Friday, December 08, 2017

What is neuroception?

I’m going to give a real life example of how neuroception* actually works from my own life. I was mugged once, I wasn’t hurt physically, but psychologically, it left its marks.

I was walking along the quays in Dublin at about 7.30pm, it was November, so it was dark. An older man asked me for the time; there was also a teenager walking a little bit behind him. Immediately, I sensed very strongly that something wasn’t right. Something (neuroception) was telling me to run, get out of there as fast as I could. But I rationalised it away by calling myself silly/paranoid, there was no need to worry.
The teenager walked passed me and then all of a sudden ran up from behind and ripped my bag off my shoulder. I froze (for which I judged myself later). I didn’t even think of putting up a fight and knowing what I know now, I didn’t have any conscious choice in the matter. My body sensed danger (which I ignored/rationalised away) and then froze to keep me out of more danger (it was very likely that the teenager would have become violent to get my bag/money if I had fought him).

Our bodies are amazing. Even before the brain in our head can react, our oldest brain (our gut, the enteric nervous system), is able to sense danger, or safety, in the environment and lets us know immediately whether we are safe or under threat**. ‘All’ we need to do is listen and trust this ancient source of knowledge. But too often we ignore, deride, override, shame, chastise and berate our own body because it’s not doing what we want it to do, or what we think it should do.

Our body is the repository of every single experience we’ve ever had since conception and even beforehand, taking the studies on intergenerational experience and trauma into account. We put out the rubbish every day/week to be collected, but how often do we empty our body of stuff it no longer needs or wants? How much stuff is your body carrying right now? (Try and answer that and you can tap on your answers).

Just as we might work on various different parts of ourselves, we can work on our body as a part with its own intelligence, feelings and perceptions. This is not segregating the body from us, it is giving its experience its own credence and weight.

I can give you an example of working with the body this way. I woke up at 1a.m. recently with a sense of dread and fear and didn’t know where it was coming from. Rather than play Sherlock Holmes in the middle of the night, it struck me that it might be my body sensing danger/threat. I tapped on my body not feeling safe (in my imagination, very handy for nighttime when you’re tired), acknowledging, not fighting, how my body felt which calmed me/my body down. I was able to go back to sleep after about 10 minutes of tapping and get a few more hours sleep before I had to wake up at 6.30am.

*Another word we could use for neuroception is intuition or gut instinct.

** Fear is a necessary and valuable emotion when there is immediate and present danger that requires us to act now. However, our nervous systems can get permanently 'switched on' after repeated trauma and detect threat where there is none which leaves us exhausted and hyper vigilant.

Monday, December 04, 2017


We hear a lot about allowing. And in this post we’re going to talk about allowing things within ourselves, not the outside environment or others. That’s another discussion for another day.

For me, allowing means to allow my internal experiences as much as I possibly can. This essentially means that I’m not resisting them, which keeps me stuck.

It means allowing every single emotion, thought and body sensation I have in response to anything and to feel it as best as I can.

This is a process. It doesn’t happen over night and it’s not always possible because we’ll slip into old patterns and sometimes we’ll just be too tired or upset and that’s ok.

When you develop the habit of allowing yourself to feel, think and sense the way you do, you start to process things. You begin to experience what has been unexperienced. You don’t feel stuck anymore, maybe things still aren’t easy, but you start to notice little changes which give you hope and spur you on and later you see bigger changes, in you.

You really download into your cells that the only person you can control is you, not others and not the outside environment. Funnily enough though, people and circumstances often change in our life for the better when we change!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The mindbody split

The mindbody split is nowhere more obvious than in the medical model approach to health. There is an unfounded assumption that mental health has only a psychological cause and a physical health issue has only a physiological cause. But we are not disconnected bits and pieces, every single part of us is interlinked and interdependent. The health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

When it comes to mental health, I think we’re often frightened of the power of the mind and the devastation that can ensue when things go awry. We feel we don’t have as much control over the mind as we do the body, hence the heavy emphasis on medication as the main treatment by psychiatry to keep people in check. Short term, this is often necessary, however problems arise when this is the long term approach and treatment. Medication does not get to the root of the issue, symptoms are just suppressed and the long term effects of medication on the body and mind of the person suffering are horrendous and often cause an early death. Sadly, society in general doesn’t seem to care as long as ‘these people’ are out of sight or kept quiet.

When mental health professionals speak of dissociation, they often don’t differentiate between psychological and somatic dissociation. I think some of them aren’t even aware of somatic dissociation as a phenomenon. This mirrors the mindbody split that is evident in most of the world. It is also because of the major emphasis on psychological processes in psychology and psychiatry. However, there is some dissonance here because of the current emphasis on biologic psychiatry and many somatic symptoms being included in psychiatric diagnoses. The truth is, there is no coherent theory of mental illness in mainstream psychiatry and there never has been.

Why am I speaking of dissociation in particular? Because of its inherent link with trauma. Trauma is one of the biggest unresolved issues in our world and is responsible for many of the problems that we see; addiction, violence, wars, abuse, neglect, homelessness etc. Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne, defines trauma as unexperienced experience and I believe the mechanism by which an experience remains unexperienced, is dissociation, both psychological and somatic dissociation.

We’ve all been traumatised, or hurt. It’s just a matter of to what degree. Judging by all the problems in the world today, it is safe to say that many of us remain traumatised. Which also means that we’re all dissociated and again it is a matter of to what degree. There is nothing to be frightened of here, it is normal and human to want/need to avoid pain, the more pain we feel or is inflicted upon us, the more we will dissociate. I think it is crucial to normalise trauma and dissociation so we lessen any stigma and shame attached to these phenomena. Problems arise when we act our trauma out, individually and collectively, which is why it is so important that it be taken seriously and effective approaches to resolving it are widely used.

I’d like to see the day when the treatment of any health issue is truly integrative and proper weight is given to both somatic and psychological issues. As regards dissociation, screenings such as the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) and Somatoform Dissociation Questionnaire (SDQ ) could be combined, because where does the mind begin and the body end? There is no clear delineation, they are interlinked and interdependent and we need to assess the health of both.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

This will never end

“This will never end”, is a really common belief that keeps us well and truly stuck. It engenders a sense of helplessness, powerlessness and hopelessness which feels absolutely horrible. This belief and all it entails, is often worse than anything that came before it because we fear that how we feel will go on forever without any respite.

One of the main reasons we stay in this unbroken loop is because we keep avoiding unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions (assuming any traumatic experiences are over). It is natural and normal for certain emotions to arise depending on what we’re experiencing, it shows that we’re human. How these emotions were received by others early on in our life is usually when the problems start.

You might have learned that it is unacceptable to be angry, especially if you’re a girl or that you’re weak for being afraid if you’re a boy. We then start to believe that we are unacceptable, weak and bad for having these emotions, because the adults in our lives couldn’t handle us displaying certain emotions that they had an issue with (most likely learned from their parents and so it goes).

We learn self-regulation (how to handle our emotions and resulting body sensations) from being co-regulated, that is; soothed, reassured, accepted, understood and loved. Self regulation is a skill that can be learned like any other and even if we didn’t have a relational home when we were younger, we can give it to ourselves and get it from others.

Try tapping on:

Even though I have this belief that this will never end and that makes me feel … I accept how I feel

Even though this belief brings up unbearable sensations in my body that I feel I have to avoid or else … I accept how I feel

Even though it feels hopeless (or I feel hopeless) and the first time I remember feeling this way was … I accept how I feel

Even though it feels like this will never change, I can choose to make some changes that I have control over and that feels …

Then tap on whatever feels right through the points until you find some relief and hope to give you the strength to make the changes you need and want to make.

Thursday, November 09, 2017


Acceptance is oh so hard to do, especially when there is something going on, or went on in your life that you can’t accept. We can’t accept things for various reasons, but the biggest one I think is that something is causing/caused us pain. We think that if we accept it, it’ll stay (or go as the case may be) and that is unacceptable.

Write down the two sentences below and fill in the blank. Work on one issue at a time. Rate the percentage of what you can’t or can accept. Say for example, you write down 80% for ‘can’t accept’ and 10% for ‘can accept’ on the same issue, there’s a mismatch. Can accept ‘should be’ 20%, so by writing it out this way, you can really see the truth of how you feel and what you can truly accept right now.

1. I can’t accept …
2. I can accept …

Accept what you can’t accept for the moment. You are doing the best you can for now and you will increase your acceptance of something when you are ready. If you have judgements or criticisms about what you can/can’t accept, why, any urgency etc., you can tap on them. Remember being aware and acknowledging something is there can be really helpful, even if we can’t accept it right now.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The frozen response

When we're trauma informed, we realise that how we respond to overwhelming experiences is a natural, normal part of our evolution as human beings. Freezing or immobility is extremely common when our flight and fight responses have been thwarted for whatever reason. Freezing helps us to survive and it is an involuntary response, that is, our autonomic nervous system takes over for us in times of severe stress.

Judgements and appraisals from ourself and society such as I "didn't put up a fight", or I "just lay there and didn't scream", are just plain wrong and can make you more predisposed to developing trauma because you feel so ashamed of your responses, among other strong emotions and sensations that you may have. Society often blames the victim instead of focusing on the perpetrator. The victim is burdened with the responsibility of how they responded to threat with little to no understanding of how our bodies and minds work under threat. This is why education is so important, particularly for first responders, the police and the judicial system. It is crucial that we normalise how we respond to traumatic experiences so the likelihood of us developing trauma (and all its many manifestations) is reduced.

Try tapping on the words in this script, of course it is generic so please customise it for you and how you feel, leave out what doesn't fit and insert your own words, feelings and body sensations, which will make it much more effective.

Even though I froze, I accept myself anyway

Even though I’ve no explicit memory of freezing (common in utero and early childhood, the memory will be implicit), my body remembers

Even though my body remembers and that feels … I am trying to accept how I feel about that

Even though I couldn’t call out or move and that made me feel … I am willing to accept how I responded

Even though I now believe … about myself, I am willing to heal that belief

Top of the head: This frozenness
Eyebrow: In my (gut, legs etc) …
Side of eye: I can’t feel …
Under the eye: And that makes me feel …
Under the nose: I can feel … (twists/knots in your gut, stiffness in your legs etc)
Under the chin: My consciousness floated away
Collar bone: And my body stored …
Under the arm: When I couldn’t move or do anything

Top of the head: I was trapped (physically, psychologically etc)
Eyebrow: I was able to escape by …
Side of eye: And that makes me feel ...
Under the eye: I’m stuck
Under the nose: Something is stuck in my body and mind
Under the chin: And it’s causing me stress (list whatever else fits here)
Collar bone: The shame
Under the arm: Of …

Top of the head: The helplessness …
Eyebrow: The horror …
Side of eye: The fear …
Under the eye: The rage …
Under the nose: This helpless anger
Under the chin: I can feel some of it
Collar bone: And lessen the load on my body and mind
Under the arm: Holding all this stuff until I was ready

Top of the head: I’m grateful to my body sometimes
Eyebrow: And sometimes I think it has betrayed me
Side of eye: By not being strong enough
Under the eye: To fight back
Under the nose: Or flee
Under the chin: What else could my body and mind do?
Collar bone: They froze to help me survive
Under the arm: The response was instantaneous

Top of the head: I couldn’t control it
Eyebrow: And that makes me feel …
Side of eye: My mind floated away
Under the eye: And my body tried not to feel …
Under the nose: But it’s all coming up now
Under the chin: And it can be overwhelming
Collar bone: So I need to take it slow
Under the arm: But a part of me wants to go fast

Top of the head: Because I’m in pain
Eyebrow: I accept how all parts of me feel
Side of eye: I want to fight some parts of me
Under the eye: But they freeze
Under the nose: To protect me
Under the chin: Fighting doesn’t always work
Collar bone: There are other ways
Under the arm: To survive and thrive

Top of the head: It is possible to heal from this
Eyebrow: No matter how badly I feel right now
Side of eye: It’s simpler than I think
Under the eye: And maybe even easier than I think
Under the nose: I’ve been trying too hard
Under the chin: Because I feel so bad
Collar bone: I’m open to solutions
Under arm: That I might not have thought of

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Divided attention

Divided attention is really common when we’re stressed. Our attention is split into lots of different threads haphazardly focused in too many areas, which makes us feel really scattered and overwhelmed. It is really important to try and do one thing at a time, as slowly as you can, if possible.

The more stressed we feel, the more stuff we think we need to do to alleviate the stress; we become desperate, urgent and even panicky. But the opposite is in fact true. Know how your system reacts to threat, any threat, no matter how small you think the threat is (or whether you even recognise it as threat), and when you first notice the signs of stress, start doing what you know works or find something that you feel might work and start practising it daily.

You know from experience that minimising or comparing your stress levels and experiences with anyone else doesn’t help, it keeps you stuck, usually in shame, so take your own experience seriously. The only real measurement of stress is how we feel and if you feel bad enough, that’s good enough to do something about it regardless of what anyone else think or feels.

Keep it simple, do only a few things at most and do them daily. You should start to see results, hopefully immediately, but certainly in a few days. But remember, our nervous system takes time to rewire. If you have been steeping in stress hormones for a long time, your system needs time to reorient itself to a new way of being in the world. So as you’re dealing with your stress levels, be as kind to yourself as you can possibly be.

The moments of soothing ourselves, that is, learning to regulate ourselves, hopefully with the help of co-regulation, will join up and become minutes, hours, then days and after a while the days stretch into weeks and so on.