Tag Archives: PTSD

Breathing your way through anxiety

I’ve been noticing a few posts on social media about how some of us who have experienced anxiety and depression throughout our lives are feeling a little better than we expected to feel during this pandemic.

And let me be clear: I’m not holding this up as something to aspire to. If you’re finding yourself to be a total wreck, trying to get out of bed, trying to find the motivation to do anything, acknowledge how you are feeling. Acknowledging feelings helps you let them go. Denying them keeps them stuck in your body. Then accept it.

If you or someone you know has spent most of their lives in the “fight or flight” response and suddenly now, you are surrounded by others who are feeling like you’ve felt for good chunks of your life, to lesser or greater degrees, feeling relatively well right now in the middle of this pandemic becomes a little easier to understand.

If in childhood you were in a family situation that put you in the middle of crisis intermittently for whatever reason. Maybe you lived with an abusive or a very moody and unpredictable parent. Maybe one of your parents was living with a mental illness, officially diagnosed or not. Maybe one or both of your parents was addicted to alcohol or other substances. Maybe you experienced difficult things that left your physiology and mental health impacted. 

Those things might range from sexual abuse to witnessing another member of your family being abused to any experience that really emotionally affected you negatively and changed you in some ways from that point on. The list is endless. That’s trauma! All of those negative and unhealthy experiences will impact everyone very differently but with some predictable commonalities.

For those of us who can relate, living with uncertainty and being prepared and being on guard or being hypervigilant is just a lifelong way of being. It’s not healthy. It’s hard on the heart and the kidneys. And sometimes in times of extreme stress, it can make you seem less intelligent than you are.

That’s especially true if you begin to disassociate where you lose your train of thought. You might just freeze. Your vision fogs. Everyone around you suddenly feels like they are there but not there, mere human outlines drenched in a soft hazy wash.

If that’s been your experience, then a pandemic is just falling into line with the uncertainty you’ve lived with your entire life in in one way or another.

You hear people focusing on the uncertainty right now, wrestling with that when it seems like just accepting what’s happening could be a more helpful response.

I’m not saying I haven’t been anxious lately. I’m feeling anxious writing this now that I’m paying attention to my body. But I’ve been aware of trying to recognize that. STOP and be aware of it. STOP and sit down. Stop and BREATHE. STOP and go out for a walk.

Because let’s get real, if you aren’t even a little bit anxious in the middle of a pandemic then honestly you need to check in with yourself and get real.

Anxiety isn’t the issue. It’s what you do with that anxiety that can make a difference in how you function.

If you’ve haven’t done any meditation or investigated other modalities of healing then the exercises in this video might seem weird to you. Having experienced just a taste of somatic movement earlier this year in a class offered by a yoga practitioner from Mayne Island, I’d recommend just watching this and trying it.  

I trust the experience of this individual and that’s good enough for me.



Online learning knows no boundaries

“The best poetic moments are moments when you’re allowed to reside in the moment without looking to the future,” – Jonathan Bates, University of Warwick.

In the past year I’ve learned, firsthand, the value of online education.

It started out when I took a course in Developmental Psychology for credit through Athabasca University. In spite of my initial resistance to doing an online course, I found it a much more enjoyable way to learn than being stuck in a lecture hall, hearing just one human, blah, blah, blah ad nausea and surrounded by others who, of varying degrees, may or may not want to be in the course.

In the Athabasca online course there were pretests and post tests and challenges and study tips and it was a much more interactive and focused experience than I expected it to be and it resulted, for me, in what seemed like greater retention of the subject matter than is typical for me.

More recently I completed a four week online course about PTSD in U.S. Veterans and how to interact with them and their families. It was called Mental Health Care for Family Members of Post 9/11 Veterans: Practical Approaches to Addressing the Impact of the Invisible Wounds of War on Families.

It was offered through the Massachusetts General Hospital and directed mainly at therapists and mental health professionals. Registering as a student, they let me in and it was free.  There were role-playing therapy exercises that were videotaped that used experienced therapists doing therapy with volunteer actors and volunteer military family members to demonstrate interventions. They highlighted the intergenerational model, how to manage substance abuse and communication methods using the CRAFT model,  as well as educating around the DSM V definition of PTSD including symptoms to ask about and be aware of. The videotaped sessions, and then a roundtable of case exploration at the end was so fantastic in terms of giving insight into key factors to be aware of in working with many of the common problems that arise in this specific population. But would be transferrable to others.

More recently, I saw a course offered through the University of Warwick and a portal called FutureLearn.com about Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Well Being. In this recent course, very well-known personalities, Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellan, along with university professors discuss the impact of literature, poetry specifically, on stress reduction and mindfulness. It’s wonderful to hear and see others, especially an actor of McKellan’s quality, read a poem aloud beside the river Thames in keeping with the lines in the Wordsworth Poem, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge.’

When I read this poem below, it was my favourite of the bunch. By the late W.H. Davies, a welsh poet.


What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

The discussion boards on this course on Literature and Mental Health have a ridiculous number of comments, up to 2,500 on a single question.  It’s AMAZING!  The students are dropping in from all over the world via their computer screens. There is no reason to leave your house anymore. And yes, that is a problem!

There has perhaps never been a better time to embrace lifelong learning than in any other time in history, and the fact that it’s free elicits delight indeed!

Have you ever taken an online course? What was your experience? Do you even think about how you can continue to learn into old age and all the ways that’s possible?

EMDR in therapy, in class and into the world

Sometimes life and learning come together in such perfect ways.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a form of psychotherapy developed by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro who lives in California. This integrative psychotherapy had a bit of a flukey beginning (just like many discoveries and innovations).

Shapiro was walking across a field one day back in 1987. A few things were bothering her and she noticed as she walked and thought about what was bothering her that her eyes moved very quickly up and down. Now you might think, that’s a really weird thing to notice. Who would notice that? The answer is a woman who had been intensely focused on the mind-body connection for about 10 years, via workshops and other learning, as a result of doing all she could to recover from a bout of cancer.

Shapiro noticed that after these rapid eye movements, her mildly distressing thoughts were lessened. She tried it again, on purpose, asking friends to call up a disturbing memory, then purposely guiding their eyes back and forth, having them follow a marker for 30 seconds per set. She got consistent results. She continued to do that for about 70 people asking them to hone in on a specific disturbing memory, to notice their feelings in their body, the negative thoughts about self associated with the memory, and how those changed and lessened as she did the rather hocus pocus looking thing that meant their brains were being stimulated bilaterally.  The disturbance lessened. The original negative thought became more positive and they were left feeling more in control, not controlled, by the original negative experience.

She began to hypothesize that EMDR somehow replicated the body’s natural healing process, the one that seems to allow us to process events every night in our dreams when we experience the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) portion of our sleep cycle. The brain is able to process the things that we need, that are helpful, and let go of the rest, unless it can’t. If the disturbance is so out of line from anything else we’ve ever experienced in our lives then sometimes, not in everyone but in many people, the brain can’t process that information and it becomes problematic. We have no where to integrate that traumatic memory into our nervous system and sometimes that trauma leads to PTSD.

We react way out of proportion to things and may be triggered by sounds, smells, colours, a facial expression, or images when those tap into the original event which (in the case of childhood trauma) we may have repressed.

Shapiro enrolled in a doctoral program in Psychology and published findings from her thesis in the Journal of Traumatic Studies in 1989. It was met with great controversy. How could something so strange be such a quick fix for Big T Trauma? The journal must have been duped. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had only been defined in 1980. There were no good therapies, not really, for helping those suffering from traumatic and intrusive memories.

EMDR was met with skepticism, which is good, that’s how it should be. And then not so good – with controversy – and finally, after years of anecdotal testimonies and 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies, it is now recognized as an effective treatment for those suffering from trauma. EMDR has been approved by the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Defence and Veteran Affairs and it’s acknowledged as effective treatment for people who have been through a traumatic experience and others who have suffered traumas as children or are experiencing other problems – depression, anxiety, that they haven’t been able to overcome.

This week I’m giving a talk on EMDR in one of my classes and I’m really excited about it because I believe wholeheartedly in EMDR. My experience with it, and I’ve had it many times as part of talk therapy, is that it has taken me on a journey into myself every single time unearthing images that bubble to the surface like metaphors, causing emotion to rise faster than I’ve ever experienced it as a release, provides insights to mull over and leave me feeling not only astonished at what came up, but, by the end of the session, more in control of the original stressor instead of controlled by the emotional reaction to it. There’s an alignment between body and mind and a genuine belief in the positive thought and a neutralizing of the feeling in the body.

Best of all, it always ends on a positive note. I don’t know how. Nobody knows how exactly. The studies are ongoing.

Given the realities of the 21st century where traumatic events are so widespread with ever increasing levels of anxiety and depression, I think the implications of using EMDR are so exciting and timely with the potential to be an incredible aid to humanitarian response in war zones, after natural disasters, and in lesser traumas that prevent people from living their lives to their greatest potentials.

Let’s be clear, it’s not a miracle cure but it does offer a faster positive response and resolution to long held struggles than previously available and that has been proven scientifically for anyone who can’t be open enough to get past the process, and remains stuck on the initial controversy.

Shapiro’s latest book is called Getting Past Your Past published 2012 and if you’d like to know more about EMDR and begin learning some really easy stress reduction techniques, I’d suggest reading it.

Visit EMDR.com or EMDRIA.org and EMDRhap.org for more information.

PS: I was reminded the other day. The best way to evaluate a therapy before someone wants to supposedly help you is to discover for yourself (based on evidence-based research) whether it has reliability and validity in helping others. And then, is it one that you are willing to participate in?

The best thing you could do for yourself before seeing any type of mental health provider is to find out what paradigm(s) they believe in and what therapy they are using on you and why they believe it’s the one to use.  Of course, often, we are not in the position to do that when we need to reach out and seek help because we are desperate. Caveat Emptor. Just sayin. And trust your gut.

An excellent book that I’ve read recently that has a chapter on EMDR in it,  that seems, based on my personal experience to be accurate, is called: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Another excellent book related to complex trauma that I’ve recently read is called: Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.