Across the country, across the globe, we are starting to make decisions about “opening up” and getting back to “normal”. It is contentious! The complicated decision pendulum swings from “it is way too early,” to “it is way too late.” Every state, county, city, and rural area has to decide if it is time. With ALL that must be weighed, looked at, deciphered, considered and understood, it is easy to see how the decision process breaks down in frustration, anger, name-calling and total lack of empathy for the groups that see things differently than your group.
But what happens when that frustration and anger enters your own home? What happens when the folks living inside those quarantined walls are looking at the same data, having the same discussions turned arguments and come up with totally different answers?
Yep, that happened.
A simple and lovely party invitation was the final straw. Conversation over breakfast quickly turned into what felt like a feral cat thrown into a pillowcase with another feral cat. There was nothing but teeth and claws and no way to get out.
In this household, we know how to use regulation skills. We understand what happens to the brain and body when old patterns of fear, control, and anxiety take over. And here we were, in our own kitchen, living out the state and national paradigm of figuring out how to move on. Literally, the following thoughts and ideas were either said or implied:
- You are an idiot
- You do not understand what is happening
- You do not see what is happening
- You do not care what has happened
- You are too fearful
- You are not a risk-taker
- You are a risk-taker
- We need to get over this
- We need to move on
- It is too soon to move on
- We can’t live in constant fear forever
Clearly this was not about the party invitation. Over the past months of lockdown, we have expressed our thoughts and concerns. We share, mostly, similar political beliefs and have followed the national, state, and local safety guidelines.
But somewhere in our breakfast “bag of cats conversation” it became clear that we had not HEARD the depth of each other’s concerns. What we did hear was filtered by our own internal fears, and righteous thoughts about pandemics, shut-downs, and even the “American way”.
The foundation of our work at Windows To My Soul is deeply rooted in the Trauma Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP) process of Natural Lifemanship, which is based on contemporary trauma research and greatly influenced by the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and many other experts in the trauma field. We believe the path to healing the effects of trauma is through healthy, good for both, relationships. This is because trauma and toxic stress can cause very real biological changes to our nervous system and brain. Inherent in these changes is the loss of connection to self and others limiting our ability to have healthy relationships. Building healthy relationships mandates that we maintain regulation (calm during stress) and causes us to rebuild or reorganize healthy neural pathways in our brain.
The question of good for both gets tricky when you are learning to communicate your thoughts or needs and/or are fighting to be heard.
That personal struggle makes it even harder for us to HEAR what the other person is fighting to communicate. Pretty soon both are frustrated and find themselves in a bag of feral cats. Many have said it – this is a traumatic time across the globe. To many, our very personal economic and professional survival is being questioned. This is trauma. In this state, we are only using the parts of the brain that are geared towards keeping us safe and protected. We are in fight or flight mode and may not have full access to the parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others or think logically and thoroughly through issues. We may only hear our own scattered and fearful thoughts screaming through our head. Or, there is nothing at all. There are no thoughts, no fears, and no feelings. We are completely checked out.
When survival is at stake there are no easy answers. Even if the prescription for moving forward is given by others, we still must make decisions for ourselves, find our own answers and yes, find a way to move forward both individually and collectively. To do this, we are required to release ourselves from that bag of teeth and claws. But how?
Feel your activated nervous system.
Feel your heartbeat.
Feel the tingles or tightness in your stomach.
Notice your feet touching the ground.
Start to see the details of your surrounding environment.
Hear the sounds.
Search for physical sensations.
Feel the need for a deep breath and then take one.
This is the moment when the cats in the bag realize that nobody is getting out alive unless another path is chosen. This is the moment when we start to feel connection with ourselves.
The journey from this point is clear, but not easy. It goes something like this:
In order to stay calm in stressful situations, I must learn regulation skills. In order to get good at regulation, I must practice those skills regularly so just like muscle memory, they kick in automatically when things start to get rough. Because I am able to stay calmer for longer periods of time, I can now stay present in this current moment without fear from my past or fear for the future. Presence in the moment allows me to better connect with my thoughts and feelings.
This connection breeds confidence in self and allows me to ask for what I need and stay committed to being heard. With that confidence, my need to control lessens and I am able to HEAR others without fear of losing myself or not being HEARD. When I can really HEAR others, I start to attune to their needs and concerns and our connection grows. Together we can start to consider what is good for both. In this moment we have created a new healthy neural pathway that allows us to consider more than just ourselves without losing ourselves. We are working on our healthy, good for both, relationship.
Of course, it doesn’t happen fluidly like that. This is why a trauma-informed trainer of Natural Lifemanship and Founder of Windows To My Soul and her husband end up like two feral cats in a bag.
Trauma happens to all of us. Our past and current circumstances determine how we react and what we need to heal. The process is bumpy and requires choosing a new path and sometimes it is just easier and more comfortable to stay on the current path. Sometimes we can’t even see that a new path is necessary or possible.
As for this cat and her husband, we had that STOP moment. We reengaged our regulation skills and we started to HEAR each other. We learned that both of us have very real concerns for mental health, professional and physical survival. We decided not to attend the party. But we will get to have the conversation of moving forward in the world of Covid-19 many more times, hopefully, a little more regulated and attuned to each other. We have a family reunion scheduled in June. ☺
Kate Naylor is an LMFT, wife, mother, daughter, sister, and the NL Director of Trainer Development and Community Engagement. This is her first letter to you, our community of helpers, healers, and all-around world changers. . .
As I sit at my computer to write to you all directly for the first time, what I want to say is “We are living in troubled times”, and yet, as I move more deeply into reflection I recognize that for many people of color in our country, times have always been troubled.
It is, in fact, a significant privilege that I am only more recently feeling the trouble that has always existed in our history. I feel guilt, but more importantly, I feel a pull to be different.
Today it feels necessary, in our community of trauma-informed people, that we take a look at the concept of intergenerational trauma.
Toxic Stress & Intergenerational Trauma
Often in our work at The Natural Lifemanship Institute, we discuss the impact of toxic stress on a developing fetus, infant, child, adolescent, and adult. Implied in this is that toxic stress on a mother is equally damaging because of her influence on a developing child.
What we also know, through the science of epigenetics, is that toxic and chronic stress on a mother’s mother, and her mother, and the family and community that surrounds her, for generations back, has an impact on how a growing brain and body develop.
Most of us believe in an interconnectedness in our lives to some degree – we are clearly having an impact on the people we interact with daily – this is, in fact, a major tenet of trauma-informed care (relationship is the vehicle for change…both positive and negative change).
What can be harder for some of us to believe is that we have an impact on people and creatures that we don’t have a daily interaction with, and they impact us as well. However, I think the presence of COVID fairly soundly demonstrates that our impact on unseen others is in fact, true.
What is harder still to grasp, is that the cultures, the values, the environments, and the institutions that surround us also impact our development and the development of generations to come. Our ancestors affect us and we affect our future ancestors.
Many of us struggle to believe what we cannot see with the naked eye – yet our interconnectedness is visible if you seek it.
The science of epigenetics has shown us that trauma survivors, like those who have survived the Holocaust or a period of famine, have changes all the way down to the way proteins are expressed in their DNA as a result of their trauma, and these cellular changes can be seen for at least three generations.
Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of trauma survivors show similar trauma at the cellular level. The biological impact is astounding. But, of course, what is in the genes shows up in the brain and the body, which influences how we relate, thereby influencing our culture.
Brene Brown defines culture as “The way we do things around here.” Our genes, our brains, and our bodies influence “the way we do things around here.” What affects us on a cellular level affects everything. What affects just one of us affects us all.
How Trauma Impacts the Brain & Body
What do we know about how trauma impacts the brain and body? You know quite a bit if you’ve followed NL for very long. Trauma puts a brain into chronic survival mode – survival mode is reactive, it is fear turned to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
By definition, survival mode is “me” thinking, not “we” thinking. And when trauma is passed down through the generations, through our DNA and culture, we, the oppressed and the oppressors, begin to forget that there ever was another way. Three, four, five generations later – how could we know that what we know is based on trauma?
Building New Neural Pathways
What I see happening in race relations through our history, rising to a peak over and over including right now, is trauma re-lived. I speak of the oppressors, I speak of the oppressed. Cultures of hate, cultures of fear…it all boils into anger, and it is so old we’ve forgotten that at one time it was learned. We are ALL experiencing versions of this. BUT…remember the resounding hope of our incredible brains??? They are changeable!
We have the power to control ourselves, to build new neural pathways that can end cycles of hate, of fear, of violence…of trauma. It takes intention and practice, so much practice. But it is possible.
The astonishing community of The Natural Lifemanship Institute – YOU healers and helpers and guides – have the tools to change yourselves, and then support others in their change.
Information, Intention, Action
I believe change begins with information, then intention, then action…with the proper support along the way – and change in a community begins with us. We want to offer a place for learning, for intention setting, for moving into action, and for rest. Below you will find upcoming opportunities for learning and listening, as well as online resources that are always available to those who want to choose a new way forward.
We love our NL community, we trust that each and every one of you are doing your best each and every day. AND we know that we can continue to grow and stretch ourselves when we are called to do so.
We will be growing and stretching right alongside you.
Educational Resources & Trainings
Webinar with Elizabeth McCorvey, LCSW: June 15, 1pm central
Elizabeth leads trainings to demystify and remove the shame that many non-black/POC therapists feel when confronted with issues related to race and equity. Elizabeth is an EAP/L practitioner in North Carolina, this webinar is presented in partnership with Shannon Knapp (an NL Trainer) and Horse Sense of the Carolinas. Must register to attend!
The Legacy of Trauma
An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come.
Free Webinar: Race and Development with Melanie Chung Sherman, LCSW
Learn how to talk about the impacts of race and racial awareness in relation to social and emotional development, an important way to help positively guide children from every background.
Presentation from Dr. Joy DeGruy on the topic of Multigenerational Trauma for African Americans
What is Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and how is it still impacting lives today?
My Grandmother’s Hands
A self-discovery book to examine racialized trauma in America from the perspective of body-centered psychology
Cracking the Codes: A Story About a Trip to the Grocery Store
Stop Hesitating: A Resource for Psychotherapists and Counselors
This is a letter Michael Remole, NL trainer, recently sent to his clients. We were touched. We related, and we felt more connected to our community. We hope you feel the same way. Thank you Michael for your thoughts, your kindness, and your dedication to genuine connection.
As an empath, a business owner, and a mental health professional, there are so many pieces of this COVID-19 plan that are quite difficult to fully address and properly articulate. In short, my heart is broken.
My heart breaks as I put on my mask and head out to greet your child. I try hard to smile under this mask and show the excitement with my eyes, yet it is not the same. I can feel the glances of “are you going to make my child wear a mask?” and “you believe this stuff?” and “it’s about time you meet in person again.” My heart breaks as our young clients try to make sense of why a “safe place”—a place where we promote authenticity and a metaphorical mask free zone now requires a mask to keep us safe. I cringe as I watch myself and our client fight our masks as they slide down our face, get into our eyes, and muffle our words. It’s not the same, and I battle wondering whether telehealth was better than this awkward clumsy in-person session. But I have to remind myself that connection is on a continuum and this IS connection, even if it feels awkward.
My heart breaks as I watch your child touch doorknobs and grab buckets or latches. I ask myself a million questions…did we wipe that down properly since the last client touched it? Did the client touch their face after? I pray that my clients don’t feel me holding my breath, but I know they do. My biggest fear is not me catching the virus, but what if a decision I made to open up to in-person sessions causes your family to be directly impacted by this virus. I ask myself a million times, “did I make the right decision?” We want to help people and I pray that this is somehow helping.
My heart is also very heavy for everyone given the way this virus is wreaking havoc on all areas of our lives—most importantly our mental health. I hear the hurt in your voices and I feel the fear about the current state of things, as well as the fear of the future when we talk. I know how desperately we all want answers and we want to fix this. As an empath, one of my greatest gifts is to feel what you are feeling. Right now, it is as if the volume to my empathy is blasting to a deafening volume. Daily I am faced with the question, do I shut it off, do I figure out some way to turn down the volume, or do I learn to live with the volume blaring? As I think about that, I know the pros and cons of each decision. I often find myself paralyzed by all of the various ways for me to move forward.
Over the last two months, I have shared with clients about ambiguous loss and how it impacts people. We’ve talked (I’ve even taught) on the idea that we are all grieving various losses and that each one of us has experienced loss on various levels. What I did not realize was that coming back to in-person sessions would be what made me see more of the ambiguous losses.
Lately, I’ve been working on the things I can do for myself personally that help me move toward a healthier version of myself. I returned to running during this time after one of Dr. Perry’s office hours with Dr. Brandt. She talked about rest, refuel & reflect. Something struck me that day and I have logged over 100 miles in just a few weeks. I have been running the same road every day, but varying the distances. This past Monday I decided to do one of my shortest runs and go a different route. Interestingly, it was insane how difficult it was. It felt as if I were running a marathon. My body did not have any problem with the mileage. My brain did because it was new; it wasn’t what I was used to and I did not have those normal benchmarks of how far I had run. This is similar to what’s been happening with COVID-19 for me. I’ve been on the same route (telehealth) for a while now. Even though it’s had its own challenges, it’s what I know. This week, we embarked on a new route by adding some in-person sessions. Mentally, it has thrown me for a loop.
During my runs, I’ve been listening to music and an older song from FUN came on my playlist, “put one foot in front of the other.” That has been on repeat in my head. So today, I am taking one foot and I am placing it in front of the other. I do not have the answers and I cannot fix this situation. As an agency, we will continue to strive to provide exceptional services, despite having to wear masks and concerns over germs. As an individual, I will work hard to identify those areas that are out of my control and what areas I can control. And together with my clients, we will navigate this new normal and work hard to ensure that the physical masks do not hinder what we both need—genuine connection.