Listen to ReConceive: a Healing Podcast

 

ReConceive: a Podcast about All Kinds of Healing

Melissa Sundwall, Deborah Cox, and Shauna Smith-Yates, The Cast of ReConceive

My dear friend, Melissa Sundwall, a great therapist who also happens to be a lot younger than me, says: “Let’s do a podcast.” And I say, “What’s a podcast?” That literally happened. About a year ago. So we teamed up with Shauna Smith-Yates, owner of The Bodysmith, and hatched a bunch of deep conversations about healing. All kinds of feeling better and living better.

Now, we’re nine episodes into the creation of ReConceive – a conversation between  two trauma therapists and a fitness coach and all kinds of interesting healers. If you work in the helping/healing arts, you might be our next guest on ReConceive –  or you might just hear that next new idea you need to keep you moving forward on your path to joy.

Here’s how that path has been unfolding for me.

Getting Out of Ruts (Learning to Think Differently about Healing)

I used to be a therapy snob. I thought you needed a Ph.D. to be helpful. I thought only psychologists understood human behavior. Only psychologists should test our true inner states. The DSM held the truth about distress and non-distress. Behavior, thoughts, and emotions were the only focal elements to produce lasting change. I really believed that.

Sad.

I’ve been making fun of – and letting go of -that paradigm a little bit every day for the past twenty years. Leaving snobbery and separateness. Exiting jail. Changing clothes.

I moved my psychology office into The Bodysmith – nearly two years ago. It felt like my happy place. My place of movement and laughter. I started wearing workout clothes to do therapy and nobody objected. It was like a conversion experience.

Then, I became a patient and started sampling therapies:

tapping

neuromovement

EMDR

traditional nuts-and-bolts behavioral counseling

craniosacral therapy

cardio workouts . . . Core Barre . . . Pilates . . . yoga

energy therapy

neurofeedback

neuromuscular therapy

nutrition coaching . . .

. . . Each kind of work produced a benefit I could feel: more energy, less worry, vanished pain . . . just like taking antidepressants, except better.  And as I placed myself into the capable hands of these practitioners, I realized: THESE PEOPLE KNOW STUFF. And, it’s all the same work. We’re multidimensional beings who need attention to all our dimensions. While at one moment, you need to talk about it – the next moment, you just need to sweat it out.

Working Across Disciplines to Feel Better

Me, Shauna, Melissa, and all our boxing coach massage yoga energy healer spiritual guide family counseling chiropractic friends are all doing the same thing. We each focus on our particular piece of the puzzle: one foot, one heart, one trauma story at a time. In each part lives a tiny whole person and a tiny whole world. In other words, Pilates teachers are psychologists. Yoga instructors are physicians. Neuromuscular workers are spiritual guides. It’s all one thing.

That’s what ReConceive is all about. Conversations about healing from every different angle: The art angle; The spiritual angle; The brain angle; The muscular angle…..

Do you teach or mentor? Do you help people meditate or pray? Do you tend a community garden? Do you run with six-year-olds? Do you get middle-aged people to dance for the first time? Please write and let me know if you’d like to be part of this conversation.

Contact Deborah

Calm Receptive Mode: Get calm and find the good stuff inside you.

Idea Garden II, Deborah Cox, Flowers Reborn

Your higher self knows how to calm you.

We all want to find calm receptive mode. But not everybody wants to get a massage (although we should – there are people who can make us feel safer and less awkward). Some of us need action. We need to be out in a kayak or running a trail. Some of us meditate and we know it works. We may need some yoga or tai chi. Some of us tap. Or we turn on some Fauré and close our eyes. And I know at least a couple of people who get barefoot and put their feet in the grass and feel the earth beneath them and take big breaths of outside air.

Maybe you’ve tried to get away or go out in nature or just sit still and you got scared. I’ve been there. You started to feel lonely and edgy, even though you knew you needed solitude and quiet.

What am I doing, anyway? Shouldn’t I be doing laundry? I’m wasting time. I can’t do this. I’m full of crap.

So you gave up, started cleaning, turned on the TV . . .

But your higher self knows what YOU need in order to get into Calm Receptive Mode . . . and it may be different from what your spouse or best friend needs.

Calm Receptive Mode = calming our minds enough to know what’s inside us, struggling to get out.

. . . The good stuff we’re waiting for. The part of us plugged in to divine energy understands us completely and wants us to get access to this good stuff: our creativity, our ideas, our epiphanies about how to live more joyously.

Try this tapping exercise:

  1. Tap the sides of your knees, lightly, left-right-left-right, etc., on the spots that feel most sensitive.
  2. Repeat these phrases:

It’s okay for me to be calm.

My higher self knows what I need to quiet my mind.

There is good inside me.

  1. Take some deep breaths. Repeat as often as you can tolerate it.

. . . Let me know how it goes for you.

Contact Deborah

 

 

Be More Self-Centered and Save the World

image copyright Moyan Brenn

What does it mean to be self centered?

Your Self is your wise spiritual center. But outside this center, we live under a weighted blanket of stress and uncertainty, threatened by darkness and greed from all angles. We feel disconnected from neighbors and afraid of people on the other side of the philosophical aisle. 18% of the population suffers from a full-blown anxiety disorder and depression continues its 80-year rise in the general population. Lots of us medicate this pain with alcohol and other drugs. We separate from self.

When I glimpse the big-ness of our broken world, I often think: DO SOMETHING!!!! Reach out to more people! Give more money to charities! Convince people to stop hitting children and get themselves into EMDR therapy!!!

. . . And then I remember My Self. My limits. My small-ness and human-ness: my need for sleep and meditation and stillness.

All I can do is heal My Self, become calm and conscious, untangle from ego. Which means understanding who I am. Some spiritual teachers recommend constantly holding onto the thought, Who am I? The question takes us deeper into our spiritual center. This is what it means to be self-centered.

Who Am I?

How to use this question? Start with these lists and see what you learn.

  1. Make a list of things you know, for sure, about yourself (e.g., I work hard; I want to make more money; I like being by the ocean; I get upset when people don’t do their jobs . . .). Concentrate on the list and ask yourself, What does this mean about me?
  2. Make a list of your accomplishments (e.g., I finished college; I became a teacher; I had a family; I organized a new community board . . .). Study this list and ask, What does this say about me?
  3. Make a list of your failures (e.g., I didn’t pursue acting; I dropped out of college; I left my one true love; I can’t get rid of my depression . . .). Then ask, What does all of this mean about me?

Self Center as the Path to Enlightenment and Calm

Now you have some reference points for the question, Who Am I? Choose a few new habits to help you continue getting to know your inner self. Take long walks and allow your mind to wander. Start a quiet yoga practice. Begin doing Morning Pages in a notebook. Add five minutes of quiet coffee time to your morning. Allow thoughts and feelings to emerge; notice as they pass.

Insights and preferences may show up as you find your spiritual center. I prefer not to marry this person. I can change my religious habits. Alcohol robs me of mindfulness. I need to make music. I can best love that friend from a distance . . .

When we center ourselves in this question, we become less fearful, less narcissistic. We start to learn our cosmic roles and see ourselves as connected to the whole universe.

What Do I Do with My Self?

The question, Who Am I? deepens us over time as we start to see our roles in universal learning. One of my cosmic roles: shining a flashlight on what bothers me: hypocrisy, disconnection, and domination. Writing autobiographical fiction lets me illuminate these – with the hope that someone in my audience will benefit. It also keeps that question front and center.

As you discover your cosmic roles, you get the desire to do something, even if just to breathe and notice. Trust this impulse. Keep asking, What does this mean about me? Where does this idea come from? You also grow calmer and realize how your life history makes sense. There are no mistakes. Everything happens to further our development as connected souls. It’s all good.

P.S. EMDR helps this process along.

Contact Deborah

 

 

How Exercise, Story, and EMDR Heal Trauma

Story Lives in the Body

Story Lives in the Body

You have a story to tell (and it lives in your body.)

As you know, I recommend writing as a way of healing. When we write story, we turn pain into beauty, even if we’re spinning complete fiction. Writing forces us to transform bits of disconnected ideas, pictures, sensations, and memories into episodic memory.

When a scene becomes worded completely, fleshed out with vivid details and thoughts, it becomes whole. We use both sides of our brains to create story: the emotions and colors live mostly on the right, while the words and logic live mostly on the left. We constantly move back and forth within the nervous system to pull pieces together like a patchwork quilt. This is information processing, the primary component of EMDR therapy.

Story and Information Processing with EMDR

Trauma memory tends to be stored in these separate, left and right, containers, which is why bits of it get activated without our realizing it. We become panicked all of a sudden when we drive through a particular part of town. We lose focus during a meeting and go numb in response to someone’s voice. We smell a particular perfume and get a guilt-attack…as if out of nowhere.

EMDR brings right and left together. Memory bits become clusters which become whole stories, complete with the necessary logic to neutralize their poison.

“I was four years old. Of course I wet my pants in the car! That’s what four-year-olds do!”

Through bilateral stimulation (BLS), EMDR triggers the integration of the panic, guilt, shame, pictures, sensations, temperatures, muscle tensions, and beliefs with newer knowledge about ourselves and the world. “I’m defective…” becomes “I’m normal…I did the best I could.”

When our story becomes whole, we can tell it thoroughly and artfully. We can even rewrite it to tell a bigger story or turn it into the story we wish we’d experienced in real life. We can turn trouble into art. This is why I wrote Wife Material, my semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in religious abuse.

Information Processing with Exercise

Last week, I wrote about how exercise transforms our mental state. I think this happens through bilateral stimulation. In EMDR, we use side-to-side eye-movements, pulses, auditory tones, or taps for this. But running, walking, punching, crawling, and climbing can do something similar. This is probably why a good power-walk blows out tension and cobwebs and shines light on all kinds of things you haven’t seen in a while. It moves you beyond your day’s troubles and stuck thoughts and pushes you into an altered brain – a brain that sees and interprets differently…a brain alive with story.

Kettle Bells at The BodySmith

Kettle Bells at The BodySmith

This spring, I’m opening a therapy office at The BodySmith, where I’ll join a team of skilled and caring fitness professionals. We’ll collaborate to find more ways to help you keep things moving: to transport old trauma out of its disconnected storage bins and into creative, working memory.

For now, try this exercise and let me know how it works for you.

  1. Make a list of issues you’re worried about. Place a star beside the one bothering you most.
  2. Notice any emotion or body sensation you get with that issue.
  3. While you’re still aware of the issue, take a long walk, 30 minutes or more. Allow your mind to wander while you walk.
  4. Afterwards, get your notebook and write about the issue again. Notice any changes in perspective or feeling.

Call me if you’d like to talk about how to tell your story and use EMDR and exercise to heal.

Contact Deborah

Keep it Moving: Exercise for a Body/Mind Makeover

Pilates at The Body Smith

Pilates at The Body Smith: Body-Mind Makeover

I have a dream coming true. It involves exercise, EMDR, and the blending of health and creativity.

I’ll soon open an office downtown. In a Pilates studio. More details to come, but here’s why I think it makes sense to do my EMDR therapy in a fitness studio, surrounded by instructors who understand how to make us stronger and fitter.

I begin every day with these indispensable rituals:

  • breakfast and perfect coffee made by my husband
  • three longhand journal pages (a la Julia Cameron)

AND

  • exercise with friends

These rituals let me do what I do. They keep it all moving. Without them, my ideas get paralyzed. If I skip breakfast, I fall flat by 10:00. If I skip more than a day at the page, I lose focus and feel annoyed at everything. If I skip more than a day of burpees and mountain-climbers, I get fuzzy-headed and gloomy.

Writing in a free, uncensored flow, blablablablablabla, with pen and paper, lets me manage all the little scraps of information piled up in my head since the day before: emotions from my clients, news of the world, thoughts about the future, what’s happening in Springfield, or the random mosaics in my head…It’s like a compost bin for thoughts, emotions, and sensations.

Random Thoughts, Feelings, Perceptions

Exercise does something similar, AND helps me burn calories. But it does so much more than that. It changes me, mentally.

Movement as Mood Lifter, Thought Sorter, Body Soother

As I focus on my body and movement, I move my conscious attention away from anything that preoccupies me. This allows some alchemical mental health process to unfold while I’m not looking. I literally drag myself into cardio class with heaviness or tightness and skip away feeling free and light. I have energy for the rest of the day. I stay concentrated longer. Professional dilemmas resolve more quickly. I think more lucidly, breathe more deeply. I take setbacks in stride and I feel more compassion for people, wherever I meet them. I sleep like a stone. I get a shot of hope for the future. It’s like I’ve meditated for an hour without trying.

Research offers a number of explanations for this. Exercise may buffer the brain from stress by regulating our sleep-wake schedule and creating more feel-good neurotransmitters. Concentrated movement may also act like exposure therapy for our anxiety. It creates some of the same sensations as panic in the body – but we learn to associate them with a workout rather than a feared situation. And movement reduces the likelihood for obesity and diabetes, which both link to depression.

I’m not aware of any of these reasons when I’m doing Core Barre with friends. I’m in the moment, laughing, sweating, and pushing myself to hold a plank.

Exercise as Body/Mind Makeover in Trauma Recovery

Yoga at The Body Smith: Body/Mind Makeover

Another reason I’m so excited to practice therapy in my favorite Pilates studio: I get to wear sneakers and yoga pants to work every day. Woohoo! More to come on this…

Contact me to talk about EMDR, exercise, or a Body/Mind Makeover.

Contact Deborah

 

Managing the Mirrors: How to Stay Calm When the World is in Chaos

 

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People ask me, “How do you do what you do and stay calm? How do you not go crazy with all the stories you absorb from people who are hurting?”

I say, “Sometimes I do go crazy.” I’m not immune to people’s stress and it can make me crazy tired…..Which is why I have to limit my intake and do a bunch of other self-preserving things to calm myself and make sure I’m rested and ready to listen again each Monday.

We all have mirror neurons that allow us to empathize with each other and even mimic each other’s behavior. With mirror neurons, we literally pull people’s pain (and joy and dance moves and fashion sense) into our own nervous systems. Children do this automatically with their parents: we feel the stress and impact of our parents’ emotional lives, as if it were our own.

To deal with all the flashing internal empathy mirrors, I have to be mindful of my intake, deliberate about my self-care, and awake to what I need at all times.

If I’m not mindful, deliberate, and awake…..I get sick from too much mirroring.

Here’s a partial list of ways I (sometimes) accomplish mindfulness, deliberateness, wakefulness. Consider it a work-in-progress. I learn more about calming and self-care every day.

  1. I have to move, every day: A walk or a cardio class or a yoga session. Movement lets me metabolize information and it prevents depression.
  2. Some of my favorite people tell me they can go on three hours of sleep and a few cups of coffee, but I still need a good eight hours every night. Sleep probably helps us process information. When I’m taking in lots of new stories and ideas, I need more mattress time.
  3. Art (visual) and Music. Colors and shapes and notes create a kind of medicine for me. I need them like I need to eat greens. I need to see, hear, and make them myself. I need to surround myself with people who work in textures and tones. I need Bach and the comingling of magenta and lime.
  4. Although it feels like a chore at first, I need to write something in my journal every morning. If I skip this, I pay.
  5. My Own Therapy. I get my own EMDR therapy, to help me sort and utilize all the incoming data that can seem so cruel and disconnected. Like many of you who work with people, I’m exposed to a steady stream of Type II Trauma (little t trauma) in the experiences of others. Just watching the news leaves me with enough material to fill an entire therapy session. This stuff has to go somewhere. EMDR helps clear the sidewalks of my brain, so I can move about again.

I hope this list gets you started on your own self-preservation journey. I’ll be back with more…..Because we need you in this world. We need your clear heart and mind. We need your calm spirit. We need your ideas and generosity. We need you to care for your body and soul, so there’s more of your goodness available to the world.

 

Contact me if you’d like to learn more about caring for and protecting yourself in this complicated world.

Letters on the Life of the Therapist, Chapter One: Vessels

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Dear Dr. Cox,

I’ve been thinking about our last supervision meeting and I have some questions. You always seem like you have it all together. You know your stuff and never appear distressed. Like an Olympic athlete who trains and trains. But what happens when the trained athlete pulls a muscle? We expect these unfortunate events to happen to athletes from time to time – we don’t look down on them when they get hurt. But what about therapists? Why do people expect us to have all our crap together? What if we get depressed or experience a trauma? We are only people too, right? Or should we “know better?”

Think about an oncologist who develops lung cancer after smoking for 25 years. We can all easily say that this doctor knew the consequences and therefore he gets no sympathy from anyone. He knew better. But he too is only human. I guess people hold us to this higher standard because of our experience and training. We know how PTSD develops, so we should be able to avoid it, right?

Last week when your client relapsed and almost killed a whole family with her drunk driving, you cried. You said, Sometimes I hate this job. It startled me at first, but then I felt relieved. How are we supposed to deal with that kind of news? After working so hard to help someone help themselves?

Dana


Dear Dana,

I’ve confessed that I (sometimes) hate this job. Glad to hear you weren’t too disappointed in me. In truth, I have a love/hate relationship with this work. Miracles happen every day and I get to be a part of that. I feel humbled and grateful because, as jobs go, this one is actually making the world a better place, one marriage, one family, one person at a time. And if I have to work for a living (as I’ll have to do until I literally go phlunk like a sandbag on the floor, at the very end), I might as well do something that forces me to learn, constantly, to layer concentration upon education, upon self-awareness, upon compassion, upon mindfulness and continued training and an ear for the ethics of every moment. It’s all good.

And it’s completely exhausting.

We are vessels. And, as such, we absorb and contain the troubles of others.

At the end of the day, I can’t stand to hear anybody talk, even my own family. And if I work a five-day clinical week, as I’ve done lately, I feel utter despair by Friday afternoon and fantasize about an empty, white room or a secluded cabin in the woods with no television, no phone, no mail, nobody needing me for miles.

I need to empty out again.

A question fizzes in my gray matter: Shouldn’t the therapist have a therapist? Someone tough enough and awake enough to track our feelings? After logging thirty psychotherapy hours in a week, don’t we deserve somebody to donate one hour to us? Sit and listen? Really try to understand? Does anybody care about the stories the therapist needs to tell? Or are we a class of persons who must perpetually suck it up, forget we have needs, be constantly available to other people’s needs, to make a living? A class of people who must always protect others from our own stress?

Many of us cannot afford the very service we provide so skillfully to others. Or if we can afford it, we  often have trouble finding someone who can stay just a bit ahead of us, get a 360-degree perspective on our work and trauma stories, offer wisdom and guidance, and tolerate the complexity of our moods and longings.

Will the good therapist soon evolve into a kind of receptive being who lives a shorter lifespan but is built for listening only – not venting – like some aboriginal with twelve toes.

How are we supposed to deal? I’m starting a list for you. More later . . .

DC


Dr. Cox,

It’s hard to stay empathic 24/7 when no one asks about my problems. Friends ask for free advice like a family member would ask a doctor to diagnose their runny nose. We’re all work horses even though we do no manual labor. Our jobs never stop. But listening to negative and traumatic stories day in and day out brings up my own monsters. Is this normal?

I’ve written a poem about the therapist’s dilemma. Hope you like it.

She Matters

Her life is a never ending chapter of pain, sorrow, despair, and hopelessness. Why did she choose this road? The road of endless heartache, it goes on and on, it never ends once it has begun. She chose this road, this life that she knows all too well. The trauma, the pain, the empathy, the compassion. Her life is important. She matters.

She sits in an all too familiar leather chair, soft, yet tattered. The company she keeps is not dissimilar to herself, she feels their pain, yet they know nothing of her own. Her words come easy, as if she is an actor who has memorized a script. Her script is her life. She is not unlike a fireman pulling a child from a burning building or a surgeon making a vital transplant to save a life. She saves lives. Her life is important. She matters.

 She smiles, an all too easy smile. It’s a practiced grin that has taken many years to perfect. She feels discomfort in other’s words as the words bring back her own darkness. Her darkness that has seen light but always returns to shadows. She invites the shadows to bring others light. Her life is important. She matters.

Dana Christian, M.A.


Dear Dana,

Your poetry hits home – like having a sidewalk artist sketch your caricature. And yes, I do think it’s normal to have your own monsters sneak out of the closet as you listen to your clients. Some say they go away in time. But do we really want them to? I think the monsters keep us connected to the people we serve. My monsters – depression, childhood trauma, money stress, disconnection from my partner, on and on and on – keep me awake to the suffering of my clients. They motivate me to care.

The problem, as I see it, lies not with the fact that you and I need our own therapy. The problem lies at the intersection of psychology and the marketplace.

Some research shows we’re less effective after 25 client hours per week – and I know that’s true for me. But when I cracked open my APA workforce survey a few years ago, the definition for full-time practice included 40 or more client-contact hours per week! Who decided that and what kind of garden vegetables did they have stuck up their rear ends?

But do we know anyone paying the bills, saving for retirement, and living comfortably, who sees only 25 clients a week?

This path chose us. Not the reverse. Now we have to survive the path, and nurture ourselves well enough that we can be effective on it.

As promised, here’s my list: Self care for therapists.

  1. EMDR. I think all mental health workers need EMDR therapy. We witness so much pain that we must somehow metabolize in order to sleep, get up the next day, and be present for our families and our clients. EMDR jump-starts the nervous system to process disturbing information and find it a home in the filing system. It calms and balances. It promotes clear thinking. It helps resolve long-term trauma and restores empathy for the self.
  2. A clean, green diet. I’m not a nutritionist, but I’ve learned a lot from my friend and health coach, Meg Worden, who once told me that greens are the lungs of the planet. We need to detox from our addictions to things like refined sugar and dairy products – and replace them (at least for the most part) with plants. As with EMDR, eating green promotes clear-headedness and calm.
  3. Daily Exercise. This one goes without saying, but when you’re working so hard just to survive graduate school, you might skip your cardio routine and collapse on the couch some days. I understand that first hand. And I know now that past the age of 35, I could not function without daily exercise. While I walk, my brain works on these complex cases, in the background, leaving me free to smell the lilacs and listen to 80s funk.
  4. Your right amount of sleep, solitude, and down time. This can’t be overstated. You’re good – and when people discover this, they will refer clients to you and ask you to testify in court and fill out their FMLA forms and see them on Friday night and call them on Sunday and read their long emails and rush a report and reduce your fee so you need to see an extra person and go over your session time and be there for them endlessly. Which you simply cannot do. Guard your schedule ruthlessly. Go to bed by 10:00 consistently. Stop working when it’s time to go home. Ignore email on the weekend. Let the phone answer itself. You are more important than all of it.
  5. Peer and friend support. We need a circle of trusted people who will take the therapist chair with us and let us vent. We need a professional mentor, a best-friend type of listener, a therapist type of listener, a priest or rabbi, a significant other, and maybe a business coach. We need to luxuriate in being the speaker – at least once a week with someone. We need people who consider the big picture and look out for our health, who remind us our mission and purpose, remind us our services are worth money. We need people who cock their heads when we start to sound “off.” We need advice, guidance, sounding boards, and second opinions. We need friends who make us talk about other things besides psychology.

More later . . .

DC