Therapy can be a very effective method of addressing psychological problems, but one size shoe — or in this case, technique — does not fit all. Psychologist Dr. James Ascough, a longtime student of autonomic nervous system arousal, noticed this dilemma when clients would discuss problems and situations, but would not show much in the way of feelings or arousal of any kind, ultimately resulting in what he believed to be a disappointing lack of growth and progress in the sessions.
“Often, when people speak in therapy, they may show little emotionality. A basic hypothesis was that if there is not emotional arousal, something happening emotionally, they do not change.” Dr. Ascough explained that many present emotionality from past negative experiences.
Most of us do not get to 20 without negative emotional experiences, still later military experiences in combat, conflicts with old friends or bosses as we attempt to reenter society. Simply talking about these may not help, but using the “old emotionality,” self-modulation and coping skills can be introduced for learning better approaches to similar instances in the future.
“We don’t need to discuss all the bad experiences that occurred, but we can use the emotionality to learn new responses. Therapy is more about learning skills that will make me more successful in the near future than about resolving conflicts with my father 35 years ago that are now irrelevant.”
“It appeared possible to elicit emotionality that surrounded the past events, and then teach coping skills that would allow the individual to deal with future events. That became, at one level, ‘Let’s teach individuals self-control and self-modulation to effectively handle the various situations they will face.’”
This thinking includes a key cog in the approach, which is the factor that our bodies are constantly reacting with thoughts, emotions and muscle activity and responding accordingly. “An important aspect is that all of us, all the time, are self-modulating. So, life always involves activity that entails using shifting thoughts, internal arousal in your body, and levels of tension in muscles. Autonomic activity is very important in terms of learning self-control.” Self control is important.
Ushering emotions has been a large part of Dr. Ascough’s work, and with his colleague Dr. Ron
Smith authoring “Promoting Emotional Resilience: Cognitive-Affective Stress Management Training.” The book presents a therapy, Induced Affect, and focuses on CASMT, a program for teaching coping techniques designed to help non-patient persons discover and change their “dysfunctional appraisals” that cause unnecessary and disruptive distractions, eventually allowing them better self-control over their responses, along with more well-rounded cognitive and emotional skills.
“Promoting Emotional Resilience” does not have a specific audience in mind. Rather, it is beneficial to both professional therapists and those teaching greater emotional strength. Dr. Smith and Dr. Ascough saw the positive effects CASMT could produce in vastly different people, scenarios, and professions, such as football players who are faced with exposure of their skills that can fluctuate emotions within seconds.
“In the National Football League, a player may have 70,000 people watching them in-person and 700,000 people on TV. If a linebacker screws up, he may think, ‘Oh nuts, everybody saw me do that.’ Now, is he going to self-modulate and say, ‘I will make the next play, I’ll be successful on the next one,’ or is he going to become more anxious and more concerned about exposure and critical evaluation? We have worked with athletes to shift to positive control.”
Dr. Ascough continued that Dr. Smith studied officers in training at army bases, another profession that features prominent levels of anxiety. “They really stress officer candidates, and usually only a quarter of them become officers. In Smith’s research, candidates were taught the CASMT techniques, and three-fourths graduated. War is stressful, so candidates with self-modulation skills do far better after the training and will be more effective in battle.
Those at the highest level in other fields were able to benefit. “Dr. Smith did a study with physicians, who were highly accomplished, but learning certain new medical techniques that if not done right, could harm a patient. While anxiety-provoking, very capable people can learn better coping skills for self-control and modulation, and confidently develop a surgical team.”
“Therapy is not talking about the negative past so much as it is how we can use emotionality from the past to learn new skills to handle negative occurrences. You are always going to have emotional situations: shit happens.”
Dr. Ascough expressed that therapy should not simply revolve around focusing on past experiences, but rather anticipating future stresses and building new skills for dealing with potential problems. “Life is not doing little, life is about actively interacting with others, creating relationships. Therapy is not talking about the negative past so much as it is how we can use emotionality from the past to learn new skills to handle negative occurrences. You are always going to have emotional situations: shit happens.”
“I can’t give a client a father who is caring, mentoring, and loving, but I can say, ‘Let’s use the feelings you have about your father, and decrease negative arousal with new self-control and de-arousal skills until you have self-modulation and you are viewing new situations more realistically.’ To me, the pleasure is that we don’t have people simply sitting talking about a bad last week. Our job is to teach the person the capabilities to deal with the future. We need to be in a teaching and mentoring role.”
When working with clients, Dr. Ascough begins with training relaxation for muscle tension, ultimately helping the person to function more calmly and slowly. “One thing is we do is not start therapy immediately because we do not know what skills or defenses the person has. So, we first begin doing training in relaxation. One introduction is called a body scan. You start with the toes and arches, then go through the whole body and teach them to relax their muscles. At the same time, you have them breathe very regularly and calmly.”
“You give them ideas about what to say to themselves. It is body scanning and relaxation for the musculoskeletal system, then introduction of aspects that train cognition and the autonomic components. I often send people home with six tapes. Two for the head, two for the guts, and two for the muscles.”
Dr. Ascough noted that calming techniques go well beyond physical activities and can include various senses. For clients who may not learn cognitive modulation easily, he might make an imagery tape that’s “cognitively active” of an experience they find pleasurable, such as hiking. “They’re walking into the woods, but the script has insects, birds, colors of plants, colors of leaves, the smells of the woods They get very relaxed because the overactivity in images reduces the random thoughts running through their head.”
“We want the individual to be at a point where we can say to them, ‘Sit in the recliner, push back, and take yourself down to a baseline of relaxation and calm. When they can do that well, their ability for modulation can be used to control negative emotionality.” The exercises are not just meant to help a person efficiently cope with their trauma and daily stresses, but rather set them on an entirely new path altogether. “In a sense, it’s about building a new existence. How do you use modulation skills, how do you write your own script for living.”
Throughout the country, many youth have struggled with continual anxiety that has been fueled further by the pandemic and school shootings. “Mental health in many ways is poorly funded and failing. We observe about 60% of the children who get treatment for depression get it in schools, not mental health centers. Schools are usually not trained to handle fairly disturbed kids. It is scary.”
Dr. Ascough explained that the emotional and growth issues plaguing future generations start at home with their parents or guardians, who are crucial to providing support and the education of fundamental abilities. “One of the sad pieces is we have so many homes where one parent is missing. Often, we work with parents who did not have needed experiences in youth that allow growth. Without a mentor saying, ‘Do ___,’ and teaching how to do it, it makes life more difficult. We see too many children who have lost out on the kinds of experiences they need to be effective adults.”
“It is a growing process. But the major aspect is the development of a sense of trust and caring, and that allows relationships with others, confident that there will be closeness where you are cared about and you care about them, with a sense of trust that allows psychologically reciprocal relationships.”
A parent’s connection with their children can ultimately provide them with a life-long sense of safety, security, and confidence.
Dr. Ascough, who works with clients of all ages, uses techniques that can benefit young children by beginning to teach them a sense of security and serenity. “For kindergarteners, we have a relaxation training called ‘Play Turtle.’ You have kids on floor pads and lay a blanket over their body, with their arms and legs out. We discuss how the turtle can be safe by pulling his arms and legs into the shell. If something is threatening, we pull our arms and legs in and we are under the blanket. It’s safe, and we feel secure. It is a subtle way to introduce learning about de-arousing and being calm.”
“If we did that in kindergarten, upgrade it in second grade, still further in the fourth because kids have increased verbal skills, and again in the sixth grade; by the time they get to high school they have strong skills to cope with external and internal stresses, and they manage to modulate calm.”
While the game can be fun for children, it mirrors what adults have tried to do for centuries, which is growing more difficult due to modern stresses. “People for thousands of years have come together in towns and cities. They develop a lifestyle, learn a skill to earn money, and form close relationships. They try to create a lifestyle that is safe, secure, comfortable, and loving. They feel good about themselves and about their lives. That keeps getting harder, as the events occurring now give people a sense of vulnerability, beyond mere anxiety. It is difficult to feel safe and secure.”
While a major thrust is to extend skills in self-modulation such that cognitive, autonomic, and muscle aspects can be focused on the newest problem. Yet, we are always alert to and monitoring another variable: caring for self. A therapist might sit all day with their mind never stopping but their body not moving. One activity might be tennis. If the opponent hits a serve at 115 mph, there is little time to think while the body must explode to move the person to a place to return the ball. No thinking, expressive movement.
A plant worker might be very irritated with his foreman. He stops at a bar for a 12 pack, sits at home viewing an irrelevant TV program, and numbs himself with alcohol. Would bicycle riding be more expressive, reducing anger. One friend with a doctorate in ecology spent summers evaluating national parks in various countries. For more than one winter she was isolated in a mountain log cabin and needed much firewood. She had a double-bladed ax with a handle nearly her height that she could swing with a fluid loop. “When I am chopping wood, I am never angry, depressed or anxious. I beat the hell out of the wood.”
“Not far into therapy, we ask, ‘what expressive activities do you have to keep tension minimized, not accumulating, and which allow calm?’”
Humans developed tension reduction activities many years ago, and this did not include sitting on a couch to watch TV. Not far into therapy, we ask, “What expressive activities do you have to keep tension minimized, not accumulating, and which allow calm?” We begin a list:
Cognitive: a. expressive b. calm
Autonomic: c. expressive d. calm
Muscles: e. expressive f. calm
Three of each provides eighteen skills.
For cognitive, I find singing emotional music requires concentration and allows expressiveness. I become very calm reading a good novel or a non-emotional interest: paleo anthropology. Sleep comes easily.
Autonomic expressiveness comes best from a strong position when a tennis ball can be hit at full strength with a massive expulsion of breath. I love the muscle expressiveness of swimming: kicking feet and reaching out as if fighting.
So many types of relaxation, mindfulness, and visualization promote calm. With experience, many activities can be selected.
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Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.