Brain retraining is a set of techniques for promoting healing from long-term, chronic illnesses, and from various kinds of trauma. A previous post on this blog, from July 2014, goes into details of how this works, and includes an assortment of resources available for those who are interested. I’ve now been working with these techniques for about six months. It was a question, in getting ready for this recent trip, how the various practices of brain retraining would go together with sailing away on a boat. It turns out that it’s a good fit.
The basic concept of brain retraining has to do with the goal of calming one’s limbic system – the part of the brain that is responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response – so that other inner systems can function more freely, including those involved in all sorts of physical well-being: cellular healing, basic digestion, overall brain function, and a whole lot else. The brain retraining approach to calming the limbic system involves identifying thoughts that tend to put the limbic system on alert, interrupting those thoughts, and replacing them, in an organized, focused fashion, with the conscious experience of joy and peace. This then results in a calm limbic system, which is the primary goal for specific healing – it’s a perfect bonus, that one also gets all that experience of joy and peace to go with it.
There are loads of specific techniques for achieving limbic system calm. These include holding wonderful past experiences in mind, visualizing a positive future, and feeling all of those images here in the present, as well as practicing various forms of meditation and other mind-shifting exercises. Additionally, there is a process of identifying one’s patterns of thought, and making changes in those larger patterns, if their habitual form has been leading to specific thoughts that trigger limbic system alert. For example, one might have a habit of worry, or a habit of distress, or of dissatisfaction, or of fear. This is where it gets particularly interesting, as far as relating all of this to sailing.
In setting out again on the boat, I became aware of a number of the above sorts of patterns in my general internal routine, and I also started paying specific attention to the sometimes subtle distinction between “relaxed attentiveness” and “hypervigilance.” Boats are tricky – if one has a habit of hypervigilance, getting on a boat can be like offering cocaine to an addict. There are so many crucial details that really do need to be attended to, in order for all to go well. Safety issues – all that water, and making sure that it stays on the correct side of the hull, never mind putting up sails, or putting down anchors. Just imagining all that, from a secure location on solid ground, can be enough to rev up a stress response.
The trick is to recognize that the stress response is a choice, and that it may or may not be the most helpful, effective approach to the situation at hand. Occasionally there are times when immediate, intense, physical action is required – whether on land or at sea – and that’s what one’s limbic system is there for, keeping us safe, and well supplied with the resources to meet a physically challenging situation. But for all the rest of it, “safety” is best achieved by having a relaxed limbic system, in spite of habits to the contrary. A state of relaxed attentiveness lets in more information, makes mental room for clearer problem solving, and leaves one’s body rested, ready for any necessary action. All of these promote more safety than does an ongoing state of hypervigilant tension, which drains the capacities of each of those resources and more. So the question, for those who are habitually hypervigilant, is how one might do things differently.
This is where brain retraining comes in: once the patterns of maintaining limbic system alert are identified, it’s possible to actively make a change. Who would’ve thought! Thank heavens for all that recent brain research, which has contributed to figuring all this out, and for the individuals who have been using that new knowledge to put together practical, daily use sorts of techniques for influencing the inner processes of one’s mind and brain. (For specific references, see resources in the post from this past summer: http://sailingauklet.com/2014/07/28/brain-retraining/ )
The bottom line, coming from all of this, is that I have become a more relaxed sailor. Not less attentive, but learning the practice of relaxed awareness. One of the brain retraining folks, in talking about pacing as it relates to physical activity, discusses going through the brain retraining techniques before making a decision as to whether or not to do something that might or might not be too much for one’s present capabilities. I’ve found this approach enormously useful in making decisions about what action to take, in stressful situations that have nothing at all to do with physical capabilities (though it’s enormously useful for those questions as well). This calming process related to decision-making has been particularly helpful in sailing. Sailboat cruising is so filled with significant decisions, often with plenty of time available for the use of an assortment of tools to ease, and improve, the decision-making process.
An example of the way this can go, from this recent trip, had to do with a question about the safety of a particular anchoring location. It’s easy to worry, sometimes – to be downright scared – about being alone out on a boat, female, in what is so predominantly men’s space. Duck hunting season opened, I in one of those favorite creeks, unpopulated, except for sometimes surly men in camo clothing in camo boats, with firearms, passing by now and then. There were friendly kayakers, once, and a couple of regular motorboats, but mostly it was folks outfitted in camo, occasionally friendly, but generally not so much.
The thing is, I have, sometimes, been just as afraid in more populated places, wondering what the risks are. Combined with this, there is the issue of old fear, buried in the past, that can so easily come to the surface, seeking resolution by catching a piggyback ride on present day details. As the self-defense folks say, “fear is information.” But sometimes that information comes in code.
The funniest thing, there in that beautiful creek, was that I had been completely unafraid while anchored there for a couple of days and nights, but the third day did not feel the same. I had made the mistake of listening to the news on the radio that morning, which might have contributed, having heard horrible stories of bad behavior by a particular group of young men, and questionable community response. Or maybe something had changed – I do know that I felt very aware that my presence had been noted by quite a number of people, mostly hunters, who had by then had more time to think about it. But it was intriguing to also notice my own pattern of fear, and alarm, in spite of the lovely quiet water, the setting sun, the two anchors that were holding so perfectly, Bahamian style so that each turn of the tide would have one anchor holding the boat into the current, and between the two anchors, just off the nearby shore. Snug in this creek, so when the wind did blow, everything was perfectly fine. And yet I was worried.
It’s a great processing opportunity, when this kind of situation comes up. There’s EFT (the tapping technique, also discussed in a previous post, from August 2013), and now brain retraining. By morning, having practiced all my tools (at some length), and having experienced no interference from the other people out on their own projects, I could calmly say that I was no longer wildly stressed, and at the same time, I felt that it was wise to leave. In the past, that action taken, of following the tide out of the creek, would likely have been the same. The difference was that I felt fine. Calm, and appreciative of the beautiful morning. Passing a side creek with hunters flattened in their boat was good for a bit of a start, but once gone by, with a tall mud bank again between us, and a bit more inner work as AUKLET and I drifted toward the main river, relaxed attentiveness returned.
This is the practice – whether at home or on board. It’s been good to see that it’s possible to continue this work on the water, and it’s been even better to see that the work makes the time on the water, as at home, a much more peaceful place to be. Safer, and more comfortable – who would’ve thought that actively taking one’s alert system out of gear would have that effect. But I sure do like it. And I’m ecstatic that there is a way to put this process of brain retraining together with time afloat. It’s such a treat when all the parts of one’s life can go together.