Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, said, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
Through my clinical work over the past 10 years, I have found the body to be one of the greatest teachers in helping clients to connect with, and heal from, trauma that is stored in the body. Stored trauma often manifests itself physically, such as with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and other “uncomfortable” emotions. Consequently, our bodies are often feared, rather than embraced as the wise teacher it is.
I have found one of the most powerful tools in helping myself, and my clients, stay in a state of curiosity, rather than fear, of these bodily sensations is the breath. When triggered by these bodily sensations mentioned above the body typically moves into the sympathetic, or fight or flight nervous system. Often, clients with trauma have learned to operate in this nervous system more often than is useful. The breath is a powerful bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous systems.
Next time you find yourself filled with anxiety, I challenge you to take four deep “box” breaths, where you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out of four counts, and hold for four counts. After which, maintain the deep breathing pattern and notice what is happening in your body physically, and breathe into any tension you find. Then, remain curious and ask yourself what is needed to help you feel safe and secure in the present moment. At that point you may ask, “what happens next?” Take note of what inner child wounds or beliefs may be surfacing, and allow yourself to sit with that wound to find truth. Learning to become curious about thoughts that once seemed overwhelming, scary, or insurmountable can be an empowering exercise when you start unwinding unhelpful past conditioning.
Sometimes with trauma, clients may find themselves feeling stuck at certain points of traditional talk therapy. If that has been the case, it is helpful to explore other modalities to help release trauma on a cellular level, such as EMDR. Other movement based interventions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and dancing have also been found to be helpful in healing trauma. If you have found yourself stuck in processing past trauma, please feel free to reach out to see if we can explore some additional healing modalities. You can schedule by calling 801.944.4555.
We all experience forms of trauma at some point in our life. Some trauma is obvious and very serious. While other trauma can stem from minor events which we may not always classify as traumatic; such as, feelings of embarrassment during a presentation or public event. Both large and small traumatic experiences can resurface and manifest themselves in our lives as increased stress or anxiety. Sometimes individuals do not realize that the stress or anxiety actually stems from some form of trauma. So, how do we rewrite the traumatic events of our life? EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy, is one form of therapy that has been proven to be extremely effective in helping individuals overcome the negative effects of stress, anxiety, and trauma.
Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy may sound like a strange and scary form of therapy. You may have questions, like “What do eye movements have to do with therapy?” or, “I like my senses, what exactly does it mean to be desensitized?” While, I do have experience and expertise in facilitating EMDR therapy, I am not a scientist, or a doctor so I’ll leave it up to an expert to answer some of the more detailed questions. The following article provides an excellent overview of what EMDR is, and some of the more intricate details about how it works. This is a great starting place for individuals interested in EMDR or learning a little more about this form of therapy.
A while back, my garage was burglarized and my new mountain bike was stolen. I left that morning disgruntled, frustrated and very upset having had my garage broken into. It was fortuitous that I was going to EMDR training the day my bike was stolen. My colleague was able to use EMDR for my experience with my bike. Upon coming to training that day I was livid, so livid I had a difficult time being present. That afternoon during my brief EMDR treatment I started out resentful and angry. Funny enough, I left the session frustrated that I was not frustrated that my bike being stolen. EMDR had worked and I had been able to process through the event and overcome the negative emotions I likely would have felt.
If you, or someone you know, is interested in beginning EMDR therapy please contact me at 801-944-4555 to schedule an appointment to learn more.
A few months ago, I stood on the edge of a 15 foot cliff overhanging the ocean. Several family members had already jumped and were calling to me to join them. This may not seem like a particularly high distance to some, but it was high enough for me to activate an internal battle.
Part of me wanted to jump. The water was clear and beautiful. My family was having a great time in the water below. Part of me was afraid of hurting myself. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a theory that uses the idea that all of us have internal “parts”, which generally work together, creating the unique individual that we are. When our parts are not fully integrated, we can experience internal battles, which cause difficulty in our ability to function the way we would like.
IFS categorizes our parts as managers, firefighters, exiles, and Self.
Managers act as our protectors. They are manifest as controller, striver, judge, caretaker, passive, pessimist, planner, and self-critic. These managers work to keep things in our lives going smoothly to avoid pain or rejection.
Firefighters are also protectors, but do so in a reactive way, attempting to soothe our exiles through compulsive behaviors, distraction, or rage.
Exiles are the parts of us that hold pain and vulnerability. Our managers push them away to protect the rest of us from having to experience the pain, shame, dependency, neediness, worthlessness, or grief that exiles carry.
Our Self is the core of who we are. Our Self is calm, curious, compassionate, connected, confident, creative, and has clarity. When we are able to look at the world or situations with these eight “C’s” we’re working from our Self. When managers, firefighters or exiles take over we lose our ability act from our true Self.
As I stood on the cliff with my internal battle, I wasn’t able to recognize the various parts involved. Looking back on the experience, it’s much easier to identify the manager that created anxiety, the one that told me “if you jump, you’ll get hurt.” I can also identify the manager who told me that I had better jump to avoid being teased by my family. It was this manager who pushed through and reminded me that the cliff wasn’t that high, the water was clear, and that everyone else had jumped safely.
Often, the internal battles our parts engage in are of more significant consequence than whether we will be teased for not jumping into the ocean. Sometimes our care-taking managers prevent us from setting clear boundaries with others, leading to resentment or exhaustion. Sometimes our firefighters seek to soothe scared exiles by numbing with behaviors or substances that are not in line with our value system. When this happens, our managers beat up on our firefighters, and our firefighters respond by doubling down on their soothing behavior.
When we experience these internal battles, it’s tempting to try to ignore or reject the parts of us that seem to be causing the problems. Instead of ignoring or rejecting (which doesn’t work anyway), we can start a conversation with these parts to examine why they are behaving the way they are. We might discover that our firefighter is pushing us to lash out in anger in an attempt to protect our exiles from having to experience the pain of rejection that we’ve felt before. We might discover a manager who constantly tells us we’re lazy is really just terrified of becoming the thing it was called as a child. Understanding why our parts behave the way they do, we can begin to have some compassion for them. Compassion helps us soothe the internal battles and increase our ability to act as our true Self.
If you recognize some of these kinds of parts within yourself and would like help integrating them, call and schedule a session with Alice today. 801-944-4555.
When I was a small child, my family had several large German shepherds as pets. I don’t remember the times those dogs jumped on me and knocked me down, though I have been told it happened. I do remember growing up with an intense fear of large dogs. Throughout my childhood, when I saw a large dog, my primary instinct was to run away.
Unfortunately for the young-child-me, dogs enjoy a good game of chase. By running away, and encouraging the “big scary dog” to chase me, I was reinforcing my own fear: that dogs were scary and should be avoided at all costs.
Anxiety is often a “big scary dog”. We feel the discomfort, and seek to avoid it by running away, or avoiding situations that cause anxiety. When we avoid anxiety-provoking situations, we reinforce in our brains that those situations are unsafe, creating a cycle of fear and anxiety that grows the more we avoid specific situations.
In order to retrain our brain, we have to confront the big scary dog. This can be an overwhelming task, so it is important to have tools to draw from. Three helpful tools are box breathing, positive affirmations, and challenging thinking errors.
Take a deep breath, filling your lungs completely while imagining moving your lungs in the outline of a square. At each corner, pause and hold the breath for 4 seconds, then exhale along the next side of the square. Breathing in this way helps to regulate your nervous system, increasing your sense of calm.
Words are powerful, and we tend to believe the words we tell ourselves. A friend recently recounted her experience on a climbing wall. “I was doing really well, until I looked down. At that point I panicked and told myself, “I can’t do this”, I sat frozen for several seconds and then let go of the wall, letting the ropes catch me and return me to the ground.”
If we constantly tell ourselves “I can’t do this”, “This is too hard”, or “My anxiety is too high for coping right now”, we are likely to give up early or avoid the situation entirely. When those thoughts pop into our minds, we can replace them with a positive affirmation. “I can do this”,“I am capable”, and “I’m stronger than I feel” are all positive affirmations that can help push back against the anxiety that is preventing us from reaching our goals or functioning in daily life.
Challenging Thinking Errors:
Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that often come along with anxiety or depression. As with positive affirmations, we can replace thinking errors by challenging them. Common thinking errors include all-or-nothing thinking (where we view things in very black and white terms), mind reading (where we assume we know what another person is thinking), filtering out the positive (where we focus entirely on the negative, and ignore anything that might counter our current thoughts), and emotional reasoning (taking our feelings as signs, i.e., I feel scared, so I shouldn’t attend this event).
Recognizing then challenging these kinds of thinking errors can help us confront our anxiety by reminding our brain that there are other ways to see the world and we do not have to be stuck in our anxiety.
If you have tried utilizing these tools and need more support in confronting the big scary dog of anxiety in your life, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy can help retrain your brain to see the dog not as a snarling beast, but as something more approachable. ERP therapy is effective in treating anxiety as well as obsessive compulsive disorder.
If you are struggling with these issues, schedule an appointment with Alice in either the Bountiful or Cottonwood Heights office at (801) 944-4555.
Are the children in your life (whether in your family or your professional world) seeming to constantly misbehave? Do you know adults who seem to have missed some important steps in growing up? Maybe that adult is you. Have you heard of the ACE studies? ACE is an acronym that stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and is the title of a growing body of research that is shedding new light on how childhood trauma impact a person’s social, psychological, intellectual, physical, and spiritual well-being.
I was moved to tears today when I read the heartfelt and inspiring letter penned by Kayla Mueller, the American hostage whose murder by the terror group ISIS was confirmed in the media on February 10, 2015. Kayla was kidnapped while volunteering for the humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, in Syria in August 2013 and was held captive until her death in early 2015. The letter that former cell mates delivered to her family subsequent to their release reveals a beautiful, courageous young woman with a remarkably resilient spirit. In part the letter reads:
“Everyone, if you are receiving this letter, it means I am still detained but my cell mates have been released…..I wanted to write you a well thought out letter, but I could only write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears.
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one thing you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no one else…..and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
On the evening of September 27, 2014, the bodies of Springville, Utah couple Kristi and Benjamin Strack were found dead in their beds. Tragically, their three children were also found dead, and investigators determined the cause of all 5 deaths to be an overdose of lethal drugs.
Bethany Johnson*, a 25 year old young woman, sat in my office. Her presenting symptoms were near debilitating insomnia, hyper vigilance, hyperarousal, irritation, nightmares and flashbacks. This was classic PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which was a bit surprising since Bethany wasn’t a soldier who had had come from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather had recently returned from teaching English as a second language in the Philippines. But the circumstances of her experience explained what was causing her PTSD: the school she was working at was in the eye of Hayian, the category 5 typhoon that struck the Philippine Islands in November 2013 and, according to a CNN report, “was probably the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land anywhere in the world in recorded history.”