Spiritual Practice: Guided Meditation for Times of Stress

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In my private practice, we use a lot of mindfulness and meditation to help clients learn to relax and lower their anxiety. I believe these practices are great spiritual practices to help connect our minds, hearts, and bodies.

Most of us are living in a time of increased anxiety, although as the popular meme says, we are all in the same boat but not in the same storm.

 

not in same storm

 

To help my clients, I’ve been leading them through some guided meditations and I thought I’d offer one to you today. So, wait until you have ten minutes, get to a quiet place and allow yourself to relax. If this helps you, there are a lot of apps like Insight Timer and Head Space that offer free guided meditations.

Let me know if this helps you or what guided meditations you’ve enjoyed during this difficult time.

 

 

 

Photo at top by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com
Storm Meme from Facebook. No author noted

Spiritual Practice: Calming Anxiety

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I believe anxiety is running rampant in our society. We need to help each other learn to calm our nervous systems and relax. Short term stress can be good for us but long term stress can affect our health, our relationships, our sleep and our functioning.

Once I had the privilege of being with a group of 10 twenty-somethings for a retreat. At the end of their time we were talking about what they had to go back to, and I was surprised to learn how many of them live with debilitating anxiety. One fellow said that sometimes at night, as he lies in bed, he has to remind himself to breathe. That hurt my heart.

Later I was in a similar group of thirty-somethings. At the end of the discussion, a question was asked about “What is holding you back in life.” Every single person in the room said, “fear.” Again, I was shocked to see how many beautiful, intelligent people live in fear.

These two experiences made me wonder about anxiety and fear. Is this epidemic caused by something in our culture? Is it something in this generation specifically, or is it a combination of factors? I started asking friends for their opinions as I tried to sort this out and I’d love to hear yours.

  1. I went to a neuropsychology conference once on the explosion of childhood behavior disorders and it was postulated that children are now being incubated in an environment of low-grade stress, which is compromising their immune systems and lowering their resistance to disorders like ADHD. Could this same logic be applied to anxiety?
    At a similar conference, these disorders were linked to environmental toxins, again causing a compromised immune system and the easier triggering of latent issues like anxiety disorders.
  2. My husband’s theory was that we now have too many choices. Formerly, people grew up in well-defined cultures with their own rules, norms, taboos, and expectations. Nowadays, kids are members of national and international cultures defined by media and the internet. Choice is often equated with power, but perhaps too much choice can cause increased fear and anxiety.
  3. My daughter’s theory is that because we are constantly bombarded with stimulation that is anxiety producing, like horror movies, violent video games, the nightly news, and even the Discovery Channel, we learn about all the things that can go wrong — which creates this stressful soup we live in.
  4. One could make a similar argument about our inability to unplug. We are wired at the hip to our phones and electronic devices; we can stream movies, TV shows and music at any time from any device and we have forgotten how to be quiet. In my work with college students one thing mystified me. It is their inability to be alone. They told me they were afraid to be alone, and always texted or talked to friends if they were forced to be alone. What caused these changes? Could the neuropathways for peaceful existence that we’ve neglected by being constantly wired in have died off? Are they re-growable?
  5. I led a week-long seminar over spring break with college students. On one day they are required to be silent for twelve hours. It is the day of the week they fear the most. At the end of the week, it is the one thing most highly talked about and valued. But being alone means facing yourself. Perhaps part of our anxiety comes from not being at peace with who we are. IMG_9042

We could speculate on the causes all day but what do we do about anxiety?

No one should have to live with debilitating fear and anxiety. If you are living like that, get help! My husband, the retired therapist, saw a lot of people that came in with these symptoms. He taught biofeedback and relaxation techniques that really helped people learn to calm their own bodies. Learning to breathe deeply is the first step in relaxation.

Many times, fear and anxiety are linked to past trauma. These days there are wonderful healing therapies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Look for specialists in EDMR or others who identify as a specialist in trauma or anxiety.

PTSD is triggered when a predictable set of occurrences happen at one time: A person, or situation that seemed safe, suddenly becomes unsafe. Something startles you, and at some point, you think you might die. This causes anxiety and fear to get “stuck” in the animal (fight or flight) part of your brain. The above-mentioned therapies can help move the trauma to the logic part of your brain where it can be processed and healed.

Prayer and meditative practices can help relieve stress. There is an app I use called the Insight Timer that has hundreds of guided meditations. You can choose the length and theme or just use the timer to sit in silence.

In my opinion, one of the most commons things that cause stress is having a calendar with no margin – that is, no room for contingencies. I learned the hard way that life is what happens in the margins, and if you have no margin in your schedule, then when life happens (the car breaks down, your mom needs your help, a child’s project is due…) there is no room and everything becomes stressful. I’d encourage a strong examination of your schedule with a trusted advisor to see how to create margin in your life.

The best short term cure for anxiety is to get your mind off yourself. Anything you can do to think outside of yourself will help. Call a friend, take the dog for a walk, gaze on something beautiful, serve the homeless, or go to a funny movie. All of these things will help, at least temporarily.
Let me know what you have found helpful in getting rid of your fear and anxiety!

Picture of stressed woman

Spiritual Practice: Body Listening

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 I invite you to continue with me on a journey of spiritual awakening as we try different spiritual practices together. Every two weeks, I will blog about a different spiritual practice, we can try it together and discuss how it is or isn’t working for you! Ready, set, GO!

Review: Silence and Solitude – How did the silence go for you? On my last spiritual retreat, I added Body Listening to my silence. I was experiencing post-election stress when I met with my spiritual director and she helped me with a body listening exercise. It was very helpful so that is what we will focus on today. I had the rest of the 24 hours to sift through what my body was telling me.

Body listening is something I generally forget to do until my body is screaming at me in some way, but it’s better if you don’t wait that long and make it a more regular practice.

Here’s how it works. Sit comfortably in a chair and practice breathing deeply, allowing your body to relax and your mind to focus. As your body relaxes, let your mind wander around the different parts of your body until something catches your attention. Once something draws you, either because it is hurting or just wants your attention, let that part know you are listening. You might even say, “I’m here. What do you need.” This might feel a bit silly, but trust me it works.

When that part of your body tells you why it needs attention, let it know that you heard and you will give it what it needs. Don’t forget to follow through and do what your body needs.

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Photo by Alise AliNari on Pexels.com

I have a friend who teaches a Listening class at the university. She has me come in and do this exercise with her class. When the students listen to their bodies, they usually realize that they are hungry, sleepy or need to exercise. No surprises there.

But I’ve also seen some deep things come out of these exercises. One woman was drawn to a freckle on her arm; it was itching. She ignored it, then that night had a dream that she went to her dermatologist. She chose to listen to her body and went to see the doctor who found that freckle was actually a melanoma. She had it removed and she is fine.

One woman was drawn to her non-dominant foot. She felt she was being called to step out in leadership in ways she was not comfortable with.

The first time I did this exercise, I was drawn to my lungs. They felt tight and said they needed more room. This was true because I had a lung infection and needed to go to the doctor, but I also saw it as true in my life; I physically and spiritually needed more room. I went home and used one of our spare rooms to create a prayer room. It gave me space to be with God and be creative. That is when I started writing books.

As I mentioned earlier, I did this exercise the last time I was on a silent retreat, with my spiritual director (we will explore spiritual direction later). My eyes were twitching terribly. This is what happens when I’m under a great deal of stress for an extended period. They had been twitching since the election, as many of my friends of color and from the LGBTQI community were in great pain and fear.  I was somatizing that stress. When I stopped to listen to my eyes, they told me they were worn out from seeing so much pain and hurt. They told me they needed to rest and to turn off Facebook for a while. I promised to listen and did those two things. They immediately calmed down.

Listening to your body can be a powerful thing. Give it a try a few times in the next two weeks and let me know how it goes.

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Click to Listen

Bonus: I recently did a podcast with Merritt Onsa at Momentum Podcast. We talk about spiritual practices join us by listening in!

Girl with shell: Photo Credit:

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

Bird

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.

Healing

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.