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England and psychological inflexibility

Coach Eddie Jones and captain Owen Farrell  in the post-match media conference

This weekend gave us an extraordinary rugby story. Not Wales winning the Grand Slam – although well done to them – but what happened when England played Scotland. England crushed Scotland in the first half, leading 31-7. Then, in the second half, Scotland suddenly scored five tries, to lead 38-31 with four minutes left. England looked totally shell-shocked. The captain, Owen Farrell, seemed to lose his cool and was substituted. Somehow, England managed to gather their wits and score a try in the dying seconds, to draw the game 38-38. It was the highest-scoring draw in rugby test match history.

In the post-match media conference, coach Eddie Jones admitted that England have a mindset problem. This is the third or fourth time they have given away a big first-half lead in the second half. They relax, take their hand off the tiller, then can’t adapt when the tide turns. We saw the same thing happen when they lost the game and tournament against Wales. They had a very clear plan – kick and run – but Wales adapted to it in the second half, and England didn’t have a Plan B. Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio called it ‘tactical inertia’. They need leaders on the pitch with the ability to see what’s changing and the psychological flexibility to react.

It reminds me somewhat of Theresa May. Just keep going with Plan A, because there is no Plan B.

I know some of the England team a little from my days working as ‘philosopher-in-residence’ at Saracens rugby club. I was invited  to do a talk there in 2013 by David Jones, head of personal development at the club. I felt pretty uncomfortable talking about how ancient philosophy helped me overcome social anxiety, but just thought ‘fuck it’.

It went down surprisingly well. After that, we started a ‘Saracens philosophy club’. Every month or two, I went to their training ground in St Albans, and gave a half-hour talk on some aspect of ethical philosophy or psychology. Then there would be a group Socratic discussion on the question. Usually around 10 or so players and coaches would attend, including many of the England set-up, like Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, coach Paul Gustard (now Harlequins coach) and others.

Saracens philosophy club – spot the non-rugby player

They really enjoyed it, both the basic Stoic-CBT stuff (like ‘focus on what you can control, accept what you can’t), and the chance to talk to their team-mates about what really matters to them. It was part of a broader Saracens culture, built up over the last eight years, which aims not just at winning, but on ‘making memories‘, making the players feel cared for, encouraging warm, honest relationships. It’s this culture (along with the huge amounts the team spends on players’ salaries), which has helped Saracens become the top rugby club in Europe over the last few years.

Why isn’t that winning Saracens mentality carrying into this England squad? ‘It’s 100% mental’, said coach Eddie Jones, ‘and not easy to fix. It will take some digging into the team’s psyche.’ He’s right. The team needs to be more resilient, certainly. But you can be Stoically resilient and not adapt to change. Theresa May is quite Stoic. Just stick to your principles and to hell with the consequences. More than that, the team needs psychological flexibility, which is the ability to stay composed in changing circumstances, and react with nimbleness and insight.

I wondered, can one teach psychological flexibility?

As it happens, I was sent a video the next day by a friend, about a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which aims to help people develop ‘psychological flexibility’! That sounded too good a coincidence to miss, so I spent yesterday teaching myself about it.

ACT defines psychological flexibility as ‘contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being and, based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behaviour in the service of chosen values’.

Steven Hayes

The approach was developed by a psychologist called Steven Hayes in the 1980s. He grew up in California, got into Eastern philosophy through Alan Watts, lived in an ashram, and then become a behavioural psychologist. In the late 1970s, he developed a serious panic disorder which ruined his life. He was trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, so looked to that for assistance, but discovered that rationally disputing his panicky beliefs didn’t much help.

Instead, he found Eastern contemplative practices offered more effective advice. Rather than disputing his negative thoughts and emotions, like CBT and Stoicism teach, he just observed them and accepted them, as the Buddha suggested. Both Stoicism and Buddhism seek to help people cognitively distance from their thoughts, but they use different methods to get there.

This ‘observe and accept’ approach is similar to mindfulness-based stress reduction and Mindfulness-CBT. But Hayes says that his ACT approach gets to the same goal as mindfulness – greater psychological flexibility and consequently greater well-being – without requiring people to sit and meditate. He says:

Some of the things we can do to put the core of the wisdom traditions into, for example the factory floor, you can do in ways that take 60 seconds, not in ways that require sitting for any period of time. I ask some of my contemplative practice friends: ‘is this really for Joe Six-Pack or is this for the educated elite?’ In the Eastern countries where meditative traditions developed, the normal folks are not sitting around doing 10-day silent retreats, only the monks are. We’re trying to put that into the factory floor, and that’s just not the way to open the door. There are parts of the South where I used to live where if you used the B word [Buddhism] people would leap up and run out of the room.

This is a very good point. I gave a talk on wisdom practices at the European Commission this weekend, and  got a generally positive response. But I noticed two negative responses: first, ‘I tried meditation and couldn’t do it’; and second, ‘isn’t this just for the middle class?’ So I think Hayes has a point here. The response to mental suffering can’t just be ‘meditation for everyone’.

A second way ACT differs from CBT and Positive Psychology is in a general acceptance of suffering. CBT and Positive Psychology posit happiness and flourishing as the healthy norm. The great wisdom traditions disagree – they say the norm for all beings is suffering. Wisdom can’t help us escape suffering, unless we achieve the distant goal of Nirvana or complete enlightenment. But wisdom can help us change our relationship to suffering.

Suffering is to be expected, not run away from or personalized. You feel sad or afraid or confused or angry sometimes not because you’re dysfunctional but because you’re a human being in samsara, a world of constant change, ubiquitous delusion, worldwide suffering and death.  That’s not the whole picture but it’s always going to be some of the picture. You’re always going to suffer somewhat. But you can learn to handle the suffering rather than run away from it.

The Enlightenment massively improved the material conditions of humans, but created the expectation we could rationally solve human suffering, by fixing society or upgrading the human machine. CBT / Positive Psychology somewhat bought into that Enlightenment mechanistic optimism. It’s not the case. Suffering is more of a given than that.

A third way ACT differs from CBT and mindfulness is its inclusion of values. Both CBT and mindfulness take psychological techniques from ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism and Buddhism), and drop the ethical context (virtuous living) and the metaphysical goal (harmony with the Logos or Nirvana). That’s because they are trying to be evidence-based sciences rather than moral or spiritual philosophies.

But their lack of ethics is a problem. We can use the technique of CBT or mindfulness to be more rational, and still a bad person. We could be a rational bank-robber, or a mindful sniper. These instrumental techniques have been absorbed into neoliberal capitalism, becoming $toicism and McMindfulness.

Yet how, in a multicultural scientific world, can a psychology include values without becoming preachy? ACT, a bit like Positive Psychology, tries to help people articulate their own values and goals, then give them the means to move towards them. In that sense it’s in the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, the philosophy of John Dewey and William James. Let people define ‘flourishing’ for themselves, then help them move towards that definition.

ACT teaches people to know the difference between goals like winning the rugby world cup, and values like courage, trust, compassion and persistence. Winning the World Cup is a one-off project, values are life-time projects.

Wales captain Alun Wyn-Jones played through the pain to help his team win. He who has a why can cope with almost any how.

Having goals to aim at and values to commit to helps one accept a certain amount of suffering along the way. As Dostoevsky wrote: ‘He who has a ‘why’ can cope with almost any ‘how’’.  We can’t wait until we’re confident and happy before we start out towards our goal – if we do that, we’ll be waiting our whole life. Rather, we develop confidence as we move towards the goal, while still feeling pain, anxiety and sadness along the way.

And we may change our goal or our framework of values along the way. You don’t just set one life-philosophy and stick to it your whole life, do you? We change and environmental conditions change, so our life-philosophy has to change as well.

Two ACT theorists, Kashdan and Rotterburg, define psychological flexibility as

the measure of how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) re-configures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains. Thus, rather than focusing on specific content (within a person), definitions of psychological flexibility have to incorporate repeated transactions between people and their environmental contexts.

CBT tries to get people to a static, personal state, called ‘psychological health’ or normality. As if our beliefs can be labelled true or false, normal or sick, regardless of the social context we’re in. ACT takes a social constructivist position – our beliefs exist in a dynamic interaction with other people and with our environment. This can create feedback loops, where our negative beliefs are reflected back to us by others and become true (this is what happened to me with my social anxiety). Health doesn’t just involve adaptation to the social norm (a criticism often levelled at CBT and Stoicism), but the social norm itself is a dynamic construction between all of us on the planet.

These are some of the ways that ACT aims to teach ‘psychological flexibility’. Hayes says its goal is similar to the ancient Greek goal of eudaimonia, which means flourishing or ‘having a good flow of life’. I think it differs from CBT, Positive Psychology and mindfulness in some important ways. Rather than measuring emotional outcomes (depression / happiness) it measures processes of change, and highlights improved psychological flexibility as a key mental process that can be measured and improved, leading to better outcomes in life.

Can this help England? I don’t know. Apparently they have hired two psychologists already. They may just focus on performance, which wouldn’t be much help. Or they may teach CBT, which would be some help but not necessarily the most efficient solution to England’s problems. I’ve emailed them to suggest they hire Rob Archer, a psychologist I know who specializes in ACT for organisations.

I hope they get the help they need, though bringing in a sports psychologist for a session or five just before a World Cup (as Roy Hodgson did) is a bit late. What one is really talking about is a team’s culture. That’s set by the coach in every detail and interaction, and it takes years to grow. Saracens has a winning culture partly because the players feel loved and valued as humans, not just high-performing machines.  Is that the case at Eddie Jones’ England? Do the players feel loved and encouraged to act with emotional openness, flexibility and creativity, or do they feel brow-beaten and ordered to stick to the boss’ game plan no matter what?

Managing your nervous system

Last week, I saw a good talk on somatic experiencing therapy. I’ve heard about it, and in some ways what I heard was quite obvious, but it was good to have it spelled out.

Somatic experiencing is one of several body-focused psychotherapies that have risen to prominence in the last two decades, partly as a reaction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’s narrow focus on cognition.

Body-focused therapies include everything from mindful body-scanning, to focused relaxation, to EMDR and tapping, to traditional practices like yoga and Tai Chi, or arts practices like dance and singing, or indeed sports, nature – basically, anything that involves more than sitting in a chair thinking and talking.

Somatic experiencing therapy was developed by Peter Levine in the 1960s, while he was hanging out at Esalen, the human potential college in northern California. But don’t worry, it’s not New Age, as far as I can tell. Like I said, it seems pretty common sense to me.

Somatic experiencing focuses on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), how it affects our emotions and consciousness, and how we can learn to regulate the ANS so it doesn’t burn out. The ANS controls the automatic functioning of our body – skin, body-temperature, circulation, digestion, breathing- and the release of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

There are two systems in the ANS. First, the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re not safe, there’s a threat nearby’ and preparing you to respond to that threat.

The eyes dilate, the mouth goes dry, the skin feels prickly, you may start to sweat, the heart beats faster, the breath is quicker and shorter, blood goes to arms and legs in preparation for action (this is why one can feel dizzy), digestion stops (or you may throw up, or piss or shit yourself).  The kidney and hormone glands release a surge of chemicals to prepare you for action, such as adrenalin, cortisol and epinephrine. This boosts your short-term energy but leaves you feeling very tired afterwards.

The second system in the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘rest and digest’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re safe’ and letting the body rest, recoup, and digest. The breath and heart-beat slows, the stomach digests, inflammation goes down.

When the two systems work well together, the body achieves homeostasis. It’s like a car driving well with the accelerator, gears and brake.  It responds to threats appropriately but also finds time to relax, digest and heal. When the ANS stops working, the body becomes stuck in fight-or-flight mode. It’s in a state of constant vigilance and defensiveness. This is extremely wearing to the body and the immune system. It’s like driving across the country with the hand-brake on. It damages the immune system and can lead to chronic stress, insomnia, burn-out, heart conditions and psycho-immune disorders like in ME / CFS, Fibromyalgia, POTS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can also lead to dysfunction in the ANS. A traumatic event triggers the freeze response, which is an ancient animal survival technique – playing dead in front of a predator. During the freeze response, the mind can dissociate, by either blacking out or separating and observing from outside the body (as it were) or from behind a glass wall of derealization. When the ancient freeze response is activated, younger or higher systems in the brain go offline, such as the social engagement system. Our face freezes and we’re not capable of even altering our facial expression, much less socially interacting. With PTSD, one is easily and frequently triggered into this freeze response.

Hearing the talk took me back to 20 years ago, when I had PTSD and social anxiety. I remember how physically tiring it was – my body was constantly releasing stress chemicals, and never getting the chance to re-charge.  I would sometimes go into moments of derealization when I felt the centre of attention – everything would suddenly seem unreal, like I was watching from far away, and my body would feel awfully anxious. I still sometimes get that.

I would make myself go to social events and try to be friendly, and then I would end up in arguments. I couldn’t understand why. The CBT theory was that I was merely perceiving arguments that weren’t really there, but this was not the case. In fact, going to a party triggered the freeze response in me, and this would shut down my facial expressions, making me look angry and arrogant, and people would respond defensively to that. It took me a while to figure out this was what was happening, and that the way to break the feedback loop was to focus on my self-acceptance rather than other people’s reactions.  I eventually drew this graph to explain it to myself.

The only way I could manage my nervous system, back then, was through booze. It didn’t work very well, because I would over-drink and behave inappropriately; the hangover the next day made me more anxious; the booze stopped me ever learning better coping methods; and I could easily have become addicted. I still use booze to calm down during socially stressful situations, but slowly, Buddhist practices, in particular the teachings of Pema Chodron, are helping me learn to tolerate uncertainty, physical anxiety, and social ambiguity (her teachings really fit well with Somatic Experiencing, by the way – she mentions it in her latest course, I’ll put the full quote in the comments).

Back in my 20s, CBT / Stoicism was certainly helpful for me. It slowly trained my automatic self-talk, so that instead of saying ‘this is a threat, this is a disaster!’ it said ‘this is a threat, oh well, big deal’. I learned to shrug. But that was a long, slow process. Luckily, the CBT course I followed – Overcoming Social Anxiety Step By Step – incorporated body-focused exercises like relaxation and slow-reading. Traditional CBT does not pay sufficient attention to the body and the ANS.

We can join up the two approaches – the Socratic and the somatic. After all, Epictetus said ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’; while Peter Levine has said ‘trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event’. The cognitive and the somatic are connected – both involve judgements, they merely process those judgements in older and younger systems. A good therapeutic approach will work with both systems.

Here are five ways to manage your nervous system:

  • Deep breathing

Last week, I went to play tennis, and noticed my mind and body were all over the place. I switched into 5/7 breathing – breathing in for five seconds, breathing out for seven seconds – and did that between every point and between every game. It totally turned my game around. Before, I’d been very agitated, swearing at myself every time I hit the ball wrong. Now, I shifted into a Zen-like calm, and gradually my body relaxed and I hit the ball like I wanted to. I go into 5/7 breathing whenever I notice I am slightly stressed, in a meeting say, or on the Tube. It activates the vagal nerve at the back of the neck, and switches our body into the parasympathetic nervous system. I suppose one could over-use this technique – sometimes one is too relaxed on the tennis court, and one needs to shout at oneself a little to get one going. Homeostasis doesn’t mean being totally relaxed all the time.

  • Connection

Last year, I wrote about learning to scuba dive in the Andaman Islands, and how, on my first deep dive, I got into trouble and started to hyperventilate. For a second, I thought I was going to die. My instructor reacted perfectly. She saw I was panicking, and gave me a hug. This calmed me down sufficiently that I started breathing more slowly, and could continue the dive. Hugging tells our body we’re safe and OK. Physical connection is an important mammalian healing response after trauma – look at how chimps groom each other following a clash. Some universities have tried to de-stress students by introducing petting zoos, which is a nice idea but might be stressful for the animals. As soon as my life is a bit more settled, I plan to get a dog – dogs are incredibly healing, especially for the English, because it helps us communicate affection at a non-verbal level, something the English struggle with.

  • Come to your senses

Tuning into our senses can help us switch out of physical stress. The therapist David Field calls it ‘orientating yourself to beauty’. Rather than heeding your internal rumination narrative, you focus outside, on the beauty of the sensory world. On my second deep dive in the Andaman Islands, I was worried I would panic again. Instead, I focused outside of me, and was totally absorbed in the beauty of the underwater world. That was tuning in to vision, but one can equally tune in to touch, taste, sound or smell. Last year I interviewed Anthony Fidler about how he has learned to navigate occasional psychotic episodes using spiritual practices like mindfulness, Tai Chi, connection practices and flower remedies. It’s interesting how embodied his practice is – he suggests that part of being prone to psychosis is having a very sensitive nervous system. The technique that sounded a bit idiosyncratic to me was the flower remedies. But I guess he’s tuning into smell and using that to navigate highly stressful moments. It reminds me of a moment, on an ayahuasca retreat last October, when I felt very scared. I asked for assistance from the facilitators, and a lovely guy called Joel came and sat next to me. He said ‘you’re going to find that perfume bottle very helpful’. We’d all been given a bottle of magic perfume, called Agua Florida, which Latin American shamans are very fond of. We were advised that we could use it in ceremonies if we felt anxious – just dab a bit of it on our face or arms. This sounded like crazy advice to me – how was cheap eau de cologne going to help me? But now I think, maybe it did. It helped me come to my senses, rather than going into a fight-and-flight or a freeze response.

  • Sing and dance

David Field suggests that trauma – the freeze response – shuts down the part of the brain that’s capable of nuanced thinking, so we become very black-and-white in our thinking, shaping the world into simplistic narratives of goodies and baddies. Someone in the audience said ‘that sounds like Israel and Palestine – they’re traumatized, and stuck in black-and-white thinking’. That’s what my brother is researching at the moment – how political polarization is connected to trauma. But how can a community collectively respond to trauma and process it? One method humans have evolved is singing and dancing together. It feels good, it synchronizes our breathing and heart-beat, it releases pent-up emotions, it articulates our inchoate suffering, and it directly affects our vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. I remember watching the Manchester One Love concert, a few weeks after the bombing, and feeling incredibly moved. I thought how powerful music is as a means of collective response to trauma. Dancing alone or together is also a powerful means of healing. Aristotle suggested in his Politics that the good society should have ecstatic rituals to help citizens find catharsis and shake off the nervous discontents of civilization. Any form of shaking – from jumping up and down to running or even bouncing on a trampoline – can help us shake off nervous tension. Think how central shaking is to ecstatic rituals, from the Quakers to Shakers to Holy-Rollers to the head-banging worshippers of Cybele.

So: deep breathing, connecting, coming to your senses, and singing and dancing. Those are some basic ways one can affect one’s vagal nerve, increase your ‘vagal tone’ (which is your ability to go into threat-response and then calm down quickly), and activate your parasympathetic nervous system to rest, heal and bond. All of which makes me think how important rituals are – they absorb our consciousness, slow our minds and bodies down, engage our senses, and give us the opportunity to sing and dance together. That’s how humans have healed ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Socrates and his rational talking therapy is a relatively new approach. The old ways still work too.

By the by, what I’ve described here is a fairly personal take on somatic therapy – I’ve missed out many of the key concepts and methods of Somatic Experiencing, so if you want to learn more I recommend you seek out the writings of Peter Levine or a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which people often recommend to me but I haven’t read yet.