www.integrativepsychiatry.net/blood_platelet_neurotransmitter_test.html