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Love

A statistic: a recent survey came up with the finding that just over 60% of all songs ever written are about love. I imagine the same is true, or more so, of poetry and of course most novels contain a love story of some kind. And yet psychology mostly, although not entirely, goes quiet about love. In my 32 years in the profession I can’t remember attending a single workshop or course with the word ‘love’ in the title. In mainstream psychology there are very few books on the psychology of love, never mind the healing power that loving support can provide.

Carl Rogers, generally considered the founder of counselling, believed strongly that in the counselling setting a respectful, non possessive and non judgmental love had that power to heal. He once wrote: “It respects the other person as a separate individual and does not possess him (or her). It is a kind of liking that has strength, and which is not demanding”. He saw it as “temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments”. He believed this was the pathway to empathy and to the true understanding of another person. As he famously wrote: “If a person is understood he or she belongs”.

It is perhaps psychology’s greatest disservice that it says so little about it. And yet we can easily remember those doctors, psychologists or therapists who were able to allow this in themselves and not just see ‘being professional’ as being semi detached from the person in front of them. I have found it striking that as a standard question I am likely to ask clients what medication they are on. Very often they can’t recall the name of it but, if they had a good relationship with their doctor, they will always remember the doctor. The relationship comes first for them, the feeling of being listened to, valued and, most of all, understood.

Resilience

Given the demanding times we live in, I thought resilience would be a good topic. What makes for resilience? Why are some people more resilient than others to life’s pains and stresses? One person can go through a stressful experience and feel devastated by it with emotional, psychological and perhaps physical effects, while another person will suffer much less. Some get through a tough experience, others crumple under it.

A key ingredient for survivability seems to be the foundation stone of ‘meaning’. If we have a sustaining faith in something then it gives us something to survive for, an inner ‘rock’ to hold onto, rather than being swept away by whatever life throws at us.

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, came to this conclusion during his three years as a prisoner in Auschwitz and other concentration camps in World War II. His wife and most of his family died in the camps as, of course, did very many others. But Viktor Frankl survived and after the War wrote ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’. Published in 1946 he described his own horrific experiences and his observations of how he and others coped. It seemed to him that those who had a faith – not necessarily a religious faith – but a faith in something profoundly important to them, survived the terrible experience in the camps much better. Their life had meaning. Those who had no faith had little to live for, suffered more and would often just ‘give up’. There was no inner passion for life, no drive, to keep that person going.

In Paulo Coelho’s 1999 novel ‘Veronika Decides To Die’, a young girl (Veronika) has friends, a social life, a loving family even. She displays no signs of depression, but life lacks that same essential ingredient: meaning. Life is empty for her. As she says herself, one day seems much like another. There is nothing to drive her forward in her life. She too gives up and in her case attempts suicide.

Frankl believed that whatever gave meaning to our lives had to be invested with love, that the two were inseparable What has real meaning for us we love, what we love holds meaning. He saw our salvation as “through love and in love” which he described as “the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart”.

So what do you really love? What gives fundamental meaning to your life?

I think if we are able to discover that then life is truly worthwhile.

Happiness is stomach shaped

Many Eastern approaches to medicine and healing would see the stomach (the gut) as the seat of our emotions. A surprising discovery in recent years that tends to reinforce this belief – and which has raised some fascinating questions – is to do with the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve runs from the brain down to the gut. It’s a major highway, and a very busy one indeed. It carries heavy traffic.

Up until recently it was assumed that most of this traffic was one-way, from the brain to the gut, the brain conveying instructions to the gut on all matters to do with digestion.

Now Professor Michael Gershon’s pioneering work at New York’s Columbia University suggests the opposite: that far more traffic flows from the gut to the brain than vice versa.

The big question is what are all these messages from the gut conveying to the brain? Well, there are lots of don’t knows to questions about the hugely complex human digestive system. What we do know is that 90-95% of our serotonin, which dictates our mood, lies in the gut and only a small amount in the brain. So all that huge traffic of messages to the brain may be largely to do with conveying, literally, gut feelings. In other words, it may be the gut, not the brain, is telling us how we feel. Eastern medicine may have got it right all along, that emotions really do originate in the gut.

Unlike the brain, which conveniently thinks in words, the gut is more to do with us ‘sensing our sensations’ and having faith our gut feelings may be conveying an important message for us. In my 32 years of practice as a psychotherapist I know that accessing our gut feelings can be liberating. It frees us of unresolved issues ‘stuck’ in the gut where they reside very uncomfortably.

In the area of our emotions it seems our gut is the senior partner. A knot in the stomach, butterflies in the stomach, your gut reaction to something? Listening to your gut more than your brain may be a true education.