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Learning to Converse with Your Heart, Detained Youth and Their Experience of Emotional Regulation

Haaweatea Holly Bryson.

Published Article, 2008, by The Research Institute of HeartMath

(Editor’s note: The names of all youths in this article have been changed to protect privacy.)

I began working as an intern therapist at a juvenile detention center in Colorado to complete my master’s degree. This was an environment vastly different to my usual playground. My preference had been to do therapeutic work with people in the outdoors, using a contemplative approach and nature-based interventions.

I joined the mental health team working with adolescents that were being held in detention for felony charges while awaiting court action such as sentencing, trials or possible plea agreements. A youth’s stay during this process can be anywhere from one day to two years, the average stay is around two weeks.

The detention setting brings a unique personality to counseling work. The issues we face in daily life potentially become more potent and overwhelming when faced in a detention environment. This environment is a catalyst for heightened emotion, potentially making it a powerful transition space for intervention and change, but it elicits feelings that seem unmanageable.

Whatever battles youth face in the "outs" often become bigger monsters in a correctional facility. They may experience anxiety, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, anger, depression, grief, frustration, loneliness, substance withdrawal, self-harm, low self-esteem and vulnerability. Furthermore, in terms of the questions that plague them, these youths express anxiety over the progress of their legal status and situations involving family members and advocates. Many youths in the detention environment have backgrounds of primal struggles in getting their basic needs met. Having no control over the legal process and the structure of detention elicits core developmental reactions, described by psychotherapist Duey Freeman as the groundless sense that "the world is not OK" and "I am not OK."

In interacting with youth in counseling, I carried with me my toolbox from a contemplative education at Naropa University. I approached teens in angst with a desire to sit with them in their present experience, hoping to help them find pause in a roller coaster of thoughts and reactions.

At times, when they were caught up in their war stories, I watched with curiosity as they hoped I would have a reaction to their pain. This was a new environment for me to work in and my usual approach was not very successful.

A simple technique such as pausing someone in his or her story to "take a breath" was met with laughter, awkwardness and, on occasion, a look most parents are familiar with, the one that closes all doors of communication. I tested my own creativity, at one point reframing oxygen as potentially one of the most powerful drugs in the body. Their curiosity granted me about one half-hearted attempt at taking a breath. It was challenging to find the right language that could translate present-centeredness or body experience in such a way as to spark a willingness to participate.

Asking youth to describe their experience of their bodies can be like asking them about their experience of the sky. It appears vague, untranslatable and irrelevant. The result of growing up as a child with the experiences of neglect, abuse, homelessness, addiction or low socio-economic status is often healthy distrust, a hypersensitive sympathetic nervous system and trepidation at feeling the physical sensations associated with these experiences. Traumatic experiences or high arousal in one’s environment causes a distant connection with the body. Fortunately, the body’s intelligence allows dissociation to occur whenever it is deemed necessary.

I began working with youth differently, allowing them to lead freely and following their train of jumpy thoughts as they came and went. After several weeks, I felt distant from the optimistic spark and possibility that comes when you work in the present with a client.

This fuelled the idea of using HeartMath’s emWave® Personal Stress Reliever (PSR) as a means of engaging youth in their internal experiences. This was presented to them as a tool for measuring their heart rates and informing them about their emotional changes, thoughts and responses to stress via the indicator lights.

Coherence was explained as a process that reveals whatever is going on in your body, as well as what is happening in your mind – how noisy you are inside. Most of the youths agreed to participate, hoping for help with sleeping problems, depression or "uncontrollable anger that takes over me." Several shared their fascination with the handheld PSR, how it resembled an iPod and that it was exceptionally exciting in detention. I felt buoyant that I had a way in, at last.

Of the 65 youths that began the study, only 12 were in detention for the required two weeks necessary for the study. Six of these received training with the emWave and the Quick Coherence® Technique and the other six received only their usual treatment. (The Quick Coherence Technique involves three steps: 1. Bringing attention to the heart area. 2. Breathing through the heart. 3. Self-inducing a positive emotion such as gratitude or appreciation ( Coherence, or inner quiet, is measured by the PSR biofeedback device and displayed when the indicator light is green. When the light is red, it reflects a lot of "inner noise.") Participants were trained in the technique to practice synchronizing the body and mind and achieving coherence.

Following is some demographic information for the 12 study participants. Percentages, which have been rounded to the nearest whole numbers, are followed in parentheses by the actual number of participants.

(Read below for the reflection highlights in their own words).

Ages ranged from 15 to 18. 67% (8) were male, 33% (4) female. 58% (7) identified themselves as Caucasian, 25% (3) as Hispanic and 17% (2) mixed race. 50% (6) were taking psychotropic medication. 75% (9) engaged in regular controlled substance use, and 67% (8) had used drugs in the week prior to detention. 50% (6) came from single-parent families, and two would themselves become parents soon. 17% (2) were in detention for the first time, 33% (4) their second, 42% (5) their third and 8% (1) their fourth. 42% (5) had had a close family member in jail. 50% (6) reported having close family members that had substance abuse and mental health problems. The main diagnoses of all 12 youths in the study were oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety/mood disorder, bipolar I, ADHD, disruptive behavior disorder and deferred diagnoses. 92% (11) were engaged in counseling in their daily lives in the outside world. 25% (3) had a trauma history involving physical or sexual abuse. 9% (1) had experienced a significant loss.

It was very powerful to witness the self-reporting of the six HeartMath-trained youths throughout the process.

When they began the training, only two of the six were able to attempt a description of the difference between feeling anxious or angry compared to calm. Following the training, all six clients had began to truly discover their bodies and verbalize this easily in their own ways, "I know when it’s going to turn red," one explained, "and I know when it’s going to turn green, like a downer and an upper. And when it’s red, the energy moves from my chest to my stomach."

As they all practiced synchronizing head and heart, they began describing the connectivity they felt: "When it’s red, it’s an empty kind of energy," one person said. "It’s hidden, mixed. When it’s green, it’s overwhelming with good emotion, all through my body! I feel smiles." Everyone that participated in a 20-minute session later reported being able to take the process of synchronizing head and heart into the prison environment and apply it to real-life situations such as when they were angered by peers or lay awake at night. All of the HeartMath- trained participants successfully shifted awareness to their hearts and achieved coherence.

Prior to sessions, when asked how they felt, three of the six described their state as angry/mad, three as depressed, three as anxious/nervous and four noted that they felt frustrated. (They came up with the descriptions of their feelings on their own.)

Participants lit up during the training when they began paying attention to the sensations in the body while in a coherent state. This was likened to a "high" and being able to feel "energy or movement everywhere." It was also "sooo cool!" One participant described this heart awareness and coherence as a "good way to control emotion"; another said it "puts me in a state where everything is calm – body, mind – and I can think clearly." Rob, a 17-year-old, said it "shows me the ability to calm myself down and gives me wisdom on how I can do it."

As participants noticed their body sensations with this exercise, these sensations helped them to correlate those sensations with how they were feeling. One person said, "It makes me know when I get depressed." Rob and James said it helped them with their anger:

Rob used a positive affirmation, a Tibetan incantation he remembered from nin jitsu, to help him feel gratitude in his heart, and he began to draw on this in daily experiences when he felt like he was losing control. "Before, it would be mildly hard to get myself into a state where I’m calm and block the outside world," he said. "Now I feel I can put myself into a trance where it’s just me and nothing else matters."

James used heart breathing as a way to block out peers or thoughts that led to acting out: "Breathing along with the lights make me feel calm" and that was a "different" and "better" feeling, he said.

Sally, 15, was placed on suicide watch a day before I began working with her. This involved being moved to an isolation room with cameras, and checked on in person every six minutes. When I met with Sally, she shrugged as she sat resigned, half-asleep with her head resting on the table, and said she could try something new.

Sally said she had been feeling anxious and helpless. She had difficulty connecting with the other girls and did not talk much. She couldn’t come up with a positive feeling, so instead, we invented a place where she could have a positive feeling. She described her very own beach, the smells, the sand, the temperature and unlimited art supplies of her own.

She also found that the breathing calmed her and quieted her negative self-talk: "When it (the emWave) is red, I feel tension and headache," she said. "It goes away when it’s green. When I focus on my heart, I feel calm." Sally was taken off suicide watch the following day and expressed hope immediately after using the Quick Coherence Technique for 20 minutes.

The following week she was back on suicide watch, and I met with her again. Despite appearing resigned to hopelessness, she remembered her special place, and dropped into heart breathing once again. Following this session, she described what it was like before and after learning her new coping skill: "Before, it wasn’t the best. When I’m sad, I stay really sad, but now I’m able to control it. I feel calm."

Among the ways participants said the technique affected them was that they were able to gain self-control over their bodies and minds, and it provided them hope, focus and support: "I’m able to keep more control over my emotions and actions," one said, "so that other people don’t control my actions. I do." Another observed: "If you want to get something, you can go and change things."

Belinda, a 16- year-old that became homeless when her mother was admitted to the hospital for cancer treatment, said the Quick Coherence steps made her feel happiness throughout her whole body and remarked at how "weird" it was. She noted that when the light was green, so much changed internally that it proved to her there’s "always a positive in a negative."

Because it can be challenging for youth to generate the feeling of appreciation, participants named a concrete resource they could easily draw on such as a person, place, theme, symbol, animal, activity or creation that elicited the feeling of appreciation or gratitude.

One participant, Jason, noted that identifying resources in his life helped him gain perspective: "There’s many people worse off than me, and having a harder time."

A major strength of this technique was forging a tangible and experiential pathway into the body. When the participants identified with their experiences and came up with their own descriptions of those experiences, they reconnected with their bodies and hearts.

Self-awareness is an enormous gateway to growth, but a challenging port of entry when it is unfamiliar. We close our hearts when we are afraid of feeling. Emotion in its raw state is simply energy requiring movement. When emotion is held, it can be woven into storylines.

Participants noticed that naming their feelings, regardless whether they were positive or negative, led to increased coherence. The act of feeling, regardless of the emotion, leads to a synchronicity between head and heart. We put countless hours into avoiding our own overwhelm, but when we surrender to the emotion, there is a release and a reinvention of space and control. Minutes into the first session, James quickly exclaimed, "I’m like a master at this!"

Two 20-minute training sessions had an impact on all participants. Quantitative measures such as the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (1965) and Buss and Perry’s aggression questionnaire (1992) were used to judge the effect of the training on self-esteem and aggression. The measures were used with the HeartMath-trained group and the control group before the start of the two-week training and again at the end of it. The verbal aggression and anger levels of those who received training significantly decreased, whereas the control group showed no significant changes. Furthermore, the self- esteem scores of the HeartMath-trained group moved in a positive direction following the training, while those of the control group did not.

Self-esteem is a valuable and deserved trait that is often fought for. One participant shared that success in the Quick Coherence Technique "helps me realize I’m not altogether a bad person, that there is good in me."

Meditation and heart-based techniques are powerful and necessary for adolescents. Teenagers are desperately seeking emotional intelligence and looking for guidance in how to help themselves with their own aliveness and inner changes. Feelings in adolescence can shift quickly without awareness of what just happened or what precipitated a change in mood.

Also, in this core development period of establishing who you are, external messages are readily internalized in forming a sense of self and personal value. In this way, we become these messages. According to Fontana and Slack (2007), "We become our own habit. We stop asking questions about ourselves, our origins, our destiny, and about the strange fact that we should exist at all." Thus, beginning the process of meditation, self-reflection and noticing how we feel and why it is so can be extremely beneficial in these developmental years. It helps us not only to begin recognizing the messages we receive from our environment about who we are, but also to stay fascinated in who we are presently, who we are becoming and our personal choice in the matter.

When participants unleashed their curiosity about their inner selves, they began to easily connect their roles in their own thoughts, emotions and sensations: "When I’m thinking," one said, "my head feels stirred up. When it (the emWave) is green, my head feels empty. My body is really relaxed."

Another described the role he plays in his experiences: "When it (the emWave) is red, there’s no thoughts at all, but a lot going on in my body – too much for my mind. When it’s green, there’s just the one thought."

Similarly, they began to come up with explanations for how the process works: According to Rob: "I guess internally, I’m locking away the bad thoughts, trying to bring back the good thoughts and ... just think wisely."

"Ok, I have it. ... So, it’s holding a thought close to you," James said. "It’s more a mind-over-matter thing, definitely ... not tricking it, training it."

The participants all said noticing their hearts during this process had a powerful impact. The act of breathing with the heart and through the heart, brought great depths of feeling into the sessions, while at the same time reducing the overwhelm. This allowed emotion to surface and be moved, without creating a feeling of being terrified. It created positive experiences in which participants confronted their demons, and these demons were replaced by the discovery of an unlimited strength and resource in their own bodies.

As James shared, when you feel the heart’s power in the body, "It’s like trying to get the two (head and heart) to talk and (the heart) saying, ‘Come on dude, quit worrying!’ "

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