The Meaning Of Life Experiment

I’ve spent the last month completing Ashok Gupta’s Meaning Of Life Experiment, after being reminded of it on the Community Of Hope For Recovery group on Facebook. It sounds like Ashok is doing a Deepak and expanding his teaching beyond just CFS sufferers to the masses. Here’s what I discovered about the meaning of life…

I really liked the effect of making the commitment to doing a 20 minute meditation every day using the meditations in the iPhone app. It gives you the choice of a 10 or 20 minute guided meditation led by Ashok’s familiar soothing voice. The Soften and Flow meditation sounded particularly familiar… It’s exactly the same as the one in his Amygdala Retraining Program; which must make the references to symptoms sound a bit out of place to people without any physical health condition.

I enjoyed the daily teaching videos too. While the metaphors he uses are new, the videos encapsulate a lot of what I learned during my counselling and life coach training and my own life journey from head to heart. Not bad given that you get this all for free given what I’ve forked out for a zillion courses over the years.

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Why I Highly Recommend Yin Yoga

Just over a month ago I joined my local yoga studio in the hope that it would help reduced the severity of my headaches. So far it seems to be working. At first I tried mostly regular yoga classes, doing about 5 a week. It was too much for me; after a few days I was starting to feel faint during the class, so I backed off and switched to the yin yoga classes instead.

Yin yoga feels much better to me as it is primarily restorative so I don’t end up overdoing it. Rather than moving through a fairly rapid sequence of postures as you do in regular yoga, the yin variant involves holding a supposedly restful pose for about 5 or so minutes and basically meditating there. Then we rest completely for a couple of minutes before the next one.

I say “supposedly restful” because the postures still involve quite a bit of stretching for my inflexible body. After a couple of minutes I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable and the idea is to relax into the discomfort and breathe through it.

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Self Expression EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Video Recommended By A Grateful Client

I have a couple of clients who find EFT really helpful for dealing with emotions, especially when they feel overwhelming. I got an email this morning from one such client who has been ill with CFS for over ten years and is now recovering, in part through my coaching. She gave permission for me to share it here:

Hi Graham,

I want to share these eft videos on chakra alignment with you. I know eft is not  your thing. I know you come in contact with lots of people and I have found these videos amazing. Maybe they might help others.

I am doing the one for the 5th chakra, communication with great results.

I also am reading Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life and that is altering my way of seeing communication and communicating.

Thank you so much for telling me about Marshall Rosenberg and NVC.

It amazes me that I found you or was guided to you via the internet.

The work we are doing is helping me grow and gives me immense happiness and hope.

I am so grateful that you are in my life! It is a long distance miracle.

Hope your holiday was wonderful.

with love,
Grateful Client

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Getting Happy Could Be The Key To Getting Well

One of the paradoxes of having a chronic illness is that since we tend to spend a lot of time and energy focusing on fixing the problem; which means we’re spending a lot of time and energy on the problem itself. Of course what we really want is the solution to the problem, but when the solution isn’t easily apparent, it’s easy to get stuck feeling anxious and just focusing on the problem.

That has been my experience anyway. We get more of what we focus on. At the same time, what we resist persists; which is why I think that “fighting fatigue” doesn’t work, and I no longer push myself when I’m feeling tired: I rest. And I tell myself that’s OK.

Lately I’ve been focusing more on creating the life I want for myself and on helping other people than on working hard to recover. I spend a lot of time playing music and have a gig lined up in a few weeks that I’m really looking forward to. I don’t feel so anxious when I’m absorbed in playing music, and I feel my nervous system relax.

I also coach other people who aren’t yet where I’m at, and helping them move forward really helps me feel positive too. One of my clients recently sent me this video, which I think has some great advice about relaxing your nervous system and focusing on being happy using EFT:

Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy day!

Polyvagel Theory, Stress, Anxiety and Social Engagement

Unfortunately the article mentioned below is no longer available, but check out this one with  neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van ElZakker linking Chronic Fatigue with Vagus Nerve Infection, which covers similar territory.

One of my clients recently put me onto Stephen Porges’ Polyvagel theory, which suggests that a lot of our mental, emotional and social problems stem from automatic actions of the vagal nerve. I just read the article linked above, and found some really interesting points relevant to my own life before and during CFS:

One thing that lept out at me is that the nerves controlling facial expression also play a key role in relaxing us. I have noticed for a long time that my face would freeze involuntarily whenever anyone looked at me. Several years ago my acting teacher picked me up on this during an exercise where a girl was trying to connect with me, but I wasn’t showing her my appreciation because my face was just frozen.

He asked “How do you feel about her wanting to connect with you?”

“Happy”, I answered.

“Well, are you going to show her that?” was his response.

I could feel that I wasn’t smiling, yet I wanted to. I just didn’t happen automatically for me, and I put this down to growing up in an environment where expressing emotions felt so unsafe that I learned not to even show mine on my face. Knowing what I know now about attachment theory, early childhood development and the way my parents manage their feelings, I suspect I picked this fear up when I was an infant because it felt unsafe when I had eye contact with my mother.

This sounds remarkably similar to the children with autism who Dr Porges describes, for whom eye contact feels unsafe; and the typical adult response of punishing them for behavior that leaves the adult feeling unappreciated, just makes the dynamic between them worse.

Over the last few years as I’ve learned to express my emotions in safe environments, I’ve felt my facial muscles relax; almost like they’ve been defrosting. The article points out that our facial responses not only provide social cues to other people about how threatening we are, but they also help calm our own nervous system. All of this makes a lot of sense in explaining why I found social interactions so frightening as a kid, and developed a strong social phobia: my frozen face both triggered other people’s fear, and stopped my own nervous system from relaxing.

Another interesting point is that the higher level behaviors of the vagus nerve evolved specifically for social interaction and explains why being around familiar people we trust feels safe physically.

The article also highlights the importance of listening to what my body is telling me about whether I feel safe or not, rather than what my mind wants. The mechanisms involved are hard-wired and aren’t going away any time soon; the only way to moderate their effects is to start by listening to what is going and and find ways to feel safe. In a social context, this means spending time with friends who I already trust on a deep level, rather than with strangers who feel more unpredictable.

All of this makes the theory that CFS is caused by an infection of the vagus nerve even more compelling. Imagine that the infection just amplifies all the effects of the vagus nerve. We get sick and socially isolate ourselves because we have such limited energy, and it feels safer to withdraw; but this means we lose the essential friendly social contact that we need in order to relax. For me, this is an even more compelling reason to reach out to friends when I’m feeling like crap.

It also explains why playing a musical instrument and singing feel really good for me; provided I’m not doing it front of people who I don’t trust!

All this isn’t exactly new to me, but polyvagal theory describes an underlying mechanism for it that sounds more credible to me than anything I’ve come across before, and is backed by some serious research.

In terms of the coaching that I’m now doing, it also makes sense that having a really empathic coach creates a social context that activates the relaxation response via the vagus nerve, allowing our immune system to fight the infection. It probably doesn’t matter much what style of coaching or therapy you get, as long as you feel safe talking to your coach, and that respond in ways that indicate unconsciously they love and care about you.

Vagus Nerve Infection?

A relatively new friend who I told that I’m now coaching people with CFS just pointed me to this interview with Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van Elzakker, who hypothesises that CFS might be caused by an infection of the vagus nerve.

Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. "Gray793" by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray's Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray793.png#/media/File:Gray793.png
Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. “Gray793” by Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray793.png#/media/File:Gray793.png

Listening to the interview, it sounds like a pretty compelling theory. On the same day, another friend of mine who has suffered depression and fatigue for a long time messaged me to say that supplements he was taking to boost his acetylcholine, which happens to be the principal vagal neurotransmitter, are working wonders for him.

This article suggests that acetylcholine can also be boosted by being kind and compassionate to others, which could explain why I feel better physically when I’m putting my attention on helping other people. It also mentions chanting; I joined a chanting/kirtan group a few months ago, and find that singing just plain feels good. Perhaps the reason it feels good is because it stimulates the vagus nerve.

If doing this reduces the stimulation/inflamation/whatever-mechanism-makes-us-feel-bad then the symptoms lessen because the brain no longer believes that the body is under attack. I’ve noticed for a while that we get symptoms when we’re under stress, like people with HSV-1 get cold sores when under stress. Most of our stress is interpersonal (I heard someone once say “all stress is social”), which could explain why the assertiveness keys of Mickel Therapy seem to work.

I also really liked Dr Van Elzakker’s compassionate attitude to people with CFS. Researchers seem to come in for a lot of criticism online, and it’s awesome to hear him saying things like: “If your doctor believes that your condition is psychological, fire them.” He also had some good practical advice for dealing with symptoms while waiting for the magic cure. I found just listening to the interview gave me a greater sense of inner peace about the whole thing.

A Breakthrough in the Healthy Expression of Anger

Up until recently, are used to suppress/repress/internalise my anger. In fact, I now believe this is one of the main reasons why I came down with CFS. But now, after a lot of anger expression workshops, therapy, and non-violent communication practice, things are starting to change for me.

Do You Express Your Anger Constructively?
Do You Express Your Anger Constructively?

On the weekend, I attended yet another anger expression workshop called “Feel and Heal Anger”. The idea behind the workshop was that when were out of touch with our anger, we often internalise it self-destructively or project it outwards onto other people as violence or other forms of abuse, both of which are unhealthy.

The aim of the workshop was to get in touch with our anger and express it in ways that didn’t hurt anybody else, or ourselves. There were boundary setting exercises, group sharing, and dynamic burn meditations to help us process the anger and the grief that lies underneath it.

At this particular workshop, I felt more sadness and grief that anger and rage. But I figure if I’m feeling emotions, then the process must be working. I had a fairly sleepless night after the workshop as my body was still processing feelings that came up for me.

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My Thoughts on The Lightning Process

A thunderstorm has just passed over my place, so maybe the universe is telling me to answer this question I got via email recently:

Hi, I’ve had this hideous illness since 1998. However, I enjoyed approx 6 years of feeling quite well but with symptoms at times. I could walk up to 3 hours a day and was extremely fit. Four years ago I went through some massive stress that’s still not quite worked out but getting there and relapsed. I’m devastated. The recovery is taking forever and I never saw this coming. One lady I did know very well with CFS claims she is healed by the lightning process. So much so that she’s become a practitioner herself. She says I’m choosing to be sick because I won’t do it too. I’ve read heaps on it and found lot’s of disturbing anecdotes along with positive. Just wondering what your thoughts are on this?

I haven’t done The Lightning Process myself, but a very good friend of mine who has almost completely recovered from CFS has, so I asked him for his thoughts. Here’s his reply:

It has been one of my main influences in a positive way.

Worth the money

And it nicely pulls together a lot of the other stuff I did that I value.

I would recommend it to anyone who feels called…

Between my friend and I, we’ve done just about every physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual therapy out there in order to get well. I’m convinced that the ultimate underlying cause of CFS is overwhelming stress compounded by emotional trauma, being expressed by our body and nervous system.

My understanding is that The Lightning Process is a collection of tools for breaking stressful thought and behavior patterns that led to chronic hyper-activation of our sympathetic nervous system; and all the weird-ass symptoms that result from that.

In previous conversations with my friend, the three things I’ve heard him talk about that appeared most valuable from his experience of The Lightning Process are:

  1. The concept of “positive editing”: reframing every experience that we have to see the beneficial side, and changing the language we use both externally and internally to reflect this. Our nervous system is listening to our thoughts, and some thoughts are more frightening than others. So rather than thinking of it as a “hideous illness”, try thinking of it as an opportunity to learn more about what is really important to you.
  2. Taking responsibility in our thoughts and language for the fact that we created the illness and the symptoms that go with it.
  3. Having a coach. My friend has consistently talked about the benefit of the ongoing coaching that he got after doing the initial Lightning Process training. In fact, my friend is now a transformation coach himself.

I don’t really want to say much more given that I haven’t actually done it myself. I know some people struggle with taking responsibility for their illness, and see this as blaming the victim. I think shifting out of victim mentality is one of the key ingredients to recovering, and for me that means taking action on the things that are important to me. If the Lightning Process helps you do that, then it’s probably a good thing.

Noting that one of the really valuable things to my friend was having a coach, I want to remind you that I’m currently offering 3 months free recovery coaching for people with CFS in return for you filling in 3 monthly surveys. While I’m not trained in The Lightning Process, I believe the tools that I can teach you for dealing with the emotions and stress of being ill are at least comparable, if not better.

I had a first conversation this morning with a new client who has been ill with CFS for 17 years, and immediately identified that she has been internalizing her anger most of her life. I taught her how to express anger constructively, and she’s already starting to see things differently. I also got to see that even though I’m not 100% recovered yet, I have something valuable to offer and can start helping people now.

Three people have already taken up the offer, so I only have 2 coaching slots left. Please let me know if you’re interested.

Cheers,
Graham