Tag Archives: science

Gratitude Untied

Mornings bring the blues and Veterans Day is no exception. I sit here writing about gratitude and feeling sad at the same time. How is this possible?

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.

“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” (Helen Keller)

Strange thing, gratitude, when we feel it at the grace of less fortunate.

When I see my grandchildren born to a daughter conceived after I came home from Vietnam, I am grateful beyond measure for my survival.

Then I remember more than 58,000 names engraved in black granite and over 150,000 wounded comrades. I think of the hurting souls in my combat PTSD group, my friend’s hot flashes from hormone treatment for Agent Orange induced cancer, my brother-in-law and the husband of a friend both also lost to Agent Orange. I remember my Khmer friends and wonder if they survived “The Killing Fields”, and I think of a former student killed in Iraq.

My gratitude slips away like a poorly tied knot…from pulling it too tight, I suppose, from trying to own this gratitude thing.

There are those who belittle gratitude: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” (Joseph Stalin)

Well, I like dogs. I trust them more than I trust people, and I would rather emulate most any dog than a lot of people—people like Edward Gibbon who said, “Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.” He also said, “The courage of a soldier is found to be the cheapest and most common quality of human nature.” Yup, I like dogs better.

Would you believe that scientists actually research gratitude? “Social scientists have found that the fastest way to feel happiness is to practice gratitude.” (Chip Conley)

Practice? So, gratitude is not a thing loved by all, especially arrogant despots. Gratitude is not a thing that can be owned—or a thing at all—but a process I can practice.

Yes, I will have this thing called happiness, and if gratitude is the way, I choose to practice gratitude.

Oh. How do I do that? How does one practice gratitude so that one might become happy?

I am a mess. When I go inside to look at myself, I see messy tracks for which I am not grateful. Still, I must look inside, honestly, to track my feelings. Such a dilemma.

One key is service to others. Yesterday I began writing this blog on Veterans Day, a day when I had no obligations before 6 pm. Today, on the other hand, I must go to work. Service. Today I have the opportunity to be useful, to be relevant.

Not only do I have the opportunity to develop programs to help teachers teach our young people in Yuma, but today I get to serve others in very specific and personal ways. A young Marine veteran is coming to get advice on her academic future, on her major, on her career. I don’t give the advice, but I serve as the connection for her to get to the advisor. That allows me to think about her needs instead of the mess that is me.

Later, today, I get to help a student teacher struggling with academic language in his second tongue so that he may finish his major writing assignment standing between him and his certification. I have the privilege of helping someone, and that is something that not every old veteran has.

I am grateful, again. For this guy, the process of gratitude is finding ways to be helpful to others. Practicing gratitude is searching for ways to serve, tracking opportunities rather than my own mess. May you find your own ways of getting outside yourself so that you may unleash the power of gratitude to lead you to your happiness.

Happy Tracking.

Dirt Honesty

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. September looks at honesty.

In Spring of 1970, I led an operation inside Cambodia. The Civilian Irregular Defense Group strike force from our Special Forces border camp in Viet Nam rode on the backs of armored personnel carriers. My map was useless as we pushed our way, twisting, turning, backing, and plunging forward through the jungle. By the time the Cavalry Captain thought we had reached the right place to dismount, this Infantry Lieutenant was honestly lost.

I do not like being lost. There were two topics in Officer Candidate School I had studied as though my life depended upon them: weapons and land navigation. Our land navigation training officer was my favorite. His advice on reading terrain was always, “Call a spade a spade.”

That means, do not interpret the terrain features to fit your notion of where you are or where you might want to be. It means, read the terrain features for what they are and allow them to show you where you are.

My problem in Cambodia was that this part of Earth is flat with no durable terrain features, only jungle and clearings that changed and were inaccurately mapped.

As we dismounted, the Captain asked me if I knew where we were. I admitted I did not. He pointed to a spot on his map, mounted up, and drove away, leaving us standing in the jungle. A doubter by nature and a scientist by training, I was not convinced. I called for a fire mission.

I asked for one timed fuse smoke artillery air burst. The sighting would give me a direction and the difference between the time of burst and when I heard the explosion would allow calculation of distance. Cool. Distance plus direction would plot my location from the known artillery round location.

There was one big oops. We could not see the smoke because it was too far away. We were a couple of clicks (kilometers) from where we had been told. It took a few more adjusted fire missions to accurately determine our actual location—which was really important later when we made enemy contact and wanted artillery or air support without blowing ourselves to pieces.

Being lost is being vulnerable, risking getting killed—either by the enemy or by friendly fire—either way it is just as permanent.

Survival depends on knowing where you are, and learning where you are requires facts, tracks on the ground (or air, in this case).

Survival demands dirt honesty, and dirt honesty requires the vulnerability of admitting you are lost so that you may read the tracks on the ground for what they are. Vulnerability, however, is dangerous to survivors of traumatic stress. It triggers hormonal dysregulation, anxiety, and even depression. This is the dilemma of post traumatic stress, caught between dysregulation and death.

Denial is the common response. It was mine for thirty nine (39) years. Recovery began when I admitted I was lost and called for help to figure out where I was. Today, I read my own behavior as the tracks on the ground, the cues that I am lost or, at least, not where I want to be. I admit I am lost and I reduce my vulnerability by calling in the artillery, by getting help to figure out where I am.

You may be lost, but you are not alone, and if you need some artillery, here I am.

Happy tracking.

Love Is Green

“Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!” (Sitting Bull)

“I am grateful for green plants.” It was an assignment for my Lutheran Catechism class to write a paragraph on something for which I was grateful. I was a biology nerd before I ever had a Biology class, and I still am grateful for green plants fifty-some years later.

Here in the North Woods, growth has an urgency sometimes not found elsewhere. Our growing season for most green plants is May to September at maximum. One of the things I love is that each week, and sometimes each day, another species begins blooming. This week the Strawberries and Star Flowers are in full force, the Bunchberries beginning, and the Trilliums fading to pink. Many spring flowers have already set seed, Marsh Marigolds among them.

We have thousands of Balsam Fir trees and they sprout a few new shoots on the ends of each live branch, bright light green contrasting with the aged dark green needles. The buds grow into new branches so fast it seems possible to watch the movement. I am puzzled how anyone can be bored in the woods.

Balsams have a tendency to die early, susceptible to a vascular fungus carried by a bark beetle. They have soft wood and shallow roots, conditions of rapid growth, and they often tip over or break in the wind. Carpenter ants munch on the wood unable to keep up with the fast life cycle of the ambitious firs. So, I clean up and burn branches.

I love a good campfire. I prefer Cedar or Sugar Maple for a long evening fire with meditative coals, but a quick fire of Quaking Aspen (another fast growing, soft tree that dies young) and Balsam Fir brightens a rainy day. Campfires are as close to magic as this old nerd needs to be.

The flames and glowing coals are sunshine. These humble green plants have managed a seemingly impossible task, that of grasping light. The energy from the sun, captured in tiny green bodies inside their cells, has been imprisoned in the leaves and wood and set free as fire. It is also released by the fungi, insect larvae, earthworms, or bacteria capable of reversing the process, of digesting the food stored.

Life works like that. Almost all life away from wet thermal vents relies upon sunlight captured by green plants and stored in plant or animal bodies. All the energy I eat every day comes from a nuclear fusion reaction 93 million miles away captured by chloroplasts too tiny for human eyes to perceive living only inside green plant cells.

No green plants, no life. Know green plants, know life. Okay, I warned you I was a nerd.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.
There is an emotional connection between people and plants.

Think not? Buy your wife or mother some flowers. For years, my Mothers’ Day tradition was to buy my mother some Pansies and plant them for her. Gardening is an act of Hope, Faith, and Love.

I believe there is a spiritual connection between people and green plants. Oh, sure, we get pretty good at ignoring it lest some human think we might be nerdy, but it is there. Gardening is a wonderful activity for grief, and PTSD is a condition of grief for the loss of our comrades and for the loss of our pre-trauma selves.

Gardening is a challenge in these lattitudes, but the North Woods is a natural garden. I don’t have to do the gardening, just lend a hand from time to time. Harvest a tree, pick some berries, monitor diseases, prevent fires, and maybe thin some overgrown thickets.

Nature is God’s garden which man, in good sense, has preserved here and there for all of us to enjoy. So, enjoy the love, already.

Of One Mind

“I wish you could just cry,” my wife said. Many, many times.

I can sometimes cry, but not often, and not at times when it would be healthy and appropriate.

“For combat veterans only anger as a feeling or an emotion is easily expressed.” (Hart, 2000, p. 82)

Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

Human brains are complex in both structure and function; we live interesting lives through complicated minds.

The mind of a combat Veteran with PTSD is divided against itself. Recovery is a process of learning to reunite these parts of ourselves.

Dr. Hart says, “Many times we have difficulty integrating our thoughts and feelings.” (p. 83)

We think and we feel. It seems the feelings exist or occur through primitive brain structures while more the complex and advanced cerebral hemispheres accomplish thoughts. While it may become necessary to distinguish thoughts from feelings, for today I will only say that thoughts can be manipulated and built while feelings simply exist.

And, then there are emotions. When feelings, perhaps through the power of thought, generate physiological responses (increased respiration, sweating, heart rate and blood pressure changes, nausea…), they become emotions.

We all have feelings. We cannot help that. That is the way things are.

But, feelings hurt. We feel vulnerable and guilty, and we don’t like it. So, we try not to feel. We ventilate; however, we do not share our vulnerability and grief because, well, we believe that that would make us feel more vulnerable.

Then there is the whole cultural miseducation of human males. We are trained to carry a stiff upper lip, particularly in cowboyAmerica. We learn to suppress feelings and deny emotions, but our thoughts won’t let us. The consequence is that we act out. Boys will be boys.

Peace is the way of a unified mind, a confluence of thoughts and feelings, an elusive state difficult for a combat Veteran with any symptoms of PTSD. It is elusive but not impossible to attain.

How does a person who has been trained to suppress and deny feelings, whose feelings tend toward guilt and vulnerability, and whose thoughts obsess on changing the past, find the peace of confluence?

My answer is science and art.

Science is the design of cognitive or conceptual meaning, the study for understanding of feelings, thoughts, and emotions and the processes of learning at behavioral, cognitive, and affective levels. It is working the problem in logical and empirical pathways of recovery, pathways that may include therapy, medication, and renewed coping skills. I write this blog.

Art is expression. I wrote a lot of poetry during times of intense vulnerability, and occasionally still do. More recently, I have been writing fiction. Sometimes I walk in the woods, listen to music, or play with my grandchildren. I feel that through art I am free to express feelings and emotions with less awareness of vulnerability. And, when I look at my art, when I share it with others, I learn about myself. I am able to experience my own feelings with less vulnerability and guilt.

That is a very good thing.

Yes, you can help. No, I’m not going to suggest ways you can encourage your Veterans to pursue science and art in their recovery. I’m going to suggest you pursue your own.

If you love a Veteran with PTSD, you probably have secondary PTSD.

Experience science and art in quest of your own confluence, your own peace, your own recovery. If you want to help your Veteran, be, yourself, of one mind.

Intelligent Inspiration

Toddlers teach us the lesson of the tantrum. They hold their breath until they turn blue, then they scream and kick and writhe in anger for interminable periods of time. There is a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

Feeling becomes emotion of violent living through chemistry. Frontal lobes of our brains recognize the shortage of oxygen as a grave threat. Panic sets in, triggering primitive brain structures to stimulate the release of adrenaline which becomes norepinephrine in our brains. This is the neurochemical which leads to the fight/flight response.

Evolution. The tantrum saves our lives because we fight or flee with the strength of our chemically enhanced prowess. We survive.

Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

PTSD is a learned condition of living these episodes of tantrum-like fight/flight reactions to stimuli, internal or external. It could be a noise, some smell, a light/shadow combination, an unexpected touch, or maybe a dream or wakeful intrusive thought. Maybe just a conflict or feeling, and we are off on a tantrum, a wild ride or dinosaur dump, lasting up to three or four days.

There is a solution. Breathe. Yes, it could be that simple. Recognizing the signals in time allows us to stop the chemistry.

  1. Exhale (as in a deep pool of water, coming to the surface);
  2. Inhale through the nose slowly and deeply to a count of one thousand one, one thousand two, filling lungs to maximum capacity;
  3. Exhale through the mouth even more slowly to a count of one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four;
  4. Visualize your clear space (safe zone, medicine area, sacred place), some peaceful, serene place where you are powerful;
  5. Repeat a second time;
  6. Repeat a third time;
  7. Stop at third, fourth, or fifth.

The key is to recognize signs of the tantrum before you start holding your breath. We have been conditioned, and the only defense is conscious awareness of our feelings, especially of our bodies. Remain alert for the warning signs.

  1. Any recognized feeling trigger;
  2. Chest tightening;
  3. Tongue pressed to roof of your mouth;
  4. Fists clenched;
  5. Biceps or triceps flexed;
  6. Jaw set;
  7. That tiny voice in the back of your head that can’t quite seem to say, “Stop!”

Look around you. Still alive? Cool. That wasn’t so bad.

Monitor your feelings and your breathing. Give yourself a pat on the back for preventing the dump. It might be wise to linger awhile in your clear space—besides, you are happy there, free but not vulnerable.

Our conditioning will not be unlearned. Our amygdala will not shrink back to healthy size and our hippocampus will not grow back the normal volume. That is okay. We can cope with the symptoms and the triggers. All we need are awareness and inspiration.

 

Joy of Science

I have followed my passion. From that almost forgotten day in my high school teen years when I thought I would dedicate my life to understanding the universe, I have lived inquiry. I have sought answers and meaning to life’s big questions—and have found some. Science is the way I have traveled.

If you have not studied science just for fun, you may not understand my meaning. From Latin, the word “science” means “to know”. It is both an assembly of what is known and a process of coming to know, a process of rigorous inquiry. No, there is not one “scientific method”, but there are some general principles that span the breadth of physical and life sciences, quantitative and qualitative research, and visible and invisible domains.

My Genetics Major Professor used to say, “If you look for something, you will find something.” One hard lesson of science is that what we find may not be at all what we think we are seeking. I find joy in that. Not everyone does.

The Agronomy Professor that hired me as a freshman kept a note tacked to his bookcase above his desk, “It is what we think we know that prevents us from learning.” I enjoy knowing that.

I have said since high school, “Nothing can be proved except that nothing can be proved.” I would enjoy your attempt to prove me right or wrong to a standard of science.

My Educational Psychology Minor Professor claimed, “Science is a form of rhetoric.”

I find that less than completely true. Certainly, coherent and valid argument is a requirement of this special epistemology we call science; however, more is demanded. Some form of empirical inquiry is necessary to move from question and/or hypothesis to conclusion. We have to look (or otherwise observe).

Life was my initial passion, and I chose Genetics because I loved its central relevance, its logical beauty, and the freedom of choice it gave me as a major. Chemistry and Physics were only necessary for me to understand life (I came to love them only as a teacher). Earth science grew on me later, also as a teacher, as I became more committed to understanding the ecological relationships of Earth’s biosphere.

Psychology turned me off. As some former students were quoted, “It’s either bull shit or no shit.” That is not what turned me away. The contrived attempt to make psychology appear scientific through abusive studies of Behaviorism (Stimulus-Response studies) left me cold. I still maintain B.F. Skinner set American education back a century. So, I studied it. I went back for my doctorate in education because I found no educational psychology I could believe. In gratitude and joy I claim to have found some.

I studied the hyphen. “Hyphen psychology” was actually a derogatory term for people trying to investigate what happens between the stimulus and the response. Thinking is what happens, what we call “cognition”. In my mind, interesting things happen between the stimulus and the response where perception, cognition, and volition live. I would enjoy reading your comment if you find any references to such a claim.

Even spirituality is not beyond my scope of science. Yes, I believe I know how to research it and have even done some of my own guided inquiry. Perhaps we will get to that much later (a year or two). I hope so because it is the great joy of this old man.

My focus for 2012 is on learning as a process of recovery from disease with the specific example being Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During our little blog holiday, I made the personal commitment to focus on PTSD recovery for myself and to share my progress here. I will blog at least weekly (~Wednesdays) and perhaps more frequently when I cannot contain myself. I call the line of inquiry “Beyond DEROS”. The acronym stands for Date Eligible to Return from Overseas, the most important day in the life of any reluctant combat troop. Mine was 1 Nov 1970.

Here is the premise: Combat PTSD is a syndrome of behavior learned in response to traumatic stressors of combat through Classical (and, perhaps, Operant) Conditioning as studied by Skinner and the other Behaviorists. Recovery is also a learning process, but definitely not through conditioning. We learn our way to recovery through perception, cognition, and volition.

When asked how his Aborigine friend found his way in the dark, Crocodile Dundee replied, “He thinks his way,” and so do we.

You probably know a combat Veteran who is, this day, suffering from PTSD (although he or she may not believe it). We can help. Love can help. Experience of others who have been to the wilderness and back can help. Cognitive psychologists can help. Will you help me to help our brave troops who bear invisible wounds? That would bring us joy of science.

 

Seasons of Sorrow

Science of Joy III: Public Rug

How do we teach joy inside and outside of our institutions of learning?

I left for college in 1964 and never went back home other than short visits. I even worked during Christmas break cleaning dorm rooms. Still, I remember spending time with family during the holidays with a cloud over my head. The semester did not end until January, and I had final exams to take. While this insanity of school calendar seems to have passed for most college students, it remains in many public high schools. We place an academic damper on the joy of our students.

Winter holiday time is stressful; evidence abounds in suicide rates. I wonder why that might be. I have heard some speculations about seasonal affective disorder, expectations of failed expectations, people missing family, and so on. While all of these may be true, I suspect the root cause is much simpler. We do not teach our children how to be joyful. It is not part of the curriculum. I suppose schools are leaving that up to the family.

Our larger institutions seem to lack joy, as well. Especially when Christmas comes during campaign season—and that seems to be every year, recently—we are inundated with everything that is wrong with our country, real and imagined. News cycles focus on tragedy, conspiracy, and calamity.

Fear is not conducive to joy.

We seem to believe we can buy joy.

Science seems to indicate otherwise. The more stuff we accumulate, the more we seem to fear losing it, and the more we seem to believe we need. We teach our children by our actions. Gluttony of mammon is an inherited disease, and there is no joy in it.

Grim post, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. This is the season for giving. Giving without any thought of thanks or reward is a certain pathway to joy. There are other avenues, but all have one thing in common: humility in diminution of ego. Sorry, I don’t have scientific evidence at hand to validate this claim. Do you? I would love to read your comments.

Maybe we need only remind ourselves to enjoy what we have. Certainly, material security in air, water, food, and shelter is important. Joy, however, comes not from our security or other blessings, but in our opportunities to share. Isn’t that the real message of the Season of Joy? Let us teach this to ourselves, families, friends, and strangers through our actions.

All I want for Christmas is time to share a little joy.

Whatever your faith, I hope you enjoy the journey.