There is mounting research showing the massive effect on our health of a well-balanced psychosocial ecosystem. A psychosocial ecosystem includes things like our roles, our social connections, and our daily routines. If we are feeling stress or imbalance in any of these areas, it hampers healing, especially of chronic conditions. Let’s look at these three areas and how they impact our health and bodymind.
Our roles are the “parts” we play in our lives. If you think about the credits at the end of a movie where it says “mother” or “bank teller” and then lists the actors’ names, this is like the roles we play in our lives. We all have multiple roles, like “friend”, “daughter”, “co-worker”, “employee”, “crafter”, “film buff” and many more. Each of these roles brings some sort of meaning to our lives and each of them is fulfilling in a different way (some more than others!) The key is to look at where the stress lies. Which of these roles are stressful? Are there any of these roles that we simply hate? If there are roles that are causing you stress or unhappiness, then it’s important to look at how to modify them or get rid of them all together. For example, if being a “daughter” is stressful because your parents are toxic, how can you lessen the time and energy you spend on being with them? How do you lessen the role of “daughter”? However, if a role brings you calm and joy, then look at how you can increase that role in your life. For example, if your favorite part of your job is being a “co-worker”, how can you increase opportunities to interact with others at work?
Social connections are the people we have in our life. This could be family, friends, co-workers, pickleball buddies, online gaming friends, or our favorite waiter at that restaurant we go to – anyone who you know and have some sort of connection to. It’s been shown many times over that the quantity AND quality of these connections is incredibly important for our health. So, even if you don’t feel like you have a ton of good quality relationships right now, you can start chatting with folks at the dog park or in line at the store and even that will have beneficial effects, as the quantity and quality of social interactions are both health-promoting. When you make that connection with another person, even a short interaction, it starts a cascade of healing chemicals in your body that positively affect your nervous system, immune system, mood, and more.
Our bodyminds love routines because they love familiar things. We love to feel the calm predictability of something that we know is going to work out in the same way it did before. Bonus points if we know it’s something that will make us happy or fulfilled. Routines can range from where we drink our morning coffee or tea to what aisles we go down first in the supermarket to our daily yoga or meditation practice. When our routines get thrown off, we often become stressed because we don’t know exactly how things will unfold. So take a look at your daily routines at home and at work. Which ones bring you joy? What is it about them that makes you happy? Can you bring more of that into your life? And if there’s some part of your day that seems to feel chaotic or unpredictable, can you bring a routine to it so that it feels more predictable (and therefore less stressful)?
Where can you make some changes to your roles, social connectivity and routines in your life? Remember to start small and build from there, even small changes can make a big difference over time and we only start making bigger changes by starting small, getting positive feedback, and then wanting more.
What one thing can you change today?
Earlier this week, a video made the rounds on TikTok of Lillie, a 13-year-old getting arrested at an abortion rights protest because she used a megaphone and violated a noise ordinance. The video made a splash not only for the fact the police are arresting 13-year-olds for protesting (Hello, first amendment right to assemble and protest?!) but for Lillie’s mom who was filming and can be heard in the background.
As Lillie’s being taken into custody, we can hear her mom, Lauren, who is following just behind her say, “Lillie don’t resist honey, it’s okay. I got ya. Lillie, you’re okay bug. I got you. Mom’s right behind you!!”
So many of the comments on the video talked about Lauren’s words of support:
The “I’m right behind you” is what broke me 😭😭😭
If that isn’t the most public display of MOM I’ve ever seen. Way to go momma.
The pride in mamas voice and the “I’m right behind you!” Oh my gods 😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭 STAY STRONG BABYYYYYYYY!!! 💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾
“Just don’t resist” “I’m right behind you” wrecked me 😭😭😓
And I have to admit, this video broke me, too. I’ve watched it a bunch of times in preparation for writing this post and I still find myself in tears each time I watch.
So, what’s going on here?
I’m crying not because she was arrested (in fact, that makes me angry, not sad) it’s the idea of having a mom who would be so supportive and say such reassuring, loving things in a time of crisis.
I never had that, and I know a lot of you never had that too.
I know for me, when I see scenes of moms being loving, kind and supportive, there’s a part of me that’s reminded of my loss. It’s grief for the emotional nutrients I know I needed, but never got. Just like a starving person might break down at the sight of an all-you-can-eat buffet, those of us who had emotional neglect or abuse will also break down at the sight of emotional sustenance.
However, my friends, there’s a way to turn that grief into a powerful tool for healing.
When I see something like this that “breaks me” and find myself crying big time, that’s a signal. It’s a sign – here’s an emotional nutrient that I really need.
This is what I do when I see examples of loving parenting and it makes me cry:
- Sit with the sadness. This is another chance for grief to come up and be acknowledged, so let it come and meet it with tenderness and validation.
- Recognize that this type of emotional care is something you need. Be grateful that you found this out, because now you can give yourself this exact, wonderful type of care.
- Internalize this voice of support. I talk about this in my post on your inner caregiver if you need more info on how to do this. For me, the line, “Mom’s right behind you!!” especially with Lauren’s tone and emotionality was the thing that really hit me hard. I’m adding this to my repertoire of supportive messages and Lillie’s mom is now another one of my inner moms, I can hear her voice saying just this, right when I’m going through something scary and hard.
Once you’ve gathered a few of these inner caregiver voices, they act as powerful tools to use when times are tough. Or even when they’re not, I know we all need to hear “Mom’s right behind you!!” as we go about our lives, because adulting is hard, amiright?
I’ve been outlining the chapter in my book on mindfulness and self-acceptance (Did I mention I’m writing a book?!) and it occurred to me that many people have the wrong idea of what acceptance and self-acceptance really mean.
I hear people say all the time, “I should love myself more” or “I should just accept my job/relationship/life and be grateful for what I have.”
That is not the right way to do acceptance.
Any thought about your life that starts with “I should” or “I need to” isn’t self-acceptance, it’s self-abandonment. It’s pushing aside your own feelings, desires and intuition for the sake of trying to be happier.
Let me suggest another way.
Acceptance (or self-acceptance) is when we accept or notice what’s coming up for us right now, without creating a story about how it should or shouldn’t be. It’s also accepting what comes up without any ideas of how or why it should be any different.
It’s like a combination of noticing, acceptance and embodying. It’s thinking, “This is what’s happening right now” with no further commentary or evaluation, just embodying the feeling, sensation or thought that’s coming up and being in it.
Here’s an example:
Many women I know (and some men) don’t like the look of their bodies for one reason or another. I’ve heard so many well-meaning people talk about body acceptance as learning to love your body just as it is. While I don’t disagree with this in theory, if we try to jump straight from “I don’t like my body” to “I accept my body as it is” we’re going to be bypassing a lot of important feelings and thoughts for the sake of how we “should” think about our body.
Here’s what I propose instead. When you have a thought or a feeling along the lines of, “I don’t like my body” just notice that you are thinking that. That thought isn’t bad, or wrong, nor should it be any different. Simply notice and accept, “I am having a negative thought about my body.”
When you’re able to have a thought like that without a judgment that you should be thinking something different or feeling another way about your body, when you are able to be who you are right now, without any judgment that you should be thinking any other way than you are, it opens the portal for true healing.
Not bypassing healing or “should” healing, but real healing. Compassionate healing.
When I think the thought, “I don’t like my body” and accept that I am feeling shame, I then can tend to and care for that part of me that feels bad. I don’t need to change it, I just need to care for it. I can sense into what I need to hear to comfort myself in that moment and say the exact right thing to myself. I can say, “Well of course you don’t like your body, Megan, there’s a billion dollar ‘beauty’ industry and a whole patriarchal culture invested in you feeling unworthy. They lie. They make money and retain power off of those lies. You are amazing and your beauty is so much more than the shape of your body. Anyone worth their salt will see that, and you should, too.” (That’s just what I needed to hear in that moment — your version of comfort and validation will sound different. But feel free to steal mine if that works for you!)
In that moment, I start to genuinely feel better about my body. It’s not bypassing or platitudes, it’s a genuine shift in what I think about not only my body, but the world my body exists in.
I’m not accepting my body, I’m accepting the thoughts about my body and through that acceptance, I can find what I need to think or hear to heal that shame I feel.
Let me give you another example. I recently moved to a new city where I don’t know many people. It takes time to develop friendships and create routines and I’m still in that process. Even though I know that’s true, I still feel lonely sometimes. This week I had a friend visit for a few days and after they left, I found myself alone in my apartment and my feelings of loneliness got intense. Rather than try to change it or think of all the good things about my new situation in this place I’ve wanted to move to for years, I simply accepted the feelings of loneliness.
“Okay, I’m lonely.”
I sat with the loneliness for a while. I observed it, noticed what it felt like in my body, where it sat and where it moved to. I kept thinking, “Here I am, I’m lonely” or, “I am feeling loneliness right now” without trying to fix or change it. And eventually, I was able to bring some love and compassion to myself. I thought, “This is okay, I just moved here. This loneliness is signaling to me that I need connection, I need community. I’ll find it. It’s important to me, so I know I’ll keep making small movements towards caring for myself this way.”
In that moment of sitting with the loneliness and accepting it, my view towards it shifted. It’s not that I felt any less lonely, but I saw it as a signpost for what’s important to me — connection and community — and I then felt the peace of knowing myself and the pride of making moves towards caring for myself and meeting my vital needs.
Only after pure acceptance can we crack open the door for compassion. If we jump to judgment or a “should” statement, we leave no room for self-compassion. And the door to true healing is compassion, both for ourselves and others. So I invite you to accept what comes up for you, even if it’s not pleasant. Sit with it, don’t try to change it, and accept that you are a human being having this thought or feeling, that’s it. Pure acceptance, just being in the moment of what’s arising. After a while, you’ll sense into what you need to know from that. What message is important to heal you and bring you even closer to that beautiful state of self-knowing and self-acceptance? There’s no greater love than knowing, accepting and validating where you are, right now.
Let’s talk about what’s missing for many people as they recover from their childhood trauma. For me, doing the typical emotional and physical healing work alone was not enough. When I finally added spiritual awakening to the process, I went from being a hot mess of anxiety, depression and ill health to the more balanced, grounded version of myself that I am today. (Although I still reserve the right to be a hot mess sometimes. Hot mess is an important stage of any growth process!)
I want to outline why I think BOTH traditional modes for healing from CPTSD + spiritual awakening are important and how you can start to use each of them in your own life.
CPTSD is a collection of emotional and physical symptoms that stems from prolonged periods of stress without the ability to periodically reset to a state of safety and rest. For most people, this comes from developmental trauma during childhood. (If you’re not familiar with CPTSD, I suggest you read this post, then come back here to read on.) For many years, the focus of CPTSD treatment was only psychological, addressing the emotional and behavioral components of developmental trauma. More recently, because of things like ACE research (adverse childhood experiences) and books like The Body Keeps the Score and Waking the Tiger, we’ve started to expand the discussion of CPTSD effects to include physiological aspects, as well.
The mental-emotional effects of trauma are the most widely known and are usually where people start when they first start to heal themselves. There are many ways that the mental-emotional aspects of CPTSD can show up in our lives, but the most common are anxiety, depression, perfectionism, people-pleasing, anger outbursts, ADHD, difficulty following through, quitting things when they get too hard, a harsh inner critic, or feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy. All of these are a direct result of your particular nervous system response: fight, flight, freeze or appease and the mental patterns you created in order to protect you from your particular set of traumatic experiences. There are many ways to help heal the mental-emotional damage from CPTSD. Some of the best ways I’ve found are therapy, energy healing, coaching, meditation, self-help books, shadow work, self-compassion, plant medicine, and making friendships and other healthy relationships a priority.
The physiological effects of CPTSD can be more sneaky. Trauma and stress get trapped in the body and cause imbalances in our immune system, hormones, and other physiological processes, which eventually can lead to illness and disease. This can look like chronic fatigue, autoimmune issues, digestive issues, headaches and migraines, or even things like heart disease and cancer. There are a number of ways to address the physical aspects like yoga, TRE (trauma release exercises), forest bathing, chi gong, massage, acupuncture, vagal nerve reset, and energy healing.
Addressing our health, both physical and emotional, is vital to healing CPTSD and it’s what most experts recommend as the best way to find healing from past trauma.
But there’s a second aspect that’s just as important.
For me, my healing didn’t really get supercharged until I started on the path of spiritual awakening. Let me explain why I think spiritual awakening is the secret sauce that’s missing in current discussions of developmental trauma healing.
One of the primary reasons for all of the deleterious effects of developmental trauma is the lack of safe, consistent parents or caregivers. Whether your caregivers were dealing with addiction, were emotionally immature or distant, or had other mental health issues, the resulting trauma was the same: a stressful childhood that felt unsafe or unkind. When our primary attachment style is created in this sort of environment, we end up with dysfunctional relationships with ourselves (inner critic and bad self-esteem) and/or other people (friends, partners, bosses, etc). It’s really hard to trust yourself or other people after spending your formative years bathed in gaslighting and emotional abuse or neglect.
Spiritual awakening is the antidote to those formative, traumatic experiences. In therapy and other mental health practices, we learn that we need to move through the fear to learn how to trust the kind, caring people in our lives. But it often takes years of developing relationships with people until our inner child deems them safe enough to fully trust with our hearts and vulnerable, soft places. However, in a spiritual practice, as soon as we connect with source consciousness, we feel an immediate rush of love, acceptance, safety, and peace. This doesn’t take years to develop, it’s instantaneous. All of those feelings that we’d missed out on in our early development are there for us, ready to be experienced. When we return to our spiritual home through meditation, channeling, and plant medicine ceremonies, we’re easily able to find a model for the caregiving we never received as a child.
These experiences of being loved and cared for unconditionally by my source consciousness have healed me in ways unlike any other practice. There’s a saying that we change our views of how our world works through “time and evidence,” meaning that it takes repeated experiences over a long period of time for us to believe something is really true or has really changed. Having a spiritual practice means that anytime we want to access those healing experiences of unconditional love, we can — all we have to do is meditate! (I’m joking about that part. Nowadays all I have to do is meditate, but it took 20 years of meditation practice along with an NDE and various plant medicine ceremonies over the years, and even so I still have days where I just can’t find that spiritual bliss during meditation.)
This is why both mind-body healing and spiritual awakening practices are vitally important in finding balance and peace as we recover from developmental trauma. If you’re interested in learning more, please write to me and ask! I’d love to know what further questions you have on these practices and what I can do to support you through them.
It’s been an angry week for me (both feeling my own anger and being on the receiving end of someone else’s) and I’ve been thinking a lot about the two types of anger, healthy anger and trauma response anger. Let’s look at ‘em, shall we?
Healthy anger moves you forward in a positive way, one of my mentors even called it the most spiritual of all emotions. In the five-element cycle, anger is the Wood element and it precedes Fire, which is joy. This means that in order to get to joy, we have to go through anger first. What does this look like in real life? I’ll give you a personal example from this week. As you probably know, this week a draft of a supreme court ruling that would end access to abortion in the USA was leaked to the press. I could go on and on about why this is horrific both in terms of women’s control of their own bodies and in how this is a huge step towards the crumbling of personal freedoms in the US, but there are people who can speak to that much better than I can, so for the sake of this post, I’ll stick to talking about anger.
When I heard the news, I was furious. It felt like a slap in the face to everyone who has been working on social progress in the last 50 years. I felt an anger welling up inside me and I knew I had to take action to change this. This is the hallmark of healthy anger, it drives you to change something for the better, it makes you strive to create a world for yourself and others that contains more joy, acceptance, compassion, freedom, or understanding. This anger drives you forward to do something that is in alignment with your highest values and that makes a positive change in your world. Positive anger leads you to create positive changes that lead to better things.
Trauma anger feels very different. Earlier this week, I was on a call with a client and I sensed she was repeating a trauma response pattern (appeasing) that I had seen before, so I voiced my concern. Pretty quickly, she got angry and said she didn’t like what I was accusing her of and she felt attacked. She let me know she didn’t like being yelled at and was done talking about it. It was pretty clear this was a trauma response — I was not yelling and hadn’t attacked her at all. By the end of the call, she was able to see how her anger had been a trauma response, how it had clouded her judgment of what I’d said and how I’d said it, and process through it.
Trauma anger isn’t driving you to take action towards a better world, it’s purpose is to shut down an uncomfortable situation that reminds you of a similar, traumatic situation from your past. It could be a situation where you felt misunderstood, or like you were “bad”, or unheard, or trapped. Trauma anger is a way of derailing the conversation and making it about something else — your anger — instead of the issue at hand. It’s an escape, and works quite well to get us away from traumatic situations. But now that you’re not in a dangerous place anymore, it’s preventing you from being present with uncomfortable situations, even if you are with safe people that can give your body mind a different, safer experience and help you grow.
The way to identify trauma anger is to check in with your body and ask, “is there fear or shame beneath this anger?” (To do this, you must be familiar with what the sensations of fear and shame feel like in your body, so doing mindfulness + somatic work is a vital prerequisite here.) If you can answer yes, then it’s trauma anger. Another sign is when, after the event you think, “Wow. I was really angry. I’m not sure why that made me so mad.” There’s a saying “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical” and the awareness that you were more angry than the situation warranted can be another good clue that it’s trauma anger.
I want to stress that neither type of anger is bad. Heathy anger drives, inspires, and motivates us to create a better world. Trauma anger helps us see areas where we still live in shadow and illuminates where we can do more healing work with ourselves. It’s through our own healing work that we lessen the harm we do in the world and simultaneously act as a model for others of what healing looks like. As Ram Dass says, “I am arriving at that circle where one works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn’t create more suffering. I help people as I work on myself and I work on myself to help people.”
With gentle noticing and acceptance, take a look at your anger when you are able to be present with it and ask, “Is this healthy anger or trauma anger?” If it’s healthy anger, go out there and change the world! (Or at least your small corner of it.) If it’s trauma anger, know that you made it as far as you have today because you were smart enough to protect yourself this way. But now that you are safe, you can work on doing it another way, if you’re ready.
Determining your sympathetic nervous system response type
If you’re looking to recover from childhood trauma or C-PTSD then I want to know what kind of F*er you are.
No, not that kind of F*er! I mean, yeah, sometimes even I’m the asshole, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Your particular F*er type is derived from the 4 types of sympathetic nervous system response, also known as the “4 Fs” in physiology.
When we’re in a stressful situation, our nervous systems switch from calm parasympathetic mode into stressed out sympathetic mode. Stressed out sympathetic mode is super useful for getting us out of a potentially harmful situation, like almost being hit by a car or seeing a rattlesnake on a hike.
But what happens when most of life is a potentially harmful situation? What happens when you spent your childhood feeling neglected, scapegoated or silenced? It turns out, your nervous system acclimates to this and decides “stressed out” is just how it is. So instead of having your normal state be the calm, serene parasympathetic mode, your “normal” state becomes a stress response.
This is what causes the true damage of C-PTSD. Over time, this stress response becomes a trauma response, and we experience much of life as if it’s unsafe or harmful.
One of the pillars to healing trauma is to retrain your nervous system to have a more healthy baseline, a “normal” that looks like being in parasympathetic (calm) mode most of the time instead of sympathetic (stress) mode. So, it’s really important to know what kind, or type, of stress or trauma response you tend to have.
This is where the 4 Fs come in.
The stress or trauma response is divided into 4 types:
- Fawn (aka Appease)
To determine which kind of F*er you are, take a look at the following descriptions, and see which one(s) fit you best. Sometimes, we tend toward two response types, so there may be more than one that fits.
Fight: If you find yourself having a short fuse or easily getting annoyed at people or situations, then you may have a strong fight response. A healthy fight response is designed so that we can attack when threatened, like when someone fights back when a mugger tries to grab their purse or wallet. But when the fight response becomes a trauma response, we tend to go into anger/fight/annoyed/dismissive mode whenever we feel slighted, ignored, or threatened. It sometimes even surfaces to preemptively avoid a potentially triggering or stressful situation, aka “strike first and ask questions later.”
Flight: Are you someone who finds a good reason to suddenly leave your new job or break up with the new person you’re dating? Do you find that the thing you *knew* would be the right next step for you never seems to be right and isn’t what you thought it would be? Then you might be have a flight response.
The flight response is designed so that we leave a potentially dangerous situation, like when someone yells “fire!” in a movie theater. However, if most of life was a dangerous situation, then the flight response can become a trauma response. This is especially true if the dangerous situations you were in as a child were emotional abuse, gaslighting or manipulation. You learn that emotional closeness is inevitably followed by betrayal or heartbreak, so you learn to leave as soon as something starts to feel good or emotionally nourishing. While this is an unconscious response (nobody thinks,”this relationship is awesome! I think I’ll sabotage it.”) it is something that you can often see as a pattern in hindsight.
Freeze: Many predatory animals (including humans) are much better at perceiving movement than form or color. So in order to avoid being caught or attacked, many prey animals (including humans!) have developed a hide and freeze response where they become very still, hyperaware, and try blending into the background in the hope that the predator won’t be able to perceive them, and will eventually give up the hunt and go away. When this becomes a trauma response it can look like introversion, dissociation (depression, ADHD, or frequent daydreaming), or shyness (social anxiety or agoraphobia). Many times, this is a preemptive freeze response, where if we check-out-before-we’ve-even-checked-in, we can avoid any potential dangerous or triggering situations.
Fawn/Appease: So in keeping with the “F” theme, the 4th F is fawn, but TBH I like appease better — it’s a more accurate descriptor. Have you ever had a creepy guy say something that felt awkward or kind of freaked you out? Like, your spidey senses say, “let’s get away from this guy and make sure he doesn’t follow?” but instead of punching him in the face and running away (hello, fight and flight!) you smile and say, “Yeah, haha. You’re totally right. Thank you!” and then you say it was nice to meet him, and you gotta go meet your friends or something like that? Then you have experienced the fawn/appease response! (Interestingly, this 4th sympathetic type of response was only added a few years ago when researchers started studying how women respond to stress and found that it was different than men’s response.) What happens when this normal stress response becomes a chronic trauma response? It can look like people pleasing, HSP or high empathy, sensory processing issues, codependency, or a fear of conflict or confrontation.
My F*er type looks like freeze with a big side helping of fawn/appease. What does this look like in my life? Here are three examples from yours truly.
When I was little, I was painfully shy. I was scared of meeting new people (especially adults), and I would run behind my mom, grab onto her leg and start to cry if anyone talked to me. This shyness was a trauma response of both freeze and appease. The “freeze” part was running, hiding and refusing to speak. The “appease” part was putting my mom back into the center of attention as the “good mom” who was protecting her child. (A good survival strategy for being the child of a narcissist is to always put the focus back on them, in any way you can.) Fortunately, I’m not shy anymore, but I can easily see how this could have become social anxiety or even agoraphobia if I hadn’t addressed it.
I’ve also noticed that my hearing is really damn good, I can often hear sounds that are too quiet for most folks. I know this is from “freezing” and listening very closely (hyperawareness) from my bedroom whenever my parents came home. I became a expert in listening to determine their mood: How were their footsteps sounding on the floor? How forcefully did they open or close the door? Which room did they go to and what were they doing in there?
I’m still working on the appease response of people pleasing and fear of conflict. This is a big one for me as the fear of retribution or angering people is still embedded in my nervous system, and I don’t want to do or say anything that could potentially upset or disappoint people. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” because this used to mean always being as perfect as possible and never making a mistake in order to minimize the chance of retribution, but I’ve been working on allowing myself to be a messy human and sometimes miss the mark without fearing repercussions.
Why is your F type important to know? There are two main benefits.
The first is you can more easily and quickly recognize and address the trauma response when it comes up. For example, if I know that I am avoiding sending an email because I’m worried about the recipient’s response, I can say to myself, “Ah! That’s my appease trigger” and I can use one of my tools to comfort, soothe and care for that inner child part of me.
The second is that it helps you figure out how to “complete the stress response” so you can get back into that calm, parasympathetic mode. For example, after a stressful day I often pick solitary “freeze” activities to reset my nervous system where I can be quiet, still and alone, like meditation, reading, watching movies, or crafting because I know that my nervous systems feels most safe in these activities and will be able to unwind and clear out any residual stress. If I were more of a “flight” type, then going for a long drive might help me reset into parasympathetic mode.
I hope this helped you identify your mix of parasympathetic responses and I’d love to know what type of F*er you are!
Drop me a note, and let me know because I like hearing from all you F*ers out there.
And don’t forget — while you may be shy or short-tempered or a chronic daydreamer, YOU ARE AN AMAZING GOD(DESS) WHO HAS SURVIVED SOME EPIC SHITSHOWS. I see you in all your human, messy glory and I love and admire you all the more for it. Rock on, my warrior friend.