How Rolfing and yoga are important for healing trauma. Trauma is in the body. "If people need to overcome the trauma, we need to also find methods to bypass what we call the tyranny of language." -Bessel van der Kolk
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How Rolfing and yoga are important for healing trauma. Trauma is in the body. "If people need to overcome the trauma, we need to also find methods to bypass what we call the tyranny of language." -Bessel van der Kolk
Structural Integration has been proven to reduce job site stress and injury. Just ask Starkey Labs, if you’re not convinced (video below). They’ve saved over 1.2 Million a year in workman’s comp claims.
If you think your workplace could benefit from Structural Integration, let’s talk more. I would be happy to put together a team of Board Certified Structural Integration Practitioners to address work related stress and injury on-site. Besides Structural Integration, we can teach skills to improve alignment and alertness, and decrease pain. We would be happy to develop a corporate wellness program designed to work around your companies schedule, keep your employees pain free, productive and happy. On-site services can include Structural Integration, Movement Education, Yoga, and Acupuncture.
With snow forecast for New York this week, you might think of it as your big opportunity to walk the way your body was meant to-over your center. All that slipping and sliding really forces us to be over the center of gravity, something that most shoes with heels discourage us from doing. Wearing shoes with heels, even most sneakers, tilt us forward as if we’re standing on a hill. To keep from falling forward and tumbling down the hill inside our shoe, our natural tendency is for the hips to go forward, and chest to go back. This helps us to balance. It also creates a kind of collapse, since our hips aren’t under us and the chest is behind us. It’s the All American posture and you won’t see it in anyone who walks around barefoot or in flat shoes. Go to any Caribbean beach town where flip-flops and barefoot walking prevails if you need an example.
What this does…
Heels also tend to shorten the connective tissue of the calves and as a result the hip flexors, and when you’re standing with your hips shifted forward the upper hamstrings shorten which makes sitting difficult. When the hamstrings are tight they pull the sitbones under which makes an upright posture while sitting impossible without strain.
Gentle exercises to try…
Full body arching and curling is a fantastic exercise to find a balance stance, especially the arching part. Standing, try arching back, your tail back and up as if you have a 6 foot squirrel tail and you’re trying to touch the back of your head. Really exagerate it. When your head goes back shift your weight into your toes, this helps the sitbones to lift. With your tail back, weight in the toes, breath deeply, spiraling the arms back to open the upper ribcage. Inhaling is important because it opens the upper ribcage and supports the shoulders to rest more on the back. When you exhale, let your body spring back to neutral leaving your hips back, tail lifted. You should naturally find a less collapsed posture.
You can also go back and forth following the inhale with an exhale into the heels, rounding the shoulders, but make sure you end by inhaling and letting your body come back to neutral.
Calf stretches are good with the knee bent and the hips back.. straiten and bend the knees with the hips back, to work different parts of the calves. Be sure to put even pressure in the ball of the big toe as much as the pinky toe ball so your feet dont twist. This will help the hips rest more back over the center of the feet.
If this article finds you escaping the New York winter someplace tropical heels probably aren’t your biggest worry right now, but flip-flops might be.
For many people flip-flops or thongs force the wearer to lift their toes or scrunch them up (which is kind of like pushing your toes down while you lift them) to keep the sandal on. Walk down any street in New York in the Summer and you’ll see someone struggling to both hold their cell phone to their ear andbalance while they shuffle along in this year’s flip-flops. Holding that floppy footwear on is tough work and it’s kind of like multitasking for the feet.
Your toes were designed to respond to the ground, and they have a much easier time doing so if they aren’t having to wrestle with your footwear at the same time. Lifting your toes is something that most yoga teachers will ask you to do to find your arch. This is a great thing in yoga because it aligns thebones of the foot. If you tend to pronate, you probably have a little trouble finding the ball of your big toe and lifting your toes really helps to find that part of your foot without loosing the alignment of your ankle.
Unfortunately, all that toe lifting makes our ankles and arches stiff, and makes for a hard landing on the heel when we walk. When we are walking we want the arch to flex like a spring. The spring of the arch provides shock absorbsion for our bodies, but it can only happen when the foot is relaxed. If this is you, try this.. Standing, try placing the outside of your heel down first, then the outside of your toes,then the big toe ball and then the inside of the heel. When you press your toes down, you might notice that it’s easier to lengthen them out as you press down. This is the action you’re looking for in flip flops, instead of scrunching, pressing down as you lengthen through the toes.
This exercise can help whether you’re in shoes, barefoot or in sandals. When you’re walking, try starting by standing over the center of your foot (all four corners with equal pressure) with your knees strait but soft, feet relaxed. Once you’ve found this posture standing, begin to walk. If you try this barefoot on a hardwood floor your walk should go from loud and pounding to almost silent. This is because you are landing closer to the center of your foot, instead of the back of the heel. How you start your walk will essentially determine how you end up moving. If you start over your center, you’ll end up walking over your center.
While flip-flops aren’t the best for your feet, if you wear them, you’ll want to find ones with a tighter strap across the top of the foot for a snugger fit, or one that allows you to press your toes down to hold the sandal on. Your toes shouldn’t have to do anything more than respond to the ground, don’t make them hold your sandals on too.
I hope this helps,
In my last article about the breath, I wrote about the importance of contacting our inherent impulse to breath, and allowing ourselves to be breathed, rather than following an external or mental cue. This exercise is no different, but it takes a little bit more refined focus and it builds off of the last exercise.
The Bandhas in Yoga, or “locks” (as in locks in a river) refer to the horizontal membranes of the body that provide containment and regulate the pressure of the different cavities of our bodies (our guts, lungs, heart and brains).
Where are they?
The major diaphragms of the body are the respiratory diaphragm, the pelvic floor (muscles between your tailbone and pubic bone), the base of the throat, the base of the skull -at the level of the ear lobes (including the roof of the mouth and base of the eyes), the top of the head, and also the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The joints of the body are also diaphragms.
Why the Bandhas are important…
When we are having trouble breathing, or our limbs are stiff or weak, it is often reflected by in how our breath moves through our bodies. For example, if you puff up your chest you will notice that the base of your throat and your respiratory diaphragm have to tighten to retain the pressure in your ribs that allows you to puff up. These pressure regulators also have a dramatic effect on blood pressure, oxygen delivery to the cells, stress on the heart and overall health. If they are too tight oxygenated blood isn’t able to reach the tissue and if they aren’t toned at all, there isn’t enough pressure to squeeze the blood back to the heart and we tend to feel sluggish. Balanced tone in the diaphragms leads to longer more balanced breathing and a lot less stress on the heart. When we are feeling our best, our diaphragms are gently pulsating between contraction and release to allow a smooth flow of energy through our bodies.
Ready to feel amazing?
Lie on your back and notice your breath. Allow your breath to come and go, without changing anything about it. As you tune in, you may start to notice that when you inhale, all of the diaphragms naturally contract, and on the exhale, they all tend to release. Without changing anything about your breath, see if you can tune into the softening quality of the exhale. As you begin to inhale see if you can continue to soften your diaphragms. Since they all move together, you won’t actually have to focus on all of them to receive the benefits of this exercise.
At first see if you can bring your attention to just one or two at a time or try checking in with different diaphragms as you breath. With practice, you will be able to open your attention to all of the diaphragms at once. Just be sure you aren’t forcing your breath, either breathing harder or speeding your breath up or slowing it down. Just let it flow naturally in response to the effects of your attention on the bandhas.
The overall effect of this exercise is that it will begin to feel as if your whole body is breathing, as if your lungs extend all the way from your fingers, to your toes and out to the top of your head, every cell expanding and contracting. If this is easy, try the exercise sitting or standing. I hope you enjoy the experience.
A word of caution.
Big emotions can often come up when working with the breath. If you begin to feel overwhelmed or even just light headed, take a break, this exercise should ideally make you feel more connected to yourself and more at ease.
There is a growing amount of mainstream scientific research documenting the effectiveness of Structural Integration (SI), the therapy originated by Ida Rolf for reshaping the body’s connective tissue matrix. There has also been significant interest in SI at the newly formed International Fascia Research Congress, as knowledge and understanding of how important connective tissue is to the body’s freedom of movement becomes more apparent.
One researcher reported that muscle contractions only account for roughly 20% of human movement and that after an action is initiated, the fascia does the other 80%, pointing to the possibility that connective tissue, the tissue we work on in SI work, is more important than muscles in determining how well a person moves.
In 1992 a presentation was made to the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation Research on the effectiveness of Structural Integration used in the treatment of degenerative joint disease.
A 1997 article in The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy reported that Structural Integration can provide effective and sustained pain relief from lower back problems.
A 1988 study in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association indicated that Structural Integration greatly influenced the parasympathetic nervous system, which can dramatically influence the healing processes of the body.
In conjunction with the California Department of Mental Hygiene, The Department of Movement Behavior at UCLA has also shown that Structural Integration creates a more efficient use of muscles, allows the body to conserve energy, and creates economical and refined patterns of movement.
Other recent studies have shown a significant increase in hight after an 11 session series of Structural Integration. While there are volumes of research to be done to understand exactly how and why Structural Integration is so effective, to feel the effects it only takes the first session.
I recently received this email from someone interested in the Hellerwork series. I often hear questions about whether Hellerwork can change the body in a lasting way, so it seemed worthwhile to post my response. If you’ve considered the Hellerwork series, but aren’t sure if the series will make a lasting difference in your body, this is for you.
Dear David -
I am considering seeking Hellerwork therapy but have couple of questions: How lasting are the effects from the 11 session Hellerwork protocol? I understand the concept of reshaping the muscle tissue and fascia – but isn’t my body essentially the by-product of my gentics? Meaning what I see is what I get – right? I have a hard time believing that any of the changes can be truly lasting without utilizing Hellerwork therapy through a practioner continually for the rest of my life – Yes call me pessimistic (many people do) but I do not want to set blind expectations on the 11 session protocol as a cure all.
Can the effects be maintained through specific exercises that I can employ after completing the 11 week therapy?
It’s a great question you’re asking, so I’m going to give you the long answer. A lot of people coming to me for the series have the same questions.
So to your question…
Yes, to some extent your body is a result of your genetics. Your genes determine what is possible for you to become. My feeling is that DNA is given far too much responsibility for shaping the human experience in our culture. One way to think of it is that the DNA in your cells is the book collection of your bodies library. It determines what information is available to be read, while you, and the forces acting on you as the library patron determine what gets read in the language of the body.
Here’s another example you might relate to: when you have an injury to your left ankle lets say, and you start to favor your opposite leg, your fascia is rearranged over a short period of time, weeks or months, and successive layers of tissue build up around that adaption. We call that a limp. It is no more difficult to rearrange the tissue, over weeks or months (11 weeks in the Hellerwork series) to undo that adaption and balance your weight over both legs. The Hellerwork series is a systematic process designed to undo the majority of those injuries and your compensations for them in a short period of time. After the series, many things can happen that change your body both to create possibilities for greater movement or to make movement more difficult. But whatever happens in your life after your series, the balance created by your Hellerwork experience will help you to have a greater capacity to deal with whatever comes your way. It’s like setting back the clock. Will it last forever? Of course not, and neither will you. Life happens to us and through us. We respond to our experience in ways that shape us daily. Can it change your life? Most definitely.
I’m sure you have some postural habits you’d like to undo but that feel hopelessly ingrained. There are plenty of kids in my neighborhood who adopt a limp to look tough and to some extent we all change our posture to express ourselves in a certain way. Hellerwork is primarily an educational experience. I can’t take your postural habits away from you, but what I can do is give you options for how to move with more ease, realign your connective tissue to support more ease and help you to become more aware of how the way you carry yourself effects how you feel and even think.
After that, the choice is yours about what you do with this opening. It’s like having a new set of tools for your body and having to chose between a new craftsman or that old rusty wrench with the threads stripped off. You might be used to using the old wrench out of habit, but then there’s that unfamiliar, but silky smooth new socket set you could try out too. I like to think the movement exercises we’ll work on are kind of like that new socket set.
This will sound even stranger, but the real magic often happens after the series is over. Ida Rolf often said, “The body continues to Rolf itself.” I’ve seen many of my clients continue to grow towards better alignment after the series is over. They had no further input other than the changes they made in their lives as a result of the series and it’s as if their bodies are taking a cue from the work and continuing to reshape themselves. If you are open to Hellerwork creating change in your body and in your experience, it will improve your life in ways that will far surpass your expectations, but that is up to you.
Ultimately, all of this is meaningless as a mental exercise. The only way to know whether this work will benefit you or not is to experience a session. I hope that answered your questions and let me know when you’re ready to take the first step.
Many of my clients have asked what they can do to support the changes they gain from their Hellerwork series. I usually give an answer something like, “Yoga, meditation, chi gong, pilates, or anything that brings you towards a deeper connection with yourself.”
Meditation is one of the most direct ways to do that and it can be as simple as observing the inhale and exhale of your breath. Of course it’s often not as easy as that sounds. I came across the following advice on meditation and thought I would share it. It’s sound advice for beginners or experienced meditators alike.
I’ll add that if you don’t already have a meditition practice with a group that sits together regularly, I highly recommend it for avoiding many of the pitfalls that beginner meditators fall into. It can help to have some support from other folks going through a similar process.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT ATTITUDE FOR MEDITATION?
By U Tejaniya
Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center
1. Meditating is watching and acknowledging in a relaxed way whatever happens whether pleasant or unpleasant.
2. Meditating is waiting and watching with awareness and understanding: not thinking, not reflecting, not judging.
3. Just pay attention to what is exactly in the present moment.
Don’t go back to the past!
Don’t plan for the future!
4. When meditating, both the mind and the body shold be comfortable.
5. The meditating mind should be relaxed and at peace.
You cannot practice when the mind is tense.
6. Don’t focus too hard, don’t control and don’t force or restrict yourself.
7. Don’t try to create anything, and don’t reject what is happening. However, as things happen or stop happening, be aware of them.
8. Trying to create something is greed.
Rejecting what is happening is aversion.
Not knowing if something is happening or has stopped happening is delusion.
9. Only when the observing mind has no greed, aversion or worry/ anxiety will the meditating mind arise.
10. Don’t have any expectations.
Don’t want anything.
Don’t be anxious, because if these attitudes are in your mind, it becomes difficult to meditate.
11. You are not trying to make things turn out the way you want them to happen. You are trying to know what is happening as it is.
12. You have to accept and watch both good and bad experiences.
13. You have to double check to see what attitude you are meditating with. A light and free mind enables you to meditate well.
Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Gratitude is something I think about a lot. Lately I’ve been thinking about it less as something I feel like I should do and more as a solution to whatever is going poorly in my life. Often when I start to feel upset, if I look at the situation I’ll realize that the cause of my negative feeling, thought or sensation is a tunnel like focus on something negative. When I’m able to broaden my focus to what I’m grateful for, new opportunities always begin to appear in the periphery.
This isn’t always easy if your attention is easily drawn to negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations, so sometimes it’s better to take a break from the negative subject all together rather than to try and re-spin the negativity as positive. After spending some time focusing on what I have to be grateful for, when I return to the subject that’s vexing me, I’ll often feel better about it.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend I received this email about Gratitude from a stranger, Dave Faagau. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’m reposting it here. I hope you enjoy it.
Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your holiday season brings you much to be thankful for.
Here’s his email:
Most people do no realize the many health benefits of gratitude. Studies indicate that thankfulness is directly linked to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Compared to people who do not live a lifestyle of thankfulness, research shows that grateful people
1. Experience higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination optimism and energy
2. Experience less depression
3. Better manage stress
4. Are more likely to help others
5. Exercise more regularly
6. Make more progress towards their personal goals
7. Have stronger immune systems
8. Have fewer symptoms of physical illness
Those are some impressive benefits that can be yours without even increasing your physical activity or changing your nutrition plan. All that is required is a grateful heart. Are you a thankful person? If you are unsure, then it may be in your best interest to consider the following questions:
Are you the type of person who dwells on the good or on the bad things that happen to you?
Do you tell others about the blessings in your life as much as you tell them when things go wrong?
Are you considerate of the people closest to you or do you often take them for granted?
Are you thankful only when things are going well or do you look for blessings even when bad things happen?
Is there someone you admire who is a thankful person? What other attributes do you admire about them?
Are you leaving a legacy of thankfulness that others will remember you by?
There is nothing complicated about gratitude. Quite simply, thankfulness is a choice. To say we fell grateful is not to say that everything in our life is great. It just means that in spite of all we see that is worthy of complaint, there is far more we can choose to focus on that is worthy of thankfulness.
Why not choose to extend the tradition of giving thanks through the entire year, instead of limiting it to the Holiday Season? You're physical, emotional, and spiritual health will all reap the benefits of a thankful heart. The choice is yours.
By Dave Faagau, a Fitness Specialist and owner of Total Body Training
I originally wrote this article for The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 2005/Vol.1 Issue 4/Los Angeles. Through my own experiences and the writing of others, I explore the personal implications of social disfunction and point to some possibilities for our collective liberation.
Physiology of the Oppressed by David Murphy
Recovery is based on the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.
-Judith Herman Trauma and Recovery
Over the last 10 years, my experiences working for social justice left me feeling like a boxer toward the end of his career beat up and unsure why I was still getting into the ring. While I’m proud to say that I participated in many hard won battles where forests were saved, grassroots media networks created, oil pipelines stopped, neighborhoods temporarily protected from gentrification, we dont seem to be any closer to ending oppression or creating peace in the world. The conviction that justice would prevail used to pull me through but over time I realized that I had become more angry than when I started along the activist path. I had begun experiencing what I now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), shell-shocked from the continual threat of police batons and rubber bullets, and I resented feeling that there were never enough people to do the work of creating change. It was just too much for one person to stop humanity from committing collective suicide.
I began to ask myself, “What are we trying to activate in people when we protest? I decided that there had to be a better way to create change. So, slowly, over the last 4 years I began to remove myself from activist work to attend to my wounds. What I found when I “retired” was that through those years of speaking truth to power, what had motivated me to do this work was anger at the injustice I was confronting. I began to think that maybe the reason I was feeling less peace at the end of the war was the nature of the war itself. Through the process of my own healing I began working to facilitate the healing of others, and what has emerged is a sense that what is making us all so sick is something larger than our individual psychological problems, and less obvious than the political critique that motivated my activism. In trying to quell my own fathomless rage, I began finding clues to the question that rage desperately begs to have answered what has motivated us all to grow so hopelessly out of balance with the world and each other?
In the words of Paulo Friere, Only as [the oppressed] discover themselves to be hosts of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible& Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. (Friere 1970, p. 48). My growing awareness has begun to feel like a rebirth.
In my own personal healing I had to confront my sense of shame and worthlessness generated from messages sent by parents, teachers and consumer culture- all sounding like “theres something wrong with you. I realized that my youth was motivated by a need to prove I was worthy of love. How could I not rebel as a child? With the need to constantly justify love, there was always the threat that it would be taken away. My healing process began to feel all too much like activism flipped around as I confronted a childhood at war with parents and the greater world; having to struggle, to earn, to jump through hoops to be nurtured, respected, and supported. I soon realized that the best response I could get to the indignant anger in my protest was shame. The public shaming of CEOs often works to motivate a change in large corporations and it was a tactic I participated in gladly. It is an effective way of compromising a corporate brand. Who wants to buy something associated with shameful practices? On the other hand, how could I possibly expect a corporate CEO to take responsibility for their actions when I was using the same tactic that was hurtful to me? As is often the case with perpetrators of abuse, I had fallen in to the same pattern that had been a victim of.
One of my roommates hosted a dinner party last week. Intense for this casual dinner party, we launched headlong into a conversation about fears that hold us back. Around the table we went, revealing our worst fear. Almost everyone spoke a variation of “Im not good enough to be loved, or the universe doesnt support me.” These fears are almost universal. Given the fear of not getting what we need to survive psychologically and physically, it’s no wonder that we often enter into inherently compromised relationships to get at least some love.
The predominant metaphor of psychology and western medicine is the Cartesian view that we are machines, and feeling sick means that there is something wrong with the machine that can be fixed. The cure, according to this view, is not to improve our relationship with ourselves, each other, or our environment; but to stop the symptom- to fix the machine. These symptoms, however, are the messages our own bodies are telling us about why we are sick. Living in Western Civilization, we are bound to participate in a society built on oppression, and at the same time we are bound to our own nature. If we are to find liberation, we must come to discern [ourselves] as persons prevented from being, rather than objects needing repair. (Friere p.174)
There’s a certain expectation in America that we will compromise with our better nature. There is the understanding that to get terrorists, innocents will die, to get ahead we must step on others. Even if you work to stop the war in Iraq, you have to use petroleum in some capacity to survive. There is an understanding that whether or not we work for change, our actions will have some negative impact. This is the cost of living in our society. Oppression and destruction of the environment are our membership dues. What we are led to believe is that we shouldnt take oppression personally. Our society tells us that if we feel anxiety about our own participation in this process, there is something wrong with us. We are continually asked to collectively disown our responsibility for the impact we each have in the world.
This worldview dehumanizes us.
Oppression is in our Psychology
Trends in psychology over the last 20 years, especially in ecopsychology and other body-centered traditions, have supported the idea that we become sick through a separation from the deeply felt experience of our bodies within our unnatural environments, not because we are unable to overcome our base urges. Almost anyone who has taken a yoga class or stopped to listen to the sound of their breath can attest to the benefits of slowing down to reconnect with what is essential about our experience- our beingness.With this essential experience of interconnectedness comes the knowledge that there is nothing inherently wrong with us. When we dont have to confront a sense of being inherently flawed, it is easier to admit to our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions. Knowing this sense of interconnectedness cuts shame out at the roots. But if youve ever tried to convince yourself that there is nothing wrong with you, when your experience is a deep and persistent feeling that there is, you know that it isnt as easy as just changing your mind. What the study of PTSD tells us is that it is difficult to change unconscious beliefs not just because they are unconscious, but because they are in our physiology. When we are exposed to overwhelming traumatic experiences, our physiology is altered to interpret the world as a threatening place. (Levine 1997, p. 156) If our gut feelings tell us that there is a threat, it is only natural to look until we find one, even if it means creating a threat to put ourselves in and a whole world view to make sense of the threat. Our beliefs about the way the world are often a reflection of the messages our bodies are too afraid to tell us.
Physiology of the Oppressed
Why are our bodies keeping secrets?
In my current work as a somatic therapist I combine dialogue with bodywork and movement to help my clients transform their traumatic experiences. Answers to my questions about oppression in our society came when I began to recognize the similarity in my clients conditions with the symptoms of trauma. Many of my patients werent mentally ill, but they had idiopathic illnesses connected to their psychology. In attempts to help my clients I began a 3-year training in Somatic Experiencing (SE), a form of body centered talk therapy created specifically for working with PTSD.
According to Peter Levine, the creator of SE, An event is potentially traumatizing if it is perceived (consciously or unconsciously) to be life-threatening. (Levine 2004) Much of the evidence that supports recent work with PTSD comes from studying what wild animals do that keeps them from being crippled by reactions to stress. When animals enter a potentially threatening situation, they react by running, fighting or ‘playing dead’ to escape from their attacker. Psychologists call this dissociation. When overwhelmed and unable to escape, they most often play dead and freeze. When an animal freezes, its body mimics death to discourage the predator from chasing it. Physiologically this acts on the body as if the brake and the gas pedal of a car were pushed at the same time. If the ruse is successful, the chased animal may get away. When the threat passes, the animal does something to discharge all this energy they’ve mobilized to confront their attacker; run around in circles, shake, convulse. As humans, how often do we have the chance to discharge like this?
When we are unable to discharge this stress energy it gets trapped in our bodies. The symptoms of traumatic stress are caused by our bodies attempts to manage this frozen survival energy. When we put ourselves in stressful situations that are similar to an earlier trauma, it is an attempt to discharge the energy stuck in our bodies. Rarely are these attempts successful, because when we re-enact a trauma, we arent in touch with the psychological resources that would have helped us in the original trauma. Often this energy is directed outward in rage at our imagined attackers, or directed inward, leading to self-abuse.
Some level of stress is healthy to activate our survival instincts, but it is clear that we are overstimulated in modern life. Whether from continual stress, frantic pace or too much input, it becomes difficult to keep our equilibrium. Neurobiologist Bruce Perry describes the effect of traumatic stress in terms of homeostasis. An event is traumatic if it overwhelms the organism, dramatically and negatively disrupting homeostasis. In a very real sense, trauma throws the organism off balance, and creates a persisting set of compensatory responses which create a new but less functionally flexible state of equilibrium. This trauma-induced homeostasis is more energy consuming and maladaptive than the previous state. By inducing this expensive homeostasis and compromising full functional capability, trauma robs the organism. It has survived the traumatic experience, but at a cost. (Perry 1998) This expensive homeostasis makes us vulnerable to further trauma. As we become accustomed to this energy consuming homeostasis, we are often unaware that our stress level has increased. Our bodies attempt to balance unresolved traumatic events with tension or a freeze response often manifested as pain and tension, spaciness or falling asleep. This elevated stress not only protects us from fully experiencing the trauma, but also from a deepened connection with ourselves and each other as we are walled off from what has become an unresolved and overwhelming experience.
How did we get here?
In 1895, Freud in his co-authored paper, Studies on Hysteria pointed the finger at childhood sexual abuse as the cause of hysteria, essentially implying that mental illness has it’s roots in traumatic experience. One year later, fearing public condemnation, he published his Seduction theory, turning 180 degrees to suggest that neurosis was actually the product of ‘infantile sexuality’, implying that the pre-neurotic child is an active participant in the forming of abnormal sexual experience. (Davis, D.A. 1994) The result was a shift in focus toward fixing the patient rather than helping them to resolve their overwhelming experience. The result of this shift is that what we now recognize as psychological trauma has been dismissed as “shell shock” or adjustment reaction to adult life, (Wylie 2004) for most of the 20th century. It wasnt until in the Womens Movement of the 70s when feminist writers began asserting that rape and domestic violence are potentially traumatic, that psychological trauma began to get attention as a distinct diagnosis. In 1980 psychological trauma was recognized as a formal diagnosis in the third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), but trauma is still often misdiagnosed. In fact, the symptoms of psychological trauma can mimic other diagnosis of chronic mental illnesses in its acute stages.
In the past, if you werent able to adapt to society, the treatment strategy of psychology and psychiatry would be to attempt to correct the mental disturbance to help the patient adapt. This perspective places the blame for mental disturbance with the patient. But what if our difficulty coping with society is because we have internalized what is sick about society itself?
Peter Levine asserts that there is another more important reason for internalizing this unresolved energy turned illness in our society. To commit violence on oneself is the method preferred by our culture for several reasons. Obviously, it is easier to maintain a social structure that appears to be in control of itself. However,& there is another, equally compelling reason-by internalizing the effects of overwhelming or injurious events, we are denying that these experiences have a significant impact upon our ability to function. Where there is no conscious awareness, no need exists for personal or social responsibility. (Levine 2004) When we shoulder the responsibility for our condition as individuals, we face the difficult and often overwhelming task of attempting to heal ourselves by ourselves.
Over 100 years after Freud’s first paper on hysteria, the current research and treatments for PTSD has us going back to his first hypothesis. This research suggests that traumatic experience is the product of a civilization in opposition to the guiding forces of our own inner nature and that asks us to accept overwhelming experience as normal, while separating us from our biggest resource, ourselves. When we face the fact that in our physiology we are animals, we must ask the question that became too overwhelming for Freud; how do we treat traumatic experience in a society that fears looking at the consequences of how we treat each other? What these new treatments give us is hope; that rather than a pill or a new technology, what we need to return our planet back to balance is a renewed connection to ourselves and each other.
The Politics of TraumaPaulo Friere, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes, “The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it… They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.” (Friere P.48) Friere could have just as easily been talking about psychological trauma. If the tools to freedom from psychological illness are connecting to our animal instinct toward self-regulation, then Frieres internal oppressor is the desire to safely avoid fear of attack and shame.
This begs the question of whether we can solve the ills of our society disconnected from any real sense of our bodies, our emotions, and each other. It may be that we have to start judging what is healthy for our society by what connects us to ourselves and the planet rather than what gets us what we want, or wins the battles we are fighting. To create political change that fits the vision of a world embracing community, equality, and freedom from oppression, we must learn how to liberate ourselves, not just from the material circumstances of our lives, but also from the disregulation in our physiology that mediates our experience..
What gives me hope now is that the clues to our reawakening are already out there. They are in our own bodies and inherent in the tensions within our culture. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof described a map of three important states of psychic experience that roughly translate to: having a sense of inherent support; a sense of centeredness; and altered states of consciousness that connect us to nature and each other. These states are often found at the core of mystical or prophetic spiritual traditions and are inherent in the world views of many nature based people living in balance with their own environment (Glendinning, P. 20). We regain our connection to these three states when we heal from traumatic experience.
Pedagogy of Lakoff
I recently started a discussion group with representatives of local activist groups to practice working with language on our various campaigns so that we could convey our messages more effectively. We began using George Lakoffs analysis of how Americans use language in politics. Lakoff is a UC Berkeley linguist who has become a hot topic in the left for his ability to break down progressive and conservative rhetoric in terms of how the mind works. It was a difficult task. Many of us in the group were used to strategizing street actions for media impact, and getting a clear message across, but few of us had thought about how the language we use effects the way people receive our message. I realized that while all of us in the discussion group believe in a progressive politic, it was hard for us to articulate our message in language that reflects our collective moral position.
According to Lakoff, the language of values in American politics has historically been articulated using the unconscious conceptual metaphor of the family. Conservatives tend to use a “Strict Father” metaphor that emphasizes moral strength. Progressives often use a “Nurturing Parent” metaphor that emphasizes moral empathy. “The primal experience is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care. The Strict Father teaches right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment… (Lakoff, p. 65-6) The Strict Father metaphor emphasizes Moral Authority over experiential morality& (Lakoff, p.382-3,). Strict Father morality sees the world in terms of Good and Evil, and has the tendency to lean toward us against them dualities, while Nurturing Parent morality sees threats as something that undermines community and social connection.
Without going far into this complicated linguistic argument, it has some relevance to trauma and healing. While these are metaphors we use in our language and are not our actions themselves, they represent an underlying set of beliefs. In our discussion group, we were so used to presenting our arguments in terms of what we are against, or what we are afraid of, that we naturally fall into a Strict Father articulation of our progressive politics. It is a common symptom of traumatic stress to see threats where there arent any in an attempt to resolve a previously threatening situation. Empathy is often the first thing that gets lost in traumatic experience. From this position of traumatic stress, values like ‘community’ and love can feel like a threat. If we are unable to embody these values, they can become difficult to manifest or even to articulate.
Lakoff asserts that if we are to look at his two models of the American family in terms of developmental psychology, much of the literature supports the idea that the puritanical strict father model harms children. (Lakoff 1996, p. 340) In an exhaustive cross cultural survey, James Prescott clearly shows that violence is much more prevalent in cultures that deny pleasure and that lack early childhood affection. (Prescott 1975) Neurologist Bruce Perry in research on childhood development and trauma asserts that, “what is safe and comfortable becomes so through experience; something in the present moment matches the associated, stored memories of previous safe, pleasing or rewarding experiences. In contrast, when the environment, internal or external, matches with stored neuronal patterns associated with a previous threatening experience, the brains stress- response systems will be activated. Key signs and symptoms of trauma-related neuropsychiatric disorders result from these memories of fear storing elements of traumatic experience, making associations, generalizing and, later, triggering complex, multi-system responses (i.e., cognitive, emotional, motor, state) reflecting these memories.” (Perry, 1998)
From this point of view then, the strict father model is a self-perpetuating creation of stored negative experience. Strict fathers condition unhealthy responses to fear in children. Their physiological reactions are awakened in the climate of fear perpetuated in contemporary public life. Homeland Security’s terror alerts and recurring airport and subway station warnings, be aware of suspicious packages, only help to enforce these neuronal fear patterns that tell us the world is a threatening place. Could it be that it is so difficult to articulate a progressive politic using Nurturing Parent metaphors because many of us, while believing in progressive values, have tenuous physiological connections to nurturing? It may be that, not only are we fighting conservative politicians, but also the conservative politicians in our nervous systems.
According to a January article in the Village Voice, “almost half of all Americans believe that man was created in his present form about 10, 000 years ago…”. (Giuffo 2005) I’m actually starting to believe they’re right, not because of the calculations of biblical scholars, but because this may be when our current relationship with oppression began. There are a number of authors, (DeMeo 1998, Glendinning 1994, Shepard 1998) who are making historical and psychological connections between the roots of our civilization and the current state of the planet. Their evidences suggests that for roughly a million years we homosapiens lived in balance with the rest of nature, and that it wasn’t until 10,000 years ago that we began to shift out of balance with nature. It was not until 10,000 years ago that technology helped us build fences between ourselves and the natural world. Maybe the book of genesis was right. Maybe we really did get kicked out of the Garden of Eden 10, 000 years ago when we learned about the difference between good and evil that is at the foundation of the Strict Father moral view. Maybe that difference we saw was really about our separation from ourselves and the natural world.
Communing with the Oppressed
So if we must reconnect with a deeper sense of ourselves to find balance, where are we to begin? Eco-psychologist, Chellis Glendinning suggests that we can begin learn from nature based cultures praising creation. “We Westerners have long since discontinued a communal practice of praising creation and in so doing, of aligning ourselves with the continuity of life on Earth.” (Glendinning, p.212) Upon reading this in the last chapter of her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, I realized how disconnected I was from my own environment. I began walking around my seemingly un-natural neighborhood of Brooklyn and began to find a sense of connection to the living things around me. This created a profound shift in my sense of place as I noticed both how few opportunities for connection to nature there are in my neighborhood and also the profound sense of support that came from the little that was available to me. In praising creation we must also begin to ask for forgiveness from the natural world, others we have harmed, and from ourselves, and to take ownership for our impacts from the perspective of understanding our connection to others as one of community.
Dr. James Gilligan writes, “The first lesson that tragedy teaches is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, so as to receive whatever retribution or compensation the violent person feels is ‘due’ him or ‘owed’ to him… Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.” (Gilligan, p.11-12) In other words, “when people cannot ward off shame by nonviolent means, and it is overwhelming to them, there is always a strong pressure to do so by violent acts.” (p. 265) The person who is overwhelmed by feelings of shame, writes Gilligan, is by definition experiencing a psychically life-threatening lack of love, and someone in that condition has no love left over for anyone else. (p. 113) By learning to find support for the healthy resolution of our shame and fear we create space for peace in our lives. In the same way that Friere asks us to commune with the oppressed, communing with the oppressed within ourselves is the greatest act of non-violence we can do for ourselves. It creates space to support others through the same process. Communing with the oppressed is ultimately an act of love.
Resolving our Collective Trauma
To resolve traumatic experience, we must embody the overwhelming fear that threatens to throw us out of balance- but in manageable doses. We must do so with an awareness of the resources that will help us move towards resolution or we risk becoming re-traumatized. Rather than being dependant on speaking, SE and other somatic approaches to working with trauma help the client to notice, track and engage with these animal-like responses in our bodies, providing support for the safe discharge of this stuck survival energy.
Something I work on with my clients quite a bit is identifying their own resources. This often means helping to find distractions from their narrowed focus on negative experience in their lives. This can be as simple as reminding them of activities that give them joy, a bodily experience that feels good, or remembering people who they feel supported by, past or present. It is through a process of rediscovering our resources that we are able to create a positive force in our lives to counteract the pull of traumatic experience.
The resources we need to heal are in each of us. Part of life is being exposed to experiences that overwhelm us. When we find the support we need to allow the natural processes in our bodies to resolve traumatic experiences, rather than inhibiting them, we survive difficult experiences more whole, more full of energy, and better able to survive.
Reconnecting with our animal selves can be a daunting process. But by re-regulating our physiology, we reconnect with our own inherent power. Empowerment doesnt have to be a slogan, a concept or a recipe for utopia. When it is fully embodied, it can be something we experience in our bones. We no longer have to seek justice for wrongs done to us, we can live a sense of empowerment that empowers others.
What would our protest look like if it came from a place of love for our oppressors and a desire for them to enter into community with us? What would a protest look like if the message we articulate supports people to feel good about change and feel safe enough to do it? It might not be protest anymore. We might have to call it healing.
(In chronological order)
Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International: New York.
Levine, Peter. 1997. Waking the Tiger-Healing Trauma. North Atlantic: Berkeley.
Perry, Bruce D, Pollard, R. 1998. Homeostasis, Stress, Trauma and Adaptation – A Neurodevelopmental View of Childhood Trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7; 1:33-51,
Davis, D.A.. 1994. A theory for the 90s: Freud’s seduction theory in historical context Psychoanalytic Review, 81, 627-640.
Wylie, Mary Sykes. 2004. The Limits of Talk. Psychotherapy Networker, Jan/Feb.
Levine, Peter A. 2004. Trauma – the Vortex of Violence. Foundation for Human Enrichment, traumahealing.com.
Glendinning, Chellis. 1994. My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Shambhala.
Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Prescott, James W.. 1975. Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence.
The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, November, pp. 10-20.
Giuffo, John. 2005. Debunkd. Village Voice. Jan 12-18, p.44.DeMeo, James. 1998. Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence In the Deserts of the Old World. Orgone Biophysical Research Lab: Ashland, OR.
Shepard, Paul. 1998. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Island: Washington, DC.
Gilligan, James. 1997. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic.