Let's Talk: Trauma & Brain Health during a Pandemic
The Fall welcomes the harvest and ushers in the “dark time of the year”. Yesterday we celebrated Halloween and the beginning of the Day of the Dead. Both holidays stem from All Hallows Day, a Catholic holiday. Thousands of years of history are filled with lore about saints, spirits, monsters, and ghouls. It is interesting to ponder why so many people like these scary images and consume frightening & violent entertainment (Squid game anyone)?
Not only do you get an adrenaline rush from fear, watching macabre movies can trigger a very real fight-or-flight response. Krista Jordan, PhD, says “the brain doesn’t always distinguish between fantasy and reality completely effectively.” The brain initiates a physiological reaction flooding the body with endorphins and dopamine, increasing the heart rate and fear arousal – similar indicators of a trauma response. In this case, you’re terrified but you’re not in any actual danger.
Pre-pandemic, it was estimated that approximately 50% of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. I expect that number is much higher now.
The yogic theory of samskaras, or subliminal impressions of past painful experiences, is laid down in our psyche. When we are unable to fully “digest” a given experience, part of the energy of that experience is deposited in the subtle body, the Luminescent Energy Field (LEF).
As known in ancient healing traditions, the LEF surrounds our physical body and within it is stored the blueprint of our thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions, and all of the experiences we have had in our lives. Trauma, injury, conflict, crisis, stress, and unhealthy repetitive patterns are all imprinted into this bio-field. Over time, these can manifest as physical tension and pain, emotional stress, illness, and dis-ease.
Trauma is an emotional response to an event that creates long lasting pain or distress which in turn can impact our ability to cope or function. “Big T” trauma is the type of trauma that is associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute trauma that comes from a singular traumatic event such as natural disasters, violence, and life-threatening events.
“Little T” trauma is caused by ongoing distress that has exceeded our ability to cope or disrupts our emotional functioning in cases such as emotional abuse, divorce, bullying, harassment, and non-life-threatening injuries. Because of the repeated exposure, Little Ts can actually cause more emotional harm and yet they are often overlooked.
For example, I attended a training with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, where he talked about how the military defines the word and the term PTSD. However, 30 kids are traumatized at home to 1 soldier with PTSD.PTSD was a label for adults. The bigger issue is with children & childhood trauma. Children are even more susceptible to the impact of traumatic stress because their brains are still developing. As many as ¼ of the nation’s 80 million children have been victimized by trauma. If you are a parent of a victim of trauma, you will love the resources from my friend Suzy, founder of Trauma Informed Parent.
Indigenous people have known about the occurrence of the loss of vital essence (prana, chi, qi) for millennia, and understand it as the result of an inner fragmentation caused by a traumatic experience. At the moment of a painful experience, a part of the soul exits or fragments and leaves the body to survive the full blow of the trauma. It takes fight or flight to a new level. It's the body's way of protecting itself from suffering and pain; it’s part of our survival mechanism.
What the yogis call a samskara, the shamans call Soul Loss (susto). Susto is used to describe what happens in trauma. It translates to fight paralysis and also soul loss. It can happen due to a car accident, surgery, near death experience, a loved one's death, psychological factors, or a frightening childhood experience. This loss creates damage to your energy body and your spirit.
Everyone carries around a host of samskaras from this lifetime. And those impressions, “scars”, function as a filter to reality. There can be personal trauma as well as generational collective trauma (concentration camps, terrorist attacks, war, and pandemics). The effects of soul loss can last a lifetime, and beyond.
Trauma not resolved in a person’s past life (since the subtle body does not die with the physical one) can also be held in the body and energetic body through cellular memory. Past life samskaras are said to explain phobias that don’t stem from the current life experience.
In addition, generations can pass on trauma at the cellular level, samskaric baggage – you can literally inherit genetically stored trauma. (But epigenetics is for another musing!)
Trauma in the person, decontextualized over time can look like personality. Trauma in a family, decontextualized over time, can look like family traits. Trauma in a people, decontextualized over time, can look like culture.” ~ Resmaa Menakem
What is traumatic for one person may not be for another. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways.
Trauma and the Brain
When we experience a traumatic event, our mind protects us by stepping back (disassociation) in order to survive pain. Dissociation is a separation of the elements of the traumatic experience, which reduces the impact of the experience; it’s a good thing. The fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is not a conscious choice, it’s a biological reaction. Dissociation protects us from being overwhelmed by escalating arousal, fear and pain. Nature’s internal opium, the endorphins, soften the pain, enabling the person to endure what is too much to cope with.
Trauma is a story. The frontal lobe tells stories…and lies! Trauma literally takes parts of the brain off-line. Leaving the “cockroach” in charge. This primitive part of the brain cannot translate language and understanding (talk therapy). Traumatic memories stay “stuck” in the deep brain where they are not accessible to the frontal lobe – the understanding, thinking, reasoning parts of the brain. Reliving the trauma is useless.
“You are much larger than what has happened to you”. – Brian Seth Hurst
Traumatic memories are stored differently than normal memories. People who suffer from PTSD relive painful events as emotional memories throughout their lives, even though the emotional or physical experience occurred long ago. This is because time and clocks don’t exist for the limbic brain. Trauma changes your brain, so you lose your sense of time. Trauma freezes thinking. Memories remain trapped in an “unfinished” state of undischarged energy where time has no meaning.
Remember Dr. Christine Blasey Ford? Her sexual assault as a teenager was triggered during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. That’s trauma time. Her brain was ready to finish the trauma 36 years later.
In the book In an Unspoken Voice by Dr. Peter Levine, he describes his “experience of stepping out into a crosswalk and the next moment being paralyzed and numb” (pages 213-221). He weaves his years of studying the effects of trauma into his personal experience of being hit by a car. Including descriptions of abrupt shudders passing through his body giving way to softer trembling. This is an involuntary defensive response that allows the nervous system to discharge and “reset”.
The Way of Wellness – Somatics & Neuroplasticity
Shamanic healing practices are diverse and may include journeying, the use of plant medicine, drumming, rattling, dancing, and soul retrievals. Often through our shamanic work, we are able to tap into these memories to release them. That’s also why we do soul retrievals, to put the pieces or fragments of ourselves back together – to re-member.
According to don Oscar Miro-Quesada, Journeying is “the ability to contemplate alternate modes of awareness, non-ordinary states of consciousness as places that are worthy of inhabiting and deriving guidance and valuable wisdom from.” We journey back to observe the original event. Often it comes in the form of a story that offers us insights. This way we can change our emotional and physiological response to it. In doing so, we can re-route the neural pathways in the brain.
There have been numerous studies on altered states of consciousness that can shed light on the brain networks. Indigenous tribes believe the natural world has 2 aspects: ordinary everyday awareness and non-ordinary awareness. The shamanic state of consciousness (journeying) involves a shift from ordinary time to non-ordinary time to engage with the spirit realm to receive information and healing. You can read more about how the brain changes during a shamanic trance in this case history.
Emotional trauma effects the whole network. Dr. Joe Tafur talks about Neurogenic inflammation as unresolved emotional process. The indigenous look at health as a “connected” framework. They believe we can learn from the different plant spirits. These medicinal plants are nature’s pharmacy. And plant medicine does help with emotional healing.
On 2 of my trips to Peru, I participated in several plant medicine ceremonies with the San Pedro cactus, which is a mescaline-based plant ally and with Ayahuasca, which is made from Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of the chacruna planet (psychotria viridis). It is important to set an intention when working with plant medicine to commune with the spirit of the plant.
Served as a tea, both are used to treat a variety of issues and trauma-related conditions. Aya is not for everyone. Having never experimented with “drugs”, I was so anxious that I almost backed out the night before. I set my intention to release any and all samskaras across my family lines as well as past lives for the highest good of all. I did this to clear myself and my ancestors of generational trauma but most importantly to clear my children of any karmic baggage; that’s what kept me focused.
Our curanderos’ wife began singing icaros, the songs that accompany sacred plant healing ceremonies calling in our spirit helpers and serve as our connection to the plant’s medicine. Icaros are similar to yogic mantras. These musical prayers kept me grounded in this experience and are said to have a big impact on physical & psychological experience.
While I did not have the psychedelic visionary experience most people describe, I did experience the medicine viscerally in my body. At first, it was the sensation of a snake slithering through my blood vessels. Then it came as a very strong somatic response that I call “Trauma Tremors”.
Somatic Experiencing was developed by Dr. Peter Levine following his observation that animals in the wild do not get traumatized even though they are faced with life threatening situations daily. He began to ask why humans are so susceptible to the devastating effects of trauma. In animals when they come out of freeze, the energy is drained off by running to escape or by the rhythmic waves of muscle contractions (trauma tremor). Here is a very informative video of how a polar bear experienced trauma. This doesn’t happen in humans every time. Somatic Experiencing works to resolve the incomplete motor plans. Just like rebooting your computer to get it back up to speed.
During the ayahuasca ceremony, I felt like every tremor was a trauma imploding in my LEF, this life and others. Just when I thought they were done, they came back full force. They kept coming wave after wave for 4 hours. The plant medicine was gentle with my mind but not so much on my body. The tremors continued all through the night. And I got to do it all again the next evening too. No visuals, no sleep, each contraction an energetic discharge. My body already sore from last night’s shaking.
Some of the release was from a past lifetime where I was a powerful leader with an army. I was very protective of the soldiers. I had to make a decision to go to war and in doing so caused many to die. With every shake, every tremor, an energetic scar releasing, each one was someone I felt responsible for.
This phenomenon of Soul Loss is arising in all people of all ages, genders, races, and backgrounds. It’s happening globally – a collective initiation to help us remember that we are not just children of the Earth but also children of the Cosmos.
The purpose of these shamanic initiations is to experience a death, a rebirth, and an integration of that understanding that results in a different level of awareness. We all go through different types of initiations but they are really about taking us out of that egoic state of consciousness so we can evolve into our infinite divinity.
Trauma to Transformation
Trauma shrinks the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, taking it offline. Good news is that neuroplasticity can increase the size again. Just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can also change in response to your future experiences. The brain is “plastic”, and you can change it. Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time.
With unresolved trauma, the body wants to keep coming back to it in an effort to heal it. Tuning into physical sensation creates the space for our bodies to reconnect with our innate healing response. It’s important to let the body gently & slowly follow what the nervous system is trying to do rather than override it.
If we do not have the tools to resolve the trauma, our body will store that chemical in the tissue of a specific organ. Unresolved emotional trauma creates “issues in our tissues”. Every emotion has a “signature” in the body; it’s called Emotional Anatomy. For example, the psoas muscle is often called the “fight or flight” muscle. It tenses during traumatic and stressful experiences and holds an incredible amount of emotional energy. If at some point that trauma has not been resolved, then it’s not uncommon for the tissue to let you know that that trauma needs to be addressed. This is a very different way of thinking about dis-ease.
It’s been a traumatic year and a half, with daily assaults on our country, our people, our earth. And as if the pandemic was not scary enough…we’re clearing childhood shit, ancestral shit, and past life shit so we can shi(f)t. We are individually and collectively clearing the entire planet’s old paradigm. This is why you’re tired. This is also causing a great deal of anxiety, panic (not feeling safe), and fear. We’re transcending, moving, healing, an entire frequency on this planet that has been here since the dawn of humanity.
Jeremy Hunter offers 3 options or skills you can develop to meet these challenges. There is no right answer, it’s your choice:
· Transform (change this painful moment into transformation)
· Cope (temporary solution)
· Collapse (give up)
Ask yourself: How do we come out better, stronger, more capable than we were when we came into this pandemic? How do you increase your capacity to be with discomfort? How do you hone your coping strategies? In the aftermath of trauma, are you able to think of your life as consistently immersed in blessing? How do you become an island of calm & center in a sea of chaos?
“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times,
if one only remembers to turn on the light.” ~ J.K.Rowling
We need to own our part in what’s happening here. If you’re looking for answers, you need to look within. We are being called as a Light Warrior. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Here are some Light Weapons to help you transform and activate your Light Warrior Energy:
Meditation & Mindfulness Techniques
I’ve mentioned in several past musings about Transfiguration (working with the White Light). Research shows how important and effective mindfulness and meditation can be for greater brain health as well as emotional and physical well-being in daily life. Meditators have a thicker cerebral cortex (higher-order brain functions) and a larger hippocampus (memory, learning & emotion) than non-meditators.
Adding body-based or mindfulness-based techniques help begin deactivating the fear center. This is a vital first step to healing. Dr. Van der Kolk says, “Yoga is a kickass way to deal with PTSD and access the base brain.” Yoga is a somatic therapy that helps free up locked tension and trauma from the body as well as restore balance in your Nervous System. Yoga and similar body-based movement also increases neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons (brain cells) are formed in the brain thereby affecting your brain’s ability to change and adapt (neuroplasticity). I teach Mon, Wed & Thurs evenings with live stream zoom option.
Breath is powerful. You don’t have to think about breathing because your body’s autonomic nervous system controls it. However, it’s the one thing we can control, and breath keeps you in the present moment. Shallow breathing and holding your breath are “fight or flight” trauma responses. Using breathing techniques can help regulate the state of mind to a state of calm. Holotropic breathwork or Kapalabhati yogic breathing allows for profound and introspective experiences.
Cleansing, Clearing & Raising your Vibration
Routinely smudging with sage or palo santo. Just like you brush your teeth daily, you need to cleanse your LEF and the spaces you spend the most time in.
Work with sacred geometry such as the Merkaba meditation to contain your prana and strengthen your immune system. It’s a great vehicle for transformation.
Vibrational intention. Love & Above is your ideal state of reality on this planet. Manifest the world you want to live in by following the Scale of Consciousness.
Soul Retrieval is another one of the most beautiful shamanic healing techniques. It is a way to transform trauma and restore energetic balance and vital energy that’s been lost due to those painful events.
Cord Cutting to sever any negative attachments that drain your energy. Cords are energetic attachments to your aura that bind you or connect you with a person, object, or situation. It’s time to take back your power!
Many people are feeling sad, stressed, and scared. We are being called – trained - to be kinder, more gentle, more compassionate with ourselves and others. We are being called to breathe and come into the moment, right here and now, to see the beauty and magic that is life.