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Archive for the ‘anxiety’ Category

I am psyched. I gave my first talk out in the world beyond the classrooms of The College of Alameda and it was thrilling. Eight women from the Women’s Motivational Meetup in Sacramento, hosted by Griffin Toffler, gave me their attention, listened to my lecture, and participated in a writing exercise at the library in Fair Oaks. Afterward, I felt so happy because I was doing what I felt I was put here on earth to do—tell my story, invite others to find out what’s holding them back, and share some tools that might help them to break through to their power.

Two major points keep surfacing when I think of what I want to discuss in this first post of the new year: belief and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). At age fifty, from my exploration in writing about my infant surgery, I learned that I was living my life from a false premise—I was broken and incapable of being fixed. This thought or wrong belief about myself sabotaged me at every turn. It had been unconscious all my life, operating below the radar, and so this lack of belief in my strength and power undermined me mercilessly. It’s difficult to write about this even now; grief surfaces, sadness. How painful it is to accept that I believed this about myself and acted from this false and destructive premise.

Writing about my infant surgery also helped me realize that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had had it all my life since the operation for pyloric stenosis at 26 days old. Amazing!  I sensed that I might have it, my lover hinted that I might, but I was too frightened to investigate this possibility. In doing research for the memoir I was writing, I learned about the history of infant surgery and anesthesia, the nature of trauma, and the condition called PTSD. I read many books and scientific articles, which helped me realize what had happened to me. My hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, re-enactments, difficulty sleeping, jaw pain, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harming, eating disorders, and delinquent behavior as a teen were all explained by this syndrome. What a relief to finally be able to identify these symptoms and pinpoint a cause. And what a relief to know that these expressions of myself aren’t really me; they are actually due to a condition that is caused by unresolved trauma.

So here’s what I wanted the group of women at the library to know or get support for knowing—that it is possible to ReStory Your Life. It is possible to identify a deeply held belief or set of beliefs that might be holding you back. Talking is often not the best way to discover it. Through writing, artwork, and/or somatic work, allow yourself to learn what belief is obstructing you from being all that you know yourself to be. This idea was never yours in the first place. Work with this misperception to understand it and then change it. You are a most profound and beautiful soul. You are a creation of the universe. What is your real belief about yourself? Discover it. Find freedom after trauma.

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One can always be more free. As the year comes to an end and 2013 is upon us, it’s a good time to let go of things one doesn’t want to bring into the new era.

As a baby, I got wired for trauma. Being operated on at 26 days old for pyloric stenosis, a blockage in the stomach, set the stage. As a baby, my belly was cut open and part of my stomach actually drawn out of my body to fix the problem. In many ways, I am still frozen, holding my body rigidly as I cope with a trauma that occurred 60 years ago. Amazing!  It’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

So earlier this morning, I was sitting in bed with my legs extended, preparing for meditation. I settled in, covering myself with a blanket, allowing my body to sink into the earth and be held as I listened for my heartbeat and tuned into my breath. I realized though that my face was stuck as if it was frozen from the cheekbones up, including my nose. My lips were pulled back and my nose and brow were literally numb. I was smiling a weird lips-pressed-together-and-pulled-back type of smile, more like a snarl, and breathing as shallowly as possible.

What was going on?  I tracked the tension in the rest of my body–my shoulders, hips, chest–and realized that I was straining against something. Flash! In all likelihood, I was straining against whatever hospitals use to tie down infants who are going to be operated on. Back then, my head was secured to the table and here I was in 2012 still fighting to free myself.

Often in my morning meditation, I’m so busy dealing with the somatic repercussions of infant surgery that it’s a challenge to allow a meditative state to kick in. Some days, I simply deal with what I call somatic freeze and other times, I break through to information that my higher self has to offer.

One way I work with this rigid state is to allow my breath into the frozen area. I don’t forcefully bring breath in by taking a deep breath but simply allow my natural breath to return. I invite a quiet breath movement. In this process, I actually began to feel my nose and to exercise face muscles that I didn’t even know were there.

Another strategy to cope with PTSD freeze is imagery. During my meditation, a liberating fantasy brought excitement and a feeling of power.

I am a baby strapped to a gurney before surgery, wanting to escape. I rise and break the bands holding my head, shoulders, hips, and feet and grab the surgeon’s scalpel. It becomes a sword. I’m standing on the gurney now, a super-powered baby swinging her sword, daring anyone to approach. Oh, what fun!  I love watching their shocked and frightened faces. They run out of the operating room and I smash up the place. Oh, more fun!  

So am I suffering from frozen rage?  Am I stuck in that moment of facing my own mortality and being unable to do anything to save myself?  Yes!

I may have been given a local anesthetic before the surgery. I may have had no anesthesia but received instead a paralyzing drug. In this case, I would have been awake but incapable of fighting. Still I would have tried to be free. Certainly, my nervous system cried out, escape! Perhaps before being administered general anesthesia, I fought against being tied down. Since I had been starving for weeks and weighed only four pounds, I was pretty weak. I doubt though that I was fully anesthetized; the level of tension and stress in my body suggests I wasn’t.

My body has been engaged in a lifelong fight with itself and for the last 10 years, through meditation and Middendorf Breathwork, I’ve been finding freedom from this struggle. I am discovering my power. I am learning that more freedom is always possible. For 2013, I am getting a new face–less startle, more real. More truly me.

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Here’s a photo of me at 13. I was called a hard girl or a hood, terms popular in working class New Jersey neighborhoods in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m mad as hell and I don’t know why. I smoke and carry a switchblade in my pocket. I glare at everyone I see in a dare and am constantly on guard. What’s the problem?

One day, my beloved, former fifth grade teacher, Mr. Rubin, stopped me in the grammar school hallway, just after I’d gotten kicked out of graduation practice, and asked me why I was making so much trouble. He told me that the principal wanted to expel me from school, making it impossible for me to graduate.

I thought hard about this question. Mr. Rubin had been my favorite teacher and I owed him an explanation because number one, he was going to talk to the principal and advocate for me to graduate and two, he cared about me and I felt his love. I leaned back against the wall and racked my brain, but nothing came. “I don’t know,” I said helplessly.

Of course I didn’t. No one even talked about Post-traumatic Stress in the ’50s much less knew about it. The closest people came was in discussing the hush-hush topic of shell shock that World War II veterans suffered. What I knew for certain was that as an adolescent, I felt vulnerable, terrified, and helpless. A gang, a switchblade, cigarettes, and a tall, strong boyfriend who protected me helped me cope. Drinking on weekends helped. I was drawn to the troubled kids. I was a troubled kid.

At this time, I was also cutting my arms with razor blades, trying to soothe myself, odd as this may sound. After slicing my boyfriend’s initials into my arm, I’d carefully wash the cuts, dab them with cotton balls, and apply ointment, feeling sorry for myself. I remember the satisfaction I felt covering the wound with a band-aid. Caring for my cut helped me have compassion for myself, a diversion from the messages of self-loathing and fear broadcasting in my brain.

When traumatized folks enter stressful developmental periods in their lives, the anxiety they already feel from PTSD is exacerbated. Since I didn’t know that I had PTS symptoms–hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling asleep, recurrent nightmares, anxiety–I didn’t understand my behavior.

When children are making trouble at school, PTSD may be at the root or be a contributing factor. In any case, blaming and/or stigmatizing the child or teen-ager is not the answer. Caring is the answer. A creative response is the answer.  Understanding and patience are required. Gangs are often how kids cope with PTSD when they aren’t getting help any other way.

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I’ve changed. My brain has changed!  It’s true. I overrode my automatic Post-traumatic Stress response last night. There I was lying in bed, enjoying an Esther and Jerry Hicks video, when I noticed the LED light behind me reflected onto my computer screen. Freak out!  That round, bright light hovering over me (the computer was on my belly and the screen tipped toward and above me) captured my gaze and sent alarm bells clanging. I was caught in a PTSD moment……..momentarily.

A part of me came to the rescue.  What’s going on, I asked myself. OK, the light is mimicking one of those surgery lamps that I saw as a baby.  I put the computer aside, thinking that I’d have to ride out the freeze response in which my body goes into paralysis mode. But then I heard myself say, No, I’m not doing that. I want to watch my video. I sat up so that the  reflection was gone and snap, just like that, I was back watching the video where a woman was saying that she cured herself from cancer without chemo or radiation. Amazing!

Afterward, I realized the magnitude of my achievement–I’d sidestepped Post-traumatic Stress! A few months back, I’d written a poem about my major PTSD moment with the heating lamp (myincision July 15, 2012). Last night, instead of going into “deer in the headlights mode,” I basically told myself, Been there, done that and went on with my life. Sound simple?  It was and it wasn’t. In the moment, it was rather easy but I’ve been working on this stuff for years. Now I’m finally harvesting the fruit.

Here’s what I think happened in the words of Dr. Daniel J. Siegel* from his seminal book Mindsight, The New Science of Personal Transformation“Traumatic experiences, in particular, can sensitize limbic [area deep within brain that helps us evaluate ‘feeling states’]** reactivity, so that even minor stresses can cause cortisol [stress hormone] to spike, making daily life more challenging for the traumatized person . . . Finding a way to soothe excessively reactive limbic firing is crucial to rebalancing emotions and diminishing the harmful effects of chronic stress” (18). In other words, post-traumatic stress can be soothed. How?  According to Siegel, by using a different part of our brain to “override” the agitation.

Here’s how Dr. Siegel puts it: “The middle prefrontal region [of the cortex] has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area and make it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-creating amygdala [a cluster of neurons important in the fear response].  Studies have demonstrated that we can consciously harness this connection to overcome fear–we can use the “override” of our cortex to calm our lower limbic agitation” (28). In other words, we can soothe our fear when our limbic area gets triggered if we are aware and react consciously to agitation.

I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself right now. I’ve come full circle on this surgery lamp thing. I have other PTS triggers too, but this is the first time I’ve been able to override a PTS fear in seconds and stay focused on what I was doing before the freak out hit. Dr. Siegel states, “As neurons fire together, they wire together” (40). So I can say with confidence, my brain changed. I’m newly wired!

*clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute.

**words in brackets [  ] are mine

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An article by Dr. Bruce D. Perry et al is a must-read for all those trying to understand the impact of infant trauma on a person’s life:  “Childhood Trauma, The Neurobiology of Adaptation, and ‘Use-dependent’ Development of the Brain: How ‘States’ Become ‘Traits.'” I became interested in this article because I believe that there are aspects of my character that, rather than simply being my personality, are actually qualities shaped by early trauma. These so-called “traits” are behaviors, somatic patterns, and thought ruts that no longer serve me. In fact, while they may have saved me long ago, they disempower me now.

The article is somewhat complex, so I’ve selected some quotes to help you see what Perry et al are getting at.

“Traumatic experiences in childhood increase the risk of developing a variety of neuropsychiatric symptoms in adolescence and adulthood ” (273).

“Ultimately, it is the human brain that processes and internalizes traumatic . . . experiences. It is the brain that mediates all emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, and physiological functioning. It is the human brain from which the human mind arises and within that mind resides our humanity. Understanding the organization, function, and development of the human brain, and brain-mediated responses to threat, provides the keys to understanding the traumatized child” (273).

“. . . traumatized children exhibit profound sensitization of the neural response patterns  associated with their traumatic experiences. The result is that full-blown response patterns (e.g., hyperarousal or dissociation) can be elicited by apparently minor stressors” (275).

In this article, Perry et al make the case that “reactivated” fear coming from an oversensitized brain stem and midbrain due to trauma can cause hyperarousal: “hyperactivity, anxiety, behavioral impulsivity, sleep problems, tachycardia [abnormally fast heart rate], hypertension, and a variety of neuroendocrine [hormonal] abnormalties” (278). These conditions and behaviors are states NOT traits.

On the other hand, oversensitized brains can be  result in “dissociation.” For example, if an outside  stimulus evokes the trauma, a person may freeze or numb him or herself. A child may “disengag[e] from stimuli in the external world and attend [. . . ] to an ‘internal’ world” (280) as in daydreaming or fantasizing. As a result, a child may falsely be understood to be extremely shy or uncooperative. Dissociation and hyperarousal are “states” created by early trauma. In adulthood, many of us have wrongly come to accept them as our personality “traits.”

Another major point from the article is that traumatized infants and children do not simply get over their traumas. According to Perry et al, “children are not resilient, children are malleable” (285). In fact, to assume infants and children were not affected by the trauma or will grow out of it is not only incorrect but destructive. Perry et al leave us with this final point: “Persistence of the destructive myth that ‘children are resilient’ will prevent millions of children, and our society, from meeting their true potential” (286).

For me, I just want my real self back.

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After re-reading key sections of Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger, I conclude that it doesn’t have practical material that I can use to help me find relief from PTS (post-traumatic stress) symptoms while I sleep (see previous posts Parts I and II).  To heal from trauma, Levine’s advice is to work with a practitioner of Somatic Re-experiencing, a form of counseling he developed. Right on. His treatment seems awesome. However right now, I’m looking for ways that I can heal myself.

In meditation, an image was presented to me that is promising. Sitting quietly, I asked my higher self this question: How can I heal my nervous system so that I am always in joy and beauty?  The answer came in the form of an image and a knowing. The top part of a tube appeared. From the end came a wire that was coiled.  Pull the coil. There is plenty.  

When I wake up feeling tension in my neck and gritting my teeth, I imagine the tube with the coil. I picture pulling the coil and releasing the wire.  This work with imagery is a way of righting something physical that’s out of balance or stuck. I don’t understand how it works, but when I tried it, I felt relief. The best results came when in my imagination, I pulled and pulled and got a momentum going to the point where the wire was moving quickly and without friction against the sides of the tube.

I am hoping that by working with my post-traumatic stress symptoms consciously, the patterns that create this condition will change. This process is very intimate and subtle; it requires trust and belief in self. I may seek help if the tension I feel during sleep doesn’t diminish but for now, I’m trying my own techniques and trusting I can make headway (pun intended). Will keep you posted.

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So I wake up in the night needing to pee. Before I get up, however, I notice that my back and neck are extremely tense and I am barely breathing. I’m not in respiratory distress, but I’m breathing shallowly and only through one nostril, my mouth closed. Flash of insight: Ok, it’s not the type of pillow I’m sleeping on that’s causing the pain I awake to each morning. It’s anxiety that I experience as I sleep!  In this tense state, I breathe in such a way that my body barely moves. I know intuitively that this experience is connected to my infant surgery for pyloric stenosis at three weeks old. And I think it’s more than a pain control strategy.

When I get up several hours later, I decide that writing with my left, non-dominant hand could reveal more insights. Here’s what I wrote: Maybe left hand knows something about this rigid pattern. I hold myself oh so still so I won’t breathe–caught between life and death. Frozen. If I lie still, I live. Brain? What happened?  Then I drew a sleeping bird and next to it wrote: Sleeping bird – dead bird girl. 

So why am I a “dead bird girl” over sixty years later when the condition that caused the pain is resolved, I am in no pain, the trauma is over, and I am alive? What would Dr. Peter Levine say, author of Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma?  Here are a few quotes from his book that are helping me to understand my situation:

“When neither fight nor flight will ensure the animal’s safety, there is another line of defense: immobility (freezing), which is just as universal and basic to survival. For inexplicable reasons, this defense strategy is rarely given equal billing in texts on biology and psychology. Yet, it is an equally viable survival strategy in threatening situations. In many situations, it is the best choice” (95).

“In post-traumatic anxiety, immobility is maintained primarily from within. The impulse towards intense aggression is so frightening that the traumatized person often turns it inward on themselves rather than allow it external expression” (103).

“When we respond to a life-threatening situation, hyperarousal is initially accompanied by constriction in our bodies and perceptions. The nervous system acts to ensue that all our efforts can be focused on the threat in a maximally optimal way. Constriction alters a person’s breathing, muscle tone, and posture. Blood vessels in the skin, extremities, and viscera constrict so that more blood is available to the muscles which are tensed and prepared to take defensive action” (135).

So it’s like being coiled up tight, like a spring. During the operation, I (and my nervous system) coiled to survive but I never unwound!

“Hyperarousal, constriction, helplessness, dissociation are all normal responses to a threat. . . . As these stress reactions remain in place, they form the groundwork and fuel for the development of subsequent symptoms. Within months, these symptoms at the core of the traumatic reaction will begin to incorporate mental and psychological characteristics into their dynamics until eventually they reach into every corner of the trauma sufferer’s life. . . . Eventually the symptoms can coalesce into traumatic anxiety, a state that pervades the trauma sufferer’s every waking (and sleeping) moment” (143-144).

So is my nervous system still playing dead? And what do I do about my PTS while I sleep?  How cope?  Can I change this pattern?  Stay tuned for “PTS While You Sleep – (Part II).”

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