Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The importance of trauma informed care

If you knew that there was one root cause that is the foundation of most mental and physical illnesses, wouldn’t you want to know what it is? Wouldn’t you do almost anything to find out what it is, so you could finally get to the bottom of any chronic issue that is plaguing you or someone you love? Wouldn’t you wonder why anyone who is a health professional would not know what it is?

I sometimes think that I must be living in a bubble of people who know what the root cause is, because it is only when I enter the mainstream by say, going to a doctor, that I realise that many people don’t know and don’t even know that they don’t know. It always surprises me and leaves me quite frustrated. Or maybe, they’re not interested in finding and treating the root cause, because going down the road of symptoms is much more profitable because it’s a merry-go-round that you (the client or patient) can never get off and which, very often, if not always, leads to retraumatisation and a worsening of symptoms. I’d rather not believe the last scenario to be true, but unfortunately the evidence speaks for itself.

What is at the root of many mental and physical illnesses? The answer is: unresolved trauma. This might not be new to some of you and others might be saying that it couldn’t be so simple and others might be saying that I’m talking sh*t. But mountains of growing research and anecdotal evidence shows that unresolved trauma, particularly early in life, is the cause of a massive stress overload on our nervous systems leading to chronic health issues. A dysregulated nervous system results in a dysregulated body and mind.

Therefore, the crucial importance of any health professional being trauma-informed cannot be overstated. Too many doctors are handing out prescriptions for symptoms, with direct effects, not side effects, and sometimes those effects lead to death, or, at best, an extremely poor quality of life. There are too many diagnoses, many of them supposedly co-morbid, when the root cause is completely neglected. This is nowhere near good enough, too many are suffering, too many are at the end of their tether, too many are at breaking point, or have already broken down. We need to do a lot lot better, because unresolved trauma is the most important health issue facing our world today.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I shouldn't be feeling this way

There’s no surer way for an emotion or physical sensation to get stuck than us thinking we shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. It could be that we believe that we ‘should be’ over it, or else the 4 biggies are getting in the way of us feeling the emotion or sensation. And they are:
  • It feels awful
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Disloyalty

Try the following set up statements to help you dissolve whatever blocks you might have when you ‘should’ on yourself.

Even though I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I’m a bad person for feeling this way, I am open to accepting this emotion

Even though I believe that this emotion is bad because … I accept that’s the way I feel right now

Even though this sensation feels awful, it’s not possible to feel it without … I accept how I feel

Even though I feel disloyal for feeling this way towards … I accept that I don’t want to hurt anyone

Even though I might be hurting myself by not feeling this feeling, I am open to feeling some of this feeling

Even though I should be over this by now (your belief or others?), I'm moving at a pace that feels ...

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Even though I'm afraid to go inside ...

Whenever an experience is too much for us, we have the ability to store it away inside our bodies and minds until we can feel it later. This is an absolutely brilliant coping mechanism that gets us through some tough times. Because storing it away has seemingly been so successful, we think we can do it forever, but we can’t. Our system becomes too full and starts overflowing with anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, thyroid disorders and so on. I’m not suggesting that trauma is 100% responsible for every condition or symptom, but research shows that it plays a huge role in many dis-eases when it is unresolved and frozen for a long time.


Going inside our bodies can be absolutely terrifying, so we avoid it at all costs which is totally understandable. What we need to do is titrate, that is, go slowly, bit by bit, until the stored pain and hurt can be felt and released. This isn’t always what we want to hear when we’re suffering, we want it gone yesterday, but it doesn’t work like that. It has usually taken years for pain to accumulate and it will take time to sift through it, otherwise we risk extreme overwhelm which is counterproductive and can set us back and make us even more afraid of our pain. Try the following statements to help you find the courage to go inside at a pace that feels safe and comfortable for you. Repeat whatever feels right on the points, diagram here.

Even though I’m afraid to go inside, I accept how I feel

Even though I get overwhelmed by all the stuff stored inside, I don’t know where to start, I’ll do it at my own pace and I’ll do it with help

Even though a part of me doesn’t want to feel what’s inside, another part knows I have to feel it, or it will keep showing up in ways I don’t like, I accept this conflict and how both parts of me feel

Even though I’m scared of this mountain of hurt, it’s too big for me, I accept that it’s absolutely ok to be afraid

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The pain of disconnection

When something painful happens to us, we not only disconnect from the pain because it’s so painful, we also disconnect from ourselves; because the pain lives in us in some shape or form. This division within our self is called dissociation and it’s really important that we normalise dissociation as we all dissociate to a greater or lesser degree. Kathy Steele calls this fleeing from self, Mindflight, the opposite of what Daniel Siegel calls Mindsight.

When we don’t feel connected to our self and others, we feel pain on top of any other pain we’ve suffered like being unloved, unwanted, abused or neglected. Being and feeling connected is an essential biological, emotional and spiritual need throughout our life. Feeling connected is not optional, babies die without it, and adults develop all sorts of dis-eases, both mental and physical. It goes against everything we are as humans not to be and feel connected.


The nature of life is movement, not stagnation. Things will out, they’ll bubble up and create enormous pressure on us in the form of various symptoms and conditions, in order for us to connect with the part(s) who feel pain. Connecting with our pain is not the same as trying to fix the pain, that’s a relentless, exhausting and futile hunt which always eludes us.

Our pain doesn’t define us but it does become part of us in some way. It changes us, and if we feel it instead of acting it out, or in, it can bring out who we always were deep down while also transforming us.

Try the following set up statements and tap on all the points with whatever reminder phrase feels right.

Even though it’s too painful to connect with this pain, I honour my feelings

Even though this pain has remained frozen for so long, maybe it’s time to let it melt drop by drop

Even though I feel disconnected from … I am open to reconnecting

Even though a part(s) of me is afraid to reconnect with this pain because … I completely accept my fear, it’s ok to be afraid

Even though I don’t know whether I’ll be able to handle my pain, I am open to asking for help and support to get through this

Even though I wish it would all go away so I didn’t have to deal with it, I accept that need and desire

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Half in half out

That feeling of urgency or desperation when you’re at the end of your tether and sick to death of whatever it is, is a sign for you to stop running around like a headless chicken trying to find the magic tool or technique to fix yourself. At the end of this post, I’ll share a tapping script which you can customise, about feeling safe enough to stop fleeing, fighting and freezing when an issue comes up.

Trauma can cause chronic issues, and chronic issues, in turn, can cause trauma; or retraumatisation to be more precise. It’s a vicious cycle that we need to break to save our sanity and health. Unresolved chronic issues can leave us feeling helpless, hopeless and full of fear and despair that things will never change. An awful place to be. The fear that nothing will ever change and you’ll be stuck like this forever is very frightening and of course feeds our urgency and desperation to be rid of the issue.


When things come up over and over again, or something hasn’t been resolved, it can often be a part of us wanting/needing to complete something that was left uncompleted or fulfill a need that remained/remains unmet; another sort of incomplete action. The incompleteness is like emotional, mental and physical indigestion, we can’t fully take whatever is hard to digest in and we can’t eliminate it either. So, we get stuck, it’s half in, half out and this gives rise to the symptoms of undischarged traumatic stress, of which there are many. This is why psychiatrist Ivor Browne calls trauma: unexperienced experience. (Not to be confused with a traumatic experience, which may or may not cause trauma, depending on whether we have the resources and support to cope with whatever has overwhelmed our coping mechanisms).


Here is a selection of set up statements that you can try and insert your own words where you like. You can find the tapping diagram here.

Even though it’s not safe to stop (trying … etc), I completely accept how I feel

Even though stopping feels like giving up, I completely accept how I feel about this

Even though giving up feels ... I accept how I feel

Even though I can’t allow this … to be here, it might stay forever if I allowed it even 10 minutes and that would make me feel … I completely accept those feelings

Even though I feel desperate to be rid of this … I completely accept my desperation

Even though I’m at my wits end and can’t stop fighting (fleeing from, freezing/shutting down from) this … I accept how I feel

Even though I’m afraid of this issue, I completely accept my fear

Even though this issue makes me feel helpless, I accept myself anyway

Even though this … feels like a … (monster, black hole etc), I am okay

Top of head: This desperation
Eyebrow: About …
Side of eye: It reminds me of …
Under eye: That feels …
Under nose: It’s not safe to stop fighting
Under chin: I have to fight this (run away from, shut down etc) …
Collar bone: Or else …
Under the arm: This issue has me on my knees

Top of the head: I feel such an urgency to be rid of it
Eyebrow: I’m going to keep on trying to get rid of it
Side of eye: I’ve no other choice
Under eye: Because …
Under nose: And that feels …
Under chin: Maybe there’s another way
Collar bone: A kinder gentler way
Under the arm: For me

Top of the head: Something less exhausting
Eyebrow: That gives me hope
Side of eye: I need a sign
Under eye: I need guidance
Under the nose: That I’m on the right track
Under chin: How will I recognise it?
Collar bone: I’ll know
Under the arm: I always know when it comes down to it

Top of head: I sometimes don’t trust that knowing
Eyebrow: And that has hurt me
Side of eye: So I’ll trust myself
Under eye: And the parts that are showing up
Under the nose: With symptoms
Under the chin: To be heard
Collar bone: And held
Under the arm: That feels …

Top of head: When I see it like that
Eyebrow: It’s easier to have compassion
Side of eye: I can contemplate laying down my arms
Under eye: I can come closer
Under nose: To my pain
Under chin: And feel (some of it etc)
Collar bone: I can take it slowly and gently
Under the arm: There’s no urgency any more

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Chronic health issues and trauma

Chronic health issues are directly correlated with adverse childhood experiences, if not directly caused by them in many cases. Many people don’t think of chronic health issues, particularly physical conditions such as heart disease, as even being related to traumatic stress. The common belief is that you can only be traumatised by dramatic events such as wars.

However, psychologist Robert Rhoton dispels that myth with the following example: If a soldier produces a cup of cortisol in response to a dramatic experience, a child experiencing twenty supposedly small events a day can produce the same amount, a teaspoon at a time. They both produce a cup of cortisol, yet very often her experience will be minimised and even ridiculed if anyone dares suggest that she is going through something traumatic. Their biology, however, tells the same story and our biology doesn’t lie. In addition, trauma could be ongoing in the child’s case, day in, day out with no end in sight, especially if her caregivers are the source of the trauma. That is a perfect recipe for trauma: fear, helplessness and being/feeling trapped. As Pierre Janet said back in 1909: traumas produce their disintegrating effects in proportion to their intensity, duration and repetition.


Because of the distinction between small t and big T trauma (terms I don't agree with), many people minimise their experiences, saying that they don’t have much to complain about or that’s the way children were raised when they were young. But our body often tells a different story as psychologist Alice Miller wrote in her book The Body Never Lies. When we have accumulated unresolved stress it builds up in the body and the mind and causes various dis-eases and we need to take this very very seriously.

Exercises and techniques that help us regulate our nervous systems are invaluable in helping us to release any stress from our bodies. It is crucial that we seek out what works for us, so stress doesn’t build up. One of my favourite exercises to release stress is from Peter Levine, called pendulation. I also like to tap, but I find sometimes that I’m tapping with the intention of getting rid of something, so EFT won’t work well for me in that case. That’s when I use pendulation because it allows me to hold the opposites of how I’m feeling (tense, afraid, ashamed in some parts of my body and relaxed, calm or neutral in other parts) together, without needing the difficult emotions or sensations to go away.

Over time, pendulation and other self regulation exercises, help enlarge our container and capacity for difficult emotions and physical sensations which is very empowering and calming. Very often our biggest stressor can be the fear and overwhelm that we can’t handle what’s going on or what we fear could happen in the future. Knowing you have the tools (along with social support) that can help you through whatever it is, is priceless.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Why bypassing the body doesn't work

There’s a joke that when we go to a practitioner’s office who practises talk therapy, our body is left at the door and only our head enters the office because that’s the only important ‘bit’. But we don’t have to go to talk therapy for us to leave our bodies behind, most of us have learned to vacate our bodies out of necessity for various reasons.

Our bodies are where we sense and feel pain, so it makes sense that we don’t want to inhabit them sometimes. But life won’t let us get away with this long term. Things always have a way of coming up and out sooner or later.

Most of us from the age of 35 onwards start to accumulate too much baggage because we haven’t been emptying our barrels often enough. It often takes a crisis to make us look at our lives and take stock of what isn’t working any longer.


This is why one the most important skills we can ever learn is to regulate our nervous system. That is, to release and discharge tension and stress from our bodies, our minds will usually follow suit if we do this. If we are not in our bodies, we can't release the tension they hold. That is why being embodied is so important, it is one of the most practical things we can do to improve our mental and physical health.

There are many ways we can release stress and we don’t have to go at it with a sledgehammer 24/7, find the way that feels right for you, at any given moment in time. Take it easy, rest as often as you can, have fun and stop trying to fix yourself all the time.

Excerpted from the book, Forward Facing Trauma Therapy: Healing the Moral Wound by Eric Gentry:

Soft palate relaxation
Here, your goal is to locate and then relax the muscles of your soft palate.
1. Sit down comfortably and shift your focus to the muscles along the roof of your mouth.
2. Release all the tension in this area.
3. Now expand your focus to include the muscles in your face and  jaw.
4. Release the tension in these muscles too.
5. Next, with all of these muscles relaxed, silently say the letter “R” to yourself and try to gently maintain the subtle arch this creates in the roof of your mouth for five seconds.
6. Repeat this exercise five times.
7. Notice the relaxation in your body.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Islands of safety

Peter Levine calls the places we can go to in our body when processing trauma; islands of safety. In the stormy waters of trauma, it is easy to feel like you’re drowning in awful and frightening sensations when you start reconnecting with your body, which is why you need these islands of safety. Not only do they give you some respite from feeling dreadful, they also help you to discharge any trauma as they enable you to stay with it, bit by bit (called titration) so you can release it. See my previous post explaining the steps of pendulation in more detail.


In other words, these islands are your internal resources and this feels very empowering as they will continue to grow the more you learn to locate them and, as any traumas release, these islands will become larger and join up so your body will feel like a safer place to inhabit. If you can’t locate a place of relaxation, calmness or neutrality inside your body, use your external resources instead. This could be the presence of a kind friend, the warmth of a hand on your arm (or your own hand), music, a pet, a sunset, whatever allows you to pendulate between your pain and that resource. This will enable you to connect internally as you begin to feel stronger.

Sometimes when we’re tapping, we can tap with the intention of wanting to get rid of something. Now there’s nothing wrong with that and before you tap on any issue itself, you’re better off tapping on wanting to get rid of it first. Being totally and utterly honest always works better with EFT and you will see results much faster. Using exercises like pendulation along with tapping through any difficulties/frustrations you experience can work wonders in my experience.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Breaking things down into small chunks

When we’re feeling overwhelmed it’s really useful to be able to break the overwhelm down into small chunks. The smaller chunks are more manageable and allow us to approach our pain with less fear that it will completely swamp us.

The natural response to pain is to avoid and move away from it. But if we keep doing this, we end up with mountains of pain that can flood us just thinking about them. As the old saying goes, feeling is healing, so that’s what we need to do in small manageable doses.


An exercise that I have found really helpful for this is pendulation, which is taken from Peter Levine’s book, In an Unspoken Voice. Any exercise works better when you’re really tuned in or triggered, but first you need to have had some practice with any exercise to even think of doing it when you’re feeling upset.

Pendulation exercise:

1. Locate a sensation or emotion in your body that doesn’t feel good. 
2. Locate another place in your body that feels good, relaxed or neutral. This can be an elbow, a little toe etc.
3. Put your attention on the sensation/emotion that feels upsetting.
4. When it starts to get too much, switch your attention to the relaxed/neutral place and stay there for as long as you need to.
5. Go back to the difficult sensation/feeling when you’re ready and see how it feels.
6. Keep swinging your attention back and forth like this between the two places in your body.
7. Notice any signs of nervous system release like yawns, sighs, burps, stomach gurgling, slower breathing and so on.
8. Do this exercise for as long as feels comfortable, don’t push through it and if you find yourself feeling urgent or desperate, tap on it.

Peter Levine calls breaking things down into small chunks, titration. Smaller doses of pain are more manageable to process than big mountains that have accumulated throughout our lifetime.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The world of personality disorders

There’s an area where very few want to go in mental health and that’s the world of personality disorders.  As with everything in this life, there’s a spectrum and we’re all on it in some shape or form. Stress can be defined in many ways, but one of my favourites is that stress is caused by unmet needs. And one of our most important needs is for our caregiver(s) to be present with us. This translates to someone being attuned to us and our needs, we then conclude that our needs and therefore we, matter.

There’s some research that shows that some people who have personality disorders were born that way. They didn’t suffer any childhood trauma that would explain why they are the way they are. But that’s assuming that any trauma was measured properly, based on experience not just events. Besides the more obvious physical and sexual abuse, more insidious and hidden forms of trauma often go undetected or minimised, like neglect. And let’s not forget about accidents and medical procedures. There is also the often overlooked area of trauma in utero which research has shown explains a lot of subsequent “unexplained” behaviour. We’d like to believe that all babies are born a blank slate but that is not the case at all, unfortunately.  And then there is the field of epigenetics which helps to explain the phenomenon of intergenerational trauma which is hypothesised to last for at least 7 generations. So even if we haven’t suffered any trauma in this life, which is extremely rare, our life in the womb and the life of our ancestors can explain a lot about our current behaviours.

In his book, Born for Love, Bruce Perry writes about interviewing a teenage boy called Ryan who had raped a 15 year old developmentally disabled girl and showed no remorse, in fact he said “I don’t know what the problem is really, she never would have gotten laid by anyone as good as us”. Perry said he was as cold, perhaps even colder, than any sociopath he had ever interviewed, including some killers. It turned out that by the time Ryan had turned 3, he had had 18 nannies. He would scream if his mother (who spent at most one hour a day with him) picked him up but at age 3, this had stopped. Perry says this is consistent with children who have disrupted attachments, they stop crying and give up trying to get their emotional needs met. He believed that Ryan had attached to 18 different “moms” and each one abandoned him in his eyes, in fact it was his mother who thought the nannies were getting too close to her son who then fired them. Before he started school, the relational part of his brain had become stunted and functioned abnormally according to Perry.

In a course on family trauma I did by Robert Rhoton, he lists a series of behaviours of sympathetic (angry, aggressive, reactive, hostile, self-centred, coercive, bossy, tantrums, impulsive) and parasympathetic (reactive, emotional and psychological distancing, self-centred) dominance (branches of the nervous system), that are consistent with many of the behaviours that we see in personality disorders. When a person is healthy, these two branches are switched on as needed, neither one is permanently on. A dysregulated nervous system is the basis for a lot of our ills, both mental and physical. One of the most defining and despised characteristics of anyone with a personality disorder is that of being self-centred, the extreme end being a complete lack of empathy for others. It’s like their mantra is “what about me?” and I say that as an observation, not a criticism.


I remember hearing Sebern Fisher saying of people with Borderline Personality Disorder that “they don’t have much sense of themselves beyond those feeling states”. Just imagine how that might feel? You’re stuck in sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance, or alternating between the two, and that’s basically your only sense of self. It must be hell on earth. We hear all the time that we should separate the behaviour from the person, especially when it comes to children. But we have very little compassion for that same child who, as an adult, has a mental health problem for whatever reason. How do we ever hope to help anyone rehabilitate if we don’t show them some compassion and understanding for what’s really going on with them?

There are many strong opinions on people with personality disorders, some believing that they are essentially unhelpable. I don’t believe that they are unhelpable or unreachable, maybe some are unreachable because they just can’t, or won’t, open themselves up to any outside input, it’s just too dangerous and risky. I can’t remember who said that children who have suffered developmental trauma usually become either overly responsible or under responsible and in my experience that is very true. I think many who fit into the category of personality disorders are usually under responsible. Very little is their responsibility, it’s like as if they feel they will be annihilated if they own up to anything. As adults, we need to take responsibility for the direction our life is taking, particularly if we don’t like where it’s going. Not taking responsibility is the bane of most people’s lives and the lives of those they touch.

We can’t make others be willing to take responsibility. Our responsibility to ourself is to take care of us first. We do no one any favours by rewarding bad behaviour, least of all ourself. We have a choice as adults to stay or go if we are being abused, though it’s not always an easy choice, but children don’t have any choice. That’s why developmental trauma at the hands of caregivers in particular, is so detrimental. The betrayal and wounds run deep and it takes time and care to repair them, but they can be repaired. As Peter Levine says, trauma is a fact of life but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Learned helplessness

Trauma often leaves us helpless and powerless and while our response comes from the autonomic nervous system, as in we have no voluntary control over it, there is such a thing as ‘learned helplessness’. We then learn to default to this conditioned state when we perceive threat, even though actual danger/threat might not be present.

Because of learned helplessness, we can cede our power over to people, particularly those that society calls experts, or those we feel have more authority than us. But there are no experts, there are only people with expertise*, the difference between the two in my opinion, is that experts think they know everything there is to know and in that arrogance, try to set everyone straight. People with expertise on the other hand realise that just like everyone, they’re always learning. With an expert you’ll feel less than, with a person who has expertise, you’ll feel equal to. We need guidance, but what we don’t need is to be told what to do or what it is we need, we know that already on some level and a good practitioner will guide us back to that knowing, if we’ve lost trust in it.

St Declan's cliff walk, Ardmore, Co. Waterford, Ireland
Trauma informed care is important. What it means in reality is that someone has been trained to work with trauma or someone has been trained to recognise the signs of trauma and refer on. Many things help us on our journeys through trauma, if it has helped you, it counts, whether it’s yoga, walking, meditation, painting, swimming, reading etc. By utilising whatever it is, you are not saying it is the panacea, you are saying that it is making your life that bit easier and more pleasant. It really can be the ‘small’ things that can add up to the big things in life.

Maybe we’d like aha/breakthrough moments more often, or even just once ;-) and maybe even a magic wand wouldn’t hurt once in a while. Or maybe we do have aha moments and go forward 10 steps only to take 3 steps back. None of our journeys are linear, they look more like the back of a tapestry; a bit of a mess. But we forget that on the front of our tapestry, we’re creating our own unique picture.

We need to remember to count the good in our lives so we get to actually view the real picture every now and then, this will help us through the difficult times by inspiring us and giving us much needed hope and a bit of a break from trying to fix ourselves all the time. This is not a false or forced positivity but a genuine acknowledgement of the good in us and our lives. I think without this balance, we can easily despair and feel hopeless.

* I first heard of the distinction between expertise and experts from a lecturer I had in university.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The bladder meridian

Inflammation, the language of stress, can show up in lots of different ways and in different organs and in this week’s blog post, I’m going to discuss the bladder meridian (bladder 2), the eyebrow point in EFT. The bladder meridian is paired with the kidney meridian, which governs fear. The bladder meridian is the guardian of peace and the longest and most complex meridian in the body.


We can get quite overwhelmed when we think of everything that can go wrong, or that has gone wrong, with our health, but if we keep it simple and think in terms of relieving our stress whenever we can, we can really make some big improvements.

Where dis-ease shows up in our body and mind can be symbolic and tapping on the symptoms can be a doorway in to the root cause (which is nearly always a dysregulated nervous system due to undischarged traumatic stress). For example, imbalances in the bladder meridian can show up as excessive urination, interstitial cystitis, pain in the eyes, colds, blurred vision, nasal congestion, abdominal distension and so on. The key is to listen and follow the golden thread that leads us to resolution.

Monday, May 08, 2017

I am worthy just for existing

So many of us value ourselves and are valued by others for what we do, not who we are. This drives us to push, force and struggle but we never feel we’re enough or have done enough.

Try saying “I’m enough” out loud, how true does it feel on scale of 0 to 10? 10 being true and 0 being not true at all. Or if you find it difficult to rate how you feel by numbers, what does it feel like in your body when you say these words? How do you know it’s true, not true, or half true etc?


Or try saying it the opposite way “I’m not enough”. Do you have “evidence” to back this belief up? Try tapping on the following and change it to suit you and how you feel. You can download the EFT shortcut in the menu on the right hand side of this page.

Even though I feel that my worth is what I do, not who I am, I accept myself anyway

Even though I don’t feel enough because … I completely accept how I feel

Even though I don’t feel worthy (of …) I am open to that changing

TH: I’m not enough
Eyebrow: Because … (what memories/people pop up?)
Side of eye: Who I am isn’t enough
Under eye: And that feels …
Under nose: So I have to keep doing …
Under chin: To feel worthy
Collar bone: But it’s never enough
Under arm: I never get “there”

TH: Where is there?
Eyebrow: Love from others?
Side of eye: Love for myself?
Under eye: Acceptance?
Under nose: Validation?
Under chin: How would that feel?
Collar bone: That I’m enough?
Under arm: It would feel …

TH: When did I first feel I wasn’t enough? (Guess, if you don’t know)
Eyebrow: Just as I am
Side of eye: How would it feel
Under eye: Not to have to do anything
Under nose:  To be worthy (of …)
Under chin: I could do it because I wanted to
Collar bone: Not because I feel I have to
Under arm: And that would feel …

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Dissociation as a root cause

As Karla Mc Laren says in her book, Language of Emotions, emotions nearly always arise in clusters. It’s rare that neat well-behaved emotions come up one at a time, patiently waiting their turn to be felt. No, life is messier than that and of course when emotions such as anger, fear and sadness come up together, we can easily become flooded, especially the younger we are, and so we leave the premises as Tara Brach says. The premises being our body and mind.

Leaving the premises is another way of saying dissociation. Currently, there are distinctions between psychic and somatic dissociation which reflects the current mind/body split. But where does psychological dissociation begin and where does somatic dissociation end? I think it’s impossible to say this person has 48% psychic dissociation and is 52% somatically dissociated, that is, if anyone is ever 100% dissociated. All we can really look at is how dissociation, in any form, adversely impacts the life of someone and help them accordingly.

Paul Dell, for example, calls psychological dissociation, ‘clinical' dissociation and somatic dissociation, ‘animal defenses’, at least from my understandings of his writings. Dell argues that clinical/psychological dissociation is 'abnormal' whereas animal defenses are 'normal' and part of our evolution. I think both phenomena mirror the evolutionary development of our brains, bodies and minds and are normal and adaptive when we are faced with threat. Issues arise when dissociation, both psychological and somatic, becomes chronic and persistent. The mind, brain and body are linked in an interconnected system, when they are treated separately, disaster can result, especially for the person suffering.

Humans are animals the last I checked. These distinctions illustrate just how far removed we’ve become from our animal nature, body and instincts, which has done our nervous systems no favours whatsoever. If a wild animal does not discharge the freeze response (tonic immobility), if they survive being eaten by a predator, they remain in a startled and hypervigilant state which makes their chance of survival very poor. Remaining hypervigilant, they perceive threat where there is none and become less sensitised to real and present threat. This hyperaroused state also creates exhaustion, so when they do need to act, they don’t have the energy or stamina to outrun the predator. The exact same thing happens to what we call ‘civilised’ humans who have been traumatised. Too many of us have lost our knowledge and ability to shake vigorously after receiving a shock, to howl, cry and scream when we’ve lost a loved one and so on. Many of us have had to learn to keep it all in to survive and not rock the boat.

This mind/body split is also mirrored in current measurement scales for psychic and somatic dissociation. There is the well known Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) which measures psychological dissociation. Out of 28 questions, there is one nod to the body, question 13. Then there is the Tonic Immobility Scale* and the Somatoform Dissociation Questionnaire (SDQ20), which both measure somatic dissociation. There have been some steps forward in the field, a recent paper by Nijenhuis (2017) recommended that conversion disorders be recategorised as dissociative sensorimotor disorders in DSM-5. (He uses the terms cognitive-emotional and sensorimotor dissociation in this paper in place of psychic or somatic dissociation).

*Click on image to see larger view of Tonic Immobility Scale

I know there is debate over whether dissociation is a process or a state, I think it can be both. I haven’t yet heard a term that better describes leaving our bodies and minds and the resulting split, or splits, that can result (what Nijenhuis and van der Hart (2011) refer to as structural dissociation of the personality). I believe that anxiety arises when we’re overwhelmed by years worth of stuff, it’s a compounded state consisting of unfelt emotions (and physical sensations etc), that we’ve dissociated from, consciously and unconsciously.

Download this excellent app for free here

So many ‘disorders’ stem from dissociation and trauma, which is why I believe it is so important to normalise the terms themselves and the experience of them. They are the root cause for so many so-called different ‘disorders’. All of us are somewhere on the dissociation continuum, as we are on any continuum. Who among us hasn’t been hurt (traumatised) or wanted/needed to avoid (dissociate from) pain?  Isn’t it about time that we started looking for and healing the root cause instead of being blinded by symptoms? Isn’t that what science is supposed to do? Concepts like dissociation can really frighten people, but with education and normalisation they don’t have to.

So, where do you start on your healing journey, wherever you find yourself? You start slowly, taking one step at a time. As Martin Luther King Jnr says: A journey of a thousand miles, begins with one step. You start by being as kind as possible to yourself as you go inside to reconnect with what remains unexperienced so you can experience it as slowly and as gently as you need to. Don’t forget to resource and support yourself wherever and whenever you can. This isn’t about pushing through and going fast, in fact the more urgent you feel, I think the more slowly you should take things or you risk being overwhelmed and even retraumatising yourself.

References
Bernstein, E. M. and Putnam, F. W. (1986). Development, reliability, and validity of a dissociation scale, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 174(12): 727-735.
Fuse, T., Forsyth, J. P., Marx, B., Gallup, G. G. and Weaver, S. (2007). Factor structure of the Tonic Immobility Scale in female sexual assault survivors: An exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21(3): 265-283.
Nijenhuis, E.R.S., Spinhoven, P., Van Dyck, R., Van der Hart, O., & Vanderlinden, J. (1996). The development and the psychometric characteristics of the Somatoform Dissociation Questionnaire (SDQ-20), Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 184, 688-694.
Nijenhuis, E. R. S. and van der Hart, O. (2011). Dissociation in trauma: A new definition and comparison with previous formulations, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 12(4): 416-445.
Nijenhuis, E. R. S. (2017). Ten reasons for conceiving and classifying posttraumatic stress disorder as a dissociative disorder, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 1: 47-61.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Let me count the names

Can you think of any physical disease where people might have insults hurled at them just because they had the physical disease? I certainly can’t. People would think it cruel and unkind, yet it’s okay for people with mental illness to be insulted and derided. It’s even called ‘joking’ by some. The sheer amount of insults hurled at anyone who has a mental illness speaks for itself, this is a short list and it’s only in English. The name calling and consequent shaming, illustrates the fear and ignorance of mental illness (or indeed any condition related to mind and brain health such as intellectual disabilities) is still alive and kicking. Ask anyone how the stigma affects their day to day life and unfortunately, they and their families will have plenty of stories.

In the case of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), people are/were called schizophrenic and manic depressive, which I think is absolutely appalling. I can think of only one physical disease in which that happens which is diabetes, people who have this condition are often referred to as diabetics. Are people their illness now, is there nothing else to them except the illness?


Many so-called mental disorders are actually caused by trauma. Just imagine stigmatising someone because they’ve been through tough times? Hard to believe that that could happen isn’t it? But maybe that’s because many people haven’t made the link between adverse experiences and poor mental health. They might still believe the outdated claim that it’s a “chemical imbalance”. So where does the chemical imbalance originate from then? You’ll get very few satisfactory answers to that simple question in mainstream medicine. Or maybe it’s because the shame of mental illness goes so deep that we prefer to deflect and project our fears that it could be us onto others. Name calling, it’s sad to say, is only part of the stigma, discrimination in all its different forms can really inflict untold suffering.

Another major cause of mental illness is inflammation, especially in our gut which is intimately tied to our brain, the health of our gut affects our brain’s health and vice versa. And what is one of the biggest sources of inflammation? Stress; biological, emotional, environmental etc. So traumatised people are especially vulnerable to any chronic disease, both mental and physical, because their stress levels are usually high, as the ACE study and many other studies have showed.

I have never heard someone with schizophrenia say “I am schizophrenic”, instead they usually say “I have schizophrenia”, it’s others who usually refer to them as schizophrenics, and surprisingly a lot of them are mental health professionals. Leaving space for who you are beyond any diagnosis or label is crucial. This isn’t about being politically correct, as that terrain is always changing, it’s about how we see people who are suffering with mental health issues and how they feel as a result. And more importantly, how they feel as a result of how they see themselves.

When I’m tapping, I often use ‘I am’ and ‘I feel’ sentences which I find really useful. Take the statements, I am bad or I feel bad, for example. Feeling bad is (hopefully) temporary, whereas I am bad, is permanent. It’s a belief, a “truth”, but not “the” truth. It’s always good to differentiate between ‘I feel’ and ‘I am’.

Monday, April 17, 2017

An important ingredient in resolving trauma

I think one of the most important ingredients in recovering from trauma is having support, and there is plenty of research to back this up. While having a sense of support and community can include animals and nature, among other things, I don’t think we can discount the importance of having the warmth and tenderness of a relational home that another human being can provide. Whatever internal and external resources we have, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem initially, we need to acknowledge and build upon all of them.

Without enough support and resources, our nervous system will find it too unsafe to discharge any trauma that it has been holding, which makes total sense when you think about it, after all its job is to protect us. This is especially true with early and developmental trauma, not only is support sometimes missing completely, or in part, there is often also neglect and abuse to contend with and this can and does stunt our growth and development.


However, as Peter Levine says, trauma is not a life sentence, it can be resolved. But at the same time it’s also important to acknowledge that developmental trauma is more complex than shock trauma because of the fact that our nervous system has been on high alert from a young age and our system has developed all sorts of strategies for coping, some healthy and some not so healthy. Developmental trauma affects everything, our view of ourselves, the way our brains and bodies develop, our relationships, everything, so persistence is definitely needed with resolving complex trauma.

By growing any support and resources, you can make your healing journey easier and more pleasant. You don’t have to be fixing yourself every moment of every day, that’s exhausting and depleting. You’re not broken, you’re hurt. You might feel broken but it is not your identity. Taking a break whenever you can, having fun, laughing, going for a walk, having a bath, is really important to lessen your stress load. Don’t wait until you feel overwhelmed, do something for yourself daily.

When you’re in physical and emotional pain, it can feel quite urgent to fix it or make it go away. So be kind to the part that feels that desperation to be free from pain. The great thing about tapping is that you can tap on anything and everything, just start with however you’re feeling right now. Don’t worry about being “negative” or “positive”, just be true to how you feel and tap on that, then watch your system release stress with yawns, sighs, burps and so on. Tapping on the truth of how you feel is extremely powerful.

These are some tapping phrases (see EFT shortcut diagram here) that you might start with:

Even though I feel desperate to … I completely accept how I feel

Even though I feel I don’t have any support*, I completely accept how that makes me feel

Even though I feel broken because … I accept myself anyway

*Be really specific here and look for both internal and external resources, whatever they may be; books, music, exercise. We can often feel unsupported if we don’t have close relationships with others, but support can come in a variety of ways and you can always reassure yourself that you’re moving towards connecting with others when it feels safe/comfortable enough for you.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Tapping script for pushing through


Following on from last week's post, try this script for feeling the need to push through, sometimes at a high cost to your mental and physical health. Diagram for EFT Shortcut

Even though it’s too dangerous to stop trying, I completely accept how I feel

Even though I have to keep going because … I completely accept how I feel

Even though if I stopped trying, I fear … would happen, I completely accept this fear

Top of head: It’s not safe to stop
Eyebrow: But maybe I could take a break every now and then
Side of eye: That feels …
Under eye: I don’t trust that things will get better if I don’t keep trying
Under nose: But maybe I could try one thing at a time
Under chin: And not overwhelm myself by trying to do everything
Collar Bone: I could simplify things
Under arm: And take it easier on myself

Top of head: This urgency
Eyebrow: To get better
Side of eye: I understand it
Under eye: Because I don’t want to suffer
Under nose: But I’m suffering by struggling with too many things as well as everything else
Under Chin: I need to pare things down
Collar bone: To a manageable amount so I don’t get overwhelmed
Under arm: I’m still moving

Top of head: Just more slowly
Eyebrow: And that feels …
Side of eye: It’s ok to be kind to myself
Under eye: Or is it?
Under nose: Whose permission do I need to be kind to myself?
Under chin: Mine or someone else’s?
Collar bone: Can I get this permission?
Under arm: Because I know the value and power of kindness

Top of head: Whenever I’ve felt it
Eyebrow: It has felt good
Side of eye: Do I deserve to feel good?
Under eye: There’s no right answer here
Under nose: I can tap on however I feel
Under chin: Because it’s the truth
Collar bine: And the truth will set me free
Under arm: Even if it’s initially painful

Top of head: I know it’s more painful to live a lie
Eyebrow: I’m willing to tap on how I really feel
Side of eye: There’s huge power in honesty
Under eye: It lifts a weight from me
Under nose: And I feel freer
Under chin: To be me
Collar bone: I’m learning who I am
Under arm: And that feels …

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Why pushing through doesn’t work

In our rush to feel better, we want to go as fast as we can, which is completely understandable. But that can backfire. We often end up flooded and overwhelmed, what some might call an abreaction. But really, what’s actually happening is too much is coming up too soon and it’s too much for our system to handle.

Stuff that we’ve buried for years and even forgotten or didn’t know was there and stuff that we’re truly sick of dealing with. If we keep going fast, or pushing through, or trying to be strong, or trying to fix ourselves at all costs, or trying to do it perfectly we’ll end up retraumatised and even more afraid of the sensations that our bodies contain. A loop is created and it starts to feel like we can’t break out of it because our bodily sensations and emotions become even more intolerable. That’s why prolonged unresolved chronic stress is very often more traumatising than the original experience which caused the stress.

So, slower is better, and faster, in the long run. Not slower for the sake of it, not slower to make the practitioner more money, not slower for any other reason than the fact that you make greater progress if you take it easy and slow way down when things get too much. And while you’re at it, be kind to yourself. Treat yourself like you would a good friend. There is all sorts of research showing the power of compassion and kindness.

What I really like about pendulation (from somatic experiencing developed by Peter Levine) is that it helps us to stay in our bodies, even a small part like our little toe, and even when we’re overwhelmed. This is no mean feat when we feel flooded because leaving our body often feels like the only viable option. Pendulation helps teach us that some part of our body feels okay to inhabit, which is very calming and reassuring and helps activate our parasympathetic nervous system. It also helps us to rewire our brain, we learn that being in our bodies, or some part of it, feels ok, calm, grounding and even safe, which helps create new neural patterns. For anyone that has suffered from early developmental trauma this is an absolute life saver because dissociation is so often the only way out of intolerable pain.


Like anything, pendulation takes practice. If you can’t find a place in your body that feels good, find something else, a song, a pet, a friend. If you’re working with a therapist they can be that calm and grounded space you can go to in order to discharge any traumatic tension. Dipping in and out of the trauma, by pendulating your attention back and forth between the overwhelm and calm in your body,  helps the activated traumatic energy dissipate, and by doing so, you’re staying out of the trauma vortex according to Levine, which can so easily swamp and overwhelm you. This not only resolves trauma, it helps build resilience and hope and all the while you can tap on anything that arises too.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

How Ireland treats pregnant women

I’m writing this post because women’s rights are far from being in the bag and the abuse of women while pregnant, during birth and beyond is just disgraceful and far too common, the world over. This particular post is about how Ireland treats women while pregnant. It might not affect every woman, but if it affects even one, we should care enough to do something about it. Unfortunately too many women have been affected, so it’s really time to do something about it.

If the 8th amendment were repealed tomorrow, securing an abortion in Ireland would still be as difficult as it is now. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 would remain in force, untouched, regardless of what happens to the 8th. Many people seem to forget that, very conveniently in many cases. I believe it is a mistake to equate repealing the 8th amendment with abortion as abortion is such a contentious and emotive issue that divides people. And this may be exactly what the Irish state wants, so they can continue with their moral cowardice on the issue, hypocritically exporting the issue and women abroad, while keeping the fact that they hold the legal rights to the bodies of all pregnant women in Ireland, quiet. This is the case whether a woman wishes to continue with her pregnancy or not.

The 2013 Act is one of the strictest such laws in the world according to Eoin Daly, lecturer in constitutional law, NUIG. Therefore the fear that there will be abortion on demand if the 8th is repealed holds no weight whatsoever and is completely unfounded, because the 2013 Act would strictly prevent that. This fear is also an insult to the intelligence and sensitivity of women that if the 8th were repealed, they’d be having abortions right, left and centre.

What would happen if the 8th is repealed, is that the legal right to bodily autonomy would be restored to all pregnant women, which is not a step forward, it just brings us in line with most of the rest of the world and about time at that. The right to make our own medical decisions and informed consent and refusal would legally rest with the woman while pregnant. I don’t know how anyone could object to that. Do we honestly need to hold women legal prisoners of the Irish state while pregnant so they don’t ‘misbehave’?? Are we still in the dark ages in this country when it comes to women? It seems so.

Ireland took 30 steps backwards when article 40.3.3 (the 8th amendment) was added to the constitution in 1983. Of course this addition was reflective of the culture in Ireland towards women at the time which was just 30 years ago. Magdalene Laundries were still in existence, pregnant girls were still being thrown out of their homes with nowhere to go, pregnant teachers who were single were losing their jobs, pregnant teenagers were still hiding their pregnancies because of fear and shame. But this is 2017 and where are we now in Ireland? Have we changed in our attitudes to women?

No, we haven’t, at least collectively. In fact the Irish state has taken even more steps backwards in relation to women’s rights. In 2013, the 8th amendment was added to the national ‘consent’ guidelines for pregnant women by the HSE. The relevant section states that:

“Section 7.7.1 Refusal of treatment in pregnancy
The consent of a pregnant woman is required for all health and social care interventions. However, because of the constitutional provisions on the right to life of the “unborn”, there is significant legal uncertainty regarding the extent of a pregnant woman's right to refuse treatment in circumstances in which the refusal would put the life of a viable foetus at serious risk. In such circumstances, legal advice should be sought as to whether an application to the High Court is necessary”.

Why, after 30 years, were the consent guidelines amended? In my view, it was a financial move to limit liability. The obstetric bill is the biggest in the state claims agency. After bailing out the banks, there’s not much money left in the coffers. There are too many women coming forward, standing up for themselves, speaking up, taking cases, fighting for their rights and the Irish state doesn’t like it one bit. What better way to shut them up than by explicitly mentioning the 8th and the high courts in the consent guidelines, even if it’s ‘just’ to scare them into silence and obedience. Bullying is endemic in Irish society, particularly in our institutions and government.

In 2014, Ciara Hamilton was told by a judge that she was not the person entitled, authorised or qualified to make decisions about her own body while pregnant, her midwife was. Can you believe that? In 2013 and 2016, two women were brought to the high court by the HSE who sought orders for forced sedation and forced caesareans. I don’t know about you, but the possibility that this can happen in a so-called modern and progressive country sends shivers up my spine.

Miss Y was given a “termination” after being raped in her home country and sought an abortion at 8 weeks because she was suicidal. She was pushed from pillar to post until she was 24 weeks pregnant and given this “termination” in the form of a caesarean. So she was abused and raped all over again by the Irish state. She wasn’t even afforded the status of being an incubator as I’m sure the actual machines get better care. Her baby was then taken into care. I am sure both were extremely traumatised by the ‘care' they received. Another woman who suffered a brain tumour, had numerous infections with her body failing, was kept on life support because her 15 week old baby still had a heartbeat, against her family’s wishes. And so the atrocities continue …

These are just some of the desperately sad cases that I know about. I’m sure there are many many more. Are there good individuals working in the HSE? Yes, there are. But we are talking about national policy here, not the random luck of the draw of getting a good health care provider. It should not come down to luck, respect should be guaranteed along with evidence based care and when it’s lacking there should be adequate, accountable and transparent procedures that can be accessed and properly and thoroughly followed through.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Safety

We can’t talk ourselves into safety, we either feel safe or we don’t. There is no quick fix when it comes to feeling safe, it takes time to rewire our systems from being primarily in flight, fight or freeze; responses which are supposed to be temporary, not permanent. If the situation in which we find, or have found, ourself is chronically and repetitively threatening (very common in early developmental trauma which often leads to complex traumatic stress syndromes), these survival responses become essential, we don’t have the luxury of turning them off, they are needed for our very survival.  However, when they are employed long term they take a huge toll on our systems. Learning how to feel safe again is about being able to determine a real threat from a perceived or imagined threat. Both threats feel very real and have the same responses in our organism but usually only the real threat requires immediate action. When we internalise a threat, or threats, that’s trauma.

Somewhere along the line we started distancing ourselves from our instincts in order to appear more civilised, many humans forgot how to discharge the freeze response (tonic immobility), and as a result, these responses often become the enemy, or the threat. This is why saying that trauma is in the past is just not true. Traumatised people live with a present and current sense of internalised threat which can be excruciating as brain research shows.



Just like love might be our ultimate goal, so might safety. But there are stepping stones on the way to these bigger goals that can empower us and make us feel good on our journey. We don’t have to have 100% safety or love in order to feel ok. For example, when tapping you might ask yourself where in your body do you feel calm, grounded or neutral. What you’re looking for is to find a place that feels safe enough to go to if there are other sensations in your body that are too much for you right now leading to overwhelm and flooding. Peter Levine calls the movement of our attention from a place of overwhelm to one of neutrality or calm, or contraction and expansion, pendulation, and it is a really great resource to use at any time.

Try tapping on:

Even though I feel a lump in my throat, I also notice that my left knee feels quite calm and I’m going to move my attention back and forth between the two

Even though it feels better to let my attention rest on my knee for now, there’s a part of me feeling I must pay attention to my throat too, I completely accept how I feel

Even though there’s a part of me that feels I have to fix this feeling in my throat or make it go away, I’ll let my attention rest on my knee for now and see what happens

Even though I don’t feel safe (how do you know this, on a scale of 0 to 10 where are you?), there are places in my body that feel calm/grounded/neutral and this makes me feel …

Even though I don’t love myself right now, I can accept and even like some parts of me and that feels …

Monday, February 27, 2017

Tapping on trauma

Have a listen to the recent podcast from Sounds True with Bessel van der Kolk talking about trauma.


Try the following tapping script and as always, customise it for your unique situation and feelings, tapping diagram:

Even though I don’t want to (it doesn't feel safe to go inside etc.) go inside and feel these feelings, I completely accept how I feel

Even though I just can’t tolerate these physical sensations right now, I completely accept how I feel

Even though some parts of me (my feelings, my sensations) have frozen in time, I acknowledge those parts

Top of head: These feelings are in my present
Eyebrow: Not my past
Side of eye: They have frozen in time
Under eye: Because at the time I couldn’t deal with them
Under nose: And that’s ok
Under chin: It was just too much
Collarbone: Sometimes it’s still too much
Under arm: That’s why I need to go slow

Top of head: Even though I want them over and done with sometimes
Eyebrow: I want to go as fast as I can
Side of eye: So I can get rid of them
Under eye: Because they feel excruciating
Under nose: And that’s ok
Under chin: I need to feel them bit by bit
Collar bone: Because there’s an accumulation of them
Under arm: I just couldn’t feel at the time

Top of head: So I’m learning how to be with my difficult feelings and sensations
Eyebrow: And not run from them
Side of eye: And not fight them
Under eye: And not freeze them
Under nose: They need to be experienced
Under chin: Slowly, surely and safely
Collar bone: Preferably with someone safe
Under arm: I might not take this journey alone

Top of head: I might not want to
Eyebrow: It’s ok to reach out for help
Side of eye: It’s safe to reach out
Under eye: To the right person
Under nose: Who feels right to me
Under chin: It’s scary to reach out
Collar bone: I’ve done it before
Under arm: And it hasn’t worked out

Top of head: It’s hard to trust
Eyebrow: That I’ll be held
Side of eye: In all my pain
Under eye: When all I want to do is run from it
Under nose: Maybe others will feel the same
Under chin: And maybe they won’t
Collar bone: Maybe they’ll understand
Under arm: How I feel ... it's worth the risk to reach out again

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The most effective container

In my view and experience having a relational home offers the most effective container for any dysregulation. As Bonnie Badenoch put it, we draw on our inner community in order to self regulate (soothe ourself). On the outside, it looks like we’re self regulating, but we are in fact always co-regulating, whether another person is there with us physically or not. If we’ve been relatively securely attached to our care givers and others, this gives us a fantastic solid start in life which we later draw on again and again and again. The ACE study, among many others, demonstrates the price we pay when we haven’t had this solid beginning.

So, the hard science is in, we are relational creatures who are interdependent, therefore we need each other, going it alone all the time is not good for us, but it’s like many of us haven’t got the memo. People are continually shamed for not changing, not ‘growing up’, or ‘moving on’. But without the safety and warmth that a relational home can provide, we’ll stay in whatever protective defenses we’ve developed because it just won’t be safe enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and make any changes that we need to make.


Being able to contain our emotions, and grow a bigger container, so we increase our window of tolerance is crucial. We’re not going to release anger for ever more, because like all emotions, we need anger in certain circumstances, but we can release the anger that has become stuck when we are triggered about certain experiences we’ve had. Wishing that we didn’t have certain emotions is futile, learning how to live with them and use them for our benefit is absolutely essential for our mental and physical health.

As practitioners we can practise all the interventions and exercises we want, but if we don’t provide a relational home to ‘hold’ any dysregulation, either in ourselves or the client, they’re next to useless. At worst we’ll project and blame the client, calling them resistant and all sorts of things, instead of taking a good hard long look at what we need to change.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Not on shaky ground

I have been doing Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) on and off since the beginning of 2012. TRE operates on the basis that the body, if allowed to, will naturally shake off the tonic immobility (freeze) response, in the form of tremors. The body will shake involuntarily for however long it needs to and this will usually be followed by deep shuddering breaths and a return to homeostasis (relaxation). Wild animals shake all the time, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t survive for very long. They would become hypervigilant, constantly responding to perceived, rather than real danger, which eventually exhausts their systems. This hypervigilance, a symptom also present in traumatised humans, makes them vulnerable to real danger because their responsiveness is not as sharp or quick as it could be if they were well rested and more able to recognise the signs of true and present danger.

Human animals have become so far removed from their instincts and wilder nature that if they were to start shaking and tremoring, some might panic and think something is horribly wrong and others might think it’s weird and frightening. Here in Ireland, when people go into shock, they’re often told to eat something sweet to help calm the shaking that naturally occurs.  So we repress the shaking out of ignorance, lack of knowledge or because we don’t want to feel embarrassed or shamed by others who don’t understand what’s happening, which is why education is so desperately needed about how our bodies, brains and minds respond to stress and how we can release that stress so it doesn’t accumulate and cause illness. I don't think there is a human alive who hasn't been traumatised so it is crucial that trauma is normalised.


As with any modality you need to proceed safely and gently and TRE is no different. In fact, in my experience TRE is even more powerful than other modalities I’ve tried. What I mean by that is that it can melt those frozen parts of us too/very quickly and we can subsequently feel overwhelmed and very agitated. This might happen after you’ve completed the exercises, not necessarily during, which is why it’s important to pace yourself and preferably find someone who you can co-regulate with. 

If you think of every time you’ve been overwhelmed or received a shock over your lifetime and you haven’t released those experiences from your nervous system, they build up, and up, and up, they’re like a volcano waiting to explode. The fuller our barrels are, the more overwhelm we can experience when we start to empty those barrels. In our very understandable rush to feel better and get rid of our pain once and for all, we can go hell bent for leather, which only ever backfires.

Recovering from trauma can’t be done alone, it is absolutely crucial to have some support for our journey. The same is true for life, we are an interdependent species, we need each other and we are trying to pretend otherwise which is not working! Most of us, worldwide, live in cultures that value and admire independence, self reliance and going it alone over being supposedly ‘too’ needy. It is probably fair to say that this point of view is more common in so-called ‘developed’ counties. You have to wonder about the standards we measure that development, sometimes I think it’s purely economical. The fact that the term needy even exists is so telling.

I listened to an excellent webinar by Bonnie Badenoch recently and she talked about the myth of self regulation. What she said really resonated with me. Most of us have come to believe that needing others makes us weak, that the goal is to be able to do everything by ourselves. But I truly believe that we weren’t meant to go it alone, just look at a little baby and how they thrive when their care giver is attuned and mirrors them or an infant that is abused or neglected and left to “self soothe”. There is some difference between the two and how their lives pan out.

The fact is, if we weren’t soothed when we were young, it is extremely difficult later in life to learn how to relax and calm ourselves, though not impossible. When we can calm ourselves as adults, it’s because we have an inner community that we can draw upon according to Bonnie Badenoch and I agree wholeheartedly. So, even though on the outside it looks like we’re ‘self regulating’, we’re still co-regulating because we’re drawing on internal resources that were shared and given with love by others. We internalise everything, the good and the bad. The care and warmth we receive stays with us, as does the neglect and abuse, until we work through it and transform it.

Sadly, some people don’t even have one warm and nurturing person that they can call upon, but maybe they have something else for the time being, such as a pet, nature etc. What is essential though, is reaching out and finding someone who is safe and nurturing, I don’t think there’s any substitute for other loving human beings in our life. I think everyone deserves and needs to have at least one person in their lifetime who provides them with warmth, validation and safety. 

A practice that I’ve found extremely helpful is pendulation. The practice is from somatic experiencing, which was developed by Peter Levine. When we swing our attention back and forth between tension and relaxation for example, we are pendulating between the two, which helps us stay with the difficult sensations a bit longer without becoming overwhelmed. I often do the constructive rest pose (which is from yoga and very similar to the position in TRE at the end of the exercises) and if I notice my legs starting to tremor, much more gently than if I had done TRE, I know my body is releasing some stress. To help with any possible overwhelm and to help co-regulate my system, I scan my body to find a place of relaxation or a place that feels neutral and swing my attention back and forth between the shaking and the neutral/relaxed place which works really well. I also plant my feet firmly on the ground so even though my body might be shaking, I’m not on ‘shaky ground’. I push my feet firmly into the floor as many times as I need to in order to ground myself and feel more regulated. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Let a feeling crack you open

I wanted to share this excellent post by Jeff Foster on feelings. I think this is what any good therapy, or life, ultimately and eventually teaches us: not to fight/resist/avoid/numb or dread our feelings. I know it's not easy to learn how to do this, in fact it's excruciatingly hard sometimes, but I believe it is essential. You can find out more about Jeff here.