I think one of the most insidious effects of trauma is the inability to take actions that lead us where we really want to go. It’s referred to as having a sense of “agency” – the ability to freely move toward what we want. The mind knows exactly what we would like to do, but the body, the oomph, the drive, the energy we need to execute the plan, just isn’t there. I mean, not in a really sustainable, consistent way. We can force things for awhile, but it takes so much energy to do that that we can’t keep it up.
I say insidious, because it’s so prevalent, and also that we don’t (yet) identify the underlying cause, which is nervous system dysregulation or traumatic stress. The number of procrastination books out there, alone, is a testament to this. And we have many labels for this inability to act: motivation issues, laziness, anxiety, depression, or incompetence, if not procrastination. Our responses to it include everything from problem solving techniques and self help books, to positive psychology, crystals and essential oils. There are boot camps and coaching, and motivational talks. And when we exhaust the list without success, we can always find a doctor willing to medicate it.
Agency is the power to take control of our lives. Being chronically unable to take charge of our own lives comes from some internalized experience that to do so is unsafe. At some point in our lives, the survival strategy must have included suppression of that impulse. Somewhere our nervous system learned it was better to not act…basically, to freeze, in some particular instance, or maybe a lot of the time…and that learning is still deep within us, and thwarts our best efforts at change and movement toward our most authentic desires. Maybe we tried to act to protect ourselves, but despite our best efforts, something hit us too fast, and we didn’t have time to respond. The message the nervous system internalized is “I can’t protect myself”, or “I failed to protect myself” or “I need to keep trying to protect myself”. No amount of intelligent pontificating can fully compensate for the disabled life energy that is stuck in one of these nervous system patterns. It is not a “thinking problem”. Thought won’t get you out of the pattern. Most people seek help not because they don’t know what to do, but because they feel a conflict about it, usually a conflict between the impulse in the mind (“want to”) and that of the body (“can’t/don’t do it”).
You might ask, how does this happen? The nervous system can learn this response from many experiences in life: repeated invalidation when we’re young, multiple life events in a row with no time to process, a really big event like surgery or auto accident, other big losses, or long term continuous stressor(s). In all of these cases, a person’s nervous system encounters something it perceived as too big or fast or unrelenting to defend against, and likely did not have enough internal or external support to process that, the nervous system holds the message, “I was unable to defend myself, and it’s still dangerous, and I must keep trying to defend myself.” It holds the message in various forms of bound up energy originating from the impulse to act on one’s own behalf for protection that was never able to be completed, such as fight or flight.
This can tie up an enormous amount of energy in the system, impacting the ability to experience joy, connection, and the expression of our life force in all of its forms, including work, play, creativity and ironically, self-protection. Like a computer program open and running, too many of these experiences eventually bog down the whole system and it grinds to a halt. We can be hyper alert, pessimistic, or feel depressed, anxious, panicky, without purpose, missing meaning, or empty. There are so many different ways this blocked protective energy can express in the form of symptoms, it’s difficult to name them all. “Stuck”, “painfully blocked”, “not really living”, “just surviving”, is the way many of my clients describe it.
What can be done? Addressing the trauma component somatically can dramatically shift the autonomic nervous system by completing the incomplete impulses to protect self. Engaging in this process is a huge step that usually comes at the price of exhaustion…we’ve tried everything, and this Somatic Experiencing stuff seems silly and weird, but what have we got to lose at this point? It’s difficult to reach this point…admitting we can’t do it alone. We have a lot of stigma attached to identifying trauma, and also to seeking assistance for it. And there’s a bit of commitment involved – patience, time, and money. The experiences that were of longer duration are going to take longer to unwind than single or shorter duration events. This can seem daunting, but there’s a gradual, but significant and stable ongoing change that happens for the longer term work. I’ve never had quite the same experience with regular talk therapy. It can be incredibly satisfying to experience the getting unstuck and gradually becoming more empowered from a place that feels suprisingly natural and not forced. One discovers that true agency is one’s birthright, and not something got at solely by trying to change our thinking.
What if I’m not ready, or feel an aversion to self-identifying as having trauma? You can think of it as traumatic stress, or nervous system dysregulation, if that helps. A mindfulness practice can also be very supportive for noticing the patterns and separating out the past from present entwined in our responses to life. It can help us contact the truth of our experience. Mindfulness and meditation alone don’t generally fully resolve these learned patterns, but do make them ever so clear and obvious. Being more conscious to them gives us a bit more choice then we may have had before, which alone is still really helpful. In therapy, mindfulness can support the tracking with attention, our experience in the present moment for clues to what is needed for completion, be it movement, emotion, or fully sensing the experience of something inside.
Last but not least, we want to be kind to ourselves in this process, wherever we are in it. Everyone has stuff. If someone is annoying as heck and everybody but them knows it…that’s their stuff getting in the way. If you’re annoyed all the time, and no one else seems to be, then that’s your stuff at work. Self compassion means seeking support and being a support to ourselves when needed. Self compassion is something that also seems to occur naturally as an outcome of Somatic Experiencing, but there can also be great benefit from practices that cultivate self compassion, as well as those that cultivate gratitude. These practices make an excellent complement to somatic therapy because they cultivate friendliness toward self, and build the brain’s ability to notice the positive more organically. I tell people if they want to save some money, they can work on these pieces – mindfulness, self compassion, and gratitude – outside of session, because these activities support the movement toward trauma renegotiation and healthy nervous system regulation. Self compassion means having moments of intentionally putting down the whip or whatever we’re using to force ourself through our days, and being curious about another way to be. There is another way to be.
I’ve seen multiple posts and articles recently bashing mindfulness and meditation as misleading, fads, or even as dangerous. There is some truth in these articles, but I also think some of it amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is meditation a good or bad thing? As my policy professor Dr. Mary Marvel was fond of saying when someone would ask her stance on a particular topic, “It depends.”
What I think some take issue with is the way that meditation can be offered as an escape, and is often sold as a panacea to pretty much whatever might ail us.
For trauma therapists trained in psychobiological dynamics, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that while mindfulness can be helpful, practice can sometimes prevent people from getting help because they have the mistaken impression that meditation can get rid of their trauma. Sometimes the practices themselves can even interfere with trauma treatment because of the strongly held desire to avoid feeling difficult emotions, and which meditation and mindfulness practices can assist in doing. Sometimes people just trade a less successful form of control, for a more successful one (meditation practice).
These misunderstandings arise due to multiple issues: teachings with nonwestern cultural assumptions embedded in their core, misinterpretations of intent or meaning by students, egoic motivations of teachers that encourages students’ dependence, and the natural human response to pain – avoidance. There is a part of us which can become addicted to feeling good and prefers practices and interpretations that infer or overtly teach that we can successfully do this (bypass experience/pain) indefinitely, or that anything we think or feel that we don’t like is total BS.
I teach meditation in a style that aligns with teachers I feel are very clear and open about the pitfalls of spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation. I acknowledge the vast health benefits confirmed by research, and the different kinds of meditation practices, as well as the difficulty and challenges that may arise by taking them out of their contextual underpinnings. I feel a responsibility to make sure people know that they may feel better for a time, and then worse. People can have intense shifts and realizations, but without the internal or external support for the newness, some of them may experience intense and confusing mental health and/or personal consequences (lost jobs, family, friends) afterward. Some people have partial awakenings that make it easier for them to inflict harm to others if they don’t have good impulse control, as in narcissistic individuals (to my great sadness, I once helped someone with such a shift, before realizing they would be trampling others so brutally afterward).
Even if someone can overcome the allure of thinking meditation is a cure all and attempt to address their history with therapy, the work can be difficult if they can’t suspend rigid breath, attention, or witnessing, distancing or other practices in session, preferring these instead of tracking the unfolding of their physical and emotional experience in the moment. On the flip side, mindfulness can also be incredibly helpful and supportive in trauma and therapy work, when it increases the ability to observe and stay with one’s unfolding experience with the right amount of dispassion and friendliness toward self. This was true for me…due to my practice I could hold an awareness that was very helpful to the process and accelerated the trauma work. It made it easier to tolerate the discomfort inherent in the process, and therefore, to continue through the ups and downs. It feels kind of like an awareness of awareness. (I think that being able to sustain complete honesty with myself about my experiences during the process was also pretty helpful.)
I find that trauma resolution and spiritual paths start to converge at a certain point, and that they are both important. There’s no linear path to point to, though. There are parts that a lot of people share experiences of, that I’ve related in previous posts, and may revisit with another post soon.
In general, I’d have to say that with the right guidance and context, mindfulness and/or meditation practices can be immensely helpful, regardless of whether a person ever seeks assistance for trauma resolution. And, if there was one myth I could debunk about mindfulness/meditation/spiritual seeking/enlightenment, it would be that there is ever a one-and-done awakening event that wipes out all of your conditioning in a single fell swoop. Human physiology just doesn’t work that way, and we’re not just infinite spaciousness, but also human BEINGS. I don’t think meditation or mindfulness is a false bill of goods, but I don’t like the way I see it packaged sometimes: “you won’t have to change the way you live your life much, and you can just do it even better!”
Yeah…no. If you persist in the path, it could all change. No way to know. If that feels like a deterrent, then maybe just wait. Or go to therapy. If it doesn’t scare you away, then bon voyage!
I’m happy to answer any questions on this topic. I didn’t have the resource I provide at the time when I needed it, and I enjoy being able to help in that way.
A friend recently reminded me how valuable the practice of conscious gratitude listing is, and I noticed the little burst in my heart when I read her list, so I wanted to share my list of gratitudes for this moment, on the off chance some of you might have a little burst also:
– The bits of color in the yard that are just about to pop, like the lavender bushes all covered with buds swaying in the wind today atop long skinny stems, the raspberries starting to turn yellow.
-The one, red rose in full bloom that the deer missed.
-My friend Karen who held amazing space for me today to do a bit of energy work that turned out to be a pretty big bit.
-The quiet outside in the backyard, aside from the wind, and the sunny warmth that isn’t too hot, as I try to stay with this feeling of being held and out of thinking, while the newness of the recent work integrates.
-The awesome mixed berry jam from 2013 I found hiding in the bottom of my freezer a couple days ago, and that went on my waffle today.
-My husband who says the sweetest things that turn my knees to rubber, and is so generous, kind, supportive and real, who likes most of what I cook and doesn’t mind doing absolutely nothing with me.
-The friend I had lunch with last week who still am feeling the depth of appreciation for…his authenticity and presence, and his hugs, blow me away.
-Watching the treetops sway against clouds and blue sky.
-My lovely Somatic Experiencing community and other members of my healing tribe, near and afar, who continue to make me feel a belonging I never thought possible.
-Bare feet on the solid concrete ground as I type this, and the bit of time I have to do it.
-The tasty volunteer lettuce from the garden that made up my dinner last night.
-That people are willing to pay me to help them, and watching them heal.
-The realization in my work today that I am not only neither separate nor alone, but that I don’t even have to go seek out the support or solutions…they are chasing me, supporting me, even when I can’t feel it.
-The hummingbird feeder and its occasional visitors.
-That my process keeps unfolding in a gradual way that allows me to keep working and functioning and appreciating each step, rather that some giant all-in-one shift that destabilizes me and requires my entire being and attention to manage the fallout (which is what my ego keeps imagining has to happen – probably because it likes drama, I’m guessing).
-That what I truly am never stops seeking me, and that every opening leads to another that seems just as marvelous and all-encompassing as the last, and the excitement around it all.
I’ve had so many opportunities lately to contemplate this disease of workaholism that American culture seems to universally encourage through reward, punishment, and covert and overt shaming messages.
Having to compress my schedule a bit recently to make this year’s training and travel goals possible has really brought the issue of doing and overdoing to the forefront. I find the schedule has been heavy at times, but doable, and is definitely easier if I am disciplined in my self care. I’m curious about why I always hover at the edge of the limits of what I can accomplish, instead of comfortably within them.
I also recently spent a week helping out a loved one who was recovering from major surgery, but who still could not comfortably commit to reasonable restrictions, or to intentional rest. Cycles of discomfort, fatigue from overdoing, and then pain and frustration were the norm. It seems that the early messages about work were so internalized and misinterpreted as to make time off, no matter the reason, an extremely uncomfortable, guilt-laden ordeal. And it sounds as if the trend of overdoing continues for this person, now over a month out from surgery.
I’ve struggled mightily with the stigma around my own limited capacity over the years due to my ptsd, and find I continue to question how much is the right amount of doing for me, and still sometimes compare myself to what others appear to be able to do, even though I logically understand this is a meaningless exercise. As I continuously do my own recovery work, I have more and more capacity, and genuine excitement and motivation to be of more service in the world. And as soon as I make a gain in capacity, I seem to immediately fill it up with doing, to the point where I feel just as stretched and stressed as I was at the previous level.
As I complete day 2 of biodynamic cranialsacral training, which is all about healing through being rather than doing, I sit with this question: What is the right amount of doing or activity in my life? How can I know when it is the right amount?
What’s emerging so far is the following:
1) My capacity is going to depend on multiple factors:
- my living conditions, like the amount of noise, clutter, nature, safety, and comfort my homespace provides
- the quality of my self care, like sleep, diet, exercise, meditation practice, time in nature, and the ability to say no to what I don’t want to do
- my support system, or more specifically, the perceived amount and quality of support I have from pets and community resources, as well as other humans
- my nervous system capacity, which, as a general functional assessment, is variable, but also fairly reliable and affected by the amount of remaining unresolved traumatic stress. Sometimes I’m going to have a ton of energy, and other times I’m going to feel the need to cut back
- the type of activity I’m doing matters. Extroverted activities take more energy for me, and introverted activities can be more energizing, as can outdoor and certain healing activities.
- other factors outside my control, such as illness, and other serious losses or demands on my energy supply
2) And then the million dollar question…where do I actively set the limit on the amount of activity, or specifically, work activity?
- exhaustion cannot be the upper limit. It is unsustainable and feels shitty to always be just at the edge of collapse. There has to be some capacity left at the end of the day/week/month so massive recovery periods aren’t necessary and random mishaps and pileups of circumstances don’t create deficit conditions that require excessive downtime
- there’s probably a lower limit, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully experienced it because I frequently can’t stop judging myself for how I spend free time when there’s plenty of it. I think it probably reminds me of the shame of depression-related shutdowns from the past
- I’d like to be able to use how I feel in the moment as my guide, but it’s tricky because of the delayed response. It has to be a continuous checking process, keeping in mind the previous weeks’ energy expenditures, and the commitments in the next day, week, month, and months ahead
- Less self-judgment is probably helpful, cuz let’s face it, when is self-judgment ever helpful? It just mucks things up and gets in the way
- in the end, it seems to keep coming back to a question – where is the motivation for the doing coming from? Is it emerging from the discomfort of just being? Is it compulsive doing to avoid silence or truth? Is it coming from the addiction to ego gratification? Is it learned and taken for granted as truth? Is it who I think I am, or who I am trying to be or not be?
I had the idea recently that rather than committing to staying below capacity as a rule, that I could try intentionally scheduling some ideal weeks (just right – easy peasy), and practicing being conscious and present to whatever discomfort arises, both in the saying no, and in the slowing down and having more time and feeling better. It would be an experiment.
I am also getting a real understanding, for the first time in my life, of what it means to have boundaries with self. It’s the kind of self-discipline that feels firmly rooted in positive self-regard. Self-discipline always seemed like such a downer idea to me in the past; an image of hard work and thankless drudgery. Now it’s starting to feel like safety, and a solid home base to operate from! What a surprise! The care for self makes all the difference. I think this will likely be true for this whole exploration…more self-love will only make it all easier. The alternative, overriding and exhaustion, is really just self-violence.
I’d love to hear about YOUR experiment around levels of doing and nondoing…drop me a line!
For some people, dairy is a diet staple. My husband, for instance, probably doesn’t go a day without it. There are governmental dietary recommendations calling it a major food group, and health food claims from warm, fuzzy cow ads promoting its friendliness as a food.
One of my most recent experiments has been to seriously take dairy out of my diet. I have noticed for my whole life the stuffy nose, swollen eyes, itchy skin, headache, brain fog, annoying cough, belly pain, reflux and reduced transit time whenever I consume dairy. As if this weren’t enough (and it wasn’t, because I still ate it!), I also have long suspected mood alterations, i.e.: startlingly severe depression, weeping, and lethargy related to my dairy consumption.
I had a chance to test out this theory by strictly avoiding dairy for the last 6 months, when some of my inflammation markers from recent blood tests kept coming back high in recent years, appearing like I’m still eating gluten, even though I’ve become sort of a pro at strict gluten avoidance, having had about 15 yrs worth of practice. Then I relaxed the dairy avoidance to have an anniversary dinner last Saturday night. One night. Not whole hog. Just sprinkles of feta on my salad, a little bit of parmesan on the pasta, a little bit of cream in the coffee. And what happened was quite startling.
The next day, I was exhausted. Felt like the worst hangover in over a decade. So tired I literally could not get up off the couch until after 3pm. And weepy and weird for the rest of the day; every tiny thing, or really nothing, basically sent me into tears or nearly so. I felt illogically lonely and depressed. It took about 36 hours to regain some sense of normalcy. I think about how familiar this experience has been my entire life, and how it fades away whenever I avoid dairy (I’ve already been avoiding gluten for a long time, and things did get better, but not completely. I just kept eating dairy and putting up with the random feelings of unwellness, vaguely aware of the probable cause.)
Psychiatrists who have discovered this dairy-mental health link are starting to write about it, and it’s kind of mind blowing. It makes me wonder how many of my clients who cannot get satisfying results from their anti-depressants may be having this reaction to dairy, or to gluten, or both. I have experienced it from both. It’s a stupefyingly random feeling of chronic and intense mood instability that seems without cause.
Having experienced this instability and the relief that dairy and gluten avoidance brings, I frequently think it could be a game-changer for many of my clients. It is so dramatic it defies description. Not many want to consider such a change. When it was first suggested to me in my 20s I was adamant. Give up bread and ice cream? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! I had to become ill, depressed, choking on my own phlegm, gasping for air, and trying to override fatigue to do my running workouts, before I started to seriously wonder what was going on.
I know it’s rough to first encounter the idea of dietary restrictions, but people do it every day. Diabetics do it. People with anaphylactic peanut and other allergies do it. HH the Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying he avoids milk because it doesn’t like him. Lactose intolerant people manage avoidance just f. There’s been plenty of press for decades about the lack of evidence for dairy as health food, and plenty of evidence of the dangers. More recently:
Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan’s take on diet and depression. And there are plenty of other psychiatrists taking notice of this phenomenon.
This is not a thing that is easy to do in the beginning, avoiding dairy and gluten. But if you try it (4 days to a week is probably sufficient to tell whether you feel different) and discover your mood and energy improve, it sure is a lot easier to work with the deprivation feelings than constant pervasive darkness of chronic depression and anxiety caused by gluten and dairy intolerance. The deprivation feelings are real, and can be easily worked with. And no, this is not a substitute for addressing trauma, but it can be the difference between being able to get up and go to work in the morning, and not. There’s so much more help and information out there now than when I was starting out.
Other bright spots in the journey that included times where I wandered around the kitchen bawling and hungry: I learned how to cook, and started to read food labels. Until then I had no idea how much chemical crap I had been ingesting. The gluten free prepared foods were so awful at that time, I was determined to have safe food that tasted good. I learned how to appreciate, and then developed a taste for, real honest-to-goodness food. Stuff we were meant to eat. Gardening grew out of that, and then an increased feeling of connection to the earth and concern for the care of it came even more into focus. I am a more whole person than I ever was, since learning I must avoid dairy and gluten.
It’s not that difficult a task when it feels this darn good.
I write this, humbled, having failed in my commitment to weekly posts. I hope to make them up to you this week, and share everything I’ve been learning in the whirlwind that has been the past few weeks.
One thing that has made writing difficult recently is that I am reading Kathryn Schulz’ book Being Wrong. It’s made me hesitant to be certain of anything I might want to recommend to others, or even for myself. It’s made me wonder about things I have ever recommended to anyone in the past. It leaves me wanting to be more thoughtful about the way I talk about things, and reconsidering the purpose and value of everything I share.
“Our sense of certainty is kindled by the feeling of knowing – that inner sensation that something just is…” and we, by virtue of the need for reference points to function as human beings, cannot ever believe that our knowing does not match up to reality. There is the logical necessity, captured by what she calls the Cuz It’s True Constraint, of thinking that our beliefs are grounded in the facts, not to mention the egoic and socially constructed aversions to wrongness and error that equate it with incompetence at best or evil, at worst. Many experiments have been conducted to test this rule (actually called the First Person Constraint on Doxastic Explanation) and the descriptions of the results are mindblowing. I highly recommend the book, or at least watch the TED talk.
In Being Wrong, Schulz convincingly explains why knowledge is “a bankrupt category and that the feeling of knowing is not a reliable indicator of accuracy.” I’ll be getting to the hopeful parts of the book soon in my reading, that explain how uncertainty and being wrong is intimately connected to creativity, imagination, and connection.
I have to admit, that I, in theory, already had the understanding of the lack of an absolute truth before reading this book, and recent political and world events have further challenged my understanding and created a lot of discomfort. This book is ripping away any last vestiges of sacred ground of ‘knowing’ I have been operating from. I have to admit that it’s possible that everything I think I know or will ever think I know, is likely to sooner or later be shifted or changed or abandoned as just plain wrong.
One of the most recent examples of this is having to do with something called exposure therapy. In my professional career I first thought it was good logical theory, then came to believe it was stupid, cruel and retraumatizing practice, and now in a recent training, it’s been reframed and I’m learning ways to tailor it that could make it incredibly effective and powerful tool. I am at once incredulous and sheepishly curious. How can something I was so certainly against, be actually valuable? Can anything ever be certain again?
Upon this new discovery, I notice the drama queen that is egoic consciousness having a fit and wanting to say, “Screw it, then. If nothing is real, who cares? What’s the point of doing anything, then, if I can’t know anything for certain, and it’s probably going to be wrong and embarrass me later? How can I ever know the right way to help anyone?”
And there’s another part, the small still voice, that says, “You do the best you can. Hold all of your beliefs lightly. Be gentle with others and yourself, and never assume you really know. Be with yourself and others in appreciating every moment of the journey exactly as it is.” And the more I contemplate this way of being, the more I can feel the softening of my armor, and the greater ease toward self and the world that feels like the inevitable result. If I can never know, then everything becomes possible – a wide open world of wonder.
It’s interesting how we always think we know – the way I thought I knew what it means to rest in groundlessness, free of assumption or the constraints of conceptualization – and then discover what it really means, after the rug is pulled out from under me. I rest in the great relief of this new understanding, and try to hold it lightly, knowing there will eventually be another, wider understanding that makes this one later seem rudimentary and obtuse.
For now, I will enjoy this new experience of gentleness, of tenderness, of sudden softness toward everything, and both notice how long my heart has yearned for this understanding, and marvel at the strange and wonderful way it was finally revealed.