Military Sexual Trauma or “MST” is all together too common. About one in four women seen at the VA report some form of military sexual trauma. While this does not include all women who have experienced MST, women are more likely to report this type of trauma. On the other hand, many men do not report MST; only 1 in 100 men disclose that they have experienced MST. Men tend to report less often as they are more likely to see MST as “hazing”, bullying, or physical abuse (https://www.sexualassault.army.mil/whatweknow_militarymen.aspx). Additionally, It is common for men feel too much shame to report sexual trauma feeling that it somehow makes them less of a man. That said, while women are at higher risk for MST, 40% of MST reports are made by men. So what exactly is Military Sexual Trauma?
Having lived the life of a military significant other for ten years, I know it can be challenging even in the best of times. Often times, by choosing to be with our veteran partner we are uprooted from our communities, our families, and our friends. Frequently, our careers are interrupted in some way whether due to not being able to stay with a company or agency long enough to gain seniority and related benefits, having a lower income due to living in areas that don’t pay well, or perhaps not being able to get a job in our field. If we have children, they are raised away from family and go through many transitions in their little lifetimes. And for those active duty spouses, we may be moved often and have to reintegrate into a new community, a new way of life in some ways, every few years. That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to being with our military partner. It’s just to honor that there are unique challenges that we face in doing so.
In the past 21 years since I entered the field, a lot has changed in how we identify, understand, and help people heal trauma. Thankfully, research over the past thirty plus years has helped us shift our knowledge base and thus inspired newer body-based (somatic) therapies to fully address the way that trauma shows up in the body.
Whether or not you have read more recent books on trauma such as Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score”, Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery”, Peter Levine’s “Waking the Tiger”, or Pat Oden’s “Trauma and the Body”, just considering the titles gives us the idea that perhaps the body is involved in trauma and how trauma impacts us. That idea is not only correct, but also what has shifted us to understand the need for trauma therapies that involve the body. Knowing this, we have come to understand that to heal trauma, the body must be involved. What follows is a peek into some of these treatment options. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list or prescriptive in any way, but just a way to share what may be available to you. I have also shared some adjunctive treatments to trauma therapy as they can greatly assist in the healing process.
What does it mean to have “trauma”?
Before we get into some of the integrative treatment options for healing trauma, let’s clarify what we mean by trauma. In the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM5), what is used by many clinicians for diagnosis of psychological disorders, traumatic events are those we have experienced or witnessed in which we were exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, and/or sexual violence. Under certain circumstances, this can include learning about a traumatic event happening to a close family member or close fired or “experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., can happen with therapists, first responders, police officers, and others).
The tough part is, for some who grew up in unstable family situations a disappointing look filled with shame from a parent could be experienced as trauma; a child experiencing this could fear abandonment or being harmed in some way, or something else potentially life threatening. So in some ways, trauma is in the eye of the beholder. This doesn’t mean that everything that upsets us or that we don’t like is trauma. It is just important to understand that trauma doesn’t have to be being raped, beaten, blown up or shot at, or other experiences like those. In trauma therapy, we refer to those trauma experiences as “big T” traumas - essentially traumatic events that almost everyone and anyone would see as traumatic. “Little t” traumas are still traumatic. They just tend to be more individualized based on the circumstances, as in the case with the aforementioned disappointing and shaming look.
Note that while we may have a history of trauma, we may or may not meet criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That doesn’t mean your trauma doesn’t impact you and that you don’t need treatment. It just means that at the time of being assessed, your symptoms do not align with what we now consider to be PTSD.
Now that we have an idea of what trauma is, let’s take a look at some integrative therapies.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR Therapy)
EMDR Therapy is a well researched and effective treatment for trauma that can also be used for some other presenting issues such as anxiety, stress, anger, shame, and many others. It assists your brain's natural ability to process information and heal from trauma, particularly when your natural healing process has been interrupted or turned off. Developed in 1987 by Francine Shapiro, EMDR Therapy has been well researched since that time. It has been accepted as a treatment for PTSD by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association as well as the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran's Affairs. It is important to note that EMDR Therapy is a client driven therapy. That is, if we decide EMDR Therapy is appropriate for you we will work together to honor your pace and therapeutic needs.
We begin EMDR Therapy by working on stabilization skills and resourcing to prepare for the trauma reprocessing phase of treatment, a phase of treatment that can be quite intense. Once you and your EMDR therapist agree that your system has stabilized enough to tolerate the trauma reprocessing phase, you will work methodically through your trauma memories as related to your current symptom picture.
For more information about EMDR Therapy click here or go to https://www.emdria.org.
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Internal Family Systems (IFS), sometimes referred to as "parts work", honors the fullness of who we are recognizing that at our core, our Self-energy helps us navigate the world with compassion, curiosity, clarity, confidence, courage, creativity, connection, and from a place of calm. However, sometimes extreme events such as trauma can interfere with our ability to connect with our inner wholeness. IFS helps us heal so we can reconnect with our ability to live and lead from a grounded, connected place.
For more information on IFS click here or go to https://ifs-institute.com.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy ®
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a method developed by Pat Ogden for processing traumatic memory from a body-based orientation. It integrates sensorimotor processing with cognitive and emotional processing to holistically address all parts of the system impacted by trauma. It joins somatic therapy and psychotherapy into a comprehensive method for healing the disconnection between body and mind that often occurs with trauma. Ogden identifies as particularly helpful with dissociation, emotional reactivity or flat affect (i.e., numbed out), frozen states or hyperarousal and other PTSD symptoms.
For more information about Sensorimotor Processing Therapy click here or go to https://www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org.
Somatic Experiencing® (SE)
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented approach to healing trauma and other stress related disorders. SE was developed by Peter LeVine over the course of his career studying stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics. He reports 45 years of successful clinical application with this approach. SE’s approach is one of freeing the nervous system from being stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze responses through movement.
For more information about Somatic Experiencing click here or go to https://traumahealing.org/about-us/.
ADJUNCTIVE TREATMENTS TO TRAUMA THERAPY
Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY)
Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) is a SAMHSA Approved, evidence-based protocol for treating PTSD and complex trauma developed by leading researchers in the field of trauma and psychology. TCTSY is based on clinical trials performed at the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, Massachusetts by psychiatrist and leading trauma researcher Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and yoga teacher David Emerson.
TCTSY is a somatic (body-based) modality that has been proven as an effective adjunctive treatment for psychological trauma. The intent of it is to engage the neural networks in the brain impacted by trauma. TCTSY is an opportunity for you to be in complete control of your body in the present moment. You are welcome to make choices and notice feelings in your body in a way that feels useful to you. Through the process of interoception, feeling and moving the body, we can reconnect the damaged neural networks. Interoception is a learn-able skill we can practice together!
Additional potential benefits include:
The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP)
The Safe and Sound Protocol is a five-day auditory intervention that has been shown to address anxiety and trauma related stressors as well as inattention, stressors impacting social engagement, social emotional difficulties, and auditory sensitivities.
The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) was developed by Stephen Porges as a way to calm one's physiological and emotional states. In doing so we can reduce stress and enhance social engagement and resilience through increasing vagal tone. In turn, this can improve communication and lead to more successful therapy.
The SSP is best used as an adjunctive to psychotherapy, as it helps enhance the process of psychotherapy and related treatments. It can be useful to engage in this protocol prior to trauma work to help enhance trauma therapies.
For more information about the SSP, click here.
If you are experiencing challenges in your life from trauma, I encourage you to connect with a trauma therapist who offers one or more of the above treatments. You don't have to suffer in pain; there is help.
We’ve likely all experienced it at one time or another. Something happens, and our mind goes to the worst possible thing. Our partner is crabby and we wonder what we did wrong. A friend doesn’t return a text. Our boss says s/he wants to see us in her/his office. How do we deal with this catastrophic thinking?
There is no one right way. Today I am sharing one thing I have found that works for me and has worked for the clients with whom I work.
(2) Identify the Belief
Here you are just identifying the underlying belief about yourself or the world that you stepped into after the incident, event, or trigger happened. It sounds like this: “When my boss asks me to see her/him in her/his office, I believe I am in trouble and have done something wrong.”
(3) Is it true?
Ask yourself, is it true that every time you go to your boss’s office you are in trouble? If no, skip to step (5). If yes, go to step (4).
(4) Is it absolutely true, 100% of the time?
Ask yourself, is it true 100% of the time, that every single time in the history of your working life that when you have gone into a boss’s office you are in trouble. (I’m guessing the honest answer to this is “no”.)
(5) How do you feel when you believe it?
Ask yourself, how do you feel when you believe the above belief. My guess is some variation of “crappy”.
(6) List Evidence
Look for the evidence that your above belief isn’t true. So in the above example, think of/list off times when you have gone to your boss’s office for something other than being in trouble. Perhaps think of alternative explanations as well (e.g., times when you have gone into your boss’s office for positive things, something positive or neutral that could be behind the reason for the request). Sometimes we need help with this step, so feel free to ask safe-enough loved ones for their ideas; select someone who can help you find evidence contrary to your belief rather than fueling it and preferably someone who won’t invalidate your concerns and feelings.
Know that the above strategy is a practice; it may take trying it out a few times (maybe LOTS of times) to get the hang of it and to notice a shift in your thoughts. That’s okay. Just keep practicing.
A note on complex trauma: If you have a history of complex trauma and are bumping into long held beliefs related to past traumatic experiences, know that this can be a start or something to try. However, you may also benefit from work with a psychotherapist who specializes in complex trauma to help you resolve past trauma and release past limiting beliefs.
Having a daily routine is a great way to start the day; it helps us get grounded moving into our day in a more regulated way both so we can navigate the world with a greater sense of calm and enjoyment and be able to be more productive. During challenging times and times of uncertainty, a daily routine becomes essential to help us feel a sense of predictability and normalcy while also helping us feeling calmer.
Over the years, I have created a morning routine - not by doing all of these things at once, but through hearing the benefits of different things and trying them out one by one, identifying what worked for me and letting go of what didn’t. The morning routine I am about to share is the culmination of those efforts and basically everything that stuck.
In 2006 I read a study on the benefits of cultivating gratitude through keeping a gratitude journal, that is, writing down three things for which you are grateful every day. I read that it would help improve my overall mood and increase happiness, with the study citing it could happen in as little as 12 weeks! Being prior to my time as a yoga student and teacher, this sounded like complete BS to me. I decided to try it and find out if it would work for me.
Despite my lack of faith in this approach, sure enough, keeping a gratitude journal had a significantly positive impact on my life and how I looked at and navigated the world. At the time of this post, it is 14 years later and I haven’t missed a day! Since then, I have read a number of studies as well as Alex Korb’s neuroscientific research on gratitude journals, all of which show how (and more recently why) this works so well for improving mood. My observation is that part of why it works is that when we start, we write down the more obvious things for which we are grateful (for me, my loved ones including pets, my health, my education, and my yoga practice). But after a few days of writing the same things we start to observe more closely and notice the beauty around us. So why my gratitude journal still includes those more easy to notice pieces of my life, I also find myself grateful for small flowers I notice or today, the tiny buds on a tree near my house. If you haven’t done this or even if you have, this is a quick and relatively simple way to start your day.
Dump Your Mind Through Writing
In December 2019 I set an intention to work my way through “The Artist’s Way”. What stuck from that work was writing “Morning Pages” as a way to clear out the mind. Julia Cameron recommends we do this first thing in the morning and that we write three pages. I have found being relaxed about the number of pages makes it easier to get started. Starting with the intention of writing whatever comes up (also known as stream-of-consciousness) and just writing anything at all also releases any pressure that might prevent one from doing it. Some days I start with “I don't feel like f@*$ing writing today” and find I continue to write, while other days I’m okay with that being good enough.
Through my morning writing, I find I start the day calmer and with greater clarity as there is less stuff clouding my mind. At times it also slows the flow of thoughts in my morning meditation. Further, as Julia Cameron promises, it has helped increase my creativity both in more artistic pursuits but also in terms of day to day problem solving. One note, it is recommended you do not go back and read these pages or allow anyone else to; this isn’t the time to write your memoir, start your blog, or create your next book. Just allow yourself to write unfiltered and be sure to keep it in a safe spot.
Read Spiritual or Growth Inspiring Text
This is an idea I picked up from Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” and have seen it mentioned other places. It is often recommended as a way to help us remember we are part of something bigger than ourselves, helping us connect with spirit or some form of inspiration each day. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I take this time to read different yogic texts but you could read whatever resonates with you. On a good day I find this helps to remember connection to Spirit, honoring the beauty of the world; on tough days it gives me perspective allowing me to step back, reflect, and move through the challenges.
Candle Lighting with Prayers/Intentions
As I prepare for meditation, I light four candles on my meditation alter. Perhaps this little ritual is a remnant from my Catholic upbringing or just a way to mark the beginning of my seated practice. Either way, I find it as a lovely small piece of my day.
If you choose this practice, you are welcome to find what works for you. My approach came up organically and looks like this: As I light the first candle I say a short prayer for protection for myself; the second candle I light while saying the loving kindness prayer for myself (May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I be at peace, May I live with ease). As I light the third candle, I say the same protection prayer for everyone in the universe with the fourth being the loving kindness prayer for all Beings.
Common to relatively newer meditation practitioners, when I first started meditating I was upset and stressed about my busy thoughts and anxiety when I sat to meditate. In my request for something that would help calm my anxiety and thoughts even just a little when meditating, one of my earlier meditation teachers offered a breathing practice called nadi shodana or alternate nostril breathing. While I have learned to allow my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations to just be part of my meditation and something I notice, I still find benefit from practicing nadi shodana. Another option is to pause, noticing your breath and just being present with it. Further, there are many, many different breathing practices to try which in yoga we call pranayama, each with a different intention.
During a time of high anxiety in my life, a yoga therapist recommended I gather some rocks on a hike and meditate with them in a circle around me. I have found this practice incredibly grounding and helpful in my meditation practice.
The thing with meditation is it can be simple, but isn’t always easy. What often gets in the way is the expectations we place on ourselves about what meditation should look like whether it is a calm mind, having a certain metaphysical experience, feeling calm afterward, and/or how we think meditation should impact our life. If instead, we just decide to sit, perhaps simply noticing our breath, maybe listening to a guided meditation, or perhaps reciting a mantra, the practice happens. And it is just that - a practice. So perhaps just take a seat and breathe, noticing what unfolds.
One note on meditation and trauma, particularly complex trauma. Sometimes mindfulness and other meditations that invite you to notice your body sensations and experience can be too overwhelming or triggering. Details about this are out of the scope of this post; it is recommended that you honor your experience and if something is upsetting in a way that doesn’t feel like it is supporting growth, perhaps try something else or perhaps connect with a psychotherapist well-versed in trauma and meditation to help you.
Move Your Body
If we look at the anatomy of our bodies with our moveable joints and muscles, it is clear we are meant to move and that most of the time, we feel better when we move versus when we are sedentary. However, many people get caught up on what this movement needs to look like. In doing so, we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves or choose things that we think we “should” do but don’t enjoy.
What if instead, we shifted our focus to movement… to moving our bodies in ways that we enjoy. For some this could be walking or hiking or maybe dancing around the house as we do our chores. For others this could be biking to work or practicing yoga asana. For others it could be heading to the gym. So I invite you find a way you enjoy to move and try it, maybe just adding a little bit each day if you aren’t already in the habit of moving your body.
NOTE: Be sure to ask your doctor, particularly if you have health conditions, about adding movement to your life to make sure you are medically cleared for the movement you are choosing.
There is no right way to start out the day. What is clear, is that having some kind of morning routine can help us feel calmer, more grounded, and perhaps be more productive throughout our day. What is also clear is that if we try to start too many new things at once, it is too hard to give up the lifestyle we were used to having. So perhaps try going to bed fifteen minutes earlier tonight and getting up fifteen minutes earlier tomorrow, starting with one new thing for you way to start the day.
All of this is so surreal. As I was hiking today, I found myself curious about our current reality and how this could be happening. In so many ways, these are scary times and it can feel quite overwhelming, because the reality is, this is happening. Our fears, worries, loneliness, and grief are just as real as COVID-19 and they need our attention.
There is a lot of helpful information out there on how to approach this unprecedented global experience. As it comes across my newsfeed and email, I am finding myself struggling to track it all. Thus, my intention is not to add to the clutter, but creating a living document (see my COVID19 Resources Page) to be updated with this information in one place, for you, for me, for all.
There is no one “right” way to navigate these scary and challenging times with our mental health and wellness in tact (or at least not wildly out of control) and these are just some ideas, not an exhaustive list. My hope is you will sift through this post, take what seems to resonate and reflect on it further to tailor it to work for you, discarding what doesn’t fit.
Our nervous systems are rightfully dysregulated right now. With all that is happening, from the scary news stories to hoarding of resources giving the impression of scarcity, to people not taking this seriously, to physically isolating, this is a lot to take; it is hard for us to regulate into our Social Engagement System where we feel safe enough to connect or even just to be. (For a deeper look into regulating the nervous system, see my previous blog post on how our nervous system helps us and other post on regulating the nervous system). In addition to whatever was going on for us before, we are now faced with a new and quite significant stressor.
Why is regulating our nervous system important? First, if we can regulate our nervous system our bodies are better able to access the resource of our immune system to help keep us healthy which is crucial right now. Further, I find it helps if we can identify and understand our autonomic state, that is if we are in the “rest and digest” response of the Social Engagement system, our fight or flight response, or in shutdown/freeze; with that knowledge we can make efforts to shift back into a state of regulation, back into the ventral vagal response of our parasympathetic nervous system (more simply named the Social Engagement System), back to where we can rest, digest, learn, and connect and where our immune system is at its strongest.
Key to being able to regulate our nervous systems is the breath and often, the breath with slow, fluid movement. This could be a walk, yoga, Tai Chi, or some other movement in which you engage the breath. One of my favorite ways to help calm the nervous system that is easy to do almost anywhere is volcano breathing from Yoga Calm. To do this, place your palms together in front of your chest. As you inhale, extend your arms slowly up over your head with palms still together using the entire inhale to lift your arms. As you exhale, reach our arms out to the sides to make a big circle and having your hands meet back in front of your chest using the entire exhale to get there. Repeat several times.
Another essential piece of regulating our nervous systems is to limit our exposure to news and information about COVID-19. Yes, it is important to have enough information to protect yourself and your family. However, having the news on all day or checking news sources throughout the day can be overwhelming to even the calmest person. Thus, I highly recommend selecting just one or two reputable sources to stay informed enough to stay as safe and healthy as possible while also following local guidelines for physical distancing and staying at home. My suggestion is checking out either the CDC website or the World Health Organization (WHO) website and then checking your local government website (in Colorado, they have a specific page set up for COVID-19.
If you are choosing to watch news or information about COVID-19, or even if you aren’t, consider balancing this out with noticing some of the beautiful ways people are helping each other or finding some of the humor in life right now (the toilet paper thing is pretty funny - assuming you have some!). Have you seen how at hospital shift change in Atlanta, people stand out on their balconies and porches and cheer loudly? So lovely.
Sufficient sleep is essential both for coping effectively and reducing our anxiety and depression as well as for helping bolster our immune system. See my blog post on Tips for Better Sleep to help improve your sleep.
For most of us, our regular routines have been disrupted. Given that COVID-19 may be with us for a while, it is important to find a new daily routine or schedule to create some sense of normalcy. This can help us feel more centered or grounded at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the world; our routine is something we can often control to some degree.
Some grounding ideas for starting your day include journaling (I find this super helpful to just dump the mind by stream-of-consciousness writing every morning), cultivating gratitude through a gratitude journal or jar, reading something spiritual or inspiring daily (even could be a quote), working with the breath, or meditating (Insight Timer is a free app and has thousands of free guided meditations). Throughout the day to ground, feel your feet on the floor, practice 5-4-3-2-1 (notice 5 things you see, 4 things you feel to the touch, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste), or notice things in your surroundings in other ways.
Stay Engaged, Stay Connected
Staying connected can be tough right now due to physical distancing and stay-at-home orders. Thankfully, many of us have access to the internet. Perhaps instead of texting, now is the time for phone calls and video chats or even video messages to our loved ones. Instead of dinner out with a friend, perhaps we video chat with a friend as we eat dinner separately but simultaneously.
At times, social media can be a nice way to connect and I am noticing using it too much can increase anxiety both through scrolling (even during non-crisis times I notice an increase in anxiety in my body when I scroll through my newsfeed) and by being exposed to COVID-19 related posts almost constantly. Thus, you may seek out additional ways to stay connected. Many faith communities have moved their offerings online as have yoga studios and other communities. We are likely going to be physically distancing from each other for quite some time. I highly recommend not also distancing socially but rather finding ways to stay connected from afar.
It is also helpful to stay engaged in some way. Maybe this means taking an online course you have wanted to take for a while, starting a new at-home hobby, learning a new language (I like the Duolingo app), doing some art, or perhaps trying yoga for the first time. There are so many opportunities for these types of activities and more. I will try to list different resources for this on my new COVID-19 Resource Page as I find them.
Move Your Body
Our bodies are made to move and staying at home can make this challenging. However, moving is not only essential for our physical health and well-being but also for our mental health as well. So whether you find workout videos on YouTube, subscribe to a service, dance in your kitchen, or do your own workout routine, find a way to move your body at least thirty minutes a day.
Take Care of Your Body
Crises like a global pandemic can often through our bodies off kilter. It is important to find ways to fuel our bodies with plenty of water and nutritious foods. One way to think about this is asking the question “how can I nourish my body today?”. This isn’t about restricting certain foods or following a special diet, but rather about connecting with how your body feels and helping nourish it.
Most of us are suddenly faced with a drastic increase in the amount of time we spend with the people in our homes. Whether this is roommates, partners, family, or someone else, we are likely not used to so much time together. Thus, it is essential that we still have some time apart. Whether we create certain times in the day that are quiet, alone times (as much as you can if you have kids), get out for a walk on our own (while physically distancing of course), or something else, we need to be able to have some personal space.
During times of struggle, finding ways big or small to help others can help both them and ourselves. Support local businesses. Check in on neighbors. Make cloth masks and donate them. Thank your grocery store workers. Check on elderly or immunocompromised neighbors. There are so many ways we can show up now and doing so will help us feel less alone and part of a community fighting this together.
There is so much we cannot control in all of this which can be scary. My hope is you have found some of these ideas helpful, perhaps as a way to shift your focus to things you can control. In times of challenge, I have found what gets me through it is often stepping back (as much as I can) and reflecting on what I am learning from this and how I can grow. It doesn’t make the pain less, but certain reduces the suffering and shifts my focus to my own locus of control. Remember this is temporary - it may be a longer term temporary than we are used to, but we will find our way through this. May you be healthy and well!
What is Self? It is the answer to the question: “Who am I?” Whether you call it the Self, the soul, the Atman, or something else, the Self is who we are. It is Consciousness. It is the Divinity that resides within. It is the part of us that (many believe) never dies, always exists in some form even the we leave our Earthly body. Some traditions call the Self “the Witness”. To me this is an accurate description, but incomplete. The Self is ever present, able to act from a place of compassion and curiosity, courage and clarity, connection and creativity, confidence and calm*. When we feel held from within, from a place of calm and non-judgment it is often the Self that is holding us.
So yo may ask, if the Self is all of this and who I am, then what is all of this other stuff? What about the parent in me? What about the partner? The sibling? The child in me? What about what I do for work, my education, or how I like to have fun? Aren’t these all me too? Yes. They are. They are all parts of who you are, but they are parts that can shift and grow. The Self never changes; it doesn’t need to. To me, it is peace and the love of a warm inner embrace.
If you’re thinking, “I’ve never met this Self… I’ve never known calm or peace, compassion or inner love. Does that mean something is wrong with me?” The answer is “no”. It just means you likely have parts of yourself helping you function - they run the show often to protect you (your Self) and help you live. This often happens as the result of intense or (sometimes) extreme experiences. Allow me to explain. We all have parts** - we were born with them. These parts usually take on more “typical” roles like a school part or a sibling part or (for me) a dancing part. When this happens, our parts shift seamlessly in and out without us even noticing much. When something painful*** happens, our parts, intending to protect us take on a protective role to keep us (Self) safe. In some ways, it is great in the moment to have a protector when we need it and in some cases who may help us survive really troubling events and experiences. The problem is that these parts often get stuck in time with the skills available at the time of the troubling events and experiences so that as we age, even though their intentions to help are good, their way of handling things may be ineffective for our current age and situation. I mean, have you ever caught yourself responding to a present life challenge in a way that seems incongruent with your current skill set or age? If we’re honest, I suspect we all have. And that doesn’t mean we or the part doing the protective behavior is bad; everything parts do is done with good intention, even if with a deep underlying intention that may be hard to find. It’s just that the part’s response may no longer be effective or in line with how we want to show up in the world at this time.
So perhaps now we see or in some way understand what is happening, but how do we choose to do something else? In my experience, we can try to train ourselves to do something different, at least for a while. But often times, the underlying concern is still there and there is still a part of us trying to protect us from it. What I have found to be helpful in making these shifts, is working with the different parts of ourselves to acknowledge, accept, understand, and appreciate them, helping them release the burdens of past trauma, time-orient to the present moment, and then help them find a new role when they are ready. This process is what Richard Schwartz developed in the 1980s and called Internal Family Systems or IFS, to honor that we have a family of parts inside, an inner system if you will, with the intention of helping us survive the sometimes bumpy road of life.
As a trauma therapist certified in both Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) in addition to my training in IFS, I want to say that IFS isn’t the only way to heal. There are a number of effective and evidence-based treatments to help people resolve their past and heal. And while that is true, I often find that when doing EMDR Therapy with clients or even TCTSY we are often met with the multiplicity of the individual, the many parts holding different pieces within the layers of self. And when these parts are acknowledged, understood, accepted, and appreciated, the rest of the work seems to unfold with greater ease. So when you notice a part of yourself that may be acting in a way that is not aligned with who and how you want to be in this world now, perhaps instead of the natural tendency to shame it or push it away, consider acknowledging it and maybe even tuning in to learn more about how it is trying to help.**** As we make space for an inner system of trust and acceptance of our parts, I find the rest - self-love, self-compassion, and skillful ways of showing up in the world - follow naturally from the Self.
* These are the eight qualities of Self from Internal Family Systems (IFS)
** For more information on multiplicity check out Richard Schwartz’s audio book: “Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts: Discovering Your True Self Through Internal Family Systems Therapy” and the book “The Mosaic Mind : Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors” by Richard C. Schwartz and Regina A. Goulding.
*** “Painful” is relative to each person. These could be big “T” traumas like abuse, a major accident, or natural disaster or little “t” traumas more unique to the individual like a hurtful look from a caregiver, “failing” at something important to the person, or a friend’s rejection.
**** If this feels overwhelming to tune into your parts or sit with your feelings on your own, consider connecting with your therapist (or finding one) for support and assistance.
Getting plenty of good rest is essential for our well-being. In these busy times, sometimes sleep can get shifted to the bottom of our long list of priorities. And yet, studies show that the negative effects of sleep deprivation are vast ranging from weight gain to increased health problems to decreased sex drive to decreased attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving making it more difficult to learn efficiently.
Many things can interfere with our ability to get good sleep. Some major players include:
So how do we shift our sleep patterns? Here are some important sleep hygiene tips and additional strategies to help you sleep.
In addition to these common hygiene tips, here are ideas to help you fall asleep:
I have found that using these tips really helps improve sleep quality which in turn starts the day with a greater sense of groundedness and calm leading to a more focused, productive day. When I notice I have been feeling off or not sleeping as well, it is often because I have fallen away from some of the above sleep hygiene (especially reading in bed!). The good news is that I also notice when I tighten up my sleep hygiene, sleep improves. My hope is that you try out some of these tips perhaps incorporating one or two at a time as you shift towards greater sleep.
A lot has changed over the past three years. To say we are a country divided is an understatement. One might wonder why a psychotherapist would write about this issue. My answer is that since the 2016 election I have seen an influx of people trying to manage trauma triggers that had long been buried but that have now resurfaced, people trying to navigate family relationships where shared values seem to have fallen away, people trying to manage anxiety from the way our culture have shifted, and so much more. Regardless of how you vote or what party you may or may not support or even what news channel you choose to watch, I think it is clear that we are divided and that the division is not working. It is pitting neighbor against neighbor, brother against sister, friends against friends. This is no way to live.
I won’t pretend I am even close to having all of the answers on how we deal with this because that is not only inauthentic and false but takes away your personal power to reflect on how you want to show up at this time in your relationships and in the world. I will say that over the past three years I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to podcast interviews around how we rebuild, how we connect over commonalities to make our country work again, versus hurling nastiness at people who disagree which only further breaks us as individuals, communities, and as a country. My intention is to share some insight I have gained from my work on this over the past few years in hopes that it helps some reflect and maybe even grow. At a minimum, my hope is that it may help people cope with the increased conflict and division that surrounds us all.
Each and every one of us has grown up in our own unique environment - our family, our schools, our spiritual community (if we have one), our neighborhoods, and our state. We come from different races, cultures, ethnicities, religion or faith systems (including none at all), socio-economic statuses, education levels, political exposure, and so much more. These environments help us build our unique perspective based on our experiences. Often, our perspective matches those environments but sometimes it shifts to something different based on later experiences. These environments, experiences, and perspectives color our perception of the world and the people it in. One of the beautiful, albeit challenging, parts of our democracy is that we are a diverse nation, not just in race or creed, but in such a vast number of ways. This allows us to share ideas and reflect together on rational next steps, honoring our commonalities and sifting through different perspectives to get a handle on what may be best for the majority. This isn’t simple or easy. As Michael Douglas’s character President Andrew Shepherd says in “The American President”:
"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free."
Isn’t this the truth? And after the past three years, don’t we know it?! With the growth of the internet and exposure to people other than our own somewhat homogenous groups (at least at times), we have been faced with the task of learning to be in relationship with people whose experiences, values, and beliefs are wildly different from our own. The ingrained ‘skill’ of not discussing sensitive topics like money, religion, or politics has left most of us without effective skills for having meaningful conversations around difference or even just connecting in general with people who may have a different perspective. To protect ourselves, many of us have hunkered down in our camps of like-minded people.
So then how do we have these conversations? How do we bridge these gaps? That is a complex answer and I will try to share what I am learning in a moment. One thing I know both from experience and observation is that yelling, name-calling, shaming, and judgment don’t work. While certain behaviors may not be okay (e.g., racism), it is important to remember that often times people don’t know what they don’t know. They are acting in a way congruent with everything they have been taught and have learned to this day. That doesn’t make racist behavior okay, but the way to change that isn’t shouting “racist” at someone; that just makes them dig in their heals and may make them unwilling to learn more (often for longer than it would have taken without the shame, judgment, and shouting).
A beautiful example of this is in the OnBeing podcast by Krista Tippett titled “How Friendship and Quite Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist”. In this podcast she interviews former heir to the White Nationalist Throne Derek Black (godson of David Duke) and his friend Matthew Stevenson about how their friendship slowly shifted Derek’s strong White Nationalist beliefs to realize that the research shared with him to stand up for the cause was false or misleading and how when all of that was stripped away he was left with hate and bigotry (his words), despite having developed friendships with Matthew and his Jewish friends. I can’t imagine the conversations they had were easy. They certainly didn’t happen quickly and disagreement was definitely present. However, they found ways to connect over their commonality which opened them up to listen and understand each other in new ways.
In some ways it feels easier to just bury our heads and look away or in some way distance ourselves from people who see the world differently. Having done this for a while, I realized something. Not only is the world less interesting when you only talk to people who believe exactly as you do or at least very similarly, but it takes away the beautiful growth opportunity to be able to have courageous and civil conversations about difference. It is easy to write off those different from us as “crazy” or “racist” or “snowflakes” (or some other demeaning name), but it isn’t useful or effective if we hope to shift the division in our country, if we hope to fix the problem.
In his book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”, after years of public service first as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, and professor and later as a State Senator, Barack Obama shares his observations of people he met over the years and while campaigning. I want to honor here that I recognize Barack Obama is a Democrat; he doesn’t try to hide that fact nor will I. That said, I think his observations can speak to all of us regardless of where we land politically; I hope you will read this paragraph with an open mind, perhaps allowing the words to sink in and to reflect on how they truly land with you, regardless of who he is.
Obama shared that most people he came across want the same things and hold similar beliefs regardless of race, region, religion, and class (p.7). They want anyone willing to work to have access to a job with livable wages. They want access to health care that doesn’t cause them to go bankrupt if they get sick. They believe every child should have “a genuinely good education” and “that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents [aren’t] rich”. They want to be safe from criminals and from terrorists. They want clean water, clean air, and time with their kids. And when they get old, they want “to be able to retire with some dignity and respect”. Further, the people he spoke with understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts. They didn’t expect the government to solve all of their problems and did not like seeing tax dollars wasted. However, they figured government should help.
While we may disagree on how to accomplish these goals, my experience is congruent with President Obama; most people want the same things. Knowing this can shift our dialogues, at least with each other, with the people we know. It may take time for more politicians to be elected who are more concerned about what the American people want and need versus their own political and personal gains. However, in the meantime, we can bridge gaps with each other by honoring that most of us are in fact quite similar. Rather than arguing over difference from an emotional place, we can join over commonality and have civil conversation about options. Rather than feeling attacked because someone doesn’t like an idea we have, we can recognize it isn’t necessarily that they want to deny us a basic right, but rather they may have different ideas about how to get there. That is a much different conversation. It is more meaningful, authentic, and because it can be vulnerable it can lead to deeper connection. As Brene Brown points out, it is hard to hate people close up. She encourages us to lean in and get curious. To listen and to share from a grounded place (as much as possible). That’s how we bridge gaps. That’s how we move towards unity and towards a democracy that works, a democracy in which we can share, discuss, challenge, and reflect on ideas, learning and growing together as a people.
As a psychotherapist, I do need to point out that sometimes vulnerability isn’t safe. There are some people in our lives who despite our best efforts to lean in, get curious, and listen will resort to name-calling, shame, judgment, and the like. Or maybe there is a history of abuse there that makes the dynamic unsafe for these deeper, often vulnerable conversations. These may not be the best people to try these conversations with. As I see it, the purpose of these conversations isn’t to coerce people to believe what we do, but rather to connect over commonalities and understand differences, embracing our diversity. As Lennon Flowers puts it in an OnBeing podcast interview titled “An Invitation to Brave Space”, “We don’t need to confuse safe spaces with comfortable spaces”. Conversations with people who differ from us will likely be uncomfortable. We just need to make sure they are emotionally safe and understand that there is a difference. For sure, there is a chance we will learn and grow in some ways from these interactions in safe spaces; perhaps even more from the discomfort than from agreement. But I see connection as the goal and the rest as just gravy.
There may also be times in our lives when we are struggling where bridging is just not safe or doesn't feel like an option. That is okay too. It is important we trust our inner guidance on the right timing in our lives for this work.
Frances Kissling, a “bridge person” interviewed by Krista Tippett in an OnBeing podcast, encourages us to ask ourselves and others the following two questions particularly when talking with someone who may have conflicting or even the opposite beliefs of us: (1) What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? (2) What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? During that podcast interview, she and an Evangelical Minister seemingly on complete opposite sides of the abortion issue, demonstrated how a conversation like this may sound. It was fascinating to listen to how there were more things they agreed on than expected and maybe even more that they agreed on than not. Sure, there are likely still points they disagree on. However, following their bridge conversation, understanding each other more fully and connecting in a positive way, they were then able to communicate more respectfully in an honest way about the differences.
My observation is that in our current political climate, things just seem to go back and forth from one set of beliefs to the other depending on who holds the highest offices. This doesn’t seem to be working. What if instead we were able to actually have real conversations that find ways to address issues in a bridged way versus the “one way or the other” type of method. I can’t help but think so many more of us would feel included and heard in government, in our country, and in our society.
There is so much more to say on this topic and I am grateful for the interesting and helpful interviews on working with the challenges currently facing us as a nation through the OnBeing podcast. If you are tired of the division, the fighting, the lack of civility when faced with difference, I encourage you to check out some of the following episodes from OnBeing. They have helped me so much to learn, reflect, and grow in my ability to effectively navigate these challenging times. And as for the anxiety? It is still there. But with a new sense of confidence in being able to more effectively communicate kindly and respectfully with people who may see the world through a different lens, that anxiety has calmed. No one likes to be uncomfortable; perhaps that’s what some of the anxiety is about. As a therapist I can say for certain, it is often through pain and discomfort that we learn and grow the most. So let’s lean in, be curious, listen, and connect. I trust the beauty of unity will follow.
Podcasts from OnBeing (in no particular order)
(1) Angel Kyodo Williams: The World is Our Field of Practice
(2) America Ferrara and John Paul Lederach:
The Ingredients of Social Courage
(3) Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson: Befriending Racial Disagreement
(4) Ta-Nehisi Coates: Imagining a New America
(5) Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobasj
(6) Darnell Moore
(7) Rebecca Traister and Avi Klein
(8) Arlie Hochschild
(9) Sally Kohn and Erick Erickson
(10) Layla Long Soldier: The Freedom of Real Apologies
(11) Frances Kissling
(12) Eula Biss
(13) Mahzarin Banaji: The Mind is a Difference Making Machine
(14) Cory Booker
(15) Maria Shriver: Finding My “I Am”
(16) How Friendship and Quiet Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist
(17) John A. Powell
(18) Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha: Cosmic Imagining, Civic Pondering
(19) Sarah Bassin and Abdullah Antepli
(20) Rebecca Solnit: Falling Together
(21) Arnold Eisen
(22) Junot Diaz
(23) Ruby Sales
(24) Rachel Yehuda: How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations
(25) Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers: An Invitation to Brave Sapce
A Few Resources for Civil Conversations and Bridge Building
The Civil Conversations Project
“Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown
Also note, following each podcast on the OnBeing website are books by those interviewed that may help.
On Labor Day, I sprained my ankle trail running which required me to be on crutches for several days and in a brace with limited mobility for three weeks. During that time, I noticed something. I felt significantly calmer. I felt grounded. I felt a sense of inner peace at a time when things around me were anything but peaceful. Once the brace came off and my mobility improved I noticed an increase in stress and anxiety. As I reflected on this shift, the only thing different was that while I was injured I was unable to multitask; I had to focus on one thing at a time so as to not re-injure myself and well, to stay upright. My lesson? Multitasking doesn’t work for me. As a therapist, I have known for years that our brains don’t actually multitask and that attempting to do so leads to lower productivity and higher stress. And yet as someone who is still working on saying “no” more often (i.e., someone who takes on too much), multitasking was my way of getting it all done - or so I thought.