I’m fine. I can figure this out on my own. I don’t need help. It is not that bad. What can they offer, that is different from talking to my friends? If I get professional help I am ‘weak’.
These are common thoughts that many people experience when they are faced with emotional or mental distress, including myself.
I remember the day I decided to reach out and call a therapist. I was nervous as fuck and my edge was up. I was thinking to myself: What can she offer that my friends have not already offered? How is she going to help? And what if I am smarter than her (yes, I thought that)?
Luckily, my therapist was prepared to answer my questions and I felt an opening of hope. I booked an appointment on the spot. I was an unemployed, single mother at the time, with no insurance plan and I was about to commit to $180/hr for psychological therapy. I had done enough research to know that I was displaying PTSS (post traumatic stress symptoms) and she (my therapist) had a modality that could help me ‘get my brain back’.
I knew I needed it, so I took a risk, went into debt, and stepped outside of my comfort zone to get the help.
Recently I posted on facebook a meme called Want Change and this blog post was inspired by that meme.
Step One: Get your brain back.
Had I not reached out and received the therapeutic support that was trauma informed, I would not have healed my brain. Yes, my brain.
At that time, I felt like my brain was crumbling on the inside and I was losing faculty. I had, what felt like, zero control of my emotional reasoning. And, nothing in my world felt safe – places and people.
After extensive research about trauma, I understood that my brain function was compromised due to prolonged unresolved stress response and I needed a therapeutic modality that would create cohesion between the two hemispheres, and between the 3 brains – cerebellum, limbic, and neocortex. My nervous system was fried and I was living in a state of constant adrenaline, which I am sure you can imagine,
My nervous system was fried and I was living in a state of constant adrenaline, which I am sure you can imagine, eventually, deteriorates brain function.
Allow me to explain in as much plain language as possible.
When there is too much stress hormone (adrenaline and cortisol) flooding the system, the limbic system (our emotional brain) can go all wonky (I know, non-professional lingo). According to Dan Siegel, a pioneering trauma expert, we ‘flip our lids’ under states of duress. This means that the rational, executive function of the prefrontal cortex is no longer running the show and instead, survival emotions flood the system.
Why is this important to know?
Because I thought that ‘feeling’ all those erratic emotions were a normal part of being human and I was just being ‘emotional’. Further, I believed that this was just ‘who I was’ – aka. an overacting emotional person.
Stay with me, there is a reason why I am sharing my personal story to make a point.
We are told to feeling is good. This is true. It is what makes us human and we are designed to experience an array of chemical responses that produces emotions.
The challenge is that when you feel like the emotions are running the show, and therefore determining your experience of life as you know it, you can feel disempowered by them.
As Siegel suggests, we need to ‘down-regulate’ our distressing emotions and we do this by noticing when we have flipped our lids. Voila, the magic of mindfulness. With mindfulness (interoception) we can bring our prefrontal cortex back online.
Sounds great, right? And, how do you do this?
Step Two: Embody your emotions.
Once you become aware of your emotions and notice them in your body, you can work with them. They no longer become the thing that is happening to you, but rather, an experience that is occurring within you.
This was my next phase of healing as I saw it. I needed to not fear ‘feeling’, rather I needed to learn the art of embracing what I am experiencing inside of me. During this phase of healing, after my nervous system calmed the fuck down, I started to identify felt sensations – i.e., emotions. And I named them with curiosity.
Fear. Anger. Sadness. Joy. Excitement. Shame. Guilt. Worry. Love.
Embodying my emotions is very different than feeling overwhelmed by them as if they were a freight train. I learned very quickly that my emotions shift, like the wind. They don’t last if observed.
I have come to believe that unobserved emotions stay stuck. Embodied emotions flow like the ocean. And feeling safe enough to experience my emotions was key.
Allowing the self to be witnessed in the process, and guided when needed, so I could learn how to stay with the felt sensations of the emotion was HUGE. I could not have done this on my own.
It helped to have a guide, who could hold that container, and who knew the territory, to encourage me to stay in my body.
Talking about problems or challenges is not enough. And often, friends and family get tired of hearing the ‘same story’. The story isn’t changing because the emotions are stuck.
Step Three: Challenge your beliefs.
I felt different. I felt calmer and embraced my emotions. My brain and nervous system felt balanced. Now what? Many stop therapy here.
I feel better, so why go back? Sound familiar?
I knew I wasn’t done. I knew this because although I felt stability, I had not dug into my core beliefs – The patterns and imprints I acquired throughout my life thus far, particularly those from my primary years. I could have ended therapy here, however, I knew too much to realize that I would still be controlled by my past experiences and beliefs.
I needed to ‘go in’ to engage my mind and cognitions. Using many different modalities, I started to unpack years of programming – ways of being and thinking – that molded my personality and traits. If I didn’t take the time to question those beliefs and get to the core belief and emotion, and gently challenge it, I believe that I would have remained in the more neutral, somewhat familiar way of being. And the possibility of repeating dramatic patterns would have re-surfaced.
Don’t get me wrong, noticing our beliefs and the emotional attachment to them, so we can change them, is hard work.
My mantra – I am not the program.
Who am I behind the program? What is my essence without the program? Our program feels so real and alive in us; of course it does. We have strong neural nets that have been formed based on that program – way of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
Step Four: Heal your connection to self and others
Based on all of this, thus far, do you still think you do this alone? Are we really meant to do it alone? Would you heal your physical body alone without some form of professional care or guidance?
It baffles me that even I carried the stigma and cultural belief that we/you/I should be strong enough to figure this all out on our own – heal your brain, your emotions, and change your beliefs in the isolation of your interior world. That just seems like crazy talk.
But we are ‘programmed’ culturally to think this way – to believe that individuality is best. Individuality = do it alone and don’t ask for help and don’t be too dependent on people/community. I am calling bullshit on this mindset.
Science tells us that we heal faster and better in the presence of a loving, calm, connected, compassionate person.
This is because of something called: co-regulation. In fact, our system is a ‘seeking system’ which means that biologically speaking we are primed to seek out this quality of care and connection in others, and when we don’t get it we go into a stress response.
For many of us, therapy may be the first encounter with this kind of presence and care – this degree of felt safety.
Bottom line, from my generalized and lived-experience perspective, is that healing cannot occur when we feel unsafe. Let me unpack this.
Neuro-physiological safety is different than physical safety. Sure, generally speaking, for the most of us we have a roof over our heads, food on the tables, clothing to wear, and we are not in harm’s way. Once we have met these foundational security needs our system can calm its stress response and in a healthy system, shift back into a state of homeostasis.
However, without delving into the plethora of research presented by neuroscientists and medical professionals, I want to highlight the findings of Stephen Porges, who coined the term ‘neuroception’. In a nutshell, if our system has experienced a threat to its sense of safety at any point throughout its lifespan, and has not had the opportunity to complete the stress response and store the memory effectively, the nervous system remains on ‘high alert’ and can get wired this way.
What does this have to do with connection and physiological safety?
We send out signals and pick up on signals faster than our frontal lobes can compute and think about what we are ‘sensing’. We are not perceiving the environment with cognitions, we are ‘neuro-ceiving’ the environment with our skin and neurons. We make sense out of our environment, and determine if it is safe, based on our past experiences.
When our stress response is activated because we are neuroceiving a situation or person (even if we are unaware of the triggers) our connection circuitry in our physical system becomes compromised – it is hard to connect when we are in an activated stress response.
Many of us live in a chronically activated stress state. The antidote is simple, yet not easy. We need to be vulnerable, and connect with people who are safe.
So all of this science ramble to say the following: We need to not only heal our brains, embody our emotions, and change our beliefs; we also need to connect vulneralably with other humans.
And this is challenging because when we are struggling and when we have been in a state of chronic stress, when we have endured challenges and/or life-threatening events, our physiological system makes it so that we become self-absorbed. So, opening in vulnerability feels counter-intuitive. And yet, the healing medicine lies in our capacity to take a risk and connect heart spaces (not talking sex here) with another.
So, once again I ask the question: Can you do this alone? And how many of us have a stable, safe, non-judgemental, open, kind, compassionate, empathic, knowledgeable, and experienced person to dive into this process with? My guess – very few people have someone like that.
This doesn’t mean that the friends and family we have cannot be a part of our journey; it just means that they do not necessarily have the experience or capacity to offer what your system truly needs.
Step Five: Act.
Need I say more.
If you want to heal, healing will find you. And, like birth, no one can do it for you. That is the catcher. There is an intelligence within – call it what you will – that wants to find its way and KNOWS its way. We just get in the way of its unfolding.
When I finally stepped out of its way and let what needed to move through me, move through me, without judgment or need to control, my healing journey started.
It is a journey.
Each day I am reminded that taking action is part of the process. Filling the brain with information is helpful, it builds the courage to act. But there comes a time in which you need to stop what you have been doing and do something different.
I chose to reach outside of my comfort zone and go to therapy and spend a shit load of money doing so because I valued my health so much and I was terrified I was going to lose my life and my mind if I didn’t take this risk.
Best risk I ever took.
My new mantra: I never want to figure it all out alone ever again… and neither should you.