Offices in

Portland OR &Vancouver WA

Integrating psychotherapy, medication management, body work & mindfulness for an encompassing and empowering approach to healing.

Month: April 2015

Mindfulness: All it Takes is a Moment

I’ve been running short on time lately, which has threatened one of my most important personal self-care strategies, and one I often recommend to my clients: mindfulness.  When I mention this to folks they usually state: I don’t have time for that! In most cases, what they are in fact thinking they don’t have time for is meditation. Yes, many of us do not have time to sit cross legged on a pillow with our eyes closed, focusing on our breath and nothing else. I agree with that (and suffer from the same challenge!). Fortunately, mindfulness is a little bit different. The technical definition is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the well-established Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction model.

So, if you look at that definition, true mindfulness just takes a moment! Okay, okay, after years of practicing a moment here and there, I now do try to get 10-30 minutes of meditation in my daily schedule (because of the further health benefits which I will detail in another blog post). However, most days, I find myself squeezing small doses of mindfulness into my lifestyle to encourage this beneficial practice and, quite simply, to give myself a shot of pleasantness here and there. This is important because our minds need a break at times, AND, when it comes to pleasant emotions and experiences, our minds are wired like teflon: Nothing sticks. We’ve got to apply mindfulness of pleasant moments here and there like a vitamin so we can counterbalance all the doubt, fear, pain and stress we encounter on a regular basis.

Traumatic experiences and unpleasant emotions like fear and sadness, unfortunately, DO stick. Stress is like velcro in the mind. Why? Because this was important for human survival. Evolution shows us that humans had to face the demands of a threatening environment and HAD to consider safety and react quickly to sustain life. We were lucky to survive until our reproductive years, so pleasant moments might not have been as important as the emotion of fear and the hormones of adrenaline and cortisol we needed for survival.

Now, though, we are living longer and we no longer face the saber tooth tiger or other previous threats. Unfortunately we are hardwired to still have adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our systems, and long term that can be detrimental to our health.

So, start small and counteract this biology by attempting to shift out of auto-pilot and into the present, moment-to-moment experience of your life. Think of a small child who has a sense of wonder about them (maybe start by watching little children and observing how they take in their experience without judging, often noticing the physical sensations rather than jaded thoughts or emotions).

All mindfulness takes is pausing to be more aware of your thoughts, feelings and body sensations. There is no success or failure, it’s simply paying attention (relaxation, having an empty mind or suppressing thoughts or emotions is NOT the goal, that is an incorrect belief many people have about meditation). If a recording would help, take 5-7 minutes to try these online, from the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) in California.

Practicing this behavioral skill can actually help you develop a greater tolerance for the reality of what is occurring within yourself, and often allow the amazing opportunity for choice and strategic change. So just check in, see how you’re doing, and then respond with mindful awareness (this practice also makes those pleasant moments and positive hormones that much easier to access when you are in distress).  Then contact me to join ITTC’s mindfulness groups to cultivate your practice and decrease your stress!

Intuition vs. Vigilance: A Survivor’s Superpower

Survivors often talk about their capacity to assess their environment with greater speed and accuracy than your average Joe (or Jane).  Scanning for emotional and physical safety through a heightened attunement to the behavior of others, their emotional states and placing themselves in a position that ensures the opportunity for immediate exit are sometimes habituated ways of being for survivors.  Safety is dependent upon the capacity to detect threat (even subtle ones) quickly and correctly and often times, scanning for threat is baseline for a trauma survivor; one doesn’t ever come to a place of complete resting; resting equals risk.

Clients talk about their capacity to assess other people and the safety of their environment as something they are both proud of and fairly attached to.  I am often given examples of how vigilance has protected them of injury by providing ample time for fight or flight.  This perspective makes sense to me from the standpoint of someone who has endured; it is reasonable to make every effort to avert further injury.  And, in all honesty, I am often impressed with the capacity and skill survivors have developed in the appraisal of subtle environmental cues that otherwise go unnoticed. People who have witnessed or experienced unbearable things sometimes talk about this capacity as heightened intuition~a sixth sense.

Arguably, vigilance is a departure of intuition; it kicks in when we no longer trust in ourselves to ensure invulnerability and when we no longer trust that the world is safe. Intuition happens without thought or awareness; it is automatic and requires no effort.  I like to think of vigilance as a natural resource; while it is abundant it is not finite.  Habituation of external evaluation and anticipation of response tires the body; we were not designed to be alert consistently.  Additionally, vigilance could be viewed as a departure from ourselves and our sense of agency.  We rely on superheroes and superpowers when we can no longer trust in our own capacity.

I encourage my clients to “save your fear for when you need it” and the rest of the time work towards reconnecting to self, trust in one’s resourcefulness, and to take the risk of resting.  This parallels my admiration for the ways in which the PTSD is adaptive and clearly an attempt at returning to an assumption of safety.  Counseling, massage therapy, reiki and acupuncture are the various attempts we are making at working towards a place of quiet; the juncture of rest and safety are the mini-moments that uncouple rest with risk and begin to teach the body that we can trust our intuition and give our vigilance a vacation.