WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Building a Culture of Bullies: Chronic judging builds a culture of "us" and "them" and a world of pain.

banksThis article was posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on September 18, 2018 in her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

A number of years ago, a 15 year-old child hung herself after repeated, prolonged bullying by a group of peers. Phoebe Prince was different, but not that different. She had recently moved from a small town in Ireland to a small town in Massachusetts. In Phoebe’s case, her difference alone may not have made her a target for bullying. She also dated a popular, senior football player when she was just a freshman. She had unknowingly crossed a social line. Accounts of the abuse Phoebe endured are painful to read, but nevertheless essential in comprehending the magnitude of the social tragedy unfolding in many communities. The perpetrators did not fit the typical stereotype of the loner from an abusive home lashing out at a vulnerable child on the playground. In fact, a number of Phoebe's peers—both boys and girls—joined an all-out attack on her using every option available. She was verbally and physically assaulted repeatedly in school and cyber-bullied on Twitter, Facebook, and with text messages after school. In addition, two young men were accused of statutory rape.

While technology allows people to connect 24/7, it also allows people to harass others night and day. Phoebe had nowhere to hide, no safe haven from her tormentors. The country was shocked and outraged by the severity of the bullying and by the fact that an innocent child had taken her own life as a result of it. As these tragic events were dissected, layers of blame were passed around freely—to the children who bullied Phoebe, the parents who raised the bullies, the teachers who may have witnessed the assaults, and the school system in charge of student safety. Certainly, when a child takes her own life, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Seth Walsh and Asher Brown are two other young people who took their own lives. In another part of our country, these two young men were relentlessly harassed by peers for allegedly being gay. Both killed themselves at 13. These three children are the tip of the iceberg. With so many similar, heartbreaking stories, we can no longer discount these episodes of bullying as isolated incidents carried out by a few rogue students. The constant stratification of human beings into "better than" and "worse than" actively pits groups and individuals against each other. In this toxic culture, any child is just a weak or immature frontal lobe away from bullying someone else. In this toxic culture, every child could be bullied.

Awareness of the devastating emotional and physical impact of bullying is a step in the right direction, but most of the focus remains on the individual bully, as if each school or playground has but one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch. The bully and the bullied exist along a continuum of disconnection and destructive relational templates constantly reinforced by society’s message of separation, individuation, and hyper-competition. Our children receive confusing mixed messages even in the most relational communities.

A child succeeds in a hyper-individualized society by focusing on what he needs, labeling other children as “other,” and using “others” as a means to get what he needs or as competition in the way of what he needs. A successful businessman and the father of an old friend of mine summarized the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism when he warned her, “Along the way to the top you have to step on some blades of grass.” This was not a threat, but a life lesson offered as a wise tip to his beloved daughter who was following in his business footsteps. It was a loving piece of advice from a caring father, embedded in a very sick culture.

When was the last time you went a day or an hour or even a minute without judging yourself or someone else? You walk into a fundraiser at your child's school and without even thinking, you compare yourself to every person in the room. Sam is prettier than Felice, Frank runs more than Bill, Hector's house is bigger than Sally's. If this sounds like you, you are not alone. In a society built around individual success, judging is an essential relational skill. In a cooperative society, difference is an asset, but in a competitive society, difference is a threat. If you and I are different, one of us is better than the other, and the better one is more deserving of the capitalistic rewards.

Remember the controversial book written a few years ago by the “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua? It was an extraordinary account of raising Asian American daughters. Many of my peers were appalled by her rigid, controlling parenting style. Chua banned play dates and sleepovers, tolerated no grade below an A, and enforced daily music lessons for her two girls. Is this Tiger Mom an abusive parent, or a disciplined parent grooming her daughters for success? The debate started the minute the book hit the bookshelves. In her mind, she was raising her children to be successful in American culture—and they were wildly successful! So many children today are burdened by the pressure to compete in school, sports, and music. Our kids' lives are packed with activities designed not only to keep them engaged, but also to help them “get ahead.” The cultural message is very clear: Be better than those around you. I believe the cultural pressure to be better than the rest (as opposed to being the best you can be) launches a destructive cascade of pitting people against each other. The competition reinforces separation, the separation stimulates distress, and the distress helps shape a dysregulated anterior cingulate cortex (a part of the brain activated by both physical pain and the pain from social exclusion) in everyone, not just the bullied and the bully.

IF YOU DO NOT FIT IN, YOU WILL BE LEFT OUT

Last year, a good friend’s 11-year-old son asked if he would be able to go to college and if not, if he would end up homeless. From college to homelessness, his young mind had grasped the implications of a hypercompetitive society. He had struggled in school because of a nonverbal learning disability and had just started middle school feeling the huge uptick in peer pressure. I was shocked and deeply saddened by his question. Even in my friend’s loving home, he had ingested the pervasive cultural message: If you do not fit in you will be left out.

The data is clear: being socially disconnected is not just painful; it is lethal. Because we are social beings, social exclusion stimulates our pain pathways and our stress response systems. Chronic exclusion means chronic pain which leads to chronic stress. There is an overwhelming amount of research documenting the negative effect of chronic stress on the immune system, including higher rates of illness and death from all causes. But still we socialize around hierarchy and stratification. Early on, children learn both their ABC’s and who is the smartest and who is the dumbest, who is the fastest and who is the slowest, which kids are shipped from the inner city to the suburbs for a better education and which kids can walk to the same school from their large house. Make no mistake: Extreme competitiveness is at the core of childrearing and brain-building in our successful capitalistic society.

I believe human experience is richer when differences are less dichotomized; when we focus on being differentiated from others rather than separated from others. We are not all the same, and it is in this amazing diversity of human experience that true resilience resides. If we can find ways to connect across these differences with respect and openness, the true power of connection is released. As adults, we must teach our children (and remind each other) that humans are most productive not when they are stressed out by the threat of social exclusion, but when they are cooperating and can take for granted that they belong to a larger interconnected web of people. In human networks, the whole is bigger then the sum of the parts. Whether you are on a sports team, in a family, or part of a business, you can take pride in working hard and trying your best, but it is just as important to encourage others. In life, everyone has a role and everyone is needed to succeed. In the long run, our society will be stronger when everyone is included and everyone has a well-modulated anterior cingulate cortex with strong relational memories of acceptance and inclusion.

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Separating Parents from Children: A Policy of Abuse? Research tells us the negative consequences are lifelong.

Shadow of adult and child holding hands while walking next to a fenceThis article was posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on June 19, 2018 in her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

Like many, I have been watching in horror the images of children taken from their parents, housed in caged containers, huddled under silver blankets. As the intellectual debate about whether this is sound border patrol policy or outright child abuse wages on, it feels urgent to share my perspective as a psychiatrist with twenty-five years of experience treating individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder from related childhood abuses. When you look through the lens of neuroscience there is no debate – ripping children from parents is extraordinarily traumatizing. In fact, the pain and impact of the separation is likely setting off the same biological alarm system that would be activated if they were being beaten in these cages. Let me explain.

When mammals evolved from reptiles millions of years ago something very interesting happened. Reproductive strategy shifted dramatically from mass producing eggs and hoping a few of the offspring survive to adulthood (like turtles) to producing offspring internally. Carrying a child internally for nine months meant a dramatic decrease in the number of children born to mammals and the infants created were immature and unable to fend for themselves making attachment to parents or caregivers essential to survival. To assure attachment a corresponding evolution of the nervous system occurred. Humans developed a “social engagement system” to assure that parents and children stay connected.

When separated from his parents, a child’s nervous system sends out a loud signal to signify that he is in grave danger. The child will become dysregulated, extremely anxious and stressed out – he will protest by crying out for his parent as a full load of adrenaline or norepinephrine is surging through his system. The child separated from his parent is terrified and because the brain function to modulate affect is built within this care taking relationship and is ongoing well into the late teen years, that child is also not able to calm the terror. Over time, if the parent does not respond (or in this case can not respond), the child will flip into a parasympathetic shutdown of his body creating a state of learned helplessness or despondency. At this persists, the child enters an extremely dangerous state called failure to thrive in the attachment literature.

This is not new information and certainly should be in the hands of anyone considering making public policy that adversely impacts children. It was learned back in the late 1950’s when Harlow set up an experiment where he placed an infant monkey in a cage with a cold wire monkey that provides milk and another wire monkey covered in a warm material that offered comforting contact. Repeatedly, the young monkeys chose the comfort of the cuddly mother over food. That is how important touch and holding is to primate children. One of the policies being reported at these centers is that workers are not allowed to pick up or comfort the children. The results for these children will be devastating.

Likewise, the Abnormal Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), a twenty-year longitudinal research project on the health outcomes of children who have had traumatic experiences in childhood, suggests that a child disconnected from his/her parents (as one of only a few abnormal experiences) has negative impacts on health and well-being. Not only are mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse found to be higher in people with a high ACE score but also physical illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even infections are increased.

Additionally, research by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA (SPOT Theory)identified an area of the human brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex- that is activated when a person is feeling socially excluded or disconnected. The dACC also happens to be the same area of the brain that is activated when a person is feeling the distress of physical pain. Essentially, SPOT Theory tells us that being connected to safe others is so important to human survival that it shares a neurological alarm with the distress of physical injury or illness. In essence, ripping children from parents carries the same risk as hitting them. To human beings pain is pain and so these children, their parents, and anyone who is witnessing this cruelty without disconnecting from it, is in deep, deep, preventable pain.

Given the clear science, how is it that some humans are not upset about this abuse? One explanation is found by looking at the neuroscience of "othering." Studies show that when I see someone as “not like me”, my mirror neuron system shuts down and I do not feel a physiological resonance with his suffering. Rather, I look at him through the area of my brain that helps me understand abstract ideas. This is a disconnected way of knowing another and heavily influenced by cultural stories and biases. This is not an excuse but rather a warning of the social impact of policies and rhetoric that divides people and communities into “us” and “them”.

The neurological bottom line is clear, separating children from their parents is child abuse. And anyone who has a sense of morality must do everything in his or her power to help it stop ASAP.

Continue reading the full article on Psychology Today in Amy Banks' Wired for Love blog.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar and director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She has spoken throughout the U.S. on the neurobiology of relationship and has an ongoing passion to spread the message that humans are hardwired for connection.

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#MeToo—Changing Brains, Relationships and Power Dynamics

This blog was originally posted on Psychology Today and is reproduced with the permission of the author.

Headshot of article author, Amy Banks, M.D.The #MeToo movement is giving a viral voice to women (and men) who have been the targets of violence and harassment. It is a social change campaign that I never thought would happen in my lifetime. Honestly, when it first started to spread on Facebook I thought it might be cathartic for the people who joined, but I didn’t anticipate it having wider social change potential. My bad—because I temporarily forgot about relational neuroscience and the power that can be unleashed when groups of individuals come together and support one another.

What does the #MeToo movement look like through the lens of relational neuroscience? A few studies come to mind that might help shed some light on interpersonal dynamics across power differences. Check-out "The Cookie Monster Study" as described by Dacher Keltner and his colleagues at University of California at Berkeley.

Quote from article: ...the qualities that often bring someone to power, like empathy and the ability to listen to others, diminish once a person is in power.For those too busy to watch the five-minute video, here is a summary of the study. The researchers brought three individuals to the social science lab and told one of them that they were in charge—essentially giving that person power over the other two. While the group was busy with the assigned task of writing boring university policy, the researchers brought out a plate of four cookies. Initially, each of the three participants ate one cookie each, leaving one on the plate. Interestingly, most of the time, the person given the power eventually ate the fourth cookie. In Dr. Keltner's study taking the fourth cookie correlated with having power and also with a decrease in activity of the mirror neuron system (the circuits in your brain that produce empathy and allow appreciation of the impact of your actions on others). Further, as the researchers watched the behavior of those given power, they observed that the people in charge ate differently. They chewed with their mouths open and occasionally had little pieces of food dropping out of their mouths. Dr. Keltner describes this change in the level of interpersonal awareness as the "paradox of power"—the qualities that often bring someone to power, like empathy and the ability to listen to others, diminish once a person is in power.

Kelner's research and theory suggests that for many people simply having power over others decreases the activity in the part of the brain needed to understand the impact of your behavior on others. Just the opposite of what is needed to be an engaged, respectful leader.

The potential corrupting and disconnecting impact of power is an enormous problem in Western societies where success is often culturally prescribed as gaining power over others and obtaining more resources than those around you. In the US, the myth of individual success is promoted in business, politics, and sports. This model of capitalism is great for making money but not great at creating cooperative, balanced human beings. In fact, one of the "benefits" of making it to the top of the power hierarchy has been a blissful ability to do whatever you want to whomever you want, and because your empathy pathways may be immobilized by power you don’t have to feel the pain you are causing. Essentially, the abuse of power goes hand in hand with power over others, the dominant organizational model in our country. Because power over environments is everywhere, most people have witnessed power abuse at work or family gatherings, in religious communities and on sports teams. Sexual harassment and abuse has been and continues to be ubiquitous which makes the rather sudden rise of the #MeToo movement all the more stunning.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships.

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"E" Is for Energy

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The Dopamine Reward System—Friend or Foe?

Dopamine is trending as the most popular neurotransmitter. And why not? There are days I think it rules the world or at least the day–to-day activities of my friends and family. The craving you have when you smell the coffee brewing in the morning—thank dopamine. That elation you feel throughout your body when you fall hopelessly and deeply in love? Again, dopamine. The thrill of a shopping spree at the mall, the desire for the second and third glass of wine at dinner. You guessed it, dopamine. Dopamine seems to be everywhere giving people a little rush of pleasure and energy when we need it most. So what’s the harm? It’s a natural, biologically based chemical that provides energy and motivation.

The harm is best understood by remembering the infamous rats in Skinner boxes back in the 1950s. Scientists put electrodes into the limbic system (feeling centers) of the rats’ brain and sent a little shock to the area when the rat entered a particular corner. The theory was that if the shock was unpleasant enough it would cause the rat to stay away from the corner. Enough shocks and the rat’s brain would wire the corner with the aversive stimuli. However, a strange and unexpected thing happened when the electrode was placed in the nucleus accumbens (a dopamine pathway that is part of the limbic system)—the rats did just the opposite. Instead of avoiding the corner, they went back to get the shock over and over and over again. Up to 700 times an hour! In fact, this was so compelling to the rats that they opted for the stimulation over food. The rats could not describe “craving “ to us, but certainly, the repetitive nature of their dopamine seeking made it clear that this was something they “needed” to do. The increase in motivation and energy that dopamine provides can be a good thing, but when your brain gets wired to compulsive behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward pathway (addictions) then your life can be as out of control as the poor rat in Skinner’s Box.

blogpullquoteDopamineEnergySo dopamine itself is not the problem, nor is the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is simply the carrot on a stick designed to give a reward to life-sustaining activities like eating healthy food, having sex, drinking water, and being held in nurturing relationships so that you would keep doing these healthy things over and over again. The problem is how we stimulate the dopamine pathway. In an ideal world—one that understands the centrality of healthy relationship to health and wellness—the dopamine reward system stays connected to human connection as the primary source of stimulation. Unfortunately, we do not live in this ideal world. We live in a culture that actively undermines this precious dopamine-relationship connection. We raise children to stand on their own two feet while the separate self is an American icon of maturity. It is making us sick.

This disconnection is a set-up for addiction as we search for other sources of dopamine. The “other sources” look shockingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints—overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic hooking up. Not only do these addictive, destructive behaviors get paired to the dopamine reward system but they create a feedback loop of isolation that pushes people towards more addictions.

Without healthy relationships we each become like the rats in Skinners box—seeking dopamine from all the wrong places. Let’s rewire our brains for the healthy relationships and connections that reward us with positive energy and motivation.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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"R" is for Resonance

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The Four R’s – Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic, and Resonance

Do you have someone in your life that “gets” you? I do. My friend Angel and I see each other every six weeks or so but each time we get together I am struck by the resonance we share, the ability to jump back into a conversation as if no time has passed. How does that happen? When I heard about the discovery of mirror neurons I thought I had found the answer.

First discovered by accident in 1998 by scientists studying arm movements in monkeys, mirror neurons were originally described as individual, specialized brain cells with the sole purpose to help us “get” or read other people. They were thought to be unique among brain cells because of their ability to multitask—registering actions, feelings and sensations all in a single specialized cell. I loved this! My heart already believed that relationships were central to health and wellness and these mirror neurons could be the proof my brain needed to believe that humans are “hardwired to connect.” But, even as I was sharing the news with others, I felt a little worried. How could Angel and I click so easily when I struggled with many other relationships in my life?

Also, when I looked at my friends and family, I noticed I was not alone. Everyone I know has some variability in his or her capacity to read others and to be read. So, if we’re hardwired to connect, what explains the variability? Is people-reading something we learn how to do or are we blessed with the hardware to automatically understand what others close to us are doing or feeling? Turns out, it’s both.

As babies, we are born with reflexes to connect with others. Watch an infant for a few minutes and you can see the vast amount of energy devoted to connection. The wiggling and writhing invested in finding the nipple of a full breast, the waving of a tiny, unsteady hand in search of a finger to wrap around or the neck to grab hold of. These reflexes are a pretty good start for connection, but, are not nuanced enough to allow an infant to “read the room.” A baby may become fussy when held by a distracted, tense mother but could not “know” the mother arrived home from work exhausted and irritable after being up all night working on an important presentation.

Researchers are now describing a mirror neuron system rather than unique mirror neurons. This is a more complex, efficient, and coordinated wiring of existing of neural pathways that communicate the actions feelings, and sensations of those around us. It is the way these pathways become interconnected through experience that really counts in clicking with others and making sense of relationships. Imitation plays a key role. Each of us literally “knows” other people by mimicking them internally. This mimicking is concrete. If I watch you walk toward the door with your hand out, I “spontaneously and automatically “know you are going to open the door and leave. I do not need to ask. blogpullquoteResonanceDeep in my brain, the area in the prefrontal cortex that plans and executes the physical movement of walking out the door is being stimulated. Though I am not moving, the same nerve cells are firing. When you touch the door and pull your hand away quickly and shake it a little I “know” that the door was quite hot from the pounding sunshine on the glass. My somatosensory cortex that creates sensations fires and my hand feels a low-grade sense of heat and smoothness from the window window. That is added to the immediate mix of how I am reading your experience. And finally, you walk through the door and a large smile crosses your face as you fall into the arms of a loved one. In my brain and body the nerve signal has now traveled through the insula into my “feeling centers” in my body and I feel a similar joy and lightness. I “know” you are with someone you love. All of this has happened in the blink of an eye and without you sharing any of your experience with me. My brain and body uses itself as a template to have a shared experience with you and the closer our life experiences internally have been, the more resonant we feel.

But imitating is not the whole story. Grown-ups must name feelings and experiences accurately when you are little so that when you name them in others later they match. You fall down and skin your knee and your parent says, “Ouch, that hurts.” The pain in your knee and the tears running down your face are paired with being hurt. A friend knocks over your block tower and the energy surging through your body and the tension in your eyebrows and face gets paired with a teacher saying, “You feel angry because Tom knocked over your blocks.” It seems like an easy process except that many people don’t know what feelings feel like in their body. Even as adults, well-meaning parents can mislabel a child’s experience and potentially confuse the development of the mirror neuron system.

Here’s an example. Ten years ago my pre-school aged twins and I were in a terrifying accident. I had driven the one-mile route to school mindlessly for a couple of years. On this day, as we approached a four-way intersection, another van turned left and hit us almost head on. Both vans were totaled and immediately chaos ensued. The front airbags in our car deployed filling up most of the front seat and giving off a pungent, rubber smell; the engine hissed and sent water and steam spraying into the air. Within minutes the local rescue teams arrived en masse—fire, police, and ambulance sped to the accident with blaring sirens and lights. In the midst of the overstimulation, I crawled into the back seat and looked directly into the trusting, scared faces of my children and said, “Everything is fine”—a delusional thought if ever I had one. My son looked right back at me and said, “Everything is not fine, this is a bad accident. “ A reality check for sure, I immediately backtracked and agreed that it was a bad accident and that it was scary.

We develop these pathways for accurate reading in the context of being accurately read by others! When I tell my children everything is fine at the same time their bodies are registering that things are dangerous, their developing people-reading pathways are getting a mixed message. Done often enough, as is often the case with childhood trauma or domestic violence, and the person’s mirror neuron system wires in an inaccurate and confusing way. They drift into isolation as their capacity for resonance is diminished.

A cultural belief that human development should be towards increased levels of separation and individuation can create a mirror neuron system that is not accurate. If I am busy “hiding my feelings” from you for fear of being seen as weak or needy, or if I believe that being impacted by another person’s feelings or experiences diminishes my strength, then chances are my mirror neuron system is not getting the stimulation needed to develop the essential human capacity of resonating and reading others and being read. And the impact of this is far reaching. Human beings are built to be healthiest in mind and body when in strong connections with others. Connection and cooperation are part of the everyday lives of most people and a strong mirror neuron system is essential in each and every one of life’s negotiations. It is high time that we add the fourth “R” to the basic skills taught in education—reading, ‘riting, ’rithmetic, and resonance!

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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"A" Is for Accepted

AisforAcceptI was many things at ten years old, but one thing I wasn't was accepted. My family moved to a new town that summer—it was 1972—and on the first day of school when the school bell rang I stood in the middle of the girls’ line anxiously waiting to meet my new classmates. As I was studying my shoes I heard the laughter and the whispering, “What is that new boy doing in the girls line!” They were talking about me, well-dressed in boys clothing. I was humiliated, filled with shame, desperate to go back to my old school where people knew and accepted me. It was a long year of pain, accentuated by my teacher who routinely tried to force me to join the Girl Scouts.

This memory popped back into my mind when I first discovered social pain overlap theory (SPOT) by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA. These researchers study the brain in social situations. They devised a clever experiment during which people were asked to join a virtual cyberball game on a computer screen. As the game progresses, the research subject is attached to a functional brain imaging machine. Now, being left out of a cyberball toss experiment where you do not even know or see the other players is nothing compared to my year of ridicule and ostracism in fifth grade, nor does it compare to the many forms of being socially rejected from bullying, to racism and homophobia, but still, this rather mild social exclusion told these researchers something very important: Being left out hurts most people. They feel uncomfortable, unsettled, irritated… distressed. The next step was to see what area of the brain was activated with this distress.

blogpullquoteAcceptedThis is where the story gets really interesting. The area that lit up when a subject was excluded is a strip of brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus (dACC). The dACC already had been mapped as the area of the brain that is activated when a person is distressed by physical pain. To humans, being socially excluded is so important that it uses the same neurological pathways used to register when you are in danger from a physical injury or illness. Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones will break your bones and names will never hurt you”? Not true. It should have been “sticks and stones will break you bones and names will hurt you too!”

The human nervous system has evolved to be held within the safety of safe relationships. When we drift away from our group or are pushed out, when we are ridiculed, bullied, or shunned it creates real pain. This happens to individuals within groups and to groups of people within the larger society. SPOT theory confirms that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—but it also tells us that we all live in glass houses, we are all vulnerable to the pain of being left out. It is simply how we are wired.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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"C" Is for Calm--Four Ways to Click

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Twenty-five years ago, when I was studying the human nervous system in medical school, I learned that the body has an automatic system running in the back ground 24/7—the autonomic nervous system—like the system that runs in the back ground of your computer updating time and date without needing to be asked. I was taught that the autonomic nervous system had two branches with opposite functions. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) keeps you awake, alert, and engaged in life when it is running at a steady level, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) helps you relax and rejuvenate yourself after a period of activity.

In popular science the SNS and the PNS are associated with their most dramatic functions—the fight, flight, or freeze responses that are activated when a person is threatened. If a bear charges you on a hike or your boss yells at you at work, bam, your SNS fires causing energy and blood flow to be diverted to your large muscles, heart, and lungs. You automatically assess the situation and either gear up for a fight or run like hell away from the threat. On the other hand, if you come across a mother bear with her cubs and she is standing over you ready to pounce and there is nowhere to run or your spouse comes home drunk and mean again and has a history of attacking you, your parasympathetic nervous system might activate causing you to freeze and even fall on the spot as your heart and respiratory rate decrease dramatically and your body’s pain blogpullquoteFourWaystoClickkillers flood your system buffering the pain. Neither of these reactions are under your conscious control. You are automatically protected.

What happens, though, when what you are facing is a kind, welcoming face or your favorite pet? Do you need to then rely on conscious functioning, do you need to think about it before you act and engage? According to Stephen Porges, the answer is “non.” He has discovered a third branch of the autonomic nervous system—one he calls the smart vagus nerve—that innervates the muscles in the face, throat, vocal chords, even the tiny muscles in your inner ear. The smart vagus balances the SNS and PNS and gives us automatic responses to safety. Imagine meeting your best friend—chances are your mouth breaks into a smile, your eyebrows raise, and you tune in and listen a little more attentively. You share stories and maybe even eat a meal together. All of these activities stimulate the smart vagus nerve which travels to the heart and lungs and tells the SNS and PNS they are not needed. You feel calmer.

The capacity to feel calm in a healthy relationship is as natural and automatic as the ability to feel terrified in Friday the 13th. It is how we are wired. A culture that teaches “self-regulation” and finding comfort by standing on your own two feet over stimulates your SNS making it harder to recognize a healthy connection. In Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships you can evaluate your neural pathways for connection and strategize ways to rebalance your autonomic nervous system to help you feel responsive and less reactive in your healthiest relationships.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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Supportive Human Relationships: Often Overlooked in Our Search for Quick Fixes

OctABblog

October 10th is Mental Health Awareness Day.

We live in a time of easy access and quick fixes. People expect to be able to stream a video in less than 60 seconds, to have the entire written history of the world at their fingertips, even to have a complete dinner delivered in under 30 minutes. Given the mind-numbing pace of life, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by my clients’ impatience and disappointment when I offer an antidepressant to treat disabling anxiety or severe depression that takes three to six weeks to kick in. Just 100 years ago they would be resigned to a life of tormenting melancholia. Sure, there are new treatments on the horizon that promise quicker response times. Maybe ketamine will be the Netflix of mental health treatment. Most people overlook the one thing that unequivocally helps our emotional and physical health--supportive human relationships.

The fact that healthy human relationships are central to all human growth and development is not self-evident in a culture that values and promotes separating from and competing with others as the pinnacle of maturity. But research now shows the blogpullquoteSupportiveRelationshipshuman nervous system is literally wired to function best when in healthy relationships. If you do not believe it, try a very simple experiment to see and feel the impact of healthy relationships on your mind and body. Close your eyes and think about a positive interaction you have had with a friend or partner. As you play it out in your mind, watch how your body changes. Most people describe an openness in their chest, a smile forming on their face, a lift in their mood. This simple visualization, something I call a positive relational moment, allows you to tap into the healing physiology of connection and changes your neural chemistry just as clearly as Ativan or Prozac--but with fewer side effects! In honor of National Mental Health Day, reach out to others, engage in healthy interactions, and build new positive relational moments. It is perhaps the ultimate win-win in this culture of competition.

Amy Banks, M.D., is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of Four Ways to Click: Rewiring your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships, forthcoming from Penguin Random House (Feb. 2015).

 

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Interdependency and Mental Health

Comforting

May is National Mental Health Awareness month, a fitting time to be mindful of the suffering caused by mental illness. Even though I am a psychiatrist, working daily with people diagnosed with mental illness, I am stunned by the statistics on the incidence of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in any 12 month period, 26.2 percent of adults are diagnosed with a mental illness. That is one in four adults who are experiencing disturbing and often debilitating symptoms--the constant distress of an anxiety disorder, the aching despair of a major depression, the terror of psychosis. The lifetime incidence of mental illness is over 50 percent. These statistics tell us that if you have not been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, someone you know and love has. When you go to work today or even out with friends in the evening, see if you can identify the one in four people who has a mental illness. Don’t be surprised to walk away thinking there are none in your group. Also don’t be surprised to find out that you are wrong.

blogpullquoteInterdependencySo, where are all the people with mental illness? From what I hear in my office, many are hiding and suffering in silence for fear of being stigmatized, pitied, or seen as weak. American, Westernized culture plays a large role in this fear. The pervasive image of an American is a person who is strong, independent, and can “make it” on his or her own. There is no direct media campaign telling people who have a mental illness to stay in the closet, but the chronic cultural myth of the “self made man” acts as a reference point from which we all measure our worth. The more dependent you are on others, the less value you hold. This cultural bias is insidious and contributes to an environment that makes each of us hide our vulnerabilities behind a wall of shame at not being strong enough to manage our day to day lives on our own.

The idea that we are stronger on our own is destructive, dangerous, and undermines our natural physiology that works best in healthy interdependency. Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Jilek Wolfgang, M.D., M.Sc. reports that people who develop a psychotic illness actually heal faster in a non-Westernized world. A stunning finding given that Western societies are known to have the most educated doctors and best hospitals in the world. So what accounts for the improvement? A lack of stigma. In the West, psychosis or the loss of reality testing is seen as the ultimate failure of individual strength. It is frightening and dangerous. On the other hand, in many parts of Africa, extended family and community reach out and embrace the individual with psychosis rather than fearing or shunning him.

Relational neuroscience offers some explanation for this finding. Researchers at UCLA, Eisenberger and Leiberman, have discovered that the pain of social exclusion is registered in the exact area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, as the pain from a physical illness or injury. Because humans are meant to function best in healthy human connection, this area of the brain fires an alarm for things that are life threatening. The chronic pain of an acute physical injury or illness can be lethal, but Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT Theory) tells us that being socially rejected is every bit as dangerous. When we stigmatize and ostracize people with mental illness we increase their stress levels, decrease their ability to fight illness, and prolong their healing process.  

The range of functioning in the people I treat everyday is tremendous--from CEOs capable of running a company while having a mental illness to individuals on disability unable to work because of severe symptoms. Almost every person I see is hiding their diagnosis from at least one important person in their lives out of fear of the anticipated rejection. In this month of May let’s all open our eyes and our hearts to see and embrace someone with a mental illness and to support those who are suffering knowing full well that statistics show having a mental illness is not an individual failure nor a weakness. Mental illness is, well, an illness and the best hope for a speedy recovery is the support of extended families and friends. This cultural shift from pathological independence to healthy interdependence holds the power to heal many wounds and to improve the lives of all of us who will experience the pain of mental illness.

Amy Banks, M.D. is the director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Over the last ten years at the JBMTI, she has been integrating emerging neuroscience information with relational-cultural theory.

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WCW admin
Your comment about the hidden lives and experiences of people with disabilities is borne out by ample research, as I learned when ... Read More
Wednesday, 15 May 2013 20:43
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