Posts By: Quanique Valera

The impact of trauma on the brain

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is defined as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. In short, trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and can interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. Trauma is frequently associated with being physically present at the site of a traumatic experience, but it is also possible to experience trauma after hearing accounts of a traumatic event from survivors, watching videos, or news reports of a traumatic event.

The effects of a traumatic event can last weeks, months or years because trauma changes the way our brain sees the world.

Common symptoms of trauma include night terrors, edginess, irritability, poor concentration, mood swings, anger outbursts, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, and depression. People who are experiencing a traumatic reaction often behave in ways that appear unpredictable, oppositional, volatile, or extreme.

During a traumatic event, our brain analyzes the surroundings and goes into one of three survival modes: Fight, Flight or Freeze. The choice of going into one of these modes is as involuntary as the choice to make your heart beat.

While in one of these survival modes, the brain will become fixated solely on survival above all else; meaning that it uses fear to activate your superpowers. These superpowers cause your heart to beat faster, bringing more oxygenated blood to your muscles, ensuring that you can run faster, jump higher, and lift more weight than you ever have.  This increased blood flow also makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings; people often describe this as a feeling that time slows down.

Disassociation, or mentally separating oneself from an experience, is a coping strategy that our brain can use to protect us during a traumatic event. Disassociation can lead to a perception that a person is detached from their body, floating above it or somewhere else in the room observing the action of their body without being emotionally able to participate in the experience. They may feel like they are in a dream or some alternate reality or as if the experience is simply happening to someone else. In some cases, memory loss can occur due to disassociation; leading to gaps in a person’s memory timeline.

One of the common misunderstandings about trauma is that our brain can turn off “survival mode” the very moment that we are out of the mitigating experience. That is not true because our brain can remain in survival mode for weeks, months, or even years until it determines that we are experiencing safety consistently and therefore, no longer facing perceived threats. In order to experience safety, we must have all of our basic physiological needs met including eating regularly, sleeping soundly enough to rest our body, and generally feeling personal safety by limiting triggers. We also require our emotional needs to be met; feeling we are loved, cared for and needed. The last necessity is to experience moments where we are emotionally present in our bodies and experiencing joy.

For many trauma survivors, the healing process is best summarized by this quote from Mary Anna Radmacher “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”  As a community, we must recognize their courage, appreciate their journey, help them when they struggle and celebrate their victories.

 

The Importance of Play

Last summer, the world was overwhelmed by the phenomena of Pokémon Go. For those of you unfamiliar, Pokémon Go is a free location-based cell phone game that invites users to collect digital monsters.  It has become commonplace to witness multitudes of people walking around metropolitan areas and parks staring at their phones, while playing Pokémon Go. Then, reports began to pour in with people attributing physical and mental health benefits to playing the game. This raises the question of whether the game designers are secret life coaching geniuses or if these users are experiencing a placebo effect.

The main advantages of Pokémon Go are magnificent in their simplicity, which is that the game is able to keep adults and children alike, engaged in the fundamental tasks of play. This simplicity leads people to open up to one another around a common interest and may cause them to interact more with others when they otherwise may not have.

Everyone knows that play is important in childhood, because play is how children process and make sense of their world.

Which begs the question, is play necessary in adulthood?  In short Yes!

What is play?

Philosopher and author Bernard Suit describes play as “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

The online Oxford dictionary defines play as “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

I believe Jill Vailet best describes how to identify what play means in her 2012 Ted Talk; “Play is like pornography. You know it when you see it.”

Why should we play?

Play can change how we engage in an experience and how easily we are able to engage with other people. The benefits of play as an adult include relief of stress, increased creativity, feelings of well-being, problem solving, and a sense of connections with others in the world around us.

In terms of stress relief, play is fun and triggers our body to release endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins encourage an overall sense of comfort and have also been known to temporarily relieve pain.

Play assists with the developing and improving social skills. As adults, we continually refine verbal communication, body language, boundaries, cooperation, and teamwork skills through play and playful communication. Play also allows adults to break down barriers and improve relationships with others. There are many adults that utilize games, such as, Words with Friends, Mario Run Ruzzle, Candy Crush, 2048, and Two Dots to maintain loose daily social contacts with friends.

Play can heal emotional wounds. As adults, playing together, engages us in the same patterns of behavior that shape our brains as children. If an emotionally-insecure individual plays with a secure partner, for example, it can help replace negative beliefs and behaviors with positive assumptions and actions.

How to play?

You can play on your own, with a pet, but for the greater benefits, play should involve at least one other person. You can play puzzles, word games, trivia, card games, board games, or any other kind of game that encourages social engagement.

There are also games, such as Superbetter, which are designed to help achieve reduction in depression, anxiety and with weight loss by helping to gather a support system and creating small measurable quests leading to your success in your mission.

The most import thing is just to try and make sure you follow your joy.

Self-care 101

What is Self-Care?

According to the University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work, “self-care is an essential skill. Self-care refers to activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being. Self-care is necessary for your effectiveness and success in honoring your professional and personal commitment.”

 

I like to think of self-care as the act of placing your emergency oxygen mask on first in order to have the capacity to help others. Self-care should include being honest about your needs; asking for help and being emotionally open.

 

How do you practice self-care?

The most important aspect of practicing self-care is identifying and managing your basic needs. This sounds easy; however, many people find that they forget to eat or have difficulty sleeping during periods of stress.  Next, start by checking in with yourself.

The best way to care for yourself is to implement tiny self-care habits every day; regularly including in your life small moments of love, nurturing and attention for your own body and mind. Self-care acts looks different to different people. For some it is the Parks and Recreation “Treat yo self” philosophy or catchphrase. Two of the main characters on the show celebrate the idea that at least once a year, you should take a day to indulge in some luxuries and love yourself. For others, it is unplugging and staying off of social media when the news causes jealousy, sadness, or becomes overwhelming. Either way, it is the constant repetition of many tiny habits, which together soothe you.

 

In order to help jump start your self-care journey, I have provided a list of small self-care activities.

 

20 Little Self-Care Ideas

  1. Take a bath or long shower.
  2. Fix a small annoyance; a door that squeaks or a phone charger that only works at a certain angle.
  3. Help someone/volunteer.
  4. Pet a dog, cat or any available domesticated animal.
  5. Date yourself. Spend time alone doing something that recharges you or brings you joy.
  6. Watch the sky- stargaze or cloud watch.
  7. Create a joyful deliberate habit such as singing in the shower.
  8. Do a mini-declutter-organize that junk drawer.
  9. Listen to your favorite song, album or Pandora station.
  10. Unplug for an hour. Turn off all of the electronics.
  11. Edit your social media feeds, and hide or unfollow any negative people.
  12. Have a dance party alone or with willing participants.
  13. Take a nap.
  14. Give your body a treat. A massage, manicure or pedicure.
  15. Go for a walk or run.
  16. Say no. Avoid logistically and emotionally over committing yourself
  17. Prepare your favorite snack or meal.
  18. Paint, draw, or craft.
  19. Meditate or pray.
  20. Play a game you enjoyed during your childhood.

 

 

“Love yourself first, and everything else falls in line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world. ”

– Lucille Ball

 

 

David and Goliath

Like most of you I, was devastated after the results of the election because it felt as though the majority of the country voted to spread hatred. I felt angry and stifled because as a member of many minority communities it felt like I was being forced to assume the role of underdog; a role that is assumed to be less than.  As I was thinking about the plight of the underdog, I remembered this quote from one of my favorite authors:

“Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty…we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might oth­erwise have seemed unthinkable.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book all about the role of the underdog called David and Goliath. In the book he examines what happens when normal people challenge influential opponents, including mighty warri­ors, armies, misfortune, oppression, and disability. Through many stories Gladwell presents the idea that much of what we believe to be valuable during these great battles is insignificant because “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” Gladwell illustrates this by challenging the role David plays in the story of David and Goliath.

For those who are not familiar, the story of David and Goliath is a biblical story of a gigantic and mighty warrior being defeated by a young shepherd boy.

Gladwell challenges this idea by explaining that though David was no match for Goliath in traditional hand to hand combat; he was able to succeed because he knew when to employ the talents and skills he had learned guarding his sheep.

As we face an uncertain future, it is more important than ever that we understand our natural gifts and strengths and spend time nurturing those skills. We must also remember our strengths as a community have always included our sense of unity through diversity, individual intelligence, creativity, courage, movement, endurance, our ability to unite, share hope and our determination to continue to try harder. As with all minorities in this society, we have been strengthened by decades of strife and are better and more capable because of it.

 

 

Fear- the ultimate superpower

When I was eight, I earned the privilege of watching a movie alone in my room; I chose Ernest Scared Stupid. The beginning of the movie was filled with the funny, silly humor I loved the Ernest franchise for.  However, by the middle of the movie, things had taken a turn for the worst; the trolls were winning and Ernest’s sidekick had been turned into a small wood figurine. Worst yet, Ernest had no idea how to fix it. I was hiding under my blankets completely terrified with my heart pounding and unable to catch my breath. As the movie continued, it felt like it was taking hours for Ernest to figure out how to stop the trolls, though I knew it couldn’t have taken that long because my mom never would have let me stay up past 9pm. Eventually, Ernest saved the day and turned his friend back into a real human, which meant all was right in the world. That was until I got out of bed to use the bathroom and remembered I had a collection of 20-30 troll dolls, which thanks to the movie, I was now afraid would come to life and try to turn me into a wooden figurine.  This was the first time in my life that I realized that something seemingly normal could turn into something scary.  Since the Pulse massacre, many people have experienced this feeling; atmospheres where they once found solace, now elicit feelings of worry and fear, such as, going out with friends. Many of my client’s tell me that they feel like “fear is winning.”

 

So what is fear?

 

Fear is also the most crippling of emotions because it is seated in our natural instinct to protect ourselves and those we care about from perceived harm. Generally speaking, our fears fall into two categories: Innate fears and learned fears.  Innate fears are fears we are born with, primarily the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds.  Learned fears are fears which are usually developed at a young age and are often influenced by our environment and culture. Most fears fall into the category of learned fears, for example, evil enchanted troll dolls.

 

I am a Whovian, which means that I am a fan of the BBC TV show Doctor Who. There are many reasons I love the show, but one of the main reasons is that the hero is a humanoid alien, who above all else, believes that that the human race is intrinsically good. Because of that belief he often questions beliefs about human nature, which provided the best description of fear I have ever come across:

 

“Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you could fight harder. You could jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower. There is danger in this room and guess what? It’s you. Do you feel it?”

 

For me, this description of fear serves as a reminder that in the moments, when we feel most weak or vulnerable, we are also strong because we are accessing the greatness within ourselves. Fear is not our adversary; it is simply, one of the means by which we activate our superpowers. Thinking about fear in terms of it’s function helps us to feel less out of control of our bodies and our minds. I wish I could go back in time and explain this to my 8 year old self, because it would have eliminated the thought that I was broken because something I loved had literally become the thing nightmares are made of. Lucky for me, this particular fear was short-lived and approximately a month later, I was back in troll heaven.