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 …