If you’re old enough, you probably remember the way technology was not always so wireless, neatly designed, and aesthetically pleasing. You know, the labyrinth of wires from bulky devices crushed behind the deepest, heaviest TV set you’ve ever seen. And good luck if you need to get back there. It takes 4 people to help move the stand before there’s enough room for one of you to slip behind, brace yourself for the dust storm, and start pullin’ and prayin’. You pull on one of the wires while holding the others, certain you’re freeing it from the madness that is the knot at the center. And just prior to the euphoric discovery of an end piece, you come to realize you’ve been pulling an entirely separate wire even tighter within the knot. You can't see where one wire starts and another one ends. You may repeat this process 3 or 4 more times before realizing that this is not a clump of wires, and rather a monster summoned from the depths below with an ulterior motive, and the only way to truly fix it is to rip them all out and violently pull.
Although the effects of complex trauma can leave you feeling like that dusty chaos behind the tv, the ways to cope with it, and even facilitate the long term healing - require far less complexity. Delicate? Difficult? Tedious? Challenging? Not always an upward trajectory? Absolutely.
But the way we conceptualize how to feel better can be simple to understand. At the end of the day our instinct drives us to survive emotionally/physically at any cost, and to create a logical narrative about even the most unimaginably disturbing events - at any cost.
We're governed by belief systems, not facts. This is why it is so easy to blame ourselves for the pain inflicted by outside forces. If we really accept that the world can be that dangerous all at once with no cushion, we won't interact with it and we'll discontinue cultivating necessary relationships. If it's our fault, we only have to manage ourselves and hope the other "blameless" entities can tolerate us. It's easier to be feared than to fear others in this sense.
How do our brains do this? How do emotion and reasoning fuse together to create consciousness? All chronic stress/trauma involves a remapping of the blueprint for the flow of energy between the left and right halves of the brain - blueprint meaning the baseline pattern of this energy's behavior, not just how it behaves when presented with only the trigger points. The left does the thinking, the right does the feeling, and the anterior midline of these halves (Our third eye) helps us to see the correct balance of thinking and feeling as we navigate life. And they are in communication every second of every day, awake or asleep. And gosh, they can be an argumentative pair, am I right?!?!
Since you’re human, I know you’ve experienced wanting to do or say one thing and wanting to do or say the opposite/something else. This is the way these two go at it based on their limited understanding of all that goes into conscious life. Chronic stress and trauma only magnify this split, making even the simplest of decisions impossibly challenging.
Whether you’re looking to peel back the layers of life through an insight/action-oriented therapy process, or just shifting to try and live a more holistic lifestyle, the stuff that’s powerfully therapeutic for mind-body connection remains the same. However, if life has become unmanagable enough to where implementing these tools isn't possible, then they are best practiced primarily under the guiding presence of a trauma informed mental health professional in a clinical treatment process.
Here are a few tools to utilize to simplify and break through the confusing systems we are up against:
1. Just Breathe
The first way to strengthen the mind-body connection is…wait for it…breathing. I know, cutting edge stuff, right? But this time, with a shift to imagine your heart doing the inhaling and exhaling. Intentional breathwork focused into the solar plexus and chest region is how you “stretch” the heart muscle. Just like we need to stretch our muscles to bear the weight of resistance training or aerobic exercise, we must stretch our hearts to build resiliency to stress. After several rounds of visualizing this revitalizing air in and around your heart, sprinkle some gratitude on top. You know what you’re grateful for if you can’t help but smile when it enters the forefront of your mind. Imagine this gratitude took form, in a soothing and healing shade, tone, texture, object, etc. Imagine all this life energy circulating this region and within 3-5 minutes the heart and your brain are having a much more civilized conversation.
Remember, the heart sends over 60 times the voltage in communicative messages to the brain than the brain does to the heart. Stretch your heart, loosen your mind.
2. Bilateral Stimulation - Tap it in
Building on the science above, think of your right brain half as where the sense of having a body as a vessel comes from. So as you breathe intentionally, bilateral stimulation (BLS) (an important part of EMDR therapy) can work wonders for enhancing the connection within. This is also referred to as resource tapping. When you alternately tap or expose yourself to a stimulus that draws attention back and forth on a rhythmic interval, the left and right brains begin to work together more efficiently. It helps integrate more positive experiences that have been stored just like the negative ones, but masked by the intensity of the stress (the blueprint scribbled them out to favor the negative bias for survival). This can be done by tapping your feet, hands on knees (or anywhere within reason), listening to music with sweeping soundscapes, or picking objects in your peripheral to sweep your eyes back and forth. This can vivify positive sensations, bring up important details that we may have missed, and overall push us towards wholesome integration. When reprocessing traumatic events, BLS can unlock what's been stuck and let us "transfer files" to the long term memory, or discard them as they are no longer needed. BLS is how you turn "data" into information to be used adaptively. Always remember, the faster you tap, the greater the chance for an anxiety provoking association to come up. Start short and slow, always stopping if it becomes uncomfortable. If you want to learn even more about BLS and its uses check out "Tapping In" by Laurel Parnell, PhD.
Lastly, the ever so popular Mindfulness Meditation has been scientifically proven to increase the volume of fibers that actually connect the 2 halves of the brain. It literally builds highways for more traffic to run smoothly. Remember, meditation means "to go inward". Mindfulness refers to a state of non judgmental, engaging presence with whatever the task at hand or activity of choice. When you turn your eyeballs around and see what's going on in there, and practice not judging yourself for it, your ego quiets and allows for that ever so important recognition of reason and emotion. You also quiet the mind's default wandering mode, which is the distance it will travel away from the present moment while left to its own devices. Along with the vast list of physical health benefits, meditation is how to approach that version of yourself that lies within beneath all that has ever happened. That blank slate of inner peace that we may only remember in our bodies as infants/children. More mindful living allows you to see stress as clouds that have blocked the sun, not removed it from the sky entirely.
Tying all of this back into the original analogy, we can see that changing the flow of energy between the halves of your brain is like having others looking at the same knot with you. The monstrous TV is safely pulled out further from the wall. You're better able to see where it makes sense to pull, what to leave alone until later on, or what inevitably becomes more tense by association, even if you're not directly touching it. There may be things entirely unplugged and not in use, or things that have been knocked loose and unplugged just enough to create a hiccup in the circuit. We don't have to completely upend life as we know it and withdraw to heal from complex trauma, and we also don't have to add 100 new coping strategies. Our minds and bodies just need enough relief to allow an involuntary, natural healing process to occur.
And as always, do these things consistently rather than intensely!
**September is National Suicide Prevention Month- If you or someone you know are struggling, Reach Out.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 immediately.
If you are uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can chat with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988lifeline.org.
You can also text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.
Sean has availability to take new clients Mondays through Thursdays, in person or virtually.