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What Info-Besity Does to Your Brain

March 25, 2015

I wish I’d written this. Let’s all wake up!

The Flowering Brain

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Why Do We Become Addicted?

November 8, 2012

A client of mine this week talked about having the sensation of emptiness in his body.  He knew it was related to feelings of rejection, disrespect, loss of connection with his loved ones.  How uncomfortable that was for him.  “Give me a drink” he said “or let me smoke a joint.  It scares me.  It leads to panic.  Emptiness is scary.”

Buddhists follow certain guidelines for ethical living called precepts.  One of the precepts is stated as Do Not Be Ignorant.  Other ways of expressing it are Do Not Use Intoxicants, Do Not Delude Yourself, Stay Aware and Conscious, Cultivate a Mind That Sees Clearly, Stay Awake.

I think that if we each look at our lives we will find many experiences past and present of consuming from an unconscious, mindless place where we are more asleep than awake.  Our senses are numbed, dulled.  We are not feeling something, what is it we don’t want to feel or are afraid to feel?  What are we each addicted to?  Can we look at it?  Sometimes it is not substances.  It is shopping, or needing attention or love from a certain kind of person. Sometimes, it is the compulsive use of sex or pornography or shopping or workaholism, nonstop electronics use, gambling and on and on.

Gabor Mate (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts) says “Absolutely anything can become an addiction.  It’s not the external behaviors, it’s our relationship to it.”

We are afraid to feel our pain, our grief, our hurt, our emptiness.  Being still, feeling lost, experiencing emptiness is scary. Going deeper into ourselves or into relationships with others can be scary.  The loss of connection to our selves, or finding it difficult to know who we are is scary.

Addictions are the way that we cope with feelings of loss and emptiness, of not knowing who we are and not knowing how to find ourselves, of feeling bad about ourselves, of feeling hurt and pain, from abuse, trauma and loss, of not knowing what to do with the anger we feel, of feeling deep intergenerational grief for losses of parents and ancestors.  There is often so much fear of feeling these things.  Most of us grow up not being comfortable with strong feelings.

We can all ask ourselves “why am I doing this thing”, “what am I afraid to look at or deal with or feel?”

We are afraid to feel our pain, our grief, our hurt, our emptiness.  Being still, feeling lost, experiencing emptiness is scary. Going deeper into ourselves or into relationships with others can be scary.  The loss of connection to our selves, or finding it difficult to know who we are is scary.

I have found through my work with clients that the more trauma a person has experienced the more addictions they have.  Or the more serious their addictions are.

Gabor Mate says “addiction is nothing more than an attempt to self-medicate emotional pain.”  In the Ace Study, the major study done by Kaiser of San Diego, the researchers found that there was a direct correlation between the amount of trauma a person experienced as a child and the number of physical illnesses and emotional conditions and addictions they had as an adult.

When we face our addictions, we have the possibility of healing.  But we have to feel our discomfort, face our pain and hurt and fear.   When we suffer with addiction, it holds the opportunity to wake us up.  It can force us to deal with experiences and feelings we have avoided.  When we explore the meaning in the addiction, what it is that is numbed or avoided we learn a lot about our inner selves.  When we look at how our lives are impacted by the addictive behavior it can open our eyes.  We can recognize the necessity of getting to know ourselves.  Addiction can give us an opportunity to heal, to learn and to grow up.

If we can look at our addictions with compassion, if we can be curious and interested but not punishing we can make headway on our life journeys.  We have to get underneath the shame that accompanies addiction.

Weighing in on New Years Resolutions or The Value of Practice

January 17, 2012


I thought I would weigh in on the subject of New Years Resolutions.  I have always felt somewhat ambivalent about the whole ritual.  There is, of course, something artificial about it and it is always accompanied by a lot of partying and over indulging.


For the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, there is a ritual called Tashlich where you go to a running body of water and empty your pockets of crumbs, symbolically ridding yourself of your sins, or as I have practiced it, the things you want to get rid of from the past year so that you can welcome in new things and make meaningful changes in your life.


Jeanine Stein in The Los Angeles Times recently wrote about thinking small, setting modest, attainable goals and slowly chalking up small successes as you steadily build confidence.  This matches what I have taught clients and other therapists regarding self care and self care goals.  Instead of “I’m going to go the gym 7 days a week for an hour at a  time”, start with I am going to go to the gym once a week for a half an hour this week.  And when you have accomplished that for a week or two, you can build on it.


And when you “fall off the wagon” think about just starting over again.  I often make the analogy between that kind of not doing something you want to be doing and meditating, where once you notice that your mind is busily thinking of all kinds of things, you bring yourself back to your breath.  There is no blame or guilt, you just bring yourself back to whatever it is you wanted to be doing.


I’d like to encourage people to think about framing your resolutions not as I want to be (50 pounds lighter or a faster reader or a great chef or a great dancer) or I want to have (a new house, a boyfriend)but rather  as something I am going to practice.  Just like we practice yoga, or meditation, or medicine, let’s practice getting to know new people, or practice dancing or reading or eating mindfully etc.  Rather than being or having, let’s practice.


Hopefully, over time, when we practice, we develop more and more mastery and we become better and better at whatever it is.  Practice leads to embodiment of it, whatever it is.  Being present in the moment, doing what it is we are doing.  Habib Sadeghi, at  The Be Hive of Healing wrote in article on New Years Resolutions to keep your “intention in the back of your mind while keeping your attention in every present moment.  Focus on what you can do now.  That’s all.”

Equine Therapy: What is it about Horses and their capacity to help troubled teens?

December 13, 2011

Many animals offer humans an opportunity for deep and complex bonding experiences.  But what makes a horse different from other animals in the healing of human beings?

A horse, although big and powerful, is a prey animal.  It is not a predator or a carnivore.  It has been preyed upon by other animals and human beings throughout history.  On top of that, what makes the horse unique is the horses’ ability to carry a rider.  This provides a unique opportunity for a collaboration between the human and the horse.  The goal of a human-equine relationship is harmony and balance.  “Bonding with a horse gives the gift of balance to one’s life:  physical, emotional and spiritual.  The unspoken communication, which serves as therapy in the form of touch between human and horse, can open your heart and heal your body and mind.”  (Chaia King, horse woman and daughter of Larry King)

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a training in Equine Co-Facilitated Psychotherapy, specifically in relationship to working with troubled teens.  It is based on Carolyn Resnick’s “Seven Waterhole Rituals.”  The trainers were Chad Lyman, Kevin Knutson and Brandon Burr, who, together direct a program called Equine Journeys in Loa, Utah.

Parenting a child is very much like having a relationship with a horse.  The teen’s relationship with the horse is a metaphor for the teen’s relationship with other human beings.  And the horses’ relationship to the teen is a metaphor for the teen’s relationship to the parents.

As I said above, the horse is a prey animal.  It’s primary need is for safety.  A horse must trust you to give of themselves.  Developing that trust is the responsibility of the human being.  It requires communicating clearly and consistently, being authoritative, rather than authoritarian, permissive or negligent.  (Concept developed by Diana Baumrind over 50 years ago.)  The human must lead and caretake, with gentleness and kindness.  They must develop a relationship of mutuality with the horse.

The child is very much like a prey animal.  A child is vulnerable and dependent for their survival on the adults around them.  To feel safe and secure the child needs the protection, leadership and guidance of the parent .  Children need the same thing from the parent that the horse needs from its human.

It is all about the relationship.  Horse and teen.  Teen and parent.

  • Horses and children seek leadership and continually test the leader/parent for leadership worthiness.  Both will displace an unworthy leader through aggressive or disrespectful behavior and then continue the search for a worthy leader.
  • There are three types of horses and children:  leaders, dominators and submissives.
  • Lead horses and parents provide protection and watch over the safety and needs of the herd/children.
  • Horses and children must learn to watch and obey the lead horse/parent to stay safe.
  • Dominant and submissive horses and children test the lead horse/parent for worthiness.  Testing occurs through misbehavior.  A lead horse/parent found to be unworthy is disrespected and displaced.
  • Lead horses and parents must continually assert their leadership in order to remain in a position of respect.
  • Horses and children who do not learn to watch and obey the lead horse or parents usually end up caught and/or eaten/in jail or dead.
  • The only true bond is from a place of freedom.  (Lyman, Knutson and Burr)

Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate in their book Hold Onto Your Kids:  Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers address this issue in another way.  When the bond between parent an child is diminished or lost, the kids look to peers for a substitute.  This is disastrous because kids cannot be parents to other kids.  They don’t love and care about them the way a parent does.  They will use them for their own ends.  They don’t have the maturity or wisdom to guide them ethically or morally.  They cannot be lead horses.  They don’t have the experience to nurture and lead these children towards adulthood.  Children and horses will communicate their confusion, their lack of safety and fear by being aggressive, disrespectful, uncooperative and disobedient, if they are not provided with strong consistent leadership/parenting.

  • Horses cannot be manipulated and do not respond to pretense.  A relationship with a horse requires genuineness.
  • Relationships with horses will not tolerate sustained complacency, abuses or neglect like human relationships will.  The horses’ size and power serves to remind the student continually of the risks of a deteriorating relationship and forces continual relationship work in order to maintain relationship safety, security and soundness.
  • Mastery with a horse requires continual investment in the relationship.
  • Horses will forgive legitimate mistakes.
  • In riding relationships, the student needs the horse more than the horse needs the student.  This forces attention toward relationship creation and maintenance due to the interdependence necessary.
  • The lessons taught by the horse tend to be more poignant, meaningful, immediate and situationally on target than human communication.  (Lyman, Knutson, Burr)

Developmentally, teenagers are in a very self-centered universe during adolescence.  Part of the task of maturation is to learn the importance of reciprocity in healthy relationships.  When teenagers lack the necessary attachment to their parental figures, they become vulnerable to peer pressure and are susceptible to unhealthy influences.

Horses succumb to force reluctantly, just as children do.  The rider and the parents delude themselves into thinking that their coercion, bribing and threats are successful.  They may work for a time.  Ultimately, they impede and can ruin the relationship.  A relationship based on force is very different from a relationship based on choice and freedom.

Over the years, many people have shared with me how, during adolescence, being a rider and a horse person saved their lives.  They were responsible to another being who depended on them and who gave them so much in return.  It was a mutual relationship, both giving and getting.

Equine Co-Facilitated Psychotherapy is proving to be an extremely effective form of treatment for teenagers who are struggling in their lives.

Horses and Us Humans

October 20, 2011


 August 16, 2011
Horses and Us Humans

My interest in understanding the body and the nervous system continues to grow.  And understanding how we are related to our animal ancestors and other animals we share this planet with. 
In Peter Levine’s newest book “In An Unspoken Voice:  How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness”, he has a chapter titled  “We are just a bunch of Animals”.    He writes about how as we have become more and more socialized, we are more and more caught in the belief that it is our higher brain that is the wondrous thing about us.  We are less and less connected to our animal nature, our instincts.  He shares a vignette about a nature photographer watching in horror as a wild elephant kicked and kicked the lifeless body of her stillborn calf.  After three hours of watching this gruesome scene the infant stirred.  The mother had resuscitated the calf, bringing him back to life by stimulating his heart.
This was an example of instinct accomplishing a miracle that the higher brain could not have accomplished. Levine, the developer of Somatic Experiencing, says that Darwin “emphasized just how nuanced and intelligent instincts are.”  
Because horses are so big, so powerful and so strong, they are intimidating to most of us.  Unless you are a horse person you probably haven’t thought about the fact that horses are prey animals.  They are grass and hay eaters.  As with other prey animals, a horse’s primary need, primary instinct for survival  is for safety and food.  Not love.  Trust from a horse has to be earned.  You have to prove yourself trustworthy, that you are a safe person to be with.  Horses’ history with human beings is a pretty checkered one.  They have been used and abused.
There is a documentary out now called Buck.  (http://youtube/--u4u_cg7rgIt is the story of Buck Brannaman, the horse whisperer who coached Robert Redford in his role for the movie of that same name.  He grew up severely abused by his alcoholic father and after his mother(who had been some protection for him and his brother)died, he was taken out of the home and placed in a foster family who were very loving and supportive.  He had grown up around horses and always wanted to be a cowboy.  He and his brother performed as cowboys, lassoing, starting when they were 3 and 5. 
Instead of “breaking a horse” through fear, Buck believes in creating a relationship based on respect and instinct.  Because of his own violent childhood he knew what it felt like to be broken, abused and forced.  So, beginning with the empathy he had for the horse, he grew to understand where they were coming from.
In Buck Brannaman’s own words, from his website ( “I’ve started horses since I was 12 years old and have been bit, kicked, bucked off and run over.  I’ve tried every physical means to contain my horse in an effort to keep from getting myself killed. I started to realize that things would come much easier for me once I learned why a horse does what he does.  This method works well for me because of the kinship that develops between horse and rider.”
I want to end with  one more quote from Buck :“Your horse is a mirror to your soul and sometimes you many not like what you  see and sometimes you will.” 

Ellen’s First Blog Entry

June 28, 2011

There have been many exciting developments in the field of psychology and healing over the last few years. I have decided to start a blog in order to share some of the things I have been learning and am excited about.

I was at the pet store recently and happened to notice something hanging on the shelf. It was an Anxiety Vest for dogs. It caught my attention because I had never seen or heard of anything like that. My mind immediately went to Temple Grandin about whom a HBO special was made. Temple Grandin is the autistic woman who designed humane slaughterhouses for cows. She spent time on her aunt’s ranch and saw how nervous the cattle were and that they seemed to calm down when they were in the squeeze chute, a piece of equipment which squeezed their flanks. She tried it on herself and discovered that it helped her to calm down as well. She then built a machine like that for herself.

Temple describes herself as very much like a prey animal in the wild. The world is a scary and unpredictable place for her and she is always alert and hypervigilant. Her struggle with her own overwhelming anxiety led her to her discovery of how much she had in common with cows. The physical holding was calming and relaxing.

It seems like the anxiety vest provides the same kind of calm and safety as the squeeze chute. The website states that it helps with fear, anxiety, hyperactivity, insecurity and shyness which manifest in anxiety related to separation, thunderstorms, fear of people or other dogs, aggression, constant barking, nervousness and leash pulling. They say that it helps shy dogs, fearful and hyperactive dogs.

Having been trained in and using Somatic Experiencing for the last 8 years, it is exciting to see how much this awareness about the fight, flight, freeze response is an ancient part of the nervous system of dogs, cows, and humans. Having autism makes that connection even clearer, at least for Temple. But we all have the fight, flight and freeze responses stored in our bodies from experiences that we never fully healed or moved on from.

Developed by Peter Levine, somatic experiencing is a body oriented psychotherapy.

Next time: some thoughts about horses and equine therapy.