Practicing Kindness: Trauma and the Body
Following their conversation from last week about the impact of trauma on our body and our brain, Dan and Rachael turn their attention to ways we can begin to find healing in the midst of ‘trauma overload.’ This is not a prescriptive list of all the things you must do, but rather options available to you to start where and when you can. Ultimately, as Dan and Rachael come back to time and time again, it’s about being faithful in the small and the kindness of God that brings about the transformation and healing we’re most meant for.
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Rachael: Well, we’re back, Dan, to talk about, to try to offer—we’re going to revisit where we were talking about just some of the impact of trauma on the body, focusing more today on what are some of the steps, what are some of the options available to us in this particular season of some trauma overload?
Dan: Wait, Good Lord, does that mean we’re going to be practical?
R: Yes, we are going to try for the first time in our lives with you.
D: I’m with you.
R: Yeah. And I think one thing that’s always helpful when you’re moving into more practical spaces, especially for Dan and I, because I think we’ll try to be as comprehensive as we can be. As this is not a you need to be able to do all of these things. This is, let’s talk about a lot of different options and ways and start where you can and again. We’re in the realm of being faithful in the small. And as we mentioned, if you were listening last week, we mentioned that sometimes the ways we are invited to tend to our bodies in the midst of trauma, to tend to each other’s bodies in the midst of trauma, can feel like, you know, like it can feel so small when the need is so great. So we are asking you to suspend the cynicism and have an imagination that sometimes being faithful in the small has huge implications. And so we are going to spend some time providing some practical tools and practical, I think, even categories to be thinking and with regard to the way trauma impacts the body again, these are not. This is not comprehensive. Um, it’s more general. So there’s ways to get a lot more nuance into some of these categories, depending on your body and your community and your access to care. And again, as we ended our time last time talking about, it’s the kindness of God that actually brings about the kind of transformation and healing that were meant for. So our prayer would be that ultimately your posture would be a very gentle posture. And just beginning to take the next step. My husband keeps saying that to me. He’s offering me a really good containment in the season, he keeps saying, Well, all we can do today is take the next step and I’m like, You’re right! And so that’s our– kind of our hope and our posture in the midst of this conversation is what could be some possible next steps.
D: Well, first and foremost, let’s not be too practical. But let’s start with the issue of Neoplatonism.
R: Oh gosh. [laughs]
D: …and the reality that look, we’re swimming against thousands of years of trauma being addressed, first of all, never being named. But heartache, struggle, crisis being handled first and foremost spiritually. That these are spiritual issues you need to grapple with in order to trust God. And the notion that no, wait a minute. The small begins with our body. Our faithfulness begins with what we do with the fact we’re bleeding out right now. Yes, there are spiritual relational, psychological, sociological, cultural issues that need to be addressed. Can we begin with your body? And if not, and let’s go a bit further, and to see it not as just kind of like all right, but an actual faithfulness to God to engage our body in a way in which we are honoring the reality that we are the temple of God and that our body is a reflection of the glory of God, not merely a husk that burns the real reality of our world. So to tend our body is not an easy thing on many levels, but particularly in the believing community. It ramps against what has been a theoretical predisposition for a lot of centuries. So that wasn’t too practical, was it?
R: You know, when you were like, we’re going back to neoplatonism I was like, okay, so we’re going to start there. [laughs] I think I would just say, and this is what you’re saying, Dan, I just want to name it explicitly. To tend to the body is actually inherently spiritual. Cultural. It’s all those things, and it’s a starting point. But it goes against how we have been taught to think and how we have been taught to even experience our bodies.
D: Well, And one thing we have learned through, you know, the understanding of the brain in the last 20 some years is that one of the only deep connections or highways between our cortical system, our thinking brain so called, and our limbic system, our so called are feeling brain, is our ability to do what’s called interception, and you know, you don’t have to remember the word, but the bottom line is, it’s the ability to listen. Which is so fascinating, the ability to listen, to be attentive to your body, to become aware of what your body is experiencing. And so if we’re going to deal with trauma, we have to begin with this concept of interception. Will you stop? Remember what we talked about, the autonomic nervous system. And that when you get ramped up, your sympathetic system keeps pumping out the distressed biochemicals, particularly epinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol. But in that process, when you’re ramped up, the last thing you in the middle of fight or flight have the ability to do is to stop and listen and to take in attentively what your body is experiencing. So you have to in some sense, make a choice to actually bring the parasympathetic system into play, and we’ll talk about meditation. We’ll talk about yoga. We’ll talk about a lot of different structures. But the first thing is, will you sit? Will you put your feet on the floor, will you listen to how your breathing is occurring? Attentiveness. Mindfulness. It’s so fascinating. Just that stance and orientation begins to lower the level of that cortisol pulse. If you begin to listen, what you’re off going to find is something very distressing.
R: I was gonna say I have a lot of tools in this tool bag over many years, and I am struggling to stop and listen because it’s overwhelming what comes when I stop and listen. So I have found I actually can’t sit still. I actually have to do that kind of listening while walking. But I’m wondering if we can, because I want to be able to talk about some of those like really simple tasks, because I think it can be it can be so distressing when you’re like oh, yeah, I’m not taking deep breaths, but I actually don’t know how to take deep breaths right now. And being quiet and being present with my thoughts actually feels impossible. Or like I don’t know where to start, like I don’t know what to do. They come, so–
D: Well, and I concur because there are times where I’m so ramped up that Becky and I have to take a walk. But what she’s so wise to do is when we’re particularly in a place that has beauty and goodness, particularly in a forest setting, she’ll say, I need to stop and sit down for a minute. And I’m like, no, no, let’s keep going. She sits and like all right, I’ll sit. But even in one minute, I can begin to feel in my body what I wouldn’t be feeling if I were walking. So if you can’t sit, then walk. But as you’re walking, as you begin to– I mean walking slowly, not fast, not for exercise, but you’re going to begin to come down a bit, and when you do, can you take the next step? And that is perhaps walk a little slower, and then come to a point we just stand and then maybe from that sit. So in other words, there has to be an elemental progression of faithfulness to the small and then to the next step as you put it so well, at least your husband has put it so well. So part of the category here is can we begin to feel in our body? Listen to where we feel tension, where we feel fear, loss, anger, rage. And it’s pretty uncommon for us to feel all those emotions in one particular part of our body. I’m not going to say it can’t happen, but I feel fear in my neck. I feel grief in my lungs. I can feel rage in my hands and my calves. So where in your body are you beginning to metabolize all that’s stirring? Swirling is a better word in the middle of trauma. And your ability to attune to that literally begins to change the parasympathetic process so that there is a slowness. But again, there may be heightened arousal because you’re beginning to feel things you don’t want to feel. Now you’re ramped up. Can you come back and walk? At least until you come to a point where there’s a little bit more of a setting. So what we’re actually beginning to invite you to is a kind of patience, a care, an openness that begins to disrupt that sympathetic fight/flight process that only adds to more allostatic load and therefore to a heightened level of debt that you are incurring. So will you tend to what you’re feeling and begin to bring maybe very fragmented language, but a word to where your body is experiencing that wide array of feeling.
R: Yeah, it’s interesting, Dan, like, even as you’re talking and I know all these things like we teach this, we talk about this. We do this labor. It’s like it is. I feel it myself. Well, then what am I supposed to do? I get in touch with all the things I feel like I already kind of know. But then I’m more aware, so then it does feel like it might increase the panic or the sense of powerlessness, because how am I supposed to tend to it all? What resources do I have? What do I do when I’m in a context where everyone else needs the same amount of care and so we’re kind of starting at a deficit together? You know, it’s like I could see how that can feel almost like, counterintuitive. Why would I do that? Because then I might feel worse.
D: I almost want to say you will feel worse. Because the ability to step out of that numbness, where you’re beginning to actually take some level of control over your body doesn’t feel good at not at least certainly not at first. And that’s where we come back to this notion of: As you become more attuned, you better know how to breathe. And I remember saying to somebody in my fifties when we began talking about this, and I said, I’ve been breathing for about six decades now I think I got a pretty good clue. And the guy said, no, look how shallow your breathing is right now. So what I’m saying is, as you tune in through interception, you have to begin the process of knowing you’re going to feel activated, and in that activation, I need to breathe and again, we’re not going to do it. Visually, you can’t see me, but you can take in breath in three seconds. Three or four seconds kind of account of one, two, three, four, particularly through your nostrils. And then you can hold it. Not like you’re going underwater, but don’t breathe out quickly in account of two, three and then to breathe out slowly through your mouth. One, two, three, four. Look, this was a process that occurred for me after I came back, I said last week about the garage and coming back in going, what was I in the garage for? And when Becky said, did you get it? I just felt panic like What’s going on? Thank goodness. What she looked at me and said was: breathe, and I took it seriously and I went do it immediately. But I sat down and I went through this process three or four seconds in breathing, holding, breathing out. And I did it about five rounds, and what I began to feel was just a little bit of calm. So what we’re asking in the middle of trauma is if you’re not creating times like this, particularly when you’re overwhelmed but other, we’re going to give other directives here. But it’s so basic that I fear that many of us are not doing the very simple things that can lower our parasympathetic system.
R: Yeah, I think I would just add a caveat here. I don’t think we have to talk long about it. But as someone who has had seasons where my anxiety is to the point that no amount of breathing is actually going to help, because I can’t breathe, I can’t get the breath in. I think I would just say: if it’s not clear we are very pro-therapy, and we also are very pro you getting help from medical professionals for sometimes needing extra support to manage your biochemicals when they get really disordered and really out of whack, because everything around you is really disordered and really out of whack. So that’s just kind of my little side note disclaimer as we continue this conversation. For those of you who maybe find yourselves on the spectrum somewhere where you are trying all the things and they’re not helping, that it’s also okay to ask for more help to ask for help and support that can come alongside of you either medically, therapeutically, spiritually, all across the board. So I just hope you hear we also really support people being discerning around when even the best tools in your tool kit aren’t sufficient. And there is no judgment and there is no condemnation because again, we’re in the realm of our bodies and our bodies are speaking to us. And I remember a medical doctor told me once if you had diabetes, would you take insulin? And I was like, yes, I would no question like, you know, science has helped me understand we get to have support for our bodies where there’s a breakdown. So again, it just felt like I just want to give that little pastoral nudge for those of you who might find yourself in context where you will try to overcome on your own. And you might need to reach out and pursue some extra support in this season. And that would be a very good faithful honoring thing.
D: No, it’s so well said. And just to add again the things we’re talking about work, but they don’t always work and we need allies. Not only people, but other processes and maybe biochemical help in terms of helping the uptake of serotonin through what’s called an SSRI or an antidepressant. So when we’re inviting you to this process, we really are assuming that you know extremity. But when extremity is added to extremity onto extremity, these are still true. But there better be other adjunctive, aids and helps. But let me step in further to say that, okay, when there is ownership through interception, when there’s at least some response of your body lowering what else? it’s kind of like, and so we’re gonna mention a number of things. But again, I want to remind you of what Rachel said. Sometimes you can’t do these, and yet knowing they’re there, you can come to them at some point. But not at all points. Don’t judge yourself for not being able to do one thing, let alone all the things that we’re recommending. So one of the things I would say is this season particularly, you’ve gotta dump burdens that you are not required to carry. Another way of saying that, you’ve got to set boundaries about what you can carry and what you can. I’m reminded of through hikers who begin the Appalachian Trail. and the average, they say, is the average person who begins to hike The Appalachian Trail was carrying about 36 lbs on their back. By the time they have made about 50 miles, they’re down to 22 lbs. Well, that’s a lot of material to dump. But what they have come to know is you can’t do this hike carrying 30-35 lbs. You will have to get rid of things that are valuable that are important. And that actually would create some level of ease in your life if you’re going to make it through heightened periods of trauma, and that just requires the ability to sit back and go. I love this chair. I don’t want to sit on a rock, but I also don’t want to carry it. What are the burdens today that are not in the red zone but might be in the yellow or lesser zone, and sometimes it really requires me to make a list, and you’re going to hear me say this quite a bit. Because I fragment and I can’t think well, I have to have an ally called a piece of paper, a pad of paper, or my recently purchased little I don’t know what to call it electronic thing called, a remarkable, all that to say I need to make lists. I need to have categories right in front of me because I can’t think simply and clearly so being able to go, what do I think I need to do today and then what? Four or five things out of that list? Can I say, I’d love to have the energy. I’d love to have the ability, but they’re not my top priority and they likely won’t get done. And can I actually let myself double up on containment? In a way in which I’m not carrying what I know at this season, I cannot carry
R: I think that can be really hard for those of us who are fiercely loyal and used to being able to carry, even like those of us who would hear Dan say, you know, most people go down to 22 you already know somewhere in your bones you’re like, yeah, but I could do the 36 I think, especially for those of us who might be more in that category of how we have coped with certain things of life that can feel really hard because it can feel scary. Like things are really bad if I can’t do that. And I think just giving yourself the permission to say this is the particular season and it may not feel that way for everyone. And again, that’s why we are in community and why we share our resources when maybe we have a little bit more to give. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But, yeah, just what are some of the things that, you know, someday you might be able to pick back up, but today you need to set them down and to trust that provision will come. Maybe not always in the ways that we think, but it’s a good faithful act to be able to say what not only is realistic for me to carry in this season, but what would actually be kind and honoring for me to carry in this season?
D: And it disrupts perfectionism. I mean again, that interplay between loyalty and perfectionism of I have to do this because this is who I am. Right there is a threat to our identity. So the traumas outside of us are opening up a threat to our identity, and it’s going to have to be negotiated, renegotiated, given what I can and cannot do. And I said to a dear friend of mine the other day, look, I’d love to interact with you more, but I’ve got 15 minutes of energy. I actually have more time, but I have about 15 minutes of energy. Is that enough? And he said no. And I said I know! So what? Where are we? Just being able to have those kinds of hard conversations opens up the possibility of honoring not only our body but honoring the relationships around us, being able to set limits? And I know this is a I think it’s one of the worst swear words that we all feel in our body. And that’s the word no. To actually say to. People know I could be there, but that would require more than I’m able to offer at this point no and to and to tie it not to. I’m too busy or no, I just can’t. But no, this is what I’m able to bring today, but I cannot guarantee what I can do tomorrow. That’s deeply disruptive of, in many ways, my at least idolatry. As to what I perceive, I should do what I can do, what’s required of me. In that sense, we’re beginning to deal with a lot of thought, an ideal disintegration. In other words, executive functioning, as we have underscored many times, is deeply affected by trauma. And as I mentioned before, I carry a notebook around if I have an idea, yeah, it’s there, but more along the lines of oh, I need to get X. I would need to remember what– we need allies and what allies are you using? And I’m grateful. Oh, my gosh. Grateful that my wife seems to be less memory affected by this period of trauma than I seem to be so relying upon her. And shall we say you, Rachael, as how many times have I said to you, did you send me that email? Just to be again blunt and to say I know that’s frustrating to you, but I have not faced, shall we say, judgment from you. Given the reality that you probably know that you send it once and you’re probably gonna send it a second time. And today, however, I was on it for the first time. So even to be able to go, I’m going to celebrate that. And I’m not going to turn against myself for needing a bit more help. Or maybe a lot more help than I might have six months ago or a year ago.
R: Mhm. Yeah. And I think just that sense of again. We’re talking about the same things with different language. Disintegration, having boundaries. Accepting that you can’t carry all the things that you’re executive functioning isn’t going to be as sharp, that you’re depleted. The reserves are gone. It’s not even that they’re low, it’s that they’re gone. And I won’t put that on everyone again. If you find that you do have some reserves by the grace of God in this season, you know, it’s where how can we tell the truth so that the people who can say you know what? I feel like I can keep carrying this in this particular moment, can. And have that option in that choice but putting off or letting go of what doesn’t feel crucial right now is a really kind, faithful act. I also, you know, I think I just want to name this always. You know, obviously, the need is far greater than any one of us can meet, and far greater right now, it feels like that even when we come together in community, we can meet. And we are in the realm of the fishes and the loaves and the mustard seed and sometimes that’s the greatest act of hope in the greatest act of faith. So what can you– I know for myself I have a basket full of self care and body care things. An acupressure mat, a neck roller, a foam roller, a jump rope, a back scratcher, a neck warmer. Like all the things I’ve collected a yoga mat. How many of them have I used in this season? Almost zero, and I cognitively know better. The one thing I have been able to consistently try to do is to go on walks, and I think even with those of us who maybe do have a more robust imagination for care. I don’t even live. I live in a city that is not necessarily accessible to just go outside and see, like mountains and trees and water, that used to bring a lot of restoration. But I can go for a walk. And sometimes, like today, our walk is like we only have enough time in between meetings to walk to the coffee shop, get a bagel, come back home. Is it what I most long for? No. Is that what my body most needs? No. If I let myself take it, though, does it really actually go such a long distance? It does. So what are some of the ways? What are the foods? Culturally, traditionally, and your family and your body that bring you a lot of delight. Who are the people? Maybe you don’t have the bandwidth to make a Zoom call with all the people you want to set up a social time with. Because we all know we’re sick of being on Zoom. Who’s one person that it would bring your heart deep delight to be able to connect with. Can you set aside the desire to connect with everyone and then be like, well, I just won’t do with anyone because I don’t have the energy or nobody has the time or nobody’s available or everyone who’s like the one person because, I think we are in a moment where being faithful to do the one thing when we long to do the 70 things is some of the greatest work right now, because it does. It means we have to grieve. It means we have to feel some of the reality of what we’re in, and there is such goodness in saying yes to the one thing, whether it’s taking a bath, whether it’s playing a game with your kids when you’re exhausted. But you know they’ll laugh and there will be something about having a moment of brevity, you know, there’s just I could– there’s just not It’s not an easy time, and I think some of the ways we sabotage– and that’s a word we want to talk about is like, not sabotaging, not creating more trauma by knowing you have thin margins. So, like, this is not the time to try to have a really serious conversation with your spouse about this, you know, thematic thing you guys have been dealing with for 20 years. Like probably in the moment when you’re depleted and you have very little margin and you’re kind of a fight, flight or freeze. And you’re looking for a fight. Can you make a different choice? And I think this is a season where we’re really prone to sabotage because it gives us a momentary sense of relief. Like, see? What’s the point of trying anyway? I know one of the ways I’ve been sabotaging is I actually do have some care to give people, but I’m looking at all this global need, and I’m someone who’s trying to look at the big picture and taking in all the energy and trying to make sense of it. And then I go, you know what? It’s just too big. I can’t do anything. And then I feel completely overwhelmed and powerless, and I check out. So trying to go, what some of the noise I need to step away from so that I can actually tend to the people in my real life who need care that I actually have some care to offer. So I think part of the tending to our bodies in this season is actually being very discerning about what we’re taking in now. I’m not talking about choosing comfort over discomfort in some of the places we need to grow and be challenged. I’m talking about when you actually overload yourself in order to let yourself out. That’s a form of sabotage that’s actually going to increase the trauma in this particular season. And this is more my confession than like telling anybody else what they should do.
D: No. Amen. And again, when I think of sabotage because I have a long history of addiction. Could be alcohol, could be all forms of adding more work onto my shoulders. But the bottom line is, it’s much harder to just say, what can I do in this short period of time? That will not be enough. I know it won’t be enough, but it’s enough for the moment. To just take five minutes and go outside and feel the wind. Obviously, I live in a very rainy place, but I’ve got rain gear to go outside when it’s raining for five minutes and sit in my rain gear and feel the reality of the cool, the cold, the wind. So the things that we can do feel not enough. But in that, I am so prone to sabotage and to say, well, it’s not gonna be enough. Why bother? Do you see I’m rejoining powerlessness versus creating a very small but intentional reengagement with what I do have some sense of influence and effectance so over. I can walk for five minutes. Oh, but that’s not enough. Yeah, well, it’s better than flipping through 30 different Internet sites in a matter of 10 minutes. Will you begin to honor? I think we’ve maybe said this to a point of ad nauseam. Will you honor the small, in order for the large to In one sense come back over a season? And that is the promise of the resurrection. It actually is the promise that we will not be, in the particular calamities that we’re in, so we’ll be in different ones, but we’ll also know rescue and restoration. but can we wait, but intentionally engage? That opens the possibility that this sabotage, this depletion. This fragmentation no longer has an ultimate power over us. I think that will make the kind of change where, at least from last week, to here being able to sit outside for five minutes. Um, it was a sweet little gift and a reminder that it is good. It is good to be alive. And I want this season for many, many of us to be to be finished, to be at least largely finished. But knowing it won’t be, uh, it can’t continue to ramp up my sympathetic system to a point where my allostatic load leads to illness. Disintegration even more relational e um, there has to be a hell no. Hell no. I will not continue heaven. Yes, let me take in what can be taken.
You’ve heard us talk often about trauma and the body. And we’ve got two colleagues who are about to take you into some of the significant complications that come to our body as a result of trauma.
So on April 10th, the Allender Center will be hosting an event called Trauma and the Body, that will be hosted by Abby Wong-Hefter and Jenny McGrath. Abby Wong-Hefter is a brilliant therapist and teacher and specialist in the impact of trauma and the body, and Jenny McGrath is a specialist in somatic healing, she’s a therapist, a dancer, a yoga instructor, and I think the two of them are going to bring some incredible resources. Especially for giving weight to those quieter things we’ve been talking about that you might deem “not as bad” as what other people have suffered, but you know things are manifesting. You can also get CEUs, for those of you who are needing CEU credits. So if this is something you would be interested in, you can find more information at theallendercenter.org. You’ll see all the details about pricing, how to register… check it out!