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Peer groups: Wiston autumn group – first reflection

When I woke this morning I lay for a few minutes, asked myself how I felt, went inside, and there's sadness, a sense of tears in my chest.  And when I touch the sadness, try to sense what it's about, it seems about "missing", missing warmth, the hugs, a sea of kindness and smiling faces (and, of course, there's my mother's illness too).  I guess that's what it was like for me at the group.  In the morning, every single one of the other 36 men seemed more than happy to greet me with a big caring smile and a big hug too.  A sea of kindness, smiles, warmth.  And I return from the Men's Group to a very loving family, a very loving wife, a phone call with a dear son, time with a loving mother - but I still feel this sadness in my chest.  Something partly about brotherhood, and I know I can touch this kind of feeling too after the four day Spring Mixed Group.  Something about warmth and love and acceptance and kindness.  A sea of it.

Reflecting on the group that finished yesterday, there are so many fascinating issues that I could take time to explore, feel into, chew over.  Time is limited for me though.  The pulse of clinic time, visiting mum in hospital, family, are all starting to move forward again.  I'd like just now to go back to the deep sense of caring in the group.  For the final full group session yesterday, we sat, all 37 of us, for about 45 minutes, sharing, spontaneous, reflecting on how the four days together had been.  One dear friend said that, as a meditation form, often during the day he reminds himself to be present by repeating silently and slowly inside "Here ... I ... am".  The group tried it.  Slow repetition out loud.  Simply being in the circle with 36 other guys.  Then someone suggested we try "Here ... we ... are".  Again we tried it.  Together.  Outside in the hall I could hear noises of the next group who were going to be using the building.  Unfortunately - bad organization - a large group of teenagers had arrived for some kind of residential visit, before our group had fully finished.  I found myself feeling slightly irritated, trying to close out the noise of their voices coming through the closed door - almost a sense of them interrupting something quite "sacred".  Then I noticed my closing off, my sense of us and them.  I thought too about how later in the day I would be visiting the big hospital where my mum is at the moment.  I didn't want to have some sense of loving, of kindness, of connection with these 36 other men, but simply be closed and excluding of everybody else.  I explained this to the group and suggested we try "Here ... we ... all ... are".  This we did.  The group went on to other precious sharing.  

Then at the end, we opened the door to the hall, people started to leave, lots of final hugs and appreciations one-to-one.  There were a couple of teenagers looking in through the doorway, puzzled.  Quite rough looking young lads.  One, with a slightly disfigured face, said to me "Are you a gay group?".  "No" I said.  "Are you a Christian group?" he then asked.  "No" I said "We're a Men's Group".  "Why don't you shake hands (rather than hug)?" he asked.  I replied something like "It feels good ... do you want to try it?"  He and his mate - maybe 15 or 16 years old - laughed and said something like "No way!".  Then the one with the disfigured face said "Well, maybe".  I hugged him warmly.  We stopped.  He turned to his friend.  "You try it" he said.  I hugged his friend too.  They stepped away.  Then in a more serious voice, "Thank you" one of them said.

I remembered this, this morning when I woke and got up.  I remembered when Catero, my wife, said before the group started "What are you particularly looking forward to?"  One of the things I replied was the warm, caring, welcoming hugs I would get as greetings from so many friends as we met up to start the group (something else I said I was particularly looking forward to was the "musician/orchestra" challenge).  Although in the group it was much more human and considered, the welcomes & hugs reminded me of the times when a friend, going away for a few days, would ask us to look after her dear black labrador dog, Ceilidh.  Coming down each morning, it was always the same.  Ceilidh would greet me, twisting, grinning, wildly wagging her tail, as if meeting me in the morning was the best thing that had ever happened in her whole life.  It was the same every morning and it always brought a big warm grin to my face as I patted and greeted her too.  Interesting that that's the memory, the association, when I think about morning greetings in the Men's Group!

It's not an accident.  Warm interactions between humans and dogs are associated with a cascade of neurochemical changes in both humans and dogs (Odendaal and Meintjes 2003).  There are increases in beta-endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, beta-phenylethylamine, and dopamine.  In humans there's also a reduction in the "stress hormone" cortisol.  I'm particularly interested here in the effects of trust, safety and caring on oxytocin and the internal opioid systems that have been implicated in what has been called - in contrast to the "fight-or-flight" response - the "tend-and-befriend" response (Motzer and Hertig 2004).  Oxytocin related neurochemical systems are hugely important for social bonds (Kosfeld, Heinrichs et al. 2005; Uvanas-Moberg, Arn et al. 2005; Zak, Kurzban et al. 2005), and they also have widespread and profound physical effects - such as reduction in activity of the brain amygdala fear centre (Kirsch, Esslinger et al. 2005), lowered stress responses in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (Parker, Buckmaster et al. 2005), decreased blood pressure (Light, Grewen et al. 2005), increased pain relief (Gao and Yu 2004), improved wound healing (Detillion, Craft et al. 2004), reduction in the growth of cancer cells (Cassoni, Sapino et al. 2004) and other widespread effects throughout the body (Lippert, Mueck et al. 2003).  There's some suggestion that antidepressants may act partly by increasing levels of oxytocin (Uvnas-Moberg, Bjokstrand et al. 1999).  Professor Paul Gilbert and colleagues recently studied three general positive mood states - "activated positive affect, relaxed positive affect, and safe/content positive affect" (Gilbert, McEwan et al. 2008).  They concluded "It was the safe/content (oxytocin/opioid mediated) positive affect that had the highest negative correlations with depression, anxiety and stress, self-criticism, and insecure attachment."  As one so often sees, there is likely to be a loop here with an increasing sense of trust, safety and acceptance leading to increasing levels of brain oxytocin and related neurochemicals.  This physiological tend-and-befriend system is then signalled to others by facial expression, voice tone, body position, behaviour, physical touch and possibly too even through pheromones we emit (Agren and Lundeberg 2002).

I said in my small 4 person support group, early in the four days, that I wanted to "go molten" in the group.  It takes time to do that.  Yes, of course, there is the social/psychological process of feeling our way into the group.  Checking whether we feel we can trust the others.  Observing others taking emotional/interpersonal risks, opening up, being accepted, being treated with sensitivity, care, psychological holding.  At the same time, at another cellular level, there are the neurochemical changes building (Petersson and Uvnas-Moberg 2003).  I do believe that something quite profound is going on in my brain and body.  That's what it feels like. A kind of a melting.  I remember talking to an articulate heroin addict once.  He said when people asked why he took heroin, he suggested they try to imagine landing back in their own country after a long trip away.  He said that the feeling of "coming home" onto the ground of the airport - amplified many times - is the feeling he gets from taking heroin.  A sad, dysfunctional way of tapping into this natural opioid/oxytocin system of trust, safety and contentment.  Maybe, after a few days in the group, my body and brain are "drenched in oxytocin".  Something certainly, over the course of these four day groups, changes in the way I speak, the way I walk, the way I look, the way I dance, the way I hug.  Maybe that's partly what those teenagers, looking in through the door at our final group goodbyes, maybe that's a bit of what they saw.  Maybe when I hugged them and they thanked me, there were deeply anchored primitive tend-and-befriend signals being emitted psychologically, interpersonally, pheromonally, and through quality of voice and touch.     

Agren, G. and T. Lundeberg (2002). "Energy conservation in stressed rats exposed to an oxytocin-injected cage mate." Neuroreport 13(11): 1453-7.   [PubMed]
Cassoni, P., A. Sapino, et al. (2004). "Oxytocin and oxytocin receptors in cancer cells and proliferation." J Neuroendocrinol 16(4): 362-4.  [PubMed] Detillion, C. E., T. K. Craft, et al. (2004). "Social facilitation of wound healing." Psychoneuroendocrinology 29(8): 1004-11.  [PubMed
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Gilbert, P., K. McEwan, et al. (2008). "Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism." The Journal of Positive Psychology 3(3): 182 - 191.  [Abstract/Full Text
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Kosfeld, M., M. Heinrichs, et al. (2005). "Oxytocin increases trust in humans." Nature 435(7042): 673-6.  [PubMed
Light, K. C., K. M. Grewen, et al. (2005). "More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women." Biol Psychol 69(1): 5-21.  [PubMed]
Lippert, T. H., A. O. Mueck, et al. (2003). "Effects of oxytocin outside pregnancy." Horm Res 60(6): 262-71.  [PubMed
Motzer, S. A. and V. Hertig (2004). "Stress, stress response, and health." Nurs Clin North Am 39(1): 1-17.  [PubMed
Petersson, M. and K. Uvnas-Moberg (2003). "Systemic oxytocin treatment modulates glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptor mRNA in the rat hippocampus." Neurosci Lett 343(2): 97-100.  [PubMed]

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