Tag Archives: trauma

Love & Anxiety: M & M’s for Reducing Anxiety

One month I was in Maui meditating on a mound of sand- can’t resist that awesome alliteration. When my mind refused to empty, I began thinking about BEING and overall health and what brings those about for me, and my fellow human beings. Giving up on the meditation, I instead concluded that for health and well being, a balanced body, and reduced anxiety, I needed a steady diet of M & M’s! Yes, you heard me correctly. But before you run out to Costco to buy a huge bag of the chocolate candy coated sugar bombs, that is not the right type of M&M’s. I am talking about Movements and Meditations (Any form of relaxed Stillness), those M and M’s. (My fellow sugar lovers are bumming right now).

In order to live in a body with a regulated and healthy Autonomic Nervous System, and to experience health and well being, the human body needs a combination of Stillness, and Kinetic expulsion of energy, better known as movement.  As always, balance occurs by experiencing  the combination of opposites. Stillness and movement are polar opposites. Let’s begin by talking about movement.

Experts have been insisting for years, consistent exercise is the best predictor of long term health. And not just physical, but physiological and emotional health as well. Exercise/movement even slows down age-related cognitive decline. People who exercise regularly are happier and healthier across the board. Now I know you have heard this many times before but I am going to add an additional motivator that may help you begin a regular habit of movement if you don’t already have one. For that we will talk about our lovely Limbic system.

The Limbic system sits on top of our primitive brain stem and regulates many functions. One of them is movement! When you think Limbic system think of your limbs, arms and legs. Those parts of our bodies so integral for self-protective actions. If you trip, hopefully your arms fly out to catch yourself, if you are attacked -and you do not freeze in terror- your arms fly out automatically to punch or push away, and your feet and legs team up to kick or run away. For our early hunter-gatherer ancestors , the ability to move, and often quite quickly, was the difference between living and extinction. As Perry and Szalavitz state in their wonderful book, “Born for love: why empathy is essential and endangered”, “…even in adults, threat or distress shifts control from the rational abstract thinking areas {sic neo-cortex} to the ‘more decisive, rapidly acting central lower regions’ {sic limbic and brain stem}. Under perceived threat we get dumber but faster, which can help us survive running from a bad guy…” These authors help us understand due to the way our body and brains are wired, the ability to move easily is an instinctive precursor to feeling safe in our bodies. This is especially true at a sub-cortical level.

In my experience, as a human and a therapist, because this connection is subcortical and not found in our conscious understanding, we are often unaware of this deep limbic benefit! This is one reason why some of us can keep ignoring the suggestion to exercise. When we understand all the benefits of movement and its ability to bring on a somatic sensation of safety, perhaps we can find some motivation to begin a new habit of consistent movement.

In our current culture the message that movement is needed for health will probably be more easily accepted than my second suggestion. That stillness, and quite a bit of it, is needed for health as well. This may be a harder sell. There is little praise given out for sitting still, unless you are a Buddhist and/or someone who values meditation. (This can include prayer, breath work, or any form of silent stillness.) Most of us are frantically racing about toward the next “thing”, our next task. The idea to sit still and do NOTHING but BE and let ourselves surrender to the moment and to our essential being, this is not a message you hear on TV or at the movies.  However, in order to settle down after all our running around accomplishing things, our bodies need stillness. We need to stop and let our muscles relax and our nerves to stop sending jumpy messages to our brain. We need our digestion to begin again and for our body to go into rejuvenation mode. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is called the “Rest and Digest” system just for that reason. When we come down out of the Sympathetic Charge (movement and action) it is because the Parasympathetic system has kicked in. This is the time that our bodies go into recovery mode. Most anxious people have stomach problems and digestion issues because they are rarely still, they are rarely in the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous system.
Now, to be accurate, you do not need to be fully still to be in Rest & Digest mode, but stillness and meditation have been linked to relaxation and decreased anxiety for years now. One reason for this is that the inside of our body follows the messages sent by the outside of our body. The bracing or relaxing of our muscle/skeletal system (MSS) tell our bellies and brains whether it is safe to relax and calm down. Or, our MSS can tell our insides to be really scared and that maybe we should run like hell. If you have trouble believing this try the following experiment. Sit slumped over, like you are a rag doll. After 20 seconds check in with your internal body and your energy levels and sense of readiness for action.  Now, sit up straight and tall, or better yet, stand up in parade rest like a soldier, chest out head up, with your arms and legs spread out. Now check internally and see what has changed. Notice how this simple posture change, immediately impacts the sensations in your body and how you feel in the world. In my work as a therapist, I can usually tell how my clients are feeling inside merely by observing how they walk in and how they sit in my office. I can tell how tight and braced or loose and relaxed they are by their body movements and how they sit overall.
In meditation/stillness a deep relaxation is possible because your MSS is not sending messages of tension or action to your brain and belly. Try sitting on the edge of your chair in a tense, braced position while attempting to relax. You most likely cannot do it. The outside of your body needs to be in the right posture/to send internal messages that it is safe to relax.

While I could keep going, I will just add one more benefit to adding more stillness into your life. Often people who make a living by being creative (writers/painters/musicians) have shared how being still for a time can really jump start their creativity. When the mind is not leaping from idea to idea and task to task, perhaps there is more opportunity for it to allow the juicy goodness like music, art and books to come up out of our subconscious minds and our souls.

I encourage you this week to pick the M that you have the most difficult time doing and deliberately add more of it into your life. Let me know how it goes.

Eli, meditating in the sand!
Eli, meditating in the sand!

Going Deeper:

1.) Are you a person who really loves action and movement or someone who values quiet, solitude and stillness?  Does the thought of adding lots of the one that is harder for you bring anxiety or excitement? What messages did you get in your Family of Origin (FOO) about movement? How about stillness/meditation?

2.) For those of you who may struggle with movement, do you know what blocks you from consistent movement/exercise? Try being more active for a few weeks and see how that changes how you feel in your daily life.  This can be as simple as adding in a nice easy walk 3-5 times per week, or putting on 3-5 of your favorite songs in a row and dancing in your living room. The Limbic system does not demand intense exercise, just lots of easy moving.

Blog 19: Rage, Art & Poetry

Today we will talk about Art, and specifically, poetry. Poetry is a powerful art medium that combines words, metaphors, and images in a manner that deeply touches the human soul. According to wikipeda.com “Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differential interpretation to words, or to evoke emotive responses.” Today we value conventional poetry less than our ancestors did, but our musicians and moviemakers are this generation’s poets. And I would suggest, that is one reason why we value them so deeply and sometimes “worship” some of our favorite bands and musicians.

But an additional benefit of poetry is the reason it is today’s focus. If you can recall the subjects from recent blog posts — emotion, sensation and emotional regulation— then you will see where I am going with this. Poetry is a wonderful means and medium to help us Experience and Express our big emotions. (Remember those 2 E’s that help us better handle our upsetting emotional storms?) By connecting to what we really “feel” inside, we can use the energy generated, and pour it into a poem. Sharing the raw pain/anger/confusion/joy or terror that we feel, allows other humans to realize they are not alone in these states. Poetry has an intimate connecting effect, it often prompts us to say, “Oh you feel that too! Wow, I thought I was alone in this.”  

As a therapist working with anxiety and trauma, I hear terrible stories from people of all ages. Some of these stories are harder to shake off than others and I feel the impact in my body. It is especially hard when working with children or teens. Some stories really trigger me because I have felt or experienced similar emotions, or even situations. In the past I got scared of being overwhelmed by all the pain that found its way into my office day after day. However, years ago, I found out with the help of a wise wizard woman, (you know who you are, and Yes, there are still those living on the planet) that poetry was a wonderful way to allow processing and releasing of these big somatic impacts. So I started writing poetry out of my own rage, confusion, and pain, and the vicarious pain of the courageous people I have the joy of journeying alongside of on this crazy path called life.

Since for many, anger is such a difficult emotion to healthily express, I will show how anger can be expressed in two poems I will use to end today’s blog. Poetry can allow a sense of playfulness, even when expressing rage. (Any poem about clients are a compilation of client stories in order to protect client confidentiality.)

Poem 1- Superhero        by Wanda Brothers

When I grow up, I wanna be

a super-hero, with big black boots

wielding a lengthy whip,

and a surplus of superpowers.

 

My job will be my joy

chasing villains, busting bad guys,

making a safer world for us all,

enacting the eventually promised justice,

that I lack the patience to wait for.

 

I will be respected and feared

and little old ladies will thank me,

and bake me casseroles

for saving their grandchildren

from the swine that pollute

our earth like raw sewage,

raiding and raping with impunity

until they run into me.

 

Then shaking with terror,

they will pee their pants

piteously pleading for the mercy

they denied many a victim.

With studied gravity, I will demur,

and with a pretense of regret, 

I will annihilate them, and then,

dance on their graves with glee.

Poem 2 – Helpless Rage for a Drowning Client   -By Wanda Brothers

My rage is hidden, shy, sly.

It rises and I turn to look

and it’s already gone

like the view in the rear view mirror.

 

The parents are killing her, I say.

and the Bureaucratic bunglers don’t stop them

everyone looks the other way

and she is drowning in front of my eyes.

I give her a breath of clean air

here and there, but stand aside,

as she thrashes, like a good citizen,

while they murder her by inches,

and hack her soul to bits.

 

I want to stab them, slash them

into ribbons, and feed her their flesh

but it will do no good,

nothing does, so I take up

again, my useless vigil

and give her another breath.

       Going Deeper:

  1. Do you enjoy poetry as an art form, if so, who is your favorite poet? If not, can you notice how the lyrics to some of your favorite songs find their way into your soul? 
  2. I encourage you to try writing a poem or a song about the next big emotional storm that you go through. Allow the emotions and sensations to generate words and images and see what happens internally after you get them down on paper or on your ipad/iphone/imac or PC. Then, as one more big step, I suggest you share it with the person closest to you. I think you will be thrilled at how they respond. 
  3. If you want to send me any of your poetry, feel free, I would love to read it. info@sdtraumatherapy.com