Our brains are made to look for danger as a way to keep us alive. As you look at the above pictures, notice how your body responds when you focus on just one of those pictures. Do you notice a difference in your body’s response, depending on where you focus? (Maybe you’re more irritated with the fuzziness of the snake picture? Yes, that’s a snake!)
It is how our brains are wired. Our whole body typically focuses on what it considers to be potential danger. In actual life if you see a snake on the beach, it is unlikely that you’ll take your attention away from the snake to focus on the lovely beach. In fact, research has found that in traumatic situations, our frontal lobe (that judgement center of our brain) and Broca’s area (associated with speech function) are shut down (van der Kolk, 2015). Similarly, those who are actually diagnosed with PTSD were found to perform worse on attention, verbal memory, verbal fluency, and psychomotor speed (Eren-Koçak et al., 2009). This is likely why some of us find it hard to talk or think clearly when we are highly stressed or anxious.
These physiological responses help keep us safe. In actual dangerous situations, our body typically responds first before our mind catches up; we don’t need to be talking or making judgments about what’s the best option. Our body is primitively wired to fight or flight in a matter of seconds, or even freeze in worse situations (e.g., “deer in the headlight” or like the possum that literally falls over as if it is dead when faced with significant stress).
When certain experiences happened in our childhood especially if repeated over time, any inkling (could be a smell, the way a certain person walks, or even how our body feels, etc.) that remind us of those childhood experiences (typically unconsciously) will likely trigger a degree of fight/flight/freeze responses (van der Kolk, 2015).
We can integrate mind-body techniques in therapy to unlock these implicit and unconscious bodily reactions that may present as mental health struggles as we get older (anxiety, panic attacks, depression, low self-esteem). It is also highly recommended to integrate regular and on-going practices to decrease our body’s reactivity, to allow body’s relaxation response to be the natural mode.
Here are some possible exercises to try:
Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) / tapping
One of the better researched mind-body techniques is called Emotional Freedom Techniques, which is distinct and different from emotion-focused therapy (also known as “EFT”). Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT used below) evolved from Thought-Field Therapy (TFT) and is relatively new in the field of psychology (about 40 years old). When guided by a trained clinician, EFT has been found to be effective for anxiety and trauma, as well as help to relax the body system. It combines cognitive restructuring, memory reconsolidation, and trauma-informed exposure therapy while the client self-taps on acupressure points. The use of acupressure points have been practiced by traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
There has been a lot more research on EFT in recent years, and the results have been impressive. This page summarizes recent research, including meta-analyses studies and those published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as research on other energy psychology modalities. Here is another article showing “evidence-based” practice of clinical emotional freedom techniques that I use.
Why I also recommend Mindfulness Practices:
Many of us have learned to turn off our bodily signals over the years. It may be because we were flooded with overwhelming emotions in childhood trauma (direct or witnessed), and we did not have the tools to manage. It may be because of on-going societal expectations of gender roles (e.g., men to “suck it up,” or women are “bit__es” when we express our anger), or work settings where everyone work through lunches or do not regularly take breaks during the day. Thus, we learn to ignore our thirst, our hunger signals, our other bodily feelings. As an adult, it may now be difficult to identify our feelings, our emotions. Mindfulness practices such as guided walking meditations or body scan exercises are recommended as a way to start to reconnect with your own body, even if you have not yet developed your emotional vocabulary.
If Mindfulness or slowing down is difficult:
For some, slowing down such as mindfulness or yoga practices could bring on more irritability, anxiety or panic. Such practices increase our awareness of sensations and emotions. These could feel overwhelming and unmanageable for some, and one could find these practices quite unsettling or even overwhelming especially if you’re had trauma (even the little “t”s) in your life. (At one point, it was likely not safe for you to relax!) These slowing-down practices could prompt one to turn back to keeping busy or re-engage in lots of distraction activities again. I know because I was there at one point. If this sounds familiar to you, then I recommend starting with even just 5 minutes in nature (without listening to any music or podcasts, if you can). You can be at a local park or your backyard if you have one. Better yet, immerse yourself at a beach or the mountains. Allow yourself to attend to nature using all of your senses during your nature immersion–look at the bushes, the various color of the objects or tree leaves around you, listen and observe the birds, breathe in the fresh air, notice the temperature of the air on your skin. Then next time when you’re there again, slowly become aware of your own breathing during your nature immersion experience. If you’re up for it, then start to attend to how your feet feel in nature, how your legs feel (one body part at a time), how you’re breathing while you’re standing in nature, etc. Please do practice patience with yourself and remind yourself that you are, in fact, safe in the moment. If these are difficult, then please do consider seeking the services of a licensed mental health professional with experience in providing trauma and somatic therapy.
Please also make sure to practice regularly appreciating your various body parts in this process (e.g., “thank you, feet, for carrying me throughout the day without me even having to attend to you much!”).
Benefits: As overwhelming as it may be to start to notice more of your sensations and/or emotions, these sensations are our natural humanness. To be connected to these sensations is one way you start to reconnect with your humanness. Slowly, you can start to relearn that you are safe when you feel, to relearn what these various sensations and emotions are telling you about your own values, what is important to you, and what does not fit for your being.
When you are able to reset yourself to relaxation and centered/grounded mode, then what throws you off will tell you that thing or something in that experience doesn’t fit for you. Then, you can be more intentional to choose what aligns for your spirit instead of reactive avoidance or abuse of substances.
Some Research summaries:
Recent research on how energy psychology help heal sexual abuse.
Efficacy of acupoint stimulation/tapping in treating psychological disorders (2012), including summary paragraphs for treatment of PTSD, phobias, public-speaking anxiety, pain and physical illness. Author concluded “These studies have consistently demonstrated strong effect sizes and other positive statistical results that far exceed chance after relatively few treatment sessions.”
More research links on energy psychology, published on ACEP website.
Resilience Quick Practices:
Try the exercises on this page to calm your emotions.
I highly recommend this newly published book (2022). It’s a fascinating read, incorporates the latest research on mind-body connection, and explains much about how stress, adverse experiences, and trauma impact our genetics (epigenetics) and health.
- Information on Polyvagal Theory. This video by Sukie Baxter also explains quite well.
- Books by Peter A. Levine, PhD
This YouTube video is a brief explanation of the theory of Memory Reconsolidation process that leads to transformational change.
Please feel free to call Dr. Lin at 408-828-8375 or send an email to inquire further.
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