Most of my clients are savvy, independent, and capable people. They have read many books, watched many Ted-talks and have learnt many self-help skills. They tell me they felt like a failure when they came to talk to me for the first time. They have tried so hard and worked on themselves so much, they think they “shouldn’t” need anyone’s help.
So, let me explain, from a neuroscience perspective, why going to someone feels better, and works better and faster than doing it yourself. Also, why sometimes you just can’t do-it-yourself.
You have probably heard of the fight or flight response, which should be referred more accurately as the Fight-Flight-Freeze stress response. I will explain the Freeze response more in the subsequent blog. When we are under stress, depending on our previous exposure and the intensity of the threat, we respond with either of these responses. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks into a high gear to prepare us to either “fight” or “flight.” Most people are familiar with this type of response. Even though we as modern human beings, don’t literally fight or flight like our ancestors with wild animals or on the battle fields, our body goes through exactly the same physiological process and produces exactly the same hormones.
As a result, all this survival energy without a proper channel of releasing get stuck in our body and can cause symptoms like:
- Shallow breathing
- Choking or tight throat
- Tight chest
- Heart racing or “skip a heartbeat”
- Tense and stiff muscles, especially around shoulders and neck
- Tight jaw (TMJ problems)
- Feeling jumpy or unsettled
- Can’t focus, or short attention span – can’t finish reading a book
- Being hyper-alert or always “on your toes”
- Moving fast, superman or superwoman syndrome
- Prone to accident
- Worried something bad may happen
- Forgetfulness, can’t remember what you did two hours ago
- Difficulty to fall asleep, waking up in the early morning hours, or waking up feeling tired
- No appetite or not feeling hungry
- Quick to anger, frustration, or “explode”
- Cry easily, having a “melt-down”
- Avoiding responsibilities and procrastinating
- Avoiding people, including friends and families
Because of the above symptoms, many people may receive a diagnosis such as:
- ADHD (adult)
- Major depression
- Anxiety disorder
If our sympathetic nervous system is on too much and we can’t “turn it off,” many physical illness can also develop. To name a few:
- Adrenal Fatigue
- Frequent cold or flu
- Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS)
- Joint pain
- Auto-immune disease
- Heart disease
So you ask, how is talking to someone supposed to help?
The answer is within our Ventral Vagal nervous system. Ventral vagal is part of our parasympathetic nervous system which allows us to relax, to be socially engaged, and to rest. Being held by someone’s presence, feeling safe with someone, and being loved and cared for allows our ventral vagal nervous system to switch on and sympathetic system to switch off.
Then, why can’t we just do it ourselves? Why doesn’t my body just automatically switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic system?
Well, the long answer is worth a whole research project. The short answer is: that’s just how we are designed by nature. Human beings are social animals. Parts of our brain and our nervous system are designed to have relationships with one another. We respond to the look in another person’s eyes, the change of their facial expressions, the tones in mom and dad’s voices, the body language of our colleagues, etc. We are constantly taking in subtle information from people around us, and all of these are signals to tell us if we are safe or not. These signals turn on our sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system automatically. For those of us who didn’t grow up feeling completely safe and secure, our sympathetic system may kick in very quickly. For some of us, it may even stay on by default.
Going to someone for help is basically a process of allowing ourselves be healed by the relationship. No matter what techniques or theories the practitioner employs, at the end, it is the quality of the therapeutic relationship that makes the biggest difference. All of us seek quality relationships consciously or subconsciously. When quality relationship with another human being becomes too difficult or seemingly unachievable, people come up with alternative solutions. Some turn to the companionship of a lovely pet, and some use chemicals to mimic the sensation of love. For example, people addicted to heroin have described a feeling of a warm hug when they use. Even for people with loving families and friends sometimes the relationships are so burdened by obligations and conflicting interests, that they could turn on our sympathetic nervous system while we are desperately seeking comfort from the same people.
A therapeutic relationship with a professional does not, and should not replace any other normal life relationships. However, it is a very effective way to re-train our nervous system and to grow a new neuro-pathway, so we can feel safe in a relationship again.