I learned this process from Nick Kemp some six years ago, who credits Richard Bandler for discovering that feelings spin, and that reversing this spin is a powerful intervention for resolving anxiety and other strong feelings. After exploring the internal visual and auditory experience of clients’ experience that generated feelings, Nick modified Bandler’s process in several ways.
In this particular example, Joan became anxious in any situation in which she felt alone and potentially helpless. Joan’s feelings of anxiety began in the right side of her neck, went down the right side of her body, then clenched in her stomach and went on to her groin. This is the path of the feeling. Then I asked her to notice the shape and color of the feeling, and finally, “Which way does the feeling spin as it goes along this path?” She responded with a gesture, which is much less ambiguous than a verbal “clockwise” or “counter-clockwise,” since that depends on which way the clock is facing.
Then the intervention is to “Put yourself in that situation that elicits the feeling, and reverse the direction of spin, change the color to a color you like better, and add sparkles to it, and find out what happens.” Joan’s feelings immediately changed to relaxation and comfort. Then we tested this change in her imagination in several contexts, there was an “in vivo” test the next morning when her car wouldn’t start, and again a few days later when she drove home alone across the desert.
Follow-up a year and a half later confirmed that the change was intact, despite a number of significant life challenges that previously would have made her anxious.
In a video that has been recently posted on YouTube, Bandler works with two women with anxiety in a 50-minute session.
He uses a lot of hypnosis, and a wide variety of interventions; one of which is his version of the Spinning Feelings process that is markedly different from Nick Kemp’s version in two important ways:
Here is a verbatim transcript of Bandler’s elicitation from Lynn, starting at 6:20:
Bandler: Notice where in your body you begin to feel the fear. . . . Where does it start?
Lynn: It starts in my arms and across my shoulders.
Bandler: It starts in your arms and shoulders, and then where does it go?
Lynn: Um, my head.
Bandler: It goes up to your head; and then?
Lynn: My vision starts to go.
Bandler: Your vision starts to blur?
Lynn: Yeah, and my legs start to go.
Bandler: And your legs start to— And when you say “go,” they don’t actually leave.
Lynn: They start to go like jelly.
Bandler: “Start to go like jelly.” And then does it just disappear, or does it circle back on itself?
Lynn: It just stays there—
Bandler: It can’t just stay there; nerves habituate.
Lynn: —until I actually slow down or stop [driving 30 mph].
Bandler: If you have a feeling in a nerve, if it just stays in one place, then the nerve can’t feel; it has to circle somehow.
Bandler then repeats his assertion that the feeling has to circle four more times (for a total of six times) until finally at 9:02 Lynn gestures in a circle out from her chest, down and in at her stomach. This gesture is quite different from the sequence she provided earlier: neck and shoulders, up to her head and eyes, and finally legs.
I have elicited the path of a feeling of anxiety in many clients, but without assuming that the feeling goes in a circle, and not one of them spontaneously reported that it went in a closed loop. It seems likely to me that Bandler’s finding that the feeling goes in a loop is installation, rather than elicitation. Perhaps a few people have anxious feelings that go in a closed loop, but it is certainly not common if you don’t assume it.
Bandler’s intervention with Lynn is also quite different, starting at 15:02: “I want you to close your eyes, and I want you to see the speedometer coming up, only as it does, I want you to take the very feeling that you have, the one that goes like this (gesturing in a vertical circle in front of him) and as you notice the feeling beginning to spin, I want you just in your imagination for a moment, pull it outside of yourself, flip it upside down, and pull it back in, so that it spins in the opposite direction.”
Despite all the many other interventions that Bandler made in the 50-minute session, including a lot of hypnosis, it is not evident to me that either woman got a useful change. Bandler did ask Joy to say hello to a cameraman, but it is not clear to me that this was an adequate test of her fear of going up to someone and talking to them. “Hello” is only the beginning of talking to someone. Other than that, there was no testing in imagination, and no follow-up information was provided. Even if we assume that these women did get resolution of their fear, there is no way to determine which of the many interventions during the 50-minute session made that possible.
A somewhat similar method, “dynamic spin release” developed independently by Tim and Kris Hallbom in 2008, also presupposes that the feeling moves somehow—sometimes from one place to another, sometimes spinning in one place—and reversing the direction of spin is a key part of their way of working, which varies considerably from one client to the next.
In this particular demonstration their intervention also involves a lot of hypnosis and other processes that are mixed with content: transforming it into a gesture with the hands, taking the feeling out of the body, pushing it away, suggesting that the problem state explode, a healing gift is going to appear, open up the gift, have it fly around the universe with angel wings, (The client showed up that day wearing a Levi jacket with gigantic angel wings embroidered on the back. Kris asked her why she had angel wings sewn on the back of her jacket, and she replied, “Oh, these are my angel wings and they take me wherever I go.” This is a utilization of that information.) collecting healing energy from the universe, reach out with your hands and bring all those healing resources back into your body, etc. The woman’s nonverbal shifts indicate that she got a change, and follow-up reports a profound change in a particularly traumatic history, but again it isn’t possible to know which of the many interventions were responsible for the change.
When I learned the method from Nick, it was also embedded in a lot of hypnosis and other interventions, which is fine in client work — You may as well give it all you’ve got, particularly if you don’t have a specific process that you know will work. However, I wanted to find out how much could be done with reversing the spinning feelings alone, so I stripped it down to its bare essentials, sometimes even leaving out the change of color and the sparkles, to verify that the spinning is the essential change. Changing the color and adding sparkles amplify the intensity of the change, but are not essential. (In another video demonstration I deliberately left out the sparkles, because the client reported that the feeling of anxiety was like “fireworks,” and I didn’t want the intervention to include anything that was similar to the fireworks in the problem state.)
In the streamlined process I use there is only the presupposition that the feeling starts somewhere and goes somewhere else, that it has a shape and color and spin — and the unstated implication that reversing the spin and color will reverse the kind of feeling generated. The result is a very rapid and effective method that is easy to learn and teach to others. And since it stands alone, you can easily confirm that it works even when it isn’t augmented by other interventions.
Since I don’t see clients on a regular basis, I have little opportunity to try out the different ways of spinning feelings described in this post (and demonstrated in the videos). I invite readers to experiment with these different ways of eliciting the movement of a troubling feeling and intervening, and I would be very interested in hearing what you discover.
Related resources from Steve Andreas:
A current article in the Psychotherapy Networker has several interesting and unique case examples, as well as some good discussion of general practice. The case dealing with suicide, below, is one of my favorites, because it is based on an attitude toward suicide that is very different — and much more effective — than the typical mainstream attitude.
If you only have time for the other case examples, start reading on p. 5 and continue through p. 8.
What’s the Rush?*
I (Jay) was asked by a hospital to see a young man on an emergency basis. Joseph was contemplating suicide and, until that point, had been in treatment with one of their staff psychiatrists. Unfortunately, when Joseph arrived for his appointment, he was told that his therapist was “unavailable.” But he soon discovered the truth — that the very person who’d been trying to convince him that life was worth living had just made her own suicide attempt and was now in a coma.
When Joseph came to see me, he took the position that if his therapist was trying to end it all, why shouldn’t he do the same? I replied that as far as I was concerned, he had every right to do so. In fact, every one of us does, including his therapist. After all, if we don’t have that right, what rights do we really have? Aren’t we allowed to smoke — which some consider just a slow way of killing oneself? What about overeating, bungee jumping, or jaywalking?
I pointed out that if Joseph thought I was there to talk him out of killing himself, he had another think coming. Perhaps his regular therapist had that goal, but I was operating from a different philosophical position. As we talked about this, I asked him if he’d ever been to Brazil. “No,” he said, looking at me as if I was mildly deranged. I explained that if I was going to kill myself there are things I might want to do first. For example, I might want to try parachute jumping or hang gliding. I might want to travel to South America to see some of the sights. After all, what was the rush? Was there a Tuesday special on suicide that I hadn’t heard about? Was this Tuesday better than the following Thursday? I also cautioned that if he were going to do himself in, he should make sure it’s what he really wants, because do-overs are unlikely.
Of course, because of his history at the psychiatric clinic, I knew that he preferred to discuss suicide rather than do it. It was the topic that had preoccupied him and his therapist for many sessions. However, in my view, their discussion wasn’t going anywhere because he and his therapist were both card-carrying members of the same “You’re not allowed to kill yourself” club. My approach disregarded those club rules entirely, enabling the conversation to move into new territory. Another one of the few fundamental principles worth retaining as a therapist is the notion that if the current strategy isn’t working, it’s necessary to do something different.
So Joseph and I discussed the fact that although he knew how Act One had turned out, he had little information about how Act Two might unfold. Sure, it might end up being just as dismal as Act One. On the other hand, it might turn out differently, especially if he could harness some of the life lessons he’d learned in Act One. I indicated that if he was willing to stick around for a few months, I’d be happy to chat about possible Act Two “scripts.” He agreed, and in our work over those next several months, he never again brought up the subject of suicide or showed any interest in discussing the topic.
*From “Spitting in the Client’s Soup: Don’t Overthink Your Interventions” by Jay Efran and Rob Fauber. Psychotherapy Networker, March/April, 2015, p. 47
Connirae is one of 6 presenters, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Ron Siegel, and Christopher Germer, in a webcast on mindfulness that’s just been released by the Psychotherapy Networker.
Connirae was included because of her new work, the Wholeness Process. This is a comprehensive method of personal transformation and healing, which can easily be used meditatively and for deep relaxation of the nervous system. The Wholeness Process offers advances in how mindfulness is practiced and understood. It is a much more precise and dependable method of inner work.
Signup for the Mindfulness Webcast ends tomorrow (Tuesday). Note that there is a $149 fee for this.
If you’d like a free introduction to the Wholeness Process, the free video here covers much the same ground as the interview with Connirae on the Webcast.
“Always get your patients to do things.”
I recently read about some research that found that saying “Ow!” or pushing a button increased tolerance to pain, but that simple relaxation or hearing a recording of themselves or someone else saying “Ow!” made no difference. The researchers concluded that making some kind of vocal utterance may be an effective way of coping with pain, and they described this as “distraction.” However, I have a different interpretation of the results of this study.
If pushing a button works as well as saying “Ow,” that clearly indicates that a larger category of behavior than vocalization is the key, namely taking some kind of action. It may not matter what the action is, or whether it is effective — only that the person is engaged in some kind of activity in an attempt to cope with the situation causing the pain.
This may result in “distraction,” but I think it is different than simply attending to something other than the pain. Many people who have been badly injured in an accident feel little or no pain while actively attending to other injured people or coping with the situation — until they stop what they are doing.
Someone else responded to the article, describing the effect as “releasing the feeling,” but I think that is also misleading, implying that a feeling is something tangible that can be held onto or released, rather than an important signal. The purpose of having pain or discomfort in response to noxious events is to alert us to take corrective action to protect the body. Saying “Ow” is an action taken to alert others and often to solicit their help; species that don’t help each other don’t cry for help, because it would do them no good. Once the action commences, there is no need for the pain signal, and it makes sense to focus attention on the action being taken.
I once knew someone who had been in the Peace Corps in Micronesia. Walking on the beach, she got a nasty injury from a fishbone in her foot. The natives immediately got a mango and a knife, and told her to stab the mango with the knife to reduce the pain. I don’t think you have to use a knife or a mango, but taking some kind of action — particularly if it mimics the mechanism of pain, in this case stabbing in the same way that the fishbone did — can make a difference.
Action and PTSD
Now let’s explore how this may be relevant to the resolution of PTSD. In a terrifying experience, there are 3 fundamental categories of response, fight, flight, or freeze. The first two are actions, and whether or not they are effective, they appear to protect against PTSD. However, freezing is the absence of action, and those who freeze are most likely to suffer PTSD later.
For over nine years I was an emergency “first responder” for our rural volunteer fire department, responding to accidents and medical emergencies as well as fighting fires. Quite often I would arrive on the scene to find someone unmoving, staring into space, not able to do anything in response to what had happened. They surely had read about accidents and emergencies, but they had never thought it could happen to them, so they were totally unprepared, frozen.
The broader message is that being prepared to do something in a terrifying situation is important. Undoubtedly there are a few situations in which doing nothing is the best — or the only — option. But generally speaking, doing something — even if it’s not the best thing — at least has the possibility of coping with a difficult situation. It will usually have a better chance than doing nothing, and it will probably protect from developing PTSD later.
When someone has PTSD, a “flashback” memory is usually understood to be a terrifying one. However a flashback can also be to a memory with more positive emotions, as described in Wikipedia:
“A flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.”
“A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual has a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of a past experience or elements of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion. The term is used particularly when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person ‘relives’ the experience, unable to fully recognize it as memory and not something that is happening in ‘real time.’ ”
Some time ago I started thinking about positive flashback memories, wondering what we might learn from them that we could apply to the resolution of negative flashbacks. Let’s start with a few examples.
Positive Flashback Memories
1. When I was in my mid-20’s, living in the San Francisco Bay area, I did a lot of sailing on the bay in a 14’ boat. One afternoon I was far out on the bay, happily “planing” in which the boat skims across the surface of the water, going much faster than usual. My toes were hooked under the lip of the centerboard housing, and most of the rest of my body “hiked out” to balance the boat, as shown in the photo below.
And then my toes slipped, and I tumbled backward into the water. Now, a half-century later, I still have a vivid snapshot of the moment when I was about 3 feet under the surface of the water, looking up at an oval of sky framed by a transparent wall of water all around it, just before the water closed in over my body. I am laughing uncontrollably at the shift from supreme confidence and skill to utter chagrin.
2. One afternoon in fall, I walked out on our back deck and saw a large black bear about 20 feet up in the ash tree about 25 feet away from me. Another 25 feet away was my wife, Connirae, who was leaning down to check our tomato plants, obviously not aware of the bear. I thought she ought to know about it, so I called out her name. My voice frightened the bear, which slid quickly down the trunk of the tree and rushed away from me—and directly toward Connirae. Connirae stood up and turned toward me to see what I was calling about—and there was the bear, charging directly toward her, only a few feet away. Before Connirae had time to recognize it was a bear, she was looking into its eyes, which were also looking right at her. It looked terrified, and Connirae felt instant compassion for the poor creature, rather than fear.
3. Walking up a narrow rocky trail from a delightful swim in the clear creek at the bottom of the canyon. I suddenly found myself about 3 feet to the right of the trail where I had been walking. Only then did I become aware of the rattlesnake coiled right in the trail, which was now to my left. I was very alert, but not afraid. I walked around to get past the snake and continued up the trail.
In the first example, I was able to have an enjoyable response because of my knowledge and experience. I knew how to swim, and I also knew that since I had released the rope that held the sail, the boat would immediately head into the wind and drift slowly, so that I could easily swim to it, get in, and continue sailing. Someone without this knowledge probably would have been terrified of drowning, but I had only the surprise of being unceremoniously dunked.
In the second example, Connirae saw a relevant aspect of the rushing bear that most people might not have noticed, so she had an unusually resourceful response in what would otherwise have been a very scary experience. By the time Connirae realized it was a bear, it had dropped on its haunches, skidded to a stop, and turned 90 degrees to run away from her. She was thankful that the bear saw her before she saw the bear, because “The bear became afraid before I had a chance to.”
In the last example I must have unconsciously seen the rattlesnake and taken appropriate action, long before my conscious mind caught up with what was happening. I had a lot of experience with rattlesnakes from my childhood on a ranch in Arizona, so I knew what to do, and no thinking or deciding was necessary.
In the first example, my knowledge and experience protected me from terror, in the second, Connirae’s perception protected her, and in the third, my perception and action protected me. It’s important to realize that in all three examples no conscious thinking or decision process was involved. Now let’s explore how this information can be used with PTSD.
Resolving Negative Flashback Memories
When someone has a terrifying flashback experience, they are always back inside the experience, reliving it, re-experiencing the feelings that they had in the original. The first thing to do is teach them how to re-view the same experience in a different way, namely as an outside observer watching themselves go through it. (This process is probably very familiar to most readers of this blog, demonstrated in an 8-minute video on YouTube, made over 30 years ago. This process is also demonstrated in a 14-minute video with an Iraq vet.) After this process, the client has a neutral emotional response to the flashback memory.
Although this process resolves the memory by eliminating the terror, it doesn’t teach someone how to respond more resourcefully to any future repetition of the terrifying event. If something similar to the flashback event were to happen in the future, they would be just as unprepared as they were the first time.
Creating a More Positive Alternative Scenario
If we create an alternative movie in which we respond more resourcefully, and rehearse it in our imagination, that can prepare us for any potential repetition of a troublesome event. The primary purpose of this is to program us with alternate ways to cope with a similar event if it were to occur in the future. We will also feel more secure about our capability in the present, but that is a secondary benefit. The instruction for creating a new scenario is fairly simple, but certain criteria need to be met for it to be really effective.
Selecting, Eliciting, and Rehearsing a New Response
“I want you to recall the event that was terrifying. Without directly changing anything external to you, how could you respond differently to lessen the negative impact of that event, neutralize it, or possibly even make it positive? This could include any additional preparation, knowledge, understanding, perception, or action that is within your control. The goal is to make you more resourceful and empowered in responding to that kind of event in case something like it ever happens to you again.
“Here are some examples of what I mean. You already know that something like this could happen to you, so that knowledge is already one kind of preparation. You also know that you survived that event, so that is additional preparation for any repetition. Instead of tensing up just before the crash, you could relax instead, so that your body is more supple and less likely to be injured. You could raise your arm to ward off the assailant’s blow to protect your head. You could smile at the mugger and ask him for the time, hoping that might puzzle and distract him. You could deliberately misunderstand what someone else said. You could perceive the signs that warn you of danger, or refuse an invitation, avoiding the event altogether.
“A thorough search of alternative actions will usually turn up many, many possibilities, and some of the most uncommon or bizarre ones may be the most useful in changing the impact of that situation. If your creativity runs down, ask others for help in generating additional possibilities. After an extensive search, you may still conclude that doing nothing was actually the best option in that situation. If so, make freezing into a choice, rather than a default—something that you do, rather than the absence of doing.
“When you have identified something that you could do differently, create a scenario of you doing that in the context, with you inside the movie, looking out from your own eyes as the event unfolds. As you imagine doing something different, it is fine if that changes the situation indirectly—for instance someone else involved may respond differently to what you did differently.
“If you were to imagine a scenario in which external events are directly changed (for instance, a rescuer enters the scene, or the assailant does something different on his own, etc.) since those changes are not under your control, they would be useless in any future repetition of the event. Furthermore, changing external events implies that you are not able to influence the situation yourself, the opposite of empowerment.
“If you make a change that is within your control (such as refusing an offer of a ride home) that may change external events through changed consequences (no rape/assault). This is a legitimate and very useful change, especially if is based on specific sensory warning cues that were available but that you ignored in the original event.
“In his really excellent book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker teaches assault victims what cues to search for in the original event, in order to protect themselves from a future repetition. After doing this with a woman who was brutally raped, and barely escaped being murdered, she said something like, ‘You know, it’s funny, but I feel safer now than I did before the assault.’
“When you have created a new scenario that changes the impact of an event, test it in your imagination to be sure that it has the desired effect, and find out if you can improve it in any way. Then create at least two additional alternative scenarios — the more the better — and test them in your experience, to be sure they are effective in reducing the negative impact of the event.”
Carefully rehearsing a variety of more positive alternative scenarios in this way prepares you to respond resourcefully with unconscious choices. When done thoroughly, this prepares you to respond to any repetition with a variety of actions for coping with a difficult situation, reduce its harmful impacts, and at the very least it should protect you from a recurrence of PTSD.
The current issue of the Psychotherapy Networker includes a “case study” describing helping a young man who was depressed in response to his internal dialogue, and in danger of being rehospitalized.
This session demonstrates how to use the comprehensive method for working with a troublesome internal voice described in detail in my recent book, MORE Transforming Negative Self-Talk.
The link to the article is good now, but may not be in another month or so; if you want to read it, do it soon.
Read the article here: Voices of Reason: Empowering clients to alter their internal experiences