The Meadows Blog

Sunday, 07 October 2012 20:00

The Role of Shame in Addiction

Addiction has been defined as a pathological relationship to any mood altering substance, experience, relationship or thing that has life damaging consequences. Addiction is pathological because it is rooted in denial. There is no other disease that the worse it gets the more the patient denies they have it. It is also clear that a person rarely has just one addiction. A vast number of addicts move to another addiction when they stop the addiction they were in. Some of this can be attributed to genetic predisposition, but the more critical factor is internalized shame. Shame is an innate feeling that monitors our propensity towards avidity, especially our curiosity, interest and pleasure. Shame also guards our privacy (acting as covering for our physical and emotional decency). As a covering for our emotional decency, shame safeguards our dignity and honor. No feeling is more important to our sense of self than shame. When our privacy and sense of self is unduly violated because of abandonment and abuse of any kind, the feeling of shame is ruptured. We are completely vulnerable (without any covering) and cannot defend ourselves. We stop feeling shame, we become chronically ashamed. The more this happens the more we experience our identity as flawed and defective. As Shame becomes internalized we develop a shame-based identity. The majority of addicts are shame based. To stop drinking alcohol puts an end to an alcoholic's addiction, but it does not stop the person's addictiveness which is rooted in their shamed based identity.

Initially the rupturing of shame happens within a context involving a significant other. Abandonment, neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse are forms of rejection and leave their victim feeling unwanted, undesirable and personally flawed. The abuser transfers their own shame to the abused who carries their shame. Ruptured shamed is "carried or toxic shame." All abuse transfers shame, but when a child is shamed for having a feeling (any feeling) that feeling is bound in shame. The same is true for one's needs and wants, so that when a growing child wants or desires or needs something, they are shamed for it. Once a child goes to school and ventures into the world, there are myriads of dangerous people who are potential sources of shame. The shaming that went on in my catholic elementary school was horrible. Kids learn early on that they are compared to the kids that are handsome and good looking; they learn how obsessively important sports are and many learn that they just don't measure up. One of the processes of shaming is measurement. Slow learners (often because of slower development) are shamed both at school and at home for not measuring up. Children quickly learn about money and experience shame if their family is low income. We live in a culture of vicious shame.

Young girls easily develop shame because of their gender, and God help the gay, lesbian and transgendered. They are not only socially shamed but they are told that God judges them. Over fifty-five years of teaching and counseling I've seen many addicts whose shame was sealed by the forces I've just described.

A shame-based addict feels flawed and defective in their very being. To feel that way is to feel hopeless. This awful sense of humiliation pushes the addiction into hiding and forces them to find a false self to cover up. This hiding is so crucial, since the wound of toxic shame happens because the shamed person was uncovered and defenseless with each wound of being shamed. The hiding and cover up constitute the essence of the addicts core pathology - the denial.

The hopelessness of the shame-based addict is why they find it so hard to seek help, and most only do when the paid of their denial is so great. This usually occurs when they've reached several life damaging consequences (they get fired from their job, their spouse files for divorce, they lose all their money, or they are involved in a scandal . . .) Letting an addict get to their pain is an important strategy. When they are in pain and their life is in chaos, the addict is willing to bear their shame and come out of hiding. To heal their toxic shame they have to embrace their shame. They have to come out of hiding and let another person know how bad they feel and the things they've done. For example, the first step of the A.A. program asks the suffering addict to admit that they feel powerless and that their life is unmanageable. Going to an A.A. meeting and identifying oneself as an alcoholic is the first step in owning one's "being shame", that deep inner sense of being flawed and defective. Addicts often feel ashamed of something they did while drinking, drugging, sexing etc. But I call that their meta shame. Their addiction is an attempt to mood alter (block out) their "being shame", their shame based identity. With the first step, the admission of flaws and defectiveness in a public meeting such as AA allows the addict to own their deep shame. In my book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, part II, chapter 5, I've gone through an analysis of how the steps restore the addict to a healthy sense of self. The steps take the addict to a moral inventory (Step 4) where they can connect with their guilt. Guilt is based on the same precisely written biological program as shame, but it is at a higher level of maturity (frequently referred to as morality shame). Guilt lacks hopelessness. Guilt is the guardian of conscience and motivates one to make amends, to repair the damage their addiction has created. Step 4 through Step 9 restores the addict to a healthy sense of guilt as morality shame. A clear sign of progress in recovery is that a person has developed a healthy "sense of shame". The philosopher Nietzsche said, everyone needs a "sense of shame but nobody needs to be ashamed". Every Indo- European language has two words for shame. One is defined as a "sense of shame";: Pudor (Latin), Eidos (Greek), Pudeur (French), Scham (German), and the other as humiliation or disgrace: Foedus (Latin, Aischyne (Greek), Honte (French), Schande (German).

We need a sense of shame. After working on guilt and making amends, the addict embraces Step 10 which is a maintenance step, ever reminding the recovering addict of the cunning power of toxic shame. The tenth step says, "we continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it". This is the sense of shame at work. No shame based person wants to admit any defect or vulnerability. The final two steps in the 12 steps have to do the humble admission of a power greater that ourselves. God as we understand God. It asks the recovering person to take action and reach out to other addicts who need help. For some working the 12 Step program and disciplining themselves to go to meetings (knowing that part of the addictiveness disease is a tendency to isolation and hiding) is enough. For many it is not. Addictiveness is rooted in the toxic carried shame caused by abandonment, neglect and all forms of abuse. The inner toxic "carried" shame has resulted from the trauma of their abandonment, neglect and abuse. For most these damaging behaviors are defined as post-traumatic stress disorder. The scenes that carry early traumatic abuse have to be grieved. The developmental dependency needs that should have been developed were passed over. The deep hurts and traumas of the past show themselves in serious intimacy dysfunction. I've watched and listened to folks, working good 12 step programs, who had serious intimacy problems.

Many people have to do more if they want to heal their addictiveness. I call the trauma healing, grief work "original pain" or family of origin work. It involves going back to the shame scenes where their serious abuse took place, legitimizing their pain and beginning a grief process. I'm in my forty-seven year of sobriety and almost every person I've coached, sponsored, or did therapy with, fell off the wagon or developed a new addiction who failed to do this "original pain", family of origin feeling work.

What is being called the New Paradigm is directly saying the same thing. The obsession with behaviorism or cognitive "talk therapy" has shown their limitations in dealing with addicts. Whatever else their value may be, it has failed in offering addicts, true (second order) change. First order change is a new way behaving within a given way of behaving. I know people who are addicted to AA. This is surely better than their life of alcoholism, but they are not differentiated. They do not hear their own voice when they make decisions. Some are still horribly co-dependent. The "carried" toxic shame that lies in the guts of their identity is still a black hole that they must compulsively fill. To be free we need to grieve those old wounds, develop the ego strengths we missed because of our abuse and take charge of our own personal power. Second order change transcends the old ways and stops our compulsivity. It's an unbelievable joy to be free of the burden of compulsivity. And there's nothing more important than achieving the possession of your one and only life so that "when death finds you, it finds you alive."

Mr. Bradshaw has enjoyed a long association with The Meadows as a Senior Fellow, giving insights to staff and patients, speaking at alumni retreats, lecturing to mental health professionals at workshops and seminars, and helping to shape its cutting-edge treatment programs. His New York Times best-selling books include Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Creating Love, and Healing the Shame That Binds You.

The Meadows is an industry leader in treating trauma and addiction through its inpatient and workshop programs. To learn more about The Meadows' work with trauma and addiction contact an intake coordinator at (866) 856-1279 or visit

For over 35 years, The Meadows has been a leading trauma and addiction treatment center. In that time, they have helped more than 20,000 patients in one of their three inpatient centers and 25,000 attendees in national workshops. The Meadows world-class team of Senior Fellows, Psychiatrists, Therapists and Counselors treat the symptoms of addiction and the underlying issues that cause lifelong patterns of self-destructive behavior. The Meadows, with 24 hour nursing and on-site physicians and psychiatrists, is a Level 1 psychiatric hospital that is accredited by the Joint Commission.

Published in Blog

In recognition of September as National Recovery Month, The Meadows trauma and addiction treatment center in Wickenburg, Arizona, is offering a limited discounted inpatient treatment through September 30, 2012.

The all-inclusive price for the five-week treatment program is $36,000 for the first 15 people who admit to The Meadows Wickenburg during September. The treatment process needs to be initiated on or after September 1, 2012 and patients are required to be admitted by September 30, 2012.

“We are pleased to recognize National Recovery Month with this exceptional offer,” said Jim Dredge, the CEO of The Meadows. “Recovery is our number one priority at The Meadows.”

The Meadows specializes in treating trauma, PTSD, alcohol addiction, drug addiction, codependency, depression, bipolar disorders, sexual compulsivity, love addiction, love avoidance, eating disorders, work addiction, and gambling addiction.

The Meadows supports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), in their effort to celebrate the effectiveness of treatment and recovery services through National Recovery Month. Recovery Month promotes the critical message that prevention works, treatment is effective, and people recover. For more information about National Recovery Month, visit the SAMHSA at

The Meadows is an industry leader in treating trauma and addiction through its inpatient and workshop programs. To learn more about how The Meadows can help you or your loved one take advantage of this limited-time inpatient discount offer, contact an intake coordinator at (866) 856-1279 or visit

For over 35 years, The Meadows has been a leading trauma and addiction treatment center. In that time, they have helped more than 20,000 patients in one of their three inpatient centers and 25,000 attendees in national workshops. The Meadows world-class team of Senior Fellows, Psychiatrists, Therapists and Counselors treat the symptoms of addiction and the underlying issues that cause lifelong patterns of self-destructive behavior. The Meadows, with 24 hour nursing and on-site physicians and psychiatrists, is a Level 1 psychiatric hospital that is accredited by the Joint Commission.

Published in Blog
Sunday, 05 August 2012 20:00

“Facing the Truth behind the Mask”

"Recovery is about living more in truth than in lies... it's about facing reality and growing up."
- Pia Mellody

Over 2,500 years ago, in Athens Greece, playwrights like Sophocles introduced a form of theatrical art known as the tragedy. Greek tragedies typically dealt with weighty themes such as betrayal, loss, pride, jealousy, rage, love, courage, honor, life and death. Often these dance-dramas also explored man's relationship with God and the existential challenges that are part of the human condition. Actors wore elaborate masks with exaggerated facial expressions so that their character's role, emotional state, and intentions might be accessible to the audience. Commonly, one actor played several characters during the course of the theatrical performance, changing masks for each character and sometimes for each scene.

Fast-forward to our lives today and the Greek tragedy might be used as a metaphor for some of the key aspects of recovery from trauma and addiction. Like an actor in a play, often we are reacting to life's existential challenges according to a script. This script can influence how we move about on the stage of life; it can spell out our roles in relation to others, how we think and feel, and how we act in various situations. From the first moments of conception and throughout development, by way of ongoing interactions between ourselves, others, and the environment, this narrative is written into our psychobiology - it becomes an implicit script in the mind-body system.

Moreover, similar to actors in Greek tragedies, our implicit scripts encourage the use of certain masks or persona's. In many ways, this is completely natural and necessary for a life in which we play many different roles. For most of us, the scenes on life's stage are constantly changing; we may transition from a family mask to a work mask, then to a friend mask, and back to a family mask, all within the course of one day. However, unlike the actors in a Greek tragedy, for us these persona's are not distinct, separate people - they are aspects of a single being, linked together by the person behind the masks.

For some of us, our own life resembles a Greek tragedy, with painful experiences of betrayal, loss, abandonment, and trauma. These experiences are written into the mind-body script that tacitly flavors our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Some of these life events can be so traumatic that we don't even want to look at the script - we would rather not face the reality of our situation, it's just too painful. Yet, our bodies and minds still play the part, even when we don't pay attention to the script; something happens on the stage of life and we just react according to our past experiences, maybe without even being aware of the script.

Also, when there are painful and traumatic aspects to our life scripts, wearing a mask can become an adaptive way to hide our vulnerabilities from ourselves and others. The various persona's create a sense of security and a safe distance from the troubling realities deep behind the masks. While this strategy is protective, over time it can further obscure the truth of our scripts and disconnect us from what drives our thoughts, feelings, and actions. In fact, under these circumstances, we risk becoming over-identified with the persona's, forgetting who is actually looking through the masks. We become disconnected from the truth of who we really are and we cannot see the truth of others around us.

Moreover, sometimes these protective measures fall short and the truth of our scripts threatens to come bubbling up into awareness. In those moments, the pain, fear and shame can seem overwhelming, leading to desperate attempts to push it all back out of awareness. Compulsive behaviors with drugs, sex, relationships, and food will facilitate temporary relief from the vulnerability and pain of our tragedy scripts. While addiction can force the rawness of our reality out of awareness for a while, it comes with a whole host of complicating problems. In time, addictions only add painful prose to the narrative of our mind-body scripts and further disconnect us from our truth and from people that we love.

For several decades, Pia Mellody has been encouraging people to remember and rediscover the truth behind the masks and to face reality without addiction. For her, what started as a journey to understand the dis-ease of codependence, so that she could better help her clients, turned into an elegant, comprehensive model for addiction recovery. This model continues to be used at The Meadows of Wickenburg, a world-renowned treatment center, and has been a source of healing for many patients and practitioners.

You might ask, "How is codependence related to addiction?" Pia Mellody kept asking herself this same question when she repeatedly encountered the coexistence of these two conditions in her clients. What she and her colleagues came to understand is that codependence and addiction are frequently linked together by a history of childhood abuse and neglect. These traumatic experiences can be overt (i.e., big "T"), as in the case of physical or sexual abuse, or covert (i.e., little "t"), as in the case of emotional abuse, abandonment, enmeshment, and loss/death. Relational trauma of this kind often results in deep wounds, painful paragraphs in our mind-body scripts, which can lead to developmental immaturity and negative consequences for adult functioning.

More specifically, Pia Mellody found that people usually entered recovery treatment because of addiction, mental/emotional symptoms, resentment/anger, negative control of others, intimacy/relationship problems, and impoverished spirituality. However, usually these issues only become "problems" because other people tell the person in treatment that they are indeed problematic! Yet, given an opportunity to step back from the tornado of unmanageability created by these issues, most people in treatment are able to admit that help is necessary.

Pia Mellody came to understand that these presenting problems were only "secondary symptoms" of deeper, core developmental issues that are frequently related to childhood trauma. She surmised that relational trauma causes an individual to become polarized along five core dimensions of development: 1) self esteem (less than versus better than), 2) boundaries (too vulnerable versus invulnerable), 3) reality issues (bad/rebellious versus good/perfect), 4) dependency (too dependent versus needless/wantless), and 5) moderation (too little versus too much self-control). Furthermore, she discovered that when people are able to address their childhood wounds and identify their core issues of developmental immaturity, they discover a measure of reprieve from the secondary symptoms of addiction and relationship turmoil.

Pia Mellody has consistently taught that the recovery process requires that we honestly and courageously face the truth of our past, both what has been done to us and what we have done to others. It is no coincidence that she titled her now-classic book "Facing Codependence" (italics added). As suggested by Pia Mellody, "The recovery process is about living more in truth than lies." Yet, paradoxically, the painful truth of our mind-body scripts is what drove us to hide behind the masks and disconnect through addictive processes. The prospect of facing the reality of our condition doesn't appeal to many people - that is why the bottom can be so low.

So, how do we go about facing the truth of our scripts and reacquaint ourselves with the person behind the masks? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Develop a willingness to surrender. In the recovery process, a willing heart can take us a long way. The path of recovery has many twists and turns and very often we don't know what is around the next bend. Remembering the powerless and unmanageability of our past can invite the willingness we need to surrender to the recovery process.
  • Be willing to accept help. Recovery isn't a solitary affair. Often we need the help of a director or producer when facing the truth of our tragedy scripts. Guidance and support can be found in friends and family, recovery communities, professional treatment, and something or someone wiser and vaster than us (i.e., nature, spirit, higher power, etc).
  • Cultivate self-compassion and patience. Under the gentle, soft stage-lights of self-directed compassion and patience, we can begin to peer into the darkness behind the masks and face the perilous paragraphs of our mind-body scripts. Rugged honesty isn't the same as self-defeating judgment and blame. Let us be kind to ourselves.
  • Some discomfort is inevitable. As we learn to accept and be with the uncomfortable sensations, emotions, and thoughts associated with our implicit scripts, we find that these mind-body states are generally transitory, like storm clouds moving across a desert landscape. Gradually, our recovery can become imbued with a quiet confidence that we can weather life's storms.
  • Recovery is about growing up. If trauma leads to developmental immaturity, as suggested by Pia Mellody, then recovery must be a maturational process. Don't fight it - let go of old ways and exercise a willingness to embrace new, more mature ways of living.
  • Recovery involves grieving. As we more fully inhabit and live from our truth, we can expect to grieve what we didn't ever receive, what we lost along the way, and the gradual disillusion of the fantasies that we created about ourselves and others.
  • It's a process, not a destination. It is tempting to think of recovery as a goal or a to-do item to be checked off. But, in recovery, no one ever truly arrives... each step on the path brings fresh challenges and opportunities. "Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved." ~ Søren Kierkegaard.

Perspectives and practices like these support a recovery process where we begin to live more in truth than in lies. The traumatic narratives of our tragedy scripts are not necessarily erased, but they can be rewritten and reinterpreted on the stage of life. Gradually, we become less invested in, and identified with, our various masks – we are able to more comfortably embody the person looking through the masks.

In many ways, the recovery process is about becoming more conscious – more connected with the truth of ourselves and others. Within this field of heightened consciousness there begins to be enough space and security for the emergence of an authentic self. Generally, this kind of conscious presence brings us into contact with our own humanity, our foibles, short-comings, character defects, and our deepest wounds. However, at the same time we are able to make intimate contact with our own immutable and unconditional worth.

In that authentic space of conscious awareness we come back home to ourselves and, if only for a moment, we experience our wholeness. When we are at home with ourselves, we are better able to make meaningful connections with other humans, all creatures, nature, and a higher power. This is the essence of spiritual practice; ultimately, this is the spiritual path. May we all find and inhabit this path of recovery by facing the truth behind our masks.

Published in Blog

Nearly four-hundred years ago, St. Francis de Sales wrote the following pearl of wisdom for those in recovery today: "Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections". As the fog of trauma, addiction, and emotional challenges begins to lift, one thing becomes clear: our imperfections! Even when we muster the courage to consider these imperfections, it can be disheartening to realize that some of our imperfections are terribly persistent, requiring repeated doses of courage and "an ocean of patience"(another quote by St. Francis de Sales).

On the pathway of recovery, it can be hard to see our own progress – especially when we keep running into the same old character defects. It's like courageously cutting a path through a dense thicket while hiking, only to reencounter the same thicket hours later, with the path already overgrown. In those discouraging moments, it can feel like the recovery path has circled back on itself, leaving us stuck on a ring, destined to repeatedly stumble on our imperfections. Our previously-mustered courage can get pushed aside by anger, frustration, resentment, doubt, and shame. As for that ocean of patience; forget about it - sometimes we are lucky to find a puddle of patience!

Over the years I have come to understand that this process of reencountering our imperfections is perhaps better illustrated by an image of a spring, rather than a flat ring.  While the recovery process does involve circling back to our personal thickets of imperfection, these repeated rings of experience are linked together like a spring, where each revolution actually takes us to an elevated place.  This upward progression can be gradual at times and difficult to perceive within ourselves, especially when we are in the middle of the thicket!  Ironically, our progress may be more apparent to others around us and can be the very foundation of a living amends to those we love.

Recovery from trauma and addiction requires courage to face our imperfections and patience as we face them again and again.  We may never completely rise above our imperfections, but each time we reencounter them on the spring of recovery, we find ourselves in a slightly elevated place.  This gradual shift in perspective allows us to get a better view of our imperfections, altering how we see ourselves and others.  In time, we may even begin to see the process of reencountering our imperfections as a natural part of the recovery path and as an opportunity for growth and healing.

Published in Blog

By:  Brad J Kammer, MA, MFT, SEP

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, I had the great fortune to travel down to the area as part of a trauma outreach team, training local crisis workers on how to use the basic principles of Somatic Experiencing (SE) to help them manage the trauma that was now overwhelming the remaining residents. I had been following the news reports post-­‐Katrina, and vividly remembered the horror stories of looting and violence, particularly those coming out of the New Orleans Superdome - like stories out of Lord of the Flies - with reports of gang attacks, rapes and murder. Having worked in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border amidst civil war, I understood how trauma could so immediately overwhelm people and communities that they would turn against each other in violence. But what I also understood was that in our most overwhelming crises, people also come together for protection, safety and healing. It happened in those first few days after 9/11 in New York City and elsewhere, and as I traveled down to the Gulf Coast region, I imagined that despite all the news reports to the contrary, it must have happened there too.

What I found when I arrived was almost exactly opposite of those news reports I had been following. All over southern Louisiana, individuals, families and communities had come together to support one another. I heard countless stories of strangers helping strangers, taking families into their homes, and other acts of selfless giving. The most startling story I heard, however, had to do with the New Orleans Superdome. I was talking with a woman who had been on the clean-­‐up crew after the last few hundred refugees were evacuated from the Superdome, expecting her to share horrifying images of what she observed. Instead, she shared with me the image of folding chairs placed in circles, all throughout the Superdome, stating that folks had come together to share stories, food, laughter and comfort.

In my years of teaching about stress and trauma, I have found that nearly everyone is familiar with the "fight and flight" survival response. However, very few people are aware of the "tend and befriend" survival response. In Somatic Experiencing, we turn to animals in the wild to understand how despite constant predator-­‐prey dynamics, wild animals are able to manage life-­‐threatening experiences and not develop the symptoms of post-­‐traumatic and other chronic stress disorders. We have carefully studied how wild animals are able to recover from high stress states by completing their fight/flight responses and thereby discharging the high arousal associated with threatening experiences. We have also understood the nature of the freeze response, which comes on-­‐line when we cannot successfully fight or flee from a life threat, and how in humans, going into freeze predicts the onset of developing PTSD and other chronic stress disorders. In Somatic Experiencing, we have developed strategies and tools to help individuals move out of freeze and restore the feeling of being in control, balanced, and capable of meeting further life challenges.

But what about this tend and befriend response? What is this all about? And how does this relate to recovering from trauma? If we look back to the wild animals, we see that there are numerous examples of herds of animals that when threatened or attacked, form protective circles. I've watched videos of zebras, elephants, sheep, and other animal species who on initial response to threat, do not immediately fight or flee, but come together as bands - and if we look closely enough, we see this beyond just mammalian herd behavior, we see this with flocking of birds, shoaling of fish, and the swarming behavior of insects.

Now let's look back to the Katrina refugees, huddled in shock, terror and confusion, locked in the Superdome with thousands of other shocked, terrified and confused refugees. These individuals were in a life-­‐threatening situation, and their very survival was at stake. It is true that there were instances of violence, most likely instigated by erratic attempts at fight or flight, but we cannot overlook the majority of individuals who bonded together with others for safety and comfort. In many ways we can see this in the various social institutions we've created as well, from national armies to gangs to families - we join together with others to protect and secure safety.

When threatened, our first biological response is to orient to the danger. Our senses are heightened and we will scan the environment for the source of threat. Maybe this has happened to you late at night while you're sleeping. You hear a noise downstairs and immediately startle, sitting up, and using your senses (ears, eyes, possibly even smell) to locate the source of the noise. I live in the country and see this happen frequently with deer. I'm walking on a trail and observe a deer some 30 yards ahead, standing still, but with probing eyes and shifting ears, attempting to evaluate if I am a source of threat. If I continue to walk closer, they will immediately run away (flight).

However, part of this orientation - often overlooked due to the rapid firing of these instinctive survival responses - is an orientation to the herd. Before the deer run away, they are also orienting to the other deer. And before you get out of bed to check the noise downstairs, you might wake up your sleeping partner to check in with them. If others are there for us, we will come together in numbers to better assure protection and safety. And if not, we will move rapidly into fight, flight or freeze responses. These are not well thought-­‐out plans, these are instinctual, biological and genetic programs that are activated in the face of danger and threat. As humans, we are programmed to connect and collaborate for survival: this is the tend and befriend survival response.

Over the past 20 years, thanks to the emergence of incredible brain imaging technology, we can now map the brain and body like never before. These studies show us that the regulators of our minds and bodies are embedded in relationships. This goes beyond the realm of mere survival into the realms of understanding illness, health, and resilience. Research suggests that in terms of health and healing, social support is more powerful than anything besides genetics. And when there is an absence of appropriate social interactions, when individuals retreat into social and/or emotional isolation, substitutions are made in the form of such things as food, alcohol, drugs, sex, TV, computer and video games. Meanwhile, chronic stress builds in the nervous system which leads to a host of symptoms and chronic disorders. There is plenty of information showing us that isolation and lack of social engagement can make us sick. And yet, we live in a world where we retreat more and more, creating alternate realities and identities on digital screens, whispering messages of loves through text taps, and flirting with emoticons. Contrary to what we may believe, these forms of engagement are not bringing us closer together nor are they triggering the hard-­‐wired mechanisms in our brain and bodies that are required for supporting health and well-­‐being.

Some years ago, oxytocin, the "love" chemical, was discovered in the brain. Scientists observed that this chemical was released in both mothers and their babies during labor and birth, and during bonding between parents and their children. This chemical is released to support the loving feelings necessary for healthy bonding and attachment. As we have learned through studying bonding, the mother's presence and loving attention helps to regulate the newborn's not yet fully-­‐developed nervous system. Studies have shown that when there is an absence or oxytocin release, bonding suffers and proper infant development is threatened. For the baby, then, along with food, water and oxygen, the ability to feel connected assures their very survival.

But interestingly, oxytocin also shows up in the human body during times of close social connection including romantic encounters, trusted friendships, and even the comforting pat on the back or rewarding high-­‐five. Being a big basketball fan, I enjoyed reading a research study on the National Basketball Association (NBA) a few years back which compared the performance of a team with the number of times during a game players on that team use supportive touch with one another - anything from a handshake to a chest bump to a bear hug. This study demonstrated that there is a strong correlation between successful teams and the frequency of contact, with the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers, the two teams that met in the 2008 NBA Finals, being the two "touchiest" teams.

As scientists continued to research this neurochemical, they realized that not only does oxytocin coordinate social behavior with bonding, healthy development, and improved performance, but it also supports physical health. It acts to lower the neurochemicals associated with stress and anxiety, is analgesic (blocks pain), and anti-­‐inflammatory (aids in healing). Maybe this accounts for why children run to their parents when they fall off their bicycles and scrape their knees - maybe their mother's embrace actually triggers pain-­‐reducing, healing mechanisms in the skin. Maybe this is why being with friends and family during tragedy can help us stay balanced and sane. Maybe this is why all the Katrina refugees joined together in circles at the Superdome.

Many ancient cultural and religious rituals serve this very function. For example, in the Jewish tradition, close family and friends come together to mourn a loved one's death for seven days following their passing. This practice of "sitting shiva" allows for grieving family members to be supported by their community as they manage the intense emotions associated with the loss of a loved one, possibly inoculating them against the effects of depression and illness reactions. More recently, social, self-­‐help and therapeutic groups have served a similar function in our modern society. An informative research study from Stanford University was done with 50 women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. They followed two groups of women - one consisted of women who joined cancer support groups and the other were women who did not join any support groups. The results demonstrated that the women who joined a support group lived twice as long as the women who did not join a support group. Not only that, those women who joined a support group also reported a higher quality of living, including 50% less pain than those not in a support group.

When working with individuals dealing with trauma, many are so engaged in managing the energy of their basic survival - which can be observed in such behaviors as conflict, avoidance and isolation, and such emotional states as rage, anxiety and depression - that their ability to be present and available for meaningful relationships suffers. This means that the most primary survival response - tend and befriend - goes off-­‐line, leaving individuals vulnerable to further effects of trauma and chronic stress disorders.

When working with Somatic Experiencing, we are focused on the unresolved dysregulation of the brain and nervous system, those neuro-­‐circuits which became dysregulated through our incomplete responses to danger and threat. In other words, a life experience overwhelmed our capacity to cope, leaving our brain and bodies disorganized and unbalanced. For example, what if upon waking in the middle of the night to that noise downstairs, you register that a hurricane had hit your home. You survive the environmental assault on your home, but your body might have not returned to the balance you experienced before this event. Now every time you hear a loud noise, you startle, or maybe you've even lost your ability to fall asleep and sleep restfully throughout the night. Unbeknownst to you, your body might be frozen in that past experience, still stuck in an incomplete fight/flight state, thereby creating a dysregulated nervous system.

Understanding the avenues of resolving the fight, flight and freeze states is essential in effective trauma treatment, but I remind my students to be on the lookout for the disrupted tend and befriend states as well. My work centers around supporting people in social engagement. I recognize that without social connection - when tend and befriend are off-­‐line we miss out on the healing process this behavior promotes. Part of this healing is to return to the feeling of one's sense of self before a traumatic experience disrupted one's life. To many cultures, the loss of connection with others equates to the loss of one's self.

A memory comes to mind of sitting around a refugee camp in Asia with my Burmese friends, eating good food, laughing at our poor language skills, and singing along to the guitar playing Burmese freedom songs. I was moved by the moment and by

their inspiring resiliency. I was curious as to what techniques or rituals they had in their culture to help them deal with the unrelenting trauma of social oppression. So I asked my friends what helped them deal with the brutal trauma they were experiencing. They looked at me puzzled, and finally Ko Yee Zaw, a dear friend, said "this". Right in front of my eyes, between us there that evening, safety was being established and healing promoted. Despite the very best efforts from international organizations and providers to equip the Burmese people with the technical, medical and educational support they needed to survive, my friends recognized the inherent support they already had with them - social connection.

What I've learned since is that safety translates to biology, meaning that if we trigger states of well-­‐being through personal connection, we can promote both psychological and physical health. Amidst unspeakable acts of human and environmental destruction, what I discovered in the refugee camps of Southeast Asia and the parishes of southern Louisiana was that relationships might just be the best medicine.

Brad J Kammer, MA, MFT, SEP is a Psychotherapist, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and Assistant Trainer, and has been involved in bringing SE to various communities and cultures. Brad lives and works in Ukiah, California, but also has a private practice in San Francisco. Brad is an adjunct psychology instructor at Mendocino College and National University. To contact Brad or learn more about his work and teaching: www.body-­

Published in Blog

Contact The Meadows

Intensive Family Program • Innovative Experiential Therapy • Neurobehavioral Therapy

Invalid Input

Invalid Input

Invalid Input

Invalid Input

Invalid Input

Invalid Input