Thoughts and ideas

Month: October 2018

Stress management and more – a 30 minute read

Stress management – and more. A fuller body / mind note.  A 30 minute read with a bit of science and visualisations – including the two I use in workshops. 

To start with an important distinction about stress:

In talking about stress, there are two approaches, not mutually exclusive. And obviously people need to address both.

We can focus on objectively stressful situations or events and try and moderate those. This would include identifying aspects of life and work that are stressful. Health problems and worries. Money problems. Family anxieties. In work – the pressure to meet deadlines, to meet billing targets, fear of making mistakes as well as the often distressing or traumatic content of our work of some people which we may underestimate from sheer familiarity.

They would be the subject of an interesting debate and in fact should be the subject of discussions within each firm or organisation which should start from a survey of people’s experiences of stress and what can be done to ameliorate them.

However  – this note is not about that subject. Maybe another note will do so some time in the future.

This note is about the other approach to stress which is to focus on the impact on the individual and see what can be done to help each of us deal with that stress.

It requires us to think in a different way and perhaps a more embarrassingly honest way – to talk about our anxieties – even our fear – and how we can ameliorate that.  This note attempts to offer some techniques to reduce anxiety.

It is now very common to talk about the mind – body connection. For many years these seemed to be two separate worlds: psychotherapy worked with the mind while yoga, tai chi etc were seen as mainly physical.

Quite rightly that is now breaking down and people are seeing the connections. In fact yoga and tai chi have always seen the connections; always seen that the physical states involved have mental effects. It has been the Western, psychotherapeutic side that needed to make the connections and this note is approaching it from that side.

I have had two lots of notes that I have worked on over the years. The first was about breathing and the other was about my ‘Stretching and Bending’ exercises.

So I have integrated them together into one note.

This can be read at three levels:

1. It can be seen as being about immediate, practical stress management.

2. It can be seen as being more profoundly about general emotional health, which is my growing interest.

3. It can be seen as being about something more profound again – a form of emotional health and integration that some people would call spiritual.

I am encouraged by the knowledge that in many religions and in practices like yoga breathing is not a small side issue but is a central part of the practice and the means to progress.

If this third aspect is unattractive to you, then you can ignore it and just focus on the stress management aspect – or the general emotional health aspect.

They are both start from a fact which is simple and obvious but often overlooked: stress and anxiety causes the body to react in a certain way – which I explore in the notes – and, less obviously but crucially, this feeds back to the mind as a message of stress.

This becomes a vicious circle, a reinforcing situation or a stuck place with thoughts and feelings that can be uncomfortable or painful or frightening.

Psychotherapy can try and work directly with those thoughts and feelings; but also enlisting the physical aspect can really help to have a more immediate benefit. The vicious circle can be reversed into a benign circle. The situation ceases to reinforce itself and the stuck place can be escaped from.

A word or two before we start – A lot of the material here will be familiar to many people. And some of us may do yoga, tai chi, meditation classes etc once or twice a week for an hour. But perhaps the most important question about stress is why we don’t in fact use these techniques more – when we are aware of them and we rationally know they would be helpful? The last page of this note explores that paradox and may, for some people, take the brakes off. It introduces the concept of being, not just a workaholic, but a “stressaholic!”.

If this is all familiar stuff, or especially you find it off-putting … maybe just read that part? See below: Important Central Question
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The classic stress books always emphasise ‘The Flight or Fight reflex’.

However what is perhaps more important in helping us cope with modern life is to notice and to pay intelligent attention to the Freeze reflex.

That often comes before flight and fight. And it is a reflex that remains when we are in any situation with no obvious immediate fight or flight option. This can be either a short term, real danger or a situation of longer term helplessness. We will look at how that works that in practice below.

But crucially – we can get stuck in this freeze reflex. And I suggest that this is the root of many problems.

The main expressions of that freeze reflex are breath holding and bodily freezing – physical tension.

These express stress. But it is not simply a one way message. As mentioned above, once in that state the body then holds the stress body and behaviour and feeds it back to the brain as a message: “We are under attack, remain super-alert, look for the danger, look for the negatives, assume the worst.”

The brain then continues to cause the cascade of hormones that are experienced as anxiety.

To be a bit technical – this is the HPA axis – the Hypothalamus deep in the brain send messages to the Pituitary gland which sends messages to the Adrenals which produce cortisol – the main, very unpleasant fear hormone – and nor-adrenaline which generates hyper-alertness and adrenaline which gives the energy for fight or flight. A great cascade of hormones flow through the body. The subjective sensation can be of being flooded. At an extreme – drowning in anxiety and panic.

This is not just being over-technical – by knowing what it happening it gives us much more sense of being able to control it – less of being the passive victim of this hormonal poisoning which can dominate someone’s life. It is easy to Google and research HPA.

This hyper-alertness can also produce superstitious, magical, symbolic thinking. “I will be ok if I wear this piece of clothing, go through this routine” are the more banal but we also have ideas that “Things will be ok if only…I work things out, do certain actions or get enough information… or enough success, attention, praise, food, possessions, sex, love.”

OK – so that is the problem situation. What could be the solutions?

By undoing that stress body, we can reduce those messages going back to the brain.

By letting out the breath and unfreezing the body we really can alter the brain and our perceptions. By breathing out and by lowering and loosening the shoulders, the neck etc – we can alter our hormones, our mood, our fears and angers.

I find in totally practical ways that breathing out and adjusting my body language are excellent antidotes to anxiety or even panic. (For me now the real challenge is to maintain this better body state all the time – not just when I focus on it. See note 4 at the end of this note.)

But it is easier to start with focusing on the two aspects separately: breath holding and body tension:


This is based on some perfectly conventional science and theory which I have sketched out above. But I realise that this can be off-putting to some people. And even if it is not off-putting, scientific facts are not necessarily the best way of motivating anybody.

Later in this note I offer specific ideas about stress management techniques including breathing, mindfulness and a very simplified sort of yoga.  You can scroll down to the double lines across the page where that starts and you could skip the next section.

But… the object of this note is to offer new ways of doing things and that requires motivation. To be motivated, I find that people actually remember things and absorb them – at a different level that may change their habits – if more of the brain is involved than just the rational, verbal part.

We remember things in a motivated way if we can engage visual or experiential parts of the brain – for example by stories and by doing things.

So rather than labour the theory, I will offer some stories or visualisations, invite you to practice certain breathing as you read this note and then draw out from those stories the necessary theories and the science.

First story – or visualisation: We’re in a group on a picnic in a field. Sunny day. Food spread out on a cloth. We are all relaxed and happy.

Suddenly the gate behind us swings open – a bull. It snorts and scratches the earth.
Everyone Gasps. Absolute freeze. They hold their breath.

After a long pause, the bull turns round and goes back into its own field. Someone darts over and secures the gate.

Phew! We gasp out. We all run to the road and our cars. We pile in shouting, screaming, laughing, talking. Sharing. We need to talk. Tell each other what has just happened. And this will continue for quite a long time before we decide what to do next. And given the gate is now secure running to the cars is strictly speaking irrational – symbolic.

Now try that sequence now: Gasp in. Hold for 10 or even 5 seconds. Breathe out – ‘Phew’. Do it a few times.

Comment. This is obviously about the immediate, deep seated, animal physical reactions to danger as it would have been “in the jungle or forests” . The most direct result of an emergency is the holding of the breath. We gasp at the shock of a threat or an attack. It is important to notice that a gasp is a quick inhalation of air.

So before the flight or fight reflex, this freeze had cut in. As I have said it is a reflex that cuts in when we are in certain situations. In this example – a very dangerous one with no obvious immediate fight or flight option.

If the bull had attacked then the flight and flight would have cut in – chaos as maybe some brave people fought the bull and most who ran away. But until that moment, Freeze is appropriate.

And the freeze reflex involves holding the breath for as long as this situation continues. In a the wild this freeze reflex has the survival function of making a person or animal less noticeable; reducing movement – even chest movements. It also reduces sound and reduces scent emission. It engages the Sympathetic Nervous System. Again, Google and research that if you like,

Certainly it allows a person to hear much better. When you think you hear a burglar at night, the breath holding reflex allows you to listen much more acutely.

It may have also a function of pressurising the lungs and driving oxygen into the blood stream ready for fight or flight.

Crucially for longer term states it also prolongs the hormones in the blood stream – the cortisol, adrenalines and others – the cocktail of hormones needed for fight and flight.

Endocrinology text books talk of adrenaline being metabolised (ie removed from the body) by the lungs. Other hormones are reduced by movement.

But we need those emergency hormones to continue for as long as the danger continues. So we freeze and hold our breath to prolong the hormonal level. This is significant later as we will see.

And note the action required to come out of that state: It is both quite extreme and also quite extended.

It involves 1. the physical act of breathing openly, making the ‘phew’ sound, the instinctive use of laughter, loud voices.. That engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System – again research will show you the beneficial hormones that are released including oxytocin – the hormone that encourages bonding and affection – to others – and to ourselves?

And 2. the need to talk, to share the experience. To acknowledge what happened and how awful it was. To get acknowledgement from others about the reality. 3. Some symbolic behaviour – acting out.

I suggest you run through that sequence again this time being more aware of exactly what is happening – but also acting it out in a heartfelt way. Maybe repeat several times until the idea is absorbed deeper into the mind than just the reasoning, verbal bit.

Second story or visualisation: A longer one. More modern, social stresses.

We are going on holiday. The traffic on the way to the airport is bad, we are nearly late, the plane is delayed, the seats are wrong, there is an obnoxious drunk in the next seat, the airport has long queues, the customs people are rude and threatening, the taxi drive to the hotel is long and hot…..

And all the time we keep control, verbally. It would not help to moan or to shout at the traffic or the customs people etc. And physically – we hold our breaths. Well – not entirely of course. Maybe it’s better to say we are holding back our breath. In fact we breathe in a shallow way, using just the top of the lungs. Shallow, upper chest breathing.

All this time – maybe four or five hours – we are not aware that we are holding back our breath.

We get near the hotel and through gritted teeth we say that the hotel will probably be an unfinished building site – or something like Fawltey Towers. ie we are in a negative mindset.

Finally we arrive. In fact the hotel is delightful, the room is lovely. We put our bags down and say ‘Thank Goodness we’ve arrived’ and gasp with relief and laugh and make repeated ‘phew’ sounds and our shoulders come down from around our ears. And now we can talk and say how awful it was.

And this will probably continue for an hour or so. We will return to it later, we will want to tell other people about it. We want to share the information and preferably to have people sympathise and agree how awful it was. We may want to do some actions – write a letter to the tour company or airline etc. We may want an explanation for the delay and an apology.

Try that now. Shallow breaths, using just the top of the chest. Be aware of it for 5 or 10 seconds. Then – let the breath out properly. Again: ‘Phew’ or ‘haaaahhh’. Repeat a few times. Then again possibly put the note down and let it soak in deeper.


In this second story the need is for freeze as social self-restraint. It highlights how this self-control and the necessary breath holding can continue for hours – without the people concerned being very aware of it.

To come out of that emergency mode, the need is again for physical relaxation – breathing openly to disperse the hormones – and for the sharing of the experience. And we are usually able to do that instinctively, automatically.

So Freeze and breath holding can be about social self-restraint.

Stress books seem to rely rather heavily on the Jungle Book view of life – Dealing with wild animals. But in the evolution of humans – and going way back to our primate ancestors – the evolutionary pressure would have been as much about social success with other members of the tribe as success in dealing with wild animals.

We can see a continuation from pre-humans, living quite like modern apes, through to prehistoric tribal living. That is what formed a large part of our deep psychology.

We are an intensely social animal and also in certain situations, very hierarchical. Life can be a series of confrontations, threats and bluff. Probably this is more true of males but it certainly can apply to females.

So in those situations fight and flight are often not appropriate. Freeze becomes a form of self-inhibition, pretence – socially necessary self-control.

It is a way of being that is particularly appropriate in a situation of real powerlessness. That is important as we will see later.

This situation of social self-restraint freeze, breath holding can last for much longer – months or even years.

Third story or visualisation: Imagine someone back from the front line having survived in the trenches of the First World War, traumatised..

Maybe four years of physical tension. Four years of breath holding, of self-control, denial of feelings.

1. How long would it take him to learn to breathe again?

The instinctive use of laughter and making phew sounds would no longer come automatically. His throat might be frozen in a closed position. The other physical signs would be stuck. Muscular tension, posture, displacement activities.

2. The need not to complain, not to notice, never to tell people of the experience would have become habitual. And the non-complaining was anyway a part of his culture. The taboo on admitting fear, sorrow. The taboo on ‘self-pity’.

It would require a huge amount of skill and care and time to help that person to 1. physically relax and 2. to share the experience.

That is a harder one to practice. It may seem a long way away from our experiences but with some imagination it is possible. It may take some time to mull this over and let it sink in.

(This also provides a key issue which relates to my suggestions in another note on this website about arrested, perpetual adolescence and the war mode. How do we ourselves come out of a threatened, emergency or war state? Why does the culture continually pump up that state? What solutions to that – individually and personally or politically, as a society? Anyway – back to the main story…)

Fourth story or visualisation: Now think about childhood. Maybe our own. Or if that is impossible because of our own taboo on emotions and on ‘self-pity’ – then think of another child. Imagine one…. not having a good time…. adverse childhood experience is the current useful expression which copes with the flinching away from the strong language of “trauma”

Powerlessness? Abandonment? Fear? Frustration? Anger? Maybe witnessing marital conflict or violence? Divorce and loss of the family? Parents with mental health issues, alcohol abuse? The death or absence of a parent? Maybe gross and obvious abuse? Physical, sexual or emotional. Maybe the ordinary level of emotional malnutrition or pressure, judgement and criticalness by parents that is so ordinary that it is hard to see that there is anything damaging or to complain about?

Being told it’s not right to be angry? That fear is ‘childish’ and shameful. the child must inhibit and pretend not to have emotions.

Now think of that child learning instinctively to freeze – to hold the breath, close the throat, tense up. Block emotions. For how many years? 10, 15, 20 ? … and remaining in that state into adulthood? Permanently? Until released?

Think about the hormonal state of modern people – including children. The rise in anxiety, asthma, high blood pressure, depression, eating disorders, suicide.

Think of the need they – we – have for 1. Physical relaxation – especially breathing and 2. Sharing.

Sharing is being attended to increasingly with counselling and therapy. But maybe there is some catching up to be done on breathing?

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The central general point about breathing is this:  It is not deep breathing. It is open breathing. Breathing in the right way is not about driving large amounts of air in and out of the lungs.

It is about the state of the muscles of the throat.

This is because the actual holding of the breath is not done by lung muscles; it is done by closing the throat.

This may sound surprising but it is very easy to check. And I think very important; the main point of this note. Just hold the breath, pause for a second or two and then release the breath sharply and watching which bit of the body is involved. It is the epiglottis and the vocal chords. You may need to do this several times before it is clear. Make a noise and it is more obvious.

The fact that the vocal chords are involved is fairly clear from the fact that in certain stressful situation we speak with a higher pitched voice, or even lose our voice entirely.

Fear tends to make us squeak with alarm or panic. People also squeak with indignation – a frightened, controlled anger. Awe – where we gasp and whisper in a hoarse tone? People suffering from stifled grief sometimes suffer from the ‘fish bone in the throat’ feeling – which is muscles in the throat in spasm.

Now consider the opposite – the moment when the throat is opened. Laughing, crying openly, howling, shouting in a confident way (strong anger), singing for joy. Saying ‘phew’. These are all situation of uninhibited emotion expression. That is why it’s so healthy to sing in a choir! Or do chanting.

Possible future exercises to try:

Take the actions which were performed automatically, instinctively in the first two visualisations and then isolate them as techniques and then develop them –

Letting go of the breath, opening the mouth, opening the throat, making a noise, movement, sharing, expressing, acknowledging the emotions – having the emotions – sharing details.

Realise that to do them will now be to go against a very established habit, so against a strong resistance. It will need to be done in a contrived way. The work will require conscious effort, planning, hard work, encouragement, going against what seems instinctive.

I invite you while you sit here with this note on screen in front of you to try these:

1. Hot breath. Hold the palm of your hand in front of your mouth. Breathe on it with as hot a breath as you can manage. Maybe pretend to steam up a mirror held in front of you. That opens the throat very well.

2. Breathing very slowly and as silently as possible.

3. Experiment with different sounds as you breathe out – go through the vowels – A, E, I, O, U, – the classic ‘Om’. Watch how the throat changes with the different noises.

I find the best are: AAAAH (breathing in) then HAAAAA (breathing out).

4. Breathe out fully. Then breathe out some more. There is always more to come. It is quite surprising – and it can make us realise how the bottom of the lungs are never fully used. I like to think that I am expelling old, stale air that’s been there for weeks!

What is in fact also happening is that the diaphragm is pushing up much more than it usually does. The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscles under the lungs which is – or should be – responsible for most of the breathing action. When we hold our breath or engage in stressed, shallow breathing, the diaphragm is held in one place. By breathing out fully, we stretch and use the diaphragm fully. And that sends messages to the rest of the body and the brain. Try it now?

5. Pretending to smoke a cigarette. Breathe in deep, then breathe out – slowly, luxuriantly, savouring the moment. I suspect half of the pleasure of smoking comes from this enforced or encouraged good breathing. The use of nicotine is a sad, ironic poison and an unnecessary addition. Using this technique, we can get the benefit without the poison.

6. It can help to cover the mouth. Pressing something to the lips. Covering the face as in prayer or extreme emotion. Being under a cover. Or closing the mouth and blowing up the cheeks – which we may do instinctively to cope with irritation, impatience. Imagine standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus that is overdue: Fed up. Sulky. Cheeks blown up. Puffing out. Sighing. All good stuff.

7. Counting the breaths. Or focussing really hard on the throat and the movement of air.

I always start the day while still in bed with this open throat breathing and counting the breaths. It highlights how “wild horse” my mind as I often lose track after three or four breaths.. I start again…and often again… and each failure lays the grounds for eventually getting there and I breathe slowly to ten and hold it at the end of each outbreath.

This is a very simple mindfulness exercise, clearing the mind of its over activity . And I sometimes need to help this by visualising the number – a brass number or a carved wooden one.. but after a bit the need for that dies away and I can just have a relatively empty mind. At least for a few minutes…

I am now able to do this in most places. Even the Northern Line.

Yawning. You may find that a few of these breaths trigger yawning. And that is fine. People may associate yawning with being bored. But it is also a reaction to fear. Soldiers waiting to go into battle or people waiting to parachute jump are sometime puzzled to find themselves yawning. It is the body insisting of some antidote to overwhelming fear. The wisdom of the body..

8. Belly breathing –v- Chest breathing.

This is the other aspect of holding back the breath that we have explored so far in the visualisations. The seven exercises or techniques mentioned above focus on opening the throat – but all the way through the visualisations there has also been the theme that stressed breathing becomes shallow and confined to the top of the lungs.

Closed throat goes with chest breathing. What is needed is to open the throat and then also breathe with the belly. Breathe in – extend the stomach. What is happening is that the diaphragm is drawing down. Breathe out – flatten the stomach. The diaphragm is coming up to expel the air from the bottom of the lungs.

Place your hands on the stomach, finger tips touching. Breathe in, extend the stomach and the finger tips should move further apart. Breathe out, pull the belly in and the finger tips should touch.

9. Use the whole of the body language – stress reaction.

Explore the body language of stress. Notice how holding back the breath is not the only physical result of stress, fear and self–control. We also draw our shoulders up, go generally rigid in the neck, shoulders, spine, especially the lower back.  and this leads onto the next section…..


Breathing is in fact only half of my physical routine. The other half, which I do every morning, which is even more useful emotionally. In fact I would say it is a life-line, a survival system. I worked it out myself by listening to what my body needs. It turns out it has a lot of overlap with yoga or tai chi or qi gong. I call mine simply ‘stretching and bending.’

When I do the breathing mentioned above and then do these simple exercises I can feel a major and rapid change in my body and mind.

Like with the breathing it starts from the fact that stress, fear, anger etc – are expressed in the body – they are, if you like, spoken in body language.

But they are not actually discharged as they might be in successful communication. They remain there as a held, frozen statement.

And as with breathing this technique uses the fact that it is not just a one way thing: Mind to body. Because again what happens is there is the feed-back loop: To hold the body in a certain form has an effect on the mind.

The state of stress, rigidity send messages to the mind that message “we are under attack, threat” etc. The message / state therefore goes round and round, reinforcing and perpetuating itself. A powerful vicious circle. Or a vicious and sterile stable situation.

Now – this vicious circle gives us a great opportunity: If we undo that body language / state then it sends a very different messages to the brain. “We are no longer under attack, threat etc”.

This is where we can again create a ‘benign circle’. A more relaxed body sends reassuring messages to the brain which send more relaxing message to the body etc. This is a very powerful mechanism which is why it is so effective.

So – It is a question of finding the ‘stress-expressive’ parts of the body and interrupting that loop, that message. Learn the body language of stress and cancel it.

How to do this? I don’t have a set routine and I do a different series of movement each morning depending on what feels it needs to be released.

My Routine 

However a typical one might be to start with a strong stretch up. Arms above the head. Then out to the side. If reference to yoga helps – then this is like the Urdhva Hastasana , upward hand pose, or the Hero poses. Really feel strong and triumphant. See Note 1 below.

Hold all these poses for 10 or 20 seconds or longer if that feels right. For me one of the realisations is that attending a Yoga Session with others means I have to do what the teacher says and that may or may not be what my body or body/mind – needs. Doing it privately I can listen to my body and if I need to shake my head for two or three minutes or hold the forward bend for a long time – I can – and do.

The head. Bowing the head down. Stretching it up. Side to side. And this often turns into a head shaking which seems to resonate and be quite powerful as if the impulse to say ‘No’ is coming out – having been suppressed for so long. See note 2 below.

The face – loosen the jaw and move from side to side. This gives me an antidote to my usual clenched jaw state. Open mouth wide. Then pull faces. Crunch up. Really silly faces. The face expresses emotions. We suppress emotions by keeping a poker face. Undo that system by pulling faces and loosen up emotions. Scream face. Part of Yoga Lion Pose:  Simhasana

Then shoulders – they tend to rise up round our ears when we are tense – and freeze at that point. So I lift them higher and then slowly down – or quickly down. Then roll them forwards and backwards. Then swimming practice, the crawl or the butterfly stroke. Windmilling. The reaches up to the sky on each side.

Then the spine: “You are as young as your spine”. Obviously the forward bend. For me a helpful realisation was that the classic ‘keep the knees straight and touch the toes’ exercise really limited back bending because the hamstrings were the limiting factor. And I don’t think stretching hamstrings is very important. So I am happy to bend the knees to get the best stretch in the back. That also leads to a completely collapsed position of surrender which I explore later. Bending forward – as always – remember to breathe out fully.

Standing position – slowly swinging the top half of my body with the arms swinging is great. Looking behind you. Slow and graceful. Then more vigorously, turning it into a punching movement. Side to side, the upper arm reaching to the ceiling.

Backward bend it a bit harder. It is the only one where a floor exercise – Cobra – is really helpful. But I usually don’t bother, backward bend in standing position is enough and good practice on balancing. .

Then hips and pelvis. Rotate / hula hoop. Belly dancing. One way and then the other. Pelvic thrusts. Shaking that ass. Not obvious? Uncomfortable? See note 3 below.

Breathing and doing the stretching.

It would be a sad paradox if we did the open throat breathing and then went back to breath holding when doing the stretching.

It is useful to notice this tendency – that when we concentrate we hold our breath. And if we can break that habit each morning or evening by breathing while stretching it creates a healthy new habit.

In fact the visualisation I use is that as the tension comes out of the joints and muscles, into the blood and then into the lungs and then I breathe it away by my open throat breathing. Haaaaah!
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MINDFULNESS. Yes I know it is uber-fashionable so possibly mockable but…to offer some actual scientific explanation:

The racing mind mentioned above refers to the part of the mind that is highly focused on future planning – (dorsolateral frontal cortex) – and possibly chewing over and regretting the past. Traditional meditation tries to clear the mind, turn down the activity of that centre. It is hard. And it does not seem directly to feed into a calming effect on the limbic system, the deeper, older emotional centres of the brain where anxiety, anger etc live.

Mindfulness attempts to increase the activity of the medial frontal cortex which is the part of the brain responsible to keeping tabs on the body – “interoception”. (Internal perception if you like.) And that seems to be the best way to calm the limbic system. So the essence of mindfulness is focusing on the present, the here and now, most obviously the bodily experience – and that seems to be effective in calming the limbic system and the anxiety.

One of the best forms of mindfulness therefore is a close focus on the self – your breathing. Really be aware of the flow of air, how open your throat is, the sound of your breathing, the rise of the belly and chest. Then focus on the rest of the body. How you are sitting, your weight on the seat or the floor. Check through the body carefully.

Other forms of mindfulness recommend you can focus on an object a flower or candle or a piece of fruit. Touch, smell, taste. There’s no room here for details of lots of techniques – there are plenty online. My advice: Keep it simple. Start with breathing. Let it grow out to the next stage… about the body. And then maybe engage the sensory aspect – and the sensual with music, dance, food etc – really relishing on the present experience.

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Now that Important Central Question: why we don’t in fact use the techniques more – techniques that we are aware of and we rationally know would be helpful? (and why are lawyers some of the hardest people to help?)

Going a bit deeper and a bit wider there are two aspects: the social and the personal.

Socially – a perspective is obviously that our society has become one of hyper-stimulation, ambition raising, anxiety generating. Some of the best brains and biggest budgets are dedicated to pumping up success – status consciousness and consumerism. Have a look at another note on this blog:

But less obviously there is an element of stress as status. A sense of value. Workaholic becomes stressaholic “I don’t have time to do all this.” which basically means “I don’t have time (and I am too important?) to look after myself. I am too busy doing the work, meeting my targets and looking after others”. (So to counteract that exaggerated work ethic, the antidote I offer is: “It’s your duty to look after yourself first”.)

“If I relax I will lose my cutting edge.” (Antidote: “you will actually be more effective if you look after yourself”) Are you proud and do you boasting about how busy and stressed you are? Suffer from perfectionism? Feel never good enough? (Antidote: “self valuing” may be becoming “self importance?!” That sounds much less attractive?!)

But add that in our work – we are dealing with genuinely the most important legal cases there are – and the most distressing issues. So there’s a danger we embrace “Noble Stress”!

Is there generally an unhealthy illusion of a high status, high achieving, adrenalised super work ethic? A workaholic, in fact masochistic style of working? Which in fact is not optimally efficient. Indeed it includes self-sabotage. Compare that with (maybe a Scandinavian?) ideal of emotionally intelligent, relaxed efficiency.

Personal: Firstly it is worth considering a potentially stressful situation and noticed that some people will not be stressed by that, others only moderately so and others may have a more extreme reaction.

If you are in the last group, then we are discussing the fact that your brain is very sensitive to stress factors. They may be specific ones or it may be more generalised anxiety.

Going considerably deeper (and you may not wish to follow this) the extent to which – and the way in which – a person is sensitive to stress reflects how their mind was formed during childhood. We are now realising that adverse childhood experiences include even quite normal ones such as parental separation, other bereavements, sibling bullying, parents with psychological problems, parents who offer highly conditional love / ie approval for success. These all influence the developing mind of the child. By their very normality they are unacknowledged, unspoken about, unprocessed, powerful. The concept that you will hear more and more about is cPTSD. Please refer to the note on the website.

Complex (or childhood) PTSD – Adverse childhood experiences

This next point may also be challenging because it is about something unconscious: If tenseness is safety – then relaxation is dangerous; it makes you vulnerable.

In response to stress we may develop a way of coping with the bodily tension which links to being emotionally detached, armoured, covered with a frantic overthinking with a future-focussed anxiety. If so, then loosening the body, slowing down and opening up a crack in the armour is scary. The mind may recoil and hold onto this stress body and lifestyle.

In fact, it becomes not just a habit but an addiction. Stressaholic. A stress state which is uncomfortable but which is familiar and therefore paradoxically comfortable. So it blocks the techniques mentioned above. It is hard to escape – but awareness of this is the first stage. “Ah there I go again – hanging onto my stress”. “I think I hate it but in fact I love it…”

In terms of personal relationships, stress can lead to a hot, frantic, tense head and body and the danger of a rather cold heart. The alternative is to use skilful techniques to slow up, cool the head and the body and therefore to warm the heart?

And to repeat – if the yoga is too much of a hassle – the simplest skilful technique is breathing: It may be good to think: “As I breathe in I am daring to breathe in. I am breathing in courage and confidence and strength. I have the right to be here.” ” When I breathe out, I am daring to relax, to come out of emergency mode. I am safe.” Confident and Relaxed. A nice combination?

And you can do this anywhere – at any time.


A few further notes:

1. Arms high in a triumphant posture.

I was surprised to find to find confirmation about some of this stuff in a TED talk by a Professor at Harvard Business School. Look at TED talks Amy Cuddy:

She claimed that she got one group of students to pose in hunched, defeated postures and another group to pose in expansive postures, extended, or arms held high. They then took mock interviews. The first group were not successful, the second were. More useful for me is that the measured cortisol levels (which is the anxiety hormone) in the triumphant posing students was reduced and their testosterone increased.

This has been challenged in recent research where another scientist was not able to replicate her outcomes – in particular her very ambitious claim that she could in a few minutes alter the hormones level of people. But it seems that the beneficial effect was genuine.

Why not adapt that? – not to do good interviews in business but firstly simply to reduce anxiety. Seriously worth doing for many of us.

And secondly, by adding other less triumphant poses, eg in Yoga and tai chi to generate a state of body / mind that we may feel to be more constructive: confidence yes – but one that leads to a loosening up, a more peaceful, receptive state.

2. So… Triumph but also Surrender

This seems an irony. But for me it’s not just about pumping up confidence – it’s about other emotions. Emotions which are expressed in the body and therefore, by using the body, we can influence.

It is not obvious – but explore this: One of the most important ones is the angle of the neck.

Dogs express their mood of fear and submission or happiness or triumph with their tail angles. Humans do so with their head angles.

The bowed head is a universal expression of surrender. Prayer mode in most religions. And Sorrow. But we are usually conscious and proud and so we override that and we pull our heads back up. We end up with that confused, frightened tortoise pose that we also adopt at a computer screen.

The muscles at the back of the neck therefore hold contradictory impulses. Bow down and pull up. They go into a rigid state. I think this is very bad for body and mind.

But rather than try and simply force ourselves to ‘stand up straight’ I would suggest exploring something paradoxical. If there is an impulse to surrender – go towards it. Explore it. Hang the head. Stretch out those muscles at the back of the neck. Feel how good that is. How much some deep part of us wants to do that. Surrender. Breathe. Feel safe. (It is related to prayer or worship. Which 99.9% of human kind has needed. So if we think we don’t need it? I think there could be a form of non-deistic worship – but that’s a bigger story.)

Then when we emerge and stand up straight, it comes from somewhere much better, much deeper.

Never mind all these words. Please – just try it and see if it connects.

3. Pelvis and sex.

It’s far too big a subject to explore much in this note and many people may object to the subject or the approach here but in fact the response to stress, especially social threat is four fold: Freeze, Fight, Flight and Flirt.

It is dangerous waters but – there is a hardwired instinct in humans that sex is used as a conflict diffuser, a stress response.

Unattractive view? Try Googling: “Bonobos”. They were previously known as the pygmy chimpanzees and as Wikipedia says: “The bonobo is popularly known for its high levels of sexual behaviour. Sex functions in conflict appeasement, affection, social status, excitement, and stress reduction. It occurs in virtually all partner combinations and in a variety of positions. This is a factor in the lower levels of aggression seen in the bonobo when compared to the common chimpanzee and other apes. Bonobos are perceived to be matriarchal.”

The other ones are now called the Common Chimpanzee, and a hierarchical and aggressive lot they are.

We are the third chimpanzee. It would be nice to see that we can share the characteristics of either of our cousins. And we can choose to notice that we have both instincts. We seem to prioritise being hierarchical and aggressive. And we censor out many of the bonobo ones.

Flirting is safe in some situations and dangerous and too complicated in many.

But I am not discussing social mores here. I am just talking stretching and bending exercises and using body language to help emotionally.

And I notice that the pelvis holds a powerful charge. Pelvic thrusts ‘say something’ – something that we usually repress. And perhaps for women is a strange piece of body language.

For most men ‘shaking that ass’ is also very unfamiliar – and digs into something flirtatious, alien, powerful, embarrassing maybe and repressed. Good to go towards it.

Never mind all these words. Please – just try it and see if it connects.

4. The need to do this all the time . All of this is about a session of breathing or stretching and bending. That has great benefits. But then I tend to go back to the usual mode of breath holding and tense body – with consequent anxiety, hyperalertness, spotting threats, cranking up the anxiety etc. Quite often and increasingly I notice this and breathe out even in the office. (I get asked “Why are you sighing David? Is something the matter?” ) And I stretch and bend – just occasionally..

But as far as I know it is only the Alexander Technique which emphasises the fact that a new way of holding yourself has to be a strong, new, all day habit. Sadly Alexander is a bit of a cult but underneath all that, many of the ideas seem very helpful. They are also very concerned with the importance of the angle of the neck – see Note 2 above.

5. Have a look at another TED talk – Google TED Kelly McGonigal Stress

Her message – it’s not stress that damages your health. It is stress + the belief that stress damages your health – which damages your health! Change your attitude – change the reality.

She refers to research by  Health Psychol. 2012 Sep; 31(5): 677–684.   Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter?  The Association with Health and Mortality

Conclusion:    High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.

6. A new thought in February 2018 was that I truly in my head believe all that I have written here – but I do not have the motivation to act on it at any great length. I have to force myself to do the 10 or 15 minutes each morning. I also notice that I am actually surprised at how effective it is in reducing my anxiety.

Why is that? Perhaps I do not believe it at a deeper level? Is my mind still influenced by early messages? – that bodies and physical exercise is all well and good but not really important and certainly not connected to the mind. The mind – thoughts and words – are what is important and real. This sort of almost intellectual snobbery and cut-offness between body and mind is learnt very young and very thoroughly – and takes an effort to offset. But I am finding that becoming aware of this automatic thinking is a powerful first step.

7. Change

One thing that it has taken me a long time to realise is that change is very hard to spot ‘from the inside’. I can move from feeling anxious to not feeling anxious in 10 minutes but it requires an effort to notice that. It’s as if – whatever we are feeling – that’s it.

Even more so then – real progress is also hard to see. We are addressing unconscious issues here – either deeply unconscious or at least habitual, automatic, unnoticed. So progress is likely to be to some degree unconscious, slow, unobvious.

I have clients who have changed a great deal over a few months who are surprised when I point this out. I have to quote back to them things they were saying at the beginning of our work – and then they seem curiously reluctant to believe in their own progress. Maybe both of these are true of me. And maybe of many people.

I have put a summary below on one page. Some clients tell me they have put a copy of this up on the fridge door and use it to encourage a morning and / or evening routine.

So how to get this state of open throat breathing and relaxed body language into our daily lives? I look forward to hearing your ideas!.

David Jockelson

Action: Breathing Comment: Because in stress…
Open throat Yawn, huff up glass, pretend to smoke We close our throats to hold our breath. Squeaky voice
Breath from belly Stick it out. Pull it in. We only use top of lungs
Really empty lungs Breathe out. Hah. Then more. Hahhhhh We hold back
Hold it there Still small point of calm We are usually in a hurry
10 times Focus We are often distracted
Then use top of lungs Shoulder back. Proud. We are too frightened to
Put them all together New habit We have damaging habits
Then explore powerful body language
Hang head Surrender We are too proud to do so
Tilt, rotate head Loosen up, stretch We are tight and stiff
Open mouth wide Yoga Lion face We are tight lipped, controlled
Loosen, flex jaw Loosen up, wiggle We clench our teeth
Pull faces Puzzled, angry etc We overcontrol our faces
Raise then lower shoulders Exaggerate. Fast then slow We both display and suppress our fear in our shoulders
Rotate shoulders Windmill, swim, punch Ditto. And anger
Twist trunk Look behind you We are rigid
Touch the ground With bent knees and then straight We get very bad lower back problems
Pelvis Dirty dancing – Pelvic  thrusts, shake that ass We are too embarrassed about sexual display
Do it slow and long: First for 5 minutes, later for 10 minutes.

Keep breathing all the time.

I.e. put the two things together: breathing and movement.

Think of Nelson Mandela who did 20 mins every day.

Note how hard to keep motivation.

Left brain snobbery.

Use a clock.

In stress we produce hormones and our bodies express emotions/impulses: Freeze, Fight, Flight, Flirt, Surrender. But we are ashamed and suppress them. We lock the emotions/impulses in. Our bodies then feed back stress to our minds.

This is a vicious circle. It can be reversed and made into a virtuous circle: Release stress. Clean up the blood.

New messages to the mind. Quick, free, safe anti-anxiety treatment.

Complex (or childhood) PTSD and ACEs Adverse childhood experiences

Complex (or childhood) PTSD and ACEs – Adverse childhood experiences.

And how universal they are.

And why – and in what way our culture and societies have slowly become increasingly and invisibly unhealthy or adverse for children growing up.

This note is long – and yet also too short  to do the subject justice – as it is extremely compressed. Maybe it is so compressed as to be unreadable by some people – but  it will be Ok for others . Try it and see?

It is adapted from an email I sent to an eminent psychiatrist and psychotherapist who responded very positively – so I reckon it’s not too bad.

I have put [Square brackets] where I have explained terms and acronyms for this posting. .

I have been told that articles on blogs shouldn’t be more than one or two pages – so this is a quick intro to the subject: 

This is not simply about PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – as classically understood. That is when an adult, who was otherwise fairly healthy, experiences a dramatic single traumatic event or short period of trauma which then disturbs them into the future.  That is PTSD.  This is a concept that was developed in dealing with Vietnam veterans.  

The letter C in C PTSD officially stands for Complex. However the essence of it is that it is Childhood PTSD. I.e. not necessarily gross trauma and abuse but more what is now called Adverse Childhood Experiences. This can include parents with mental health or addiction problems, divorcing, conflict in the home, as well as traditional physical sexual or emotional abuse. 

The point is that children have soft, impressionable brains and even fairly moderate levels of adverse experiences form the developing brain in a way that lives with them for the rest of their lives.

That sounds a bit hopeless but it is good to say that  it is possible to moderate the affects of them in ways that we are now beginning to explore.

And I want to explore reframing this as CPTSC – Childhood Post Traumatic Stress Condition – picking up on the trend there has been – moving from simply talking pathologisingly about Autism Spectrum Disorder to Autism Spectrum Condition. That emphasises not only that we are all on the Autism Spectrum but that there can be positive aspects to some of the characteristics – especially the ability to hyperfocus. The concept of post traumatic growth connects with compassion and pride in the positive consequences of our adverse childhood experiences – ACEs – that are the origin of CPTSC.

In my email to the psychiatrist I started by explaining…..

Law. For 30 years I have been a solicitor practising in the area of child abuse and neglect. In dozens of cases every year I am involved in the incredibly detailed exploration of family dysfunction through the court process. I truly see the evidence of CPTSD – in the state of the parents accused of abuse and the neglect, in the origins in their childhoods and in the trauma inflicted on their children and therefore the likely or actual development in them of their own CPTSD. What is often referred as “transmission down the generations” – as well probably as the epigenetic aspect. A subject that my legal world is only beginning to hear about!

For me what is of growing importance is that although many case are often quite extreme, there is a considerable range or spectrum of degree from gross physical or sexual abuse through less obvious emotional abuse, neglect and sheer attachment disorders shading into what is seen as acceptable and normal parenting. This normal ACE [Adverse Childhood Experiences], is really important in care cases as Children’s Services are now so risk averse that they think in very black and white terms and flinch away from the shade of grey the spectrum aspect of ACE.

Therapy. I have also been a practising BACP psychotherapist for the last 12 years and I have fortunately had a more creative and therapeutic relationship with adult survivors of dysfunctional childhoods – and my work again involves a wide range of spectrum in the degree of severity of their experiences and of the consequences.

CPTSD seem to me to be a particularly valuable issue as it identifies both a set of symptoms and identifies the causation of many other conditions or disorders so elaborately identified by DSM5 and ICD-10 /11. [International systems for classifying mental illnesses by diagnosis]

However, practising in both my areas of work, has make me somewhat dissatisfied with the whole approach of identifying disorders in the way that those two systems do. I would like immodestly to offer some ideas.

Perhaps because of my occupational roles I start with some ideas which may be close to familiar material but broadening to wider perspectives that may strain a reader’s tolerance.

The problems with symptom identification of disorders. Defining conditions and disorders by listing their symptoms in a checklist such as DSM5 or ICD-11 I suggest has certain drawbacks.

Firstly it is therapeutically unhelpful unscientific. It h has been challenged by NIMH, [National Institute of Mental Health in the US]on the basis that it doesn’t help identify the objective organic substrate.

Describing physical symptoms such as having a high fever does not assist as much as identifying whether it is a bacteria or a virus causing that symptom. Therefore does not lend itself to the most accurate therapeutic interventions.

Obviously fMRI scanning is now making ever-increasing progress but there remains many questions – for example if PTSD has been correlated with (among other matters) to reduced hippocampal volume can it to some degree be identified in that way – with potential implications for treatment? See below.

Spectrum disorders. Secondly the system for diagnosing disorder by identifying the existence of a certain number of symptoms for a certain length of time is precisely a process not only of box ticking but of putting disorders into boxes with firm sides or limits.

It ignores what I see as clearly the reality that many disorders are spectrum disorders that I have mentioned and which I find really important in practice. .

Obviously ASD made this transition into embracing the spectrum nature of that disorder some years ago but does not the same logic apply to EUPD or GAD? [Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, previously called Borderline Personality Disorder. And Generalised Anxiety Disorder.]

The advantage of this, apart from the fact that it reflects reality more closely, would be a more humanistic approach – that people with disorders are not in a wholly separate category to others who are seen as not having that disorder.

Indeed even more challengingly, people with disorders are seen on the same spectrum as those of us seeking to assist them?

This not only perhaps increases the humility of those of us who are attempting to perform a therapeutic role but also, by ameliorating the stigma associated with the concept of fixed boundary disorders, increases the confidence of those who present as patients or as clients.

This confidence is perhaps not only a healthier place for them to be but would make them far more receptive to therapeutic interventions. And receptive in a more healthy way – of a collaborating patient rather than helpless recipient of interventions.

Would it be impertinent to suggest that our desire to put diagnoses and disorders into firm edged boxes is a reflection of our need for order, categorisation and perhaps distancing from the conditions and therefore from our patients or clients?

Overlapping disorders. A further perspective from the symptomology model of understanding disorders is to see that using the boxes approach for symptoms not only ignores the spectrum dimension but also ignores the degree of overlap between various conditions; most obviously GAD and EUPD but also possibly many others particularly, in the area of personality disorder. I see you mention comorbidity but you also hint that it goes much further than that and I am looking forward to hearing about that.

The advantage of CPTSD perhaps is that by focusing on the causative aspect, it is possible to be more inclusive and open-minded about the symptomology?

If a number of different presenting disorders are best understood by reference to the causative factors, this surely sits alongside the move to identify the neurological correlatives of those disorders and the extent to which adverse childhood experiences is again a spectrum of trauma of abuse and neglect.

“Adverse childhood experiences“ is I find a profoundly useful phrase; as it is innately spectrum aware? It does not limit itself to what we would all see as obvious trauma but includes neglect – as I say above – all the way through to a simple lack of love and skill from parents and carers.

We can then focus our attention on the neurological consequences of those adverse childhood experiences in terms of overdeveloped parts of the brain, probably HPA axis and amygdala hypertrophy or the developmental deficit in other aspects of the brain, perhaps hippocampal volume?

We can perhaps categorise this developmental impact during the sensitive growth periods of childhood as “firm-wired“? In contrast obviously to the innate predispositions and neurological basis for that as being hard-wired and later, the more malleable learning and brain formation as being “soft-wired” or informational.

Plasticity and therapy. The question then arises as to what degree of plasticity exists among what aspects of the firm-wired over-developments or under developments neurologically.

Is it likely or possible that overdeveloped neurological structures can modify downwards in terms of benign atrophy by the selective non-using them? Reversing the classic “use it or lose it“, is it possible to some degree to lose it by not using it?

And if the disorder is one which causes the repetition compulsion that some have labelled ““stressaholic behaviour“, then becoming aware of that and modifying one’s reinforcing behaviour might represent a bridge from CBT into some fundamental neurological healing?

Probably more plausible is the focus on the development of compensating offsetting neurological structures such as work to increase the power of the frontal lobes and even possibly hippocampal volume?

I see a growing interest in EMDR and I wonder if that has some effect in loosening up /developing the functioning of the corpus callosum and might find some resonance in this area?

Attachment issues. If one includes in this debate the whole concept of attachment disorders and again applies a spectrum model to this thinking – such as is now more accepted with the use of language such as “attachment styles” – one can look to both the underlying neurology of adverse childhood attachment experiences and also investigate the concept of working with that neurological substrate therapeutically to compensate for deficiencies.

Unconventional therapeutic approaches. And if I am presuming to broaden the terms of this debate generally, may I suggest that we explore the connections between the medical therapeutic model that is discussed above with its questions about possibly unconventional therapeutic approaches to progress that is made both from traditional resources such as yoga and breathing practices?

Endocrinological aspects. We could perhaps connect them through the endocrinological approach of examining the hormonal consequences of various traditional practices and the impact of endocrine changes both on immediate mood, perception and behaviour of people but also examining whether chronic or at least longer term endocrinological conditions can have an adverse or a positive impact on neurological functioning or even structures?

In my work with therapy clients, I limit myself currently to suggesting and encouraging their work with breathing by explaining the Sympathetic and Para Sympathetic Nervous Systems and the benefits of the release of natural serotonin and oxytocin. I simply work with visualisations of scenarios of shock or threat – which cause the gasping in breath and then breath holding with closed throat. And tense muscles and body posture. And then visualise coming out of that state with the release of the breath – sighing, shouting etc with open throat and the changed body tension and body language.

This is my current most active area of exploration – for clients and for myself, who as you may have guessed is pretty well up the spectrum of CPTSD. Personally, after five years of analysis with Jaffa Kareem until his death, and then other purely talking therapies, I have been working with a body therapist with whom I do talking, insight and emotion work but also body work.

My body certainly remembers very early, baby aged loss and trauma which is far too deep for words. I assume my HPA axis is overdeveloped and my cortisol release is over eager and over intense. Having antidoted it with adrenaline and testosterone for many years I am now working with breathing, yoga and other ways of increasing serotonin and oxytocin. Those ways include, fairly obviously perhaps, socialising, especially eating socially, moderate exercise, music, dancing, rocking, massage, hugs and sex, creativity, generosity, gratitude, meditation.
All seem to trigger PSNS [Parasympathetic Nervous System], hence the serotonin and oxytocin and speaking more radically seem to move me from the action mode of Freeze, Fight, Flight, Flirt, Search – into the Surrender and Grief mode. And I think maybe Healing lies in that grief?

Repression by normalisation.

And in dealing with some middleclass therapy clients I begin to see that the degree of damage ultimately caused by adverse childhood experiences is dependent not only on the degree of adversity but by the degree of repression ie lack of acknowledgement of the adversity.

To create what is perhaps a rather contrived heuristic system of measurement: A normal or “respectable” home – precisely because of its conventionality – may have only 2 units of ACE x 8 units of denial > 16 units of adverse outcome?! Whereas 8 units of ACE more recognised as traumatic but fully acknowledged may produce only 10 units of adverse outcome?!

This could be the difference between eg ACE privately inflicted by a child’s carers – as against a public trauma eg of a car crash, even the chronic trauma of physical illness.

This has the paradoxical outcome that ordinary levels of adversity can be fully repressed especially with a degree of “over parenting” prevalent and admired in an ambitious family and this causes adverse outcomes that are puzzling to the adult.

So many times have I had clients tell me they had happy childhoods and then recount stories of what in fact amount to serious emotional abuse and neglect. The “false memory syndrome” in fact goes that way.

Nuclear family life. Added to which is the issue of the nuclear family, over intense, private to the point of being secretive – without the benefit of an extended family or a fully functioning “village that raises the child“.

In fact rather than the classic trick of idealising parenting with a model of the perfect nuclear family, we might do better to revert to a picture which is more realistic of the natural childhood experiences throughout many “less-developed“ parts of the world and throughout millennia of human familial history.

Adolescence.  Finally, to stretch the receptivity of any reader even further, may I suggest a sociological or even philosophical perspective – namely that adverse childhood experiences in fact relate to a child’s attachment and the neurological underpinnings of that. The lack of secure attachments will inevitably generate attachment anxiety and separation from the caregivers.

Such separation and associated anxiety is typical, inevitable and necessary at puberty and adolescence. However in our society actual separation at that age is not practical given our extended childhoods and educational demands as well as the practical issues of accommodation and this converts adolescence from being a moment of freedom into a period of conflict.

Nonetheless I think it may be useful to think that this pubertal or adolescent experience of separating from attachment figures is available hardwired to all children and may be triggered prematurely by adverse childhood attachments.

If a pre-adolescent child actually enlists the adolescent separation behaviour and attitudes prematurely, can that premature adolescence in fact become fixed as a way of responding and carried through into adult life?
(I wonder to what extent the separation is driven by the premature independence impulse and consequent necessary separation anger which makes the anxiety it self-generates particularly problematic to process?)

If we were to list, perhaps in exaggerated or caricature terms the qualities of adolescence, does one not find an echo in some of the disorders that we identify?

And, even more fundamentally, in the prevailing culture in our societies where acquisitiveness, consumerism, hypersexuality (which in fact means courtship behaviour – ie attachment invitation, implied acceptance) , competitiveness, over-reactivity, neophilia, adrenaline addiction – is both reinforced by a culture and may be seen as being a part – indeed perceived as a necessary part -of an economic model that has serious negative consequences both on an individual basis and in terms of a global impact?

Linking this back to the endocrinological perspective, can we characterise it as the adolescent response to the cortisol of separation anxiety being the natural and exaggerated increase in testosterone (in boys and girls?) and adrenaline which has now becomes socially and culturally the norm in some cultures?
This has obvious implications in gender issues: the linkage between anger, dominance and sex; male adolescent sexuality as effectively being early courtship behaviour, pre any real intimacy and accordingly potentially impersonal, even predatory sexuality. This is obviously a very topical issue but one where there is very poor level of discussion.
I do find this perspective of ongoing adolescence can be valuable with clients: – with some therapeutic clients it is possible to help them explicitly see the degree of adolescence that they still operate in. But with others and but also with the more receptive legal clients – simply using language of moving from immaturity to maturity is acceptable and effective.
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The style of this note is perhaps ironically marked by some of the characteristics described above and may seem not only amateur, naive and arrogant but also breathless and series of disconnected ideas.

That may be one of the perils of thinking or discussing matters outside of the boxes. I would suggest a more favourable perspective is one of the integration of the number of approaches, joining the dots.


A general statement could be that emotional unhealthiness can be seen as predominantly the result of adverse childhood experiences during the formative years, but those adverse childhood experiences do not need to be gross and obvious examples of abuse or neglect but lie on a spectrum – possibly an all-inclusive spectrum – with the perfect happy childhood experience and attachment experience being almost mythical.

The adversity of the outcome is a function of the adversity of the experience plus the completeness of the repression, normalisation, denial. This produces a wide spectrum of disorders, some of which have been labelled or medicalised as overt pathologies but the remainder of the spectrum sometimes dismissed as the “worried well“ which in fact represent the basic unhealthiness of the majority of our population. Indeed that unhealthiness may be both admired and high functioning in an unhealthy culture.

The model of the premature and then permanent state of adolescence may be useful, responding to attachment anxiety whereby the cortisol infused anxiety is antidoted by the typically adolescent cocktail of testosterone and adrenaline.

The growth area may be in the attraction of naturally produced serotonin calmness, rather than the artificially sustained serotonin from medication – together with oxytocin which, although not without complications, does have a pro social component relevant to attachment and maybe even has a component which encourages the making of connections intrapsychically? If so maybe ameliorating therefore both social alienation and internal alienation from a person’s emotional needs and resources.

I have a personal anecdotal experience about this. Some months after I started analysis I was meditating and breathing and had what I now see as a huge surge of oxytocin which led to an ecstatic state of connectedness and attachment – aka love – not just for my family but for almost everyone and everything!

Sadly it waned over the next few weeks – but the essential trigger experience was one of huge and unnamed grief. I can only suppose it was for the loss at 5 months of my mother and my subsequent abuse by brother, father and school. If so, oxytocin was both produced by the grief but also I suspect opened my mind to the grief.

I have never again had that intense experience but try in a much more moderate way to enlist oxytocin in my grief and healing process. In the meantime, I also work at a Bereavement Service once a week! No coincidence.

I return to something I have written above: The practices mentioned above under oxytocin all seem to trigger PSNS and speaking more radically seem to move me from the action mode of Freeze, Fight, Flight, Flirt, Search – into the Surrender and Grief mode. And I think maybe Healing lies in that grief. Does that sound right to you?

I am looking at the extent to which the developed wisdom of Bereavement processing can apply to grieving and processing the reality of the ACE? Models of bereavement – eg: although they are definitely not Stages – the identification of Aspects of grief – numbness and denial,. Searching, etc And the concept of tasks. And Continuing Bonds… may all have an equivalent application?

Many thanks if you have reached this point in the note.

I look forward to hearing from you if you have time for any responses

Best wishes

David Jockelson

The roots of the problems: Our culture of permanent adolescence – anger, stress and other addictions

This is adapted from a talk I was invited to give at the Manchester and District Medico-Legal Society. 15 February 2012.

It is probably considered too long for an article on a blog …. although I know people do in fact read entire books online… so I have prepared this brief summary:

The thesis is quite simple, challenging and probably unattractive or even unacceptable for many people.

We have two massive crises in the world at the present moment: Firstly the environmental one where human greed and consumerism has depleted resources, created pollution including carbon dioxide which has caused global warming with terrifying consequences.

Secondly, in parallel with this there is crisis of mental health with extraordinary levels of anxiety, depression, violence including self directed – self harm and suicide as well as a widespread general dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

I think the two crises are linked by the simple fact that the dominant culture is now one of the a massively exaggerated acting out of adolescent impulses, values and behaviour.

Normal adolescence – at the appropriate age of puberty – is a time of separation of the child from their parents or carers – their attachment figures. It is a time for the young person to seek to make new attachments in romantic and sexual terms. It is a time therefore marked by anxiety at separation as well as self-consciousness, vanity, competitiveness and consumerism.

How can it be that we have an epidemic of ongoing exaggerated adolescence? My answer is that unsatisfactory childhoods, the early problems or even failure of healthy attachment between child and parent cause a child to be anxious and rejecting.

Those are appropriate emotions and behaviours at puberty however that adolescent state is being triggered prematurely and in an exaggerated form. It is massively encouraged and has been institutionalised as the norm in by our current culture with advertising, role modelling and social media.

Perhaps because it starts prematurely and is encouraged in this way, institutionalised by the culture, it becomes a permanent, on going state. No value is ascribed to post-adolescent maturity – in fact the concept is hardly spoken of – and people have become locked into this ongoing state of exaggerated adolescence.

A curious but effective way of addressing what our current social norms and encouragement is to look at the shelves in the newsagent. There the adolescent “needs“ of men are being catered for with hyper-sexuality, divorced from real intimacy, fascination with power in the form of cars, planes, guns, hunting as well as self-consciousness in the form of bodybuilding. And the adolescent needs stereotypically of women is catered for by a phenomenal degree of encouragement of vanity with the emphasis on remaining young – effectively adolescent – as well as a fascination with other people’s adolescent behaviour – particularly with a focus on role models in the form of celebrities and their romantic and sexual behaviour or of imaginary figures in romantic literature .

There is also a great deal of focus on home-building and food preparation although even that has a strong streak of competitiveness and self-conscious showing off.

The next question then becomes: how can it be that there is such general dysfunctionality in family life?

And my answer is the second unattractive thesis presented here – the isolated, nuclear family is innately unhealthy.

There is general intuitive understanding of the wisdom of the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child.“ That can be modified slightly to seeing that it takes an extended family within a village to raise a child in an emotionally healthy way.

But the model of the village and the extended family has been destroyed, with urbanisation, population mobility and contraception, leaving as a generality only a nuclear family of child or children being largely parented by one or maybe two parents or parental figures.

Those adults have the task of giving the unconditional love that the child needs for a secure base but equally the burden of socialising – which is ultimately one of restriction, control and often disapproval.

Compare that with a wider family or a village where the socialising is effectively done by a wider circle of adults but largely in play with other young people. In that situation a child is told what is not acceptable by older siblings, cousins, friends. Equally importantly those young people give models for a child to imitate which can sometimes be unhealthy but can also be healthy especially with benign and concerned adult input.

The socialising, the checking and the learning of social norms – which has a cost in terms of the child’s selfishness – is carried out socially then the relationship with the parents does not carry the exclusive or excessive burden of that socialising.

A second major point is that in such an extended family / village situation, the child themselves soon has the responsibility and the healthy power to help care for and socialise younger children – a real role and quite different from being the relentlessly powerless role in a home with parents or at school.

To describe this as innately unhealthy is not to suggest some universal traumatizing of children. The language of therapy has now moved to broaden the question from only obvious trauma of abuse and neglect to looking at Adverse Childhood Experiences which also includes much more common problems in the family such as parental conflict, substance abuse etc. We can now broaden that further to include the innate disadvantages of the nuclear family.

Whether you accept this second thesis or not, the first thesis of the predominance of the ongoing, exaggerated adolescence must surely be confirmed by the deeply alarming and depressing evidence of catastrophic social and worldwide dysfunctionality.

Any ideas for a solution?! It would be reasonable to ask what I suggest can be done to assist us in moving out of adolescence and into a state of greater maturity.

On the logic above it looks like we need to be able to process the Adverse Childhood Experiences that we have had.

Some of those are relatively obvious and would qualify as abusive and even traumatic. But many people have not had such clear experiences and the problem lies in the much more pervasive, normal as explored above – and therefore much harder to notice – issue of over parenting and the claustrophobic nuclear family situation.

It is generally understood that the ongoing damage resulting from an adverse childhood experience has to be understood as the severity of the damage multiplied by the degree to which it is covered up, denied and ultimately repressed by the person themselves. This covering up does not need to be oppressive and brutal – it can be the result of the sheer normality of the unhealthy situation as outlined above.

The obvious analogy is with a physical wound. The ongoing consequences reflect the seriousness of the wound in the first place and then the degree to which it has been covered up and allowed to fester and go gangrenous. And the obvious implication of that is that the healing begins when we uncovered the wound very carefully and let light and air get to it – and drain off the pus.  This is otherwise

I am working on ideas about how therapy can address these issues and I’m still in working on an unobvious idea which starts with bereavement counselling, which I have done for fourty years now, and how the lessons I have learnt from that are valuable in therapy in general.

I am working on writing a couple of articles on those issues which I will add to this website soon I hope.

Below is the talk I gave in Manchester rather a long time ago but it seems more relevant than ever. Warning – it is long, exploratory and get into the historical aspects and the political consequences. ———————————————————————————

Crisis:  Our culture of permanent adolescence –  anger, stress and other addictions.

This is ambitious – very general and only from my own thinking – not relying on other writers, texts etc.

So how dare I? Answer – I think it is necessary: As a culture – there is an undeniable, urgent crisis facing us. Things are going wrong. People are suffering – unnecessarily. It is not too extreme to say that people are dying – unnecessarily.

In my world – the world of the lawyers here: In the home – people are suffering and dying in domestic violence, of child abuse and neglect. On the streets – other crime, of drugs and alienated youth and gangs – a huge and rapidly growing problem in all our cities that I will come back to in more detail. And I think I can offer some ideas about that subject. And wider, much wider – throughout the world – fundamentalism, hatred and wars.

For the doctors here – dealing with the victims of this violence and the self inflicted violence – overt self harming, drugs, as well as self harm in smoking, food eating disorders, the obesity time bomb, etc. All in all – we are surely talking about general gross dysfunctionality.

Before moving on please note how hard it is to hold in the mind both the highly visible acute, extreme cases of murder and suicide on one hand –  and the chronic widespread dysfunctionality which is far less obvious because it is normalised in our society;  from obesity through to family breakdown, parenting problems, unhappiness – etched in the faces of so many of us .

So it’s zooming up and down this spectrum of symptoms: Acute and chronic. That could make us dizzy or confused. Actually it’s not that hard. For doctors: heart attacks are embedded in the extreme symptoms of unfitness, poor diet. For child care lawyers: abuse is rooted in lack of love, which also produces chronic neglect of all degrees. Hate and anger is rooted in lack of care and love. Lack of the inclination – perhaps the ability to love.

Another huge issue underlying dysfunctionality is the fact of our greed, relentless, insatiable appetites; making so many people simply unhappy, frustrated, feeling failures. And globally -trashing the planet for our descendants. Insatiable. We will come back to that important word.

Why? Why, when we have solved some of the concrete, physical problems do we self-inflict new problems – or exaggerate old ones? This surely calls out for an urgent answer. An answer which explains attitude and behaviour, lack of love and care, too much aggression. And too much greed. I think I have it. Hence the tough subject matter. What can I possibly offer? Indeed – Why was I asked at all?

Well you have heard my background which maybe can establish my credentials and may explain where these ideas come from:- I assume I have been asked here as I have been a legal aid solicitor for 30 years, a therapist for 15 years with particular emphasis on bereavement and then running parenting workshops for 10 years. (and I am blessed with two daughters in their 20s. [now 30s] )

I have found that these areas of professional work and my family life do connect: As a solicitor for the first years of practice I was dealing with clients in crime and mental health, family breakdowns and acting for clients on both sides of Domestic Violence, victims and perpetrators. And then care cases – care here meaning abuse and neglect. All of these dealing with the symptoms if you like – the acted out dysfunctionality.

I could talk all evening about those behaviours; those symptoms of dysfunctionality. Possibly interesting, even amusing in a bleak sort of way.

After a few years in practice I began to specialise in child care cases – working for the children and for parents. Involving violence and neglect. Seeing dysfunctionality from both sides. Within families. Digging down a bit more into the history and the causes. The cases involve studying the history of people and families, lengthy observations, enquiries and psychiatric and psychological reports. It is really useful to see the roots in the lack of attachment, love, care. Seeing that connecting up with overt aggression and callousness to others and to self. That’s where I come from.

Let me say now that the talk has three subjects: Firstly stating and exploring how it is that many of the problems of society and for individuals are caused by a culture of permanent and exaggerated adolescence. Distorted adolescence.

Secondly I will explore how that distorted culture has developed over history. A sociological perspective.

Third I will explore exactly what happens psychologically in adolescence and how that has gone wrong. How and why adolescence is a very vulnerable moment and why it has therefore been so easily distorted. Integrating the personal psychological perspective with a historical, sociological perspective is another challenge. To see how they feed into each other.

And there could be a fourth stage – we can see if these theories produce any useful suggestions for changes and solutions. This is an area of development. I have no complete instant solution.

The next and final challenge: not only is this not polished. It also deals with some deeply unattractive matters. And the thesis is quite resistible. And I have found from discussions that it is especially unattractive to women. Because it is most obviously about Men … Behaving Badly – and my trying to understand that – explain it. And that could be seen as excusing it. It’s not. It really is about understanding – in order to challenge and change.

I will really appreciate your feedback. At the end – or by e-mail.

How does this relate to adolescence? Let me explain this by saying how this thesis developed?

Stage one: I noticed many years ago dealing with youth crime, then with young parents… no prizes … their behaviour and the attitudes behind them were immature. Adolescent. Aggressive, callous. Lacking care for others and self – self-destructive.

That was easy. Young and working class. Or underclass to use an accurate, unpleasant word.

Stage two: then I saw that with older clients in crime and family. These adolescent characteristics continue. Anger, violence.

Stage three: Then for 15 years as a therapist trying to mend the damage that adult individuals are left with. Mainly middle class and apparently well functioning people. Who struggle with their anger – and with their inability to love fully. To be warmly intimate. Getting close to home.

Stage four: Running parenting workshops for very well intentioned, concerned, middle class parents determined not to pass on emotional damage to their children and appalled to see they are.

Especially as the parenting workshops attract parents of actual adolescents – I had to examine explicitly the struggles, the characteristics of adolescence. The parents so often reported a shocking change ‘as the hormones came in’. “I have lost my son or daughter.” Especially – but not only – boys. Moving from warm, affectionate, reasonable, loving to parents and siblings – to being cut off, rejecting of home, obsessed by his peer group, angry, anxious, sexually obsessed in the most alienated, aggressive, pornographic, unpleasant way. Real shock and distress for parents. Angry and unloving.

Stage five: the way the parents dealt with the problems of adolescents led me to begin to see also the conflict between the immaturity of the child and the less than complete maturity of the parent. Adults with adolescent qualities.

Stage six: That points to a socially very widespread, milder dysfunctionality of adolescent characteristics . A spectrum disorder. Quite hard to keep a clear focus because now we are talking about acute cases embedded in a chronic emotional unhealth. So widespread, so universal and culturally normal – that it is hard to notice it, it is almost invisible.

Not just our clients and patients but even in ourselves.? Dare we look at that tonight? You may be glad to know there is no time to look at that tonight. We will just talk about Other People. If the ideas seem useful you may like to see if they in any way apply to you. They do to me.

As you know – my answer is – Adolescence. The title of the talk: “Our culture of permanent adolescence – sex, anger, stress and other addictions”: This was slightly misleading – to avoid using the word “Hyper-adolescence”. Hyper-adolescence is a more accurate but an unattractive word.

I say hyper-adolescence because I will explore with you the idea that many of our major problems as individuals and as a society come from the fact that we live in and are formed by a culture of 1. premature adolescence, 2. exaggerated adolescence and 3. extended, continuing adolescence. Unnatural, pathological, hypertrophied.

How can I say these are problems of hyper-adolescence?

This is where we come to the psychological bit. We need to put it in place before the historical.

Let’s ask what is the essence of adolescence? – Is it not the psychological and social changes that arise from puberty? The moving out of childhood.

And this is a traumatic transition period. Not usually recognised as such.

Because psychologically the issue is leaving the main attachment to parents and siblings – severing those bonds – Separation and loss of the relationship that ensured your survival as a child. Pushing away Care and Love and safety . How scary is that? How crazy? Why do it?

Answer: This is in order to become an adolescent who, from a Darwinian perspective, has one purpose in life – to form new attachments – first to peers – to form very, very powerful peer groups, friendships groups. And then to seek new sexual attachments. And procreate. Darwinianly – that is the Imperative. You can’t put it any higher than that.

Sorry to be reductionist but we are only here to reproduce – as parents or to support other people who perpetuate our genes. We are only here because our ancestors succeeded in this.

And anyone who is around teenagers knows this behaviour. First the obsessive peer relationship struggles. Friendship issues. Friends vastly more important than family.

And then love sick, sex crazed. And any of us who dare to remember those times ourselves ….. the all consuming obsession with mate choice, fancying, hoping, rejections, sorrow, joy.

Adolescence is a huge step, dangerous. Surely how that transition, this separation is handled is crucial. Crucial to the immediate issue of parenting and family relations …. and crucial to the long term future of each child. Adolescence is about insecurity.

So we are talking about separation and loss. Like a bereavement. This is not obvious but please give this a chance. Having specialised in work around bereavement for some years I am aware that some bereavement losses are more easily processed and others are not. The signs of the ones that are not are often those marked by exaggerated and ongoing anger, guilt, anxiety, pain. Which leads to the use of pain killers – anaesthetics – which is the root of addictive behaviour: either the obvious ones of drugs and drink or the less obvious of hyper-busyness, workaholic, pursuing complaints, campaigns.

And these are often the result of certain sorts of deaths: unexpected deaths, suicides and murders, or the opposite where death has been drawn out for too long. Where there has been conflict with the deceased person. Or with the family. Ambiguous circumstances. Unclear – a disappeared person. Or where there has been no funeral or a confused conflictual funeral and situation after the death. . The ceremony spoiled. These are messy, ‘bad deaths’.

We know what makes a ‘good death’ – To be very clear these are no less deeply painful wounds – but they are cleaner and more healable. Answer: Good feelings with the person who died , death not too fast, not too slow, good family harmony, joined in grief, ceremonies, acknowledgement from many people – the tribe. Rituals and symbols – connecting to deeper emotional parts of the brain. Not too rational.

OK so in light of that – how about adolescence? The separation and loss of childhood? Of childhood attachments? Is that separation and loss handled elegantly? Calmly? Lovingly? Easily? In a structured, socially blessed way? Blessing rituals. Rites of passage. Is it complete?

Or is it resisted? Is it impractical in our society? At a time when an adolescent should be leaving home, does he or she have to stay and take A levels? Trapped? Does that mean it has to be fought for? Does it require powerful rejection behaviour by the child? Who denies any regret? Who needs to elicit rejecting behaviour in the adults? Is it a time of conflict and bitterness? Is it a process that may be not only unhappy but incomplete? With ongoing consequences – an incomplete grieving process continues indefinitely. The answer has to be yes – it is all those things. We could ask – what can we learn from bereavement to import into the adolescent loss and separation?

The culture of permanent adolescence is an attachment issue, almost a widespread attachment disorder. A process which should be transitory but has got stuck.

In fact we have made it so much more messy, confused, difficult, unsatisfactory that adolescence is now actually a danger to us all.

As I have said, this talk is unhappily mainly about men – or males. As we are the main problem in terms of antisocial behaviour. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, for me as a man to talk about women as collusive in any way with in this charade.

This is not an excuse for bad male behaviour. nor is it a statement that it is all in the genes, irresistible, hopeless. The point is to understand what is going on and find a solution to the problems,

So – to repeat – the basic thesis — we have not just permanent adolescence but premature…… exaggerated ….and permanent adolescence. Pathological adolescence.

We can look in a moment at why this has come about and the history of this confusion but first can we look more closely at the “qualities” or characteristics of adolescence: of what is classically the preadolescent child and then the adolescent.

Please note: Some problematic characteristics . But crucially some very good – very necessary. As we will see – it is because they are necessary that they have grown to become overdeveloped and bad. I am not saying adolescence is Bad. Any more than someone would say Fire is bad. It can be dangerous and destructive. It can be good – providing warmth and light – if understood and controlled and worked with skillfully.

I have to say ‘classically’ because now, precisely because it has recently become premature, exaggerated and permanent it is no longer occurring in such clear distinct stages – the picture is confused, the stages are mingled. It is necessary to go back to a time a few decades ago when these divisions were more clear.

Preadolescent child
Not all good qualities – the terrible twos are a rehearsal for adolescence but generally more moderate:

More natural and unselfconscious


Sensible Cooperative, keen to please

Integrated, intact

Moderate  Warm


Engaged and affectionate – loving

And in adolescence they become far more:

Not all bad qualities – but generally – extremes so anything you say – the opposite is often also true.

Acutely self-conscious, showing off,

Often false and pretending. To be tough.

Risk taking, brave, masochistic, self harming, self denying, Heroic.

Absent minded – and sometime hyperfocused.

Defiant, oppositional, challenging of conventions and mores

Pulled in different directions and erratic extremes of laziness and hyperactivity, – games.

Hot headed Passionate and sometimes strangely cold-hearted.

Difficult, Irritating. Aggressive. Rejecting and provoking rejection.

Disengaged, alienated, losing affection in gaining sexuality, often predatory. developing a callousness and cruelty to others and to self

Not your children? Not mine? Just caricatures? Ok – easier if I say : I remember this well – in me. And I see it in clients. Don’t you?

The reason of so much of this is simply the need to assert separation. the terrible twos are a rehearsal for adolescence – the first great separation, pushing away.

Yes, modern pre-teens show many of these adolescent qualities . That is the point. Premature adolescence. So we need to use somewhat dated examples – stereotypes to identify the essence. Leave it with you.

Two big questions:

1. How can we encourage and harness the good qualities of adolescence and minimise the problematic ones? That can only be answered by answering the second big question:

2. Next: why is it exaggerated and how long does this last?

Answer to the question of how long it lasts: — It should be a limited duration transition period It can be a move from sanity to a form of madness, antisocial attitudes and behaviour, outside of the tribe, tolerated for that time. Then the mating game. And then when they are paired up and possibly pregnant, return to the tribe and sanity. The model looks like this:

A blip ____n__________ at age ? 13 – 15? For 2 or 3 years? Off on their own peer group. Then a return to sanity. To the main tribe.

But no longer. My thesis is that it is premature, exaggerated and perpetuated

like this: __/ ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯ from age 7 or 8? For…? 20 years if lucky….or 60?

The adolescence characteristics continue into adulthood – and to look at the list of them – it is pretty obvious these are problems – for the society and for each individual.

Yes also the hyperfocus, obsessional traits and the self-sacrifice, heroism are important and we will return shortly to that but so many of the characteristics especially the interpersonal ones are the source of real problems.

To remedy or help with these problematic behaviours – we need to ask why should this be? How has it happened? What’s gone wrong? What can be corrected or compensated for?

The Origins of this hyper-adolescence. 

It is not just a 21st-century phenomenon involving computer games and television. I will give a very brief run through of history in this subject: 1. to convince you it is real. 2. To identify causes – as per medicine – in order to find a cure. 3. To explore which are the healthy and useful behaviours and which are the unhealthy and dangerous ones.

1. This tendency is pushing at an open door: neoteny is the only technical work I will use all evening. Neotony is retaining into adulthood the originally juvenile features of a species – i.e. delayed development – if that benefits a species.. . Haldane stated a “major evolutionary trend in human beings” is “greater prolongation of childhood and retardation of maturity.” Physically and behaviourally we are neotonous apes, adolescent chimpanzees. Playful, inquisitive, innovative: qualities that make us successful. So it’s not just 20th century TV and media – the roots of the problem lie some 6 million years ago. Inquisitive, innovative, adaptable. reflecting the huge growth in neurones at adolescence is the secret of our success as a species so we could count this as a Good Quality. So where – and why – has it gone wrong?

2. But it is not a simple fact – humans are immature. It is more that they have the capacity to switch on or leave switched on some of the qualities of a certain immature phase – of alienation, detachment, callousness. Why? What is this selectivity?

The really crucial fact is that adolescent madness and the qualities listed here are not always just a blooming nuisance and danger – they are useful and necessary in other ways to a tribe because – especially in boys – they are warrior qualities: risk taking, showing off, hungry for status, competitiveness, ready to suffer, callousness to others and self,.

It is hard for people like us in times of peace really to appreciate the need for this madness in war.

The warrior needs to be prepared not only to kill another member of his own species but also to face the very high risk, sometimes certainty, of dying or being mutilated. For the tribe.

Nobody in this room has that challenge.  It is hard to let it in properly.

This is a huge paradox in Darwinian terms. It goes much further than the long discussion about altruism. It means in fact the tribe with particularly crazy boys, spoiling for a fight, aggressive and competitive, who want to form a group or band usually with identifying marks, badges, uniforms, with rituals, who see members of another tribe as nonhuman, ok to kill and who are themselves willing to risk death — that tribe wins out. Obviously. Those genes become dominant. Think for a second. They kill many of the other tribe. They take their women. (gross – sorry to say that…) More children. And their genes become dominant. Establish the potential – not the inevitability – of this gross warrior mode..

But turn the viewpoint just a bit and see other points on that spectrum of behaviour – necessary and admirable. Some of those qualities – risk taking, ready to suffer are present in Fire-fighters, lifeboat crews, police officers, medics, nurses. praise be,,,. . those are the peace time heroes and heroines. And note how they also wear uniforms, badges of rank: symbols of unity and common purpose. Even lawyers try and tag onto that pattern. We have milder uniform and rank signals – and a proportionally milder sense of duty and self sacrifice?

So buried in the warrior spectrum is simply Duty: preparedness to work for others, sacrifice not necessarily one’s life, but one’s time and energy and money. That is benign, admirable.

Another good quality of adolescence is hyper-focus, obsessional behaviour. Seeds of genius. Even possibly the dedication any of us required to sit and pass professional exams?

So – lots of good stuff here. Mixed blessings.

But to return to the origin of the problematic qualities – in war we need Warriors – with the adolescent characteristics of callousness to others and self, risk taking, ready to suffer, showing off, hungry for status, competitiveness.

So these are Bad Qualities. But why isn’t the human race totally, continually warlike and crazy…? Or perhaps I should say – why wasn’t it once? Because it is beginning to look more like that now…

The answer requires us to make a distinction: This is the warrior impulse. And warrior is fine for skirmishes, raids, battles.

You can switch on this behaviour for those occasions and then switch off to become more sane, revert to being caring and cooperative, because this reversion to care mode also increases your gene heritage. If you care for your family in times of peace – you end up with more children. Simple. Switch on warrior in blips. ____n__n___n_____ Switch off and go back to care.

That is the way behaviour – instinct if you like – becomes hardwired, innate in the genes. Switch on and switch off. We need to understand the on off switch. Especially the off switch on aggression. The on switch for care of others and self. Maturity, care – love.

What’s gone wrong? To what extent have we lost the switch to turn off the warrior mode.? And turn on the care mode? If this is true – then Why ? This is where the problems begin.

Where did we lose the switch that moves us from warrior to carer?

3. Soldiers. If you move into Recent Times, ie the last 10,000 years since the Neolithic revolution, we have settlements and towns. And with them — permanent armies ie permanent soldiers. They are very different from warriors.

For soldier in armies – we need to institutionalise those qualities – encourage them, exaggerate make permanent, long lasting, (no off switch) ….and then control them. Stoke up and also clamp down.

An image I will return to: A pressure cooker – or boiler for steam and energy. Power. And, as in the early days of steam, the danger of leaks and explosions. But only in the early days of steam when they didn’t quite have the understanding and techniques…. Of which more later..

Chaotic warrior competition becomes a strict hierarchy with a system, symbols of rank. Tribalism and group dynamics become institutionalised into regiments and battalions. Uniforms, symbols totems become developed, exaggerated. Think of Rome and Greece and Sparta. Institutionalised showing off, public notice, recognition and acclaim: Rank, medals and reward risk taking and self-sacrifice: purple hearts medals for suffering injuries. Immortality is promised in exchange for death.

Military cultures: Institutionalised deliberate adolescent severing of attachment: Sparta. Israel’s kibbutzim. Boarding schools.

Loss of attachment: with no grief allowed. Turn grief into anxiety and then that into anger, searching, energy. As a bereavement counsellor I am familiar with failed grieving and the mad energy that can bring – energy which can be channelled and used. Brutalisation. US marines.. Abu Ghraib

So we have soldiers with those qualities but controlled – who are a large part of the ruling elite that set the moral culture and tone. The assumptions so widespread they are invisible.

Crucially for what we see as normal and admirable – That tribe gets to write the history books. Greece and Rome – these dynamic cultures. Peaceful, pastoral agricultural societies have not written the history books and are overlooked – possibly despised. Classicism is totally taken for granted. Yet the history of Rome is one of almost pathological expansionism and aggression, slaughtering opposing tribes, incredibly sadistic treatment. Held up for admiration. British Empire building may be over but the assumption of macho culture remains.

4. With organised religion – in contrast to the individual tribal priest or shaman, organised religion is another hierarchy, with uniforms, clear signs of ranks, and later with severing attachments, celibate priests, monasteries, seminaries. Alienate. Self sacrifice. Exaggerate the adolescent experience, and then need to impose controls – which in religious orders we all know sometimes fail horribly. Pressure cookers – which leak or explode. Later we will talk about other more positive aspects of religion itself – ie not the institutionalised, organised aspect.

5. Sex at last – let’s talk about sex….. sadly – not in a nice, exciting way: Consider this: Previously in a small tribe or clan – you knew everyone, you had been raised with the opposite sex (or same sex if that is your taste). They were largely your cousins. There was the damper on sexual response. Incest taboo and even when not blood related, a sort of incest taboo: clear example is that reported in Kibbutzim. You don’t fancy the people you shared a dormitory with.

On the other hand – the sexual interest in strangers is obviously, from a Darwinian perspective, a Very Good Thing in terms of avoiding in-breeding and enriching the gene pool.

So strangers, new faces are interesting, attractive. Sexually exciting. To meet a stranger puts you into a possible courtship mode. Sending and receiving messages of sexual attraction.

And then you go and live in a city and what happens? Towns and cities are full of strangers – of course. All day long you meet strangers: excitement, stoking up excitement levels. Of course we take it for granted but it is huge. An obvious fact. An unobvious outcome:

Rather shocking outcome: This puts us into continuous courtship mode. Which consists of?

1. The beauty and fashion industry. Historically in women initially. Though now both genders.

2. And if men display their courtship fitness by power and success – then the endless and relentless will to power and successaholicism. Women catching up there too.

3. Enlist the hunting instinct. Even the enemy fighting. Warrior. Dehumanise the prey, the target.

4. Grasping, intruding, illicit. Sexual addictions.

5. Arrested at the visual stage in the courtship process. Have a look at Kurt Freund.

6. Adolescence is antithetical to fidelity. Happily married, but strongly attracted to other women / men? How terribly common. And a source of tension at least – tragedy quite often.

And this is almost invisible because it is universal. At least in this culture. A few weeks in Kenya last year made us realise something: it was on our return that we were struck by the extraordinary sexualisation of our culture.

I could make this evening really memorable and myself very unpopular by asking us to look at each other and ourselves in this light. Courtship display, visual, fashion, beauty, achievement, status. Men showing off?! Moi? But I won’t….

That is a part of sublimation, acceptable acting out. Because, with this stoking up of adolescent sexual excitement, there is a need for control. Another pressure cooker.

6. Enough about sex…. moving swiftly on to Capitalism: go to the 19th century: driven by alpha males who turn their military impulse into commerce. Not for nothing are they called Captains of Industry. Power, competition. Hierarchy

And they need customers. The qualities of adolescence suits that. Grasping. Acquisitiveness, competitive status, keeping up appearances. Insatiable.

So the military-industrial complex emerges. There was a phrase invented as a warning as to its corrupting power by outgoing President, ex-general Eisenhower: breaking cover, warning America – and perhaps he knew what he was talking about in this field.

7. 19th and 20th century. Smaller families, no real work for children compared with the old agricultural world. Smaller, nuclear families. No real childcare responsibility for young people which was previously the norm. Extended childhood because of the demands of education. And later, contraception. Delayed parenthood. Teenagers at some level infantilised in terms of responsibility. This is central to my work with families who struggle with adolescence.

8. Late 20th century. So there are many reasons to encourage, inflame and exaggerate adolescent characteristics and this is not just because of modern television, media and advertising.

But they do join in and add a massive further exaggeration. Some of the finest minds and the largest budgets in our society are dedicated to promoting adolescent characteristics. Link this to industrialists, business lobbyists, party donors. Real power.

Extended adolescence and commercial interests. Advertising including magazines and hyper sexualisation. For men War books, films. Violence. Computer Games. A new vast industry. Pornography. And old vast industry. For women the pressure to be beautiful, desirable, young. Hair, face, body.

9. And whereas previously institutionalised exaggeration of adolescence was linked with control – military religious or industrial – that control has now been reduced by the loss of military and religious plausibility.

10. Addiction and Religion –some positives. If only we had another evening…. We have explored the fact we have an exaggerated, inflamed, over-heated sexuality especially the desire to display. And an exaggerated, inflamed, over-heated acquisitiveness or greed.

Both addictive and insatiable. Because the appetite is not functional. It is neurotic; symbolic. We are trying and failing to fill an emptiness, a hunger. With images of food with images and gestures of attachment. Comforting an anxiety but not resolving it. Anesthetising a pain – but when the anaesthetic wears off the pain is there. Hence addiction.

Hence religion. Which attempts to control, limit sexuality especially sexual display. And control or limit acquisitiveness or greed.

And also religion – curiously less written about, less obvious – worship. A place of childness. Relation to and love for and love from a parental god or goddess. Safe surrender. The image of the Bedouin bowing down 5 times a day into that relationship and rising as a true adult to face the bitter hardship of the desert with calm courage and resolution. Very un-adolescent.

11. Finally — the flipside — the loss of valuing age, wisdom. Once the elders held the knowledge, the wisdom. Gray hair indicated wisdom and commanded respect. Now – knowledge, facts, cleverness and the answers are in books and now on the Internet. Who needs the wise elders? Grey hair is dyed away and made invisible. We are all young. We are all adolescent.

BUT – deep breath: now the 21st century and the future: There is a real possibility in times of change – that maturity could still have wisdom: have a different form of knowledge. Not facts but skills, emotional resources, interpersonal skills, capacity for affection and love. For contentment.

That brings us on … what is to be done? This is not doom and gloom. This could be ‘ah ha’ time.

But you could ask what could possibly stop this tidal wave of adolescence, rooted 6 million years ago, 10,000 years ago, post-war, fed by military, religious, industrial, commercial, advertising industries and their paid politicians in Westminster. Formidable foes. What chance of a culture change?

Consider John Snow, the Victorian doctor with his simple, outrageous act of removing the handle of the pump in Broad St Soho as he could see, as others could not, that cholera was waterborne. Very simple. Very effective. Ignored for years. Simmelweis – ‘if doctors wash their hands more you will cut puerperal fever deaths’. Ignored. He went mad with frustration. Richard Doll – smoking causes cancer. Massive opposition from well funded lobbyists for the tobacco industry. But finally successful. Simple ideas can change cultures.

But these medical analogies help us see that the way forward must be two parts: first by the society – social, political change and second: one of personal choice and change. Public health measures to reduce smoking and personal responsibility to quit.

But smoking is pure poison. We have identified adolescence as having some historic benefits. At least in times of war etc. But we have lost the knack of turning them off.

Consider junk food: we cannot turn the clock back to a Stone Age diet but we can become aware of the dangers of a modern diet and do something to ameliorate those dangers.

I suggest this is a fairly precise analogy which is helpful: A taste for salt, sweetness and fat were survival skills in the Stone Age. With modern technology producing unlimited salt, sugar and fat, they become lethal tastes. Are they true addictions? Or can we do something about it?

We can reduce the salt, sugar and fat content of food. We can reintroduce roughage and fruit and vegetables.

Notice two approaches: 1. as a society – by political will and regulations (banning transfats, lowering salt in processed food etc) and by education and then 2. on a personal, individual level each person’s choice in diet.

If culturally our taste for adolescence, our impulses, compulsion was functional and some of them have now become lethal and destructive, what is the equivalent in terms of removing from our emotional diet the elements that increase and inflame adolescence? High levels of salt and sugar desensitise the palate. If you reduce those ingredients, food at first tasteless, bland and boring. But only at first. After a few weeks the palate regains sensitivity and healthy food tastes good again. But you need to see that. Go through a period of mild discomfort.

And as a society? Massive question. Difficult issues. Censorship? Tricky. Against our liberal instincts and with the internet how practical ? ….although we now accept censorship on race hate etc.

Restrictions on advertising would be easier to promote. Or a hefty tax….

But huge vested interests would oppose it. Remember huge vested interest opposed control on smoking, alcohol, salt, sugar and fat and continue to fund lobbyists to promote these poisons.

If you think about it, there are huge vested interests in promoting adolescence – advertising, consumption drives the whole economy.

And then competition with other nations. Is it possible to have a revolution in one country? Is it possible to have carbon reduction in one country if it puts that country at a disadvantage? Or adolescence reduction in one country if it reduces consumption and competition?

Ok – simpler – move onto the individual level. Each of us can choose to change our physical diet. And behaviour. Each of us can choose to change our emotional and cultural inputs and behaviours and those of our children. Will we? Can we do either – social change or individual choice?

Is it simple and easy? The title of the talk is about addiction to sex, anger, stress.

Again a slight deception, over-simplification: Truly addicted, compulsive behaviour is strong and hard to change. Habitual, unchallenged expectations, culture is weaker, easier to change. To be controversial – the latter is susceptible to CBT the former needs deeper therapy.

Which is the picture here? Answer: both

Addiction: what I said earlier about soldiers, military culture, boarding schools, kibbutzim – early enforced separation from carers – loss of attachment: but no grief. Turn grief into anxiety and then that into anger, searching, energy.

As a bereavement counsellor I am familiar with failed grieving and the mad energy that can bring – energy which can be channelled and used. And ways in which this can be healthily resolved and healed.

I offer 6 reasons to be hopeful:

1. It helps to see the enemy, the opposition: Whose interests are served? Who is exaggerating it? Premature: who sells make up for toddler, padded bras to 8 year olds? Argos. Tescos. Irresponsible business. Uncontrolled free market economy.

Who pumps up adolescent qualities – in war games? In porn? In the beauty industry? Irresponsible business. Uncontrolled free market economy. Who controls the media, the culture? So people believe in there being no alternative. Who funds lobbyists who control our bought parliament and civil servants?

2. Change is possible Consider the analogy of public health resistance and progress. Resistance to the truth about the poor lung health that developed in the industrial revolution. People literally could not afford to notice the effects of pollution from a factory or mill if the livelihoods of the town, the whole economy depended on it. They were in denial. Classic resistance.

Three things cracked the blockage which we could learn from:

1. it was only when death rates rose in early 19th century that the Acts were brought in – only when the chronic became acute. When it was perceived to be a crisis. As it is now in our culture with the pollution of adolescence.

And 2. when the epidemiology showed the cause and effect. Which this theory does. Modest? Moi?

3. Technology allowed cleaner factories. If there is a solution people may be prepared to see there is a problem. (I don’t have the equivalent of that right now for adolescence.)

And smoking leads me to point out that change is possible: what seems absurd or naive to hope for or expect has in fact happened in some areas: attitudes to gay issues, race, seatbelts…. and the simplest: the smoking ban. 10 years ago if you had suggested it you would have been laughed at. What changed? This is really worth looking at isn’t it? Serous change in perception, common sense, taken for granted. People smoked on the London Tube!! Unthinkable now. To ban it was unthinkable then. Change in thinkableness – a hugely important issue.

The realisation of damage. Initially resisted and denied both at a social, political, business led campaign level – and at an individual personal; level of denial. But the truth gradually soaked in and softened opposition to the change – which in fact came easily and quickly. Richard Doll 1950 – smoking ban 2010 = 60 years. Do we have to wait for 60 years? I shall be a bit old to enjoy it.

3. Consider a conjuring trick. If you cannot see how it is done, if it is baffling and impenetrable then it is convincing and the mind easily goes to thinking something magic and unknowable is going on. But once the trick is explained or understood, the magic disappears and the power goes with it. Same with a con-trick… which is closer to our subject. Can we see through the adolescence culture con-trick?

4. A culture in crisis is ripe for change. A backlash is forming — what sort of backlash? Reactionary, authoritarian, closing down debate? Saying keep the adolescence but impose more controls. A tighter lid on the pressure cooker?

Or turning down the gas? Lowering the pressure? There is a Buddhist concept of wisdom being reducing the fire. Reduce the force of adolescence. The assumption. The values.

Some of us are baby boomers. Always accused of trying to run the show. Now we are reaching our 60s. We can value maturity. Make it fashionable at last.

5. There is in fact a movement afoot. Possibly a bit of a rag tag army of change already here: Emotional intelligence. Awareness of stress, pollution. The happiness debate: Lord Layard. Questioning the capitalist model. Questioning gross inequality: Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level. Yoga, meditation, downshifting.

Certainly it is rag tag and confused and much in society is going the other way toward greater adolescence. Is that confusing? A picture may help: a column of ants — or lemmings — the mass is still heading towards oblivion but some parts at the head of the column are turning aside and exploring paths to avoid total chaos.

Closer to home – both personal therapy helps break the cycle of dysfunction – but most effectively parenting workshops and courses have an enormous beneficial effect. A lot of what I have said here comes into my parenting notes and courses on coping with a teenager. If we can help at that key moment, it would make a huge difference. Explore the skill at dealing with adolescence – of giving responsible independence we are dealing with the very root of the problem.

Can we bring to the debate information from other countries, other cultures, other times? Rites of passage. The public acknowledgement and blessing of the transition moment from childhood to adulthood. We have creativity now in humanist burial services, marriage, naming ceremonies. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah is the only rite of passage I am aware of. What does a creative, humanist coming of age ceremony look like? What ones already exist? Which may include that peer group element? American Summer Camps? Gap Years? The old National Service? Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The Scouts etc.

6. Personal individual approach: a lot of the above is social, abstract, general and political. I suggested there were two approaches – like reducing sugar and salt in the diet. Government control and personal choice. Let me offer an example on a personal basis:

Let me quote one example of one client I worked with. She was in her 60s. All her life she’d been anxious about her domineering older sibling and appeasing towards her. And equally – defiant, provocative. Prone to depression and finding it difficult to be a mother and grandmother because she was resentful of the demands of children.

We worked towards a realisation that she was stuck in adolescence with its characteristic insecurity and anxiety mixed with defiance. And a resentment of the demands of children.

She saw the problem. Ah ha. But her initial reaction was that she would have to become ‘mature and boring’ and ‘put away her colourful clothes.’

We worked that one through – maturity is not boring. It is stronger, more serious and present minded but also allows room to be playful in a happier way. She is now stronger and confident around her older sibling and a more playful, relaxed and far happier grandmother.

Myself also. The confused state being an adolescent has to some limited extent resolved with more seriousness and more playfulness. Work in progress but it’s rather nice. I recommend it.

And adolescent hypervigilance about threats can transmute into hyper-alertness and alertness of positives with the capacity to notice and to enjoy. To relish. To connect. Camus said maturity was moving from passion to compassion. Outgoing energy and incoming receptiveness.

7. To end the list of possibilities – at the risk of losing you….Going one level deeper — death.

May we talk about death – please? We have seen why adolescent characteristics include with Warriors – risk-taking and the denial of death.

The belief in one’s immortality. We see this in clients and many of you will see it in patients. Unrealism. The devil may care. “I will be ok – if I smoke – if I climb high walls to burgle…” Mixed mysteriously into “Anyway I don’t care if I do die”.

These two beliefs are a key part of the adolescent delusion, the con trick. Totally necessary for Warriors in the time of war but in peace? The denial of death is now totally widespread so widespread it is hard to see it.

It is made visible when it is not there. Hospices. I have friends who work in hospices. They are always asked “Isn’t it rather grim?” The answer is always “No – it is uplifting. A privilege. Something very special happens in hospices. People accepting death. The struggle is over. The denial is over. Some special truthfulness comes in. Some arrival. Some peace. Something … sacred.”

I don’t think we are very good at talking or thinking about peace ….or about sacredness.

And what loss is there? I am still working connecting this to the general thesis but it is obvious to me that mad heroic struggling of adolescence is the opposite pole from the peaceful, calm acceptance of death. It may be that if we import into our culture a more mature and courageous and honest attitude to death, it would be some antidote to adolescence. And as baby boomers reach the threshold of death, they / we may take it in and work with this to alter the culture?

So building on that and finally to end on an upbeat note: What would progress look like?

If the preferred transition is from sensible child to silly adolescent then to sensible mature adult. Take it further. what happens with very sensible , very mature. Completely mature? What does that look like? The move from unselfconscious as a child to self-conscious adolescent – then less self-conscious: what does very unselfconscious look like?

In exploring strong and deep maturity are we exploring what some religions have called enlightenment? Whoa! Grandiose? Maybe but I like to end on an upbeat note.

Consider the qualities of the pre-adolescent and then increase them again as an adult:

Mature Adult age and experience and wisdom PLUS:

Natural and unselfconscious. Genuine. Cooperative, keen to please. Integrated, intact. Sensible.
Moderate. Warm. Loveable. Engaged and affectionate. Capable of Love.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a bit more of that – each of us – and socially?

John Snow removed the poisonous Cholera laden water supply. In time people stopped getting ill. Smoking has been cut down, transfats removed – and heart attacks have declined.

Can we remove or reduce the toxic effects of hyper adolescence? Can we learnt to use adolescence – like fire, with thought and skill? To reduce the unhappiness, the problems, danger and damage it causes. Or to put it positively – to allow people to be happier and better?

I look forward to hearing your responses. This is a lot to chuck at you. I hope somebody here may consider the idea, allow in explore possible and use. Let me know. Thank you very much.

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