As Dr. Phillips mentioned in the last post, trauma is considered the experience of something that happens too much, something too soon, or something too fast. Considering the last year of our shared pandemic experience, it seems reasonable to consider that we might all have had something unexpected to navigate. Perhaps we were also already working to navigate other charged circumstances that had happened before. Or maybe during this bigger life event, we had a number of other unexpected life events happen that tested the limits of our coping. Whatever is true for you and your system, you are still here. The beauty of the human nervous system is that it is wired for survival. 

 

Considering that trauma does not reside in the event, but in the body, we can then consider that trauma healing becomes a journey with the body. By inviting movement into our awareness, we can invite the wisdom of the body—the nervous system—into a process of release and recovery, deepening our capacity to navigate uncertainty. The goal of nervous system regulation is to support a space of optimal responding that is congruent with the current environment, meaning that the response may not always be a state of calm. 

 

One way to consider being in a state of overwhelm is to consider that we have lost contact with our internal observer. The internal observer is the element of awareness that supports our system of engagement. By inviting this internal resource back into the conversation of our experience, we can begin to notice our body, or images of ourselves, or our external environment in a different way; perhaps even inviting space for cycles of distress activation to find a place of resolution or completion. 

 

Let’s play with this a little bit.. 

 

Starting where you are, maybe you want to be reclined, seated, or find a place to stand. As we begin to play with some movement, be curious. Notice what might be happening in your sensation experience. Consider if this experience might be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If you find the sensation unpleasant, be curious what happens if you might change your position slightly, slow down or speed up. 

 

If you are reclined, allow your body to softly land against the support that is underneath. Begin to notice the places of contact between your body and what is supporting you. Working from the bottom up, begin to notice the soles of your feet. Notice the curling and stretching of your toes, feel the muscles of your feet. Be curious if your ankles need to move and flex. Allow your attention to travel up your lower legs, knees, and upper legs; flexing and releasing these muscle areas. Notice your hip joints and hips. Begin to notice your lower back, mid back, and upper back. Be curious if you can soften what might be tensing. Notice your abdominal area and soft organs underneath your rib cage. Experience the movement of your breathing. Notice where your breath lands in your body. Allow your attention to travel to your shoulders and chest, perhaps lifting shoulders, up, back, and down. Notice the muscles of your upper arms, elbows, and lower arms; flexing and releasing. Notice your wrists, hands, and fingers. Feel the muscles of your hands. Allow your attention to travel to your neck and jaw. Allow your jaw to move gently side to side. Release the tongue from the roof of your mouth. Soften your eyes and forehead. Allow your head to be supported, and rest. Notice what is different with your sensation, thought, feeling, or image experience. Consider if this is what you need.

 

If you are seated, begin to notice the places your body makes contact with any supports. Perhaps this is the floor or the object in which you are seated. Consider if you need to make any small or large adjustments to allow your body to feel a greater sense of ease. From here, bring awareness to your abdominal area, lift your shoulders up, back, and down. Allow your arms to fall where they may, hands can be resting in your lap, on your thighs or knees. Beginning from the lowest place, scan over your body from feet to crown, and consider what your system needs here. Perhaps this is enough. Perhaps you are noticing a desire to move. As you continue to notice your body being supported, begin to open and close your hands. Notice how your muscles feel as they move in opposite directions. Notice if any other gestures or movements have started or are wanting to happen. Consider allowing those gestures to happen. Once you have given your system what it might need, take an easy, full breath, and then rest. Notice what is different in your sensation, thought, feeling, or image experience. Perhaps this is enough; consider how you will know.   

 

If you are standing, place your feet hip width apart; hip width is the distance of two tight fists between your feet. Leaving a slight bend in your knees, begin to lengthen through your legs, chest, and spine. Bring awareness to your abdominal area, lift your shoulders up, back, and down. Allow your arms to fall to your sides and extend through the crown of your head. Keeping your feet where they are, begin to invite some sway into your knees and arms. Perhaps you continue in this way. Perhaps you bring more swaying motion with your arms, moving in a way that brings your forward hand to your opposite hip and reverse, like a washing machine. Notice if your system is okay here, or if you might want to speed up or slow down. Once you have given your system what it might need, begin to slow your motions until you have returned to a place of stillness. Allow a moment of integration to consider what information you are receiving from your body. Notice what is different in your sensation, thought, feeling, or image experience.  Consider if that can be okay. 

 

Whatever you have chosen for your system today, trust that you have given yourself what you have needed. You are both a witness and protector of your own system.

One year ago, our lives were drastically changed. What we now know as “everyday life” was said to be a two-week process in order to flatten the curve. A year later, we are still living in this very challenging situation. It has tested us in ways we could not imagine. It has tested our mental health, physical health, emotional health, financial health, relational health and our community health. If you are like me, you are exhausted. In our practice we are seeing more and more people seeking counseling and other mental health services to help them deal with this state of overwhelm.

Anniversaries can be moments of celebration but they can also be moments of painful remembrance. As we mark one year we find that we are taxed by what all the past year has brought us. If you feel burned out it is because you should. The pandemic has overwhelmed all of our capacities in different ways. You may find that you are experiencing depression and anxiety in ways you have not experienced in the past and seem stuck and unable to move out of those states. You may be struggling with issues related to food or alcohol and find that you are turning to more dysfunctional means to cope. Again, this is what so many others have been struggling with.

Feeling stuck is often a normal trauma response. Many of us have experienced various levels of “stuckness” over the past year. Trauma can be defined as too much; something that happens too soon, or happens too fast. When something is too much, we are not able to integrate the experience and respond with our normal coping mechanisms. It is more intensity than what the nervous system can handle. Too much fear, too much uncertainty, too much disconnection. It goes beyond what we have the capacity to manage and we don’t have access to enough resources or connection to help us stabilize and regulate. This is exactly what has happened for so many over the past year.

If you have felt stuck or frozen it is completely normal. We have all felt this in various degrees over the past year. We can help to mobilize these feelings and help our nervous system rebound and grow in resilience even in this situation. Take time to notice what you feel. Talk to someone. Move. Reach out for help. Find a therapist. Gentle movements are one of the best ways to try and help our system mobilize out of freeze or “stuckness”.

One constant in life is that we are faced with the unexpected time and time again. At times the unexpected is in the form of a beautiful gift you did not expect, a wonderful gesture from a friend, the chance meeting of someone who will be in your life for a long time. However, we also are deeply aware that the unexpected also brings painful visitors; being let go from a job, the loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, even a pandemic. These life crises happen to all of us. How well we do in navigating when we are faced with the unexpected often comes down to a concept known as resilience.

Resilience is often defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, significant sources of stress, relationship challenges, illness, tragedy, or trauma. Some have defined resilience as our ability to bounce back after these types of traumas. Resilience helps us to come out of this sense of “stuckness”. One of the most encouraging aspects of resilience is that we can actually work on it.

As we are at the year mark of the pandemic, we notice the difficulty of the past year and we also notice the ways we could be moving into change and are seeing hope. If you are noticing that you have been struggling with feeling stuck or frozen then you are like so many who are navigating this time. There are ways to help yourself move out of freeze and into more resilience. We are starting a three-part blog series focusing on just that. One of our therapists, Lisa Hunt will write about how movement can help us deepen our resilience and come into more flexibility in our nervous systems. Then we will have a post by another one of our therapists, Savanna Scott, focusing on how yoga can help children navigate these same issues. Children of course throughout the pandemic are struggling with the same issues as adults and are just as overwhelmed.

Let’s focus on what can help. We have several therapists on staff who specialize in helping navigate trauma and trauma reactions, helping to grow resilience and come out of overwhelm or shut down. Please let us know if we can be of assistance.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jellaludin Rumi

It is very difficult to think about welcoming all guests when some of them are deeply painful, confusing, life altering, and challenging. We have been in a state now for several months where we have guests in our home that we never dreamed of, the unexpected and the uninvited. We have a pandemic, fear, confusion, and transition. We have violence, fear, protesting, inequality, rage, courage, and the hope of change. All of these are visiting at the same time. If you are like me you are not sure that your house has enough rooms to manage all of these unexpected guests. Could it even be possible that all of this is coming to guide us to something greater, some joy, some change?

A few years ago, I started a new trauma training called Somatic Experiencing. In that training I heard a new word related to our ability to manage states of distress, emotions and physical sensations. The word is capacity. I had never thought of that word before as it relates to me personally. I had heard capacity used related to how much your refrigerator could hold for example or how many people an auditorium could handle at one time but never how much I could manage effectively within myself at a certain time. Now that I know the word in that way I find myself using it all of the time. It actually makes so much sense. My whole system; body, soul, mind, and heart are a container much like a refrigerator or an auditorium. I too have boundaries of space and limitations. Recently my husband cleaned out the refrigerator. This is a dreaded task in our household. You never know what you are going to find. Yet it is completely necessary because each time we returned from the grocery store we had more and more trouble fitting in the new because we just had not cleaned out the old. We were pushing the capacity of our fridge, and who really needs 5 jars of pickles. Literally, 5 jars. Apparently, we just kept buying pickles because one jar would get lost in the back behind the milk and the juice and another on a separate shelf behind the eggs and the containers of left overs from 3 weeks ago. At times you have to clean out the junk to make room for the new. We are not too different from this.

Capacity simply means, “the maximum amount that something can contain.” I am sure that if you are like me you know what it feels like internally when you are beyond your capacity. You have maxed out on what you can contain in a healthy way. The tricky part is, we all have different capacities. Right now, many of us are stretched in ways we never imagined. Our capacities are at their brink. Some of us have spilled over, our capacity overwhelmed and now feel that it is all just too much. This is not something to be ashamed of, it is very normal. At times, things are just too much, beyond our capacity. In these times, we need more help. We need more simplicity and more self-care. We need to slow down and attend to our boundaries, emotions, relationships, and our bodies. As we attend to these they speak to us and let us know how we can care for ourselves in the moment.

By talking about refrigerators and auditoriums I absolutely do not want to trivialize or minimize the enormous stress on our capacity as individuals, families, communities, and countries at this time. We have exploded outside our ability to manage and are currently in a state of complete chaos and stress. It is one thing when our refrigerator exceeds its capacity and another thing all together when it is the world in which we live on a daily basis. It is terrifying and can feel totally out of control.

In her book, “Rising Strong” Dr. Brene Brown discusses resilience and stories from people who have shared their experiences in times of extreme stress, their stories of being brave and stories of falling and learning to get back up states that a commonality among these people is that “They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.” She later states, “The process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.” This is a challenging process but it is necessary. We are in the midst of an extremely challenging time and it is testing all of us. How will we Rise Strong? We start today with a simple invitation.

Invite the guests. Listen. Learn. Allow the sorrow and allow the joy. These are all guests. They all have lessons to teach us. As we learn we heal. We grow and we expand. When the guests of this time leave we have expanded capacity if we choose. This capacity allows for more. Right now. Right here. It matters. We invite these guests. The ignored. The rage. The sorrow. The pain. The Beauty. The Strength. These are all guests who need to come and stay awhile in our guest house. We need to learn. We need to imagine. We tear away what was old so that something new can arrive. At times this comes in violent ways. Is it terrifying? Yes, at times. Change does not come easily for most of us. It can be painful. Yet, it is necessary. When we can learn to accept all of the guests we expand our capacity and our resilience. Reach out and get help if you need it. We all share in this process of humanity. You are not alone.

As I was writing about my reflections from the therapy room in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found that another article was already brewing in my mind about more practical suggestions and tangible resources that could be helpful. So here it is.

…there was always a way to get through a difficulty. If you just keep swimming, you’ll find your way. And when your brain wants to give up because there’s no land in sight, you keep swimming, not because you’re certain swimming will take you where you want to go, but to prove to yourself that you can still swim.

― Emily Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

I’ve found myself coming back to one of my very favorite book recommendations several times over the past couple of weeks- Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. I’ve used a few of their quotes throughout that seem to apply especially well to what I’d like to share here. If you currently have the capacity to do so, I would highly recommend listening to this on audiobook, as the authors do an excellent job of narrating it.

The good news is that stress is not the problem. The problem is that the strategies that deal with stressors have almost no relationship to the strategies that deal with the physiological reactions our bodies have to those stressors. To be “well” is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.

― Emily Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

When I first outlined my thoughts for this article, I had separated it into two or three different practical ideas that could help us all cope more effectively with this crisis. Then, I realized, there was really only one point I was trying to make: we need to move. 

No, I don’t only mean exercise, per se (though, that isn’t a bad idea). Perhaps even more aptly, we need to mobilize. Since my passion, and much of my nerdom, is related to the healing of trauma and the effects of adversity, some of this idea comes from what I’ve learned working as a trauma therapist. Without digging too deep into theory here, I will do my best to summarize, and perhaps oversimplify for the sake of brevity, what we know about the nervous system and traumatic stress as it applies to what we’re going through right now.

Some brilliant leaders in the trauma therapy world, like Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Stephen Porges, and Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, have helped us realize that when we experience stress and trauma, we must look to the body to both understand what’s happening and know how to intervene most effectively. We know that the body’s number one goal is to survive at all costs. So what happens when our biology detects that there is a threat in our environment, whether seen, like a bear, or unseen, like a novel virus? Immediately, it prepares us to run or fight, whichever seems most likely to help us survive. What many of us don’t realize is that this energy must be “spent.” This mobilizing energy doesn’t seep out of our pores or simply dissolve with time. When we’re unable to mobilize, as our bodies prepared us to, or instead go into a freeze or shutdown mode, this leftover energy can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. This can result in a myriad of symptoms like anxiety, depression/shutdown, illness/poor immune function, irritability, brain fog, PTSD, etc. What’s especially tricky about unseen threats, like the one we’re experiencing now, is that we’re less able to react organically to allow this energy to move through, as we would automatically run from a bear or instinctually slam on our brakes to avoid a car accident. This means we simply have to be more intentional and mindful of what to do to help this energy move its way out of our system.

So my main encouragement over the past couple of weeks has been to find a way to mobilize. Find a way to mobilize the energy that our bodies naturally produce in response to any kind of threat. This includes moving our bodies, most importantly, but also finding, as I mentioned in my previous post, what we can control and what we can do and doing that. Below, I’ve included a list of free resources that I’ve gathered that may help you, as Emily and Amelia say in Burnout, to “do a thing” to help move your stress through and perhaps even be stronger and more resilient on the other side of it.

The moral of the story is: We thrive when we have a positive goal to move toward, not just a negative state we’re trying to move away from.

― Emily Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

Free Resource List:

Yoga With Adriene– Free via YouTube

Online classes with local yoga studio, Blue Yoga Nyla

Breathing for wellness with Audrea Morado (our new massage therapist!)

Self-Compassion Meditation Sessions

Dr. Brené Brown’s new podcast 

*The first episode addresses the pandemic specifically

Webinar from Robyn Gobbel: “Nurturing Your Children (and self) During the Crisis of COVID-19: Tips and Tricks from a Stay-At-Home Mama That Used To Be a Play Therapist That Used To Be a Preschool Teacher”

Webinar, also from Robyn Gobbel, about a deeper dive into some of the concepts I’ve presented here, including application to parenting.

*Free with code “safe” at checkout. I’d also recommend looking through all of Robyn Gobbel’s other on-demand webinars. She’s got a lot of great parenting resources!

Resources for cultivating mindfulness & restoring calm from Sounds True

Video series about the power of self-compassion

List of homeschool businesses that are offering free subscriptions during the COVID-19 school closures

If you are able and would like to support relief efforts for our community, you can do so through the Little Rock Cares COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund which benefits food relief efforts provided by World Central Kitchen and the purchasing of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other COVID-19 related expenses.

If you were a fly on the wall of my therapy office over the last week or so, you would have heard a lot of talk about the COVID-19 pandemic. What I started noticing quickly was that there are a lot of similarities in how people are experiencing the crisis and what we’re all saying about it. “I’ve never experienced anything like this” and “This is so bizarre” have been heavy hitters as well as plenty of jokes about lifetime supplies of toilet paper. I often reflect on my job and see the privilege that it is to be able to sometimes be on the front lines of people’s vulnerability and more unfiltered observations and experiences. With that being said, a few common themes have been on my mind that I thought might be worth sharing.

In a very real way, each moment of our lives is potentially therapeutic as we seek to deepen our presence with each other.

Dr. Bonnie Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

As mentioned above, we haven’t experienced anything quite like this before and most of us, it seems, are acutely aware of this in similar ways. Anything that rocks our world on this sort of level- on some conscious or unconscious wavelength- brings up some existential awareness, thoughts, or questions. It can cause us to think deeply about our day-to-day lives, our values, and our priorities like nothing else can. While many of us are being slowed down by the changes in our routines, we might all benefit from taking the time to temporarily shift our focus and ask what this experience can teach or show us that we might not have considered otherwise.

…Crisis means to sift. Let it all fall away and you’ll be left with what matters. What matters most cannot be taken away. Just do the next right thing one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.

Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior

A useful construct in the somatic therapy world centers around the idea of paying attention to what is going right. If you talk to many somatically-informed trauma therapists, you’re bound to hear one of them describe the idea that, among all of the unknowns in working deeply with trauma, we always know more is going right in a body than is going wrong. I often find that the living, breathing human in front of me in trauma therapy has no idea how beautiful and incredible their resilience is.

In times of crisis and especially in one as big as we’re experiencing now, it’s easy to begin to feel like everything is off-kilter, nothing is normal. What my trauma training has taught me, though, is that systemically this simply can’t be the case. Even though I’m not in my usual office and am instead meeting with counseling clients online, it’s still just me and my client and therapy and support looks largely similar. Even though we’re more geographically separated from people than we normally would be, they’re still our people. They still care about us and we still care about them. I think it’s important right now to find the normalcy among all the non-normalcy and the resiliency we hold there. It’s there; we just may have to go looking for it or be intentional about fostering it in order to see it.

The essence of trauma isn’t events, but aloneness within them.

Dr. Bonnie Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

The last thought I want to include here may be the simplest and perhaps the most important: we’re all in this together. Every one of us has been impacted in some way by the pandemic. I believe that is one of the main reasons we’re experiencing it as such a unique experience. I believe we will function at our best right now if we remain mindful of this fact and act with intentionality in supporting each other. Again, Glennon Doyle’s words fit so beautifully here, “All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone. That’s the one fear you can alleviate.”

I am bigger than this.

This is one of my favorite mantras. Mantras are tricky, of course, because what resonates with one person doesn’t with another. What means one thing to one person means something totally different to another person. I, personally, like this one because I certainly have a proclivity toward over-identifying with some not so useful things in life. For me, this often comes in the form of over-identification with other’s perspective on my loveability and worthiness and on what I do instead of who I am. To be clear, by over-identification I mean allowing this thing to get wrapped into who I am and/or my worthiness of love and belonging versus putting it in its rightful place (as simply someone’s opinion, for example). For others, it’s easy to over-identify with achievements/success, their emotions, or their intellect and thoughts. The reality is we’re all so much bigger than that. By bigger, I don’t mean a sense of prideful self-inflation. What I’m referencing is more like what Marianne Williamson describes in her poem “Our Deepest Fear.” I’ve posted the full poem here because I believe the whole poem is worth a read and perhaps a couple re-reads:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small

Does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking

So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are born to manifest the glory that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us;

It’s in all of us.

And as we let our own light shine,

We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we’re liberated from our own fear,

Our presence automatically liberates others.

– Marianne Williamson

I believe it was John Bradshaw who defined humility as “knowing your place and taking it.” Unfortunately, it seems we often mistakenly assume humility is a meek, one-down position, essentially playing small. However, I would argue that this is simply the other side of the pride coin, not humility. Bear with me on this one. Being an Enneagram 2 and studying some of that material really helped bring this home for me. To put it succinctly, the downfall of the type 2 is pride. What’s interesting is that the goal of most type 2’s- achieving interpersonal perfection (being all things to all people all the time)- usually results in a vacillation between feelings of self-aggrandizement and feelings of deep inadequacy. The pride, though, isn’t encompassed in either of these but lives instead in the belief underlying the goal itself. The problem here is the idea that it is even possible to be all things to all people. The downfall of perfectionism isn’t the striving; it’s the driving belief that perfection might actually be possible. That, my friends, is pride. At the root, that’s what is really getting us in trouble.

So, let me circle back around to how this connects to the mantra I mentioned at the beginning. Many of us get overwhelmed by whatever is bothering us because it feels bigger than us. It feels like it’s too big for us to handle or like it will never end. Sometimes it simply feels so important in the moment that we lose sight of ourselves. Sometimes, for a time, it can even eclipse us and our feelings of worthiness completely. But this simply isn’t true. I love how author Bonnie McCliss says it, “Getting loud and proud is the way you begin the boomerang process for your energy…Get louder than whatever is haunting you.” I’m bigger than that person’s judgments of me (and they’re bigger than mine while we’re at it!). I’m bigger than that promotion or this job. I’m bigger than this failure or that failure, than this mistake or that mistake, than this fear or that fear, than this imperfection or that imperfection. I’m bigger than this one rejection. I’m bigger than this diagnosis, than this struggle. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t hurt us or even that they don’t matter, per se; the important thing to remember is that I live beyond them. I exist beyond the space that those things can even reach and so do the people around me. When we take this stance, we don’t take things as personally, we take more responsibility for ourselves, and we also loosen the grip of the value we give our own judgments. We live in a place of true humility.

So, next time you find yourself in a shame spiral, give it a shot. Tell yourself that this one thing is not who I am because…

I am bigger than this.

People are important. On our better days, I think we all know that. But we all probably have those days where we lose sight of that. Those days when everyone is getting on our nerves or when people close to us disappoint us in one way or another. Those days when we seriously consider moving to a far-off cabin in the woods. Another version of that mindset, I think, also rears its head when we’re struggling. There’s some part of us, often, that thinks we can do something on our own that we simply can’t or, at best, shouldn’t. We might even look at someone else going through the same thing and say something wise about needing to lean on other people or that it’s simply impractical for them to try this or that on their own when they can get help (Ironically, counselors can be especially susceptible to this pattern).

One of the most predominant areas of research in the world of counseling, psychology, and social sciences is the topic of attachment.  The most well-known and cited research on the topic comes from John Bowlby. Bowlby’s main contributions to the field came in the 1950’s and since then countless studies have been conducted and books have been written following his initial theoretical framework of attachment.  Essentially, Bowlby explained that the early bond between caregiver and child creates a template for all future relationships. The idea is that when a parent responds to and interacts with a child in a healthy way the child internalizes this safe and secure presence. So, in a sense, this “secure base” is with the child, and later the adult, wherever they go, even when the parent is not present. What all constitutes responding to and interacting with a child in a “healthy way” is a question beyond the scope of this article. However, I have always appreciated the simplicity of the idea that a caregiver’s main job is to teach a child in their early years about the world, specifically whether the world is a relatively safe place and whether people can be trusted.

As a therapist who primarily works with individuals struggling with the effects of traumatic stress and/or PTSD, I’ve come to appreciate the impact of attachment from multiple angles. Even since I started my career almost a decade ago, I have seen a significant increase in the attention given to early attachment and developmental trauma (simply defined by some as trauma that occurs in the first three to five years of life). Research continues to illustrate how our early relationships affect us for a lifetime. The world of trauma and PTSD research takes this step further, as well, by spotlighting the impact of others on an adult’s ability to cope with trauma and traumatic stressors. Peter Levine, the originator of Somatic Experiencing, even includes the clause “in the absence of an empathetic witness” in his definition of what constitutes calling an experience “trauma.” Also, while I’m not sure there has been much research on this yet, it is a somewhat universally known phenomenon among those that work directly with trauma that kindness, even from strangers, can have a significant positive impact on an individual working through a traumatic experience. I continue to be amazed that while hearing details about terrifying and incredibly difficult circumstances how I will often witness a client light up when they talk about that one relatively kind stranger that showed up somewhere in the story. To be clear, I’m not talking about cape-worthy heroics here. Some of the most common kindnesses I’ve heard about are things like stopping and asking if they’re okay or if they need anything or just sitting with them and perhaps holding their hand until the ambulance or police get there.

This one actually popped up for me recently in a very real way. A few months ago, I was in a car accident. Thanks to my background in trauma, I knew that PTSD and the effects of traumatic experiences are primarily physiological/body-based, so very physically disruptive/high impact, violent experiences (just check out one of those crash test dummy videos if you balk at the idea of calling a car accident violent) are not something to take lightly in regards to traumatic impact. So, even though I was shaken up at the time, I was paying extra close attention to how my mind and body were responding to all that was going on around me. As I mentioned above, I also knew that the people I would interact with right after the accident would play a significant role. Then came Jo, the traffic cop. She may have been the kindest stranger I have ever met and the impact and relief of that fact was palpable for me. There is no doubt in my mind that her kindness and the role she played in this event had a huge positive impact on my response in the moment and later.

This isn’t only true during traumatic experiences, though. The power of the positive impact people can have in our healing journey also often occurs after the fact. This is where a lot of counselors will bring up attachment theory, especially as it pertains to the therapist-client relationship. The reality is that we bring our attachment patterns and style into all of our relationships. Due to the extra vulnerability present in the psychotherapy relationship, these patterns and habits play an even more distinct role. The majority of our hurt happens in relationship. A human being, whether a main attachment figure or not, almost always plays some type of role in our trauma narrative. As I alluded to above, these interactions teach us something about how safe people are in general and more broadly how safe the world is. It follows then that healing must happen in relationship. We can’t restore our faith in humanity without, well, humanity. And that’s a key element to the counseling process. If the hurt happens in relationship so does the healing. This is why it never works to go at it on our own. This is where the good stuff happens in counseling- in the container of connection, empathy, seeing, and knowing that happens between therapist and client. And it’s a truly beautiful process to be a part of.

If you’re interested in reading more about attachment and developmental trauma, I recommend the new book by Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell “Nurturing Resilience” and “Healing Developmental Trauma” by Laurence Heller. You can also learn more on Diane Poole Heller’s website which includes a free attachment style quiz.

There is some controversy in the counseling world over whether sex and porn addictions should be recognized and treated. The primary objection raised by opponents of sex addiction services is based in a cultural sensitivity to pathologizing or moralizing anything sexual; and for good reason. For decades, individuals who experienced same-sex arousal were treated as degenerates in our country. They were written off either as maladaptive biological anomalies or morally bankrupt and spiritually inferior.

Long and swerving has been the effort to engender understanding and compassion in the eyes of our culture on the subject of sexual experience; it is a struggle that remains incomplete. Regardless of political or religious worldview, understanding the underpinnings of any kind of sexual experience must be a work of compassion and humility. But has our struggle against meanness and our desire to defend the innocent developed into a paranoia that denies help to those suffering unjustly at the hands of trauma and dependency? There may be reason to believe that it has.

Opponents of sex addiction treatment see themselves as freedom fighters. They are skeptical of anything that guides or restricts sexual expression. But freedom is precisely what the addict does not have. Opponents of the idea of sexual addictions want people to be free to live out their sexual lives the way they want. Sex addiction therapists want precisely the same thing for their clients.

The man who is looking down the barrel of his second divorce, who is going to lose his children, the career he’s labored for since his youth, and his connection to yet another partner, all because, despite his desperate attempts to stop, he cannot help meeting with a prostitute twice a week, is not a man experiencing sexual freedom. Neither is the woman who cries alone in her apartment after her 24th anonymous hookup this month. She is desperate for intimacy, trapped in a pattern of power-seeking behaviors she learned in her abuse as a twelve year-old, and she is the furthest thing in the world from being sexually free and alive. To the contrary, when she attempts sex in the context of genuine intimacy and vulnerability, she feels emotionally closed off and sexually numb. By their own assessment, these men and women do not engage in these behaviors because they want to do so, they engage in them because they have to in order to function.

Sex addiction therapy, like all other therapies, is concerned primarily with freedom. The man who uses sex with his wife to regulate his own emotions, but who longs to learn to experience sex with her differently, is not free to be himself sexually; he is in bondage and oppressed. It is only from a position of freedom that one is able to choose with efficacy the behaviors in which she would like to engage and to eschew the behaviors which do not align with her own goals and desires. Morally right sexual behavior is never defined by a sex addiction therapist. Prescriptions and proscriptions concerning what to do with sexual freedom is a values conversation; these are categorically not the concern of the therapist. Rather, sexual addictions, like all other addictions, are defined by the individual experiencing them. Clients identify for themselves which behaviors they want to reduce, eliminate, or experience differently.

So what is an addiction? How do you know it’s an addiction and not just a bad habit? According to the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, those struggling with undesired sexual behaviors can identify the struggle as an addiction by meeting 3 of the following 10 criteria:

  1. Powerlessness/Loss of ControlDefined by a clearly identified behavior that you do more than you intend or want.
  2. Compulsive BehaviorA pattern of out of control behavior over time.
  3. Efforts to StopRepeated specific attempts to stop the behavior which fail.
  4. Loss of TimeSignificant amounts of time lost doing and/or recovering from the behavior.
  5. PreoccupationObsessing about or because of the behavior.
  6. Inability to Fulfill ObligationsThe behavior interferes with work, school, family, and friends.
  7. Continuation Despite ConsequencesFailure to stop the behavior even though you have problems because of it. (social, legal, financial, physical, work)
  8. EscalationNeed to make the behavior more intense, more frequent, or more risky.
  9. LossesLosing, limiting, or sacrificing valued parts of life such as hobbies, family, relationships, and work.
  10. WithdrawalStopping behavior causes considerable distress, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, or physical discomfort.

Men and women suffering from these criteria deserve freedom and healing, but they often find themselves abandoned by a culture that is afraid to talk about sex being a problem. Whole-hearted, integrated, and healed adults are free. They are free, not to choose their feelings, but to choose their behaviors. They can move towards sex when they want and set it aside when they want. They are free to use sex to enrich their lives in the way they choose, rather than being at its mercy as their lives fall apart.

In talking about kids and parenting in therapy, there are a couple topics I find that my counseling clients and I come back to often.  At the top of this list is what to make of and how to respond to children’s behavior. Parenting is complex. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be countless books written on the topic.  A lot of these books give pointers on specific situations and specific interventions that a parent is instructed to mimic in order to be a more effective parent. As with any important topic that is written about extensively, some of it is useful and some of it isn’t.

Often I find that it is useful to look at specifics. For example, it is helpful to have some ideas for what to do when your child refuses to brush their teeth or use the big kid potty.  I often also find it useful to zoom out and think more broadly (think forest instead of trees) about important topics. Along these lines, I’m talking more about major beliefs and perspectives on children, child development, and the job of a parent.  For example, what do you believe your main “job”/goal is as a parent? What is appropriate to expect cognitively and emotionally out of a child of this age? And specific to this article, what do I believe about a child’s behavior?

As we all know, a child’s communication is limited by the development of their vocabulary.  The reality is, though, that kids are excellent communicators. When I think of this topic, I always think back to my niece whose language was delayed as a preschooler.  What stuck out to me about her specifically was that she didn’t have many words but she was one of the best little communicators I had ever seen. What she lacked in words she made up for in all kinds of non-verbals.  If you paid enough attention to her or were around her enough, you would find that she could communicate just fine. You just had to listen to her the right way, in her language.  One of the languages of children that we can easily miss, as many people did with my niece, is their behavior.  A child’s behavior is never random. Your kid is never just “being difficult” for the sake of being difficult.  They are hard-wired to communicate and their behavior is doing just that, in a much more effective way than their words could anyway.

In The Connected Child, the authors talks about how the first things you should ask yourself or a child when they start to act out is “Are they tired? Are they thirsty? Or are they hungry?” They encourage caretakers to start with the basics, first, because often this is the root of acting out behaviors especially and, as adults, we’re in charge of helping children get what they need.  If your child is too tired to function, then you- the adult in charge- should designate some rest time for them.  When a child is acting tired, they are effectively communicating that they need more sleep or rest.  Obviously, how you handle this depends on the age of the child but, at the end of the day, you’re the boss in charge of naptime and limit-setting.  More broadly you’re in charge of helping a child learn what they need and how to meet those needs for themselves as they grow and become more independent.

The authors of The Connected Child also speak specifically to seeing beyond misbehavior of a child who is struggling emotionally:

“Play detective and watch closely for situations that trigger physical or behavior reactions in your child. This will help you respond more effectively to your child’s needs…Children who act out may appear strong but are surprisingly fragile inside. When their externalized misbehaviors are met with an assault of adult force, they come to believe that no one understands them or cares about their needs…We always need to look beyond a difficult behavior and ask ourselves:

-What is the child really saying?

-What does the child really need?

Although we address misbehavior directly and quickly, we also must address it sensitively and responsively as a clue to the deepest needs of the child” (p. 46)

The authors here allude to another excellent point in the discussion of children’s behavior: the fact that kids often don’t know what they need and easily confuse needs and wants.  Neuroscientists now tell us that our ability to exercise sound decision-making is limited until our brain is done developing in our mid to late 20s. Again, this is the job of the parent to help guide them. If we simply went with what a child wants or thinks he/she needs, a kid will often make poor, or even harmful, choices. When this fact comes to mind, I always think about how my nephew as a toddler was always so fascinated by my morning coffee. Eventually, he understood enough and would only point at it and say “Hot. No, no.”  But at first, you would have thought that I was killing his hopes and dreams by saying no to his requests to drink, touch, or hold this enticing mystery beverage. In those moments, he needed me to be the adult in charge because he didn’t and couldn’t know what was best for him.

The reality that many of us don’t think about is that kid-as-boss also creates significant anxiety for a child. Try thinking about it from a survival standpoint: Kid’s simply can’t survive on their own and any feeling that they are being asked to would naturally create significant distress. Keep in mind, though, this is distress that there’s no way a child could fully understand and articulate due to its depth and complexity. It is true that often kids act as if they want to be in charge (again, like a toddler absolutely insisting on drinking that coffee). But what happens when a child has been given too much responsibility or power in the family?  Anxious or acting out behaviors. Attachment expert Nancy Thomas writes, “A child feels safe when the loving parent is strong enough to be in control. When the parent sets limits and maintains established limits, the child can learn to trust. A child will not learn to trust someone who is weaker” (p. 78). I would add that a child is unable to feel safe in an environment where he/she feels as if no adult is in charge or when an immature adult doesn’t seem confident in their ability to be in charge. It’s as if something inside a child knows something isn’t right but they don’t have the capacity or language to explain what is missing. This happens in adult systems as well. Have you ever worked somewhere or been a part of a project where it felt like no one was in charge? Did it feel organized/directed/”right”? In my experience, ships without captains simply don’t feel as stable and sometimes even “unsafe” in a sense. If we experience this to some extent as adults, imagine how much more impactful this feels to our children.

At the end of the day, this topic may feel complicated at first but is really rather simple. To put it succinctly, a child’s behavior is communication. Specifically, it is communication about what a child needs. Whether it be a nap, snack, some juice, or better limit-setting, a child is constantly telling us what they need if only we’re willing to calmly and respectfully listen.

Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Thomas, N. L. (2005). When love is not enough: A guide to parenting children with RAD- Reactive Attachment Disorder. Glenwood Springs, CO: Families By Design.

Vulnerability is the essence of connection and connection is the essence of existence.

– Leo Christopher

Life is truly about connection in relationship.  We long to connect and feel seen by others.  This starts early in life with our first attachments.  We are social beings and we need one another.  Yet, it will not be a news flash to anyone reading this to state that relationships are difficult.  In all forms: from romantic relationships, work relationships, parenting relationships, to friendships, they all come with a certain level of challenge.  How we navigate these challenges in relationships has much to do not only with the quality of those relationships but also the quality of our life in general.

Why are relationships such a challenge? It starts possibly with the fact that to enter into a deep connection with another, we first have to be in that same type of relationship with ourselves.  Intimacy with another requires the ability to know and maintain who we are as we enter into that relationship with another.  One reason this is central in healthy, deeply connected relationships is its relationship with vulnerability.  Connection requires vulnerability.  Our ability to be vulnerable depends on our ability to handle the anxiety related to vulnerability.

Family therapy researcher, Murray Bowen, called this ability “differentiation”.  Differentiation is essentially our ability to remain connected to ourselves in the presence of others.  It is the ability to have a developed solid self which allows an individual to navigate the difficult emotions present in relationships.  It allows an individual to act and think for themselves while being able to connect and interact with others.

“A person with a well-differentiated ‘self’ recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.” (https://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/).

This idea of differentiation interlocks with our ability to be intimate in relationships.  Brene Brown has written extensively on the concept of vulnerability and its correlation to belonging and connection in relationship.  In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, she states, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” This is a difficult prospect and it demands action on our part.  When we are able to do this, we can hold onto ourselves and allow others to do the same.  We can tolerate the unique thoughts, feelings, and needs of others because we can tolerate those within ourselves.

How do we accomplish this? How do we find a way to be able to stand in our authentic self and bring that self to others in relationship?

This process starts and ends with us.  One key to the differentiation process is being able to own our stories.  If we are cut off and disconnected from parts of ourselves and our own stories it is difficult to connect to the same in others.  To be authentic, we have to first know ourselves.  For generations, stories are the fabric of our lives.  From movies, to books, to family history, stories help us heal, encourage us, and help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us.  When I was in graduate school, one of our tasks was to write our family story.  This required sitting down and interviewing family members and letting them tell their part of our family story.  I still have pages of written parts of these stories from family members, some who are no longer alive.  I treasure these pages.  While a challenge, the assignment was invaluable to my understanding of my own personal story.  Often we struggle with our own stories because they are frequently filled with pain, trauma, loss, and unfulfilled dreams.  Yet, all of what happens to us shapes us.  Dr. Dan Siegel calls this process, narrative integration.  It is the process of making sense of our stories and our inner world.  It is central in the attachment process with others.  Brene Brown stated that, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” (Brown, 2010, p. 6).

A second key to differentiation is our ability to self-soothe or emotionally regulate.  Being in relationship with another is difficult but also deeply rewarding.  Navigating this process requires us to be able to manage our internal emotional world.  This is the process of emotional regulation.  Emotions can be challenging to navigate, particularly emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear, and frustration.  The process of regulation simply means that we are able to name these emotions and manage them instead of acting out of them.  We all know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by our emotions and the impact on relationships when we act out of our emotions, doing and saying things that we regret.  The process of regulation, or self-soothing, allows us to ride our emotional waves without being lost in them.  We are able to make healthy decisions about how to manage our emotions until they settle and we can re-engage in whatever needs our attention.  These are habits that require time and attention to develop because when we feel deeply, it is often difficult to think.  Practice these when you are not in crisis or emotionally overwhelmed.  The more differentiated we are from those around us, the easier it is to hold onto yourself when all of the feelings come and to self-soothe.

Tips for self-soothing:

1.  Going on a walk
2.  Talking to a trusted friend
3.  Listening to music/playing music
4.  Writing in a journal
5.  Mindfulness practices
6.  Therapy
7.  Yoga
8.  Artistic pursuits
9.  Taking a bath
10. Spending time with a pet

Each of these are simple activities that we can engage in to help us soothe when we are feeling overwhelmed emotionally.  When we learn this process, we learn to navigate the tricky waters of our emotional world and we are able to enter into relationships from a more solid foundation.   When we learn to hold onto ourselves we are able to hold onto others.

In our next blog post, we will focus on how differentiation applies to couples and healthy sexuality.

 

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.