Healing Trauma – Dealing with the Visceral Imprint

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of trauma and the need to adopt treatment practices that recognise and respect this complexity.  Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, expresses serious concern with the overreliance on medication to treat trauma, especially for returning veterans suffering from PTSD.  He contends that “drugs cannot cure trauma” but only serve to “dampen down” manifestations of a “disturbed physiology” such as violence, overwhelm and uncontrolled anger.  He argues that the side effects of reliance on drug therapy include addiction, lessening the capacity for self-regulation and blocking the senses that otherwise would be the source of pleasure and motivation, emotion and pain. In his view, the treatment aim is not to “blunt emotional sensitivity” but to achieve integration of the traumatic experience into a person’s “arc of life”.

Bessel argues that a traumatised person’s basic challenge in recovery is to re-establish ownership of themselves – the whole person, mind, body and soul.  He contends that this plays out as a fourfold challenge – (1) developing ways to become focused and calm, (2) sustaining calmness when confronted with stimuli such as noise, images and smells that otherwise would trigger a traumatised response,  (3) becoming fully engaged with life and relationships and (4) being open to one’s real self without hiding behind “secrets” that are designed as self-protection (e.g. against shame and self-loathing).  Bessel suggests that the effectiveness of each of the four approaches can vary with the individual and the stage of the healing process.  He illustrates through case studies that the healing journey can be a life-long process with occasional or frequent relapses.

Bessel maintains that, in the long run, confronting the traumatic event(s) in all their horror  is necessary for healing.  However, he cautions about rushing this process without first building a person’s capacity to cope with the fullness of the “visceral imprint” and its related sensitivities (e.g. to specific sounds, smells, thoughts).  Confronting the harsh reality of the precipitating event(s) too soon, when the person is ill-equipped, can lead to an individual being re-traumatised.

Bessel contends that the focus of recovery has to switch from the “rational brain” to the “emotional brain” which manifests trauma in the form of physical sensations impacting the heart, breathing, voice, gut and movement of the body (e.g. resulting in bodily movements “that signify collapse, rigidity, rage or defensiveness”.)  The overall aim is to restore the “the balance between the rational brain and the emotional brain”, because in a traumatised person the rational brain is often overwhelmed by the emotional brain that can “see” danger where it does not exist and inappropriately activates a fight, flight or freeze response

Healing modalities for trauma that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection

Throughout his book, Bessel discusses a range of trauma healing modalities that he has researched and practiced with his clients. His approach is quite eclectic, drawing on both Western and Eastern healing traditions.  He demonstrates through case histories that one modality more than another, or a particular mix of modalities, may prove effective in individual cases.   He appears to adopt a trail-and-error approach to achieve the best fit for a traumatised individual, informed in part by their life skills and the precipitating trauma event.  Some of the healing modalities he adopts are identified below:

  • Controlled breathing – here he encourages slow, deep breathing that that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and its capacity to reduce arousal and induce calm.  Breathing also serves to enhance oxygen flow to energise the body.
  • Movement modalities – these can include Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts and the rhythmic movement associated with African drumming.  Bessel notes that each of these modalities simultaneously involve not only movement but also breathing and meditation.
  • Mindfulness practices – Bessel points out that traumatised people often avoid their challenging feelings and related bodily sensations.  Mindfulness which generates self-awareness enables the traumatised person to notice their feelings and sensations and the precipitating triggers.  This can lead to emotional regulation, rather than emotional overwhelm which can occur when people try to ignore or hide their real feelings and sensations.  Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” approach is an example of a related mindfulness practice that can contribute to healing trauma.
  • Singing – can engage the whole person (body, mind, soul and emotions).  Effective singing requires appropriate posture and breath control, opening up the airways and, at the same time, releasing emotions.  In group sessions with singing teacher, Chris James, I have often observed the spontaneous flow of emotions as people, both men and women, become more engaged and absorbed in the process, learn to let themselves go and find their “natural voice”.  Chris maintains that singing enhances “vibrational awareness”, engenders “self-discovery” and builds “conscious presence”.
  • Chanting and mantra meditationschanting can reduce depression, increase positivity and heighten relaxation.  It has been proven to be effective in helping veterans suffering from PTSD.  Tina Turner found Buddhist chanting to be very effective in overcoming her trauma and re-building her singing career.  Likewise, mantra meditations (that typically incorporate chants) can lead to calm, peace and energy and enable reintegration of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Reflection

Bessel encourages the use of multiple healing modalities when working with traumatised individuals.  He suggests too that the modalities described above can help anyone deal with life’s challenges, restore balance and build energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and related mindfulness practices, we can gain self-awareness, develop self-management and heal from trauma and the scars of adverse experiences, whether in childhood or adulthood.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma Treatment: Understanding the Complexity of Trauma

The complexity of trauma is explained both scientifically and by case histories by Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, psychologists agree that trauma is not the “life-threatening”, precipitating event but the ongoing impact on a person’s mind, brain and body.  In his book, Bessel discusses the evolution of trauma treatment methodologies (and his roles in this evolution), the complex impact of trauma on individuals, the differential behavioural responses to trauma by individuals and the common responses that lead to addiction.

Evolution of trauma treatments

Bessel explains that in his early training and working days, he experienced different treatment modes for trauma such as “talk therapy” and the pharmacological approach.  He explained that talk therapy involved having an individual recount the trauma event in detail so that they had to confront the reality of the event.  Unfortunately, this often lead to the person experiencing a traumatic episode as a result of the stimulus of recall.  In the pharmacological approach, reliance was placed on drugs to treat the trauma patient.  Unfortunately, these were often administered in isolation without the support of therapy and contributed to ongoing psychological problems such as prescription drug addiction and depression.

The most heartless approach that Bessel describes is electrical shock treatment designed to desensitise individuals to precipitating stimuli.  Sometimes the treatment itself created a trauma response because of the effect of the stimulus (e.g. touch) and the inhuman nature of the treatment, e.g. for someone who had been sexually abused.  Bessel highlighted the lack of understanding of trauma and the absence of an adequate framework for treatment modalities illustrated in these early methodologies. The pursuit of a more holistic and scientific approach to trauma treatment underpinned his life’s work in helping trauma sufferers, especially those suffering from P.T.S.D. (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Result of visceral overload of precipitating event

Bessel was at pains to explain the complexity of trauma and its impact on individuals.  In his book, he explains the different regions of the brain, how they interact normally and the dysfunctionality caused by trauma.  He stated, for example, that a traumatic event can leave a “visceral imprint” on the lower region of the brain, the amygdala (the source of our fight/flight/freeze response). Thus a particular sensation (a smell, sound, sight, touch or taste) can create a “flashback” and trigger a trauma response in an individual.  This traumatic experience of discrete sensations illustrates the ever-present challenge for a traumatised person of “misreading signals” and seeing danger where it does not exist.  This inability to control the stress response is in part due to what Bessel describes as the ”visceral overload” at the time of the trauma-precipitating event.  He also makes the point that therapists are often misguided by their own belief systems, including the belief that the interaction of the mind and body is top-down only.  However, his own experience of trauma patients and recent neuroscience research shows clearly that the body/brain influence is bidirectional.

Same event – different behavioural responses

Different people respond differently to the sensory overload precipitated by a traumatic event.  Bessel tells the story of Stan and Ute who were involved in a major pile-up on a Canadian motorway in 1999 involving 87 cars.  They were travelling in the same car and met a wall of fog and were part of the continuous crashing of cars and trucks.  They feared for their lives and witnessed people being killed by the intensity of the crash and associated fires.  Stan’s reaction to subsequent stimuli was one of aggression and anger (fight response) whereas Ute was numb, a condition involving “massive dissociation” (the freeze response).  Bessel suggested that Ute’s freeze response was a learned behaviour precipitated by her upbringing by a mother who continuously “yelled” at her.  Through Bessel’s caring therapy, they were able to progressively restore their lives, regaining emotional control.  Ute benefited from the bottom-up approach of the Trauma Center where the focus was on physiological monitoring to enable the patient on change their “relationship to bodily sensations”.  Bessel subsequently established the Trauma Research Foundation after he had been unfairly dismissed from the Center, experiencing trauma in his own professional life.

Common responses to trauma

Trauma and its incessant re-activation through discrete sensory stimulation along with flashbacks and nightmares, create a life situation of continuous pain.  Many people attempt to numb the pain by resorting to drugs or excessive alcohol to block out the painful memories. This can eventually lead to addiction, associated mental illnesses and censorious misunderstanding by family and friends.

Reflection

Trauma is a very complex phenomenon precipitated by a great variety of events, experienced in differential ways by individuals and leading to individualised responses.  Added to these diverse events, impacts and responses are the variety of initiating stimuli that can trigger a seemingly unrelated trauma response in everyday life.

Bessel argues that one of the problems for traumatised individuals is that they spend so much time and energy in the past.  They become unaware of, and insensitive to, the present.  He maintains that mindfulness practices can help to restore top-down, emotional regulation and that bottom-up approaches such as “breath, movement, touch” can help to restore physical equilibrium and calmness.  The widespread use of somatic meditation for trauma management  is consistent with his view.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain increased insight into our “inner landscape”, our behavioural responses and the options we have to behave differently.  We come to understand better the impact of past events on our present-day triggers and responses.  This can help us to achieve clarity, calmness and compassion towards others experiencing their own physical and emotional challenges.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Healing Trauma Through the Body

Mark Walsh, Founder of the Embodiment Conference, facilitated a panel discussion at the Conference with five eminent presenters – Peter Levine, Gabor Maté, Richard Schwartz, Dan Siegel and Alanis Morissette.  The focus of the panel discussion was trauma – its nature, bodily manifestations and healing capacity.  While each of the panel members approached the interviewer’s questions from their own lived experience, perspectives and frameworks, there was remarkable agreement and cross fertilisation in their discussions. 

Initially, the panel led by Mark Walsh explored the nature of trauma.  While the participants used different words and analogies to explain trauma there was agreement that trauma is not the initiating event (such as death of a parent, sexual abuse or abandonment in childhood) that leads to a traumatic response but rather the impact on the mind and body and the residual effects of the traumatic event such as heightened sensitivity to triggers, that can have a lifelong effect on quality of life and overall wellbeing. 

Gabor, who experienced the traumatic events of the Holocaust as a child, mentioned a comment made to him by Edith Eger, who herself survived the Holocaust.  Edith, author of The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, told Gabor that he would never get over the Holocaust experiences but reinforced the view that what changes with “inner work” is how you relate to the trauma – as Gabor said, “you can’t undo what has been done”.  On one occasion, Bessel van der Kolk, who integrates science with trauma healing, told Gabor, “You will have to keep Auschwitz with you wherever you go” – reinforcing the lifelong impacts and ever-present trigger sensitivity of trauma.

The embodiment of trauma

Each of the panel members in their own words reinforced the view that the impact of trauma is not isolated to the mind alone but is also embedded in the body – in the process, highlighting the theme of the conference. Peter Levine emphasised the influence of temperament on the impact of trauma and its embodiment.  He maintained that trauma leads to fragmentation or suppression of our life energy, of “our living, vital body” – resulting in the incapacity to “be with the here-and-now”.  Richard Schwartz argues that trauma “screws up” the body’s “message board” – the sensory information from the intelligent gut and heart is distorted and amplified in the brain stem, resulting in an overriding of rational thought and natural instinct.

Dan Siegel maintained that the embodiment of trauma would be reflected in adverse impacts on the five “molecular mechanisms” of a healthy body and manifest as:

  • Elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone
  • Impairment of the body’s ability to fight infection
  • Adverse impacts on the cardio-vascular system
  • Increase in inflammation
  • Shortening of telomeres, resulting in acceleration of the aging process. 

Gabor in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, has highlighted the role that trauma plays in the development of addiction and diseases of all kinds.  His colleague, Bessel van der Kolk, documents the multi-dimensional impacts of trauma, including its embodiment, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.

Healing trauma through the body

Given the life-long impacts of trauma and its pervasive, adverse impacts on body, brain and mind, the question arises , “How do we heal trauma?”  While the panel members responses differed in terms of specific processes, there was considerable agreement that healing required fully facing the trauma, its origins and its emotional/behavioural/physical manifestations. It also involves avoiding addiction – which is an ineffectual approach to pain alleviation.   There was also agreement that the process of healing is aided immeasurably by the assistance of a supportive, compassionate person, whether that be a trained therapist or someone who is trauma-informed and caring.  Gabor mentioned that one of his teachers maintained that people will only be open to the truth “when compassion is present”.

Alanis stated that she had a “juicy tool kit” to help her deal with her inner landscape and associated dialogue.  She talked about having a “safe, non-judgmental listener”; a therapist (who kept her alive); movement such as performing on stage; writing songs (which proved to be cathartic when she expressed her real feelings); exposure to sun and water; and her mindfulness practices.  She suggested that her “trauma recovery journey” requires her to employ the courage she uses in her writings to “break open the armour” that interferes with her relationships.   Alanis identified active pursuit of relationships and management of the attendant vulnerability, instead of avoidance, as her way forward. 

Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) and author of No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness, maintains that our brains involve many “parts” necessary for day-to-day functioning and this is normal.  However, with trauma, these parts become fragmented and frozen in an unhealthy, disconnected state.  The process of healing involves re-integration of the parts by being curious and open to the hurtful parts that have been locked away.  His approach involves engaging an “open-hearted therapist” in the process of revisiting the traumatic event – going into the scene and dealing with the traumatic event, for example, taking the child away from an abuser to a “safe and comfortable place”.  Richard’s transformative psychotherapy approach promotes inner harmony and enhances self-compassion so that the “inner critic” does not take hold and dominate a person’s perspective and outlook on life.

I have previously discussed Gabor’s approach to healing trauma and addiction which he describes as “compassionate inquiry”.   Gabor reinforced the view that compassion (for ourselves, others and the world at large) is the “healing ingredient”.   He argued that we have to adopt  a curiosity about everything and everybody so that we enrich our understanding and build healthy relationships.  He suggested that our compassion should extend even to people we dislike or detest because underlying their words and actions is “some hurt”.  He reminds us that given trauma is about what happens inside us, not the precipitating external events, we are always able to access our hurt and achieve healing – we can change our relationship to the trauma and restore our connectedness.   

Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing and author of Healing Trauma, describes his pioneering program as a move away from “talk” therapies to a focus on restoring the wisdom of the body.  In the panel discussion, he described an example of a somatic intervention in terms of helping someone to recognise the source of their trauma by having them explore their back pain – the level of tension, the location of the pain (left or right) and the movement the spine wanted to do.  In the process the pain dissolved when the person involved recognised the source of the bodily trauma as a time as an Army doctor when he fell off a truck onto his back when everyone else in the truck was killed by the enemy.  Peter explained that the body remembers but we may not be able to recall the event and its adverse impacts.  However, through Peter’s processes of somatic experiencing, including relaxation techniques, a person can eventually remember what happened to them and for them and bring this to conscious awareness.  Peter indicated that this realisation may be accompanied by trembling and other physical manifestations of release that he describes as the “resetting of the central nervous system”.

Dan Siegel sees trauma healing as moving from “impairment to integration”.  He reinforced the view that through the “internal work”, described by other panel members, you actually “shift the process” and that enables bringing together the many differentiated and fragmented elements of mind and body.   So in his view trauma healing is “integrative”.  He suggested that the pandemic is an opportunity and a stimulus to a different way of living socially and culturally so that we focus on our connectedness, not our separateness.

Reflection

Dan referred to Alanis’ latest album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road, as a means of healing in that it enables the listener “to hold in awareness things that almost seem paradoxical” – the words and rhythms moving in different directions.   He sees these songs, along with the processes employed by Peter, Gabor, and Richard as “incredibly healing”.   Alanis also contributes to trauma healing, recovery and wholeness through her podcast where she interviews leading developmental experts to bring increasing insight into the nature of trauma, addiction and healing.

Each of the panel members are proponents of the practice of mindfulness in its many forms.  They recognise that as we grow in mindfulness, we increase our self-awareness, develop emotional regulation and heighten our compassion (for ourselves and others).  Somatic meditation, for example, has been used extensively in trauma healing.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Benefits of Body Scan Meditations

Body Scan meditations take many forms but typically involve a process of progressive noticing of parts of the body, usually beginning with the feet.  A body scan meditation can be undertaken anywhere or at any time and can be brief or extended.  One of its advantages is that it can be easily integrated into other forms of mindfulness practices such as gratitude meditation or loving-kindness meditation.  It can also be undertaken while lying down or sitting on a chair (e.g. in a workplace).  A powerful example of the benefits of this form of meditation is provided by Tara Healey who offers a guided meditation incorporating a 10-minute full body scan.

What are the benefits of body scan meditations?

There are many benefits that accrue from this form of meditation and these benefits are typically mutually reinforcing.  I will discuss several of the benefits here, but the real test is to try different forms of body scan and select one that is appropriate for the time you have available and your needs at the time.  A daily practice will be habit forming so that in times of stress you can automatically drop into a body scan.

  • Relaxation: the body scan is often described as a form of progressive relaxation as you consciously progress from your feet to your head paying attention to parts of your body, e.g. your toes on your left foot.  The very act of noticing serves to relax the different parts of the body as you progress.  Michelle Maldonado, when discussing self-care, suggests that a body scan can be used by people who have difficulty going to sleep in these challenging times. 
  • Tension release: some forms of body scan involve identifying different parts of the body where tension is being experienced in the form of tightness, ache, pain, or soreness.  This approach involves noticing these specific physical tension points so that you can consciously release them.  Because of the close mind-body connection, the release of physical tension can also serve to lessen sources of mental tension such as anxiety, fear or worry.  Deepak Chopra maintains that “there is no mental event that doesn’t have a biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are automatically manifested in our body.
  • Body awareness: as you develop the habit of a body scan, you increase your body awareness.  Some forms of this meditation focus on body sensations as you progress through the scan. In this way, you become more conscious of how your body is reacting to your daily experiences – often an aspect of your daily living that is outside conscious awareness.  Thus, the body scan is a route to developing mindfulness through heightening awareness of your body and its various sensations. 
  • Being present: body scan helps you to be in-the-moment, not distracted by thoughts of the past or anxiety about the future.  Focusing on body sensations such as heat or energy in various parts of your body (such as when your fingers touch), can enable you to become really grounded in the present moment.
  • Building capacity to focus: the act of conscious noticing of parts of the body, builds the capacity to focus – a key component of achieving excellence in any endeavour.  Learning to pay attention to what is going on in your body builds your awareness muscle and can help to reduce debilitating habits such as procrastination.
  • Developing self-awareness: this is a key element in the process of developing self-regulation.  As you develop self-awareness, you become more conscious of what triggers negative emotions for you and are better able to build your response-ability, thus controlling how you respond in specific situations.   You can become aware, for example, that particular situations make you “uptight” and learn what it is about those situations that contribute to your body and mental stress.
  • Dealing with trauma: body scan is a form of somatic meditation that is often employed in helping people who have suffered trauma or adverse childhood experiences.  Trauma and associated experiences leave deep imprints on your body, and mindfulness activities such as body scan can help to reduce this scarring and release harmful emotions.

Reflection

There are many benefits that accrue from the use of body scan meditations.  However, the benefits are intensified with daily practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through body scan meditations, we can develop self-awareness, release tension, improve self-regulation, build our body awareness, and heighten our capacity to be in the present moment.  In this way, we can learn to focus our mind and energy and overcome the dissipating effects of distractions and challenging emotions.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcome Your Habituated Way of Reacting and Restore Your Energy and Power

In her podcast interview with Tami Simon, Dr. Lise Van Susteren identified four patterns of reaction to life challenges that she describes as “survival strategies”.  If we can understand these patterns of behaviour, we can regulate our normal way of responding to stimuli we encounter in life and develop more tolerance towards others.  In her book on Emotional Inflammation, co-authored with Stacey Colino, Lise offers a process to discover our triggers and recapture our balance, energy and power.  The book spells out the 7-step process, called RESTORE, and looks at ways we can personalise this process in line with our preferred survival strategy.

Four survival strategies that become habitual behaviour patterns

Lise maintains that the four survival strategies she has identified are based on solid empirical evidence and her own life experience.  She suggests that your preferred survival strategy is shaped not only by your personality and temperament but also by your life experiences and the people who influenced you throughout your life.  The four survival strategies are:

  • Nervous – fearful and anxious because they are able to clearly see dangers, both present and pending, and are capable of providing a warning and catalyst for action through their vigilance and thorough research (they “run the numbers”).
  • Molten – angry and outraged response to situations that are perceived as immoral, unjust or irresponsible and that constitute grounds for justifiable anger.
  • Revved – frantic response to the needs of others leading to ignoring own needs and resultant personal exhaustion.
  • Retreating:  a reflective and considered response that exhibits humility and compassion for others while exercising patience in the pursuit of resolution of issues and challenges.

Lise identified herself as a person who adopts the “revved” survival strategy.  She cannot say “no” to requests and finds herself in a whirlwind of activity giving talks and presentations and writing articles and other publications.  She identified Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech to world leaders, participating in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, as an example of a “molten” survival strategy – her words and actions precipitating a global, youth climate change movement.  In reflecting on my own response to the Coronavirus and its resultant impacts, I can identify my survival strategy as “retreating” – which is clearly shaped by my life experiences and the people who were most influential in impacting my thoughts and actions in response to anxious and challenging times. 

Lise suggests that if you can understand your habituated survival strategy, you will not only be more tolerant of others but also be better able to respond differently and more effectively when the occasion demands it – because you will have been able to reduce your “emotional inflammation”. She proposes the RESTORE process as a way to achieve these ends.

The RESTORE process

Lise maintains that the RESTORE process is a pathway to overcoming habituated responses to the things that trigger us while providing us with a means to regain our equilibrium and power to contribute to a better world.  Each of the seven steps of the process draws its name from one of the letters of the word, “restore”:

  • Recognise your feelings – identify and name your feelings, not denying or avoiding them.  The more you deny your feelings, the stronger they become and the greater is their influence over your words and behaviour leading to an increasing number of negative, unintended consequences.  This also involves getting in touch with your body and what it is telling you about your level of stress and agitation and the difficult emotions you are experiencing, particularly in situations where you perceive you have no control over what is happening.
  • Examine your triggers – gain an understanding of your triggers and their impact on your words and actions.  This involves a willingness to reflect on situations that led to a high level of reactivity on your part.  It also entails identifying the people and experiences that have shaped your habituated, unhelpful responses.  The process previously described for dealing with resentment is an example of this self-exploration.   Both this step and the former require self-observation and self-intimacy that can be developed through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 
  • Steady the natural rhythm of your bodybreathing with the earth, somatic meditation and mindfulness practices help to restore your equilibrium that arises when you are attuned to the natural rhythm of your body. 
  • Think yourself into a safe space – often we are overcome by negative self-talk which makes us inflexible and destroys our equilibrium.  Working with your mind is necessary to achieve emotional agility and the capacity to adapt to ever-increasing stress situations. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a cautionary reminder that “you are not your thoughts” – they are like passing clouds, while you are the peaceful and resilient reality behind those clouds. 
  • Obey your body – this entails self-care including physical exercise, practices like Tai Chi and yoga, avoiding foods that your body experiences as harmful, reducing stress by achieving a better work-life balance and using self-care services especially if you are a carer.
  • Reconnect with nature – Lise suggests thatyou can “reclaim the gifts of nature” by accessing its healing benefits and its capacity to stimulate appreciation and gratitude and inspire awe.  Mark Coleman offers online courses on nature meditation to assist you to reconnect with nature.
  • Exercise your power – Lise argues that to consolidate your newfound equilibrium and power, you can become an “upstander” instead of a “bystander” – taking effective action in the world (e.g. on climate change) out of a sense of thoughtfulness, compassion, self-belief and hope.  This is the pathway to joy – pursuing a purpose beyond yourself that reduces self-absorption.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can deepen our self-awareness and tolerance, build our understanding of what triggers our unhelpful responses, develop equilibrium and reconnect with our personal energy and power to create positive change in the world. 

Throughout our restorative approaches we need to practise self-compassion, not beating up on ourselves for any shortcomings or shortfalls.  Louise Hay recommends that we practise the affirmation, you’re always doing the best you can with the understanding and awareness and knowledge you have.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Maintain Mental and Emotional Balance When Physically Isolated

Previously I have spoken about mindfulness practices as a way to handle the mental and emotional challenges inherent in the current Coronavirus and the imposition of social isolation and social distancing.   What I have covered there is a list of discrete practices that can help us to manage the overwhelm associated with these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  Arjuna Ardagh, author of Radical Brilliance: How and Why People Have Original Life Changing Ideas, offers a more holistic approach that recognises the mind-body connection.  His tips on maintaining emotional and mental wellness are mutually reinforcing and place the body as central to emotional and mental stability in our current environment.

A holistic approach to mental and emotional wellbeing

Arjuna highlighted some of the unproductive and potentially aggravating practices that people are engaging in to release tension and stress at this time, e.g. spending many hours on social media and indulging in the blame game and conspiracy thinking or turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the mind and distract from the fear and anxiety that people are feeling.  He suggests that this current pandemic challenge provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to develop self-intimacy and learn to change our mental and emotional state through holistic practices.

In his short tips video (17 minutes), Arjuna proposes four integrated approaches or types of practices that are designed to strengthen the mind-body connection while releasing negative energy and building positivity:

  1. Removing physical blockages – this entails elements such as stretching and moving emotion though your body.  Arjuna suggests that you identify and practice a physical expression of the emotion that you are feeling, e.g. fear may be experienced bodily as a curled-up posture and then released through stretching to one’s full height.  Frustration, on the other hand, might be expressed by an angry, explosive gesture and a prolonged cry of anguish such as “Aargh”.  This bodily approach releases inhibiting emotions locked away in your body and opens the way for developing a “positive disposition”.
  2. Relax into awareness – this can take many forms such as somatic meditation, the use of singing bowls as described in a MARC podcast, exploring natural awareness (opening to the infinite reality that is accessible through our senses),  or deep listening to classical music, singing of mantra meditations or “sacred acoustics”.  Arjuna maintains that all that is really required here is to be “naturally curious” about the sensations that you are experiencing in the present moment (including awareness of the fact that YOU are doing the experiencing).
  3. Enter the flow – this approach involves engaging the flow of energy through your body.  There are a range of Eastern practices that can help you achieve this but one of the best and well-researched practices is Tai Chi.  Arjuna asserts that if you can engage in the process of flow (even through dancing to music), you not only release energy throughout your body but also emotion – you can experience the joy and ease of wellbeing.
  4. Use thought creatively – Arjuna suggests that after you have removed blockages, experienced deep awareness and engaged your energy flow, you are well placed to engage your uncluttered mind.  So, instead of marinating in negative thoughts that generate complex and harmful emotions, you can begin to write creatively in a journal or blog or create a video podcast that reflects your positive, energetic flow.

Arjuna maintains that if you practice each of these approaches each day, however briefly and in whatever form you choose, you can release the hold of your complex emotions and develop emotional and mental wellness.

Reflection

Arjuna’s approach involves a progressive release of creative energy, moving from clearing blockages to engaging the senses in awareness and tapping into the energy flow of the body.  The outcome is creative expression and resolution of perceived, impenetrable challenges.  His approach is deeply embedded in the mind-body connection and employs integrated approaches that open up a wealth of possibilities.  As we grow in mindfulness through adopting these holistic practices, we can more readily access our creativity, build resilience, manage our confounding thoughts and emotions and experience the peace and ease of wellness.

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Image by Friedrich Frühling from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Grounding Yourself in Your Body in Times of Uncertainty

On the 5th March this year, Jill Satterfield conducted a meditation podcast as part of the series of weekly podcasts offered by The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Her presentation was titled, Facilitating Ease: Breath as a Restorative Practice in These Times.  Jill’s presentation reflected her lifetime pursuit of mindfulness and somatic awareness.  She has meditated for most of her life (having been taught to meditate by her mother at the age of four).  She has participated in 150 silent retreats and is very well place to conduct personal coaching and training in “embodied mind” – how to be present and aware in our own bodies.

Jill has struggled with chronic pain for most of her life, undergoing multiple surgeries (including heart surgery).  Her somatic meditation has helped her overcome her physical pain but, as she herself maintains, the longest journey for her is overcoming emotional and mental pain.  Jill offers a form of “somatic practice” which integrates Indian yoga tradition with Buddhist meditation teaching.  She sees her meditation teaching as offering “ways to know the body intimately as a reflection of the mind” and “to know and work with what is discovered both somatically and cognitively”.

Becoming grounded in your body in these uncertain times

In her podcast, Jill offers a somatic meditation that enables you to become grounded in your body in times of uncertainty – at a time when we are all physically, mentally, emotionally and medically challenged with the advent of the Coronavirus.  Jill views mindfulness as “kindfulness”, a term developed by Ajahn Brahm.  In her view, meditation needs to be internally kind and supportive of yourself, others and the community at large.  She provides a guided meditation, a gentle “somatic practice”, that employs the following steps:

  • Begin by settling into your seat, comfortably – not strained or rigid.  This first instruction reinforces Jill’s emphasis on bodily sensations.
  • Close your eyes or look down – either way she suggests that you loosen your vision so that you soften both the back of your eyes and the corners.
  • Now progressively notice the weight of your bones in various parts of your body – the lightness of your toes in your shoes, the thickness of your bones in your legs and the heaviness of your hip bones.  Notice the support your bones provide as you sit in the chair.
  • Next sense your clothing on your skin – Jill suggests that you feel the difference in temperature between your skin covered by clothing and your uncovered skin exposed to the air.
  • Be with the gentleness of your breath at the entrance to your nostrils. Experience the softness and delicateness of the air flow through your nose.
  • Extend your inhalation by taking a deeper breath if is comfortable for you and notice the gentleness in the longer inhale.
  • Now extend the exhale gently – noticing the coolness of your breath and experience warmth throughout your body – in your chest, stomach and throat.  A useful way to feel the sensation of warmth embracing your body is to join your fingers together and feel the tingling that occurs there.
  • Notice the pause at the top of your exhale motion – to focus on this pause wait a second or two before exhalation to experience the stillness.
  • Notice the pause before the inhale – extend this for a second or two to experience the quietness and ease of the inward breath.
  • As you complete these four-part “breath rounds” (pause-exhale-pause-inhale) over a couple of minutes, draw on the support and imagery of nature – the gentle breeze through the leaves of the trees; the slow, breaking waves; or the silence and calmness of the mountains.
  • Feel the power of loving kindness and forgiveness flowing from your tranquillity and restfulness.

When distractions arise in this meditation, return to sensing the weight of your body on the chair – restore your groundedness.  As you slowly come to awareness at the end of the meditation, feel yourself coming to your senses more fully – take in the sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste that surround you as you feel more enlivened and relaxed.

Reflection

There is a certainty in our experience of our bodies in-the-moment and a tranquillity that arises from “resting in sensation”.  It is through our bodies that we can become truly grounded in the present.  As we grow in mindfulness, through somatic meditation and other somatic practices such as yoga, we can calm our “inner landscape”, still our mind and become increasingly open to our senses, our courage and creativity.  We can employ Jill’s somatic practice anywhere at any time to restore our sense of groundedness and experience ease and tranquillity.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that through mindfulness we can move from doing to being present to the power of now.

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Image by Lara-yin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Your Brain: A Source of Wonder in the Game of Life

The brain is amazing when you think about how much information it processes and how that influences our emotional and bodily response.  We have deeply embedded neural pathways that serve as short-cuts for determining an appropriate response.  However, our self-stories shaped by early childhood experiences can distort our perception and lead to inappropriate responses to situations that serve as triggers.

I am always amazed at the functioning of the brain when I play tennis.  When you think about it, the brain is taking in so many variables when a person serves or hits to you (all absorbed at an exceptional speed):

  • wind speed and direction
  • level of lighting
  • ambient sounds
  • sound of the ball on the racquet of the server
  • speed of the ball
  • nature of the spin on the ball (e.g. top-spin, slice, backspin)
  • relational information (where you are in the court and where your opponents are positioned)
  • attention level and readiness of your opponents
  • elevation of the ball (impacting the landing and bounce)
  • expected landing point of the ball
  • the nature and height of the bounce of the ball.

When you are receiving the tennis ball and returning your shot, your brain is determining how to respond to the information absorbed when the ball is hit by your opponent.  Again, your self-stories come into play here.  The inner game of tennis is critical as your self-belief impacts the choices you make re shot selection. 

When you think about it, you must make an instant decision about how you are going to respond to the serve/shot by your opponent:

  • the nature of your shot (e.g. forehand or backhand)
  • direction of your shot
  • speed and spin of your shot
  • positioning of your body for your returning shot.

How is it that your body responds unconsciously in some situations and does the perfect shot?  For example, when the ball is hit deep to your backhand side and your opponents are at the net, you automatically do a backhand, half-volley lob into the open court.  Some key influences here are your level of tennis competence (e.g. unconsciously competent as in the example situation) and memory embedded in your body.  Body memory is itself a complex process involving different elements such as proprioception (e.g. the capacity to know where a part of the body is such as the hand when you cannot see it).

Body memory is reinforced when you go to sit in the driver’s seat of your car and land with a thud (after your 6 feet 3 inches son has lowered the seat to suit his driving position).  Another example is when you are trying to put the forks away after dishwashing and someone has changed the positioning of the forks in the cutlery drawer (the other forks are not where you unconsciously attempt to place the clean ones).  The role of body memory in relation to trauma is well researched and documented which is why somatic meditation often plays a key role in recovery from trauma.

 Reflection

The brain is a source of wonder and yet we take it for granted so much of the time.  As we grow in mindfulness and awareness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can better appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of our brain, its role in our daily living and sporting activities and express gratitude for the wonder of it.  We are also better able to manage mistakes we make when playing tennis or undertaking other activities requiring complex information processing.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Ways to Develop Gratitude

In a previous post I offered a specific gratitude meditation presented by Diana Winston through the MARC weekly meditation podcasts.  I also mentioned the practice of developing personal reminders to appreciate some aspect of your life – I mentioned in my case using mistakes in tennis (of which there are many) to savour the capacity to run, hit the ball and engage in social activity with friends.  Here I would like to discuss different forms of meditation and mindfulness practices that can also assist in developing a deeper sense of gratitude that can increase our enjoyment of life and improve our relationships.

Gratitude meditations and mindfulness practices

Some of these meditations or practices can become part of your daily life or employed on a one-off basis.  The important thing is to incorporate some form of gratitude practice on a regular basis because as Jon Kabat-Zin reminds us, “we become what we pay attention to”. So, focusing on gratitude makes us grateful.  Here are some relevant meditations/practices:

  • Loving-kindness meditation – this form of meditation can enable us to appreciate ourselves as we are (rather than wishing we were different) and the people who positively impact our lives.  Jon Kabat-Zin provides an all-embracing loving-kindness meditation that extends also to people who may have hurt us and to whoever in the world is in need.   Expressing kindness to others engenders appreciation for what we have.
  • Journalling – there are many forms of gratitude journal that can be used as part of your mindfulness practice.  Jason Marsh provides some sound, research-based tips for keeping a gratitude journal – including the benefit of regular, rather daily gratitude journalling.  Ryder Carroll in his Bullet Journal Method (pp. 185-187) identifies ways to incorporate gratitude in his approach to journalling.  Rick Hanson suggests that a gratitude journal can focus on three simple aspects of your life – things that I am grateful for, people that I appreciate and events that I value.  Our journalling can also cover the people in our lives who have imparted their knowledge and experience as mentors, guides, parents, carers or coaches – in Aboriginal terms, it involves expressing appreciation for a Goondeen, a wise person who is a source of wisdom and understanding.
  • Sharing your gratitude – Tara Brach suggests engaging a gratitude buddy to support your practice of expressing gratitude.  She recommends developing the practice of regularly sharing your expressions of gratitude with one other person, e.g. by email or text.  Your buddy can support your positive intentions through regular contact.
  • Appreciating the momentNicole Bayes-Fleming offers meditations for “resting in the flow” (19 minutes) and savouring the moment through your senses (5 minutes).  These gratitude practices help to displace harmful thoughts and to build appreciation for the simple things in life.  Chris Walsh encourages the practice of mindful check-in, particularly during transitions in life, as a way to tap into the benefits of being grateful (including cultivating resilience).
  • Developing sympathetic joy – this process replaces envy with valuing and rejoicing in the success of others.  Johann Hari describes a form of loving-kindness meditation that can develop sympathetic joy by savouring the achievements of others as well your own.
  • Somatic meditation – developing awareness of your body and bodily sensations.  There are various forms of somatic meditation, e.g. lower-belly breathing and body scan.  Somatic meditation has proven to be particularly powerful in developing gratitude in times of difficulty.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of the many people and things in our life that we can be grateful for.  Focusing regularly on these positive aspects of our daily life can displace negative thoughts and engender the many proven benefits of gratitude. 

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Image by Susan Cipriano from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.