Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How a Lesson Learned in Childhood Can Help Us Manage Stress and Trauma

I just finished a psychotherapy session with one of my clients who is recovering (well I might add) from an injury. Along with the physical symptoms, she has been plagued by worry and that is what she wanted to address today.

As we dove into the issue, her belief system surfaced and she began defending her worrying. It went something like this, “If I don’t worry, how am I going to be able to protect and care for my loved ones?” and “Sometimes when I lay here and worry about my health issues, I get an insight as to how to get the help I need.”

Coming from a Jewish background, all the emphasis on worrying seemed so very familiar and I know she isn’t Jewish so I said, “Sounds so much like the Jewish mother worry I grew up with but I know you aren’t Jewish.” She quipped back one word which made us both laugh, “Catholic.”

As we went back to the issue of her belief system, it occurred to me that:

A) Intense worry is an expression of hypervigilance, which is a trauma response akin to “flight.” It is based in fear and our thoughts race out of control to try and find safety. It sells itself as “I am taking care of myself and my loved ones.” The reality is that we are full of adrenaline and if we are sending energy to protect others, and ourselves it is frenetic and only adds static and confusion into the picture. To make matters worse, the static blocks our being in a place of peace where we might be more prone to tap into our insight to help creatively address the issue about which we are worried.

That led me to apply the same logic to “fight” and “freeze” and how they may appear for her in her situation as well and, as it turns out we uncovered them in the mix too.

B) There are times when she has intense anger and frustration, which is an expression of “fight.” I have always made a distinction between being “mad” and being “angry.” If I am mad, the intense feelings are controlling me and if I am angry, I can effectively use the feelings as an advocate. In her situation, she has temporarily lost the ability to drive as well as a lot of other normal activities and feels vulnerable, so as a protection, anger and frustration surface regularly.

C) “Freeze” comes up for her in two forms – she literally can get frozen into overwhelm and inaction through analysis paralysis and alternately she goes into denial.

As we explored this further, there is a healthy way to address these core drives, which we summarized as follows:

A) Replacing intense worry with healthy concern. Rather than spamming herself and others with adrenaline laced worry, to recognize that her intention is to broadcast love and protection. Loving concern emanating from her balance point can help her tap into her insight which can assist her in forging a direction to meet the concerns.

B) Replacing intense anger and frustration with advocacy. One definition of an advocate is, “One that supports or promotes the interests of another.” When done from your balance point, it shifts one from being vulnerable as a victim to being empowered as a support and protector of oneself and others.

C) Replacing denial with a healthy assessment of the situation and to incrementally improve it. In her case, she temporarily is unable to drive. Denial helps her manage the despair but it blocks her from taking action. Another approach is to accept the temporary condition and continue to heal incrementally so she can eventually regain that ability and other abilities as well. If over time, some of those abilities do not come back online, then we will need to work on acceptance. At this moment in time, the jury is not out yet as to how she will eventually recover.

As she asked me to summarize the session for her I said, “It is like we learned as kids, ‘Stop, Look and Listen before you Cross the street.” What this means to me is when she notices for instance that she is in intense and ineffective worry that is akin to “Look” and “Listen.” She can then “Stop” and take action to change her behavior which in the old childhood adage is “Cross the street.” It’s fun to see how we can apply that principle at any age.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Return on the Investment

My wife and I spent a wonderful New Year's at a party thrown by dear friends. It was supposed to be a wedding that I was to officiate, but about a week before the wedding, the bride and groom decided to call it off. I laud them for that as some of the saddest words that have been spoken in my psychotherapy office are from those who have said, "I knew I was making a mistake when I walked down the aisle."

Here's the twist, the groom's family had booked flights to be here from Europe, and the bride's family had bookings to be in town from all over the country. The father of the bride converted the wedding into a New Year's party and both families followed through with their plans. Everyone was in attendance, including the couple that was to have married and their immediate families. And it was a lovely time. When people can forgive and understand and be sensible, magic can happen and it did tonight.

I woke up at 2:00 and it is now 6:30 on January 1st. I awoke to thoughts of the wedding and the amazing job that both families did to convert what could have been a scar into a healing. Somehow that led me to thoughts of my own family and the amazing job that they did to allow me to have the life that I enjoy.

Like many Americans, I am part of the second generation of an immigrant family. Knowing the family history as I do, if my grandparents on both sides hadn't had the courage and made the sacrifices to leave eastern Europe before the war, my branch of the family tree would have burned in the Holocaust with other branches that weren't as fortunate. I am able to write this because of who they were and what they did.

My resolve for the New Year is that my life and the way I live it be deemed to be a worthy return on the investment that my parents and grandparents, and those before them provided so that I may have the privileged life that I enjoy. Along with that resolve, my wish for the New Year is that people can forgive and understand and be sensible so that magic can happen in the world as it did in microcosm at a New Year's party that was initially planned as a wedding.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Choosing Happiness is Good for your Brain

The other day I was at Denver International Airport (DIA) on my way to fly to Jerusalem to visit my sister. I was sitting at a table outside of a coffee shop at the airport enjoying a sandwich before boarding for the first leg of my journey because nowadays you can starve on an airplane.

The upside of being a therapist is that you learn to read people's body language and demeanor. That also is the downside as I couldn't help but notice that the man a few tables away had an interesting facial expression. The corners of his mouth were turned down in a permanent scowl. A few moments later, his wife arrived with their lunch and as I glanced from time to time to look around, not once did I see him smile as they interacted. His wife did not look any happier than he did.

Fast forward to yesterday when I was on a bus with my sister going from her home to downtown Jerusalem. Being on a bus in Jerusalem is not as scary or brave as it sounds. You keep living or the terrorists win. The arrangement of the seats in buses here isn't theater style; half the seats are faced to the front and half are faced to the rear.

Across the bus from me was a woman who was the opposite of the man at DIA. She had a wonderful look of happiness on her face and you could tell from the lines in her face that a slight smile was her natural expression instead of the scowl that the man had.

Before I left for this trip I was in L.A. doing a corporate training where we were teaching an advanced communications course to managers at a major software company. During part of the course we play a segment from the movie, "What the Bleep Do We Know". The movie excerpt illustrates that neural pathways are established when we repeatedly do certain things or express particular emotions. There are chemicals for every emotion and as we express those emotions, neurons move and link, forming new neural pathways.

This process facilitates learning. For example, when we were learning to drive, it took a lot of concentration to steer, brake, park etc. and now we do all that while talking on cellphones, checking our gpses, changing channels and daydreaming. We have established the neural pathways necessary to drive.

Now, back to the man at DIA and the woman on the bus. If I read them correctly, he has well established neural pathways around being miserable (and broadcasting negativity to those around him) and it shows on his face. She has well established pathways of kindness and love and she not only radiated that but her facial expression reflected it.

So it appers to me that choosing happiness not only is good for your brain chemistry, it seems it could also save money on plastic surgery.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Knowing the Difference between "Particular" and "Peculiar": A Key to Reducing Stress at Home and at Work

My wife has a part time weekend job and while she was at work yesterday, I cleaned the kitchen. Part of the job involved unloading the dishwasher and rinsing the dishes to get ready for the next load. I didn’t load the rinsed dishes into the dishwasher. My wife likes doing it her way. I used to see this as “peculiar” and it bugged me but when I shifted to seeing this as her being “particular” my life got a whole lot easier.

My wife is an artist and stacking the dishes efficiently is an art form to her while for me it is a chore that I want to get done as quickly as possible. She clearly does a better job than I do fitting everything in and, by stacking the dishes towards the sprayers as opposed to me jamming them in, the dishes get cleaner. I understand it now and I see her desire to load the dishwasher her way as endearing. We all are particular about almost everything in our lives. I am, for instance, particular about my coffee. I like a certain blend with just the right amount of cream and no sugar. That isn’t peculiar.

How does this play out in our work lives? Among other things, I manage an office building for a wonderful landlord. He wants the tenant rent checks deposited by the 5th of the month. I could see this as peculiar but when he explained that his mortgage payment is due on the 9th and he wants the checks cleared by then, I understood and knew why he was being particular about it. This teaches me that as a manager if I take the time to explain why things are done in a particular way, my co-workers can get on board and judgment and stress goes down. I call this going slowly to go quickly.

How does this play out in parenting? When my son was a teenager, he enjoyed playing his music loudly at times and I had a home office under his bedroom. When he was younger, it worked for a while to tell him to change his behavior “because I said so.” If I continued that stance when he was older, I would have come across as dictatorial and he would have had a peculiar “old man.” He understood if I was working that he could put on headphones or lower the volume and got it that I was being particular for a reason and that I wasn’t being peculiar.

Back along the way I worked for someone who was over the top particular. Everything had to be done a certain way and there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it. To make matters worse, he was very caustic if I didn’t do it correctly and doing it correctly constantly changed without notice. I quickly came to see that he wasn’t particular, he was peculiar and I quit.

So knowing the difference between “particular” and “peculiar” can help reduce tension. Please note, knowing the difference between the two can also help your relationship with yourself. When I ask myself the question, “Am I being particular in this situation or am I being peculiar?” it can help me modify my behavior and get out of a rut. And finally, a modicum of “peculiar” can be endearing. Those differences are probably part of the foundation for the initial attraction in your primary relationship so try and remember to cut them some slack.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Inner Peace Through Quieting the Inner Critic

As I look back over my 20 years of practice, in the past I would see maybe one or two people a year who were dealing with acute anxiety and panic attacks. Currently I have three clients suffering with this. More than ever there is a need for inner peace as we navigate through challenges such as: uncertain economic times, aging parents, ourselves aging, relationship issues, etc. It is difficult if not impossible to have inner peace as long as our inner critic is screaming at us.

I have found that the ABC's of Inffective Communication are: Accusation, Blame and Criticism. In a corresponding way, I feel that the ABC's of Inffective Self Communication are: Self Accusation, Self Blame and Self Criticism. These are the tools of the inner critic at its worst.

Unless we are in a mode of self destruct, most of us want to remain in our integrity and play our parts effectively in life. At the same time, as we go through life we can adopt limiting beliefs and even self sabotaging programs. These can come through life experiences but they can also set in through messages received from parents, teachers, etc. Here are some examples. “You won’t amount to anything.” “Money is the root of all evil.” “There isn’t enough time in a day.” “True love is hard to find.” You get the picture. These external messages over time can get internalized and eventually they become the voice of the inner critic. For example, "You're so stupid" can become, "I'm so stupid." After all no one else on the planet has witnessed everything we have or haven’t done through life like we have. All of this data, left unchecked can be ammunition in the hands of our inner critic. If we are to move forward effectively, this is a leak that needs to be plugged.

Don't get me wrong, we all need our inner critic. We all need to self reflect on our behaviors, our attitudes and our decisions. What I have grown to see however is that there is a healthy or green zone for the inner critic and there also is a toxic or red zone.

I recently was giving a presentation on the Inner Critic and one of the participants asked for clarification. He said. "In my business, if I find that my numbers are down, I tell myself that I need to focus on marketing." I responded that this would be the inner critic in the healthy or green zone. I went on to illustrate what the inner critic would sound like in the toxic or red zone. In that mode the inner critic would be saying things like, "Your numbers are down; you are going to lose your business. You are lazy and are going to be on the street unless you gear up and do some marketing. I knew you would fail." In the toxic or red zone, the inner critic is using fear and manipulation to motivate us. Not only is that ineffective but over time we can buy into those messages and do significant harm to our self confidence and our relationship with ourselves. Many of us are parents. We would never talk as harshly to our children as we talk to ourselves when we are in the red zone. We don't want our children to feel badly about themselves. We can offer ourselves the same non toxic discipline that we offer to them.

Let’s consider the word “sin.” One of the roots of the word comes from archery and it simply means “missing the mark.” If I attempt to do something and I miss the mark, and my inner critic pounds me with toxic messages in the red zone, I wind up like Biff from the movie “Back to the Future” all covered in manure. In that state, it is difficult, if not impossible to hit the target on the next attempt. By staying in the green zone, we are setting ourselves up for success.

Early in my career, I was the Executive Director of a residential school for troubled teens. We had an expression there that has stuck with me, "You don't beat a willing horse." Chances are you want to play your part and do an excellent job. That being the case, you will respond much better to treating yourself with: unconditional self love, self respect, and positive reinforcement rather than self accusation, self blame and self criticism.

When you notice your inner critic pummeling you, know that this is an ineffective way of getting you to perform. Do what you can to shift the messages to the healthy or green zone. This helps change the inner critic into the inner co-worker.

Copyright © David Pasikov 2010

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Living "Intention" vs. Living "In Tension"

Living “Intention” vs. Living “In Tension”

The increased challenges that we are facing in the world can erode our sense of security. In the past we could chart our personal and financial lives with a reasonable amount of confidence. It is an understatement that things in the world are not as predictable as they once were.

Back in 1998, President Clinton said the following in an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Today the store of human knowledge doubles every five years. Soon, every child will be able to stretch a hand across a computer keyboard and reach every book ever written, every painting ever painted, every symphony ever composed.” That sounds like a good thing and it is but at the same time we must adjust to what comes with knowledge doubling every five years.

In a previous post I wrote about the Biology of Stress. In addition to the challenges of the Information Age, we also face uncertainty economically. My wife has her grandfather’s gold watch as a family heirloom. It was given to him after 50 year’s of employment in the same company. What’s the chance of any of us getting a gold watch for that today? I don’t need to list the categories that contribute to us living “In Tension”. Most of us know them all too well.

What can be done to find stability and security in this changing landscape? I have found that as my internal climate changes, my outer landscape reflects the change. I can’t control all of the externals in my life but I can control my internal reality. A cornerstone for me is something Einstein once said. He was asked what he felt the most important question was that you could ask another person. His response was, “Do we live in a friendly universe?” In other words is it a dog eat dog world with survival of the fittest or is the universe conspiring to support me? When I get out of reaction to external pressures and take stock, I have overwhelming data, that is way beyond coincidence, to demonstrate that there is a friendly universe. I have found that it is to my advantage to partner with that.

The following quote by W. H. Murray in the book, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, written in 1951, speaks to the way partnering with the friendly universe transpires.

“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money--booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

Before Murray committed, he had an Intention. Architects and engineers say that “form follows function.” If I want to walk through a wall (function) I create a door or an archway (form). In much the same way I feel that Creation follows Intention. First we need to perceive what we choose to bring into our lives before we can bring the elements together to bring it into form.

When I used to live near the coast, I took up sailing and those experiences taught me a lot about Life. The wind and tides are outside of our control. Once we have an Intention, we can metaphorically trim the sails and use the tiller to reach our destination. Being pro active with our “Intention” and being good partners with the friendly universe can help shift us out of a life “In Tension”.

Copyright © David Pasikov 2009 Posted 11/1/09 on

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tools for Turbulent Times

Over a year ago when General Motors was still a stock that was coveted for generations and virtually no one outside of the investment world knew who Bernie Madoff was, I created a seminar which I called “Tools for Turbulent Times.” I just had a sense that we were headed into uncertain times and a time of significant challenge.

As I continue to work with this theme of Tools for Turbulent Times in my own thought processes, I thought I’d write and share some of the guideposts that I am applying to my own life.

1) My wife told me yesterday that she went to the bank and the teller was doing a poor job of holding back tears. Everyone is stressed. I am being more conscious of being kinder to those around me.

2) Speaking of my wife, I am being more aware to not take my stress and inadvertently dump it on her. We are a team and need each other more than ever in these challenging times. Rather than pushing away those who are close to me, I am reaching out to them.

3) Keep the big things big and the little things little. In facing my current challenges, I ask myself these questions: “Is this stressor worth my health?” and “Three years from now is this going to matter?” If the answer is "no" to either one of the questions, then I re-frame my response to the challenge to, in a sense, let it be three years from now, now.

4) I know from looking back at other “tsunamis” that have swept through my life in the past that there always is a silver lining to the challenge. I have enough trust in Life to know that the same is true with my current challenges. At some point I will look back at these turbulent times and see that there is a silver lining to this as well.

5) I have always been fascinated by the physics of the bicycle wheel. The three core parts are the hub, the spokes and the rim. The spokes are virtually little strands of metal. It is puzzling to me that this little strand of metal can support my weight. The secret lies in the physics and how the spoke that is taking the weight transfers the force to the hub and the hub distributes the stress to the other spokes. Each spoke takes a turn as the wheel spins. As the wheel of Life is spinning now, for a lot of us, the load on our individual spokes has significantly increased. For me the hub represents my spiritual core and the spokes are my close friends and the professional consultants whom I consider to be my support team. Some of you who follow this blog are on my support team so, thank you.

6) If you go back to my last post on the "Biology of Stress," I wrote about the genetically encoded response to stress of “fight, flight or freeze.” In these challenging times, I am being conscious of not staying stuck there. For me the antidote is: to replace "Fight" with facing the challenge creatively instead of wasting energy in opposition, to replace "Flight" with facing the facts no matter how humbling they may be and finally, to replace "Freeze" with: exploring options, forming an action plan, and doing the work that is necessary to meet the challenge.

7) I also make space for the "State of Grace." If you scroll back through my posts, I wrote about it that in my first posting.

I wish you well in these Turbulent Times. I am finding that the challenges are creating changes in my life. Where I have attachment, the changes are uncomfortable. Interestingly enough, in the midst of the discomfort, I am finding that some of these changes are welcome.

Copyright © David Pasikov 2009