One of the goals of my work with clients is to help them increase what I call “emotional current carrying capacity.” We work together to help them be more physically and emotionally resilient and capable of deeply experiencing and metabolizing the events of their lives so they can meet the difficult and happy moments of of their lives with courage and vulnerability.
Current carrying capacity is a term that I have borrowed from electrical engineering which describes the amount of amperage that a wire can run before it melts the conductor. For example, If you run more current through a copper wire than it is designed to carry, eventually the copper itself will degrade and melt and no longer be able to transmit or “carry” a current. The lights go out so to speak. In electrical systems there are fuse boxes with circuit breakers that detect when too much current is passing through the system and in the case of threatening surges, disconnect the wire from the power source. Anyone who has had to fumble around in a dark house looking to reset a breaker will know what I am talking about.
In our psyches and physiology we have similar systems that cause us to disconnect or disassociate when we are faced with situations that flood our capacity to be present. We all have limits to the amount of certain realities and feelings that we can be conscious of and still function. These limits are there for good reason and they help keep us from becoming overwhelmed. These shut off points vary by person and experience as does our capacity to recover. There is research that shows that soldiers who rated as securely attached and have strong social support structures at home are less likely to develop PTSD and more capable of recovering from traumatic events at war. (Escolas, Arata-Myers, etc..)
The sequence of activation is called the fight, flight or freeze in animals. You can think of it like this: When confronted with a life threatening event, the first impulse will be to run to escape it. If there is nowhere to run, the animal will engage its defense mechanisms, pumping blood into the limbs to fight whatever the threat is. If the animal is unable to fight or flee it will display submission like a dog showing its belly, if the attack continues, (like say a gazelle being taken by the throat by a lion or a ) it will shut down and go limp, in effect exiting its body to avoid experiencing this traumatic event. When the threat passes or if the gazelle were to escape somehow and got to safety (this is key) then it would engage in uncontrollable shaking to discharge all of the pent up energy. (Click here to see an example of this in nature).
The same process functions in people in similar ways. However, humans have such complex social minds and senses of self that often inhibit our ability to discharge the way we need. The idea that “boys don’t cry” is an example of how an external idea from the culture can be internalized in us and stop our ability to naturally discharge the way we need to after intense experiences. (To read a previous blog about family constellations and how family traumas and beliefs can affect children and future generations, click here).
To illustrate this process, and how we can increase our capacity for feeling I’d like to tell you about the time I found my father bleeding on a hotel floor in Houston:
When I was 24 my Father and I traveled to Houston from our home in California to pursue an experimental treatment for his terminal brain tumor which was not responding well to chemo. A new family friend came with us and we left my Mother and Brother behind to keep the family business afloat.
I had advocated for this experimental treatment at a clinic in Houston and had been a main driving force in pursuing it after the traditional routes of chemo and surgery had proven ineffective at stopping the cancer’s growth. For more than a week all of the decisions had been mine to make and carry out as my Father became increasingly dependent on my emotional and physical support to function. Our friend had no driver’s license and I had been driving us between hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, museums and the hotel. With the help of our friend Maurizio, we were cooking healthy meals in the hotel kitchen, making appointments, filling prescriptions, doing the shopping, reading my father poetry, discussing treatments with my Mother and Brother back home and trying to make our environment as beautiful as possible for my dying Father. Every day we were facing the reality of death and I did my best to rise to the occasion and be my Father’s “sunshine” (as he often called me). I was barely holding everything together and felt completely out of my depth, often having panic attacks of uncontrollable sobbing and hyperventilating in the rare moments I had to myself.
My father had a stage 4 Glioblastoma multiforme in the Broca’s area of the brain which controls speech and language (it also had a stroke-like affect on him as it grew, causing the right side of his body to become increasingly unresponsive). The treatment caused him to get up 5-10 times in the night to urinate, and because his motor skills were so deteriorated I had been waking to escort him for the slow shuffle to and from the bathroom each time. After more than a week of attending to him almost 24 hours a day, I had become dangerously under slept.
I arose that night from a deep dream and had a sickening feeling when I noticed that he was not in his bed next to me and I could hear no sounds from the bathroom. I struggled to waking consciousness to check on him and found him lying on the floor in his underwear, mouth wide open, blood and urine on the tiles and a glazed but terrified look in his eye. He had fallen and had cut himself on the bathroom counter on the way down.
In that instant seeing him I was flooded with feelings that threatened to overwhelm me.
I was maxed out emotionally, physically and mentally. I was just 24 years old. I was away from all of my friends and family. It was the middle of the night. Less than a minute earlier I had been deep asleep. I had left my life in New York to move back home and for weeks and months of his illness I had been confronting overwhelming situations every day while I tried to hold things together for him and my family. It felt like my life was being swallowed up by this illness already and now here I was faced with his naked body on the floor and a level of responsibility I could not have imagined just a few weeks before.
I wanted out of it. I wanted out of it all. I wanted to change the channel to a different reality and call the “adult” to come take care of it all while I curled up on the bed and cried.
It was like that moment on a Roller Coaster after the first slow climb when you start to tilt into a free-fall and you feel trapped. I wanted to jump off but I couldn’t and I didn’t even know when the ride was going to end. I remember hoping desperately that it was all just a dream that I would wake up from it in any moment, comfortable in my bed at home.
But it wasn’t a dream that I could “wake up” from. Looking at him on the floor, a part of me started screaming inside and I distinctly remember feeling that I could choose to collapse and shut down. I felt the impulse to start crying myself and curl up next to him on the floor, to check out and let someone else handle it.
Even in the midst of this turmoil I was aware of this choice that I had and once I knew that, even in a flicker of awareness, I couldn’t let myself pretend otherwise. The awareness that I had a choice gave me some space to breathe and within that space were options and not just the automatic reactions of my body.
By some grace, at the exact same time I felt so overwhelmed, I also felt an exhilarating alivenes. My senses were heightened, my eyes and ears sharp and the moment took on a heightened clarity and focus. I remember it so well today precisely because of its intensity and realness. That was something that surprised me: it also felt good to be experiencing this intensity of feelings. I found a part of me that wanted to fight and face this moment, I was not going to abandon my father or myself.
I decided to open myself up as much as I could to the feelings that were flooding through me. I leaned on tools and capacities that I had developed as an actor to let go of control and simply feel more. I opened my arms, my mouth, and my eyes wide and then sat down sobbed intensely while holding myself, allowing the massive currents of feeling (fear, sadness, anger, shame and resentment) that were coursing through me. I kept alternating between opening and contracting physically and emotionally. I didn’t know if I opened up to these feelings if they would ever stop, but instinctively I knew it was a better choice than curling up in an immobile ball in the corner.
Thankfully, the feelings did settle. After a minute or two I began to settle down and could assess the situation, wake up our friend in the other room, and put a plan in motion to get my father up, comforted, cleaned, dressed, and taken to the hospital for what was going to be another long night and day at the emergency room with even more tests and decisions to be made.
When I remember that night, I am grateful for my training as an actor that helped me to meet that moment head on. I realize how my nervous system had been shaped by my time in the studio and on stage where I often put myself into situations that felt exposed and vulnerable and invited me to find something more in myself that I was not aware of before.
That night with my father, I am grateful I was able to come to the edge of overwhelm and emotional collapse and then find my way back so I could meet the moment in a way that was in service to my love for my Father.
As I work with my Self and my clients I wonder what it is that helps us be more resilient and present for life? What actually helps us to soften and open to our life rather than contract and shut down? How can we increase our emotional carrying capacity so that we can experience more of our lives? I have come upon several things that help me to to regulate my nervous system when I am in a place of overwhelm:
-MINDFULNESS (slowing down and expanding our palette of awareness to get out of fixed loops). Trauma states are repetitive loops in our system and they cause our awareness to fixate onto the triggering sensations (honking cars, yelling partners, etc). Mindfullness allows us to invite more space around our experience and invite in a witnessing part of our self to bring in more options than we have in our contracted state. For example, try to notice the sensations of your pinkie toe at the same time as you are feeling triggered.
– MOVEMENT (dance, singing, vocalization, simply tapping the fingertips). One teacher of mine said that, “Movement is the antidote to fear” and I believe that to be true. Any movement, however small, as long as it is intentional can help our body melt frozen patterns. Shaking, jumping and bouncing are all particularly helpful to release stored energy. Many animals will shake uncontrollably when releasing stored shock energy. It is especially helpful to move your face when you feel stuck since the facial muscles are wired to the limbic center of the brain and when we move them, we can actually move our emotional body. For more research on facial analysis click here.
-PHYSICAL CONTACT Safe and loving touch helps us feel connected to another person and can ground us in our body and offers the opportunity to discharge some of the feelings we have been holding within ourselves into another supportive nervous system. For more info about the vital role of touch for children and a general overview of attachment theory, check out my blog here.
-EYE MOVEMENT. The eyes tend to become fixed when we are in a frozen state, focused on a small window of vision where the perceived threat was or frozen in a memory (ever noticed how people’s faces become stiff when they are thinking or remembering something?). By shifting the focus of our eyes or gently and intentionally opening them and closing them, we can hack the neurological pathways we are stuck in and open up to new possibilities. You may notice that someone coming out of a deep state will often blink repeatedly as they reorient to their surroundings. Try it!
-NATURE IMMERSION. Nature is our bigger body. We are a part of this living world and sitting or walking within that bigger body helps us to regulate our nervous system, just like a baby’s nervous system can be regulated by being held by its mother. Go take a walk in nature or hug a tree or lay on the earth. Watch birds or insects move, anything that connects you to the larger cycles and movement of life. Standing barefoot on the ground can help immensely. For a deeper dive into nature connection and embodied leadership, check out the Ecology of Leadership program in Bolinas.
-PLAY AND SILLINESS. When an organism is healthy, play is one of the best way to learn anything because we are following what feels good to us and more of the brain is online and firing. Brain scans show that much more of a musician’s brain is activated when they are improvising than when they are playing a rehearsed piece. It is important that we stay connected to our ability to play and shift our energy through imagination and inspiration. Giggle, make silly faces, do something intentionally embarrassing and weird. Often it is our internalized social constraints that hold us in contracted and painful spaces. The comedian Andy Kaufman said that he built failure into every one of his stand-up sets so that he could just get it out of the way. Everyone is afraid of embarrassment and it happens all the time anyway so why not intentionally re-claim some of that power back.
-Art: Drawing, painting, collages, creating altars, etc… are all ways that we can give shape to our internal experience and gain perspective on them and even shape them consciously rather than simply being shaped by them.
-Speak in the present tense about feelings. For example: “This anger” as opposed to “That anger.” One of my clients in sessions would often talk about his feelings from an analytical point of view as though he were observing someone else from a distance. I noticed it and told him about it and he got curious about what was causing that. I coached him to begin to refer to his feelings in the present tense and he was amazed at the rush of sensations that happened in his body when he changed. It was scary for him at first and it took some practice to get comfortable with the increased sensations, but soon he reported feeling “inside his own life” more and more.
Life occurs in the encounter. The situations that we find ourselves engaging with draw out capacities and potential that is latent in our depths and would never get to be expressed otherwise. That night in Houston something stirred in me to be meeting a moment so real and undeniable. It wanted to make me more. It wanted me to grow through my fears and resentments into my love. I felt myself contracting and after noticing my choice to contract, I was able to choose expansion. It helps me to remember that all of this was in service to the love that I felt for my father. I wanted to connect with him and to be there for him during his time of need the way he had been there for me in my life. I was privileged to have had a relatively loving and supportive relationship with my Father and I was able to draw on those memories and feelings throughout his illness and particularly that evening to help me to be more. His care for me when I was younger helped me to love myself enough to make space for my own feelings first so that I could really help him. Perhaps, the greatest resource that we can have to increase our emotional carrying capacity is direct access to support for our own love and passion for life. That is what I try to provide for myself, my family, my clients and hopefully, more and more of the people that touch my life every day.