Highlights from Psychology of Health, Immunity and Disease Conference

As 2011 draws to a close, I thought I’d share with you a few of the useful things I learned at the NICABM Conference on the Psychology of Health and Immunity. I enjoy this conference so much because it exposes me to so many interesting perspectives beyond the psychotherapy world.

John Cacioppo

John Cacioppo, a researcher from the University of Chicago, talked passionately about the central role of our human need for social connection and how being lonely actually is correlated with an earlier death.  He highlighted that it is perceived isolation that is most crucial. He contrasted billionaires and writers. Billionaires sometimes feel very isolated, vigilant and fearful. They are often on guard and keep others away because they fear new people only want their money. Writers however spend a great deal of time alone, but may not feel isolated.

He believes that social isolation and being on the perimeter is dangerous for humans and that it affects our physiology and immune system.  Loneliness predicts an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the risk factors to our health from loneliness are larger than obesity and similar to smoking! Perhaps some of these findings can help us motivate our isolated clients to take more risks and involve themselves in the world around them.

Diane Poole-Heller

Diane Poole-Heller and I did a combined plenary session on The Neurobiology of Relationships. I liked her summary of threat and arousal and how our physiological wiring interferes with social bonds. Here is a quick summary with special thanks to Diane:

  1. Individuals process information from the environment through the senses.
  2. The nervous system is always on guard subconsciously evaluating risk.
  3. Neural circuits determine whether people or situations are safe, dangerous or life threatening.
  4. Neuroception takes place in the primitive parts of our brain, without our conscious awareness.
  5. Like all mammals, humans react with more primitive neurobiological defense systems when we perceive danger in the environment (fight, flight or freeze).
  6. To create relationships, humans must subdue these mechanisms to engage, attach and form lasting bonds.

Of course this is so crucial in couples we see. Partners experience their differences on a physiological level and respond defensively. The fight over differences can feel like a life and death struggle. In times of high threat they forget that they care about maintaining love or strengthening the bond between them. Subduing or managing those neurobiological defenses seems almost impossible.

David Whyte

The poet David Whyte gave one of the finest keynote talks I have attended in years. He inspired me to buy his poetry. He described the Developmental Stages of Love in a much more poetic and profound way than Pete or I have ever come close to doing. Everything he talked about fits my experience personally as well as with the couples I see in my office.  Here are a few gems from his talk:

  • Romance is the precursor to unilateral disarmament.
  • Whatever you want, it won’t happen exactly as you would like it. And you don’t get to choose what barriers are thrown at you.
  • The first sign of maturity in a couple is the realization that the other person does not have the sole purpose to make you happy.
  • What keeps marriage alive is the memory of the vow. Without it you become a logistical team without hope for that memory.
  • There is no marriage that won’t leave you wondering how you can be more generous.
  • David talked a lot about the conversational frontier that is possible in marriage or committed relationships and the need to risk. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking about the depth of conversation possible using the I-I.

What I loved so much about his talk was the encouragement to all of us to risk – to risk in our love relationships, in work and with ourselves.

And this powerful message that I took away is the message I want to bring to you as you end this year, possibly make resolutions for the New Year and set a course for developing yourself in the year ahead:

Anyone or anything that does not bring you aliveness is too small for you! And, you will always look best as an appreciator of the horizons whether you reach them or not.

January is a natural time for people to think about couples therapy training in connection with their professional goals. Last January we had eleven new participants join. They will be finishing my one year program in  the next couple of weeks. These training openings are now available. We always give first option to those of you on my newsletter list, before we do a broader mailing in early January. If you’d like to start now, please don’t hesitate. The first live call of 2012 will be on January 13th and we anticipate the spots being full by early January.

This year in addition to the comprehensive training materials, I plan some extra attention on working with couples with trauma, pornography and “sexual addiction.”

If you would like to join me for this training program by internet and telephone, please visit www.couplesinstitutetraining.com/developmentalmodel or call our office for more information.

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Nancy St.John
Nancy St.John

Dear Ellyn,

I am so glad you got to see David Whyte. What a privilege, he has such an amazing presence.

David gave the keynote address at a conference for cancer survivorship I attended in Dublin last Spring and gave a mesmerising talk on questions around existence, particularly those that arise when someone is diagnosed with cancer.

I was entranced as he repeated lines over and over from his own poetry, and that of Mary Oliver, allowing the full meaning of his words to sink in. There’s really good clips of David Whyte on YouTube.

I’d love if you could develop a little more on what David said about romance being the precursor to unilateral disarmament and also about the importance of the memory of the vow in marriage.

Nancy St John

Reply to  Nancy St.John

Nancy-I had the impression that David Whyte values the self/personal development that marriage brings. I think he meant that continuing to maintain romance requires the willingness not to put being right over being intimate. A romantic partner can step aside from the fight.

And the memory of the vow enables couples to keep in perspective what matters. He talked about how couples get mired in details and logistics and don’t take time for walking on the ocean, smelling the wind and enjoying their time together.
He inspired me-

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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