Monday, 2 May 2016

Befriending Dissociation:

a Focusing Journey into the Not-here Places


In December 1999 I was stationary at a road junction waiting to turn right when a car accelerated into the back of mine. This changed my life. Gone was my career in acquired brain injury rehabilitation, my ability to drive, to enjoy my hobbies, to live life like my peers. I found myself stuck in a world of severe chronic pain exacerbated by a vestibular disorder. I had joined the ranks of a group of my previous clients who, like me, suffered a whiplash injury but achieved little or no recovery. Like them my life became about micromanaging everything so as to ‘control’ the pain and the vertigo. And like them no doctor could explain why my body could not recover. My only gut sense, which came from my professional experience, was this was not ‘all in my mind’ but very much in my body.

Quite early on I became aware that, whilst most of the time my inner experience was taken over by physical pain and a spinning nausea, sometimes I had times when something in me knew I was in a  lot of pain but I could not feel anything. Sometimes ‘the something in me’ encouraged me to take some pain-relief medication and I found that by doing this I was able to feel the physical pain again and this felt ‘better’. I felt more real, more here. I preferred the pain to the other vague-somehow-not-here place.
For over ten years I had no idea why my body did this and then, by a wonderful serendipity, I made two discoveries: the first was a book called “The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease” by Robert Scaer, a neurologist, and I also found Focusing. Out of this came a rapid cognitive awareness that this vague-somehow-not-here place is a physiological state called dissociation and that   I was, unknowingly, a Nobel-prize-winning expert at dissociating. Indeed the whole reason why my body had not recovered from the accident was because   it was literally stuck in a physiological state of fight/ flight and freeze. My body was just yo-yoing between overwhelm and severe pain to dissociation and chronic nauseous exhaustion, it was hypersensitive to the smallest thing.
Through reading Scaer’s book and some email correspondence with him, I came to realise that, despite many years of therapy about my very difficult childhood which had given me a lot of insight into my past, it had not enabled me to release from my body the layer upon layer of trauma created through living in a household where we breathed in fear not oxygen. Scaer’s book outlines in great detail how such a childhood had created a particular neural architecture in me to do with the autonomic nervous system. This meant that, as he put it, I had been left with ‘… a greater tendency to freeze at the moment of … [future] … trauma and to develop dissociative symptoms’ (p. 108), and the accident  had  been the final trigger to activate the whole dissociative reactivity that had been stored in my body for years.
I now understood what was wrong with my body, this left me with the questions: what does my body need to heal? How do I teach my body not to yo-yo between overwhelm and dissociation? I quickly found that the body-based trauma therapies, such as Somatic Experiencing, were mostly just ‘too much’ for my body and its hypersensitivity.
However the fortuitous suggestion of something called Focusing, mentioned in passing to me by a Mindfulness mentor, opened up for me a way forward that was about letting my body take the lead in this healing process
This process has been a highly challenging journey that started with a something in me needing to find out as much as I could about trauma, attachment and neuroscience. For me, growing up in an academic family, the default place of ‘safety’ was reading books. My head needed to understand, to make sense of, and my body needed to feel safe and chose the then only way it knew how: the left cortex. Then my goal was to get rid of dissociation – I viewed it as ‘the problem’
Two books however offered me a more compassionate perspective: “The Myth of Sanity” by Martha Stout, which is an exploration of dissociation, and “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog” by Bruce Perry – a heart-warming book which showcases how a lack    of love traumatises children and impacts on their neural development. Both books felt full of humanity, care and hope.
Focusing enabled me to take some of Perry’s neurodevelopmental approaches in working with children, such as Reiki, massage and music, and adapt them to supporting me as an adult to start to create some safeness within me that was body- based I realised, when my father died, that I had never been able to feel safely embodied, which is a core developmental need in a child.
So these unmet needs were still driving my physiology and I had to find creative ways as an adult to complete this process. One of the most potentially challenging areas, to my head, was how to help the dissociated/ overwhelm places that came from a start of life trauma. By listening to my body, I found myself experimenting with the senses – particularly those of smell, touch and sound. I discovered that a particular brand of pink grapefruit shower gel made my body feel safe whereas others didn’t.
So I harnessed the power of neuroplasticity and used this shower gel daily plus I wrapped a soap of the same fragrance up in my pyjamas, so when I go to bed I smell the pink grapefruit and it strengthens the neural loop. I created different playlists of music that have different effects depending what I need and I also put together a ‘feeling’ bag made of fur and containing various things like a wooden apple. As layers of terror came up I will sit and hold/stroke these items and anchor on them to support my body.
The beginning of being in my body led to a further awareness that when I had to make the shift from the internal orientation of Focusing and Mindfulness to reconnecting with the outside world, my body would immediately default into dissociation.  So with Focusing I learnt how to help my body through a simple three-stage sensory strategy that utilises both the witnessing left cortex of the brain and the experiencing right cortex, and in so doing brings the whole of my nervous system ‘online’ and into the present moment. All of these strategies were about building into my neural architecture ‘feeling safe wiring’
This last year has been the most powerful as I embarked on a training to become a Whole-body Focusing practitioner. I began to be able to live on a day-to-day basis in my body, and then discovered that this is not a state of ‘happy ever after ending’ but has its own challenges like actually feeling frightened in the present moment when I found myself trying to deal with a friend who was drunk and abusive. It was only later that I came to realise how ‘well’ I had done – I had not defaulted into stoical dissociation.
Then, a couple of months later, I discovered that I had  had an unconscious place whose sole agenda was still all about fixing/getting rid of this troublesome pesky annoying part – namely dissociation. And yet in discovering this place I became aware that implicit in this awareness was actually me now being ready to welcome and befriend the places of dissociation. That far from being pathological – the places in me that are ‘not here’ have saved me and my sanity. Martha Stout opens her book with a quote from Joseph Conrad
How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?
quoted from Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900, p. 296
And my answer now, to Conrad and to myself, is to befriend the fear, the spectre. Dissociation no longer haunts me – I welcome it now, like Rumi’s Guesthouse Keeper, as a dear, dear friend of mine.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

 A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

 Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

 Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jeladuddin Rumi
Written December 2015 and published in the British Focusing Associations newsletter April 2016





Friday, 24 July 2015

 Remembering Clare…. learning to mourn

As John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, and this is so how my life has been since I last wrote something for my blog page.
 There has been a lot of “happening” in my life and without Focusing I do not know where I would now be… what I do know is Focusing has guided me through a time of huge emotional turmoil where old traumatic events frozen in my body have been coming to the surface. Actually erupting would be a much better “felt-sense” description of how it has been.
Last week I went on a retreat about “Who I am” using the Myers Briggs type-indicator approach as a starting point. And out of this retreat two things have emerged for me. One is a sense that I have finally found an embodied inner sense of “Me-ness”, a coming home to myself as I can now do this with all the frozen trauma now unfreezing and making space for me to feel myself. This feels a major turning point in my life and that I am now in a position to start turning more outwards towards the world again.
And, this turning to the world, and sharing my story, or parts of my story, is the second thing that has emerged. On the retreat I met with a hospital chaplain and we got talking and I told him about my recent and very positive experience of hospital chaplaincy and he asked me if I would write my story down to share. So this is what I have been doing this wet afternoon and having written it for Martyn, it occurred to me, it would make for an interesting blog. So after 11 months of non-blogging here is what I wrote for Martyn:

In late September 2014 my elderly and beloved West Highland terrier, Angus, was going through his daily paroxysm of rage at the postman, when he fell off the sofa which was his viewing station of the dangers of the outside world. Sadly he completely shattered his left back knee and was too old and frail for surgery so we made the hard decision of having him put to sleep.
Angus had always been very scared of the vets so they offered to put him to sleep in our home. So Angus laid on my knee while the vet gave him the injection, and as I sat there stroking him I could feel the life in him just ebbing away, until I felt that he was gone. And as this happened I also felt something huge and very distressed inside me begin to surface – at the time I had no idea what this was other than it was more than just my grief for my much loved pet.
Over the next month this place came more and more and I felt utterly awful but had no idea why. Then at the start of November I was catching up with an episode of Downton Abbey and in this episode the news came through that one of the main characters, who had gone to Germany and just vanished, was indeed dead as they all feared. And as I watched this I felt my body become icy cold, like I had been plunged in a deep-freeze.

I went to make a pot of tea and just asked my body what on earth was going on? Immediately I knew that there was a deep connection here with my own life experience and then, as I brushed my teeth, at bedtime suddenly what this whole thing was about came to me.
It was the deeply buried memory of having my first child die inside me in early 1980. Angus dying on my knee had activated the body memory of feeling my baby die inside me and along with this memory I discovered a tsunami of buried almost 35 year old grief.  Those first few weeks after this I felt like I was going mad, the pain, the shock, the horror and grief were totally overwhelming as memories flooded back.
Memories of how in 1980 the death of a baby was treated so differently to now. Not only did my baby die but the way that it was dealt with I now realise was in and of itself deeply traumatising. Back then the whole message to me was that the death of my 32 week old baby was not to be talked about, acknowledged and I was told to go away and just forget it.

At the hospital they persuaded me to agree to my baby being viewed as less than 29 weeks old as my baby was small for dates. This, they said, would save me having to do “the paperwork”. What this actually meant was the death of my baby could be treated as a miscarriage and so no funeral, no grave stone, no nothing to remember my baby by.
They sent me to a gynae ward for the induced delivery and it went all wrong – in the end it was a nurse who delivered the baby. My husband was sent out of the room and we were not allowed to see our baby nor know what sex the baby was or anything else about them. “It is for the best”, they said, “just go away and get pregnant again and then in a couple of years you won’t even remember what happened. They could not have been more wrong.  
Once home I found no-one knew what to say to me, neighbours crossed the street to avoid me. My family and friends didn’t speak of it; my husband, following the advice of the hospital, also didn’t want to talk about it. I followed their advice too and tried to get pregnant and had two early stage miscarriages. So by August 1980 I had lost three pregnancies. It was a truly dreadful time and I just continued to bury the pain of it all.
Finally, having moved to Worcestershire, in 1982 I got pregnant again and had a lovely obstetrician who looked after me very well so at 38 weeks I had a second child, who was actually my second daughter. The obstetrician got hole of the hospital notes for me and found out my baby who died had been a girl. We had chosen her name prior to her death – Clare Elizabeth. He could also tell me that she had died because the placenta had failed.
With the birth of my first living daughter I just got on with my life. Having Lucy was wonderful and her life enabled me start to enjoy living my life again but she did not and could not replace Clare and I always knew this. So the whole of the experience just became buried within me and then erupted into my life as Angus died on my knee.
My recent professional background is in the field of Focusing, a not well-known, but wonderful way, of providing support and healing generally but it is particularly good, in my opinion, in working with deep trauma, pain and grief. So I used Focusing to start to help me make sense of what felt like akin to some kind of insanity inside me – how could what happened almost 35 years ago make me so “deranged” by grief and pain? Very quickly with the Focusing I realised that Focusing was not enough that I needed to “do something”.
My first thought was that I could go and write something in the Memorial book that I knew that most hospitals now hold for parents who have lost their children, as I did, to write in. But somehow just rocking up to the hospital (not the one where I delivered Clare but Worcester Royal Hospital where I had successfully given birth to two wonderful living daughters), dealing with the whole hassle of finding a parking space, to jut “pop in” and write in the book did not feel like enough, not nearly enough.
Then something in me prompted me to explore maybe contacting the hospital chaplain to see if maybe he could arrange to do a little service of remembrance with me for Clare. I looked up on the hospital website about the chaplain and found him, “Dave the Rev” as I came to call him. As he was not only a chaplain but had a wonderful motorbike too. And I emailed him, told him my story and apologising for me needing to contact him as I did really feel back then like I had gone somewhat mad.
Then I had the most wonderful email back from him. He told me that what I was going through was not unusual, that I was not going made and I was not alone. He told me he could do me a service but also suggested that I might like to contact a colleague of his, Trudi, whose job was that of bereavement support midwife.  
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had not found Dave-the-Rev and Trudi; they, along with my GP, then supported me through a journey which I am still on (and will be for the rest of my life) in finding a way to heal the trauma around what happened all those years ago and to help me find ways that felt just right to mourn for my first daughter
“Mourning” – it was a word I knew but had no idea what it actually meant. I had never seen anyone mourn before. In my family if someone died you didn’t talk about it, you went to the funeral but tried not to cry and then you just got on with life as if the person who had died did not exist. I didn’t realise that to heal after a death one needs to mourn, to actively recognise the dead of this person with whom you have had and still have a relationship with, who will forever be a part of your life.
Trudi encouraged me to contact SANDS (the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) and they found me a befriender, Liz, who had gone through a similar intrauterine death in 1984. Talking to Liz, and Trudi helped me work out ways to start mourning.  

Towards Tomorrow Together memory box

The first thing I did was order a bespoke-made for Clare memory box. At the time of ordering it I was in so much pain I did not read the dimensions properly and when it arrived I discovered what I had ordered was a large children’s toy chest! Not a more regular sized memory box but somehow it felt so appropriate that it was so big. My pain and grief were huge, so a huge box, seemed somehow very apt as a metaphor. And it turned out it just fitted neatly into a space in my bedroom.
I also discovered the “Saying Goodbye” charity who hold services around the country. I found a service they were holding at Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, in late November and I decided to go. My husband (not the father of Clare or my other daughters) came too and I did need this support. It was perhaps the hardest thing I did – it felt akin to “coming out” as gay person.
It was making a statement to the world – I have had a baby who died. I lost my first daughter. It was a very poignant and beautiful service and seeing all the little flickering tea-lights that were lit in memory of those babies was moving beyond words. I had four little lights - one for Clare, one for the two babies that miscarried also in 1980 and then one for another miscarriage in 1989.
Toward Christmas I started to think about what kind of service I would like to hold for Clare and that it just being me and Dave-the-Rev was not going to be enough. Out of all the support a sense emerged of what I needed to really be able to remember her and at last have a ritual in which I could say goodbye to her. Dave made two home visits to see me and his wonderful listening helped me get clearer about what I actually needed.
Finally I did create a “Remembering Clare” weekend on the 14th and 15th March. Clare would have been 35 on March 15th as that was the day her dead body was delivered back in 1980. So it felt very fitting to arrange the Remembering ceremony over this weekend, particularly as the Sunday was also Mother’s Day.

So on Friday 13th March I had a plaque in Clare’s memory placed in the local cemetery so I can visit Clare any time now. Then on Saturday 14th Dave led the remembering service which I created with his help. I invited friends to come as I wanted to have a service where Clare’s existence was acknowledged by others as well as by myself. I made the service sheets, I chose the readings and the music. I found images to accompany the music and I even recorded a song myself to remember Clare. I had expected to find the service “too much” but I didn’t. Rather I felt held by the love of my friends and husband. I could feel healing come at a very deep level in me.

On Sunday 15th my husband, my “oldest” friend Ruth and I travelled to the National Arboretum, in Staffordshire, to visit the SANDS peace garden where bereaved parents such as myself take a stone, with their babies names painted on them, to leave as a memorial. I took four stones, all taken from the beach at Kynance Cove in Cornwall, which I had visited in January, and was the place that we took family holidays at when my children were young. I found that I was much more emotional at the peace garden seeing all those little stones, there was even one dated for 1941. The mother who left that must have been a very old lady when she laid that stone as this garden has only been there since the millennium.
After leaving the peace garden we parted company from Ruth and my husband and I drove then to the hospital in Gloucester where I had actually delivered Clare. I had already been in contact with the chaplain there, John, and had arranged to meet him in the early afternoon so I could write in the memorial book of that hospital. Again this was a far more emotional experience and John’s gentle care and prayers helped me to find the words to write about what had happened and how now finally Clare was being acknowledged by the hospital that had so denied her little life and death 35 years ago.
We then drove home and I had with me 35 daffodils, which had been at the remembering service the day before, and we stopped at a bridge over the River Severn just outside Gloucester and I slowly dropped each stem into the river. One by one I watched them get carried away on the current, a daffodil for each year of Clare’s “life” that I had not mourned and remembered.
My experience of creating this weekend of Remembering Clare combined with other things I am doing to mourn her have been transformational for me. Writing this has been at times an emotional affair but the tears are no longer a tsunami, they are like gentle rain and just my heart telling me just how much my first daughter meant to me and the impact she has had on my life. I cannot thank enough my family, my friends, my GP. Trudi the midwife and Dave and John the two hospital chaplains for their parts in my healing journey. Together they have undone the trauma of what I experienced from the world around me 35 years ago when my first daughter was stillborn.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Big smiles each day......



Whilst we all know that receiving a big smile from another person makes us feel good what perhaps is less well known is just how important both the giving and receiving of smiles are to our own wellbeing.

Prof Stephen Porges ( ), is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. He has a particular interests in understanding the neurobiology of social behavior and in 1994 he developed a new model of understanding the autonomic nervous system which he called the Polyvagal Theory.  

Stephen Porges

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes. Until this time the autonomic nervous system had been understood to be a system of two modes of response - the sympathetic and parasympathetic:



But, in his Polyvagal Theory, Porges links the evolution of the autonomic nervous system to the emergence of social behaviour. Put simply reptiles, such as lizards, lead very simple lives of eating, sleeping and reproducing. They lay eggs and that is pretty much the end of their parental responsibility. However with evolution of birds and then mammals and ultimately human beings the degree of parental involvement grew. Nature had to find a way to bond the parent/parents to their young in order to ensure that they are taken care of whilst they are growing to maturity and this resulted in the evolution of increasingly complex social relationships in more evolved animal species. This is reflected in both brain size and structure.

So what Porges identified was that in humans we have a brain that comprises three distinct stages of evolution – this he calls the Triune brain. At the base of the brain, the area known as the brain stem, is the earliest structure in evolutionary terms and it is all about “eat or be eaten” – it is about sheer survival and is akin to the brain in reptiles. In the event of mortal danger freeze is its mode of protection and this is mediated by the dorsal vagal nerve. This is our passive defence system.


Then there is the limbic brain or emotional brain whose mantra is avoid pain (as secondary consideration find more pleasure), it’s all about looking for anything that might conceivably threaten its wellbeing. It is about protecting one’s self-interest and is governed by the fight and flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. This is our aggressive defence system.

The most evolved part of our brain is known as the neo-cortex, in particular, areas such as the left pre-frontal cortex are now known to be to do with our feeling of happiness and the insula is concerned with our ability to be compassionate and empathic. Porges calls this neurobiological response the mode of social engagement. It is the place of ultimate safeness, of unconditional love.


What Porges recognised was that what he calls neuroception is our perception of safeness within the environment we are in and how other people are responding to us and us to them. It is this that this is central to how we feel from moment to moment in the long term is fundamental in impacting on our health and wellbeing.

Neuroception is another sense just like vision, touch, and smell and we all can recognise a smile when it comes from the social engagement system and when it comes from the protective fight and flight mode:



Just take a moment and do a little experiment using the picture above:
  • First of all cover up the left side of the photo (Priscilla Presley) and just focus on Helen Mirren on the right and sense into how your body feels, do you feel relaxed, happy even? Do you want to smile back? Would you like to be her friend?
  • Then cover up Helen on the right and focus on Priscilla on the left and just notice how you feel – is it different to how you felt when you looked at Helen alone? How does your body feel now? Do you want to smile back? Do you feel like you would like to be her friend?

For most people there will be a subtle change in their bodies as they do this little experiment, for some maybe a big shift and even if we cannot pick anything up it does not mean their different facial responses do not have an impact on us. Stephen Porges theory expands to describe how our bodies operate very differently depending on which mode of neurobiological response our body is in:


We learn very young about feeling safe as the Still Face Experiment by Ed Tronick illustrates in this YouTube clip:


So how can we use this new knowledge to improve our own health and wellbeing?

I have found that a simple mindfulness practice is one way we can encourage our brains to access our own social engagement systems response and it is something that just doing a few minutes each day can enable us nervous system to change over time so that we feel safe, happy and content.

The Smile a Day practice

·         Find a picture of someone whose smile you find really makes you want to smile back. I find Googling “smiling faces” or something similar can give one a whole range of choices.  If you would like to get some photos to start go to my Facebook page

·         Find somewhere quiet to sit for five minutes so you will not be disturbed.

·         Close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor and your body on the chair and just allow yourself to feel that environmental support for a few moments.

·         Then focus your attention on your breathing and just follow your breath for a minute or so

·         Then keeping your attention on your breathing open your eyes and look at the smiling photo and notice how it makes you feel, in your body and your emotions and just spend a few minutes really connecting with this smiling experience as you breathe in and out. Allow yourself to smile back and notice how this enhances the experience.



Wednesday, 4 June 2014


I have just got back from a wonderful long holiday break when, for most of May, my husband and I undertook a trip in the South-west of the USA visiting many new and wonderful places in our travels. We got back a few days ago and I woke this morning with a feeling of “ugghhh” – a feeling I have experienced before when I have returned from holiday and am back to “reality”, or as some might put it, “the same-old same-old”.

The Big Sur, California

So I took some time to just sit with this “ugghhh” and noticed first it had various qualities – of being stuck, of being boring and yet perversely also stressed; and that this was coming from my body being hyper-aroused and the stuck boring bit was a sense of in some way being closed down . So I decided to use the combination of two body-based approaches I have been experimenting with, whilst away travelling, to go deeper into what my body was trying to tell me.

The two approaches are those of using tapping as described by Jessica Ortner (1) and cultivating my ability to listen to my IGS, or Inner Guidance System a process of connecting with one’s life purpose identified by Zen DeBrucke (2)

So this morning I first acknowledged (using Zen DeBrucke’s IGS approach) that something in me was closed - I could so feel this in my body which felt flat, stuck and somehow shut down place. And following Zen’s protocol I was able to recognise that in myself that I was believing something that was not true for me.

At this point I had no idea what this was but I knew my body was stuck in hyper –arousal – that condition where one’s body feels stressed, there is muscle tension in the jaw, neck and shoulders etc. I also find that when I am stuck in hyper-arousal my thinking is often going fast but also stuck – I call this hamster-wheel thinking. This is exactly where I was at and I knew thinking would not get this place to shift as it is a sub-cortical brain process what was needed was a way to help my body shift out of this place of tension.

So I then started using the tapping protocol of Jessica Ortner; this uses a series of using your fingers to tap on certain acupressure/meridian points in the body and at the same time focusing on a phrase that clearly states how I was feeling. So I started by working with the initial statement that “I feel stuck, shutdown, bored and stressed – and I love and accept myself”, as I worked through a series of tapping rounds, I found, as in previous tapping experiences, that my body was able to calm down and start to relax.

As the hyperarousal in my body diminished I found that the statement was spontaneously changing (as I had discovered whilst away) and what came was an awareness of yearning for something new, exciting and different, a real craving for the excitement of novelty… and then an ah-ha moment. I recalled reading something, a few weeks ago, about the brain’s constant seeking for the new and novel – an evolutionary adaptation which led has man to constantly explore and make new discoveries.
So I googled the brain and its desire for the new and novel and amongst a range of information I found an article published in the Huffington Post by Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist from the University of Texas in Austin (3)  which really gripped my attention.  In essence what Poldrack explains is that it’s all about dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, which has long been seen as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter but Russell Poldrack has a slightly different name for it which, to me and my experiences, fits much better: he calls it the “gimme more” transmitter. Dopamine is involved with so many “gimme more” experiences such as eating chocolate, shopping, sex, winning, - any new and “exciting” pleasure. In short dopamine seems to be a key neurotransmitter that is released in the brain when we have a hedonistic experience.

Hedonism is all about pleasure and the enjoyable – that first wonderful taste of a melt-in-the-mouth dessert, the wow of an unexpected gift that is just what one wanted. What gives us the “I love this …gimme more” is the dopamine that is released in the brain. And then I realised that I had had a lot of dopamine experiences on my travelling.

One experience, in particular, stood out for me from our trip, and it was the moment I looked out of my hotel window situated plum in the middle of Monument Valley Colorado and saw this:


It was so amazing it literally took my breath away and I felt tears come to my eyes – it was truly awesome. It is a moment I will never forget, a memory I will always hold. And yet, here is the thing – within a few hours it no longer had the same impact, I looked out the window at this amazing natural phenomenon and still found it very beautiful but that initial “wow” in me had gone. It was no longer novel and new, if was familiar. And that’s how hedonism is – very transitory. So you buy this perfect brand new car or new top you have so wanted and yet within a short time it is no longer “special” and the pull for another dopamine-hit is back…

My work as a wellbeing practitioner is about teaching people how to connect with and cultivate a body-based feel-good supportive inner resource and what I realised this morning, as I sat with my new awareness of dopamine and the “gimme more” syndrome was that, to me, the gimme more feeling is not the same thing as the “feel-good” I aim to help my clients discover within themselves. Rather to me the “gimme more” feeling is actually more a quick-fix to make me “feel better”, often a way of blocking more uncomfortable feelings that something in me does not want to face. And a dopamine-hit experience can  do this - in that moment of biting into that piece of chocolate I can feel so much better: but as soon as the chocolate is swallowed and its sensory impact is fading, the pull for more can kick in, as the unwanted feelings start to resurface, and this is the down-side. “Feel-better” based on a dopamine hit is very transitory affair and we are so often left just wanting more and more….

Additionally I realised that over the course of our driving trip we had covered over 2600 miles and that this had been a series of dopamine moments – of new places and novel experiences and that my brain was now suffering a little from dopamine withdrawal as there is little new or novel about doing the post-holiday laundry, particularly when you have been away for over 3 weeks…

Once I had been able to recognise this dopamine withdrawal effect in me I then was able to connect with the useful learning I have gained from the Positive Psychology movement to find a way to let go of the “ugghhh” place I had been in and to replace it with a much more positive inner state of enjoyment and contentment.

Positive psychology recognises the important role of making life enjoyable that hedonistic pleasures can give us and they are an important part of engaging with life positively. However there are two other ways we can cultivate positivity and feel-good in our lives that are less transient and have a deeper more long-term positive impact on us. They describe these two ways as a eudaimonic experience in which one achieves that a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous in a gentler and more internal way than that which we get from hedonistic pleasures.



These two other experiences are those of achieving “flow“ and, secondly, being able to find meaning and purpose for one’s self from an experience or activity. And so, knowing this, I was able to recognise that actually what I was needing was not yet more new and novel experiences, giving me yet another transient dopamine hit, but something else entirely: to find a way to create flow and also a deeper meaning for myself out of my travelling experiences.



Flow is that state we can find ourselves in when we are really absorbed in doing something we enjoy such as gardening, painting, sailing etc and, for me, one way of being in flow is engaging in creative writing – so putting this blog together very much offers me a chance to derive a deeper level of positivity from my recent travel experiences. Flow is a place which has a very subtle emotional quality – to me this is a deep sense of contentment and expansion – very different to the “hit” of the dopamine-inducing hedonistic pleasure. I find it has a far longer impact on me – a sense of real satisfaction and fulfilment afterwards that I can reconnect with often years later as I recall the experience.

So as I engaged in the tapping protocol I found that my thinking shifted and expanded to be far more open and creative as my body moved out of hyperarousal into a far more relaxed state and my thinking was no longer blinkered and negative, as I had experienced earlier when stuck in “ugghhh” mode.. As my body calmed I was able to recognise that what I really needed was not another dopamine-hit but an experience of flow and ideally also that of creating a deeper sense of meaning from my travel experiences. In recognising I would benefit from finding an activity that felt positive and which would absorb me I immediately knew I would like to create this post.  And putting it together has indeed achieved a positive shift in my internal experiencing.



I also recognised that some of what I had seen and experienced on my travelling also could offer me an opportunity to explore, at a deeper level, an archetypal meaning to be found in the amazing power and tenacity of Nature that is pertinent both to myself and other living creatures but also about the universe to which we all belong.

During our travelling we spent quite a bit of time in the desert areas of SW USA and one of the things that really struck me about the desert, which is particularly arid at the moment due to this region suffering a major drought for several years, is just how determined Mother Nature is to find a way to create growth where ever possible. Even in the most dry and desiccated places where one would not have thought any life form could survive at all I could see tiny little plants thrusting through the rocks and sand.. There is a determination and persistence about those scrubby plants of the desert which, I found, very beautiful and they offer a symbol of how, even in the most inhospitable of terrains, it is possible find the nutrients to grow if we seek them out as these plants do.

On our last full day in the USA we were staying in Austin, Texas and we went to the Botanical gardens. Here I discovered a beautiful Japanese garden, full of Acers – a tree I really love but then I discovered something especially poignant – this garden had been created by one man, a Mr Taniguchi. His story and how he came to make this garden touched me deeply and to end this blog I would like to share it.


The Austin History Center tells his story:

“Isamu Taniguchi was born in Osaka, Japan .He migrated to Stockton, California in 1915 where he continued to farm for many years during which time he returned to Japan only once--to marry his childhood sweetheart. During World War II, he and his family were placed in a detainment camp for Japanese Americans. After the war he moved his family to the Rio Grande Valley where he continued to raise vegetables and cotton, but always made room for some flowers. He sent his two sons, Alan and Isumu, to the University of Texas at Austin. It was Alan who convinced his father to move to Austin upon his retirement in 1967.

Taniguchi wanted to give the city of Austin a gift of an oriental garden. It would be his gesture of gratitude to the city that had provided an education for his two sons. The Parks and Recreation Department in conjunction with the Austin Area Garden Council agreed that such a generous gift could not be ignored. There was no contract, no design, and no blueprints of any kind because--as Taniguchi explains--gardens are not created by such methods. Instead, the plans for the Oriental Gardens existed only in Taniguchi's mind, in his soul and in his heart. He died in 1992.”


But for me the most poignant part of this garden was the teahouse, constructed of bamboo and cedar, and it bears a plaque inscribed with an essay written by Taniguchi--"The Spirit of the Garden"--which describes the garden and the man who created it:

"When a man, with such pure appreciation in his peaceful mind, tries to compose with stones, grass, and water in order to create one unified beauty--the formation is called a 'garden'. In this context, the garden is the embodiment of the peaceful coexistence of all the elements of nature.

It has been my wish that through the construction of this visible garden, I might provide a symbol of universal peace. By observing the genuine peaceful nature of the garden, I believe that we should be able to knock on the door of our conscience, which once was obliged to be the slave of the animal nature in man rather than of the humanity which resides on the other side of his heart. It is my desire for the peace of mankind which has endowed this man of old age the physical health and stamina to pile stone upon stone without a day's absence from the work for the last 18 months. It is my desire for peace of mankind which encouraged me in my voluntary labor to complete this long-dreamed gift for the city of Austin--this 'Oriental Garden'. It is my wish that you have pleasant communion with the spirit of the garden."

For me, Mr Taniguchi exemplifies wellbeing – there is an enormous sense of flow about the garden and the plaque clearly describes how he found a way to create positive meaning to the suffering he and his family experienced due to being Japanese living the USA during WW2. But Mr Taniguchi also created a space which offers many sensory delights – dopamine hits as we all need our dopamine moments of pleasure too.



1.  “The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence: A Woman's Guide to Stressing Less, Weighing Less and Loving More” Jessica Ortner

2.       Zen DeBrucke

3.       Russell Poldrack -

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