Parts Work Therapies: Embracing Complexity

Ego States, Dissociative Symptoms, and Parts Work Therapies

Parts Work Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Do you ever feel as though only some of your emotions or needs are acceptable? Do you push away parts of yourself that you do not want others to see? In truth, all parts of our self are real, important, and necessary. However, it is common to experience conflicts between opposing emotions or needs. For example, you might have a part of you that longs to be close to a loved one while another part feels fearful of intimacy. Sometimes, these competing needs can become polarized within us, leading to anxiety, indecision, procrastination, or self-sabotaging behaviors.

If you have a history of chronic, repeated trauma, you might feel a greater divide between different parts of the self and a greater likelihood of dissociative symptoms. You might feel an unrelenting need to be perfect, be plagued by a harsh inner critic, or exhibit self-aggressive tendencies that lead you to feel at war with yourself. You might also feel as though you are cut off from your feelings or as if you are going through the motions of your life without meaning or a sense of connection. Maybe you alternate between feeling disconnected from your emotions and over identifying with your pain.

And, when we cannot stay present to our emotions, we are much more likely to try to control other people’s behaviors.

Relate? Parts work therapies can help you heal. Let’s take a closer look…

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Empathy, Compassion, and the Vagus Nerve | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Giving and Receiving Love

compassion and the vagus nerve Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Most of us share a need to be seen and feel understood. We long to belong and to experience ourselves within the context of loving, nurturing relationships. When we have experiences of connection with other people, this helps to build a foundation for a loving and compassionate relationship to ourselves. This in turn can allow us to offer loving care to others. You can think of this exchange as an infinity symbol–a loving exchange of giving and receiving.

However, sometimes we do not receive this care and love in our relationships. Relational trauma impair our trust in others and, like all traumatic events is held in the body and is often maintained as dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the part of your nervous system that manages how you respond to stress. In addition, the ANS also helps you to find healthy relaxation into a felt experience of safety. All of this is directly related to the tone and health of your vagus nerve.

The ability to express empathy and compassion is also related to the health of the autonomic nervous system. You might be someone who struggles with feeling “too much” or you might have difficulty accessing your feelings. At either end of this continuum, working with your vagus nerve can help you to find the sweet spot of connection. One that allows you to compassionately attend to your own pain, and relate to the pain of others (or the world) without becoming overwhelmed. Let’s take a closer look at empathy, compassion, and the vagus nerve.

Empathy

Dr. Arielle Schwartz compassion and the vagus nerve

Empathy is a key element of the work that I do. As a psychotherapist, I am literally trained to not only listen to another but to sense and feel their experience with them. In truth I’ve been this way my whole life—empathy is one of those traits that goes along with being a highly sensitive person.

My sensitivity also defined much of my childhood. You see, when I was growing up I felt everything. If there was an emotion in the room I was sure to pick up on it. Often the emotions would build up in me and then I would start to feel anxious or overwhelmed or sad for “no reason.” It was easier when emotions were named by others. If someone was able to say “I’m sad” or “I’m angry” then I didn’t take it on. But, it was a lot harder with other people’s “unexpressed” or “suppressed” emotions. You know what I mean…when someone has an angry tone of voice and expression on their face but denies it and says, “I’m fine!” This is where things got really confusing!

As a child, empathy was automatic and not something that I had choice about…it was like a faucet left on full stream; I never knew that I could turn it down or off! As a result, there were times when I carried around a whole lot of emotional baggage. This could get pretty heavy. Sometimes I’d have big emotional meltdowns and not know why. Other times I’d get sick because all of these feelings left my body drained.

Developing an understanding of the vagus nerve helped me understand what was happening and how to adjust my empathy faucet…

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Conscious Breathing and the Vagus Nerve | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Healing the Nervous System Through the Breath

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Breathing and the Vagus Nerve

“I Can’t Breathe” 

These are the words feverishly and frantically expressed by countless individuals who have died from Covid-19. 

“I Can’t Breathe”

Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain each uttered these words being killed as a result of police brutality. Now, these words are chanted around the world as hundreds of thousands march against systemic racism. 

“I Can’t Breathe” 

Air quality index spikes to hazardous levels across the West Coast of the United States forcing many to stay inside…it isn’t safe to breathe the air.

“To breathe is to live. Grief is often felt as a heavy weight in the chest. We cannot take for granted the health of our body, our sense of safety in the world, of the cleanliness of our air. These precious gifts are our birthright; yet, they need to be protected. To breathe fully in the midst of intense times is an act of courage.”

Dr. Arielle Schwartz
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Healing PTSD: Mind and Body in Trauma Treatment | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

A Compassionate Approach to Care

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Healing Trauma

In trauma treatment, we are looping our consciousness around places in our psyches and in our bodies that hold unprocessed sensations, emotions, images, and thoughts. Like dusting off old furniture or opening boxes that were pushed into the back of an attic, healing involves going into the recesses of the mind and heart. We bring the light of conscious awareness to our wounds—we attend to the pain so that we can feel integrated and whole. 

While it can initially feel frightening to revisit difficult memories, it can also feel empowering to reduce the power they hold over us. Lingering feelings of anxiety, shame, powerlessness, or frozenness need our unconditional acceptance in order to heal. This asks us to suspend any tendency to make ourselves wrong for feeling hurt. Instead, we learn turn towards our pain with love and compassion.

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The Vagus Nerve and your Health | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Natural Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Resilience Informed Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Did you know that activation of the vagus nerve keeps your immune system in check and releases an assortment of hormones and neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and oxytocin. This results in reductions in inflammation, reduced allergies, relief from tension headaches, improvements in memory, and feelings of relaxation (Groves & Brown, 2005).

Traditional vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) treatment, also referred to as neuromodulation, involves surgically implanting a bio-electronic device that provides stimulation for the vagus nerve. However, it is also possible to indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve naturally.

The vagus nerve passes through the belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles. Importantly, 80 percent of vagus nerve fibers are afferent or sensory nerves which means that they communicate messages from your body back up to your central nervous system. That means that when you move and breathe into these areas of the body, you can influence the functioning of your vagus nerve.

In this post, I share with you additional yoga, breath, and movement practices that help stimulate and balance the vagus nerve (you can find previously posted practices in my post on natural vagus nerve stimulation and here mind-body therapies for vagus nerve disorders)

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Juneteenth: A Statement In Solidarity | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Black Lives Matter

Photo credit: Betty Martin

Today is Juneteenth, a historical day in the United States which commemorates the day when slavery ended. Unfortunately; however, racism has not. Anti-Black racism in particular, has a centuries-long history of bringing violence and pain to Black communities.

This is an unacceptable reality.

Today, in the United States and worldwide, communities are coming together to challenge this state of affairs. Communities are coming together to eliminate hate, racism and their traumatic effects. Communities are coming together to imagine a new reality that centers marginalized communities, uplifts the validity of lived experience and builds genuine connections based on open communication.

It is time to for all of us to stand up and speak out for equality and justice. It is time for us to listen and offer our presence to hear this pain. It is time for each of us to take personal responsibility for our own participation in racism.

Even if it didn’t begin with me or you, racism is a form of legacy trauma–it gets passed on across generations contributing to our unconscious biases and prejudices. And, now, it is our responsibility to take hold of what has been passed down and create change! It is time to open up to uproot racism and plant compassion. 

In Solidarity

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Resources for Traumatic Stress | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Traumatic Stress Reactions

Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz
In her shell by Arielle Schwartz

During and after traumatic events, it is common to experience feelings of confusion, sadness, fear, anxiety, panic, irritability, agitation, anger, and despair. It is also common to experience physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, sweating, shakiness, nausea, or dizziness. These are just signs that our innate stress response has kicked into gear. We might feel an urge to flee or fight. Conversely, we might want to curl up, like a turtle in a protective shell.

While these symptoms can feel unsettling, it is important to recognize that these feelings are expected and they are normal. In fact, they are your body’s natural way of digesting traumatic stress.

However, if you notice that you are having intrusive images, nightmares, or difficulty sleeping, this is a sign that you should seek support with a therapist trained in the treatment of trauma. Otherwise, you might begin to feel stuck. For example, you might not want to go to places, participate in activities, or see people that are associated with your trauma. Overtime, these symptoms can inhibit your ability to live a happy and healthy life.

The Body’s Wisdom in Threatening Situations

Boundaries and the Self Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder

As human beings, we are equipped with a physiology that has built-in protective mechanisms to helps us survive threatening situations by mobilizing our defenses or disconnecting us from our pain. When we experience a threat, our sympathetic nervous system helps us to move into self-protection through the release of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine throughout the bloodstream. Just as animals seek to flee or fight a predator; we too, might rely upon these defense mechanisms to survive.

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Reclaim your Life from C-PTSD | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

“It was Never my Fault”

C-PTSD recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Having a history of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) from childhood trauma can lead you to struggle with your self-perception. Having self-perception issues refers to a sense of self that is based upon inaccurate beliefs that you are damaged, inferior, worthless, or unlovable. These beliefs are commonly accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt. It is common to feel as though you do not belong or that you are irreconcilably different from other people. Difficulties with self-perception can also lead you to mistakenly believe that other people are rejecting or feeling critical of you. 

It can be difficult to tolerate the discomfort associated with shame, anger, and hurt that often accompany childhood trauma. This can lead to a wide range of avoidance symptoms including perfectionism, unrelenting self-criticism, and addictions. For example, you might react angrily toward others or become hypercritical of yourself in order to avoid feeling sad.

“In order to heal, it is important to work with self-perception issues as they are experienced, mentally, emotionally, and physically. You can learn to be with your emotions without the need to run away, attack yourself, or attack others. You can learn to validate your experience, and with practice, you can reclaim your life from C-PTSD.” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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A Practical Guide to Complex PTSD | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Compassionate Strategies for Childhood Trauma

This book, A Practical Guide to Complex PTSD, is meant to provide compassionate support for the process of healing from childhood trauma. You can think of it as a lantern that will illuminate the dark spaces and provide a sense of hope in moments of despair.

The practical strategies you will learn in this book are taken from the most effective therapeutic interventions for trauma recovery. You will learn the skills to improve your physical and mental health by attending to the painful wounds from your past without feeling flooded with overwhelming emotion. My wish is to help you discover a new sense of freedom. The traumatic events of your past no longer need to interfere with your ability to live a meaningful and satisfying life.

“I have dedicated this book to those of you who have suffered from abuse or neglect as children and to the caring individuals who walk with you on your healing path. May the words and practices offered in this book provide guidance and inspire you with hope.” ~Dr. Arielle Schwartz

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Covid-19: A Collective Hero’s Journey Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Walking into the Darkness

Hope for C-PTSD Recovery

“Covid-19 has led many of us around the world to experience feelings of shock and confusion. This collective crisis has disrupted our orientation to the world as we have known it. We have been thrust into a process of self-discovery and a requisite redefining of our lives. It is impossible to go back to the old ways of living.” ~Dr. Arielle Schwartz


American mythologist, Joseph Campbell (2008), describes personal transformation as a hero’s journey. The hero must enter the darkness, face challenges, slay the dragon, retrieve the treasure, and emerge stronger. Here, we understand that challenging life events can serve as a call to enter the hero’s journey. You may feel as though you have been thrown into an abyss. The dragons you must slay are the inner demons. You walk into the darkness in order retrieve the treasures that exist within you, such as inner strength, wisdom, and hope. You emerge with an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose, which become the gifts that you have to offer to the world.

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