A few weeks ago my husband and I were watching a movie on Netflix when he shows me his phone and asks “what about this little guy?” I look at the picture he was showing me of a precious dog and fell in love. The next day, we schlepped deep into the bowels of L.A, braving the 405 AND small side streets ( for your LA lifestyle viewing pleasure, because we have all had these conversations).
So why am I telling you about this? Is it because you are a captive audience? It is because I love talking about animals and forcing strangers in my Lyft share rides look at pictures?
Yes, yes and yes, but also because there’s a lesson to learn from our fluffy friends. Animals have so much to teach us- renowned trauma specialist Peter Levine spent time educating himself through studying Zoology to understand why and how animals can go through life or death situations regularlyand how the animal’s body dispels of the excess trauma energy. He looked to these living beings to help decode how humans experience trauma and resilience.
What I have learned is animals have an incredible ability to not only teach us, but to teach in a universal language of love and trust. This language that does not need words, but needs attunement, safe connection and trust. Before I had scooped my college cat (proudly known as Mr. Meow) in his to-go box at the shelter, I had never met a cat who didn’t purr. Apparently if cats aren’t by their mothers/separated from the litter too soon (pun intended)too soon, they don’t learn how to purr. For Mr. Meow, it wasn’t until years down the line when he found his purr, released within him by our other cat, Garfield, snuggling up to him and purring( also known as purrtachment focused therapy). The most wonderful horse I had ever had the honor of knowing, Reno, he too needed to rebuild trust & attachment after spending years neglected on a ranch. One of our current cats, Bella, needed gradual exposure starting from her hovel behind the toilet over the course of a few months to feel safe enough to socialize. Thankfully, her days are now predictable and the biggest stress come from deciding what pillow to pilfer at night.
So what about Teddy? He showed his own disorganized attachment style of first wanting to go home with anyone who would stop us and pet him on the street, to now understanding we are his family and he is living in one place. He appears to have keen insight into what it is his human companions need- for me I needed a snuggly dog who would be gentle and keep me company post knee-surgery. He does exactly that- he sniffs where the surgery site is very gently, grabs his stuffed sloth and hops up to join in for cuddles and trashy television shows. For my husband, he needed a mobile buddy. Hiking and movement in nature gives my husband such great joy, and now he has a buddy to join on the days & times when I am not up to much moving.
It is not just that Teddy is a great friend and won’t ask you to change the channel to something else, he is a bundle of bonding joy. He has an ability to help regulate and calm those around him without needing any schooling, training or information on Polyvagal Theory. He, as most animals are, is filled with intuition, resiliency and a vessel of hope. If we look to our animal companions, we can find tremendous gifts in what they can teach us, as long as we are willing to be open to their communication.
As we close out 2018, I believe it is safe to say….it’s been a year. A year of continuing triggering politics, a year encompassing traumas, and a year of high stress levels. What can we do with all of this that leaves us feelings overwhelmed?
Much like preparing an earthquake kit, we can prepare an emotional earthquake kit. It doesn’t mean it has to make you the happiest or even be the MOST fun. Like any emergency kit, it serves a purpose- to help us through the crisis as it happens, then allowing us to survive the crisis/event until we can access other help outside of ourselves.
What does this look like?
I personally like to recommend a self-written letter, written realistically and with acceptance:
“ Hey self, I know these past few days have been difficult and triggering for us- and that is okay. The good news is, we planned ahead of time on how to deal with this, so please read this letter all the way through. I know that hearing about ______ is triggering and will create a fight. When it happens, we are going to walk out of the room.” It can also look like self-coaching: “ I know it is difficult to not get angry with ____, and know it’s okay to feel angry, but we don’t have to act out of anger. We can do this instead…”
Look at you, you are so wise and rational in letter form! Whatever the letter is, is can be used when we are unable to access the more rational, problem solving bits of our brain for when we are overstuffed, over stimulated and overwhelmed. Hate the letter? Shred it and stop on it to release some of that internal energy.
I also recommend for volatile or tense family situations to ensure alcohol is not a factor. We just aren’t our best selves when we over drink and the same applies to others. While it is common to enjoy some wine, champagne or whatever else with a holiday dinner/party, if you can foresee this being a mitigating factor to family arguments, it may be best to preemptively remove the alcohol in the house. Our brains get drunk from the front to back, so that means the parts of our brains that whisper to us “ it’s not worth it to engage in this” or “ you probably shouldn’t reply on that Facebook post of Aunt Sally” are the first to become disinhibited.
Okay, so far I have recommended writing and taking away alcohol, so what other things may be useful for self-regulation?
Have you checked to see if you are breathing? When we experience stress, excitement or become filled with dread, our bodies make our breathing fast and shallower. This is done through the nervous system, and outside of our immediate awareness. When our breath becomes shallow and irregular, our heart rate becomes irregular. Soon you are experiencing physiological panic. When our breath & heart rate aren’t aligned, it can wreak havoc on your system both physically and emotionally. See if you can work on matching your breath with your heart rate, visualizing slowly pumping air into your lungs and slowing down your heart rate. The visualizing will help connect you with your body. Speaking of bodies- how is your posture? Are you tensing in your shoulders, neck or back? Our emotions can inhabit certain places, making the physical body aware and react before we can emotionally become in tune with what we are experiencing. Look to your body for clues on your emotional state. If you want to add an extra festive splash to your intentional deep breathing, try blowing bubbles! It’s fun, interactive and a great way to tangibly have your breath in bubble form. If you are a current or prospective client reading this, yes, we 100% can bring bubbles into session!
Not into breath work? Try writing out or bullet pointing your emotions. By writing down our experiences, we are able to understand them through left & right brain integration. Curious about that process? Click here: https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/
Other means of “manually” calming down your nervous system from holiday fight/flight/freeze/try not to react to THAT comment, is to hum or sing. Humming and/or singing can help. Why intentionally belt out the best of ABBA? When we engage in verbal music making it takes intentional breathing to do. Not into singing? You can chant your Mamma Mias instead, as chanting is a body awareness practice. Certain studies have shown chanting reduced anxiety & depression through blocking stress release hormones, and deactivates the limbic region of the brain ( reacts to potential dangers and is involved in communicating the mobilization for fight, flight or freeze). For some reason (that I won’t google at this moment) it is something to do with the vibrations of the chanting/Omming that seem to calm and regulate our system.
Now you have your activities to do to help keep you regulated well into 2019! I hope everyone has a wonderful safe New Year.
What brought us together
The past few years we have all felt the effects of being a country divided. As a clinician, I hear more and more of long standing relationships being torn apart by politics, families cutting off relationships over Facebook comments, strangers arguing in line at the grocery store. I find myself reflecting upon how separated we are all feeling and how wary we have all become of one another.
Then the fires came roaring in, devastating thousands, taking away the most basic of human needs from so many- shelter, water, food. The fires took down whole communities, taking everything and leaving nothing in its wake. Tragedy and trauma in the forms of natural disasters, such as these fires, hold no discriminations. The fires do not care if your home is worth millions, or a shack. They do not care if you are democratic, republican, or who you know. These fires have affected so many, and have taken, traumatized, and destroyed. So what can come of such catastrophe and heartbreak? Community.
Anytime we experience a trauma, we must be acknowledged for the magnitude of the event that has happened. We experience distressing symptoms that many of us out of fear, confusion or shame keep to ourselves and minimize. So when a community comes together, they are able to recognize they are not alone in their survival. Researchsuggests that reestablishing ties to family, community, culture, and spiritual systems is not only vital to the individual, but it also influences the impact of the trauma upon future generations.
A direct quote from a tornado survivorwho’s house and property had been lost in the damage:
“I always dreamed of growing up and moving away from this small town. However, after seeing the way the people of the community came together I have never been more proud to be a Washington Panther.”
What I personally witnessed was no longer people feeling the need to be right or wrong, rather people coming together, bonded in a way that only those communities who fight such disasters do. I saw help groups popping up online, donations being collected, friends lending out rooms to stay to strangers, cars to help tow animals, and a common feeling shared among all: I feel for my fellow person. I bear witness to this pain and acknowledge loss. Those who have never connected, strangers were now brought together and bonded in an irreversible way.
In times of tragedy such as this, it gives me hope in watching people coming together in a natural healing process of support and empathy. In these events when the pain of death and loss is incomprehensible; as Mr. Rodgers stated, looking for the helpers can allow us to feel hope in humanity for rebuilding, renegotiating traumas, restarting, and reframing. We can allow ourselves to connect with each other through empathy, through the common thread humanity that weaves through all of us together in the event of witnessing a disaster.
As another survivorof a natural disaster stated:
“Hope remains when the world crashes down around us. No natural disaster can destroy the hope that is everlasting.”
IF YOU KNOW OF ANYONE OR YOU YOURSELF HAVE BEEN AFFECTED BY THE FIRES, OR BY THE THOUSAND OAKS MASS SHOOTING, PLEASE CONTACT ME DIRECTLY TO INQUIRE ABOUT FREE SERVICES FOR VICTIMS WITHIN LOS ANGELES COUNTY.
•National Suicide/Crisis Hotline (24/7 support) – 800-273-8255
•Wellness Center at Boys & Girls Club of Malibu – free therapy for students of Malibu
•Kaiser Behavioral Health in Thousand Oaks – community trauma group open to public
•Give an Hour – Westlake Village https://giveanhour.org
•Mindfulpath, Inc. – offering support group on 12/2/18 at 1:00pm-3:00pm in Calabasas https://www.mindfulpath.com
•Trauma Resource Institute - https://www.facebook.com/traumaresourceinstitute/posts/10155755943360143?hc_location=ufi
We have all had them, they jump up at inopportune times, in the middle of work day, or maybe they arise most at night. They pop up in our brain and wonder “what would happen if I started yelling in this quiet room?” other times they nag “ what if you go out today and something really bad happens??” Sometimes we are able to brush away these thought pop-ups and dismiss them as an odd occurrence, other times we become stuck in these thoughts and that brings us an incredible amount of distress.
Most of us experience what is called “intrusive thoughts.” These are uninvited thoughts that jump up out of nowhere into our mind or that consistently enter your mind against your will. They're considered intrusivebecause you simply cannot get them out of your mind, and they often pop up at unusual moments. These thoughts can be unwanted memories, violent or sexual thoughts, nonsensical, recall of embarrassing moments; the feature of these thoughts are they are disturbing to the person thinking them.
After having an intrusive thought that becomes “sticky” we may become distressed after not being able to shake off the thought. We often times think our thoughts dictate the type of person we are, or could be in the right conditions. An example may be someone who has a fleeting thought “ I could really hurt someone with that knife I see on the counter” turns into an ongoing loops of interpersonal anguish & questioning: “ If I had that thought, then I’m probably capable of hurting someone…..if I am capable of hurting someone, what is actually stopping me from hurting my loved ones? I am scared of what I could be capable of and now I can’t let myself be around anything that might be used as a weapon. I am a bad person who is dangerous.” This can go one for one hour or days on end.
Here are some helpful tidbits to remind yourself when you are dealing with intrusive thoughts:
There are also certain things that can make these unwanted thoughts linger longer than your college roommate’s friend who’s always around mooching your almond milk coffee creamer. These contributing factors are: stress, lack of sleep, drinking, using certain drugs, caffeine, temporary relief methods (such as compulsions), avoidance of the thoughts, engaging in distraction from the thoughts. Activating or traumatic events can also make these symptoms worse. So what can be done?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapiescan help with repetitive intrusive thoughts by teaching you to distinguish the difference between fear and actual danger. CBT may also incorporate other key elements, such as education around the brain’s alarm response system, known as the Amydgala. Through exercises and new ways of approaching these distressing thoughts, it is possible to retrain your brain to have newer non fear-based neural pathways when dealing with these thoughts. Think of it as your own manual software update, there might be “bugs” but you are continually working to improve your neural networks.
When we are able to implement recognition and nonjudgmental acceptance, we reduce the amount of reactivity to such thoughts. Thoughts can be scary, disturbing, frightening, haunting; with that said our thoughts are simply just that: thoughts floating through the mind.
P.S: Please have a happy and safe Halloween!
Alexis has been a part time contributor to the online website Patientworthy which is dedicated to education and awareness of rare and serious diseases. Links to articles written by Alexis: