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Interpersonal Neurobiology

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Have you ever had a friend or family member who responded to nearly every comment you made with a grimace and a curt, “Not me. I’m exactly the opposite.”? Did you feel shot down? (“Yikes, she hates me,” you thought.) Or perhaps you’ve had a friend who said, “Me too!” when you declared your love of raisin bread—even though you’re well aware she hates raisins in her food. (You can’t help but think, “What a brown-noser.”) What about those friends who walk off in a pout, and you have no idea what you said—but you know you must have said something? (“Fine!” you think. “Have fun on your own . . .”)

Or maybe . . . just maybe, if you’re lucky . . . you have one of those friends who has the knack of making you feel connected because they really listen, but they also share. They may not always agree with you, but they know how to disagree without making you feel like an idiot. You know they care about you because they’re honest with you, but they temper their comments with compassion, understanding and conscious thought, and you know they have your back because they have proven they have the courage and character to keep a confidence.

Maybe you would love to be that person, but instead you recognize yourself in one of the first three scenarios, and you’ve noticed that your approach doesn’t always work for you in helping you connect with others. If only there was an easy-to-read handbook that offered a simple model for navigating these interpersonal issues and helping you become that special person that everyone gravitates toward. (Here’s where you expect me to tell you that there is.) And surprise!—Here you go.

In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that the key to success in interpersonal relationships is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight or freeze,” but this triad is known under many other terms. “Power, love and a sound mind,” for instance, or as psychologist Elias Porter classified them, “Assertive, Altruistic, and Analytic.” Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).

All three dimensions add something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each also has a dark side: particularly when not balanced by the other two modes. For instance, if you operate primarily as Red (fight/power), you pay more attention to the differences between yourself and others. Your first emotional instinct is to diverge, and you’re the one who is likely to say, “Not me. I’m not like you.” In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.

In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to pick a fight; you want to focus on similarities because you know that’s where you find connection. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.

In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to shut people out—drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow is left isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.

In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode is likely to go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating—going silent, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, presenting a compliant front simply to appease the other.

Most of us have developed a habitual approach based on our past experience. But with mindful self-awareness we can tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. But the changes we make to our own reactivity do influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome. As Alibrando says, “What are the 3 most important things to do when managing a difficult person? 1. Manage yourself first, 2. Manage yourself first, 3. Manage yourself first.”

What does that mean, practically speaking? Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).

If you have a friend or a spouse who is courageous, protective, honest and confident (positive Red), while also supportive, empathic, respectful and appreciative (positive Blue) and who responds—even to your reddest attacks—with patience and calm reflection (positive yellow) . . . then you have something to be truly grateful for this Thanksgiving. You might want to look up Alibrando’s book so you can become the same gift to them that they are to you.

To Give A FlowerA dear friend of mine (we’ll call her Lizzy) is the single mom of two daughters. Lizzy spends her days working at our school, and her evenings and weekends engaged in activities aimed at enriching the lives of her children—and often those of their friends as well. I admire her for a number of her stellar qualities, including both her ability to remain calm under pressure, and her ever-present sense of consideration for others. She is not easily harried or disturbed, and she would hate to be rude or hurtful to anyone. This is why I was astonished that someone could make her the focus of what I like to call a “parking-lot judgment.” You know, those occasional “helpful” comments from strangers we sometimes encounter in a public place (such as a grocery store) who seem to feel entitled to make snap judgments from visible aspects of our behavior (or that of our children) and even sometimes apparently feel superior enough to share these judgments.

But someone did, and Lizzy (very understandably) was moved to vent to those good friends who are allowed onto her Facebook wall:

Dear Old Lady at the Trader Joe’s Entrance,

You don’t know me, or my family. Unless you actually listened to the phone conversation I was having with my 14-year-old, you wouldn’t know that she’d called from sports practice needing help with her diabetes. Your comment that I should ‘take my private conversation elsewhere’ doesn’t help. If you’d taken the time to notice, I was walking out of the store without groceries, which meant I’d abandoned my cart, leaving the store to be able to concentrate on my daughter’s question. You don’t know what her blood sugar was, her level of activity, or how she was physically feeling. You don’t know what her blood sugar was at 3 am, or 4 am, or what supplies she has in her backpack at practice to help her deal. You don’t know how grateful I am that my daughter is thoughtful and responsible about her medical condition, and how happy I am that she will call me for back up when she needs it.

So while you have feelings about etiquette and modern technology, consider that there are issues at play that you know nothing about when you throw your zinger to a stranger. Consider that you are rattling a mother who is operating on little sleep, and is troubleshooting a relentless, unfair, and endlessly complicated medical issue with her brave, wonderful daughter who doesn’t deserve this monster of a disease.

Peace, Old Lady. Be nice.

Meanwhile, far away in another galaxy—or at least, another Trader Joe’s parking lot—an entirely different transaction was underway. You can read details in Lauren Casper’s post titled*, “To the Trader Joe’s Employee Who Noticed My Family in the Parking Lot.” It may be sufficient to say here that Lauren found herself in a similar position to Lizzy in that she was also the potential brunt of a variety of interpretations of her behavior (or that of her children). The main differences, perhaps, were that she and her child were dealing with autism, and her distress was perhaps more readily apparent than Lizzy’s.

In Lauren’s case, as she fled TJ’s with her husband, one screaming child, and another in tow—certain that judgments about her maternal failures were erupting in the minds of many of those around her (and she was probably right)—a TJ’s employee followed her out to the car and presented her with a bouquet of flowers accompanied by extremely encouraging words that made her day.

What made the difference between Lizzy’s and Lauren’s experiences? The luck of the draw, we could say. In each case, the circumstances might have been much different depending on which of the onlookers chose to speak and which chose not to. (Probably in both cases there were bystanders who could have encouraged as well as those who could have gone “judgy**.”)

But an important lesson we can come away with as we leave the parking lot is embodied in something radio legend and personal development guru Earl Nightingale once said: “When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

Well, that’s a little scary. But think about it. Go back to Lizzy’s example. How do you feel about the older lady who berated a struggling mom for the imagined offense of having a private phone conversation in public?  Now think about the TJ’s employee who handed flowers to a struggling mom dealing with a screaming child? Which responder showed themselves to be more mature? How true are Nightingale’s words to you? How likely are you to engage in parking-lot judgments from now on?

And one last question. If these principles apply to strangers, how much more to family members and friends?

___________________________________________

*People are “entitled” to opinions, etc. Posts, movies and books are “titled.”

**Judgy IS in the dictionary. Or at least, the “Urban” one.

I got you on the “how to live forever” part, didn’t I? Okay, it depends on your interpretation of forever, but let’s just say “longer than you might otherwise expect,” especially when you consider your other life habits. But what does health and longevity have to do with the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania? You probably have a general idea of where I’m going with this, but pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of (red) wine anyway. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’ll find it a cool little piece of Italian-American history.

                                    

The Roseto Effectnce upon a time in America, as long ago as the 1950s, there was a physician named Benjamin Falcone who practiced in Pennsylvania near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth. During the 17 years he had been treating patients in the vicinity, Dr. Falcone noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns, and across the United States in general, were increasing steadily.

Could it have something to do with their relative seclusion? The inhabitants of Roseto had emigrated almost en masse from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore, located in the province of Foggia. Hoping to escape poverty in their homeland, about 1,200 inhabitants of Roseto Valfortore had been issued passports bound for America by 1894. After they arrived, existing cultural pressures and social restrictions prevented them from scattering and melting into the local populations, so they eventually built their own community on a rather confined hillside, essentially separated from nearby English, Welsh or German immigrants. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted and even admired by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbor’s keeper.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. Unfortunately, the study didn’t follow up on mental health effects, but there is no shortage of more recent research linking mental health and well-being to social support—or indeed linking physical health to mental health.

Can materialistic and individualistic values really do so much harm to the health of a community? Isn’t independence one of the greatest gifts we can give our children?

It’s a valid question. As parents we certainly want our children to grow up knowing how to dress themselves, regulate themselves and exercise a great deal of the trait that we call “independence.” But as you consider independence in terms of community, also consider that the human brain is not only itself a mass of connections that feed the health of mind and body, but the stability of these connections is maintained and supported by reliable interconnectivity with other human brains. And contrary to the fears of some, you can’t have “too many” connections. You may not treasure them all equally, but all serve a purpose and contribute to the larger safety net that is community.

That said, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Monty Python: “We’re all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!” But we are individuals who, because we are human, are pro-social beings. Whether we like it or not, this makes us interdependent, and that’s not so bad—in fact, it’s actually the way of all living things.

Of course, if you prefer, you can try to do “forever” on your own . . . but the odds aren’t going to be stacked in your favor.

 

 

RELATED RESEARCH:

Humans Are Happier when They Do the Right Thing; It Also Helps Them Overcome Difficulties

June 12, 2013—Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Heart Disease Risk Linked with Spouses’ Social Support

February 6, 2014—Matters of the heart can influence actual heart health, according to new research. A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive—and how you support your spouse—can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

People Who Are Socially Isolated Experience More Pain after Hip Replacement

October 27, 2013—Could being socially isolated affect how well you do and the amount of pain you experience after surgery? Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) set out to test this hypothesis. They found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain following total hip replacement surgery two or more years after the procedure.

People Mean Most for our Collective Happiness

October 7, 2013—Swedish soccer star Zlatan is associated with happiness, but not iPhones. A new study at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Lund Universitysuggests that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships, and less about things.

PeopleWho Needs Them?
 Nov 2, 2011 … As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way.

FacesOfEmotionSmBefore we get into the six dimensions of emotional style, a little background is called for. Most of us are familiar with the pop-psych approach to measuring personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), right? What may not be as well-known is the fact that this popular tool is based on Carl Jung‘s musings about the brain. Jung did the best he could to make guesses about the nature of personality in a pre-neuroscience world, but he was hampered by his time, mystic notions related to psychic energy, and limited research tools.

Skip forward about half a century, and you’ll find that, even though much more is known today about the brain, public practice hasn’t yet caught up. You will still find many schools and workplaces relying on a 50-year-old tool to make judgments about human potential; a tool which rests on the conventional assumption that we’re born with a specific personality and carry it with us until we die.

Looking at how little has changed in actual practice over 50 years, you would think the intervening revolution in genetics has happened silently, underground—without so much as fluttering the composure of the average human resources director or high-school counselor.

You know the revolution, I’m talking about, right? The one that overturned the idea that genetic equals unchangeable. I think most people have heard the phrase “nature plus nurture” by now, but its ramifications may not be so easy to grasp. The research is not controversial at all, and as neuroscientist Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley put it in The Emotional Life of Your Brain, it toppled the nature-versus-nurture debate “as thoroughly and dramatically as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Scientists made two startling, and related discoveries,” they write: “that a genetic trait will be expressed or not depending on the environment in which a child grows up, and that the actual gene—the double helix that winds through every single one of our cells—can be turned on or off depending on the experiences we have.”

To underscore what that means, they continue, “Contrary to the popular belief that if something is genetically based we’re stuck with it for life . . . even genetically based traits can be dramatically modified by how parents, teachers, and caregivers treat children and by the experiences children have.”

Yes, even traits we think of as innate parts of our personality. And even more interesting, some of the traits we’ve thought of as basic personality traits are not as basic as we once thought. Many of them are the result of a combination of more than one brain circuit related to emotion.

This is pretty big news, actually. What it means is that there is something more fundamental to who we are than what we’ve thought of as “personality.”

After studying the specific neural signatures that underlie what we’ve always thought of as “personality traits,” researchers have identified six dimensions, which Davidson refers to as Emotional Style. “Each dimension describes a continuum,” he and Begley explain. “Some people fall at one or the other extreme of that continuum, while others fall somewhere in the middle. The combination of where you fall on each dimension adds up to your overall Emotional Style fingerprint.”

The six dimensions are:

1. Resilience style: “If you have an argument with your significant other,” asks Davidson, “does it cast a pall on the remainder of your day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you?” We fall between “Fast to Recover” or “Slow to Recover” on this dimension.

2. Outlook style: “Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive?” We fall between “Positive” and “Negative” on the Outlook dimension.

3. Social Intuition style: “Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book? . . . Or are you puzzled by—even blind to—the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states?” We are described as anywhere between “Socially Intuitive” and “Puzzled” on this dimension.

4. Self-Awareness style: “Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? . . . Or do you act and react without knowing why you do what you do?”  We fall between “Self-Aware” and “Self-Opaque” on this dimension.

5. Sensitivity to Context style: “Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction? . . .Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate?” On this dimension we’ll find ourselves somewhere between “Tuned In” and “Tuned Out.”

6. Attention style: “Can you screen out emotional or other distractions and stay focused? . . . Or do your thoughts flit from the task at hand to the fight you had with your spouse this morning or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming presentation for work?” We fall on this dimension between “Focused” and “Unfocused.”

Your “personality” is a cookie dough made up of differing dollops of these ingredients; with the old familiar personality traits being traced to combinations of these neural signatures . . . and we can adjust where we fall on these dimensions if we want to.

But we don’t have to. There is no ideal emotional style, says Davidson, but he also doesn’t see himself in the “I’m okay, you’re okay” camp. This, he says, is because, “some emotional styles simply make it harder to be a productive member of society, to forge meaningful relationships, and to achieve a sense of well-being.” That’s actually the test, he says. But whatever reason you may have for wanting to tweak your position on any of these dimensions, the point is that if you do want to alter your emotional style, you can. “Sorry, this is the way I was born,” is no longer a limitation.

This understanding might shed some light on why it can be so damaging to pin a “personality type” on a kid in grade school and set their life’s course accordingly. Or to skip hiring an employee based on a test that assesses his or her personality “potential” using the old “here’s who I am” paradigm.

But it may also come as a welcome realization: a gift, even. To think that we aren’t stuck with the aspects of our approach that aren’t working for us can be seen, in some respects, as an open door to a new way of life and a more effective way of relating to others.

Because at the root of it, the key to an effective emotional style is the key to the success of our relationships. And relationships are what make our lives worth living.

In future posts, we’ll go over some of the more familiar personality traits in more detail, tracing them to their underlying emotional styles. But you can catch a sneak peek at some of them in Emotions are Us, today’s featured article on Mom Psych.

Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch

Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch


You know how sometimes you just keep tripping over the same idea all day long, and you think: Maybe I should write about this? Well, the thought that has been popping up for me today—and I suppose all week to tell the truth, is the word 
comfort. What does comfort mean to you? Maybe you’ve never given it much thought. Nor had I until this week, but I  was finally curious enough to look it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary.

As a verb, the word comfort (the aforementioned dictionary says) comes from the late 13th-Century term conforten, meaning “to cheer up, console.” It’s from an Old French term conforter, meaning “to comfort, to solace; to help, strengthen.” This, in turn, comes from a more decisive Late Latin term meaning “to strengthen much.”

To less precise minds (like mine perhaps) there might be a shorter way of getting to the same idea. “Con/com,” (we all know that means together) and “fort,” something you hole up in to fight off a real or imagined enemy. When I was a kid we made forts out of piles of leaves the city dumped on our vacant lot so my father could till it under the next spring and turn our North Carolina clay into something he could grow vegetables in. There are good guys and bad guys when you’re playing fort, and the ones fighting with you to protect the fort are so undeniably on your side that even at the age of 8, no one had to explain it to me.

I really think this childhood imagery sheds important light on the subject of comfort, which the etymological dictionary somehow entirely misses. It’s too tempting to stand off to the side and posture as the “strong one” telling the “weak one” how they ought to deal with the fight; and then go merrily home to curl up with a Good Book, forgetting about the whole thing. But wait. If we’re together in a fort . . . your sadness is my sadness, every missile that hits you hits me. I feel what you feel, I’m in there with you. Now, that kind of friendship gives comfort.

But who hasn’t had the experience of suffering while well-meaning but detached friends gather to throw advice at you safely from one side while a threat still looms on your other side? They are determined they will prove their worth by being an example of strength and wisdom. Without actually saying it, they manage to convey how lucky you are to have them alongside to support you with pat sentiments and just the right pithy quote. They are the friends of Job; the Grande Dame, bringing a basket of goods (baked by her servants) to the poor townsfolk. If you’ve had this experience and you’re like me, you came away with the clear understanding that such a person doesn’t know how to be (or care to be) in the fort alongside you fighting off the enemy and feeling the stress with you. Much easier to offer you the dictionary kind of comfort that can be telegraphed from miles outside of the fort: “Oh, sorry this is happening, but just keep keep calm and carry on! Would you like a muffin?”

This isn’t to say that you have to be in near proximity to someone to fight in the fort with them. You can be far away in miles and suffering in the fort—and you can live next door and be emotionally distant. No, hunkering down in the fort together requires connecting in your heart and mind in ways that only the inner-most circle of your friends, or those whose similar experiences are still fresh in their minds, will take the time to do with you. This doesn’t lessen the value of your other friends, we need all levels of friendship. But it does tell you where your inner circle is.

As some of these thoughts were churning in my mind this week, one of my three daughters came home from a two-year absence and while we were chatting casually in my home office, she picked something up from my bookshelf almost absent-mindedly. It was a Comfee Doll, something I found a couple of months ago at the Childhood Grief and Traumatic Loss conference that I attend every year.

The Comfee doll is a cuddly and loosely doll-shaped bean bag scented with yummy herbs like lavender. You can put it in the microwave to warm it up, but you don’t have to. It’s just as comforting to snuggle with at room temperature. Kids love them, but as I learned from the reaction of my adult daughter—and from my own as well—you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate them.

“Oh, but how shallow is this?” you’re surely thinking now. “She starts off talking about making real connections when you’re suffering; and ends up implying that  an inanimate pile of beans, herbs and fuzzy cloth could take the place of human companionship.”

Well, judging from the way I’ve seen people try to comfort children in the past, I might venture to say that many of those kids would have been far better off with a Comfee Doll than facing the realization that nobody is interested in engaging with them in the trenches. And that impression is only reinforced when I see how children and adults alike cling like drowning men to these non-judgmental, soft and cozy, sweet-smelling, hug-in-a-bean-bag creatures.

Yes of course—we’d all prefer a real person fighting in the fort with us when it gets right down to it. But I’d have a Comfee Doll over a Grande Dame with a basket of croissants any day, and I’m willing to bet you would too. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the best of companions who are willing to hole up in the fort to endure the wearying bombardment alongside you, there will always be those times when sleep eludes and a Comfee Doll is just the thing to help you drift off into a much-needed lavender-scented dream.

PTSD6-27-13The United States Senate has designated today (June 27, 2013) as PTSD Awareness Day, while also setting aside June as “PTSD Awareness Month.” To honor this worthy intent, Mom Psych is working with the National Center for PTSD to help educate the public about the causes, symptoms and treatment of traumatic stress.

One of the most common questions people ask about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has to do with why some people “get” PTSD and others don’t.  There may not be one simple answer, but researchers are closing in on some important influences. One important consideration is our level of resilience.

What is resilience and where does it come from?  From a psychological perspective, resilience is the ability to return to a healthy emotional baseline after adversity or stress. Like most of our traits, there’s a genetic component that contributes to where we fall on the resilience scale. But that’s not all there is to it. We know that our environment plays on our genetics to help determine which genes are “expressed” or activated, and which are not. We also know that there are certain key windows for this activation.

While the brain remains malleable to a certain degree our whole lives long, there are key developmental periods for shaping its basic substrates. Whether or not we reach our full genetic potential in terms of resilience depends to a great degree on our interpersonal history, particularly during the first two years of life:

[See: Born to Connect: The Role of Secure Attachment in Resilience to Trauma]

Clearly, it’s during these early years that we’re most vulnerable to the effects of abuse. But even more so when the abuse comes from those who are supposed to protect and nurture us:

[See: Betrayed: Why All Trauma Is Not Equal]

So, even though there are complexities to the question of why some people end up with PTSD while others don’t, we are beginning to piece together a general picture:

[See: Why Some Soldiers Develop PTSD and Others Don’t

As this particular bit of research points out, pre-war vulnerability is just as important as combat-related trauma in predicting whether veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be long-lasting. And one of the most common problems contributing to that pre-war vulnerability is, as you might suspect by now, child abuse:

[See: Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers with PTSD]

All of this said, we aren’t stuck with our pre-existing resilience levels. Yes, we can work toward increasing our stores of resilience, and there are effective therapies for PTSD.

Interestingly, the most effective therapists are those who instinctively provide that interpersonal connection we need so we can use the brain of another as a scaffold to our own brain’s rebuilding process. As therapist Tom Cloyd puts it:

When you run into a rough patch and all your tools are failing, the number one fallback really is the same for child or adult: another person who is NOT a participant in your distress and is compassionate in relation to you—tolerant of your drama, understanding of the experience, interested in staying connected to you—and who follows through, etc. Because of the way feelings jump back and forth between people (it’s about mirror neurons, if you want to look up the neurology), a calm person will tend to propagate calmness to (or “infect,” if you will) a distressed person. Good parents do this all the time for children.

In addition to surrounding yourself with a good support network (including a knowledgeable therapist) there are a few practical things you can do to make the most of your own capacity for resilience.

The first key is to take care of your physical health: good nutrition, regular sleep and exercise will help give you the strength necessary to support psychological health.

But you can also apply these same concepts to your brain as you work to support neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and lay the groundwork for successful therapy.

  • Feed your brain with positive, health-promoting experiences such as reaching out to help others or accomplishing a task that has a clear and beneficial outcome.
  • Rest your brain through meditation or by focusing on those things that give your life meaning.
  • Exercise your brain by learning something new.  Behavioral biologist Paul Martin notes in his 2006 book Making Happy People, that learning helps us reduce unpleasant emotions like anxiety, anger and depression, as well as aches and pains (which often accompany PTSD). He suggests that this is because the knowledge and problem-solving ability we gain—and the resulting sense of mastery—liberates us from worries and concerns that would otherwise make us anxious.

It should be clear by now that there is much hope for PTSD sufferers and their loved ones. Realizing this hope begins with educating the public about this debilitating condition. And that, after all, is the point of having an “awareness day.”

For more information about causes, symptoms and therapies for PTSD, I’d like to recommend three great resources. There are more, but these are great places to begin:

ClassroomStressTeacher Appreciation Week has passed, along with “Mom Appreciation Day,” but parents and teachers continue the important work of shaping children’s brains all year long.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that can get in the way of this worthy goal, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the widespread misunderstanding of the conditions children need for learning. Just as a child needs secure attachment with caregivers at home to lay the foundation for healthy brain development, they also need secure attachment with teachers in the classroom if they are to build on that foundation.

However, points out Pepperdine University professor Dr. Lou Cozolino in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education, schools aren’t always constructed with concern for human biology. “Most schools are based on a model of industrial production where raw materials are converted into a predetermined product,” he writes.  But students and teachers aren’t “uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers,”he says. “Relationships are our natural habitat. . . . Our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom.”

This is a profound truth. The human brain is a social organ, shaped by our interactions with others. When those interactions are positive, we feel safe and connected, which allows brain chemicals to support new neural growth: the stage is set for learning. On the other hand, Cozolino points out, thinking and feeling are so intertwined that plasticity turns off when anxiety levels are high. “Stressed brains,” he underscores, “are resistant to new learning.”

Is all stress bad? Of course not. But the circuits involved in arousal, stress, and fear operate much like a muscle. They operate well under low levels of intermittent stress, when there is adequate time for repair, but high levels of chronic stress can cause these circuits to malfunction. Anyone who has done weight training can easily understand the concept: a muscle burdened with too much weight for too long will break down rather than grow. In the same way, chronic, high levels of stress flood the brain with cortisol, shutting down all systems but those required to fight or flee. Immune systems are shut down, as are systems involved in neural growth and learning.

On the other hand, when people around us make us feel safe, understood and cared for, these biological processes are reversed. When teachers are aware of the emotional needs of their students as well as tailoring tasks to their abilities, they help regulate children’s stress levels. Even children with poor attachment at home are capable, given time, of responding well to nurturing relationships in the classroom. “Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories,” writes Cozolino. “Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning.”

Of course, no parent is attuned to their child at all times and teachers will also have stressors that get in the way of their ability to attune with students. But “good enough” parents supporting and supported by “good enough” teachers are the building blocks of the kind of school communities that are needed to create a fertile ground for learning.

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