Shifting Perspectives: Confusion as The New Norm Part II – Being Open to Experience and Self-Regulation
Ann Masten, a renowned professor and researcher on resilience, has written volumes on this topic. She documented Post-Traumatic Growth and the reality that some people actually improve their functioning after traumatic and challenging experiences. There is something about engaging in responding to adversity that seems to mobilize some individuals, and they come away feeling stronger or with a deeper awareness of the value of life, or just able to function better. The core of this process is self-regulation.
Within the varied fields of mental health, models of psychotherapy are supported by the findings of interpersonal neurobiology, which provides evidence for the reality that self-regulation is a pillar of psychological health. Ann Masten focused extensively on self-regulation as essential for the experience of resilience. Self-regulation is referred to by the various fields of mental health as affect regulation. Self-regulation and affect regulation are essential if we are to address the anxiety, fear, insecurity, and irritability that people feel in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the unknowns of the future. It is obviously important to deal with these sometimes overwhelming feelings in order to address our own suffering, and in order to calm ourselves so that we can effectively cope with the responsibilities and demands of life. The ability to cope effectively impacts not just our own well-being, but also directly affects the well-being of those around us. How we respond directly affects how our children and loved ones cope with current realities.
The practices that we engage in to restore equilibrium, calm ourselves, and soothe our emotional reactivity is referred to as “self-care.” Self-care practices include the following activities:
- Mindfulness practice
- Deep breathing
- Deep relaxation
- Religious practice
Based on the knowledge of how intense emotional reactivity affects our capacity to cope effectively – we can either lose ourselves in the emotional reactivity, or we can seek to calm our emotional reactivity so that we can better handle the difficult circumstances we are facing.
These self-soothing and calming techniques are critically important for a sense of being able to handle the stress and uncertainly that pervade our lives. No matter how well we think we are doing during the coronavirus pandemic, people report shifts in and out of emotionally difficult experiences – sometimes due to a news report, a difficult child, fear of instability in the future, a restless night, and sometimes, as described before, for no reason; feeling overwhelmed just happens.
I would like to link the importance of what is described above as “openness to experience” – the willingness to stay with, know fully, and understand what is happening to oneself and others – with the process of “self-regulation.” I believe it is important to realize that these two processes are at the core of our well-being with one process facilitating the other.
From the study of brain function, neuroscience informs us that there is an integral connection between two important parts of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. The pre-frontal cortex helps us organize information, think in an organized way, and make decisions. The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain and plays a central role in responding to fear and threat by triggering fight, flight, or freeze reactions.
This is a simplistic representation, since many parts of the brain contribute to thoughts and feelings, but for the sake of this conversation, I am focusing on the parts of the brain that predominate. An integrative view of brain function and our experience of human experience reveals that thoughts have emotions attached to them and feelings have thoughts attached to them. We are always impacted by both dimensions of our experience. Leslie Greenberg, one of the founders of the psychotherapy model called Emotionally Focused Therapy, has labeled this human phenomenon as “affective schemas” and “cognitive schemas;” In other words, if you are focusing on feelings, there are always thoughts and behaviors connected to them, and if you are focusing on thoughts, there are always thoughts and behaviors connected to them.
Neuroscientists describe the brain as an interpersonal organ. In fact, the science that studies the functioning of the brain is called Interpersonal Neurobiology, a phrase coined by Dr. Dan Siegel. The brain is wired for human connection. If human connection is absent, in a very real sense, the human being will die, which has been documented in the deaths of children who were deprived of human relationships and died in orphanages after WWII. We are wired to connect, and scientists have documented how we pick up the experiences of others and how others perceive our internal experiences. We have something called “mirror neurons,” which create this phenomenon. This is most apparent in babies who develop their internal identities based on the mirroring of caretakers who help the growing child perceive their internal states by mirroring and affirmation. It is therefore important to remember that, due to the interpersonal level of impact of all of our experiences, we are constantly affected by others as we are constantly affecting others. This is an important understanding in normal life. It is essentially important to acknowledge this reality during the pandemic when we are limited in our social interactions. We are affecting those close to us in ways that we cannot always perceive consciously but are always ongoing.
When we feel threatened or when there are major disruptions to the ways we live, the connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala are disrupted. The production of neurotransmitters and stress hormones are increased, which impact our feelings and physical states of anxiety and fear.
When caught in a cycle of distressing thoughts and feelings we lose our sense of what we can control or what we can even do. Sometimes we feel crazy – even though this is a normal process under extreme hardship, it doesn’t mean we are really going crazy. But, when we say it in today’s world, sometimes we mean it – Am I really going crazy?
Understanding the mind-body relationship explains everything that I have presented in this essay.
Putting it together, we see the link between “openness to experience” and “self-regulation” – aspects of ourselves that are at war when we are stressed. We need both “openness and regulation” to persevere and feel that, on the whole, we are handling the challenges well. Depending on the experience and the situation – sometimes we need to focus on grappling with, understanding, and thinking through what is happening to us and finding some explanation, some meaning, and some acceptance. Then we may be able to calm the emotionality that results from the challenges and stressors. At other times, we cannot be open to our experience – we are too aroused and triggered by deep, unsettling emotions. Then we need to regulate our bodies and emotions so that we can think and be open to our experience.
It needs to be in our knowledge base that these two processes – openness to experience and self-regulation – are bound together and one without the other can only go so far.
This knowledge is important in order to recognize our vulnerability to unresolved past traumas in times of stress. Past traumatic experiences in an individual’s development leaves painful experiences fragmented within the brain. This fragmentation happens because it is too scary and painful to hold the traumatic memory as a whole memory. So various parts of the brain have embedded fragments of traumatic memories. External stress may trigger one of these fragments at a time of stress when the external situation has a connection to the embedded memory. This is a common experience – and openness to experience and self regulation will help.
While acknowledging this common experience, it is important to note that if a person continues to experience the disruptive emotional reactions from the intrusion of early trauma into their awareness, in spite of efforts to cope with it, it would be important to get professional help to work through the early trauma and bring greater awareness and wholeness to the present.
Another thought, to bring this presentation to a close, is that while shifting perspectives and therefore the sense of confusion that comes and goes is normative for this time that we are all living through – shifting perspectives is also true of life in general. Shifting perspectives is so normal in normal times that we don’t experience it as “crazy.” We cry at our children’s weddings. We anticipate retirement and freedom and feel loss. We get a new job, go to a new school, move, and we feel insecure, anxious, and somehow not quite good enough to do well. We handle our lives and wonder if we are doing a good job. We meet a new friend and wonder if the person will like us. So, what else is new?
These shifting perspectives are normal – because nothing in life is perfect – everything has different aspects, qualities, and perspectives. What do we do when making an important decision? We make a list of pros and cons or sometimes we imagine the possibilities as best we can. And then, we choose the better option hoping for the best. We engage in relationships. We marry. We raise children. We ask: Am I doing the best job I can do? Am I worthy of this good thing? Am I living up to expectations? These questions are normal.
Therefore, shifting perspectives at a time of hardship, threat, and uncertainly will bring out more of what is in our natural character – only it will seem so much harder to deal with. We lost our normal, but we are basically OK. The world will return someday. But how will it be different? We don’t know.
If we know this to be true – and we have explored its meaning and calmed ourselves to acknowledge this reality – then what we need is COMPASSION FOR OURSELVES. To know ourselves. To understand. To settle our bodies and emotion. To accept the vicissitudes and know that we are being human.
I want to end this essay with an acronym created by Dr. Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” which summarizes the many ways that mental health literature has talked about coping with the coronavirus pandemic, FACE COVID:
F = Focus on what’s in your control (focus on the positive, not just the negative)
A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
C = Come back into your body
E = Engage in what you’re doing
C = Committed action
O = Opening up
V = Values
I = Identify resources
D = Disinfect and distance
An article entitled, “A Simple Self-Care Practice to Do Throughout the Day,” offers the following prescription of how to help ourselves by being in touch with our mind and body states:
“One simple way we can practice self-care is to check in with ourselves throughout the day. For example, set an alarm clock for every hour or few hours, and do a 1-minute check-in when it dings. That’s it.”
I am not inclined to set an alarm clock – but I know I better check in!
Bea Hollander-Goldfein, PhD, LMFT, is a staff therapist at our University City Office and Director of the Transcending Trauma Project; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at email@example.com or 215-382-6680 ext. 3118.