Recently, I had the honor to have a heartfelt conversation with Tami Simon with Sounds True, host of Insights at the Edge Podcast. Within this podcast, I share aspects of my personal journey through trauma recovery. You will learn some of my favorite healing resources and tools to help you find your own sense of being at home in your body. Discover the healing power of choice, movement, imagination, and how grounding can be a relational experience.
We deepen into a conversation about my passion for resilience and The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook which explores some of the key ingredients to transform trauma into the gold of self-awareness by walking your own Hero or Heroine’s journey.
Have you ever had a morning in which you wake up with a painful knot in your neck? What happened? Did you sleep in a funny position or was it the wild dream that had you tossing and turning? Maybe it was due to the stressful work meeting you had the day before or because you feel worried about something in the future. While this may sound strange, your tight neck could even be related to what you ate the night before or an event that happened many years ago.
Intuitively, we all know that stress shows up in our bodies as muscular tension. But, when we look more closely at the body-mind connection we recognize that fascia plays a key role in how we physically experience stress and heal from traumatic events. Furthermore, since the vagus nerve plays an important role in communicating changes in fascia to your brain, we explore how attending to vagal tone helps you to heal.
Fascia also plays a key role in your resilience. You can nourish fascia and the vagus nerve by attending to your body and mind through sensory awareness, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. These tools help you to recover more quickly from stressful experiences and heal traumatic events from your past.
An Integrative, Mind-Body Approach to Trauma Treatment
I am thrilled to announce the publication of The Complex PTSD Treatment Manual: An Integrative, Mind-Body Approach to Trauma Treatment. This book is written for clinicians who are helping clients navigate the consequences of repeated or chronic traumatization. This is a roadmap for therapy with clients who have experienced prolonged and chronic exposure to traumatic events.
This book offers a deep dive into the ways in which therapy is a combination of head and heart, of science and art. A mind-body approach to trauma recovery is now recognized as essential to successful treatment for we simply cannot think our way out of these innate, physiological responses to trauma. Successful treatment requires a compassionate therapeutic relationship and effective, research-based interventions. This integrative model brings together relational therapy, mindful body awareness, parts work therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), somatic psychology, and practices drawn from complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
“Our brains are malleable and have the capacity to develop new neural connections throughout our lifespan. That means that the effects of trauma, which are known to adversely impact the brain, are not immutable. With therapy, the brain can rewire itself and heal from the emotional injuries of the past. An integrative approach to treatment allows us to adapt the focus of our work to meet the needs of each specific client by recognizing that there is no single therapeutic method that is appropriate or effective for all clients. A compassionate approach to care asks us to nonjudgmentally accept each client within the context of their unique social and cultural challenges.”
High Praise for The Complex PTSD Treatment Manual
“Arielle Schwartz has written THE guidebook for clinicians seeking to understand Complex PTSD and how to treat it! On every page, she interweaves up-to-date theoretical ideas with practical clinical wisdom. Every word of this book can easily be implemented by therapists regardless of their training or approach.”~Janina Fisher, PhD author of The Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors and Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma
Children require healthy, caring, and attentive adults to help them develop their social and emotional intelligence. It is the job of a parent to help children feel safe enough to express uncomfortable feelings. When children feel supported, they learn that stressful moments are only temporary and that they can resolve into positive experiences of empowerment or deepened connections in relationships.
However, when parents are emotionally withholding, controlling, or abusive, they fail to help their children develop a healthy emotional landscape. Within this unsafe territory, children become explosive or cut off from their feelings. In some cases, children become hyper-aware of their parents’ distress or are compelled to take care of their parents’ emotional needs. This process of abandoning self for the purpose of attending to the needs of others is called the Fawn Response.
The fawn response involves people-pleasing to the degree that an individual disconnects from their own emotions, sensations, and needs. In childhood, this occurs because they must withhold expressing their authentic emotions of sadness, fear, and anger in order to avoid potential wrath or cruelty from a parent or caregiver. As a result, they turn their negative feelings toward themselves in the form of self-criticism, self-loathing, or self-harming behaviors. In adulthood, an unresolved fawn response can then become the root of co-dependence, depression, or somatic symptoms of pain and illness.
Vagus nerve yoga for trauma recovery integrates information from neuroscience, psychology, and the yogic path to illuminate who we are and how we heal from adverse and challenging life events. This post applies Dr. Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory to illuminate the physiological underpinnings of how we, as humans, respond to stressful or traumatic events.
Read on and learn how you can fine-tune your health with yogic breath, movement, and awareness practices which can become building blocks for a life-changing daily practice.
When any system has been out of balance for a long period of time, we can start to feel powerless, helpless, or numb. This is true about the physical body; this is true in more complex systems such as families, work environments, countries, and eco-systems.
It is time that we wake up to our senses.
Initially, a process of awakening can feel terrible. We might want to retreat and shut down again. But wait, this might just be a healing crisis.
A healing crisis is a temporary worsening of symptoms that arises as we go through the healing process. Coming out of numbness, we increase our awareness and awaken ourselves to how much pain is actually there. Stay the course…it is time to heal.
It is your birthright to be loved. You are and always were worthy of care, kindness, generosity, and attention. I invite you to align yourself with this truth. This process involves an intention setting practice—one that invites you to fully love and accept yourself just as you are.
If you have history of trauma, you might find it difficult to access these positive feelings or beliefs about yourself. You may carry faulty beliefs that you are not lovable or that you are unworthy of joy. Or, because of your past, you might have inaccurately concluded that you would never feel like you belong in this world.
One of the ways that you can heal is to take time to create and focus on positive experiences that evoke gratitude, joy, and awe. Each time you notice a good feeling, take time to enhance it a by slowing down, breathing into any positive sensations, and allowing yourself to fully receive the nourishment of the moment.
Ego States, Dissociative Symptoms, and Parts Work Therapies
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…
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 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…
Our bodies reflect our relationship to stress. When under duress, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear which can lead you to breathe with quick, forceful inhalations into your upper chest. This breathing pattern prepares you to flee or fight off impending danger. There is wisdom in your body’s protective defense patterns—yet, you are not meant to live there long-term.
Ideally, we have an opportunity to reset, relax, and restore body and mind. This requires that we feel safe. Experiences of chronic stress or trauma (such as during the pandemic, as a result of systemic racism, or as a result of the ongoing impact of climate change seen in hurricanes, tornados, or wildfires) can lead us to feel keyed up in anxiety or panic for extended periods of time.
If you have experienced chronic stress of have complex PTSD, you might feel as though your resources are depleted. You might feel exhausted, depressed, and as if you cannot handle any more stress. In this case, your breathing might be shallow, your chest might feel collapsed. You may feel as though you cannot take a deep breath. This suggests that you might be relying heavily upon a defensive expression of your parasympathetic nervous system—one that conserves energy for the sake of survival.
In either case, I invite you to remember that your body is trying its very best to protect you. However, it is common to remain in defensive breath patterns when; in actuality, you will benefit from relaxing and resting. You can reclaim a sense of safety through conscious breathing and the vagus nerve will help you orient to a here-and-now sense of ease in your body and mind.