As I sat with a client at the local public library, deeply concentrating on what was being said, I felt a hand plant on my shoulder. Without a conscious thought about what was happening, I froze. I could not breathe or move as thoughts of panic flooded my mind. My heart began to beat wildly as I felt the surge of cortisol flood my veins. In my mind I imagine this scene followed by me, the bad-ass super-strong fighter, grabbing the person’s hand, standing up, and flipping them onto their back with a flick of my wrist (as they do in all the amazing Kung Fu movies). Yet, here I am, catatonic. Helpless. Fearful.
8 seconds later (yes, only 8 seconds has gone by, my mind moving faster than the speed of light) I hear a familiar soft voice utter, “Hey Caitlin”. Another client of mine interrupts my irrational reaction, enabling me to break out of this fixed, frightened mindstate. “How are you?” she continues.
With as calm of voice as I am able, and a half cocked smile, I reply, “Oh, hi. You scared me.”
Oh the joys of unprocessed trauma.
This is one of many instances when unprocessed traumatic events momentarily take over my nervous system and cause me to become reactive. My on-going mindfulness practice creates pause in these moments, which allows me to act in socially appropriate manners (i.e. not decking a person in the face at the public library), but it does not address and dissolve the root of the problem. For this reason I sought out help in the form of counseling, coaching, meditation and yoga to process the events which lead to this immediate and unnecessary reaction of flight, fight, freeze.
Below are helpful practices, resources, and information I have found on this journey to process traumatic events and situations. Somewhat clinical and cold upon introduction, the process is rich, insightful, and well worth the 5 minutes of scientific explanation.
When an event or experience takes place, the brain encodes the information and sends in through the nervous system. The nervous system processes the information and decides if the experience should be disposed of or stored. This occurs several times throughout the day and takes place during differing states: level, equanimous states, meaning they are neither overly pleasant nor unpleasant, or during distress. The latter of the two creates a trauma response. Trauma, which is held in the tissues of the body, is defined as an event or situation which occurs and is not processed normally.
During the trauma response the brain and body are flooded with cortisol, activating fight, flight, freeze. If this occurs, the events are not processed and recorded as usual, creating gaps in memory. If this happens often the amygdala, a gland regulating chemical distribution in the brain, gets sensitive and reactive to this small signals of danger, fear, or elation, releasing abundant amounts of chemicals when it’s not necessarily needed.
It should be noted that the amygdala cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional distress and when the amygdala is activated, physical symptoms present themselves. This allows one to conclude that to release this trauma one must process it physically, using the body.
To address both the cognitive and physical aspects of trauma, one might find Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy), which supports deactivating the changed thoughts which lead to chemical releases in the brain, along with mindful physical practices, helpful. Mindful physical practices reconnect the present focused mind to the body support the processing of the event. These practices might include yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking, swimming, or any other movement which is done mindfully (meaning paying attention to the movements, on purpose, non-judgmentally and with kindness).
If one is able to watch their thoughts and combat them by coming back to the present moment, checking their truth, rationality, and importance, combined with reconnecting to mind and body, watching the body sensations while processing the trauma, a person can help their mind and body understand it’s not in danger, and therefore can processes the event. Mindfulness practices support this process by means of practicing present minded focus while not in a trauma response, making the present focused awareness more accessible in heightened states. To begin this process, identify the location in the body where the trauma is held, create a visual representation, identify thoughts connected to the sensations, and process with the help of a professional. Below are steps aligned with this process.
Steps to Visualize and Process Trauma
- Outline your body using drawing paper, a journal, or large piece of butcher paper.
- Get colored pencils, markers, paints, oils, or a No. 2 pencil.
- Listen to the the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Body Scan Meditation (optional, but very helpful) https://palousemindfulness.com/meditations/bodyscan.html
- Draw what you feel in your body.
- Write any thoughts connected to the sensations and their location.
- Process with a professional.
The map outlining trauma held in my body, overlaid with the 7 chakras, represented by the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and yellow.
Remember, the process of identifying and processing trauma in the body is ongoing. Utilizing a professional counselor, mentor, yoga teacher, and/or coach is helpful when moving through this process. After processing a certain trauma, do the activity again to reassess progress, supporting the ongoing nature of healing mind and body.
For questions please feel free to email me personally at Caitlin4Wellnes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.
How many instances have you started doing something benign, uninteresting, or unimportant (ie. searching the internet, scrolling through social media, watching an uninteresting show or movie, or reading an article in a trashy magazine about the Royal Families new addition) only to find an hour, an afternoon, or a whole day has slipped you by? Time which is permanently lost due to an unchecked habit or a desire to leave the present moment. This is where suffering begins. Suffering because you didn’t get the relaxation you needed, or your work done, or spend time doing the things you love with the people you love. This suffering more clearly defined as any action taken which is contrary to one’s own belief or value system.
A slue of questions then arise. Do we know our own belief and value system? How do we know they are not from others or society as a whole? How often are we prompted to adopt the value systems of others, values the social construct hands down to us all, such as the pursuit of power, money, and objects over mental, physical, and spiritual wellness?
It takes the dedicated and ongoing practice of defining what we believe and what we value, then taking action to move in that direction. We have to counteract the perpetual pull away from ourselves (the external) and move toward developing the self (internal). This can feel difficult in the beginning, moving upstream in a river. But eventually it gets easier, the water becoming increasingly placid and easy to maneuver as one moves toward the head water.
But how to start or correct ourselves when we find ourselves spending our time acting or participating in activities contrary to our values and beliefs? Below are some questions to ask yourself. If you are serious in wanting to live in accordance to your own beliefs and values, take a few minutes everyday to reflect on these questions and take action (great or small). You’ll be better because of it.
-Deep down, what is important to you?
-What do you want your life to be about?
-What sort of person do you want to be?
-What sort of relationships do you want to build?
-If you weren’t struggling with your feelings or avoiding your fears, what would you channel your time and energy into doing?
If you have questions or comments, writer me or leave a comment below.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: Distress Tolerance
Humans are emotional beings, experiencing an array of emotions throughout the span of a lifetime. Because of this a person will inevitably feel emotional distress and overwhelmed. These emotions present themselves in the form of stress, angst, fear, loneliness, anger, rejection, and/or failure. The practice of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, an evidence-based therapy created by Marsha M. Linehan who is a psychology researcher at the University of Washington, states that one must first accept their emotions, saving themselves from what Buddhist Psychology states is the second dart of blame or shame, then work to temporarily distract and soothe the mind, and finally create a new behavior/ habit of mind to better work through emotional upheavals. Doing this builds one’s distress tolerance allowing them to better handle difficulties that may come their way.
The first step to developing distress tolerance is acceptance. Remember, acceptance does not mean giving up or surrendering. The DI in DIALECTICAL Behavior Therapy means holding two opposing viewpoints together. The first being acceptance. The second, taking deliberate action to change, which is addressed in the final step of this process, creating new coping skills. Rather than give up, one must work on truly allowing what is happening. One strategy for this is to use different phrases, known as self-talk, such as “This is what happened” and “This is where I am now”. This allows a person to state the facts of the situation without blame or shame. This is similar to the naming used in mindfulness meditation which involves labeling thoughts as they arise, for example, “thought” “past” “worry” “projection” “anger” “anxiety” etc. The practice of labeling takes one out of the emotional mind, which during high emotional states can be irrational, and brings one back to the factual/rational mind.
Remember, acceptance takes time. Often, one must pause for a moment (or five) to calm the nervous system before true acceptance can occur. This can be accomplished buy seeking out a tactical and temporary distraction, followed by returning to the practice of acceptance. Often the second time acceptance is addressed a person has enough time and space away from the event to be able to fully embrace the event, situation, or emotion.
Distraction, step two of developing distress tolerance, doesn’t mean avoidance. Distraction refers to taking some time to move the mind away from the emotion, event, or situation to calm the nervous system with the plan of coming back. The time frame can be minutes, hours, or days depending on the situation. With the situations and events which are familiar triggers of emotional upheaval, 30 minutes may be all that’s necessary in terms of distraction. Other strong emotions or unplanned life events may take days, weeks, or months to work through enough to gain the capacity to come back with a rational mind to work through an issue.
Occasionally, if one is not purposeful about using this temporarily, a person can become stuck in the cycle of experiencing uncomfortable emotions and distracting themselves, never coming back to the issue until something else comes along which disturbs their equanimity only to repeat the cycle. This means never growing emotionally and leads to a forever state of poor self-regulation and upheaval. To avoid this cycle, always make a plan to revisit the emotional event. One can do this by writing the event in a journal and coming back to it when there is time to fully contemplate the event and move through the subsequent steps. If the emotion or event feels too big to revisit by oneself, see a professional counselor or therapist to help move through the situation with support.
The first form of distraction covered is for individuals who use self-harm or Self Injurious Behavior (SIB) to move their mind from the distressing thought, event, or emotion by means of cutting, having unsafe sexual encounters, abusing drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or food among many other options. If you are one who tends to self-harm when distressed, utilize a different means to move the mind using harm-reduction. Harm reduction involves using a substitute means of SIB to distract the mind which is less harmful than the familiar self-injurious behavior. Examples of harm-reducing replacement behaviors include squeezing an ice cube, taking a cold shower, writing on body with marker, snapping a rubber band, popping balloons, tearing paper, throwing socks, writing letters to people you hate, holding your breath. The eventual goal is to discontinue self-injurious behavior and instead use positive behavioral replacements, which I go into later in this post.
It is worth noting that stopping or reducing the use of self-injurious behavior can take time and requires conscious effort. I suggest getting in touch with a professional counselor, therapist or coach, a community of supporters such as book clubs, churches, or 12-step programs. You could even recruit friends and family to support you. You deserve to live a happy life free from harm. That means freedom from harming yourself. If you tend to think self-injuring/bullying thoughts use the same method: distract the mind, then follow by soothing yourself. Think of what a loved one would say about you and come up with a new thought and seek out the support of a professional and/or community of supporters.
The second form of distraction I will go over involves positive or pleasurable experiences which naturally elevate serotonin, a mood-boosting hormone released in the brain. Examples include moderate exercise, spending time outdoors, calling or meeting with a friend, listening to music or going to a concert, taking a drive, having safe-sex (with a committed partner preferably), writing letters to people you admire, journaling, meditating, gardening, watching a movie, laughing, cooking, rearranging a room, etc. This distraction should serve two purposes, to soothe the nervous system and expose oneself to supportive and healthy experiences. At this point, it can be helpful to circle back to step one, acceptance, which can lead to a deeper sense of acceptance, clarity and forgiveness.
Now that we have accepted the emotion, thought, event or situation, then successfully distracted the mind temporarily, followed by soothing the nervous system while exposing oneself to new experiences, one is now ready to create a new way of perceiving and reacting to the event. By perceiving and reacting to an event differently one creates a new way of coping with the difficulty.
Creating a new habit is different than simple distraction and diversion. Distraction is temporary and focuses of the short term. Creating a new habit involves setting the intention for permanent life change and is the second aspect of dialectical behavioral therapy, taking deliberate action to change. The motivation behind this deliberate action is important to ponder. One might ask themselves, “Am I creating this habit to get out of a certain uncomfortable thought or feeling? Or am I creating this new habit to support my health and well being over the course of my life?” and, “Do I truly value and enjoy this new habit? Or am I doing it for someone else?”. If the new habit is not in line with one’s values, it will not stand the test of time and will only serve as a detriment to oneself, creating uncomfortable feelings and emotions, starting the vicious cycle over again.
If the deliberate actions taken are directly in line with one’s values, while also seeking to becomes aware of upheavals as a learning opportunity, a persons’ capacity to overcome the negative effects of distress will be limitless. This is not to say emotional distress will not be experienced, but rather that when distress presents itself, a person will not be completely knocked off their equilibrium. An event which once sent a person into an emotional down-spiral lasting three weeks will now only last three days. One which upset a person for an hour or two might come and go in the flash of a thought.
In your pursuit to become better is where life is lived. Enjoy this. Not every living creature has the opportunity to feel or have emotions. They definitely do not always have the ability to look at such emotions and take action to handle themselves in a way which would support their own health and well being long term. Enjoy the experience of being human.
Tell me how this works for you by writing me an email or writing a comment below.
McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance.
How many times have you heard people discuss their use of substances as opening the door to feeling or experiencing a different state of consciousness? A more innovative, unfiltered mind? Maybe you yourself have tried to alter your state with drugs, alcohol, or food to tap into the free flow of imaginative thought, experiencing something you thought was otherworldly or a new layer of consciousness. You are not alone. Been there, done that! …too many times to count.
The memories which most stick out in my mind: smoking marijuana before seeing The Killers perform during their 2005 Hot Fuss Tour in Oklahoma City and later describing how I really “felt the music” to friends, a lame-as-hell comment (judgment…sorry!) I cringe admitting now. Four years later I was filling my wine glass while working on my Bachelor’s Degree to assist in writing papers, claiming the alcohol “let it flow out of my fingertips and onto the page”. The outcome? Mediocre ideas, illogical ordering and sentence structure, and horrendous punctuation. Needless to say my professors were less than impressed and definitely weren’t praising me for my creativity.
In a more broad context, at the societal level we see the justification of mind-altering experiences as a way to heal and touch into (or escape from) our consciousness with the legalization of marijuana, utilizing LSD to cure the maladjusted mind, and Ayahuaska to “open the consciousness to experience the universe”, not to mention the abundant access to alcohol, tobacco, and refined foods which line every super-market, gas station, and eatery across the nation. It seems obvious there are false notions surrounding the use of substances as keys to accessing the inaccessible. I’m reminded of an instance in which Albert Einstein was offered a drink by a colleague, to which he famously declined by stating, “My mind is my laboratory”.
Another great mind who addressed this issue was Rudolf Steiner in this discourse entitled The Origin and Meaning of Wine. In this he states,
“Wine was that which separated man from everything spiritual. He who takes wine cannot arrive at the spiritual. He can know nothing of Manas, Buddhi, Atma. The whole course of humanity is one of descent and ascent…the direction alcohol guided us – downwards”.
If these two great minds don’t make it clear enough, that consciousness is a gift to be cherished and refined, then take it from modern day creatives who are clean and clear minded such as Steve Jobs, Russell Brand, Daniel Radcliff, Lady Gaga, Eric Clapton, Elton John (I could continue but won’t).
Poignant and hilariously the creators of South Park address this issue in the episode entitled Quest for Ratings. In it the main characters “get high” on cough medicine in order to come up with ideas. Upon waking they revisit their ideas which they had written while intoxicated and Cartman describes what is scratched on the page, “squiggly line, circle”. The extent of the “good ideas” I read in my own pre-sobriety writings.
The notion that substances allow one access to more creative states of consciousness is false. In reality, what we are experiencing while altered are glimpses into our subconscious and unconscious mind, not something external and otherworldly at all. Quite the opposite. The experience comes from the mind, and one should develop the mind to the extent where access is unlimited. But doing this takes time and effort which isn’t for those wanting a quick-”fix”, pun intended.
Most clients I see who are recovering from addiction are the most intelligent, hard working individuals I’ve ever met. And I mean that completely and seriously. They know sobriety and habit change take an incredible about of mental energy and effort. There are no days off. Vigilance and longevity are the keys to success. The same effort it takes to change a habit ingrained in our society is the same effort necessary to develop the truly creative consciousness. It isn’t though bypassing the consciousness by use of substances which taps you into a reservoir of creativity. One must utilize the enormity and complexity of the mind to harness ideas. Doing this will lead to clearer, more focused, sustained creative thought, leading to astounding innovations and works of art.
So drop the joint, put down the booze, and start developing your connection to the conscious mind. It will lead you to the depths of the unconscious, a reservoir of creative thought, tapping you into a truly amazing gift; originality.
Ready to stop using alcohol, cigarettes, food, heroine, running as a way to distract, numb, or avoid life?? Work with me!