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Archive for the ‘stress’ Category

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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I was going to write about re-enactment, a psychological byproduct of trauma from exposure to danger, but I can’t stop thinking about the shooting at Sandy Hook school.  In articles in Huffington PostSFGate, and New York Times Online, I look for pieces in which a more in-depth understanding of the psychology of the shooter Adam Lanza is revealed, but all I ever see is the tired phrase “personality disorder” as if that explains anything.

In other articles, he’s referred to as autistic or Asperger’s. In one article, a high school classmate remembered Adam as a weird kid who ducked in and out of class, carrying a black attaché case. Someone else mentioned that he was ‘one of the Goths’. I just want to know why a kid whose suffering was clear to everyone wasn’t helped. How do kids become such loners?  Why does everyone know that Adam Lanza was different or “socially awkward” or “painfully shy” and obviously needed guidance or friendship but was just left to ‘go his own way’?  And why was an adult who was head of the high school technology club to which Adam Lanza belonged charged with watching out for the boy because he couldn’t feel pain?

Another question I have is, was Adam on medication?  If so, how long?  What are the side effects of these medications?  At what age was he medicated?  What part did a drug play in Adam Lanza’s behavior?

I remember the rage I felt at age thirteen and at twenty-two. I didn’t know how to cope with it and acted out. The school psychologist was worthless; in fact, he exacerbated the situation and increased my rage. The principal of the grade school acted like a bad cop in his dealings with children, further enraging me. When I was twenty-two, the counselor at the college I attended was a Freudian analyst who frightened me. Many times, we are having problems that our parents can’t solve. Sometimes, our family is the problem. We look to society and its institutions for help. Where was the help for Adam?

What do children do with their anger?  Are they given tools to cope and understand themselves?  Is there a space for mental health training in schools?  Was Adam Lanza filled with uncontrollable rage?  Perhaps he had experienced some early trauma that he was unconsciously acting out on?  Maybe re-enactment is a relevant topic of discussion after all. Adam could have been “re-creat[ing] the moment of terror, . . . in an attempt to undo the tragic moment . . . commonly, traumatized people find themselves reenacting some aspect of the trauma scene in disguised form, without realizing what they are doing” (Herman 39-40). Was Adam suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress?

Obviously, the situation is complex and all I have are questions and more questions. I am waiting for an article that honors the complexity of the human condition in its attempt to provide answers. In the meantime, I am praying that our society moves forward and changes in some big, brave ways in response to this enormous tragedy.

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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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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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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts –  Close Encounters with Addiction,  a book by Dr. Gabor Maté, provides new information about addiction. “He locates the source of addictions in the trauma of an emotionally empty childhood, making it a relational rather than a medical problem,” according to Dr. Harville Hendrix. Maté contends that our brain chemistry is altered by early trauma, making addictions of all sorts more likely. Here’s some quotes to interest you in the material. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

“From a medical point of view, addicts are self-medicating conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or even attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)” (36).

“A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors. . . . The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain” (38).

“We shouldn’t underestimate how desperate a chronically lonely person is to escape the prison of solitude. It’s not a matter here of common shyness but of a deep psychological sense of isolation experienced from early childhood by people who felt rejected by everyone, beginning with their caregivers” (45).

“‘Recent brain imaging studies have revealed an underlying disruption to brain regions that are important for the normal processes of motivation, reward, and inhibitory control in addicted individuals. This provides the basis for a different view: that drug addiction is a disease of the brain, and the associated abnormal behavior is the result of dysfunction of brain tissue, just as cardiac insufficiency is a disease of the heart–Nora Volkow, MD'” (133).

“Three-quarters of our brain growth takes place outside the womb, most of it in the early years. By three years of age, the brain has reached 90 percent of adult size . . .” (191).

“The dynamic process by which 90 percent of the human brain’s circuitry is wired after birth has been called neural Darwinism because it involves the selection of those nerve cells (neurons), synapses, and circuits that help the brain adapt to its particular environment, and the discarding of others” (191).

“The three environmental conditions absolutely essential to optimal human brain development are nutrition, physical security, and consistent emotional nurturing. . . . The third prime necessity–emotional nurture–is the one most likely to be disrupted in Western society. . . . emotional nurturance is an absolute requirement for healthy neurobiological brain development” (193).

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PTSD happens without warning. This week, I stayed at my god-daughter’s while attending The Healing Art of Writing Workshop. Each night before I went to bed, I warmed up the room with a heating lamp; its glow was friendly and warm. I usually turned it off well before I shut the light. One night though, I unplugged the lamp just after turning out the light; in the dark, the glow was a fierce and frightening orange. A PTSD moment took hold of me.  Later, I wrote this poem, which helped me cope.

Oh, that heating lamp, that orange unblinking eye

of Hades. My fired up amygdala clanged and bonged

like fire engines called to a house already in flames.

I stood, stuck, frozen, staring at the cyclops eye–giant,

throbbing pulsar–wondering what memory its Big Bang:

a  lamp in the operating room, glaring at baby me strapped

on a gurney, the surgical field of my belly aflare.

Flesh.

When had I first seen that paralyzing orb?

What will put out the fire once and for all?

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