The Importance of the Neutral State

In my time as a psychotherapist my work has focused on helping people move out of a state of distress, dysfunction, disconnection and disturbance. Often, a chronic state that begins early in life, and follows people around until they decide that the pain outweighs the discomfort of change. We are all susceptible to learned patterns of negativity that are encouraged by one’s surrounding, family, culture, genetic inheritance, trauma, and the inherent negativity bias in the human brain. Thankfully, I was trained in EMDR Therapy early in my career and found a method to help my clients shift this pattern in deep and profound ways.

Our brains are wired to keep us alive, not to bring us peace and joy. However, there are other structures in the body that do that, which you can read about here. We only need to encounter a frightening experience one time for it to be forever locked into the mind, body and nervous system. To feel positive emotions, connection to others, and our selves, we need many significant experiences to make a lasting imprint on the way we view ourselves and our world.

As I write this, I am currently flying from Chicago to Denver. A majority of the flight has been unremarkable, but moments of turbulence cause a jolt through the system, temporarily disrupting my neutral state. The 130 minutes of flight time are easily forgotten when nothing of note is occurring, but one moment of turbulence is easily recalled, or the crying baby, the smelly neighbor or the suitcase that fell out of the overhead bin. While 90% of the experience was neutral, the momentary deviations from neutral are what stick out in the memory. When asked how the flight was, I am likely to say there was turbulence and a gassy person nearby. Rarely will one remark, “90% of the flight was neutral, thanks for asking.”

When clients come into treatment, they are well aware of this negativity bias. It has likely caused significant problems for them in the form of symptoms; which may include depression, anxiety, flashbacks, difficulty in relationships and maybe even a harsh inner critic that is a constant reminder of how they are messing things up.

The goal of many of my clients is to feel good, happy, content, to live their best life. For those who have learned a chronic state of negativity, this goal can feel grossly out of reach. Which, is why I like to first suggest that we move towards a state of neutrality, before reaching for the more elevated emotions. It just makes sense that we must pass through neutral as we move towards positivity.

EMDR therapy is highly successful at transforming highly charged and distressing memories into neutral aspects of a clients history. SUDS=0 is the goal, zero representing no distress or neutral. In the standard protocol we aim for neutrality BEFORE attempting to install the positive cognition. So why, when we resource do we attempt to install positive resources before installing neutrality? The installation of the PC works best after achieving SUDS=0, because from a neutral state anything is possible. When moving out of negativity, we have to pass through neutral on the way to positive cognitions, elevated emotions and pleasant body sensations. We don’t skip this step in phase 4, why would we skip it in phase 2?

Here’s why I love neutrality so much…

It is an obtainable goals, one we all achieve many, many times in a day. A neutral state feels just that, neutral, for those who have trouble tolerating positive affect it is a safe and comfortable place to build confidence. There are traditions that have been around for thousands of years that support this endeavor and are highly accessible.

Mindfulness practices have been around for a long time, pretty much as long as humans. Why is that? Because of our hardwired negativity bias and the need for our brain to constantly decipher the relative safety of our surroundings. We are no longer avoiding the dangers of the jungle, or the predators of the open plains, but our primitive nervous systems don’t know that. We need a way to detach from the incessant verbal barrage that goes on in the mind. Words, by their nature are the opposite of neutral. They infuse our experiences with meaning internally, then allow us to share that with others, which facilitates connection to our fellow humans. We need a way to find space from this at times, so that we can drop into the present moment which is where peace, calm, connection, and joy are found. A chronic disconnection from this state brings us suffering. Without knowing it, people long for the simplicity of a neutral state.

How do we begin to build our awareness of neutrality?

The first step is pausing, just for a moment, to notice that most of our life is inherently neutral, marked by distinct, and noticeable moments of either negative or positive experiences. Clients can be given the instructions to notice something neutral in the office, explored how it feels in the mind and body, followed by short sets of BLS. Typically they will respond with a calm, light feeling in the body. Other times, they don’t feel much at all, which ends up feeling like relief. As homework, I direct clients to bring mindful awareness to the (usually high) percentage of their life that is neutral. Clients are often shocked and exhilarated to learn that things aren’t as bad as their negatively biased brains have been telling them.

Next, I lean on one of my favorite DBT skills, using non-judgmental language. Education and reframing can help clients see how much the words they use shape their perception. The “meanest teacher ever” becomes an aging professor who often uses a sharp tone, the loud annoying neighbor in the hall instantly transforms into a voice that causes me distress. Neutralizing our experiences has a profound effect on turning down the intensity of life, which is an important shift for many clients.

My favorite way to build a love of neutrality is to guide my clients through an extended version of containment. When done slowly and with patience, even the most challenging clients can achieve a state of neutrality. I call this Containment + Neutral State and I have found it to be effective almost universally. For clients who can’t tolerate positive affect, or find a safe place, I have found this to be the place to start. Clients who can tolerate positive affect also benefit from this exercise. From a state of neutrality, positive resources naturally emerge out of the clients experience vs being initiated by the therapist. As the sets of BLS continue, the state continues to adapt and generalize. It is amazing to watch the AIP system facilitate positive, resourced states before phase 4 desensitization/reprocessing occurs. If you’d like to learn more about this process stay tuned.

We can not bypass the natural order of things. It is highly productive to assist clients in building awareness of neutrality before attempting to install positive resources, we know this about phase 4, it is true in phase 2 as well. Clients don’t have to learn to tolerate neutrality, they just have to be instructed to notice it. Thousands of years of mindfulness tradition is founded on this idea. Go forth and be neutral…you won’t regret it.

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