Pain

It is normal to have little sensitive points in our body. These points tell us about how the body is functioning. They are sore or sensitive not to tell us how we have failed. They are not there as a form of punishment. Making the pain along these points stop hurting is not our objective.  It’s not that we can be healthier if they don’t hurt.  I think sore points are our body’s way of saying This needs attention. There is a story here, and it wants to be told. And “this” is not just a point on your leg.  “This” is a point on a map – the map which is possibly on a meridian line that runs through the gall bladder and up into the jaw, and that that point of pain is like a little push pin.  It’s like a little light blinking, saying: HERE.  THIS IS HOW YOU CAN CARE FOR YOURSELF, BY NOTING THIS, BY BEING CURIOUS ABOUT THIS, BY SLOWING DOWN, ASKING FOR HELP AND APPLYING THE INFORMATION YOU RECEIVE.

Pain Really

Pain is when I’m simultaneously reaching for something and smacking myself back for reaching for it.

I’d like to open up a conversation about talking about pain, talking about our pain with other people.  Gosh, where to start?  All kinds of feelings of shame and embarrassment come up for me whenever I am telling people these days about the most exciting and the most fascinating project that I’ve been working on, which is correcting my bite, so that my body functions like it was intended to function, and I am not chronically defended or clenched and body parts are not cut off from my awareness.  And with some people I can approach the subject more easily.  But with other people, they have this reflexive response to the mere mention of pain (you included, maybe).  They think it is their responsibility to do something about it, when all I really want is to see if this is anything similar to what they experience.  I mention that I’ve had pain and chronic clenching, and for me that is progress – cause for celebration, actually.  But they reflexively wince, and apologize for my experience, which they are not in any way responsible for.  I am learning about the pain from my childhood and how to put words on it and share my ideas with other people because my numbness is parting (subsiding).  I am having moments of feedback from my body which is what I want, which is possibly what you want, too.  So what I’m talking about when I say “pain” is not anything approaching suffering.  Suffering is akin to victimhood…it’s got an element of powerlessness to it that makes it inescapable, possibly helpless.  So for you right now, suffering might be the ongoing barrage of information about how you are not living up to some expectation that you or some other person put on you, or a chronic resistance to the changes that are going on in your world, or a non-acceptance of something that life has offered you (emotions included).  Or it is you unknowingly fighting against yourself.  So you just suffer (tolerate, and cope in whatever way you can) it.  

I am thinking and talking about the pain in my neck or discovering from some therapist or another that this is happening in my body because of something I reflexively did to cope with my emotions as a child, and the last thing I want is to be that person who is obsessing about their pain, wallowing in discomfort – the person who talks about themselves incessantly.  But I am longing to share my ideas with other people because this is such a vast topic and I really don’t think I’m the only person doing this, and I think it is incumbent upon us all to take responsibility for bringing our unconscious pain to awareness so we can properly care for ourselves and move past the pain and suffering; to move into the fully-lived embodied present.  And we cannot do that alone.

Retreat from Pain

 

What is pain anyway, but information.  It’s upsetting to me when I tell my dentist that my tooth doesn’t feel right.  The tooth feels like it is being pushed out, I tell her.  I feel frustration when even talking about what’s happening with my tooth because it doesn’t “hurt.”  It is holding frustration.  It feels like it is being pushed out by my body.  When the dentist tries to pin me down for a better explanation, and she goes about tapping it to determine whether it “hurts” or not, I’m just like, “It doesn’t hurt, but if you don’t stop that I AM GOING TO SMACK YOU.”  That’s NOT physical pain. It’s a flavor of sensation (frustration? despair?).  Nuance.  It is information wanting to be acknowledged, to be put into words.  Heard.  

For me, pain, right now, is information.  It is necessary, it is desirable.  I want to know about my body. 

I notice that when I cop to having sensations I don’t have shame.  But when I cop to being in pain or having been in pain for a long time or having chronically tensed muscles (against some numbed-out historical stressor), I’m slipping over into another territory, which people interpret as “suffering” and the moment people do that, I want to just retreat into my solitude because I don’t want to be that person.

Being Vulnerable Has Been Dangerous

So maybe that is why we have healers.  Because good healers are naturally curious about the kinds of sensations we are getting because that’s what they work with.  That is their medium.  And when we talk to other people about our journey with pain (physical or emotional); our experience, and we are reaching for understanding; we are reaching for more information to help us emerge and know ourselves and overcome suffering, it’s scary maybe because being vulnerable has been dangerous for us in the past.

Dear Diary

2/13/19  Thoughts Today

I went to visit my sister Tracy yesterday and while I was at her house I was really grateful to have her in town so I could just go to her house, sit on her bed and do what I wanted to do.  Yesterday I pulled my Spanish homework out of my bag and I just started reading.  She was on deadline, and she waved me to her room, told me to make myself comfortable.   She had a very comfortable bed and she also had some construction going on in her house. I was happy it was not my problem.   The landlord and her plumber were there and had the bathroom torn apart.  “The toilet is chupando agua,” I heard one of them say  (sucking water).  Maybe there is some kind of leak so they told her she can’t use it until it’s fixed.  They told her she could go downstairs and use the one in the apartment that is being renovated on the ground level. 

I was noticing some feelings: Admiration and also a little envy.  Tracy’s house is amazing. She has started to develop some really healthy routines and self-care strategies.  She has developed what seem to be some really healthy friendships in her neighborhood and she kind of “lights up” when she talks about them.  She brought me some nettle tea, I ate some grapefruit I had packed in my bag, and when she was able to take a break, she invited me to the kitchen so we could prepare some lunch.  She was so excited.  I noticed that when I was trying to talk to her I was having trouble finding my words.  I was stumbling, groping, grasping.  Place names.  People names.  They just weren’t coming.  And I wanted to share with her so much.  I wanted to be big and social and important like her.  And I also noticed that she was very attentive and very (as usual) very good at advocating for herself (a bit differently  this time, maybe), but really attuning to me and demonstrating her care and loyalty to me, regardless of my inability to express myself as fluidly as her. 

Digesting later, what that experience was like, I noticed some negative thought patterns that come up and tell me that she’s doing it better, that I should be different – that I’m behind.  All those things definitely irrational today (relics from her being 6 when I was 2, probably).  But they helped me identify the feelings.

When I give such negative thought patterns my time and attention I can see that I’m exactly where I should be.  I have so so so much support: human support, economic support, emotional support, physical support, divine support.  I have what I need and I have permission to ask for more.

I talk to myself gently: My house is simple and uncluttered because visually I need that.  My life is spacious because that is what I’m asking for.  My systems are still under construction.  I’m still developing systems because my whole structure is rearranging – with my diet – requiring things that are soft to eat.  Exploring – feeling my way through that whole process and having extra appointments to support the physical reconstruction and anatomical adjustments that are being made to correct my bite.  I’m grateful for exactly where I am right now.  There are so many things I’m looking forward to and the project I’m working on right now (which may not look that exciting; that doesn’t vibrate at such a social level), but is mine to do right now: fixing my bite so that I’m not in pain all the time!  And that is a project that has an end point to it.  I will be completing those physical things – the re-patterning of my muscle memory.  The fixing of my molars so that I can eat without pain and the application of my braces so that my teeth actually look like they have been cared for and that I have the means to take care of myself well.  And maybe even opening up my avenue of expression so that I can more easily and fluidly and confidently express my thoughts and ideas.

I think about why this was not taken care of before, in the “developed” United States, where I grew up and lived for so long.  More feelings.  And understanding.  Compassion for myself and for my parents.  I mean, how could I have taken care of all of this in the US?  A single mom with no insurance for dental care?  Making barely enough to get by?  How could my parents have taken care of this with nine children, aversion to credit and boot-strap values?  They couldn’t have.  And I couldn’t have while I was raising children either.  But that’s another topic.  That is what I’m thinking about today.

Ripple Effect in My Body

I feel like I have been following a trail of breadcrumbs to the diagnosis of TMD or Temporomandibular Joint Disorder, which I received with a huge sense of relief in November.  I followed one un-ignorable breadcrumb to another: the inability to chew because of pain and sensitivity, months and even years after getting dental work on several molars; developing what seemed like tendonitis in my right arm; chronic, never abating pain in the neck; one chronically constricted muscle along the right margin of my spine; the inability to sit for very long before experiencing back pain; difficulty standing without slumping.  My massage therapist and others had mentioned mouth guards, and how well they worked for a lot of people.  My chiropractor noticed that the pattern of lock-up I experience seemed to originate somewhere around my right neck/shoulder.  My CranioSacral therapist said that there was an irritated nerve in my molar, but that the tooth was healthy enough.  An iridologist in Missouri said that there was something significant going on in my jaw/shoulder area.  I clearly had a problem.  Now the breadcrumbs had finally led me to a solution.

Since I’ve been seeing a specialist recommended by my dentist, and have been wearing a mouth guard, I have been slowly recognizing that for many years I had been unconsciously clenching – not just in my jaw, and jutting it forward, but other places in my body as well.  Little by little I bring consciousness to places in my body where I had been unknowingly tightening my muscles.  And I am learning, slowly, how to direct my attention toward those places with love and care.  And even more slowly, I am learning what it feels like when I am truly relaxed.  As I do, the pain is going away as if by magic. 

I have been instructed to wear my mouth guard night and day.  Wearing it during the night was helping, but not enough.  Dr. Citlali, my specialist, explained that my jaw is so habituated to being in a forward position, that I will need some time to train it to be where it is supposed to be.  After having the guard and using it night and day (when I’m not eating), when I take it out, I notice that my teeth come together differently.  Now it feels a little odd because it will take a while for me to get used to having it in the right place after having it forward all these years (maybe +50?).

This makes me think about how that misalignment must have been impacting my teeth.  When I was always chewing using my molars in a way that they were not designed to be used, with the jaw jutted forward, they just didn’t line up right, which caused undue wear and tear on them.  They served me as best they could under the circumstances, but with time, they wore down, chipped and cracked.  Now I understand why I have always needed so much dental work on my molars.  Before this treatment is said and done, I’m going to need to raise the height of the molars themselves because form follows function; my teeth have changed to accommodate my jaw movement patterns over time.  As a result of my jaw being relaxed and in the right place, many muscles (that I had no idea I was clenching) begin to relax.  This one little thing has had an impact throughout my entire body. 

The good news is that in response to the treatment (ongoing work with Dr. Citlali via the mouth guard) my body is relaxing and settling into its new normal.  I am noticing a ripple effect.  My arm (I couldn’t use that arm without pain) is back to normal.  My back feels somewhat improved, but it’s all the way back there and I still can’t really tell for sure.  The brittle feeling I was having in my feet and ankles is gone, and I sense my feet as newly supple and responsive to the demands I put on them.

With ongoing care scheduled (I have an appointment with the kinesiologist and two massages with my favorite massage therapist in the next couple weeks), I hope to bring even more awareness to those places so that my new normal will be relaxed, stronger and even more resilient than before. 

With this kind of care, education and support, I can learn to notice when I am clenching or drawing in, and anytime I tune in, I will more easily and automatically be able to return to a healthy, relaxed state. 

Through my healing process, I am bringing loving, conscious attention to obviously affected places, and my body in general, and am definitely feeling results.  Over the years, my legs did not really seem to be part of me, and it felt precarious to move through life in a fluid and grounded way.  By comparison, I can look back at times when it felt as though I was walking on tree stumps.  What I experience now is so much more fluid and integrated.  Like my right leg – my shins – my heels.  They are now parts of me.  I walk with more connectedness/awareness, more fully inhabiting my feet and lower legs. 

So, the journey continues.  I am super excited about this, and I am interested to see what happens next!

What is Embodiment, Anyway?

People ask me what I mean when I say embodiment, and it’s a subtle thing, really.  If you are busy all the time, you run the risk of missing it – that is, until you are faced with debilitating pain, chronic aches, or unexplained disorders.  But that is really not what I’ve come here to talk about.  For me it’s much more fun to talk about what I’m experiencing in this process, which is more like watching grass grow than going to a doctor for a prescription and a more sadly standard cure.  My way, of course, is worlds more empowering and fulfilling.  There are so many dimensions to what I want to talk about, so it’s hard to know where to begin, and like I said before, it’s subtle but life changing – winding but profound – when you commit yourself to it as a way of life.

Mammals lick their young.  Watch a mother lion lick its cub.  (skip to minute 4 if you don’t have much time) This activity is nothing like what happens when a stressed-out working mother bathes or otherwise cares for her young.  When a mammal in nature cares for her young she is relaxed herself.  The motion almost a meditation.

When I was on the roof the other morning, just before sunrise, I thought of her in that warm meditative place, as I rolled an empty olive oil bottle around on the knotted and burning fibers of my muscles and ligaments and attachments, along the length of my lower leg.  As the sky had turned from twinkling stars to glimmering-on-the-rim to rosy and then bright, I rested in my quiet place inside.  As the hardness of the green glass met the various places on the leg I adjusted my motion so as to appropriately meet each complaint, each whimper, each outcry of rage for having been neglected and taken for granted for so long with not so much as an ounce of consideration for its never failing loyalty and devotion.  Imagining the mother, adjusting the pressure of her tongue so as to have the desired effect…the seemingly compulsive motion of the tongue designed to work out the knots, soften the stressed and defended places and render the tiny thing completely undefended…never having to ask for warmth, closeness, connection, or attention to its needs.

Since I took up the practice of bringing the bottle with me to the roof, originally for the purpose of rolling my feet, I notice that I walk on cobblestones a lot easier and with a whole lot more grace and agility.  Since I have been working on my quads and lower legs, I have begun to build a relationship with my legs.  They tell me where they hurt, but only if I ask.  They tell me how much pressure to use, but only if I’m present.  They tell me what they want, but only if I’m unhurried.  And, despite some old fear that their needs can never be met and that giving them attention will be a colossal mistake, they soften.  The pain subsides and I discover more about my legs that I never knew before.  No-touch zones turn to touch-with-care zones.  Touch-with-care zones turn to burning-like-fire zones.  Burning-like-fire zones turn to boy-that-feels-good zones, and on and on it goes.

Along with this relationship I’m building with my legs I am making connections about various parts of my body and how they work together.  For example, I had a bodywork session with a German friend (who worked with my shoulder blades, asking me to engage muscles I had no idea I could operate), who left me with an increased ability to – might I say delight in – lowering my shoulder blades, pulling them down against the contracted and chronically tense and indistinguishable muscle mass around my neck and shoulders.  With her help, I made some progress, and with the next bodywork session I expect to reclaim another formerly estranged and exiled body part.

I noticed, the other day, a sweet sensation of delight after pulling up some leg warmers over my leggings.  A sensation I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before.  I wonder in astonishment.  How have I gotten to be this age without knowing how the various parts of my body relate to one another in a kinesthetic way?  I’ve taken the anatomy classes and I’ve memorized a lot of anatomic terms, but it’s the finding of them in my body that’s always alluded me.  It’s the knowing of them sensually that I’ve tragically missed.  And in re-membering each one – slowly, tentatively – I understand why I cut them off in the first place.  There is so much information stored there!

This morning, for example, tending to my leg, and all those burning sensations, I begin to make connections in my mind.  This is about an old story that started when I was 15 or 16.  Wanting to run but can’t run, my inner 16-year-old tells me.  Wanting to run but can’t run wanting to run but can’t run.  My life depends on it, and I can’t run, but needing to run.  It burns.

I have not always had the presence of mind, the inclination, the patience or the curiosity to explore that sensation I called pain and shoved aside with disgust.  I was stronger than that.  No self-respecting person admitted to pain, much less indulged in giving it attention.

But my attention and curiosity turns any pain into an important piece of information I can use to take care of myself.  Pain, as it turns out, is not better ignored.  It is better used to tend to real needs and real wounds, which with a little care and attention, eventually melt into pure consciousness, connectedness and bliss.

Now I am not afraid of becoming a slave to my old wounds and pain.  I stroke and caress.  I tease out the knots.  I soothe the burning muscles into submission.  Now, as I do this, I know that as my body relaxes, as I care for it and become better acquainted with its nooks and crannies, a million tiny connections are made, sending signals to my brain that I am okay, that I am worthy of attention, that I deserve care, that my needs are not too much, and that there is nothing wrong with my body that a little TLC can’t make right.

Meet Mariana

Mariana is my Spanish teacher, my friend, my translator and now my publisher.  Here she describes her publishing house, Ban Pang – Casa de Harina Editorial.

Thanks to Mariana, my book is going to be available to speakers of Spanish anywhere in the world.  Being In My Body (Estar en mi Cuerpo) is now available in Spanish as a PDF.  Read more about the book here.  You can get your copy here.  By August 18 it will also be available in paperback!

Photo Shoot – Being In My Body (Estar En Mi Cuerpo)

This is what emotional work can look like!

This past couple days has been so interesting, as I wrestle with my body’s terror about being the center of attention and knee-jerk reactions to staying present in situations where resources are coming from others to me, specifically.  It’s really stretching my mind and my understanding and challenges the wiring of my brain.  Not always fun, and not always comfortable, but always held in love and gentleness and so much kindness and creativity.

Hope you like my photo collection!  Watch for more photos from the shoot which will be appearing on Facebook and other forms of social media over the next couple months.  They will make up the launch for Estar En Mi Cuerpo, but they will be professional photographs by Kitzia, who I am sure you are going to love.  For those of you who don’t know, Estar En Mi Cuerpo is the Spanish title for Being In My Body, What You Might Not Have Known About Trauma, Dissociation, & The Brain.  The other women in the photos are so dear to my heart – my translator, Mariana and her sister, Margarita.

Margarita, setting the tone for Day 1

Mariana, Shoot Director, Translator and Publisher

Kitzia, Photographer

Kitzia, Mariana, Margarita, at Bicycle Snack Station

Bicycle wheel table and reading the coffee grounds

Juice and coffee stop

Kitzia loves this pup

Photograph the photographer – What a love

It just doesn’t get any sweeter than this.

Aren’t I photogenic?

The Crew – Day 2

Toni Rahman Embodied – Mid-MO Tour 2017

After being south of the border for 4 years, Toni will be coming to Mid-MO in October to share two things:

1) Being In My Body: What You Might Not Have Known About Trauma, Dissociation & The Brain

  • Coffee & Conversation at Heart Body & Soul, followed by Book Signing on October 7, 10:30 am
  • Daniel Boone Regional Library – Local Author Fair on October 28, 10:00 am-2:00 pm

2) Pop-Up Clinics – a new way of networking and connecting with yourself and the abundance around you.  Read an article about Pop-Up Clinics in Ajijic Mexico here.

You can hear an interview with Toni on the Trauma Therapist Podcast here.

The Body Keeps The Score – Book Review

One of my favorite things to do is reading good books.  I finished reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score some months ago, but it has taken me a while to report on it.  Besides having gleaned 25 pages of quotes, I’m feeling the need to go back and re-read the whole thing.  This was a book of serious ahas.  Van der Kolk is himself a survivor of early relational trauma – a fact of which he was unaware until well into his professional career.  Currently the Medical Director of the Trauma Center in Boston, he is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and serves as the Co-Director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Network.  You can read more about him here.

“Trauma,” says van der Kolk, “drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.”  Its effects are profound and lasting when it occurs before we have language to describe it or even hope to get the help we need.  But, “like a splinter that causes an infection, it is the body’s response to the foreign object that becomes the problem more than the object itself.”

I love this book because Van der Kolk gives me words for things I had no idea how to talk about before.  And he validates suspicions that have nagged at me for decades.  For instance, when I was 24 and had already ditched my first husband and abandoned my three-year-old son, I was puzzled by the lack of pain I felt.  What was wrong with me, anyway?  I had many explanations, some of which had to do with depression, being clueless about what I was going to do with my life, and feeling incapable of caring well for a small child while trying to do all those things that I had been taught that a husband was supposed to do.  Van der Kolk calls this “Numbing.”  In describing what one survivor of developmental trauma experienced, he says, “He desperately wanted to love his family, but he just couldn’t evoke any deep feelings for them.”

Numbing may keep us from suffering in the short-term, but long-term is another matter.  “…though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop.  The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse.  The physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness.  Medications, drugs, and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings.  But the body continues to keep the score.”

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system.  The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life.”

The seemingly endless path of breadcrumbs leading me back to my own trauma included my status as “stimulus seeker.”  Though I am most likely on the mild end of this spectrum, survivors of trauma don’t feel quite alive if they aren’t in the middle of some kind of chaos.  Says van der Kolk, “Somehow the very event that caused them so much pain had also become their sole source of meaning.  They felt fully alive only when they were revisiting their traumatic past.”

“That is why so many abused and traumatized people feel fully alive in the face of actual danger, while they go numb in situations that are more complex but objectively safe, like birthday parties or family dinners.”

All of this is determined at a very physical level.  “If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love.  For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.”

Among van der Kolk’s research-based conclusions (and things to think about as you consider this idea he’s calling developmental trauma):

  • Exposure to stress relieves anxiety.
  • Addiction to trauma may be characterized by the pain of pleasure and the pleasure of pain.
  • Immobilization is at the root of most traumas (your heart slows down, your breathing becomes shallow, and, zombielike, you lose touch with yourself and your surroundings).
  • It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger.
  • All too often, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with distressing physical reactions associated with repressed emotion.

Real healing, he says, has to do with experiential knowledge: “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you can acknowledge the reality of your body, in all its visceral dimensions.”  Here, EXPERIENCE, not UNDERSTANDING is what we need.

“…neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention.  When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”

Treatment

“Treatment needs to reactivate the capacity to safely mirror, and be mirrored, by others, but also to resist being hijacked by others’ negative emotions.”

“…the great challenge is finding ways to reset their physiology, so that their survival mechanisms stop working against them.  This means helping them to respond appropriately to danger but, even more, to recover the capacity to experience safety, relaxation, and true reciprocity.”

Mindfulness, or the ability to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, is one of the primary tools van der Kolk teaches his patients.  This ability allows us to then take our time to respond,” he says, which “allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.  This capacity is crucial for preserving our relationships with our fellow human beings.”

Increasing “interoception,” or self-awareness, is another important feature of recovery, van der Kolk says.  “Because traumatized people often have trouble sensing what is going on in their bodies, they lack a nuanced response to frustration.  They either react to stress by becoming ‘spaced out’ or with excessive anger.  Whatever their response, they often can’t tell what is upsetting them.  This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes to their well-documented lack of self-protection and high rates of revictimization.  And also to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.”

Noticing and then describing what they are feeling is a process van der Kolk helps his patients learn.  He begins the process by helping them talk about what is happening in their bodies, “not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on.”  He also works on “identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure…their breath, their gestures and movements.”  He asks them to “pay attention to subtle shifts in their bodies, such as tightness in their chests or gnawing in their bellies, when they talk about negative events that they claim did not bother them.”

“…many programs (that try to help traumatized people) continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking,” van der Kolk says.  He provides some ways to engage this part of the brain in his book.  Among them are:

  • Yoga
  • Theater Programs
  • Breath Exercises (Pranayama)
  • Chanting
  • Martial Arts
  • Qigong
  • Drumming
  • Group Singing
  • Dancing

“Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms.  Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe….Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”

 

A few more nuggets I thought you might appreciate:

  • While you need to be able to stand up for yourself, you also need to recognize that other people have their own agendas. Trauma can make all that hazy and gray.
  • (As infants) our most intimate sense of self is created in our minute-to-minute exchanges with our caregivers.
  • Children’s disturbed behavior is a response to actual life experiences – to neglect, brutality, and separation – rather than the product of infantile sexual fantasies.
  • Our lives consist of finding our place within the community of human beings.
  • Babies can’t regulate their own emotional states, much less the changes in heart rate, hormone levels, and nervous-system activity that accompany emotions.
  • Learning how to manage arousal is a key life skill, and parents must do it for babies before babies can do it for themselves.
  • Securely attached kids learn the difference between situations they can control and situations where they need help.
  • Kids will go to almost any length to feel seen and connected.
  • Traumatized parents, in particular, need help to be attuned to their children’s needs.
  • Dissociation means simultaneously knowing and not knowing.
  • Early attachment patterns create the inner maps that chart our relationships throughout life, not only in terms of what we expect from others, but also in terms of how much comfort and pleasure we can experience in their presence.
  • It’s not important for me to know every detail of a patient’s trauma. What is critical is that the patients themselves learn to tolerate feeling what they feel and knowing what they know.
  • Rage that has nowhere to go is redirected against the self, in the form of depression, self-hatred, and self-destructive actions.
  • Eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters.
  • Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment.
  • As long as people are either hyperaroused or shut down, they cannot learn from experience. Even if they manage to stay in control, they become so uptight that they are inflexible, stubborn, and depressed.  Recovery from trauma involves the restoration of executive functioning and, with it, self-confidence and the capacity for playfulness and creativity.
  • In order to recover, mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that it is safe to let go. That happens only when you feel safe at a visceral level and allow yourself to connect that sense of safety with memories of past helplessness.
  • Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.
  • Antipsychotic medications such as Risperdal, Abilify, or Seroquel can significantly dampen the emotional brain and this makes patients less skittish or enraged, but they also may interfere with being able to appreciate subtle signals of pleasure, danger, or satisfaction.
  • As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down.

I highly recommend this book.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

It’s A Body Thing

There’s something the body does that reflects what the nervous system does – a reflex, in response to a trigger.  I’d like to explore this with you.  When a person encounters a trigger, the body closes.  What I seem to be noticing with myself and my clients is a popular trigger called “ALLOWING A PART OF MYSELF TO BE SEEN THAT I WASN’T SURE I WANTED TO SHARE.”  Since for many of us, opening up emotionally has been so unsafe in the past, it can understandably be really frightening, and before you even know what’s happening, the body reflexively closes.

This is really important because it’s in those moments that we do connect – that we have connected without our defenses up – that the brain is re-wired.  Whenever the body is guarded and only the intellect is open and engaged, no rewiring gets done.  It’s just kind of the same old same old.

And so the thing that just occurred to me now is that when a person tells a story over and over again as if they hadn’t already told it to that person, they are temporarily disconnected from the memory that this actually was a shared telling; this was a valuable, precious shared event, and that the person you are telling it to would actually remember that.  So you are disconnected from the experience of having shared a moment of connection and being heard together.  The wires are down.  It’s almost like the fact that we shared it can “disappear.”  Just like that, our most powerful resources can disappear when we are triggered.  The good thing is that we can learn to reconnect.  Reconnecting involves being aware of and relaxing the body (including the nervous system).  Don’t worry.  It isn’t as hard as you might think.

You have abundant resources.  They’re all around you and they are also right there in your brain.  But, as you have probably seen or experienced, survivors of early relational trauma have learned to disconnect from things they feel and know.  It’s part of what the body does in survival mode.

I came across a really interesting thing in a YouTube video called The Shoe.  Maybe you saw it on Facebook.  If you watch the body language of this kid actor, which the director catches so powerfully, you can see it for yourself.  It’s a visual representation of that shift that happens: from when the boy is snarling in disgust and frustration with the broken shoe at about 1.3 and then he sees the other boy his age with new shoes.  At 1.33-1.37 his body opens and you can see him shift from isolation – his own miserable, impoverished world –  to a place of allowing, where he can see the things around him.  He can see what is happening with other people, and empathize with their experience.  In this case, this ability to empathize ultimately leads to a brand new pair of shoes and this powerful (if brief) exchange with the other boy.  The boy doesn’t have the layers and layers of repeated trauma and loss that an adult can, so the shift happens readily.  This shift is possible for all of us when we learn how to put down our defenses; when we learn to physically relax.  When we can, we automatically reconnect with all the resources available to us in this moment now.

Interpersonal events are amazing things, and there is just so much that is communicated below the level of our conscious minds.  I have been learning that if I can keep my primary focus on my own body, I can make use of the complex wiring systems that have served to make us mammals the wildly successful, sociable creatures we are.  If I instead pay attention to what’s happening to you (what I can see and comprehend with my eyes), I have a much more limited and mind-oriented framework to operate from.

Paying attention to the emotional state of others has been my default, but that – thank goodness – has begun to change in the past several years.  Staying with and tending to my own sensations in the moment give me much more valuable information.  Here is an example.  I work with clients who have triggers, naturally.  And I have had moments with clients where I can see that they are suddenly triggered.  Incidentally, being face to face with someone who disconnects from me emotionally, can be a trigger for me.  But as I learn to manage triggers, there is more of me available to just watch, and not get carried away by the emotion and the story and the personal memory of the trigger.

I am remembering a particular time in which I am face to face with a client who has just been triggered by me, and I notice myself kind of freezing up, and I notice that I’m not able to communicate with a relaxed, open, spontaneous heart anymore.  I notice that what I say or do after that just sort of comes from my head, awkwardly, which neither of us can access with the heart, and my client can’t hear anyway because they’re suddenly all closed up and protected.

In life, and in therapy, it is a good practice to reach for those moments where we are able to feel safe enough to open; those moments when we truly connect.  Maybe we won’t even consciously acknowledge them when we are in them, but we can certainly look back and say, mmhm….I was open then.

This makes me remember a time when I was in grad school when I felt safe enough to open up with a particular professor.  I had reached out to her due to her specialty in domestic violence.  It was in a moment of trusting and hopefulness that I reached out – and from a place of newly identifying as a victim of domestic violence.

It was obvious to everyone that this professor had a great passion for teaching DV.  I had reached out to her in that moment of unguardedness and shared myself, my personal interest in DV and how happy I was that she was teaching this course, and then I drew back.  I hadn’t retreated or closed up consciously.  But looking back, I certainly had closed myself off to further interactions with her.  Maybe it was because I had shared a part of me that I was not accustomed to sharing.  For whatever reason, I pulled way back, and at the end of my school experience, that professor pointed out that I had opened up to her and then closed up again.

That she had noticed it really touched me.  I felt kind of disappointed in myself for closing to a potential mentor/ally/connection, but my pulling back had been a reflex, not a conscious decision; a reflex based on an unexamined trigger.

At that point I probably didn’t have the tools to stay safely connected.  This was also the professor I went to at the late stages of working on my final project and broke down in her office because I needed help and she wasn’t helping me in the way that felt helpful.  I didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed except to say I had no idea how to finish a particular section of my paper/project.  It was the policy piece in the realm of teen pregnancy prevention.  I had been reading about policy but I had virtually no real-world information or experience from which to draw.  This was my final project and I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to talk about changing legislation or influencing public policy.  I didn’t know enough about government; I was clueless about how to talk about it.  And she couldn’t really help me because what I “needed” was for her to write the damn thing for me.  So I broke down right there in her office, and I was either crying or near tears, and I stumbled out, confused, overwhelmed, disconnected, disappointed.

I pulled through and I patched it together, but it was an excruciating moment and I never did connect again with her about this and in the process I learned something about myself that I am reflecting on now.

All this has to do with a physical reflex.  It’s not something that one does to manipulate or punish another person.  It’s not stubbornness or stupidity (I can’t vouch for everyone out there; people can really only know their own experience and motives).  But as we learn about what is physically happening, we can more readily recover, stay in the present moment and make empowered choices.  When we can do this, we can also begin to understand that vulnerable emotions are fairly universal, though the disabling and alienating impulse to hide them is virtually as universal in our modern, Western culture.

If you can identify with this, it is quite possible that you, too, have experienced such a neurological event.  If you have, you are in the right place to learn more about it.  Begin to notice when it happens without judgment.  Notice that it passes – it always does.  Do what you can to learn about how the nervous system works in trauma and under stress.  Pay attention to your own experience.  Eventually you can learn to recognize when it’s happening so that you are more able to stand back and observe your feelings instead of being overwhelmed or hijacked by them.  One day it will even be natural to share vulnerable emotions with others in responsible, attachment-enhancing ways.  Slow and steady.  Gentleness and curiosity will serve you so much better in this realm than perfectionism or high expectations.  And mentors and teachers are to be had if you know where to look.

The emotional work that you are being invited to do has to do with what Bessel van der Kolk and Steve Porges are talking about.  It’s noticing the moments when we do feel safe enough to open and connect (with ourselves and others); it’s acknowledging those moments – the moments when you let yourself be seen and you feel that you can let your guard down and your body physically relaxes.  That is when life turns around and you can operate from a place of presence, true empathy and compassion.  Reach for more of those moments.

The Shoe  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX3BVdONvZA