Want to know why you’re still stressed out despite all of the stress reduction techniques you’ve tried in the past? If you’ve taken 500 bubble baths and go to yoga every day and you’re still stressed out, here are 4 things you need to consider to find more ease and balance in your life.
PEO stands for “Person, Environment, Occupation” and it’s a concept that comes from the world of Occupational Therapy. (BTW — “occupation” here refers to anything that occupies your time, not just work. So it could be your occupation as a mother, or a crafter, or a student.) When looking at stress reduction through the PEO lens it’s important to consider three factors.
The “person” part refers to who you are as a person. What are your skills, strengths and relative weaknesses? What are your preferences and dislikes? What’s your personality like? (Something like the MTBI, enneagram, human design, or Gallup strengths finder can be useful here if you don’t feel like you know this info well enough.)
“Environment” refers to the place you’re in when you’re trying to function. Maybe your home environment feels more relaxed than the office (or vice versa). Or you prefer the mountains to the desert. Why is that? What is it about the environment that’s a better fit for you? Different environments are also better for different tasks, for example, an energizing environment would be better for work, while a calming one would be better for sleep or meditation.
The big “O” is the occupation you’re performing. What are the demands of the task at hand? Do you have the resources for that task? Do you have the skills? The right tools? Proper instructions, guidance, and support?
Try looking at one of your routine tasks (either at work or home) through this lens of PEO and see if you can make any adjustments to the environment or the occupation in order to make it easier for you. For example, maybe you work better in a bustling environment full of energy. Or maybe you function better when you don’t have access to your phone to distract you. Maybe you can only fully relax in nature, and so the crowded yoga class in the gym doesn’t help you de-stress.
Take a look at your daily occupations and see how good of a match it is between who you are, the environment you’re in for that task, and the task itself.
- Sensory Profile:
Every single human on this planet has a unique sensory profile, it’s like a fingerprint. Your sensory profile looks at each of your 8 senses and your preferences and awareness for each. Do you like bright, vibrant, crazy designs? You’re probably a visual sensory seeker. Do you like calm colors and less clutter? You are probably visually sensitive. There are quizzes you can take to find out your specific sensory profile, but you can also think about each of these and ask yourself if you’re a seeker (you like it big and bold), avoider (you’d rather stay away from too much of this type of input), sensitive (you don’t hate it, but too much will grate on you) or low registration (you’re not even aware of those types of sensations).
- Visual (sight) like bright colors and busy environments
- Auditory (hearing) like music and talking and louder environments
- Olfactory (smell) like strong scents
- Gustatory (taste) like bold flavors
- Tactile (touch) like strong touch or softer touch
- Vestibular (sense of head movement in space) like swings, rollercoasters
- Proprioceptive (sense of body position in space and feedback from joints and muscles) like dancing, moving around, lifting weights
- Interoception (sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, and more) like needing to pee, being hot or cold, or ASMR tingles.
If your environment is not a good match for your sensory system, it can cause some serious nervous system dysregulation. Your body will release cortisol, you’ll have trouble concentrating, your emotional regulation system will become depleted and you might get cranky or depressed, and you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.
- Interoceptors and Mindfulness:
Interoceptors are the sensations we feel related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, etc. When you’re are stressed, your body shuts down information from the interoceptors (who needs to know that they’re hungry when a lion is chasing them?!) and you become what’s called “low registration” for that type of sensory information.
If you’re chronically stressed at home or at work, your interoceptors can become permanently set in the low registration setting and you lose touch with what you may need on a basic, physiological level. This is why mindfulness doesn’t work for so many people. If you aren’t aware of what your body is feeling, how can you pay attention to it? That’s like giving someone noise-cancelling headphones and then asking them to tell you about the noises in their environment. If you can’t hear it how can you pay attention to it?
Personally, I love mindfulness as a stress reduction technique, but before I got any benefit from it I had to heal my interoceptors from years of stress and shut down. Only after slowly cultivating my awareness of these types of sensations was I able to really tune into myself and be fully aware in the present moment.
If you think you may be low registration for interoceptive sensations, start by concentrating on one sensation, like the feeling of your belly moving in and out as you breathe, and observe it with gentle curiosity, not trying to change it, just trying to befriend it and bring it back to your awareness. Once you start to be able to feel that sensation, try another one, like tune into your thirst and see what it says. Is it there at all? How intense is it? How do you know – what does that feel like in your body? From there you can start to play and experiment with other sensations and emotions and see what they feel like in your body.
Oh, how I love boundaries! Boundaries start with an awareness of what we like, dislike, will tolerate or won’t. It’s a compendium of the things that make us sing with joy, the things that trigger us, and the things that are neutral. As you learn this stuff about yourself, putting boundaries in place means communicating compassionately and firmly with yourself and others about what works for you, what your needs are, and what will set you off. Having your boundaries ignored or not tended to, by either yourself or others, can be a major cause of stress.
The first step is to get clear on our boundaries through observing what stresses us out or triggers us, what brings us joy, and what we don’t really care either way about. The next step is to learn to feel comfortable (aka not ashamed, bad, unworthy or fearful) about communicating those needs to yourself and others. Some examples could be giving yourself a 10 minute break when you feel overwhelmed or asking a coworker not to come by your desk for a chat when you’re working on a project.
Boundaries are a life-long project, both because we get to know ourselves better over time but also because our joy and triggers change over the years, in different environments, with different people, and different tasks (Oh look! We’re back at PEO, where we started.) Having a practice of observing and identifying our boundaries can be a huge step towards a more joyful, stress-free life.
Honestly, I could write SO MUCH MORE on all of these topics. If you’d like to learn more about these, please comment with your questions and I’ll do my best to write about them in a future post!
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.
One of the most insidious aspects of growing up with emotionally unavailable parents is that I didn’t have models of how to be cared for. I didn’t grow up with examples of what it’s like to be comforted when I felt vulnerable, sad, afraid, or ashamed. I also didn’t have examples of what it was like to have a cheerleader, someone who became happy and proud on my behalf when I worked at something important to me.
Without external models of how to be cared for in these ways (comforted and encouraged) I couldn’t internalize these models into my own self-concept. This meant that in times when I was feeling upset or needed validation or encouragement, I didn’t have an inner voice that could give me these types of messages, because I didn’t even know what these messages sounded like.
This didn’t just happen in response to external circumstances, either. When my inner critic would start spouting off, there was no competing voice in my head. Without any other narrative, my inner critic would run rampant and I’d end up feeling awful.
I decided to create another voice in my head, one that was supportive, validating, kind and encouraging. I didn’t want to call it my inner parent because the word parent doesn’t have the best connotation for me. So, I called it my inner caregiver. I used polysensory mental practice to create a new voice in my head that said all the things I needed to hear, all the emotional nutrients I needed but never got when I was growing up.
I soon realized there was a big problem. Sure, it was a great idea to have a part of me say all the right things, but what were those things?
Like I said, I never had a model. If I didn’t know what comforting and loving language sounded like, how could I start to talk to myself this way? I looked to parenting books, positive psychology research, and nonviolent communication and restorative justice models for their language.
I knew my inner caregiver needed two ways to respond to my inner critic, as the comforter and the protector. The comforter says things like, “I am proud of you,” or “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’m here for you.” The protector keeps my boundaries with my inner critic and says things like, “You don’t get to talk to Megan like that,” or “No. I don’t receive that message.”
I’ve used this model with clients as well. Each of us has different needs for who this new voice needs to sound like, and even for its name. Inner caregiver works for me, but for others, they need an inner nurturer, inner mentor, inner big brother or sister, inner parent, or an inner protector.
The messages we need to hear are all different too. I was raised by a narcissist, so I need to hear that I am valuable and worthwhile. Others may need to hear that they are prized for who they are, or that no matter what they do, they will never become unlovable.
Your inner caregiver (or protector, nurturer, etc) is a powerful way to develop self-compassion. But discovering what it is you need this voice to say can be hard for all of us who never heard these things from our own parents. We need to look elsewhere.
I invite you to gently and lovingly start to look for messages that feel good to you. They may be loving messages, anti-bullying messages, messages of worthiness or lovability. You may hear them in real life as you watch your friends parent their children, you may hear them in a movie as one character comforts another, or you may sense them deep down as that thing you always wanted to hear from your parents or caregivers, but never did.
You’ll know them because when you hear them, you’ll have strong sensations/feelings in your body and emotions will bubble up. These are the messages that are speaking loudly to you — they want to be part of your inner self-talk and your self-compassion routine.
If you don’t know where to begin finding them, here’s a place to start.
I’m still working on developing my inner caregiver, and now have both a woman and a man’s voice in there helping me feel worthy, loved and safe. If you like the idea of having this loving and protective voice in your head and want some help and guidance through the process, this is one of the things we do together in my Unconventional Tools for Healing group program. I’m running it again, starting in a few weeks on the 25th April 2022. If you think this course is something that would give you the information and support you need right now, I invite you to join us.
Mindfulness is one of the bedrocks of mind-body healing. Without it, you can’t accomplish any significant healing on a physical, emotional or spiritual level. I want to look at what I mean by mindfulness and then give you some examples of how it integrates with other healing tools.
Mindfulness is really two different things: the ability to be in the present moment AND metacognitive observation of this moment.
Being in the present moment means you are only experiencing what is going on right now in your environment, body and mind. Mindfulness is our natural state when we are feeling calm, relaxed and connected. When you are mindful, you don’t get swept away in thinking of a conversation you had earlier today, or lost in worry about how things may turn out in the future, you stay grounded in what is actually happening right now.
Metacognitive observation is the gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s going on in the present moment. It’s observing the situation and our reaction to it without adding any mental chatter about why it may be “right” or “wrong”. When you are mindful, you notice thoughts come up and say to yourself something like, “Ah! It’s worry. I’m worried about how my presentation will go tomorrow.” In this way you are not getting lost in spiraling thoughts about the worry, but rather you observe the worrying thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
Mindfulness is a prerequisite to almost any other type of healing work because without the ability to be present and observe what’s going on and our reaction to it, we won’t be able to identify or change harmful thoughts, belief systems, or patterns of reactivity.
Mindfulness is the tool we can use to self-diagnose our own maladaptive patterns.
Without mindfulness, we’ll continue to engage in these patterns unconsciously, and the true nature of our difficulties will remain hidden from us. Doing healing work without the foundation of mindfulness is like going to the doctor and asking for treatment without having identified any specific symptoms other than “I don’t feel well”.
Mindfulness is the basis for the best healing tools for stress and trauma. For example, thought work is based on being aware of both our thoughts and our emotions at any given time. Cultivating our inner caregiver can only happen if we can catch our inner critic when they’re in action. You can only develop your intuition in a present and open state. Even physical healing from illness or injury only happens in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system state. (Note: if you’re curious about any of these tools, I’ll be talking about all of them in the next few weeks!)
Not only that, but mindfulness is incredibly healing on its own. Observing your own emotions, thoughts and reactions from a place of gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance can be the key to undoing years of bullying, emotional neglect and other trauma. Being in the present moment allows us to look around and see what’s good, safe and inspiring right now in both our internal and external worlds.
However, if you’ve experienced chronic stress or trauma, mindfulness may be much harder for you. You may feel pulled out of the present moment by anxiety, depression, hypervigilance or dissociation. For people with anxiety or depression, it can be challenging to observe our thoughts and feelings without internal mental commentary. People who dissociate may not even be registering what’s going on at all, and it’s impossible to observe experiences that you aren’t even aware of. In fact, people who have experienced chronic stress or have C-PTSD may spend most of their time in these other states, which can make both mindfulness and all of the other healing tools that stem from it that much harder to access.
If you’ve tried mindfulness or meditation before and it hasn’t worked for you, then I’d like to invite you to join me for my upcoming group course “Unconventional Tools for Healing” where I’ll teach you my trauma-informed take on mindfulness, and teach how to finally be able to get to that calm, relaxed and connected state even if it’s eluded you in the past. And from that state, miraculous healing can occur
Click here to learn more and feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the course or if it’s right for you.
I’m in the middle of doing research for my next book and I want to share some cool info about your nervous system and how you can change it for the better.
Many years ago when I read the book “The Holographic Universe” I remember being struck by a study by Alan Richardson where, “he took three groups of basketball players and tested their ability to make free throws. Then he instructed the first group to spend twenty minutes a day practicing free throws. He told the second group not to practice, and had the third group spend twenty minutes a day visualizing that they were shooting perfect baskets. As might be expected, the group that did nothing showed no improvement The first group improved 24 percent, but through the power of imagery alone, the third group improved an astonishing 23 percent, almost as much as the group that practiced.”
This idea stuck with me and later, when I was in my Occupational Therapy program, I read about how OTs and PTs were using what’s called “mental practice” to work with patients after strokes. This entails doing regular physical rehab and then doing additional mental visualizations of the same rehab task using “internal, cognitive polysensory images.” The results showed that those patients who did regular rehab plus mental practice had greater improvement than those doing regular rehab alone.
So, what’s going on here?
The gist of it is, our brains are meaning-making machines. They take information from our senses (sight, smell, healing, interception, etc) and decide what it means. Our brains are weaving a narrative out of disparate pieces of sensory info, and then matching that to our past experiences to create our “reality.” But here’s the twist: that info can come from the outside world (something we’re actually seeing or hearing) or it can come from the inside world (“internal, cognitive polysensory images’) and our brains don’t know the difference. That’s right, we can trick our nervous systems into thinking something is real just by imagining it well enough.
While most of the studies I’ve read talk about using this to make physical changes, like improving free throw score or improving arm use after a stroke, I decided to try using it to improve thought patterns, emotional states, and maladaptive belief systems.
My friends — it worked wonders.
Mental practice is a lot like guided imagery, but the key difference seems to be the polysensory aspect of the visualization. When we visualize doing an activity, it’s important to imagine what you’re perceiving with all of your senses. In last week’s post, I talked about bringing a caregiver character into your mind as a way to heal our inner critic voice. We can use the concepts of mental practice to not only make this a way to soothe ourselves in the moment, but to permanently change our nervous systems to a place of calm and safety.
Next time you imagine your caregiver, I want you to close your eyes, see your caregiver, and then check in with all of your senses in this visualization. What does your caregiver look like? What do they sound like? Do they have a scent? Where are you? Are you inside? Outside? What does your body feel like — is it relaxed? Heavy? Light? Can you feel anything on your skin — clothing? Wind? Imagine all of the sensory details that you can — the more, the better.
The more sensory details you can bring to this, the more your brain has no idea this is a visualization and the more it encodes it as “reality.” Which means, the next time you feel triggered, your brain will be able to call on this mental practice as a past real experience, as if it was something that really happened. And then — this is the really cool part — it will match the pattern of what’s happening (the “trigger”) to the past mental practice experience of having a wonderful caregiver and your nervous system will be soothed, it will have had the experience of a trigger, followed by the exact emotional care you needed, and it will automatically calm down and feel safe and relaxed.
Isn’t that the coolest?!
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, I’m writing a whole chapter on this in my upcoming book and I’m excited to share more ways that I use the concept of mental practice in real life to rewire our trauma brain into a happy brain.
If you try this, let me know! I love hearing stories of how this went for you.