I had been soooo looking forward to a few days in Belfast for this trauma conference.
Still, better to listen to world renowned trauma specialists including Stephen Porges, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Dr Daniel Seigel, Peter Levine and more online than not at all.
Here are some highlights:
Stephen Porges ~ ‘The gentle can be the fittest’
The creator of the therapy transforming Polyvagal Theory (I used to have anxiety dreams about this during my yoga therapy training but it really is worth learning about – I’ll share more in future posts) talked a lot about using video to mitigate Covid effects on mental health.
He talked about the contradiction we’re all living in between the biological need we humans have to connect in order to feel safe and knowing that, with this virus, we need to keep apart as much as possible.
If you’re struggling with text and other messages rather than face to face or even phone calls or video chats, he explained the reason for this.
As far as possible, we ‘need to co-regulate behavioural state through engagement with others.’ This needs to be synchronous – in real time (even with video conferenceing, there can be that miniscual time delay that can have an impact on how connected we feel) and reciprocal.
When they’re not (eg, we send someone a text and don’t hear back), Porges explains, ‘We make up a different narrative. The bias comes not from the other person but from the shift in our own state that biases us towards negativity.’
Robin Shapiro ~ Circle of Love
Talking about EMDR, I loved her Circle of Love tool.
If you’d like to try it, simply imagine yourself surrounded by all the people and puppies etc who love you.
Look around your imaginary circle connect with them, from your heart, one by one.
Drink in the love from each person.
Black Lives Matter
Much as I loved Dr Daniel Siegel’s keynote, his was the third of the first day and I felt rising concern at the lack of acknowledgment for the other current global trauma (Covid19 had had lots of discussion) – the need to support Black Lives Matter and for white people to be actively anti-racist as silence really is violence.
Indian Irish born in London now living in Ireland, I have always done mental tallies in any group – how many women, how much diversity – something breathes a sigh of relief in me when I see better representation.
It helps me feel safer in any group.
And I look white.
Normally, at therapy conferences, I can at least take comfort in the diversity of the delegates but this was my first time attending an online conference so the speakers were the only people I could see.
The Black Lives Matter movement meant that I at least felt able to TWEET this concern on the first day in hopes it would be addressed. It wasn’t but at least one of the questions chosen addressed racism after Dr Seigel’s excellent keynote.
[Edited to add that I had a kind response to my email saying they will be doing better on this next time]
Dr Daniel Siegel
He had been a guest lecturer on the yoga therapy training I did in 2011/12 – Luckily, I understood much more yesterday!
Dr Seigel answered explaining that, ‘The mind does this in group / out group distinction’ and reminded us that ‘race is a mental construct’.
He quoted someone who had said that, ‘Any Black person is armed because the thing that threatens white people is the colour of our skin.’
It reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s Supersoul Sunday interview with Oprah exploring what the mind does. I imagined being a Black person, not only with his or her own experiences of being unfairly targetted by police or having their lives threatened by random white people like Amy Cooper who feel somehow justified in weaponising their whiteness but generations worth of epigenetic changes making white people, especially the police, feel threatening.
I would have loved to hear much more about this – especially with the people speaking about developmental trauma, assuming that children who survive childhood in abusive homes can then take responsibility for healing.
It’s an ongoing challenge for children and adults attempting to survive a racist society where the people supposed to protect and serve are instead allowed to kill almost for fun.
I don’t have the answers but it was an enormous elephant in the room for me during the conference.
How can you have a trauma conference in June 2020 and not address systemic racism and the trauma that it continues to inflict?
Still, I’ll share more insights from the delightful Dr Seigel in a future blog post.
Dr Laurence Heller
Talking about Complex PTSD and developmental trauma from a NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) perspective, Dr Heller pointed out that with the history of trauma throughout human history, ‘Without the capacity to dissociate, we wouldn’t have made it as a species.’
Looking at ways in which we can take responsibility as adults (this is not in any way shape or form suggesting that people who are currently being victimised or abused are in any way shape or form responsible for that), he gave the example of burnout.
He pointed out that burnout is a verb not a noun. He says they ask people, rather than a more passive, ‘What’s burning you out’ about work:
‘What is it that you’ve done to burn yourself out?’
‘By helping them see their part, it’s the opposite of blame. It gives them a sense of freedom and hope’
Bessel Van Der Kolk
I’ll include more from the brilliant Bessel Van Der Kolk in future posts.
I was familiar with his work as it so informed the yoga therapy training I did as well as my therapy training.
His The Body Keeps the Score changed the trauma therapy landscape forever in 1994. In his keynote, he was keen to credit Darwin for talking about the Vagus and how the heart changes when the brain changes and the brain changes when the heart changes.
More modern research about this 10th cranial nerve means that we know 80% of the signals between body and brain are efferent – they come up to the brain.
So it’s far faster and easier to improve the way we feel by changing the breath and by moving than by attempting to think ourselves into different states.
While he spoke highly of any ways in which we can move (tennis, yoga, Qi Gong etc) being helpful, he is currently especially passionate about psychodrama like Pesso Boyden and Family Constellations work.
Of course this is challenging in social distancing times but, as he pointed out, it’s very important to book things in that we look forward to – today, tomorrow, later in the week, next month and next year.
He also suggested becoming more mindful by writing a diary and noticing what you observe about yourself, ‘Become curious about yourself’.
Janina Fisher on Sensory Motor Psychotherapy
Trauma therapy can’t change the past but can change the relationship the client has to the past.
If the past is past, all we can change is this moment right here.
‘Working with the bodily movements that emerge in the therapy hour become the focus for the therapy exchange.’
‘Trauma involves an inability to act. In 31 years, I’ve worked with ONE person who was successfully able to fight off an attacker.’
As with mindfulness, curiosity and self-compassion are key.
‘Let’s be curious about the anxiety, let’s be curious about the hopelessness, let’s be curious about not being able to sleep at night.’
Noticing thoughts as just thoughts.
Offering choices about what they MIGHT be feeling helps people who are shut down and helps people who are more hyperaroused to slow down.
Hundreds of years ago (September 2004), I met Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and others at a V Day conference in NYC. It was my first day as a freelance journalist.
Can you imagine this being my first ever press conference (although Gloria Steinem had had to leave by then)?
I still have to pinch myself) / self employed coach and complementary therapist (flying out after my last day in legal publishing) and an amazing few days. I was able to tell Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler that their writing had saved my life.
If I ever met Peter Levine, I’d have to say the same.
His book, Waking the Tiger, and work around how it’s NORMAL and NATURAL for some people to go into tonic immobility helped me begin to forgive small child me and 16 year old me for not being able to fight back.
My ‘playing dead’ may well have saved my life.
Typing this now, hundreds of years later, and more than a decade supporting clients with trauma, I still have strong feelings about it.
The blood seems to drain from my limbs but I can notice it – with SELF COMPASSION. This was such a foreign concept to Younger Me – and ground and support myself and recognise how much healing I’ve had.
Levine’s compassionate approach contributed to my healing for sure.
During this talk on memory, he again raised my spirits talking about humans’ innate drive to come to wholeness.
‘I am not only what happened to me, it’s what I hope to become.’
He talked about the ancient Japanese tradition of mending broken ceramics with liquid gold. ‘When something suffers damage and is healed, it becomes more beautiful. To become stronger and more whole than we were before.’
I’ll share additional highlights when I’ve listened to the rest in the future but for now, I hope this is helpful and am happy to answer any questions if you’d like to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).