Now that I’ve gone public with my recovery, in addition to doing posts that answer the questions I’ve been asked the most, I’m really interested in exploring how behavior changes our internal states — physical and emotional — and how this is mediated by the brain. I’m excited about the ways behaviorism and neuroplasticity therapy support each other. They are so intertwined, but I don’t read a lot that is explicitly about the hows and whys of the connections between these areas of science. Since I’m excited by both fields and trying to learn as much as I can about both, I’d like to blog about their intersections.
On the way home last night from a “safe animal handling” class at the animal shelter for which I’m volunteering (how cool is that that I’m volunteering for an animal shelter?!), I was listening to NPR as I drove. (I love listening to NPR when I drive! It’s one of the many joys of not being sound- and motion-hypersensitive anymore, and being able to drive!) Most of the class was on understanding the body language of dogs and cats. I was pleased to discover that all these years of paying attention to dog body language has taught me that I really can tell a lot about what’s going on with a dog by looking at it! And while I’m not as good at it with cats, I’m reasonably good at it and on my way to getting better.
On the other hand, one of the things my recovery has brought to light is how uncomfortable I feel around other human beings I don’t know well. After having spent most of the last eighteen years by myself or only with my parents, intimate partners or close friends, and personal care assistants, I am really unused to being in social situations with other people.
The exception to this is being on the phone or online. I’ve always enjoyed long phone conversations, and after I got sick, I spent countless hours talking on the phone. In fact, when I studied Nonviolent Communication (NVC), it was all in phone groups and classes, which I guess is pretty unusual for healthy people, but was the norm for my friends who were also homebound. I think I have gotten good at guessing what is going on for people by their voices, and even by their silences.
I am also very comfortable with online — written — communication. That has been true for me since I learned how to write an essay, in ninth grade. When I learned the formal rules for writing, I found them logical and easy, and from then on I decided I expressed myself best in writing and tried to do most of my challenging communication by letters and notes. Now, with the ubiquity of email, it is socially acceptable to do most of your communication with writing, too, which is a bonus. I like that writing allows me time to pick my words and edit. In face-to-face interactions, there is no lag time, and other people seem to “read” my thoughts and feelings much more easily than I read theirs, which often leaves me feeling wrong-footed, confused, and worried.
That’s my next point — I am not as good at reading human body language as I would like to be! I hadn’t given this any thought till I was at the book signing event at Clicker Expo, and the person I was standing next to commented on how you could tell which faculty members were really into signing their books and schmoozing, and which would rather be elsewhere. I had not noticed any of this. I was amazed by her observation and said, trying to make a joke, “You’re really good at reading HUMAN body language!”
She looked at me weirdly, so I guess she didn’t think it was funny. The combination of her reaction and my dawning awareness that this is an area in which I am not as fluent as I’d like to be led me to wish there was a way I could practice interacting and communicating with other humans in a learning-oriented, nonjudgmental environment. I have said to my friends, “I am like that undersocialized dog who is good with the family, but gets overwhelmed when he’s out in the world. I need a puppy kindergarten class for myself!”
I have not yet found this. The irony is that this is how most people learn NVC — and I’ve heard NVC enthusiasts complain how hard it is to do on the phone! — but I have always done NVC by phone and email.
Anyway, I decided that reading human body language must be just as much of a skill that requires practice and study as reading dog (or cat or horse) body language, so I have been trying to pay more attention to what people communicate nonverbally as a way to try to help me take my focus off my anxiety at what’s happening interpersonally when I’m around other people in meatspace.
Indeed, the whole Expo experience actually made me painfully aware of how lonely and isolated I feel around other humans with whom I’m not intimate. It reminded me of how I felt in kindergarten, elementary school, junior high, high school, college, and after. I have never really known how to socialize, and this is hard because I am actually an extrovert! I love people. I find them fascinating. I love connecting. All of my passions in life — teaching, training, writing, NVC — are about connection. Yet, when I am with people, I find it so hard to connect. This has given me so much empathy for reactive animals because I am one, too!
For example, I recently saw a cat solicit his person’s attention — meowing and circling — and jump onto their lap. He wanted to be petted. As his person petted him, his tail started to twitch and then to thrash, but he kept lying in the person’s lap, purring. Finally, he pinned back his ears, growled, and hissed. He had reached his threshold of petting by a long shot, but he continued to lie in the person’s lap!
This is pretty common for cats; they want petting, but then they can’t tolerate it after a certain point. I used to cat-sit occasionally for a cat who did this. I’d be petting her, she’d be purring, and then she’d bite me!
Still, when I saw this happen recently, I thought, “Kitty, wouldn’t it have been better if you had realized, ‘I am done with this,’ and jumped off the person’s lap?”
But he probably doesn’t realize that’s a possibility because this is the behavior he knows and has practiced. Still, watching this cat go from approach to approach/avoidance conflict, I thought, “Yeah, I feel like that, too, kitty.”
I am comfortable with people if I have some sort of defined role — speaker, teacher, actor — but if it’s just a nebulous social situation, I think, “What am I supposed to do? Is it socially acceptable to ask or say such-and-such? How do I break into this conversation? How do I leave this conversation? How do I not stand around not talking to anyone and wishing I was?”
When I am actually IN a conversation, I can use NVC — listening intently, making empathy guesses, making requests — but there are so many nuances before and after the interactions where I have no clear idea of what to do. Just writing about this, I feel terribly anxious and can feel the cortisol rushing through my body. But since I’ve been dealing with this my whole life, I have learned how to fake it. Most people don’t know I’m faking it (can’t tell I’m anxious and uncertain) because, you know, if you fake something long enough, you get pretty good at it!
Which is exactly what this NPR segment was about — human body language, faking it, and recovery from brain injury! If I believed in God, I would use the fact that this radio program was playing as I drove home as proof of Her existence.
The NPR program was a TED Radio Hour, and it featured TED talks on language (another one of my favorite topics). It’s called Spoken and Unspoken. The last segment was so damn relevant to people who are doing neuroplastic recovery that I rushed to the computer to write this post for you, dear readers!
Amy Cuddy is a professor of social psychology at Harvard Business School. One of her areas of study is prejudice, so she naturally has taken an interest in the expressions of power and dominance in nonverbal language. (Listen to the NPR story or watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, or read the transcript of TED Radio Hour.)
She got frustrated, teaching at Harvard Business School, by how male students would take up most of the discussion time and space, and women were not taking that space — literally. She looked at their body language — with men very comfortably taking up space and women curled in on themselves, trying to take up as little space as possible — and how that could change the dynamics. And since class participation is half their grade, the female students were seriously harming their chance of success in school.
What Professor Cuddy discovered is that if people spend TWO MINUTES in a “power pose,” even if they are in a small room by themselves, it changes how they feel. When you put your body in a power pose, your body tells your brain that you are more powerful. It changes the hormone levels in their bodies! It raises your testosterone level and lowers your cortisol level.
Well, those of us who have been doing DNRS are very desirous of lowering the cortisol levels in our bodies! Cortisol is produced by the pituitary gland but released by the hypothalamus as part of the fight/flight response. In popular media, cortisol is often referred to simply as “the stress hormone.”
For years, people with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, also known as CFS/chronic fatigue syndrome or ME/myalgic encephalopathy) have been told that we have abnormalities in our HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis. We are often told we have “adrenal fatigue” or “adrenal burnout.” Often we have abnormally low levels of cortisol, but supplementation makes our symptoms worse!
Strategies to reduce the release of cortisol in my body or to stimulate the release of other hormones that counteract the effects of cortisol has been a big part of my recovery strategy. Most of these strategies are behavioral: yoga, swimming, deep breaths and sighs, running my fingers over my lips, and yawning are some examples. Many of these are simple behaviors that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which has a calming/inhibitory effect on the stress response.
Here’s how Harvard Mental Health newsletter explains it in “Understanding the Stress Response“:
The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
Now it seems I have stumbled upon another intriguing strategy to lower cortisol: Power postures! (By the way, you can read more about this study and see pictures of the various high-power and low-power poses at this blog.)
What are the “power postures” that lower our cortisol and raise testosterone, giving us a sense of power, confidence, and calm? The first of the three power poses Cuddy discussed is “Wonder Woman” (though she noted that Superman uses the same pose) which is when you stand with your feet apart, your chest out, hands on hips.
The second pose is the “CEO” pose. It is sitting with feet up on the desk, chest out, hands behind head with elbows out.
And one that she called “Starfish” or “Victory” on the radio show, but in her TED talk says it’s called “Pride,” though other articles call it “Triumph.” This last pose is universal and is struck by people all over the world who have just achieved a physical or athletic victory — including people who are congenitally blind and have therefore never seen anyone else strike this pose. It is a wide stance with arms spread wide, up in the air above the head, in a “V.” (This article does a great job of breaking down her TED talk into its most important components, illustrated with photos.)
Huh, where have I see this pose before?
WHY was I standing in this pose so much after I started recovering my health? Was it simply instinct, or was something else going on?
As I explained in my previous post, some of it was instinct. This felt like a pose of FREEDOM, and well, victory! I often did this the first time I did something big, a celebration and victory, a conquering: the first time I swam, the first time I swam MORE, the first time I walked the dog in winter, the first time I walked on the ice, the first time I rode a horse, the first time I was in the ocean.
But I think one of the main reasons I struck this pose so often was that I’d PRACTICED it…
Part of the DNRS program is to choose a proclamation that says where you want to be, what your overall goal is. You say it every time you do the limbic retraining steps, and the instructions are to stand in a way that you feel embodies your proclamation. My proclamation was, “I can go anywhere and do anything!” And I stood in the victory stance when I said it. So, I practiced standing this way hundreds of times, starting in August.
This is one of the basic principles of behaviorism — the more you practice doing something, the more you do it! This is one of the reasons that DNRS, and then other neuroplastic techniques, made so much sense to me: they were about choosing behaviors that would affect my internal state and would eventually become embodied. This is what I have been studying and practicing for over 15 years!
Even though behaviorism follows natural laws — it is something that affects all beings, whether we understand it or not — most people don’t think this way. We seem much more inclined to want to change our feelings in order to change our behavior. That can work, too, but I think changing behavior first is usually more efficient.
Here’s what Amy Cuddy says about it in her TED talk:
When I tell people about this, that our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior and our behavior can change our outcomes, they say to me I don’t – it feels fake. Right. So I said, fake it till you make it.
Like, I don’t – it’s not me. I don’t want to get there only to feel like I’m not supposed to be here.
And that really resonated with me because I want to tell you a little story about being an imposter and feeling like I’m not supposed to be here. When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident…. I woke up in a head injury rehab ward…. I learned that my IQ had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my IQ because I had identified with being smart, and I had been called gifted as a child. So I’m taken out of college. I keep trying to go back. They say you’re not going to finish college….
…Having your identity taken from you – your core identity, and for me, it was being smart – having that taken from you, there’s nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that…. I got lucky and worked and got lucky and worked. Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers.
And I convinced someone – my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on. And so I ended up at Princeton. And I was like, I am not supposed to be here, I am an imposter. And the night before my first-year talk – and the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people, that’s it. I was so afraid of being found out the next day that I called her and said I’m quitting. She was like, you are not quitting because I took a gamble on you and you’re staying. You’re going to stay and this is what you’re going to do – you are going to fake it. You’re just going to do it and do it and do it even if you’re terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, oh, my gosh, I’m doing it – like, I have become this. I am actually doing this. So that’s what I did. Five years in grad school. A few years, you know, I’m at Northwestern. I moved to Harvard….
So the end of my first year at Harvard, a student who had not talked in class the entire semester who I had said, look, you’ve got to participate or else you’re going to fail, came into my office. I really didn’t know her at all. And she said – she came in totally defeated and she said, I’m not supposed to be here. And that was the moment for me because two things happened. One was that I realized, oh, my gosh, I don’t feel like that anymore…but she does and I get that feeling. And the second was: she is supposed to be here, like, she can fake it. She can become it.
So I was like, yes, you are. You are supposed to be here. And tomorrow you are going to fake it. You’re going to make yourself powerful. And you’re going to go into the classroom and you are going to give the best comment ever…. And she gave the best comment ever. And people turned around and they were like, oh, my God, I didn’t even notice her sitting there, you know.
Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. So this is two minutes. Two minutes. Two minutes. Two minutes. Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down. And also, I’m going to ask you to share this science because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life. Thank you.
I got tears in my eyes listening to this on the radio last night, and I have tears in my eyes rereading it now because I feel like this is my story, too. My brain was injured, too, and I lost my smarts, too. I’ve felt like an imposter so many times. Indeed, there were a lot of people who didn’t think I could get where I have gotten today, but the biggest skeptic was me.
I didn’t think I was going to recover. I didn’t really believe it was possible, but I decided to just do it. Just fake it. Just smile and laugh when I felt awful. Just pretend that I wasn’t in pain, that I wasn’t exhausted, that I wasn’t overwhelmed, that I could see a healthy future. Much of DNRS is pretending, putting your body and mind again and again in the power postures of health and wellbeing, teaching your body and brain to be healthy. Because our brains don’t know the difference between thoughts, memories, fantasies, and reality, so I fooled my brain into thinking I was health before I was. Because if you practice something enough, you get good at it!
So, here, finally is a tool that I can use to feel comfortable in social situations. This is my new behavioral plan for socializing myself:
1. Before I am going to be around people and need to interact with them in some meaningful way — not just swimming in my own lane at the YMCA — I will do two minutes of power poses by myself at home.
2. When I am around people, I will be conscious of my body language and make an effort to make my postures bigger — more confident, less curled up into a little ball of uncertainty.
3. I will make myself smile.
I feel so much better now that I have a plan. A plan that is based in science. A plan that makes sense to me. A plan I feel confident in because I have already done something like this before.
Plus, I get to pretend to be Wonder Woman every day! Did I say pretend? No, I get to BE Wonder Woman.