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Tragedy

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. 

 

The Shining: Kubrick’s unheimliche manoeuvre

How do you…fill your days?’
My editor was looking at me with a hint of concern, in a cafe on Portland Street. She was worried I was losing my edge. It had been almost a year since my first book had come out, and still I hadn’t started working on another. Well, I thought to myself. Kubrick didn’t rush his projects. 12 years between his penultimate and final movie. Besides, how could I explain to her or anyone that I’d spent the last four days somewhere else entirely, perhaps in another dimension, also known as the Overlook Hotel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started on Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, I watched a film called Room 237. It introduces us to some of the online obsessives who, in the last few years, have put forward complex and often very sophisticated readings of Kubrick’s horror-masterpiece of 1980, The Shining. We hear from six critics, each putting forward a different master-theory of the film: that it’s about the Indian genocide, or the Jewish holocaust, or the faking of the moon landing. Some of the theories are more credible than others, but the film certainly convinces you that Kubrick is playing some strange semantic games.

There’s the question, for example, of whether the ghosts in the hotel are real or just a reflection of Jack’s inner demons. He only ever sees the ghosts when there are mirrors around. Who is the management of the hotel, the higher powers driving him to kill his wife and child? There’s also the weird ending, with the photo of Jack from a party at the hotel in 1921. He is told that he’s ‘always’ been the caretaker. Has he been reincarnated? And who in damnation is that guy in the bear suit?

Then there are the little details that have driven online theorists crazy with speculation. The film is full of continuity errors – furniture appearing then disappearing, photos on the wall changing arrangements. The first scene in the hotel takes place in a room which appears to have an impossible window (see the map below) – as if the hotel’s architecture doesn’t make sense, like a building in a dream. These hints of hidden meanings and codes have driven people to construct theories bringing together every single detail in the film, from typos on the pages Jack writes (‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’) to the cartoon figures on Danny’s bedroom door. Everything becomes soaked with hidden significance.

Re-activating Animism

One way to understand the film is as an exploration of how we have an emotional need to find hidden meanings, as Sigmund Freud discussed in his essay, Das Unheimliche, or The Uncanny. Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson repeatedly read and discussed this essay while writing the script for The Shining.

In his essay, Freud begins by exploring the etymology of the German word unheimliche, the opposite of heimliche which means ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. He suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when the homely is made strange and frightening to us. Freud then explores some of the plot-devices with which Gothic writers produce this feeling in us  – ghosts, dopplegangers, telepathy, curses, apparitions in mirrors, inanimate objects coming to life, events from the past repeated, numbers repeated, symbols and patterns repeated, all of which produce the over-riding sense of “something fateful and unescapable”. Freud suggests that these Gothic plot-devices work on us emotionally because they reconnect us to our pre-modern animist beliefs. The uncanny, he writes, connects us to

the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled by the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic over-estimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts…the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers)…It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive man, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces which can be re-activated.

Romantic literature attempted to keep alive this old animist paradigm within the scientific-industrial age, and succeeded for a while, but gradually such beliefs came to seem more and more childish to us, and were pushed to the margins of our culture, into nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and then into the ‘low art’ of fantasy, horror, science fiction and comic book culture. Modern men and women duck into the low dives of ‘trash culture’ to re-activate their primitive belief in the spirit-world.

Kubrick recognised this cultural-religious function in sci-fi (he explored animist-religious ideas in 2001: Space Odyssey) and in horror-fantasy. He rang up Stephen King at 7am one morning, in their first conversation, and launched in with ‘I think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?’ King, perplexed, asked ‘why do you think that?’ ‘Because supernatural stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death.’ They appeal, he later said, to our ‘longing for immortality’. They also posit the suggestion that there is some higher pattern, some secret dimension, to our banal material existence, which is also perhaps an optimistic idea, even if the secret dimension turns out to be Evil.

Engineering the Uncanny

What Kubrick does in The Shining, and what David Lynch does in his works, is masterfully re-activate these animistic traces and engineer a sense of the uncanny. (Kubrick made the crew watch Lynch’s Eraserhead before making The Shining to give a sense of the mood he wanted to evoke, while Lynch’s Twin Peaks is clearly influenced in turn by The Shining). Take Kubrick’s repetition of certain numbers. Freud noted:

we of course attach no importance to the event when we give up a coat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number, say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on board ship is numbered 62. But the impression is altered…if we come across the number 62 several times in a single day, or if we begin to notice that everything which has a number – addresses, hotel-rooms, compartments in railway-trains – always has the same one, or one which at least contains the same figures. We do feel this to be ‘uncanny’, and unless a man is utterly hardened and proof against the lure of superstition he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number…

Kubrick seized on this idea for The Shining. The cover of his edition of Stephen King’s novel is covered with scrawls of him trying to work out ways to use the number 217, which in King’s novel is the hotel-room where Danny and Jack see a witch (it’s changed to the number 237 in the film).

Kubrick’s copy of Stephen King’s The Shining

Kubrick repeats the number 42 throughout the film – on Danny’s shirt, on the number-plate of Hallorann’s car. When Danny and his mum are watching TV, it’s showing a film called The Summer of 42. The numbers 2, 3 and 7 when multiplied together make 42. The stools in the bar where Jack meets the ghostly barman are arranged in a group of four and a group of two. And so on.

Kubrick also plays with mirrors, twins, dopplegangers and doubling to suggest hidden connections between figures – Danny is connected by telepathy to Hallorann, Jack is haunted by the ghost of the previous caretaker Grady, or maybe he is the previous caretaker. David Lynch did the same sort of thing in Twin Peaks – Laura is doubled with her evil doppleganger from the Red Room, and also with her cousin Maddy. Her father Leland is also Bob, who appears when he looks in mirrors. In the Red Room, the giant is doubled with the dwarf, who speaks in reverse in a sort of mirror-language, just as Danny does when he chants Red Rum. Both Kubrick and Lynch also use garish carpet patterns to suggest hidden patterns in reality (they should have opened a store together: Uncanny Carpets).

 

 

 

 

 

The Uncertainty of the Uncanny

At the heart of the uncanny is a confusion of the self and its boundaries. The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that in the modern secular age we all have ‘buffered selves’ that are walled off from nature and from each other. In the animistic age, we had ‘porous selves’, selves without firm boundaries, invisibly connected to each other by thoughts, energies, elective affinities, and also connected to the spirit-world, capable of being invaded by  benevolent or malevolent spirits. In the modern world, we are autonomous agents trying to figure out what to do in an indifferent universe. In the animist world, we are the creatures of the Fates, threads in some cosmic pattern of Good and Evil.

The uncanny is a particularly modern emotion, however, because it rests on an ambiguity and uncertainty about whether there is a natural or a supernatural explanation for the eeriness of the atmosphere. The Bible is not an uncanny work because it is very clear that all the supernatural events are the work of God or the Devil. There is no ambiguity. The Shining is an uncanny work because there is this uncertainty. This is what initially drew Kubrick to King’s novel. The ghosts appear at the corner of our eye, at the margins of our modern rational consciousness.  The events in the Overlook Hotel could be explained in secular Freudian terms as fantasies emanating from the hidden violence in the Torrance family – Jack’s murderous anger and Danny’s Oedipal rage. The Shining could simply be a story of male domestic violence against women and children. Likewise, Twin Peaks could simply be a drama about an incestuous family.

Kubrick complicates matters further by introducing a political level of significance. The violence in the film could also point to the historical violence of white Americans against Indians (the hotel is on an Indian burial-ground and there are Indian symbols around the hotel) or African slaves, or the Nazis against the Jews (42 was the year Hitler began the Genocide). Or the film could simply be a story of how the political elite (the hotel management and its powerful guests) use stooges like Jack for their state-sponsored mass murders – look, in the final photo, how Jack’s hand seems to be held up by the rich people around him. He is their  puppet, their errand-boy.

Can we escape the past?

Is The Shining really an optimistic film, as Kubrick suggested all horror stories are? On one reading, the film could suggest humans are trapped in cycles of violence, frozen in sin like Jack at the end of the film,  doomed to repeat our crimes over and over. On the other hand, Danny and his mother escape the Overlook Hotel. Danny is not lost in the maze – he retraces his steps and gets out. Perhaps we too can escape history.

Perhaps the film suggests that we’re at risk when we overlook things, when we forget the crimes of the past – like Dilbert Grady apparently forgetting that he killed his wife and children. Art holds a mirror up and show us our dark side, reminding us to take care, showing us a way out of the maze like Ariadne’s thread or Perseus’ mirror-shield.  Kubrick said: “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”

Or perhaps that is too neat and utilitarian an explanation of art’s power, and art is in fact more dangerous than that. The uncanny, after all, is a dangerous emotion. Once activated, how can we be sure it will stay within the bounds of art and not spill out into reality? How can we be sure we will not ourselves be possessed by the old belief-system and find ourselves back in the demon-haunted world we thought we had left behind?

Kubrick wrote: “Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If [horror] required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.”  For better or for worse, we crave the uncanny. We have a deep emotional need for patterns of meaning and intimations of immortality. Freud would say that was the vestige of our primitive self, Jung would say it was our true self seeking its Maker.

Either way, modern life does not that satisfy this emotional need for the uncanny, so we turn to art, and to The Shining. We try to decipher Kubrick’s intentions as if he was God, and every detail of His creation is a clue to His meaning. Like lost souls, the acolytes haunt the Kubrick archives at the University of Arts London, which I imagine as a vast warehouse containing an almost infinite number of crates. And in one of those crates, perhaps, lies the key.

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In other news:

John Gray is our next guest at the London Philosophy Club, on April 9. You can sign up here.

How useful would randomised controlled trials be in public policy, in areas like education for example? The debate rages on the internet, as Michael Gove dismisses ‘bad academics’ for blocking evidence-based policies, while some academics suggesting there are risks to thinking everything can be quickly solved by an RCT. Rebekah Higgit summaries the debate and provides lots of useful links here, while Evgeny Morozov warns of the risk of ‘solutionism’ in public policy, in his new book reviewed here.

Teenagers used to define themselves by whether they liked Blur or Oasis. Now they define themselves by whether they own Mac or Samsung, argues this piece. And, to prove how chic geekdom has become, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s new film sees them become hapless interns at Google. Sounds…pretty dire!

I’m working on an article looking at five years of Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT), the British government’s flagship mental health policy which has brought CBT to the masses. Here is a good blog by a therapist looking at the data coming out of IAPT. And here’s a good new article in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology looking at the limits of evidence-based medicine in psychiatry (behind a pay wall alas).

A philosopher and psychologist debated whether psychology was a science or an art on Radio 3’s Nightwaves this week. The debate then rumbled on for days on Twitter…for all I know it’s still going. The discussion is 34 minutes in here.

Some new books. My friend Tom Chatfield from the School of Life has a new book out called Netymology, a dictionary for tech language. Another friend, Tom Butler-Bowden, has a new book out called 50 Philosophy Classics – I’ll publish an interview with him soon. I’m still reading David Esterly’s book about wood-carving and philosophy  – it’s really brilliant. I admire David a great deal.

Finally, here’s a Tumblr that made me laugh a lot this week – a collection of lousy book covers from the world of fantasy fiction. Enjoy, and see you next week.

Jules