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Portland OR &Vancouver WA

Integrating psychotherapy, medication management, acupuncture, reiki & massage for an encompassing and empowering approach to healing.

Tag: body

Broccoli, Chocolate & Trauma

Many survivors of interpersonal abuse, in its’ various forms find themselves continually adapting to and evaluating their environment; specifically those in proximity who may cause harm. Anticipating the emotional overlay in an unpredictable setting is clearly proactive and protective in that survivors can identify when risk has elevated and thus plan some sort of intervention. Appeasing the abuser, planning to escape, mitigating arguments or planning for complacency to minimize harm are some strategies utilized by those exposed to chronic threat. Having a nuanced and developed defense strategy is advantageous and can help increase the odds of physical or emotional safety. As we travel into adulthood scanning our environment and reading subtleties in other people’s behavior forces us to detach from our own internal barometer that helps us connect to the basics of who we are as individuals.

Working with adult survivors of childhood abuse or those who lived with parents who may not have been abusive but perhaps neglectful or narcissistic turns our attention to the external. A common thread that exists is a lost sense of self, of likes or dislikes and a struggle to rely on authentic internal motivation for guidance. Additionally, because we are social animals, connection to others that includes the capacity of the other to tune into our wants, needs, or emotions help us to be appropriately attuned to ourselves. Those who love us and know us well can often see what we feel before we do; empathy and connectivity help us turn inward to become increasingly familiar with our values and who we are.

In the context of therapy, when I ask adult survivors about what they care about, like or dislike or want to do professionally (for example), the answer is often “I have no idea.” So, we begin the dance of determining what it feels like to want something or to have a distaste for something or to care about something. It can feel like a task that has no beginning, so, I have designed a scientifically sound method (this phrase is used loosely) for starting the conversation; it is a measurement tool intended to discern “wants” from “shoulds.” The measurement is called “The Broccoli-Chocolate Test.” I ask people to imagine broccoli and to describe the color, smell, and texture to me and then to notice what their body or mind communicates to them (most of the time it goes something like this…”I really should eat more leafy greens and vegetables.” And then, I ask them to describe chocolate (or something comparable) alongside the associated smells, textures, and flavors. The response to the chocolate is often something along the lines of “yum.” Again, I ask for the associated physical feeling and we talk about the difference between the broccoli and the chocolate.

The step that follows is of course giving permission to enjoy the things that are wants (which are different from coping mechanisms or escape strategies like alcohol or too much television, for example). Shoulds are easier to identify because unspoken and spoken social rules are fairly overt; we don’t have to turn inward to figure out that we are supposed to live our lives in a certain way or abide by the current social norms. Being guided by our value set is different from being guided by a should; an authentic value is generated internally whereas a should is generated and reinforced externally. Something we want or like reflects the little things about us make us unique; connecting to ourselves is not a frivolous pursuit.

So…if you want some chocolate (or some broccoli)….enjoy.

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!