Doing What They Say Can't Be Done
I apologize it took me so long to get to Part Three of this series.
You can see the previous parts at:
Part 3 - How do they do that?
I was telling my colleague, John, that our biggest problem in our work is that people can’t believe the changes we make in people’s neural patterns in just 24 hours over 3 days. “I don’t see why,” he said. “Trauma can totally rewire your brain in five minutes.”
Well that is certainly true. So maybe it makes sense that three 8-hour days, back to back, with a carefully crafted and ordered series of interpersonal exercises and neural experiences, can change things substantially.
So it is we see a 24 hour workshop reduce recidivism by 47% - measured THREE YEARS later. Or that we see trait anger reductions of 25% sustained on follow up two years later. (Links in post 1.)
Doing 24 hours in a row like this certainly exceeds what most therapies can accomplish in months and months, or even a year. Most therapy entails a 50-minute hour once or twice a week, and much of that time is trying to get back to the level of safety and vulnerability that was present at the close of the previous session, so there is perhaps 30 minutes of productive time in the hour. A little math then would show our 24 consecutive hours add up to more productive time than a year in standard counseling therapy. So where folks would not be surprised to see progress over a year of therapy, they should not be surprised to see real profound change from an intensive consecutive 24 hours.
But what are we doing in this time? Why is it so effective? The work is extraordinarily deep. Every exercise has multiple purposes and effects, until it seems like peeling an onion – there is always yet another deeper level of purpose and effect. By way of example, let me share just one early first day exercise. We randomly pair individuals and have one speak for two minutes and the other listen. The speaker must speak for two minutes about what they like about themselves. Thus, they have to overcome any shyness or humility, overcome shame and inferiority, and think about their better nature and qualities. They have to speak this aloud, to a stranger. This creates real vulnerability. We then switch, and the previous listener speaks about what he likes about herself. Through this mutual sharing, commonalities are found, and there is human connection and mutual empathy. Next, we put two pairs together and ask each individual to introduce their partner. So each individual hears him or her self introduced by way of their best traits and better self. This ordinarily builds some self-esteem and pride. Again, common interests and commonalities are found, and friendly feelings of connection start to come forward quickly.
A group debriefing in the large circle of 15 to 20 participants follows exploring how people felt during the exercise and what happened for them. This deepens the experience. Invariably some say they are more comfortable focusing on their negative traits. Others say they have not thought about their better selves in quite some time (especially in the jails and prisons where I work). The discussion often sees participants discussing the need to shut down negative self-talk and work on recalling and living their better selves.
I lay out this exercise just to give a glimpse of how many things are happening at once and to peel back some of the onion. A typical workshop might have 40 exercises over the 3 days. These are chosen from over 100 possible exercises. The order of the exercises is carefully laid out to work first on self-esteem, community, and communication. Thus, before we can do the above exercise, we do several preliminary exercises that relax the participants and build some group cohesion. Day two, we work heavily on connection, trust and vulnerability. And day three we focus on conflict and stress skills, identifying needs and communicating them in ways that others will help meet them.
All this is done in a facilitated experiential peer process, where everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.
Over three days the participants have a guided experience of deep personal reflections, vulnerable sharing with others one on one and in small and large groups. These are interspersed with groundings for anxiety and PTSD and active physical activities to bring people back from deeper places, relieve the fatigue of hard emotional work, and to change the energy of the group.
The result for most participants is repeated waves of powerful mutual empathy, connection and a strong sense of community in the group. Trust is expanded, and with that people make themselves more vulnerable, creating even more trust.
Where ACEs, PTSD and trauma create low self-esteem, isolation, alienation, distrust, - AVP brings out the opposite – growing self-esteem and affirmation, creating profound connection and community, increasing empathy, trust, vulnerability, and hopefulness. I have heard it called taking on trauma obliquely. There is little or no re-traumatization or triggering by requiring people to share their traumatic incidents. A few may share willingly but after building safety and strength through the process. More direct follow on therapy is made more effective by healing pain and building strength before diving in.
I like to say that through these intense repeated personal interactions, we play the mirror neurons like a harp. Where typically mirror neuron activity is quick and short, we engage in longer, repeated intense sharings and connections over and over and over. The participants are put in empathetic positions again and again. I believe the resulting surge of dopamine and other neurotransmitters and hormones is similarly repeated and results in substantial accumulations of these psychotropic change agents with profound impacts on feelings of trust and connection. (See Paul Zak, “The Moral Molecule”.) Honestly, at the end of a 3-day workshop I feel a profound blissful high and a feeling of connection and desire to connect with all I meet. I find it takes days for this state to recede.*
This brings us to another reason that the impacts of AVP are so long lasting. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The experiential nature of AVP works through feelings and emotions, which transcribe themselves deep in the brain – in all the numerous areas involved in emotional recall – just like trauma. It is creating alternative more positive and less stressful neuropathways. It is providing another way to process stress and distress, one that is positive and self-reinforcing. And it is equipping the individual with the tools to recognize the emergence of stress and choose this new route.
And this is why AVP has such profound long lasting impacts in just three days.
These profound changes have led to white supremacists renouncing their racism, prison inmates renouncing violence, child soldiers leaving paramilitaries and guerrillas, gang members finding productive lives, trafficked girls finding their strength and self-esteem, the Guatemalan National Police learning nonviolence, and so much more.
I am convinced that it holds power to diminish suicide, depression, addiction, domestic violence, violent extremism, the school to prison pipeline, and so much more. Trauma fuels pain into so many different outlets. As we learn to heal that, the changes will be wide spread.
If this has reached you, I ask you to revisit my requests at the top and see if you can help.
I wrote this series to generate interest in how effective this program is.
- If you are interested in bringing it somewhere you think it is needed or want to experience it, write me and I will put you in touch with the nearest facilitators. (It is in 35 states and over 50 countries.)
- If you are interested in researching the program effectiveness or effects (or know someone who would be) please write me, as we are trying to accumulate a research record to prove the program evidence based as widely as possible.
- We are of course, like all in this work, hamstrung by our minuscule funding and are looking for philanthropists, foundations, etc. interested in furthering answers to ACEs and trauma.
* I would also love to hear from researchers who would be interested in measuring neurotransmitter blood levels, etc. before, during and after a workshop.