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Past relationships can poison the future

Professor Tanya Byron was writing in The Times (6/2/17) about commitment phobia. She was answering a question about a woman’s previous failed relationships – or dysfunctional attachments, as she called them.  She wrote, “Attachment theory highlights how the nature of prior attachments, especially those that are related to significant care-givers in childhood, can have a significant impact on the way an individual behaves in relationships in adulthood.  Those who had care-givers who were unavailable, overly intrusive or abusive, may have learnt to be emotionally self-sufficient from a young age and so might develop avoidant tendencies.”

You may recognise some part of yourself even in this brief passage.  It is, of course, useful to understand what makes us tick.  Unfortunately though, it doesn’t stop the ticking.  To stop, or change the ticking you have to FEEL what makes you tick – get under its skin.  It takes more trust and effort than just getting an explanation, but it’s what psychotherapy is about.   It can be very enlightening to go ‘oh I see, it all makes sense now’, you may even feel quite a bit better, but the emotional learnings, the feelings that drive the difficult behaviours or wreck relationships, just don’t understand our clever words.  You need more help to get down to the level where the emotions can change and heal.

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Profound change that is effortless to maintain.

It is so satisfying as a therapist to be able offer therapies that bring about profound change that is effortless to maintain! I am talking mainly about analysis and coherence therapy but there are other psychotherapies that facilitate the profound change that we now call Memory Reconsolidation.  In the organisation I belong to, we have a huge depth of experience and know-how with analysis but it is only by reference to the latest neuroscience that the therapy became evidence based.

However, that understanding of the neuroscience and how and when memory reconsolidation takes place has led us to a critical insight. There is no one big thing to unlock. By providing the safe environment to bring all sorts of old fears and embarrassments to the surface, we allow them to bump into a countering modern reality and they simply dissolve. This is memory reconsolidation in action. In analysis it’s often spontaneous; in coherence therapy it is more of a guided process, but however you look at it, it is a natural process, a built in healing mechanism – but one that requires activating in therapy.

In the past, this collection of minor but significant hurts has been called cumulative trauma. There is no one big thing to unlock – though sometimes the collection of hurts is not at all minor. In those cases the work can take a bit longer, but the underlying healing process is the same.

How to overcome anxiety

One of my heroes, the leading research neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, has a new book out – Anxious: The Modern Mind in the Age of Anxiety.

He has, of course, been talking about the subject.

He says we can all learn to calm our minds ourselves, although that would be more work if you’re a born worrier. The hereditability of anxiety is estimated at between 30 and 40 per cent, although LeDoux says that the environment will regulate the degree to which a gene is expressed.  In other words, it’s the usual mix of nature and nurture: if you have anxious parents, being anxious is modelled for you and you learn how to do it.  The implication of this is that you can LEARN a replacement style. Replace the old behaviour.

LeDoux says that anxiety is a practice we engage in: we develop habits of mind as well as habits of behaviour.  However, like most habits, it can be broken – which is the key element of the ‪#‎beliefswork‬ that I do.

Meanwhile, there is a simple way to can tackle our own anxiety, which LeDoux uses himself. “When you breathe in the proper way — something the yoga masters figured out centuries ago — it calms the conscious mind.”

When you breathe in the proper way, you naturally engage the parasympathetic nervous system which has the job of shutting down the fight-flight system.  Breathing in the proper way is breathing deeply – but from the stomach, not that shallow breathing high up in the chest that is a tell-tale of anxiety. Try it – slowly.