Inspiration and Reflection Part One

by Penny Boreham

Dr Dan Siegal
Dr Dan Siegel

In this series of blogs, members of staff at Khiron House are going to choose and share the words of an inspiring thinker/writer/practitioner who has made an impact on them and encouraged them to reflect more deeply on the work they do.

Today, Benjamin Fry, our founder, chooses an extract from the neuropsychiatrist and author Dr Dan Siegel’s book “Mindsight” and then goes on to reflect on why Dan Siegel’s words have had such an impact on him.

Extract from Dan Siegel’s “Mindsight”

WITHIN EACH OF US there is an internal mental world – what I have come to think of as the sea inside – that is a wonderfully rich place, filled with thoughts and feelings, memories and dreams, hopes and wishes.  Of course it can also be a turbulent place, where we experience the dark side of all those wonderful  feelings and thoughts – fears, sorrows, dreads, regrets, nightmares.  When this inner sea seems to crash in on us, threatening to drag us down below to the dark depths, it can make us feel as if we are drowning.  Who among us has not at one time or another  felt overwhelmed by the sensations from within our own minds?  Sometimes these feelings are just a passing thing – a bad day at work,  a fight with someone we love,  an attack of nerves about a test we have to take or a presentation we have to give, or just an inexplicable case of the blues for a day or two.  But sometimes they seem to be something much more intractable, so much part of the very essence of who we are that it may not even occur to us that we can change them. 

Benjamin Fry’s Reflections

I wanted to share these words as they remind me of a talk I heard, at the Breath of Life conference, in 2013, by Dan Seigel and it was a tour-de-force.

His lecture explained how he had become interested, as a newly qualified psychiatrist, in what the ‘mind’ might actually be.   The tour he took us on through many disciplines of academia was enlightening. More interesting,  perhaps, was the simple fact of how little that question ever gets asked, particularly by professionals and patients in ‘mental’ health.

You can’t autopsy a mind.  You can’t look at one.  You can’t hold it in your hand.  And yet we ascribe to it a multitude of qualities and experiences.  We talk of ‘losing our mind’ or going ‘out of our mind’, as a way of explaining crazy-looking behaviour or hearing what sounds like the results of deranged thoughts.

When we are unhappy, or worse, ill with anxiety or depression, we think that something is wrong with our mind.  But it’s hard to really get a grip on what that might mean.  Yes, as Dan Siegal says above, we have an internal mental world, but the results of it are tangible.  ‘Mental’ illness causes pain in the body and disordered thoughts break relationships and cause difficult behaviour.

At Khiron House we see the mind as very much a projection of the health of the nervous system which lives beneath it.   Of course it is spectacularly complex, but much of what that complexity does rests on the starting point of basic signals sent to it about threat from the nervous system.

It is like the weather.   What happens in central London changes a great deal depending on whether it is ‘0’ or ’30’ degrees at lunch time.   Ignoring the weather and then trying to explain these different behaviours is a fool’s errand.

Mental health work which does not pay attention to the underlying primal signals from the nervous system (our ‘neuroception’) is similarly difficult.

When my nervous system says ‘threat’ I think and act differently from when it says ‘safe’.  That’s been true for about  500 million years.   The drama for us, as  human beings,  is that our nervous systems can get stuck in prior threats.  We then see ‘threat’ when we should feel ‘safe’.

Understanding this is, to my view,  essential  if we hope to  understand and treat many issues that are regarded as “mental” – reality issues, anger, coping strategies, issues around self-medicating and a host of others.

It will also help us  ‘feel’  our ‘sea inside’ in all its majesty and depth.

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