A few years ago, while out running with my dog, I was attacked by another dog. The physical injury was nothing major (thankfully, the attacker had had its rabies shots), but for a few days, I was weepy, reactive, on edge. I was unusually sensitive and every little thing set me off. I was not a fun or nice wife or mom. And I could not understand it. I figured it had to do something with the dog attack but it didn’t make sense to me, since it had not been a major attack. I still ran another half mile afterwards, figuring it would help me calm down. I called a friend of mine who is a professional dog trainer and he assured me that what I was feeling was completely normal - I had PTSD, which is normal from an animal attack - and there was nothing I could do about it. Just just give it time, he said, and eventually the adrenaline and cortisol flooding my body would even out. Unwilling to be weepy and reactive indefinitely, I figured running would help. But that did nothing. (I ran with pepper spray).
I then taught my regular yoga class. As usual, I did the class along with the students, breathing with them, moving with them, connecting with my body, my breath, and the community in the room with me. At the end of class, I was shocked at the realization that for the first time in days, I felt peaceful. I felt rebooted. I was back to myself.
This experience began my journey into yoga as something more than an effective way to strengthen and stretch my body while increasing proprioceptive awareness (i.e. important stuff for someone who at age 40 was training for her first Ironman in 10.5 weeks). I now understood why several people in my classes had told me that after each class, they felt a reprieve from their depression and/or anxiety. I became determined to learn as much as I could about yoga and mindfulness as a way to heal the mind and psyche from PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction. I devoured books on the subject and finally, this past weekend, I took an intensive training course to become a certified teacher of Trauma-Informed Yoga (DEEP gratitude to Maryam and Heather at Beloved Yoga).
For three very full days, we dove into neuroscience, learning about the brain and how it is affected by trauma. We learned about the different forms and levels of trauma.
“We enter this state - let us call it a survival mode - when we perceive that our lives are being threatened. If we are overwhelmed by the threat and are unable to successfully defend ourselves, we can become stuck in survival mode. This highly aroused state is designed solely to enable short term defensive actions; but left untreated over time it begins to form the symptoms of trauma.”
We may have witnessed or been victims of a violent attack, or have been raised in a chaotic household, or been molested over a period of time, or fought in a war. We may have experienced deep loss of love, of financial stability, of a sense of belonging. In fact, if our parents, and/or their parents, experienced trauma, this can affect us today.
“Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.”
Trauma affects the central nervous system. The human brain and central nervous system begin to develop at about three weeks’ gestation - leading experts to believe that any trauma experienced by the pregnant mother at this point is having an impact on the developing brain. The central nervous system basically takes in cues from the environment via the senses and these cues are interpreted by the brain. A traumatized brain is sort of like a toddler - impulsive, reactive, makes no sense to those of us with common sense. For someone who has endured trauma and has not engaged in healing and recovery, chances are, the rational part of the brain that makes wise decisions (we would hope), and the emotional part of the brain that among many other important things supports relationships through empathy, trust and attachment, get hijacked by the part of the brain whose sole purpose is to ensure survival, no matter what.
“An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.”
Do you know any kids who seem to be unusually oppositional, defiant, or completely shut down? Chances are, their brains and central nervous system are merely responding to situations that are activating what at some point worked for them during a traumatic situation or phase in their life (including in the womb). Yes, think of the implications of this - as we castigate and medicate such kids, rather than addressing their behavior in a trauma-informed way, in the school system, the medical system, the family. Do you know people who suffer from anger issues? Who struggle with depression? Anxiety? Sleep disorders? Chronic back/neck pain? Autoimmune disorders? Addiction? There is a very good chance that if you ask them to sit down and write out their life story, there will be trauma there. All too often we dismiss trauma because we had “a great childhood with very loving parents and everything we needed” or “sure, stuff happened, but life is tough, it’s just the way it is.” Simply the act of sitting down and writing out our story and sharing it with someone else, can be enough for us to realize that wow, that was not healthy, or normal, or that was actually very painful. Perhaps our parents were in the military and we moved every couple of years; perhaps our parents got divorced; perhaps our sibling had a chronic or fatal illness, which impacted our sense of safety, maybe even left us, the healthy one, feeling neglected. Perhaps our parents have the news on every day and we are bombarded by images and sound bites about school shootings, potential nuclear wars, rude celebrities making poor choices of word and action. These and plenty of other events and situations can absolutely affect the way our brain is wired to respond to current stressors.
The good news is that yoga is an amazing way to promote healing and essentially bring the brain back online. Phew!!! Yes, it turns out that yoga is not just for bendy-wendies and hippy-dippies in their Lululemons sipping chai and smelling like a vegan restaurant. It turns out that doing warrior poses, focusing on our breathing, and doing this with others can have an incredibly powerful effect on our brain. We used to, not too long ago, think that we are pretty much stuck with the brain we have, but we now know about neuroplasticity, which means the brain is able to heal and change (interesting tidbit: the Yoga Sutras, which have been around since about 300-500 BC, pretty much state this fact). We also know that “the body keeps score” (the title of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal book), so a practice that combines mindful movement that is linked with reconnecting the parts of the brain that have become disconnected or imbalanced is an effective way to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (a more empowering way to think of what traditionally is referred to PTSD - so I will now refer to it as PTSI).
“The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind - of yourself. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed."
Explaining how yoga can help with brain and body imbalances would take too long for this already lengthy blogpost, but in a nutshell, working with a trauma-informed instructor can help you learn tools for those inevitable times in your day and life where you feel triggered, helping you become less reactive, more even-keeled, less irrational, more tranquil. Which is what happened to me when I felt restored after my post-dog-attack yoga class.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Our class was privileged to have Detective Jennifer “Missy” Elliott talk to us about her own experience with mindfulness in dealing with her job-related PTSI (remember - that is now what we are calling PTSD). Missy had been dealing with debilitating back pain and nobody was able to help her, but a really smart doctor prescribed therapeutic yoga. She reluctantly agreed to give it a try, which is how she met one of my instructors this weekend, Heather. One day she was on the job, at an extremely stressful situation (investigating a murder-suicide), which was a regular occurrence in her line of work , and she realized that she was unusually calm and non-reactive, to the point that a colleague pointed it out. It dawned on Missy that the practice she had learned to heal her back pain had had a powerful effect on her ability to deal with the daily stress she had endured during her decades of law enforcement work. Missy recognized the implications of this and began to spread awareness about the devastating effects the daily encounters with and witnessing of the horrible violence and suffering has on law enforcement personnel, as well as other first responders (EMS, firefighters, ER staff, etc). She has spoken of the lack of support police officers and other first responders receive in processing this stress. She enthusiastically shared her experience with mindfulness and encouraged police departments to embrace mindful practices as a way to support their employees. More police officers die from suicide than in the line of duty, and she knew why, and she also knew she had found a tool to prevent these avoidable tragedies.
1 in 4 Police officers has thoughts of suicide
2.3 times more police officers die by suicide than by homicide
Unfortunately, Missy’s efforts have not resulted in the changes she had envisioned, and as I sat there listening, I thought about the stories in the news about police officers acting in ways that showed they had dehumanized a suspect to the point of attacking them in rage, or fear. From a brain point of view, these police officers were most likely suffering from an amygdala hijack. They very likely could be loving fathers, decent husbands, serving their country in a way that upheld citizen’s safety. The media, and media consumers, may like to paint these “killer cops” as a monsters, but from a trauma-informed point of view, I do not find it surprising that when they are in these intense situations, performing with brains that have absorbed layers and layers of violence, pain, suffering, grief, gore, evil - and often (usually, apparently) having zero meaningful support from their supervisors and leaders (which is absolutely unacceptable and MUST change!), these officers react in a way that can result in tragedy. I thought about the angry public who demonize these police officers without pausing to investigate what it must be like to grow up wanting to be a police officer, usually to keep the good guys safe and put the bad guys in jail, not knowing that they would be signing up for a life of layered trauma and very little if any framework to process it and release it. (Imagine the stigma they must encounter if they show any vulnerability!). It is no wonder that the rate of suicide, addiction, divorce, domestic violence, and depression are so high among law enforcement officers.
Please watch the trailer for this documentary: Code 9
Obviously, yoga is not a magic cure for all of our individual, societal and global imbalances and dis-eases (or is it...?). But I do believe this world would be a vastly different place if each of us took ownership over our individual and collective attention to how our body feels, grounding it into the earth, connecting with our breath, gazing inward, and being mindful of what enters our brain and our gut (our "second brain”), and what we send out via our words and our energy. There is growing evidence that Post-Traumatic Growth is not only possible, but it is vital to our world. It is like a superpower.
“With wisdom, patience, openness and practice, all effects of trauma can be healed. We have the tools… And yet out of the dark seeds of trauma can emerge a healing fountain of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and strength. In the multidimensional healing of ourselves, we rise to the highest levels of our potentials as human beings and become a shining beacon of light for others and for the world.”
If you would like to learn more, I urge you to check out the following resources. YOU can make a difference.
Mindful Policing: The Future of Force
The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (Babette Rothschild)
The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina
How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, MD
Lost Connections by Johann Hari
The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, PhD
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, MD
Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert, PhD
Videos and documentaries:
How childhood trauma affect health - TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, MD: https://ed.ted.com/on/iOyQVfhd
Code 9 trailer and film: http://www.thecode9film.com/
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.