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The Trauma Brain Project

I recently had the honor of being on a panel of body-centered therapists following the reading of a play by Dayle Ann Hunt titled The Trauma Brain Project.

This play is powerful, moving, intense. It is the story of a woman’s journey to heal from the repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Dayle takes us on this journey of her own life experience as someone who was diagnosed with Epilepsy as a child, who was also experiencing paralyzing migraines, unexplained nausea, psoriasis, sinus growths and a string of inexplicable conditions that followed her throughout her life; all of which led her (in her 50s) to shadowed memories of what had happened and to eventual healing with somatic therapy.

The cast is amazing. The direction is expert. We the audience were riveted for the duration of the piece.

This play is a must-see for anyone who works with diagnosing illness. Dayle Ann is passionate about medical professionals, therapists, and trauma survivors knowing that their symptoms may be trauma-related. The body and mind do actually influence each other.

 

If you’re interested in this topic and have any ideas on how this play can be more widely disseminated, please contact D
ayle Ann at www.thetraumabrainproject.com

After the play I led the audience through a few basic exercises to help with regulation since watching anything traumatic can have an impact on our bodies. And it struck home to me again tonight that we are being inundated daily with news of traumatic events. This doesn’t mean we are all traumatized by this, but we are more than likely affected. So I thought I’d quickly share one of the techniques that I shared with the audience in the hopes that you might be able to use it in your day-to-day. It’s called 3-2-1

  1. Look around and notice and briefly describe (e.g. “orange mouse pad”) three (3) things you see
  2. Now listen and name two (2) sounds you hear
  3. And now notice one (1) thing you’re feeling with your sense of touch.

How are you feeling now? You can repeat that sequence one more time if you’re feeling a little more focused or settled than you were before you started.

Namaste.

Loving Your Anxiety

Love Your Anxiety (Or at least get to know it)


I know it sounds crazy to even imagine “loving” your anxiety. But one of the fundamental truths about being human is that we have emotions, including anxiety. What makes us human is that we also have the ability to make meaning of our experiences and that meaning-making is what turns a simple emotion into a recipe for disaster.

Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe. 

Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe.  But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There’s a fascinating book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.

Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression. 

So what’s the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that’s not going to happen!). At the

very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action. 

What’s your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it’s telling you you’re overworked and need a break? Maybe it’s telling you that you don’t feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don’t have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel. 

Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:

  • Allow it to be without judging it as “bad” or “wrong” or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of “shoulding” just makes the anxiety worse.
  • Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
  • Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
  • Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
  • Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
  • We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: “OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?”
  • Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
  • Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
  • Stay away from coffee – yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
  • Look around your environment, recognizing that you’re physically safe and that there aren’t any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.

Of course there are many other ways to deal with anxiety, including lifestyle habits of getting enough sleep and exercise. Do you have a favorite? Share it with us! 

Getting Caught Up

This may end up being an unpopular view, but I’ve been grappling with this inquiry for a week now and decided to just let it out. Would love to hear others’ thoughts on this…

At the Awaken Chicago conference a few months ago, Pema Chödron spoke on anger. She mentioned an ancient Buddhist text that referred to our human tendency to try to fight against the issues “out there” (i.e. in the world outside of us) in order to resolve our anger. This text concluded that the person who does that ends up perpetually angry and even more frequently frustrated because there will always be issues “out there” to make us angry. In the end, the only way to truly resolve our issues (and to effectively work towards solving the issues “out there”) is to also work with those feelings within ourselves.

In light of this teaching, I’ve been thinking about all the recent horrific events which, through the vehicle of technology, have been brought to our awareness. Events fueled by the prejudice that leads to fear and hatred, and then to violence and injustice. I’ve been thinking about how the seeds of that hatred live inside every human being. Each of us has that seed in us, and it is the very rare human who has not watered that seed in any way. We are animals, and studies have shown that fear or avoidance of “other” is in fact an inherent human tendency just as it is for all members of the animal kingdom. We have the benefit/liability of a brain that perceives “other” even in members of our own species. 

Of course it is unconscionable to harm innocent others because of that perceived difference. Of course it is. And of course it is important to quickly and decisively act to restore justice when injustice rears its head. And still there is the question of how do we heal that propensity for prejudice & discrimination within our collective? When actions are performed out of fear, anger, prejudice and hatred, do we heal that tendency in our collective by allowing it free reign within ourselves? 

Pema spoke of that ancient text which suggested that the only way to heal is if we are each able to hold our anger “in the cradle of loving kindness.” I interpret that to mean that I have to recognize & acknowledge my own feelings of anger, prejudice and hatred with compassion even as I seek to change what is happening in the collective. Let’s not forget that each of us as individuals make up the collective. Humanity is us, not “us” & “them.” What is the use of me insisting that white people, rich people, police, the 1%, etc should not act out of prejudice, hatred, greed and anger if I meet their behavior with, and indeed cultivate the very same tendencies? If I refuse to acknowledge those same tendencies (even if lesser in degree) in myself, why should I expect anyone else to? Isn’t the popular wisdom that you can’t solve a problem with the same energy that created it? Not to mention the damage I do to my mental and physical health by perpetuating that bitterness, anger and hatred.


There is appropriate aggression, and then there is getting “caught up.” The media likes for us to be caught up. It’s a ratings booster. It’s true the media is helping to uncover the nastiness that needs to be brought into the light of day so that it can be transformed. And yet, when we are so caught up that we take individual behaviors and generalize those to entire groups, to the point where innocent members of those groups become targets, are we changing the propensity for prejudice-fueled injustice in the collective? Or are we perpetuating it?

The dialectic of our differences

Went to see X-Men Apocalypse with my family today (loved it – except for what they did with Storm’s character!) and been catching up on Agents of Shield. Ok, yes, I admit it I’m a sci-fi/superhero fan.

So the theme in the latest Agents of Shield and in this Apocalypse move is of villains who think that the world will be a much better place if only everyone does what they say. If we’re all the same then we will have peace on earth and none of this nasty fighting against each other that human’s seem wont to engage in.

The thing I realized is that this isn’t so far-fetched from what we human’s actually think. We see it playing out in political arenas right now. If only we all believe the same thing then we’d have peace. Of course “the same thing” is each of our own particular thing. But really, would that bring peace at all? We humans are a pretty contrary lot. No matter how much we want to be the same, we will always find a way to be different. And really, isn’t it our differences that make humanity awesome? The dialectic is that these differences can also make us dangerous to each other… We’re all human in the end. Scared for our survival and yearning for connection. What would happen if we didn’t demonize each other I wonder?

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy 2016!


I saw an ad for a course recently that promised “total happiness” as one of the course’s outcomes (along with “your best body and beyond” – and all in less than a month!). Isn’t that how New Year’s resolutions are made? Out of the pursuit of happiness?
I’ve realized in my years as a therapist that there is an underlying message in our culture in general – or perhaps it’s best to say in our society in general, because there really isn’t just one “American” culture – that if we’re doing this human thing right, we should be happy.  And apparently we should be happy all the time no matter what happens. I’m curious about how this came to be, but the main issue I have with this premise is that when people find themselves unhappy, there is often a presumption of failure. If I’m supposed to be happy (all the time) and I find that my life situation has caused sadness or despair or frustration or anger then it must mean that I’m failing at this thing called “being human.”
The reality is, that by virtue of landing in a human body (however you believe that happened), you were set up for a life experience that likely will include a wide range of emotions, of which happiness is only one. Even the most optimistic of souls (and I live with one of those souls) occasionally gets sad, disappointed, frustrated and even angry. Every human experiences physical and emotional pain. It’s part of the package. It’s not a sign of failure.
Now there is the definite possibility, especially if your life involved overwhelming trauma, that your human system might actually no longer remember how to recognize pleasure. If that’s the case then there is some work to be done. Pleasure is part of our birthright. It’s part of the package. For happiness to happen, in my opinion, the ability to experience that which pleases us is required. And through the wonders of neuroplasticity, human systems – even after years of deprivation – can learn to recognize pleasure.
So while happiness isn’t necessarily the goal, a complete lack of happiness is also an indication of a system that’s lost its ability to be resilient. (Not a failure, an indication of a need for more resiliency). Daniel Siegel describes “integration” as the healthiest human state. Peter Levine discusses being in a state of flow. Either way, we are able to have the capacity to experience the range of life’s experiences, to be present for life and make some choices about how we want to respond, rather than going into reactivity. (And really, even reactivity is part of the package!) When we are in an integrated state of flow we are able to allow life to happen. We can be with ourselves, and others, as we are – happy, sad, lonely, joyful, disappointed, angry. We don’t have to get stuck in any one of these. Isn’t that a worthier pursuit than happiness?

Re-emerging & Expanding

Monarch butterfly cococon (yes, it looks like a jade
 jewel with sparkles!)
If you’ve read my blog before, thanks for checking back – it’s been a long time! If you’re new, welcome! I hope you’re inspired or that this sparks some thoughts that help add even just a little ease to this journey of  life. 

Having made the decision to resurrect this blog, I decided to go back and read previous blog posts to remind myself of what I wrote in the past. I found myself appreciating the wisdom I’ve gained over the years and grateful for the teachers who have helped me to learn those valuable lessons so that I could pass them on to others. Of course it is a continuing journey, and the more we learn, the more there is to discover!

When we are able to step back and notice the patterns and cycles of our lives, one of the things that  becomes most apparent is that humans change through cycles of expansion  and contraction (or what I like to call cocooning). After many years of cocooning, I feel as if I’m finally expanding again. And it feels good.

After reading over the entries in this blog, I shifted to read my old WordPress blog. I realized I’ve been writing since September of 2008! And some pretty decent reflections if I may say so myself. The thing is that I’ve actually been scared of people reading what I wrote. So energetically, even though I was putting it out there, I was still doubting and hesitant about how it would be received. – still holding back. And apparently the time for

Cocoon just before the butterfly emerges.

holding back is over.


So instead of writing something new this time, I want to share some of my favorite posts. I’d love to hear comments and feedback, complements or constructive (!) criticism. Ultimately my hope is that the stuff I write will help the readers to be more compassionate toward themselves as humans. In the end I think we’re all trying to live the best lives we can. And sometimes it sure ain’t easy!

So, here are my favorites from my old blog 2008-2010. Next time I’ll post the favorites from this current blog.

Peace Begins with Me. If we want peace in the world, ultimately it means each human has to become more peaceful (since “the world” is made up of humans, right?) So what if we each committed to being just a little more peaceful? What kind of a change would that make??

Freshly emerged Monarch butterfly
(in my kitchen!)
What’s Your Net Effect? is about being conscious of how our internal state is as much a part of the effect we have on the world as our outer actions: “I have begun to wonder, if we do all the work we can toward making the world a better place, but do it from a place of anger, judgment and self-righteousness, what kind of change are we really affecting? Do we in effect cancel out any good we’ve done? Do we end up with a net effect of zero?

More Peaceful or Less Stressed? You Choose:  “…when we say “I want to be less stressed” we actually focus on the stress and indeed perpetuate the notion of our stressfulness. On the contrary when we say “I want to be more peaceful” the mind hears “peaceful” and there is a subtle quieting that takes place within the body without any additional effort.

Giving Up the Quest: Lessons In Being Present talks about realizing that this spiritual journey can become warped into a kind of consumerism – a wanting to be something other than who we are. Sometimes the best thing is to realize that we’re really ok as we are.


Enjoy! And let me know what you think….

Learning from your past self

Cleaning up the files on my computer I found the file of an old blog post A Ghost In The House which I wrote ages ago.  As I read it I thought: “Ya, that’s really true, I should do that!!”

Sometimes we fall back into our patterns, even when we know a different way to be.  Writing helps us keep a record of what we know to be true.  A journal is a great way to keep track of insights and new awarenesses that may be forgotten.  You could keep a journal either on paper or online.  You could even create a “journal” email address and send emails to yourself at that address. Then you can read them over later.  You can send yourself letters of encouragement or reminders of the ways you appreciate yourself and your life.

In that post I talk about letting go of my need to be right.  As I become more aware , I realize how much that need is a misdirected attempt at self-protection.  It’s based on the premise:  “If I’m right then I’m safe and my sense of myself is safe.  If I’m not right then my sense of self is threatened.” My bodymind responds to this threat as if it is real.  But it isn’t.

There are lots of situations that we interpret as threatening even though they actually have no ability to really harm us.  We go into a “fight or flight” response (or freeze or collapse/shut down) without recognizing that we’re responding as if we’re physically threatened.  What is really threatened is our sense of self.  If that can be allowed to be changeable, then we needn’t be so afraid of the opinions of others.

Beyond your opinions, beliefs, knowledge, titles and possessions, who are you really?  Are you curious about the essence beyond the armor?  What is your authentic self?

Change happens. Move with the cheese!

This has been an intense year for me.  A year of change and growth. A year of new discoveries.  I’ve learned things about myself that I didn’t imagine I could know.  And most of all, I’ve learned that fear often prevents us from doing things that are actually not as difficult as the fear leads us to believe.

We live in a constant state of change.  Our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and motivations are constantly shifting. We imagine that we can keep things the same, but this is an illusion.  Change is a constant. We grow older with each minute, we get hungry, we are happy, we become sad.  This is the nature of life in a human body.   The idea that we should always be happy, or always content or always productive – all these are belief systems that are contrary to the ways things actually are.
The book Who Moved My Cheese (also available on audio) is a great story/parable by Dr. Spencer Johnson that talks about how we deal with change.  It’s worth a listen/read if you don’t know it.  One of the lessons from the story is:  “If you do not change, you can become extinct.”  Another great one is:  “The quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese.”
So if we accept that change is a constant, we have some choices to make in terms of how we relate to change.  I’ve learned a lot from my kids on this subject.  Left to their own instincts, little kids view the world with curiosity and with awe.  Every change is fascinating.  I’ve watched young children when faced with a new experience first pause, or even startle – perhaps a quick move away.  Even when there is some fear or hesitation, almost immediately they also become curious and try to move closer to investigate. They haven’t yet learned to rush to judgment first – they are still fascinated by each new thing.
What if we adults could have that same childlike curiosity and wonder about our own changes.  In fact I think that’s what’s gotten me through this year with some measure of peace.  I’m learning to be curious about my life experiences rather than judgmental.  It’s not always simple or easy.  In fact sometimes it’s downright hard.  But even the difficult times can be observed as interesting – even fascinating.  And when you’re fascinated by what’s happening, change becomes a collaborative process – an adventure even, rather than something that’s imposed or unwelcome.  The question becomes not, “How can I stop this change from happening to me?” but “How can I be with this change so that I grow from the process?” 
In the process, a healthy dose of self-compassion and humor also helps! So “Savor the adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese!”

Breathing to Live

Hope that you are well and enjoying this moment of Life!

I’ve been fascinated with the breath lately. It’s pretty amazing that the thing we need most to survive (air) is abundant and free! We walk around in it!  Your breath can have a calming effect on your nervous system, and yet constrictive breathing patterns can be agitating to the mind. That’s one of the reasons yoga is so focused on breath. Free your breath and you free your spirit!

Our bodies are such fascinating instruments, and so wonderfully interconnected. Amazing, really. Did you know that tension in your jaw can affect the health of your pelvis? And that chronic tension in your shoulders can be an indication of constrictive breathing habits?

I do breath awareness work in my Yoga for Pelvic Health classes and with many of my psychotherapy clients, simply because the breath influences so much about the body and mind. Read on below for more tips about breathing. And don’t worry! If you’re alive and reading this, then there’s a good change your body is breathing well enough right now! And with compassionate curiosity you can develop awareness of how you could free your breath even more!

Quick Facts about Breath and Breathing 

I’ve become really fascinated by the breath and the mechanisms of breathing lately, and I’m especially interested in the ways that the breath affects our nervous systems, and therefore our state of anxiety or relaxation. Here are some facts that might surprise you, or might be enlightening!

  • When you’re relaxed your breath is usually slower & deeper, but not forced or strained
  • When you’re agitated or afraid, your breath is faster and usually higher in your chest
  • Your breath should change depending on the context – if you’re running, you need to be breathing faster and deeper than if you’re sitting and reading this email
  • More oxygen is not necessarily a good thing. You need a balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide in order for your body to function well (yes, you need carbon dioxide!) Too much oxygen can be as problematic as not enough, and breathing too hard or too fast all the time can alter your balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide actually causing anxiety & other problematic symptoms
  • Your lungs span the area from just below your collar bones to your lower ribs (there are no lungs in your belly/abdomen).
  • Think of breathing in through your nose and down into your lower ribs
  • The belly moves out as a result of the downward movement of your diaphragm – a muscle that connects to your lower ribs & spine – when you inhale. Forcing the belly out isn’t a good idea and doesn’t help you breathe better.
  • Your lower ribs should move when you breathe. When you’re exerting yourself, your upper chest should also move to allow more space for your lungs to fill. Your shoulder muscles generally shouldn’t be used for breathing
  • Allowing ribs and belly to move when you breathe provides for a freer breath and a more balanced & content nervous system.
  • Tucking your pelvis under (squeezing buttocks in) and holding your belly in wreaks havoc with your breathing and isn’t good for your spine (or your pelvis). Whether sitting or standing, the pelvis should optimally be in a neutral position with a curve at your lower (lumbar) spine
  • A “deep” breath doesn’t mean forcing the breath into your belly or taking a big, loud breath. It’s best for the breath to move quietly, freely & deeply into the body at a relatively relaxed rate – depending, of course, on what your body is doing. 
  • The average number of breaths per minute is 15-20 for adults.

Any of this sound new or contrary to what you learned in yoga class? It’s been an education for me to study the breath more deeply too & I’ve had to relearn some things! It’s also been wonderful to observe how psychotherapy clients and yoga students have benefited from learning more about how their breath works.

Please feel free to leave a comment to this post and let me know what you think…

New possibilities for compassionate transformation

Happy New Year!

I love this time of year.  It feels so fresh with possibilities.  But that’s an illusion, though, right?  Every moment of every day is fresh with possibilities.  Yet maybe it’s the collective agreement about the specialness of the New Year that provides an extra wave of optimism that we can use to feed our own New Year resolutions.  I’ve also noticed a growing wave of cynicism this year.  There seems to be an expectation that no matter what your resolution is, it won’t take long for it to fade away.  Again, that may be a collective tendency, but why assume that will be the case for you? We don’t have to be victims of the collective influence.

When we choose to do something different with ourselves, we almost always move away from a comfort zone and toward something we have to learn to be comfortable with.  New possibilities can trigger the fears that live below the surface of our minds. Years ago I was talking with my husband about an issue I had been struggling with for a long time.  “Why can’t I just let this go?” I wondered.  He offered (and I accepted!) the possibility that it was because I had held on to this way of thinking for so long and it had become a part of me.  He suggested that it was because I didn’t know who I would be without it that I chose to hold on.
Sometimes we hold on to the most uncomfortable aspects of ourselves because they are familiar.  We are afraid of who we might be without them – afraid of the unknown and unfamiliar.  Fear is a powerful motivator – you only have to look around at the political and economic climate to see evidence of that.  Fear sells a lot of products, garners a lot of votes and keeps the status quo in place. Even the prophecy around 2012 is feeding into that collective fear which affects us all and yet goes largely unacknowledged. Fear can also warn us of impending danger, or be an indicator that we’re growing out of our comfort zone – it’s all about how we choose to see it.
I believe that we each are integral parts of the collective that is humanity.  Goswami Kriyananda writes that we are each “microcosms of the macrocosm.”  From this perspective, when one of us makes a change to our way of thinking or being in the world, it creates a ripple that affects the whole collective.   
So what if we were to create ripples or even waves of change this year by acknowledging and stepping out of the vortex of the collective fear of gloom & doom through the recognition of our individual fears?  I don’t mean “fighting” or “pushing through” or “ignoring” your fear. Just being willing to see it with compassion is itself a revolutionary act of courage.

Sometimes just seeing clearly is all it takes to recognize anticipation of the new versus an actual threat to well-being.  Imagine if, as a collective, humanity could recognize change as a marvelous potentiality versus impending doom & destruction.  In a comment to a post about Fear as Opportunity that I wrote in 2010, a reader named Christine offered a wonderful mantra she uses when faced with fear:  “I am willing to dance with you.”  I think that just about sums it up.

So how do we cultivate this capacity to view ourselves compassionately?  I offer below a version of the Buddhist Metta meditation that has helped me to cultivate self-compassion.  It has helped me in the process of acknowledging, and in many cases moving beyond, the many fears that held me hostage for years.  
Have I overcome all my fears?  Heck no!  I don’t even know if I will, and that’s actually okay with me.  What I do know is that seeing a little more clearly and a little more compassionately helps me to be curious, rather than contemptuous about myself and this mysterious, fascinating, sometimes-seriously-hard-to-deal-with adventure we call Life. 

So here are the 4 phrases that I use for my Metta practice:

May I be filled with loving-kindness,
May I be peaceful and at ease,
May I be free from suffering and self-deception,
May I be healthy and happy, and free from fear.
The traditional phrases are:  May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I live with ease.  (I know, a lot less words!)  For more information on Metta, Sharon Salzberg, a well-known Buddhist teacher, talks about the traditional practice in which you also offer these phrases for others.  Personally, I like to do “drive-by Metta” silently for strangers I pass on the street, for the patients in passing ambulances and even for politicians & acerbic TV talk-show hosts!  It provides me a small way to transform a wave of apprehension, anxiety or fear into an act of possibility.
Namaste, and may 2012 bring you peace, curiosity, compassionate self-awareness and ease of well-being!!