“Exhaustion is the body working to find comfort in a discomforting world.”

Two days ago, when I heard of the mass shooting in Orlando that has since then been an unavoidable theme in every waking moment of my life, my first response was that shot to the heart, punch in the chest sensation that then slowly seeps down into my stomach. The horror, dread, rage and sadness the news sparked in me slid down and settled like an unwelcome houseguest, and as with such a houseguest, I quickly became inured, complacent. Numb.

So many deaths and terrible acts have happened in the past few years. I’ve written here about the difficulty of facing the reality of such atrocities more than once, and found myself, after Sunday morning, again thinking about how to address this kind of event. This one, in particular, hits close to home: I identify with queer community enough to think of this crime as a strike against my larger sense of family. Yet I still cannot summon the pain and anger that are required to take action. In the face of such things, numbness – exhaustion, resignation – is one of the only tolerable responses available.

An article from Medium this morning, called “Against Numbness,” says many of the things I cannot say myself today. “Exhaustion is sensible,” writes Emma Roller, “it makes perfect sense. Exhaustion is your mind shielding your body from succumbing to a deeper horror, adrenaline numbing your pain.” Enough work with trauma – my own and clients’ – has taught me this: our bodies are very good at helping us manage overwhelming feelings by suppressing them. When our bodies are in a state of injury or illness profound enough that the pain signals are no longer of use as an alarm system to let us know we need help, our bodies go into shock. When an event happens that is so unthinkable that the emotions around it threaten to destroy us, we also say that we are “in shock.” When the trauma is repeated so often that the body no longer believes there is a safe place it can go to, the shock becomes embedded, becomes numbness.

As a nation, at this point, I believe that we are in this state. The same way that we all stared at our TV screens, transfixed, watching the planes slam into the Twin Towers over and over in 2001, we now refresh our Facebook pages, looking for more reactions to the news, more stories, more details. It is a deeply human response: looking for knowledge, for connection, for something to make sense of the senseless. But in practice it becomes an act of numbing, of self-soothing. It makes us feel like we’re doing something, when in reality we feel helpless. This, too, is extremely natural. But as Roller reminds me this morning, “Your exhaustion — your questioning if the pain is worth the gain — is the most effective tool the status quo has in its toolbox.” She closes with an imprecation to remember, and suggests a way forward out of our feelings of helplessness:

Lean into your pain. Don’t neglect it. Remember the feeling of numbness, but don’t succumb to it. The victims and their friends and families deserve not to be forgotten. The news cycle will wash over their stories, but you can choose not to abandon them. Be vigilant with your own feelings — not just for the victims, but for yourself. Never accept that this is how we have to live in America today.

I don’t know if I’m strong enough, on this day, to do this. But I like having it here as a reminder. As my partner goes to work at his queer-community-related job, where they have posted a security guard and locked the doors; as I resist the urge to refresh my Facebook page; as I go through the daily motions of my own life and try not to succumb to the fear that someone I love may be next, I will return to this. I will try to let my body move the pain of this instead of holding it, to feel the loss instead of shrugging it off, to move through exhaustion into action.

The Body Keeps the Score – but we knew that

18693771Yesterday I finished Bessel van der Kolk’s monumental work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This book, the result of more than three decades of research, direct service, and tireless curiosity by this Dutch psychiatrist, tracks the development of the profession’s understanding (or more often, lack of understanding) of post-traumatic stress. The most important piece for me: that the effective treatment of trauma requires not just a top-down approach (i.e., the use of talk therapy or other language and mind-based techniques), but a bottom-up approach as well. In short, the traumatized person needs healing that addresses their bodies as well as their minds.

Van der Kolk covers many bottom-up approaches, including yoga, theater, body psychotherapies like Somatic Experiencing, and even massage, and delves into the neuroscience, clinical data, and long-term outcomes of how it all works. The book is a tremendous win for bodymind modalities like Rubenfeld Synergy, which works with gentle touch and movement to help clients reconnect with their bodies and access the memories, emotions, and stories that live there. But it’s also a validation for me of the practices I’ve been doing with my more traumatized clients.

For those who suffer from the common long-term effects of PTSD, getting into your body is no mean feat. Dissociation – the sense of “leaving your body,” even to the point of feeling like you’re observing it from the outside – can happen easily; I’ve seen a few clients who “zone out” or dissociate merely from being asked to pay attention to their feet. Numbing, another common symptom, means such clients often can’t feel their body much at all – nor the emotions connected to it. For people who have flashbacks and experience what happened to them not as a story that happened long ago, but as an immediate, present, and intensely terrifying series of sensory impressions, anything that gets them in touch with their bodies too quickly – such as touch – is out of the question.

Among the multitudinous pearls of wisdom I got from this book was a word for what I do when this is the case: pendulation. Taken from Peter Levine, Dr. van der Kolk’s friend and colleague who developed Somatic Experiencing, pendulation refers to helping a traumatized person dip a toe, as it were, in and out of the intensity of memory. By guiding the client toward the experience that needs integration, then backing away from it before their tolerance runs out, a practitioner can help a traumatized person gradually approach and come to befriend previously intolerable feelings.

So if you come to me with a trauma history, I might keep us in chairs for a while rather than going to the table right away. I might ask you to pay attention to your breath, but might back off even from that if I sense that you’re starting to feel anxious or “leaving the room.” It’s a delicate balance, but little by little, we get back in touch with ourselves, and regain the strength, as van der Kolk repeatedly says, “to know what we know and feel what we feel.”

 

 

Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

When your body is a prison

prisonI had the pleasure recently of listening to Invisibilia, the relatively new podcast that spun off from Radiolab with Lulu Miller. The first episode concerns thoughts – one of the many invisible forces that powerfully influence our lives.

The second story in the podcast follows a very bright young man named Martin, who, at 12, suddenly fell ill with meningitis. It completely paralyzed and debilitated him, and left him in a vegetative state for about two years.

But after that time, he emerged from it, fully conscious, intelligent and aware…only to find that he could not move his body at all.

This, of course, ties into many of our worst nightmares: we are paralyzed during surgery, but conscious and cognizant of pain. Or we are trying to run from something, only to find our limbs feel like we’re trying to drag them through concrete. One of the most common fears – being buried alive – also comes to mind. You’re alive, conscious, living, breathing, and in full possession of your faculties. But you’re completely and utterly powerless to change your position, or communicate, or…anything.

In this state, the man in question thought endlessly about how pathetic, how helpless, he was. Until he chose to begin ignoring these thoughts, to let them float away. At which point he became detached to the point where each day, he wished to die. “It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” says Martin, who now communicates through a computer much like Stephen Hawking’s. “Days, if not weeks, can go by as I close myself down and become entirely black within – a nothingness that is washed and fed, lifted from wheelchair to bed.”

But the remarkable thing about this story was that, shortly before he began to restore some functionality, he chose to return to engaging his thoughts, to draw attention to them, to wrestle with the darker thoughts as they came up. He began focusing on the few things he could control, like teaching himself to tell time by the shadows as they moved through the room. And over time, through many neurological developments, he began to regain some small amounts of movement – the ability to squeeze a hand, or hold himself upright in his chair. It was one nurse – a woman who believed that there was more going on inside than the doctors believed – who urged his parents to have him tested for intelligence.

Once he began to have the tools to communicate, he began to return – not just his mind, but his body as well. Not full functionality, but over several years and with a lot of physical therapy and training, the ability to have a job, to fix computers, to go to college. And, recently, he got married, and is planning on learning to drive.

Listening to this story, I teared up, remembering a story on Radiolab with a similar theme that blew me apart when I listened to it the first time. Here were two examples of people who had been abandoned, left for dead, treated like a houseplant that needs regular feeding and watering and maintenance, but has no way of letting the world outside know what is going on inside. Until through some combination of love and hope from the outside, and hard work linking the mind and the body back together on the inside, the person emerges again.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we so often work with the body as an access point to the emotions and spirit, as a way to let the mind light upon associations and make sense of life. Here, though, is a way in from the other side: using the mind and its capacity for deep attention to restore function to the body, and indeed, restore a person to life.

Listen to the whole thing here.

Shakespeare helps restore the body’s story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

Shakespeare helps restore the body's story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

Owning yourself fully: Bessel van der Kolk and healing trauma through the body

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.

-Bessel van der Kolk

In the course of thinking about Rubenfeld Synergy Method in the context of trauma, I’ve been looking at the marvelous Bessel van der Kolk, known by many in the area as the head of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being late last year, and the result is a remarkable look into the man’s life, work, and personality. He has been working with trauma since his time with Vietnam veterans at a VA hospital during his training as a psychiatrist. It was there that he first became fascinated with the idea what trauma is and what it does for us: a soldier refused to take the drugs prescribed for nightmares, because to him, the nightmares were a way of keeping the memory of his friends alive.

His recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is being cited more and more in the healing circles I travel in. It is an exploration of a lifetime working with people who have become living memorials in some way: their bodies unchanging testaments of traumatic events. Trauma, he says, happens when the mind is unable to synthesize a narrative about what has happened, and the events get “stuck” in the body, replaying themselves. Even Darwin, as early as 1872, wrote “how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.”

I have seen this phenomenon in my practice, where clients often cannot feel what is happening in their bodies, or are unaware of what their bodies are doing, or they “leave the room,” in essence, dissociating whenever their awareness is called to their bodies. The experiences that they have had there are too intense to be repeatedly endured, and they have found ways to disconnect from their somatic experience. And so the process of addressing trauma somatically starts with helping people reconnect with their bodies in ways that can begin to feel safe.

van der Kolk has worked with yoga, eye movement therapy, and other somatic practices to help people return to their bodies. “It was very striking in our yoga study,” he says, “even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.” In his work, as in Rubenfeld Synergy, van der Kolk has found that “something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” It can take a while to help someone reconnect with their own breath, to have a sense of their skin and bones and muscles, to have a relationship to their own sensations and emotions that is not simply another way of triggering the trauma. But the research is clearer and clearer that returning people to their bodies is a clear route out of the cycle.

One of my favorite bits of the interview was about stress hormones and their value, and how what really prevents overwhelming experiences from becoming trauma is movement:

“The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations…What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system.

But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active and they like to help and they like to do things and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.”

This links back to a post I wrote years ago that continues to be popular, about trauma and streaming. When action is possible in a moment of crisis, it is less likely to become “stuck.” But when trauma is repeated, or when movement or action isn’t safe, then the event or events can become “frozen” in the body, stuck in a repeat loop until we can return a sense of safety to the body, and a sense of consciousness to the ongoing experience of being embodied.

Except for a small number of practitioners, the connection between trauma and the body is a minority voice in psychology. Luckily, it is expanding, but it has taken some time. I am hoping to connect with Dr. van der Kolk and the Trauma Center soon to talk about how Rubenfeld Synergy can contribute to this process of healing from trauma. For now, I recommend listening to the whole interview here , or reading the transcript here.

More awesome body-mind connection techniques at the Mind Your Body Expo

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The show floor at the Natural Awakenings Mind Body Expo

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to an exhibition of dozens of workshop presenters and vendors on more holistic approaches to health at the Natural Awakenings Mind-Body Event. Amid some things that admittedly felt quite woo-woo, I found some really great practitioners and doctors doing work in ways that align with what I’m seeing in my own work, and the day was well-attended, enthusiastic, and inspiring.

The show floor was filled with healers of all kinds, vendors of healthy foods, people giving demonstrations and hands-on work. The highlight for me, though, was the workshops, and I got to attend three and meet some great people.

First for me was a crash course in Biofeedback, with Kim Larsson at Boston Behavioral Medicine. I hadn’t been familiar with what biofeedback was before, and its principles are very cool. Essentially, they take readings from people of their heart rate, muscle tension, breathing, skin conductivity (sweat and gooseflesh response), heart rate variability, surface skin temperature, and other markers that are known to respond when the body is in a state of stress or relaxation. Through getting immediate, externalized feedback of how your body responds to stress by seeing the readouts on the screen, biofeedback practitioners then train patients to self-regulate their own stress responses, thereby keeping their bodies at a healthier baseline in a conscious way and learning how to consciously relax. What I noted about it most is how much it aligns with Rubenfeld Synergy’s strategy of teaching increased somatic awareness, and how that awareness is the first step to opening up possibilities for change. I liked the idea of actually being able to see what is happening, and develop a concrete sense of agency over your own body’s responses to stress, anxiety, and trauma triggers.

The other talk I really enjoyed was by Barbara Gosselin, a physical therapist who does cranio-sacral therapy. She spoke about the importance of working with the body with trauma. Her profound interest in and expertise in the body, including the much-overlooked fascial system, overcame any skepticism I had about CST, and it became clear that she, too, is doing work very closely aligned with RSM: gentle, listening touch, waiting for subtle change and release, and noting that with trauma, sometimes you don’t need the whole story – you just need to help the body return to a more relaxed, parasympathetic response to stimuli rather than the hyper-response that often gets stuck in the body in people who have experienced trauma.

I’m looking forward to being in touch with both practitioners, and making more connections across the Boston area with people who are doing grounded, effective mind/body work. If you want to know how to increase relaxation, diminish stress, and heal from trauma, I hope you’ll contact me.

Tsarnaev, heartbreak, and the violence borne of suffering

Image by Rebecca Hildreth on FlickrLast week, the federal courts sentenced young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his crimes in the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t talk politics much here, but I will say on the record: I was hoping against hope that it would be life without parole. I hoped – and even believed – that we were better than this now. That we would give this young man – hell, this boy – a chance to grow up, to reflect, to be alone with his thoughts and out of the public eye for years – and perhaps, to find redemption.

But we’re not so good at that, as a species. Even though Martin Richard’s family, who had the ultimate loss in this tragedy in the death of their young son, said that they did not want the death penalty. Apparently, our sense of revenge was more important than responding to that family’s plea to not take another child away from this world.

I read an article by Parker J. Palmer a few days before the verdict, in the amazing On Being blog. Entitled Heartbreak, Violence, and Hope for New Life, it is built around the repeated refrain, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

It tracks the idea that as individuals, and indeed, as a nation, we often don’t know what to do with our suffering, and so lashing out feels like the only option. It happens with the cycle of abuse, when a child who was beaten up grows up to beat up her own kids. It happens when we turn violence against ourselves or others in response to grief and pain. As Palmer writes, “We turn to noise and frenzy, nonstop work, or substance abuse as anesthetics that only deepen our suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and contempt for the poor are among the cruel outcomes of this demented strategy.”

We do it as a nation, as when after the few weeks of solidarity and heartbreak that followed 9/11, we went to endless war.

And we did it this week, when we decided that our response to the suffering we experienced after the Marathon bombing should be the death – irrevocable and state-executed – of a a young man who could yet, with time, be healed.

Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

I hope that if you are reading this, if you are suffering today, if your heart is breaking, that it is able to make room, to expand, to be supple and strong.

Weekly sharing series

i_like_you-t2

I’ve been working to use Facebook more reliably, and I’m looking to launch a series for each day of the week where I say a little something, post a little finding, share a song or a story or an exercise, each day of the week. But because it’s cuter if I do it this way, I’m thinking of doing a different theme for each day.

So far I have The Monday Move, in which I share music that moves me, makes me move, or grants me stillness.

Tuesdays are for Trauma – and/or Truth. Here I’ll share things about how trauma works, what it does, how RSM helps you recover, recent studies and science, and so on.

In honor of Joe Weldon, I’m thinking that the next day has to be the Wednesday Sway, dedicated to moves in RSM, the restoration of movement to the body, and all the somatic ways that we do this work.

Thursday and Friday are still a little up in the air, but I know that I want to do something about sexuality, and something about performance. Thespian Thursdays? Fabulous Fridays? I’m sure all the alliterations will come together in time.

Until then, please “like” and follow my page over on Facebook, and if you dig it, tell your friends!