The World Stage as Trauma

A guide to recognizing the implications and symptoms of psychological trauma

Reflective Interdependence

We live in a universe that reflects our inner experiences onto the external stage of life. While you are perceiving the outside world as outside of you, it is simultaneously happening and being experienced inside of you. There is no experience outside of yourself- your neurology, your biology.

So just when you think you are separate, or better than the chaos, the differing and volatile political views, the mass shootings, the reoccurring sexual assault allegations…. think again. Just turn on the news or log into Facebook or Twitter to observe rigid belief systems and the popularity of divisive belief systems perpetuating politics, social and all media. None of this exists without you, without us, making it so- either passively or actively.

The camera eye of the internet and media is a medium constantly reflecting back to us a version of who we are and where our attention is focused, or rather should be focused (i.e.) cue American consumerism and media sensationalism that will do anything for your dollars and eyeballs. You can have your belief systems and ideologies, but it’s really money that rules the world, baby! (and maybe even you, too).

Most people think they have acquired their belief systems from deductive reasoning and their own logical, religious, perhaps even intellectual way of looking at the world, when in fact, they (we) have been conditioned to think and feel the way they (we) do by their (our) parents, family, friends, society- all of whom have learned their ways of being from others before them and are repeating the same maladaptive, dysfunctional patterns of their parents, family, friends, etc.

Your thumb print makes you unique, but hardly anything else does.

You may have heard there are no original ideas when it comes to art, but could you even fathom this about yourself? That all the thoughts and beliefs you’ve acquired are from others and not your own? That’s a hard pill to swallow for even the “free-thinkers” of the world that brand themselves as contrarians and “outside of the box.” To participate in modern culture, one must be involved in the game called society, but one doesn’t need to be enslaved by it either. One of the ways out is to begin observing yourself, your patterns, your beliefs, your trauma, so you can work on truly being free.

Accountability

Every day, there is more and more trauma making its way to the surface of our collective eyes and “I’s.” With this illumination, there ensues much emotional and psychological pain, but also hope for a better understanding and transformation of our ourselves. Now, this present moment, is the best time for self-reflection and self-leadership. Have you ever taken a moment to truly observe yourself? To truly understand why you do what you do? Most people would like to think they have, but unfortunately they haven’t. It’s much easier to subscribe to thoughts and belief systems that have permeated human consciousness, some for thousands of years, than to take a curious, critical, observational eye to the depths of one’s own inner world. A simple example to point to is the desire that most people want to live in peace (mentally and physically), yet actually live in chaotic, dissociated, inner and outer states themselves. People live in the gap between what they want and what they have, getting stuck in that gap their whole lives and teaching their children to do the same.

Why do humans do this? Because self-deception and inner hypocrisy is a survival mechanism that has been normalized beyond recognition. People are so busy escaping themselves and their inner worlds with external stimuli, they have no awareness of what’s really going on internally and externally. Everything in the outside world (sold through all types of media and entertainment) is packaged to be consumed- taken on as if it is normal to live in constant anxiety and fear. It is now “normal” to self-soothe with food, clothes, cars, entertainment, any material object, really. This is a culture of consumption, not of peace, prosperity and enlightenment.

However, the good news is, people are slowly waking up and starting to see things as they truly are. An illumination is happening. Perhaps the bombardment of despicable behavior towards other other fellow human beings is shocking us into awareness, causing us to pause and reflect. There are many reasons to this transformative uprising and I would like to contribute to the process by offering some basic facts and insight I’ve acquired as a trauma-informed clinician and, and better yet, as a human being.

The Trauma Stage

How do we know about implications of trauma? Short answer: Scientific brain scans, epigenetics, and decades of psychological, clinical observations and research.

How do/can we observe trauma? Short answer: By observing patterns that have reoccurred so many times in human beings that we can undoubtedly label them symptoms of trauma, such as: depression, anxiety, insomnia, night terrors, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, aggression, mistrust, irritability, numbing, loss of interest, hopelessness, having little or no memories, chronic pain, headaches, substance abuse, addiction, self-destructive behavior, loss of sense of “Who I Am.” (Adapted from Fisher, Bremner & Marmer, 2007, 1998).

At first glance, how many of these listed patterns, or symptoms, regularly show up in your life experience? Two? Three? Five? All of them? You’re not alone.

Brain Power

Let’s take a look at how trauma affects the wiring and functioning of the brain and the autonomic nervous system. In being able to identify bodily sensations, intrusive emotions and maladaptive cognitive patterns, one can begin to understand the nature of their being and their own traumatic symptoms. We will focus on the Triune (3 part) Brain, coined by Physician and neuroscientist Dr. Paul MacLean, which is a simplistic, yet helpful explanation of how certain parts of the brain work and have evolved over time.

  1. Reptilian Brain: our oldest brain made up of the brainstem and cerebellum. It’s responsible for our survival mechanisms and affecting vital functions such as heart rate, body temperature and breathing.
  2. Mammalian Brain: also known as the Limbic System. It is non-verbal and contains emotional, relational, feeling and traumatic memories. It contains the amygdala, which is the emotional memory center and which “sets off an alarm” when triggered, to act. The alarm can go off in relation to real or perceived danger, and for trauma survivors, this system is very active and visceral because they will experience the trauma as if the danger were happening NOW.
  3. Neofrontal Cortex: The frontal lobes are known as the thinking brain and are responsible for executive functioning, reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking, being able to verbalize thoughts, feelings. It helps us remember events and facts. This is the NEWEST part of our evolutionary brain and has given us incredible advancement over other mammals. This part of the brain is not fully formed until the age of 25. Important note: The frontal lobes are OFFLINE- inaccessible when a person is experiencing a traumatic event, symptoms, or past memory. As psychiatrist and leading trauma expert, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk states, “We remember trauma with our feelings and our bodies.”

In other words, trauma can invoke implicit memory.

“Trauma Survivors Have Symptoms Instead of Memories”

(Mary R. Harvey, 1990)

All of us, yes, all of us (unless you’re an enlightened, totally healed, evolved prophet/monk/person [watch out for the self-proclaimed Jesus types a.k.a charlatans, btw]) are attempting to regulate (self-soothe) our dysregulated (traumatized/dissociated) nervous systems. We experience these symptoms on a spectrum, some are more traumatized than others- having experienced horrific atrocities and violence, some use their intellect to avoid or deny they are having dysregulating experiences at all (I’ll discuss dissociation and coping mechanisms in a forthcoming post) and some have integrated, or transcended, these painful experiences and symptoms to live more balanced, happier lives.

We can experience trauma symptoms and attachment/relational wounding on a daily basis. We experience these symptoms internally, externally, consciously, and most importantly and pervasively: unconsciously. By unconsciously, I mean that its effects are beyond our conscious awareness (we don’t know it’s happening while in a waking state, in our field of discriminatory awareness), yet we still experience these symptoms and have automatic, physiological, engrained reactions that have subtlety become mechanisms of everyday, “normal” life. Our reactions become habitual, normalized to our physiology.

There are many types of memory, but two we will go into are explicit and implicit. Explicit memory is associated with conscious recollection and is often what we imagine when we think of memory, like remembering facts or situations. Implicit memory occurs unconsciously and is often associated with thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Implicit Memory in Relation to Trauma

Implicit memories can be like “feeling flashbacks” when the autonomic nervous system perceives an attack it hijacks the frontal lobes, operates in the limbic system, and replicates physical sensations and feelings associated to past experiences of trauma or terror. So even if the person can’t remember visually in their mind’s eye, the trauma, the body always remembers. The illusion here is the person reacting, may think they are “in control” of these thoughts and feelings, when in fact they have no control of its uprising, like weeds in a grassy field, mistaking the weeds of their experience as the solid, grassy field of foundation. It is a habitual intrusion. It is reactionary.

The world we see and experience is a testament to pervasive, manipulated and exploited psychological trauma.

The world stage is Trauma.

A pattern as old as time, is that the most powerful leadership positions have been abused and exploited in ways to disregard the wellbeing of the individual and collective unit. Ideology, paranoia, aggressive stances and fundamentalism have become easy norms to follow, consciously and unconsciously designed to waver the thoughts and belief systems of the public- to keep people confused about who they are and what they’re experiencing.

There is an intelligence to emotional and physical sensations that is discounted by those wanting to appeal to the ego, the “intellectual” in all of us: it is that our cerebral, thinking minds are SO superior, feelings don’t matter. When in fact these feelings and physical sensations are communicating and providing valuable information. If you don’t know how to interpret this information (especially if it’s unpleasant) you are more likely to dismiss and discount it. This reinforces the repetition of traumatic patterns.

So the next time you feel something, pause and pay attention to it. What thought accompanies that feeling? What pattern do you go into? How is your trauma affecting you and your loved ones… right NOW? What can you become curious about right now? Pause again. Breathe in the 2–1 yogic cyclewhich calms your nervous system. Become the observer standing outside of your inner stage and watching what is going on, trying to understand what is really happening and how it is affecting you.

If you take away one thing from this article, just remember: a curious mind will unveil the stages of trauma and lead you home.

Lilit Arvahi, MFT

Additional Resources on affects of Trauma:

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study on Trauma and its affect on health.

Epigenetics

Healing Trauma with Yoga

Yoga is an ancient philosophy and practice of body, mind and spirit. Having originated in India over 5,000 years ago, yoga has been used as a portal to healing, spiritual awareness and evolution of consciousness.  In more recent years, the Western world has begun to embrace yoga as more than just an exercise routine to keep the body in shape, but instead, it is being revered as a scientifically researched practice with incredible efficacy on mental health and physical disorders.
The most pertinent example of research on the benefits of yoga as treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), was conducted by one of the world’s leading clinicians on PTSD, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Having worked as a mental health therapist for seven years myself, I have witnessed the effects of trauma professionally with the clients I have treated, as well as in my own sensory experiences. Yoga, experiential therapies and trauma-informed psychotherapy have been critical and necessary tools of transformation with traumatized individuals.

The definition of yoga asana in Sanskrit is “Sthiram Sukram Asana,” meaning steady and comfortable pose.  Each posture must be steady and comfortable in order to achieve the full benefits of yoga. Steadiness refers to the connection of body and mind, or in other words, holding a position with your body and, perhaps more importantly, focusing with your mind, utilizing your breath. Moving the breath to the diaphragm slows down breathing and the workings of the nervous system. The body begins to calm when respiration is slow and deep in the diaphragm. Most people suffering from PTSD and anxiety disorders experience shortness, or shallowness, of breath in the chest area. Any intense discomfort or pain should be avoided or used as an indicator that a variation or modification is necessary. This methodology is perfect for any human being seeking flexibility and mastery of the body and mind, but especially so for the traumatized person who needs to be met where they are, not where they “should,” or are expected to be. This gentle invitation of starting from where you are reflects the philosophical and psychological sensitivity needed for most people to heal. When one advances in yogic practices, it evolves into more than sensory experiences, it transforms into a lifestyle.

More About Trauma
Trauma is an immobilizing experience that leaves lasting imprints on the autonomic nervous system and brain. It often compromises one’s ability to keep her or himself safe because they are experiencing increased, or decreased, arousal on a sensory level in the body. Life is experienced as constant survival mode, i.e. fight, flight, freeze, submit, attach.  These defense mechanisms manifest into symptoms such as depression, anxiety, helplessness, loss of sense of “who I am”, nightmares, flashbacks, irritability, emotional overwhelm, substance abuse, mistrust, shame and worthlessness, numbing, and the list goes on.
These individuals lose the capacity to use emotions as effective guides for necessary action.  This leaves the person paralyzed and helpless. They are hijacked and unable to take effective action that would potentially protect the self- but instead, end up hurting the self over and over again.
Do you remember being asked to hold a pose, like Warrior II or Tree, for a few breaths, and depending on your ability, these few seconds morph into feeling like an eternity? The tingly sensations that run up and down your body, the impulse to breathe faster consumes you while you’re told to slow down and deepen your breath, and all while racing thoughts of impending doom torment you? And that’s only five seconds of one pose! Imagine living like that 24 hours a day, in relationship to yourself, others and the world. THAT is trauma.
As expert trauma psychologist, Dr. Janina Fisher states, “trauma survivors have symptoms instead of memories.” We must learn to observe these intrusive thoughts, feelings and overwhelming sensations as symptoms- not as a definition of who we are.

Yoga Is The Way 
Yoga literally means “to join” and thus helps aid the process of a person becoming an observer of their symptoms/experiences to join back into relationship with their body, mind, and spirit in a safe and loving way.
The first stage of treating traumatized individuals always requires providing safety and stabilization to overcome emotional and psychological dysregulation. Gentle practices of Hatha, Yin and Restorative yoga support the balance and regulation of these symptoms.
Through Dr. van der Kolk’s research, yoga has been shown to be an integral healing technique. Yoga brings attention and direction to the breath (pranayama), which contains life force (prana) to move and shift energy in the body and mind. By bringing awareness to the breath, one can also observe physical sensations in holding the postures (asanas). Dr. van der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” beautifully describes the implications of trauma on the nervous system (how it is stored in the body) and brain and how yoga and other experiential modalities, such as EMDR, are utilized to integrate traumatic memories that keep people “stuck” in the past or in fear of the future. Yoga enables these individuals to come to terms with the past, recover by developing awareness of the here-and-now and tolerate moment-to-moment experiences in the present no matter the level of stress attached to it.
Yoga empowers the individual to learn to self-regulate their discomfort by holding poses and consciously regulating the breath. 

The consistent practice of yoga reprograms the brain and removes engrained physical responses that are automatic and self-destructive. Yoga is the tuning fork of the mind and body. It tunes the person into being present with what is by accepting things as they are with curiosity and non-judgment.  It removes the shame and blame often correlated to mental health disorders.
Yoga brings understanding and awareness to these constant disturbances by balancing pranayama and asanas, as they are meditative states of transformation. The breath helps us master our physiology and create safety and stabilization from within. A person learns to live from the inside-out, as opposed to the fear and danger from the outside-in. Individuals also learn to tolerate uncomfortable experiences by shifting into different postures and realizing that discomfort can be limited in time and space- it doesn’t have to last forever! This is crucial awareness for the trauma survivor who is constantly reliving the past as if it were happening now, appearing to have no end in sight.

​True Healing Cannot be Undone
A deeper relationship starts to form in yoga that connects the person to their body and mind in positive ways- instead of a relationship that has sabotaged, betrayed and terrorized the experience of their bodies in their everyday lives.

​People start to view themselves with compassion, love and forgiveness as they shift their perspective from fear-based thinking into awareness, consciousness, love and gentleness.

We are so lucky we are human beings, born with the ability to self-develop, i.e. evolve our consciousness and reach our fullest potential, Samadhi or Self-Realization.  It is our aim and purpose to achieve peace and happiness.

Should it call to you, allow yoga to be the way of getting you there.  It has worked for millions of people all over the world.
It requires only one ingredient: your willingness.

Will yourself into happiness and prosperity.

“What you think you will become.” Buddha

“You don’t need to be sad to experience sadness. You don’t need to be happy to experience happiness.” Bhagavad-Gita

Codependence is NOT Connection

 A common misconception people share when contextualizing human relationships is when they place their value on characteristics  detrimental to the self and others. Shame and fear based relationships are often a whirling pool of distress, confusion and anger- providing the perfect breeding ground for a little (big thing) we call CODEPENDENCE.
  What is Codependence? 
Well, one of the best ways to understand it is to be curious about your own behavior and thoughts… so let’s start there:

​1. Do you walk on egg shells around certain people? Feel anxious and afraid?
2. Are you afraid of disrupting the “peace” in your work environment (or any environment) and often find yourself either avoiding, placating, minimizing, rescuing situations and people when there is tension, discomfort, stress, or fear of consequences?
3. Do you often self-sabotage personal success when you’re close to achieving it? Do you blame others and their actions when this happens?
4. Do other people constantly let you down or hurt you? Are you in relationship with a person in active addiction?
5. Do you find yourself care-taking other people’s emotional states? Especially when they are in distress? Do you feel responsible for their emotional and psychological well-being? (children excluded)
6. Do you replicate behaviors and patterns that cause you to feel “stuck” in your life and not moving forward?
7. Do you feel like other people are getting ahead while you sacrifice yourself for no real merit?
8. Do you avoid communicating your true feelings in order to keep the peace, or in fear that it may hurt someone else’s feelings? (Even though YOU’RE massively hurting inside!)
9. Have you said “Yes” to social situations time and time again, even though every bone and fiber of your Being wanted to say “HELL NO, I’m staying in and watching animal videos, but enjoy your brunch in the sun!”?
10. Are relationships stressful and triggering? Are intimate relationships exhausting because you end up doing all the work?  Are you always the “nice” guy or girl that get’s screwed over?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, Codependency may be present in your life.
The great news is, you can do something about it!

Psychotherapy and 12 step groups like Codependents Anonymous are great resources for help and support.

If you want to start learning more about Codependence in the safety and comfort of your own home, I highly recommend:

Pia Mellody’s, “Facing Codependence.”

 

Self-Remembering at The Float Lab

Screen Shot 2018-12-27 at 10.29.28 AM

“What am I looking at in this picture?”

– A door to a sensory deprivation chamber.

“What’s a sensory deprivation chamber?”

– I’m glad you asked.

The first time I floated in a sensory deprivation chamber at Float Lab in Venice, CA, was around the year 2007.  I floated for 3.5 hours not ever wanting to get out.  I clearly remember the disruption of hunger pains that stifled my meditation in the chamber, reminding me to nourish myself before I passed out from my otherworldly transcendent experience.  Doing my best to integrate the out of body experiences, anti-gravity sensations, and child-like wonder back into my adult “normal” self took a few minutes as I enjoyed the last few moments of freedom from ALL distractions. The warmth and weightlessness of the saline water soothed every muscle, ligament, joint, pore, hair follicle I had/have on my body.  The moment I walked out of the front door, into the busy, gurgling sounds and movements of the Venice Boardwalk, I felt a calmness that I had never felt before.  As if I was observing the world around me like it was a movie, and I was a polite bystander, bearing witness to the “noise” of the world with a deep sense of peace and safety that was indestructible.  It was as if I was a tether in the vibrations of consciousness, oscillating on the waves of awareness that spiritual gurus and mystics often speak about, and normal humans regurgitate into catch phrases that warrant likes and shares on social media. “Just Be You.” Great idea! But, who am I? Who is underneath the “personality,” the “identity,” the “academic?”
Well, in that moment, I was clear. I had returned to my essence.
The feeling of BEING that resonates like a faint memory of what it was like “to be” before being born.  A memory I would often drift to as a child, a memory great artists like Salvador Dali discuss as inspiration to their work.

A week ago, I returned to the Float Lab at their new location in Westwood, CA.  A phenomenal new location with 7 chambers and state of the art sound proofing and equipment. I was so impressed with the aesthetics and new technology Crash (owner) and his team had developed, that I was too stunned to take photos. (Besides the one I took of the chamber door. See above).
A sensory deprivation chamber is a chamber that contains a depth of 12 inches of saline water (that you effortlessly float in) and is completely void of light (you are in complete darkness) and sound (you can’t hear anything but your own mind and body).  It is a vessel for deep body relaxation while feeling “weightless.” Hence, sensory deprivation- deprivation from senses.
It is place to meditate, reconnect with yourself and allow whatever experience you are presently having, to present itself to you.
I have been floating on and off for the past 8-9 years and dream of the day I can have my own personal chamber at home. As the new generation would say: #goals.
I strongly believe in the healing and perception shifting experiences of the chamber because I have seen it for myself and within others.

As a treatment resource, I have taken clients floating who have stabilized in sobriety after entering drug and alcohol treatment for 30 days or more.  This was often a rewarding intervention for most clients who had never experienced a sense of being alone with themselves, without the fear of loneliness hijacking their experience and tempting them back into “escape” mode with substances. There is a huge difference between being alone and feeling lonely, and being alone while being able to tolerate your moment-to-moment experiences in order to be present with what is non-judgmentally. Unfortunately some people react to feeling lonely by isolating from the world and support systems/groups that help keep a person connected to community, and most importantly, to themselves. Disconnection reinforces dysfunction- connection gives you more possibilities and opportunities.

Floating provides for an experience that is solely about YOU. Your thoughts, your feelings, your fears, your dreams, your bodily sensations, your transcendence, your everything. It creates a safe place for you to self-remember and access your internal navigation system that guides you back to YOU.  You have everything you need, deep inside of you.  (That phrase – totally true.) Reconnect to yourself so you may connect with others in a healthy, productive way.

I highly recommend this resource for you and anyone you love.

Check it out for yourself, and float on.

Float Lab
http://www.floatlab.com 

A Great Place to Start

dbt

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance
By: Matthew McKay, Jeffrey Wood, and Jeffrey Brantley

You may have heard of CBT- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but make no mistake, this book is about another three letter acronym- the DBT’s – Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

I love DBT.

Why?

Because it’s useful, practical and really, really good. Oh, and science backs it up too.

It’s an easy and great way of learning the 4 core skill groups (Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance) that will create impactful change over time. Dialectical, by definition, means to have two opposing thoughts, emotions or forces occurring at the same time.  This happens to ALL of us: “I want to ask my boss for a raise, but I’m afraid I’ll be denied.” Both could be true, but which do you do? DBT helps integrate the opposing forces in order to accept things as they are, and still be able to make choices to help you change and LIVE your life.