Category Archives: Dissociation

Cultivating Resiliance with Ayurveda

When I share Ayurveda with people who have no prior experience of this 5,000 year old science, I begin by saying that Ayurveda is a practice of noticing. We learn to notice the qualities in our environment such as temperature or humidity. Is the wind blowing or is the air still? We learn to appreciate how nature and our bodies change with each season of the year and each season of life. We become aware of how different times of the day may affect our energy levels and digestion. Ayurveda asks us to notice how different foods either support or diminish our vitality. We reflect on our lifestyles; are you taking time to care for yourself with compassion or are your hours filled with a task list of never ending things to do? This reflection helps us to decide what changes may be necessary to bring greater balance to life.

Ayurveda can be a very important practice to use to cultivate resiliency and to create a connection with self that is lost due to trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, Medical Director of the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, MA states that “[people with trauma] have a very cut-off relationship to their body. They may not feel what is happening in their bodies. They may not register what goes on with them.” He also speaks about resilience. The American Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. In Bessel’s words, “What makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.”

We know that trauma dysregulates the interoceptive pathways of our brain. These pathways allow us to sense the physiological or visceral condition of our body. Are we hungry? Are we cold? Are our muscles engaging or releasing? Ayurveda can help to strengthen these pathways by turning our focus back to our body. Self-reflection can be strengthened with the addition of the sister-practice of Yoga, done in a trauma informed way. In time, restoring a sense of self may allow a person to be less reactive to what is happening outside as the boundaries between external events and internal awareness are strengthened.

Ayurveda views trauma as a disturbance of the Vata dosha. Doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) are biological energies found throughout the human body and mind. We are born with a certain constitution and combination of doshas. Life experiences can also elevate the traits of any one of these doshas. Vata is characterized by movement and is comprised of the elements of air and ether. When a person experiences trauma, vata increases and with it comes a sense of erratic movement, coldness, constriction, dryness, loss of creativity, anxiety and fear. Ayurveda offers a number of ways to counteract the effects of trauma and to create more grounding and less movement.

To reduce Vata energy, eat food that is cooked, moist and warm. Eliminate raw foods, remove ice from your diet and consider soups, stews and foods that include a bit more oil. How you eat is as important as what you eat. Create time for meals where you can sit down and focus your attention just on your food. If you like to cook, use this as a time to nurture yourself. Consider making yourself a cup of hot milk with spices in the evening before bed. You can add a bit of turmeric, nutmeg and maple syrup if you like. You can substitute almond or coconut milk for raw milk in this recipe.

Vata is pacified by moving in slow and mindful ways. Taking a moderately paced walk where you notice your feet touching the ground can be very supportive. Yoga done in a self-aware and respectful way is also a good choice. If you have a regular running practice, consider slowing down a bit or interspersing walking with running. Tai Chi can also be a wonderful way to allow for mindful movement.

Vata responds well to creating rhythm and routine. Look at the flow of your day and see if you might create structure. Rising between 5:00 and 7:00 am supports your inherent energy. Meal times can be planned and a regular pattern established. Bedtime is ideally by 10:00 pm. Consider adding a sense of ritual to your day. Perhaps you cultivate a morning practice of sipping tea, writing in your journal or practicing yoga. You may find that a bedtime routine of self-care and reflection helps you to settle in for the night.

Ayurveda has a practice of self-oil massage called Abhyanga. Using warm oil to massage your feet and head or perhaps your entire body has a way of calming your nervous system and providing self-love. The rhythmic movement allows the erratic vata energy to be pacified. Different oils have different qualities and so you may change oil with the season or with your sense of well-being.

Ayurveda offers a lens through which we see the world and is also a tool to help restore balance and awareness. Peter Levine, author of many trauma related books, offers the following thought. “Resilient strength is the opposite of helplessness. The tree is made strong and resilient by its grounded root system.” Ayurveda may offer you a way to restore your relationship with self and allow for grounding to occur.

What to Expect When You Are Accepting: Taking the Brave First Steps Towards Healing Trauma

6.29 8 Walkway at Japanese Garden

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a primer for moving through the process of healing trauma? How amazing it would be if there were clear cut steps, if the emotional pathway was laid out in black and white, if those around us were readying a celebration for the new you that is being birthed. After all, the journey to wholeness is similar to welcoming a child into the world. In this case however, the child is you and a life of greater resiliency is the gift.

If these words strike a chord, I want you to know how brave you are brave for exploring this path. When a person suffers trauma there often comes a moment of clarity, a second when they say to themselves “There must be a better way.” I think of this as a divine tap on the shoulder. Perhaps you choose to view this as a stepping stone on your karmic journey. One crack of sunlight, one moment of sensing that you deserve more is all it can take. If you are nodding your head in agreement, I will offer you thoughts on what might come next and how you can support and nurture yourself along the way.

Unconscious Reactions

Before getting into the specifics, let me take a moment to share some basic information about our brains. There are three parts to this most amazing organ I would like to discuss. The first part is the brain stem and is referred to as the reptilian brain. It is first to be formed and it controls breathing, eating, sleeping, pooping and peeing. Positioned above the reptilian brain is the limbic system which is the seat of emotion and perception. This part of the brain monitors danger and decides whether an action should be initiated to ensure survival. These two parts of our brain which  Bessel van der Kolk calls our emotional brain, are all about survival. This is where we determine, unconsciously, if we should fight, flee or freeze. The third part of our brain is the frontal cortex. It is where cognitive decisions are made. This area also helps us to modulate emotions, regulate responses and is the seat of empathy and compassion.

Trauma resides in our emotional, unconscious brain. This may help you to understand why the functions of this area are most affected by trauma and are stimulated when we are in our healing journey.

Erratic Emotions

One minute you might feel elated at the thought of finally moving past this old pain. The next minute you may feel weepy. The following morning a sense of heavy depression may take over. Because trauma affects the unconscious parts of the brain and shuts down the analytical cortical area, a narrative story may not exist for what you experienced. What does remain are the imprints left on the cells of the body. Memories are not cohesive story lines but are rather fragments of smells, sounds sights and body sensations. You will invariably stumble upon triggering elements in the course of your current life that return you instantaneously to an emotion experienced long, long ago.

Ayurveda considers trauma a vata imbalance, a disturbance in the ether and air elements. Vata governs movement; the erratic emotional rollercoaster you may be on is indicative of ungrounded movement in a psychological sense. One way to find more balance is to create a sense of routine in your day. Perhaps you might start with sleep and rising times. Consistently going to bed around 10 and rising between 5 and 6 will help your body reclaim its natural rhythm. Consider eating your meals at the same time each day, dinner being your lightest meal. Limit your choice making as your mind may not be able to nimbly jump from possibility to possibility without creating more distress. How can this be done? Simplify your life. Create one dish meals of warm cooked root vegetables. Curtail your busy social schedule and share tea with only one or two friends each week. Put off making major decisions until your mind is clearer. Take a break from technology; poring over a computer screen catching up on everyone’s posts and emails can send you into overload in short order. Allow yourself to rest and to shed what you do not need to handle for now.

Anger

Anger stands alone. It is one of those emotions that I used to feel I didn’t experience. Ever so optimistic I walked around for years thinking that I had skirted that red headed monster. The reality is we all experience moments of anger. How we express our anger varies; sometimes we manage anger, sometimes anger manages us. When someone is hurt or traumatized it is reasonable to think that anger at the injustice would come to the surface. But what if you are a little child when this happens? What if you are an adult who is fearful of the repercussions of voicing your emotions? What if you have been taught that anger is an inappropriate response? As you open yourself up to healing, this long repressed emotion may rise to the surface. It is old stuff, it is hard stuff and if it is oozing out of you it is likely a necessary purge. Welcome this as a harbinger of more lightness and coolness of spirit.

Ayurveda views anger as a hot Pitta emotion. How can you best manage the physical manifestations of excess heat? Be gentle with yourself. Try not to push too hard, demand too much or set unreasonable goals. Exercise should be moderate to slow and grounding. Appropriate food choices can help tremendously during this time of transition. Caffeine and alcohol, both stimulants and irritants, will not be tolerated well nor will hot spicy foods. Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, green peppers and white potatoes should be minimized. Consider adding coconut oil to your cooking, incorporate turmeric which reduces inflammation and drink aloe vera gel or juice.

Fatigue

This is hard work and it is not for the faint of heart. Recognize that as you begin to work through dense painful emotions and patterns, you are stretching muscles of a different sort. Due to the excess vata, your sleep may be irregular and perhaps more sparse than you desire. This will add to your sense of exhaustion. This is a time to nurture yourself and to lean into those around you who love and support you. When you are tired, rest. Do not feel that you are being slovenly or lazy. You are doing important work so that you may live with less fear, less anxiety and less avoidance. Give your body what it intuitively needs.

Ayurveda offers some ideas for insuring a peaceful night’s sleep. About a half hour before going to bed you might warm a cup of milk with a ½ teaspoon of turmeric and a little bit of maple syrup. Allow the mixture to come to a low boil and then remove it from the heat. If you have access to raw milk this is a wonderfully healing choice. If you are dairy free you can substitute almond or coconut milk. Experiment a bit to find the blend that appeals most to you. A little grated nutmeg on top is particularly yummy and sleep enhancing.

If you like you might also warm up a bit of oil and give yourself a foot massage. Coconut oil is cooling, sesame is warming, and sunflower is balancing for most people. You can add a drop of lavender for its calming effect. Work the oil all over your feet, pausing if you hit a tender spot and adjusting your pressure accordingly. When you feel complete, put on a pair of cotton socks and slip between the sheets for a restful night’s sleep.

Constipation

You may find that your digestive system is erratic and that you are prone to constipation. Trauma by nature is constricting. It causes us to be more dry and less elastic. Our digestive tract which is normally plumped up with cells that absorb nutrients and flush out toxins in the forms of urine and feces, is now arid, cells lying flatter against the intestinal walls. If we cannot regularly rid ourselves of toxins because we are constipated, we will feel more sluggish, our brains may be foggy and we can feel bloated and uncomfortable.

Constipation is another vata symptom according to Ayurveda. The colon is the seat of vata and so is often disturbed when trauma is present. Along with constipation or dry stools you may also notice an excess amount of gas which is the air element so prevalent in vata. One simple remedy is to drink one or two mugs of warm or hot water in the morning when you wake up. This will help prime your pump so to speak, adding more moisture to a dry system. Eating warm, cooked foods and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables will also help. Stew an apple or some prunes and have this compote 20 minutes before or after your breakfast. Add a bit of ghee or coconut oil to your diet understanding that this can help to moisten your tissues from the inside out. Incorporate gentle movement into your morning routine. Squats, Goddess, wind relieving pose and belly massage can all help to enhance apana vayu (the downward flow of energy). The digestive system is often called the second heart, another seat of emotion and so nurturing this area of your body will benefit you in a myriad of ways.

There is no true road map that anyone can provide, no primer to will walk you through your experience. Finding teachers along the way and reading words of inspiration will help you to know that you are not alone. Celebrate the smallest moments of progress and recognize the opportunity that each new day brings. I offer you blessings for your journey.

Returning to the Present: Ayurveda’s Wisdom in the Face of Trauma & Dissociation

lisa's phone 127

How wonderful it was to be a child and to pretend you were a princess with magical powers, a dragon that could breathe fire at a moment’s notice or Peter Pan with the ability to fly through the air. What a pleasure it can be to sink into a novel that completely takes you away to a fantasy world that doesn’t have dirty dishes in the sink or stacks of paperwork on your desk. For many however, the ability to step through Alice’s looking glass into an alternative reality is a way of survival.

When life becomes scary and dangerous and there is no obvious way to escape, the universal biological impulse is to shut down and dissociate. This is a natural and protective response. When you cannot physically run away, you find ways to mentally and emotionally take your leave. What does dissociation look like? From the inside it is a softening of all the edges, a fogging of the mirror and a separation of self from that which is harmful. From the outside it often comes across as a blank stare and an inability to connect in real time; it has an elusive quality. Those who have lived through trauma understand how in the face of real or perceived danger, all but survival is put aside. Dissociation is a means of saving self.

Surviving one trauma may also be considerably different than surviving multiple traumas. Consider the reality of many in our world who live in a soup of extreme stress every day of their lives. Some bear the marks of childhood trauma, some live in households colored by substance abuse or are victims of domestic violence and some are combat veterans. In these cases and more, the word dissociation takes on new meaning. The diagnosis of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one we hear frequently. Less well known is the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. In Complex PTSD (also called DESNOS or Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified) the trauma is longitudinal and relational. People with DESNOS demonstrate histories of prolonged and severe interpersonal abuse according to Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. This is most heinous when the trauma begins in childhood as the marks are deeper and longer lasting. For people who are diagnosed with Complex Trauma, dissociation becomes a way of life.

How do the practices of Ayurveda help people with Complex PTSD to heal?

  • Do no further harm. Ayurveda embraces the teaching of Ahimsa or non-violence. Treat yourself with gentleness and empathy. Try not to judge past experiences or choices; judgment is a subtle form of violence. A dear friend of mine would tell me “The past is perfect”. She meant that the past cannot be changed, it simply is. Reviewing actions over and over will not bring events to a different ending.
  • Start from where you are. In Ayurveda we speak about removing that which is harming a person as a first step to healing. For example if we know that coffee is exacerbating symptoms of acid reflux, we remove it from our diet. In the case of trauma we may not always be able to immediately remove the offending agent. If someone continues to live with their abuser and has not yet made clear plans to leave, there is still much that can be done. Ayurveda offers ways to strengthen a person’s constitution so that they can return to a place of wholeness and come to a decision in their own time. A small first step might be to consult with a practitioner to find out what your Prakriti or constitution is. Once you have this awareness you can adopt one lifestyle guideline that is in harmony with your deepest self. If you find out that you have a lot of fire in your constitution you may find that breathing into the center part of your body will help to release heat that builds up in your solar plexus. If you are told that you are Kaphic in nature you might want to counter the abundance of heavy earth and water qualities with a brisk walk. If your mind constantly chatters and you are aware that you have a lot of the air quality in your constitution, removing raw food from your diet will help to ground you. Each step that you take back to your true nature is a step to wholeness.
  • Allow for your natural urges. In Ayurveda we are taught to listen to our body’s impulses. If we have to go to the bathroom, we should honor that urge. If we need to sneeze or cough or yawn we would do well to honor these as well. When people live with or through trauma, they are often so shut down that what comes natural to some is foreign to them. They have learned to be strong and to hold back tears. They have learned to internalize anger. If, on the other side of a traumatic moment you are able to literally and figuratively shake off the occurrence and allow your body to experience its physical reality (which can include tremors or involuntary muscular reaction and tears or hysterical laughter), you may walk away with fewer symptoms. If however you are unable to allow for this process, there can be life-altering consequences. In the words of Peter A. Levine, Phd, “when these discharges are inhibited or otherwise resisted and prevented from completion, our natural rebounding abilities get stuck.”
  • Find ways to be present to the moment. When we dissociate we escape to a world that is anywhere but here and now. I often define Ayurveda as the science of noticing. Here a few places you might turn your attention to. When you rise in the morning, what is your energy like? When you eat hot spices, what is your experience? Do you like the cold weather or do hot temperatures most appeal to you? When you are dissociating you are intentionally moving away from noticing your bodily sensations. Perhaps you may want to spend a few minutes each day sitting in a comfortable way and noticing how you physically connect to the chair or the floor. What parts of your body have sensation and which do not? You can always choose to look at your foot if you cannot actually feel it. Maybe you choose to twist to one side or another and see how your breath changes. Perhaps you allow yourself to feel muscle tightness or relaxation. Learning to be present to your body and the world around you takes time and patience. Allow each new awareness to be a gift that you give yourself.

Trauma evokes in us a sense of fragmentation. Conversely, Ayurveda welcomes us to a world of connection and presence. Perhaps in time you might find the healing you seek in this timeless science. David Whyte is a poet that speaks directly to my heart. We have never met yet he understands what I would say if I could find the eloquence to do so. Here he extends us an invitation back to life.

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.”