“Breathe” – or Spiritual Healing of the Trauma Brain part III

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This is the third part in a series about healing a brain that has been changed due to trauma. The first part focused on PTSD and the second part focused on the use of a Soulcollage in healing. I received this information at a wonderful retreat at Mercy Center, where we explored ways to heal brains damaged through traumatic experiences, using breathing exercises and spiritual formation exercises. Our group leaders were Sandra Lommasson , founder of Bread of Life in Sacramento, and Tanda Ainsworth who is a retiring USF professor and brain trauma expert. Today, we will talk about breathing.

Most people who have experienced a traumatic event have trouble breathing well. Most of us take shallow, rapid breaths that don’t get the air into the deeper parts of our lungs. This kind of rapid and shallow breathing gets oxygen to your arms and legs so you can run or fight, but leaves us low on oxygen when we are not exerting ourselves. Calming hormones produced in the gut when we breathe deeply aren’t released and logical thought is compromised.

When trauma happens, especially if it happens over time, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released. This hormone, which is helpful in small doses, can be toxic to the body over long periods of time. It can actually change the shape of the brain. The good news is research shows the brain can be healed and most of this healing can take place through learning to breathe. For helpful information on this topic, explore the website of brain expert Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tanda said that 80% of the patients that come to Dr. Amen with trauma brains leave completely healed. That is an amazing statistic. Our brains can heal themselves through breathing, eating well, exercise and spiritual care. There is hope for a traumatized brain!

Proper breathing gets the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system back into balance. This balance lowers cortisol and allows your trauma affected brain to heal, and this balance allows the amygdala (which controls our fight/flight response) to shrink to its normal size.

At our retreat, we practiced several breathing techniques. These were really hard for me to do but I’m going to practice them and hopefully allow my brain to heal.

First, time your normal breathing for one minute. Count each inhalation and each exhalation as one. (Stop and do that now).

Most people breathe between 12 to 20 times a minute. I came in at 19. The goal is not only to learn to breathe more slowly, but also to make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, as through a straw.

Try it again and see if you can make your exhale last twice as long as your inhale. I had a hard time with that.

Go on a slow walk and take a breath in as you count your steps. Make it a goal to add one extra step on your exhale. We did this while walking the labyrinth at night. It was a wonderful communal experience. One thing I learned at this retreat was the importance of community in healing trauma. It is the “Wherever two or more are gathered, there am I in your midst” principal. Don’t try to walk this road alone. Find fellow travelers to walk it with you. Grief or trauma survivor groups, therapy, spiritual direction…find or start a group to walk the healing journey together.

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I’ve been teasing out hints about a new direction I’m taking as a result of this retreat and I’m ready to share it now. I want to bring this kind of spiritual formation education to Northern Nevada where I live. I’ve been so blessed by the training I’ve received as a Marriage and Family Therapist, a Spiritual Director and a Campus Minister and I’ve attended wonderful conferences, but none of them are available locally.

Now it’s time to give back. I will be starting: The Shalom Center for Spiritual Formation. I will start by offering four or five retreats a year and see how it goes. I envision A grief retreat, a trauma retreat, a couples retreat, and a prayer retreat. I’m so excited! Those whose wisdom I trust have encouraged me in this vision, saying it is a perfect fit for my gifts. My commitment to bringing a healing LGBTQ community to the church will continue, as well as my writing and my hospice service. But I’m very excited about this new adventure and I would appreciate prayers and positive thoughts.

For other resources, you can google “breathing exercises.” There are some wonderful websites for this topic. Physical exercise also helps heal the brain as well as a healthy diet. The gut/brain connection is all over the news these days. We need to listen to our bodies. Here are some of the books recommended by our retreat leaders:

Amen, Daniel G., M.D. Change your Brain, Change Your Life

Doidge,Norman, M.D. The Brain that Changes Itself

Grant, Robert, The Way of the Wound: A Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation

Van Der Kolk, Bessel, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

 

Photo Credit 

“Giraffe” — or Spiritual Healing of the Trauma Brain Part II

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This is a continuation of the things I learned about healing a trauma brain through various physical and spiritual exercises. You can read part one here.

Today, we are talking about a “Soulcollage.”

As part of the retreat at Mercy Center, we were taken to a room with pictures that had been ripped out of magazines. These were laid all over the room and stacks of National Geographic’s were available as well.

On each table were glue sticks, scissors and a small piece of cardboard, about the size of a half sheet of typing paper.

The instructions went like this. Get a question in your mind like, “What is it you want to say to me?” or “What is next for me?” or “What do I need to know.”

Then we were to walk around and look at the picture and see which 2 to 6 of them “chose us.” This might be because we were drawn to them because they were beautiful or repulsive or intriguing.

As I walked around there were two pictures I was repelled by; one was a toxic looking lake with bubbles that looked like blisters on its surface. One was a bride that was wearing such a huge dress and sat in front of ridiculous flowers that it reminded me of “My big fat Greek wedding.” Both of these pictures I picked up and put down several times along with one of a confused looking giraffe, one of hands pounding red hot metal on an anvil, and an archway through rock into a beautiful vista featuring a road with trees and a lake in the distance seen through the rock tunnel. I had no idea why I picked these pictures.

Then we were told to arrange the pictures to fit on the cardboard. This process took a while. Some people had pictures they had to leave out, some had to go for more. Once you got them arranged you were to look at the collage and notice how each picture related to the other.

In my picture, the toxic lake was at the top. The stunned looking giraffe was up in that lake. The hands and anvil, an eye-drawing red, were in the middle. In the lower left corner was the bride, just her torso, looking with love toward an unseen groom. Her hand was visible, resting lightly on his in a fun, flirty way. And in the bottom right was the rock tunnel to beauty and adventure.

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Then we were supposed to journal using the prompts:

“I am the one who________.”

“I am the one who________.”

This is when the tears started flowing for me. I had no idea that this activity would reach past my mind into my heart, giving me words and images for something I didn’t even know I was experiencing.

Looking at the lake:

“I am the one who was trapped in a toxic environment.”

“I am the one who was labeled toxic by those I loved and trusted.”

Looking at the Giraffe, I saw his confusion, as if he was stepping out in the mist to find a person there. He appeared stunned, confused, and afraid. It’s like that with a trauma brain; when a person or place that formerly seemed safe turns unsafe. My trauma brain had been triggered by some circumstances and I was that giraffe.

I knew that the hope was in the anvil. That God was using these situations to mold me into His person. But it felt like a pounding. It hurt. Metal does not easily yield. Yet, I trusted it. I trusted him.

Then there was the Bride. That look at her intended was full of love, and fun and promise. I’d lost that look and I wanted it back. I was done with the toxic lake. I was ready to move on from the giraffe to the bride.

Then there was the hole in the rock. A new adventure was waiting for me if I was ready to let go of the old, toxic place and step through to new life.

During the retreat, we meditated on the resurrection. When Mary came to the cave and saw that it was empty, there were angels in there. She stepped out and saw The Gardner. She was confused after the trauma of seeing her Lord crucified. She had trauma brain. She was in that liminal space, the space “between.” When The Gardener spoke her name, she recognized him. Her mind was open to new possibilities, new life. The possibility of resurrection.

What great freedom we have when we can let go of the old things that are holding us down and move forward into a new adventure. Are you ready to let go? Is it time to come out of the cave, to see with new eyes what God has for you? He is calling you by name.

This exercise was life-changing for me. It led me to a new and perfect idea for my future, which I’ll share later. Give it a try. Find some magazines and see what pictures draw you. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find. Your soul is waiting to speak to you.

“Bird!”  Or — What I Learned about Spiritual Healing of the Trauma Brain.

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I just got back from an incredible weekend at Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in California. The retreat was called: Trauma, Healing & Spirituality. I went because I love Mercy Center and because I could get some Continuing Education Credits toward the upkeep of my counseling license. I got much more than I bargained for and I have decided to share some of my thoughts over the next several weeks.

I’m going to start at the end of the retreat and work backward. Our last assignment was to walk around the grounds and see what symbol of the weekend “found us.” I was found by this bluebird. Please watch this short video.

The bird brings my first trauma story full circle. When I was about sixteen I was laying in the sun by my family’s swimming pool. A bird, exactly like this one only smaller, hopped up to me and chirped in a very desperate voice, “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” He had prematurely left the nest.

I took the bird in and promptly named him “Bird” ‘cause I’m creative like that. Bird was terrified and needy and always hungry. I took him out twice a day and found bugs on the sidewalk. I’d tap next to the bug and Bird would happily eat it. This went on for a few days before Bird flew up into a tree in your yard and was on his own.

About a year later I had just finished closing up shop with my boss when he raped me. There are certain predictable things that have to come together for a person to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

First, something startles you. In this case, it was when my boss’s intentions became clear. A person or situation that felt safe suddenly became unsafe, and one is startled by that.

Second, you feel trapped. In my case, I tried to run away but the exit was blocked and he was stronger than I was.

Third, at some point, you feel you might die. Most rape victims have this feeling at some point.

There, now you have the perfect recipe for PTSD. You can see why all of our combat vets have PTSD. They constantly live in that soup.

The point of this blog is not for anyone to feel sorry for me. God has redeemed this experience for me through many years of processing, counseling and helping others who have also been abused.

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When trauma happens, there can be a separation between our spirit and our body. Some people with on-going trauma learn to completely dissociate from their bodies. Also during trauma, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released. This is good as it kicks in the flight/fight or flee response. We need that response in order to survive. But if stress continues for too long, the amygdala in our brains can become enlarged and we can get stuck in the fight/flight or flee place.

This conference, of course, reminded me of my first trauma event and of the subsequent traumas in my life that re-trigger my trauma brain. The last six years have had many triggers to re-inflict those damaged areas of my brain: Losing our home, losing my son (for four months when he went missing off his army base), totaling my car, losing a job, losing my mom…It’s been a rough patch.

The good news is that there are ways to heal the trauma brain. That’s what I learned at this conference. This weekend I learned some basic breathing exercises and spiritual disciplines that can lower cortisol levels and allow the amygdala to shrink back to its normal size. I’ll be trying to practice some of them daily and giving you a report.

Now, about the bird. As I was walking the grounds, looking for a symbol, I saw this bird that looked very much like my Bird. But this bird was happy, peaceful and not afraid. He (or she) let me get close and film him while he busily went about finding food for himself or his family. It was a metaphor for my life. I am not that frightened bird I once was. I am at peace, I have purpose, and I have people to feed. I’m excited to share the things I’ve learned in this space.

There is hope for the traumatized brain. There is hope for you. You’re welcome to share your stories with me, but you don’t have to. These are sacred stories and should be told in safe spaces. I know many of you have had trauma and are living with the hypervigilance, fear, and disembodiment that come with it. I will pray for you and share the hope I’m finding.