Monday, July 20, 2020

The Queer Body Remembers: Somatic-Focused Trauma Healing By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

For many LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) people growing up was  distressing due to homophobia and transphobia. Schools felt like a scary place for those who were scapegoated as queer. LGBTQ people of color reported even worse experiences due to the additional stress of racism and racial bullying. Many of the gay men’s personal narratives that I have heard are not vastly different from my own. Regardless of national origin or skin color, we are part of a tribe with similar stories of growing up in a homophobic and transphobic world where our true essence was repeatedly assaulted. As LGBTQ people, we have connected around the theme of “love is stronger than hate” which raised awareness about our injustice and suffering. Addressing these issues have helped people to become more concerned about the mistreatment of not only LGBTQ kids, but also any youngsters who do not flow with the mainstream. More work needs to be done to make the world a safer place for marginalized people. Anyone dealing with oppression does not deserve to suffer in silence and needs encouragement to reach out and get support. Love and healing is more accessible than our painful moments want us to believe.

Injustice and trauma that were inflicted on LGBTQ people as result of growing up in an oppressive environment deserve empathy and healing. When it comes to healing, psychotherapy offers a variety of approaches to work with trauma, including the ordeal of growing up gay in a heterosexist world. Many mental health professionals who work with LGBTQ clients often rely on a “top-down” approach, which  focuses on the highest form of cognition that involves changing thoughts. Moreover, it challenges clients’ negative belief systems and their cognitive distortions. Many clients have benefited from cognitive restructuring in psychotherapy and developed skills in identifying and disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. In my clinical experience, when it comes to healing from years of assault on one’s core identity including feelings of shame and humiliation for same sex attraction, a cognitive approach is neither enough nor always possible. For many queer trauma survivors whose thinking brain gets hijacked by trauma memories and their bodies default to a fight-flight-freeze response, a body-centered approach or bottom-up processing is necessary to calm their arousal systems. Relying on the thinking brain as the only path to deal with the root cause of trauma symptoms is not effective. The brain parts that are responsible for reflexes, memories, and automatic survival responses are in the deeper regions of the brain, and trauma informed therapy needs to begin by focusing on those areas.

Educating clients about a bottom-up approach, and the basic working of the nervous system can help enhance and clarify the somatic focused therapy process. For many LGBTQ clients, trusting a professional or an authority figure might not be easy due to their history with a discriminatory health care system, religious bigotry, police violence, school trauma, and family betrayal. Establishing a therapeutic alliance with LGBTQ clients can be facilitated by explaining the therapeutic process including the key role the nervous system can play in trauma recovery and asking their permission to provide somatic-focused therapy.

Our body comes with an already built-in autonomic nervous system (ANS) that provides many vital functions. The ANS is the part of the nervous system that governs the fight, flight, or freeze instinct and is responsible for the unconscious bodily functions like breathing, digesting food, and regulating the heart rate. It also plays an important role of supplying information from our organs to our brain. The ANS is central to our experience of safety, connection with others, and our ability to bounce back from life’s overwhelming experiences. Relying on neuroception, a term coined by Dr. Porges, our ANS is able differentiate between safety, danger, and a life threat. Neuroception, as Deb Dana (author of  The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy) explains, is automatic, and it does not go through the thinking part of our brain. Everything from sound to smell to temperature in our environment, people’s tone of voice, and eye contact can influence our neuroception.  It  is like a “guardian angel” that helps us take immediate action in the face of danger or threat. The goal of neuroception is to keep us safe and alive.

Pat Ogden’s, Stephen Porges’, Bessel van der Kolk’s, and Peter Levine’s research and writings have expanded my understanding of the autonomic nervous system as a relational system that has been shaped by experience. We now know previous negative experiences and traumas can significantly affect how our nervous system accurately assesses safety, danger, or a life threat. This can explain why many LGBTQ people with history of being judged, humiliated, and violated often suffer from anxiety that stems from faulty neuroception.

Neuroceptive conditioning based on previous homophobic and transphobic mistreatment can cause many LGBTQ people to feel unsafe even where there is no real threat. What we hold inside in the aftermath of trauma can cause us to over-react in a safe environment or not react correctly in a dangerous situation. A body inclusive therapy can help to support the ANS to move out of a dysregulated state into a biological state of safety and connection.

There are many body-oriented methods for trauma healing including Somatic Experiencing (SE) which was founded by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. His curiosity about animals in the wild getting exposed to life-threating situations without getting PTSD while humans frequently succumb to the disorder was the start of  SE’s development. SE is a body first approach that helps people discover where they are stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze responses, and how they can “resolve these fixated physiological states.” SE is a powerful trauma healing medium that includes working with sensations, movements, postures, and gestures as a way of deepening resilience and to reset the nervous system. According to Dr. Levine, the ANS can become dysregulated due to “the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze” in the aftermath of trauma. A body-oriented approach like SE can help stop trauma to become “a life sentence”  through “gently releasing thwarted survival energy bound in the body.” To do this, Dr. Levine developed SIBAM as a method to accurately track a client’s inner experience. In his writing, he described SIBAM as an acronym for: “Sensation (Internal-Interoceptive), Image, Behavior (both voluntary and involuntary), Affect (feelings and emotions) and Meaning (including old/traumatic beliefs and new perceptions). These five elements are the channels of experience that occur during a session.”

LGBTQ people who grow up with mistreatment can discover the tales of their abuse written in their nervous system. The queer body remembers the experience of growing up in a world with cruelty. Having over two decades of providing LGBTQ affirmative psychotherapy along with research and numerous trainings on body-mind therapy, I have learned cruelty and cumulative stress of mistreatment can become embodied during a person's life and affect the working of the ANS. For example, one gay high school student with symptoms of anxiety disclosed to me that he hears several homophobic remarks a day along with experiencing bullying and harassment. Such ongoing stress from homophobia can activate his sympathetic system (“stress response” or “fight or flight” response). Naturally as a target of hate and mistreatment, he wants to defend himself or escape the abusive situation. Often due to lack of protection for many LGBTQ youngsters, during such abusive situations neither fighting nor fleeing can resolve the overwhelming situation. As a result, the energy that gets locked inside him for not being able to fight or flee causes trauma symptoms. In other words, the thwarted or incomplete fight and flight responses can become “trapped” within the youngster’s body and dysregulate his nervous system. Such a dysregulated nervous system is likely to get stuck on “high” or hyper-arousal. Anxiety, panic attacks, rage, hyperactivity, mania, hypervigilance, sleeplessness, exaggerated startle response, digestive problems, and many other symptoms are the result of a dysregulated nervous system that is stuck on “high” or hyper-arousal.

On the other hand, there are those of us whose nervous systems can stuck on “low” or hypo-arousal, which can result from being terrorized growing up with no hope of protection or escape. For example, faced with isolation, confusion, bullying, physical attacks, and ongoing lack of safety is too stressful for any child to endure, especially when there is no empathic other to help the kid. Such experience is often beyond the youngster’s “window of tolerance” (a term coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel). This is when the dorsal vagal (dorsal branch of the vagus nerve as discussed by Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory) can shut down the entire system, and the mistreated youngster can go into freeze. In other words, the child suffers in silence with numbness or dissociation as his only available survival mechanism. Dorsal vagal is instrumental in activating the “shutdown” of the body in cases of overwhelming fear which can result from trauma. This automatic survival mechanism can become a long-standing pattern of how individuals might cope with fear and stress in life. For instance, people whose nervous system is stuck on “low” or hypo-arousal when faced with life stresses can default to shutting down, disassociation, chronic isolation, detachment, numbness, and suicidal thoughts.

As stated, trauma symptoms are the trapped energy from the "incomplete defensive response" (fight, flight, or freeze) and healing involves helping the body to release such thwarted responses. Working with many members of LGBTQ community, I have noticed when the nervous system gets stuck on freeze, when numbness and detachment become a gay man’s dominant state, he is more likely to engage in risky behaviors as a temporary relief from inner deadness. Thrill seeking behaviors such as, excessive gambling, hypersexuality, and crystal meth (crystal methamphetamine) use are few examples of  how some gay men escape the emotional flatness that results from experiencing the hypo-arousal state. The same behaviors can also be used to cope with ongoing activation of the fight or flight response. One person might turn to substance abuse or other perilous behaviors to escape his inner deadness while another person might use it to dampen his anxiety that often results from being stuck in a state of hyper-arousal. It is important to note that the trauma is at the root cause of such a maladaptive way of coping.

As discussed earlier, as a “bottom-up” approach, SE focuses on the brain stem and its survival-based functions first rather than insight and emotions. Dr. Levine developed SIBAM to chart this “bottom-up” process, working from body to emotions and cognitions. The SE session involves teaching the client to track body sensation including the sensations related to the traumatic event. Experiencing  body sensations related to homophobic or transphobic events in a safe way allows the client to process the trauma. Often the client might experience discharge of the traumatic energy through heat, vibration, shaking, or tears. Such healing approach can reset the nervous system and restore inner balance. For example, Cyrus (names and other details have been changed in respect for privacy and confidentiality) a cisgender gay Iranian man who grew up suffering from homophobia and racism, came to therapy to work on his “coming out issues.” After he felt safe enough to address his traumas, our work progressed in helping him to develop awareness of “felt sense” of his internal states. We worked slowly and paused periodically to notice any sensations, movements, impulses, images, gesture, or feelings. Sometimes he experienced an uncomfortable heavy sensation in his chest and stayed with it short of getting overwhelmed. Other times he noticed spontaneous movement of his body rocking from side to side which felt soothing for him. We paid attention to any subtle movement or protective responses that was coming up. For example, one of the protective responses that was not available at the time of dealing with school bullies was emerging. I invited Cyrus to notice the movement of his hands and what might be coming up. He described sensing strength in his arms and an impulse to use his hands to push back. By slowing down the process, he was able to work with that impulse. By tracking his body sensations and movements, Cyrus was able to move through painful events and discharge the trauma energy by spontaneous trembling and shaking. In addition, alternating, or “pendulating,” between the sensations associated with the traumatic event and those that are a source of safety and strength was part of the process that supported his ability to self-regulate. Eventually, our work together led to the embodiment of his pride in being a gay person of color. It also helped Cyrus not letting his past traumas become a life sentence. He discovered love and a sense of safety is more accessible than his past wants him to believe.

On the path to recovering from trauma and living a passionate life, one needs resources. In Sensorimotor psychotherapy, Pat Ogden describes resources as, “anything that enhances the quality of our lives or provides what we need to meet life’s challenges.” She also discusses in details different categories of resources including internal resources and external resources. It is important to note, a resource needs to be tailored to the needs of the individual. For instance, some clients might find certain body movements like rocking or dancing helpful. Their body might respond positively to such an experience by releasing tension. Other clients might notice feeling lighter in their body after watching a comedy or playing with their pets. No one should feel judged for not finding certain resources helpful. One size does not fit all.

One of the resources that can benefit gay men is the discovery and the embodiment of the meaning of their gayness or queerness. In one of my articles, “Gays in Search of Meaning,” I discussed by embracing what is inherently purposeful about our gayness, we can start to live a more soulful life. Helping gay men to connect to their gay essence and find the numinous qualities inherent in being gay can be an enlightening process. Gay people have an advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned. Most gay people grow up feeling "different," and that differentness helps to not identify with the collective. As Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, suggested,

"...realization that you are different from others may force you to disidentify from socially conditioned patterns of thought and behavior. This will automatically raise your level of consciousness above that of the unconscious majority, whose members unquestioningly take on board all inherited patterns. In that respect, being gay can be a help. Being an outsider to some extent, someone who does not fit in with others or is rejected by them for whatever reason, makes life difficult, but it also places you at advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned."

It is important to note concepts like soul, enlightenment, or spirituality can be triggering for many LGBTQ people who were harmed by homophobic religions. Throughout human history, many religious institutes have committed atrocities against LGBTQ people. In the name of their god, they have murdered queer people or denied them their human rights. For many LGBTQ people who were target of hate by homophobic institutions, knowing their right to a soulful life with depth and purpose can be a resource. Such awakening can become embodied when it is done within the context of somatic therapy. In my experience, many gay men have added meaning and a sense of aliveness to their lives by participating in body inclusive psychotherapy while working on discovering a deeper meaning of being gay. Such feeling of aliveness and its underlying bodily sensation is in contradiction to the fear and humiliation that many gay men had to endure growing up in a heterosexist world. In Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes about a body-centered approach to healing allows “the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.”

Finally, how far the LGBTQ community has come in the struggle for equal rights reflects how brave we are as a community. Our bravery can continue by facing traumas we experienced growing up in oppressive environments that did not nurture our true essence. Not every LGBTQ person felt traumatized growing up, but those who did can benefit from the vitality and the sense of liberation that comes with incorporating somatic work as part of the healing process As Resmaa Menakem, the author of  My Grandmother’s Hands stated, “Healing does not happen in your head. It happens in your body.”

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California. ,




Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Somatic Approach on Working with Depression and Negative Self-Talk By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

Depression is common and treatable. It can strike anyone at any age. Consulting with your physician or a licensed mental health provider is the best way to find out if you are suffering from depression and the type of depression you might be having.

A person with depression can experience a few or many of the following symptoms:

Feelings of sadness and emptiness

Feelings of anxiety

Experiencing restlessness or irritability

Losing interest in all or most activities

Problems with appetite that can lead to weight gain or weight loss

Sleeping problems

Loss of interest in sex

Low energy that can include feeling tired much of the time

Difficulty with concentration or making decisions

Feeling negative towards oneself including worthlessness or excessive guilt

Feeling hopeless or helplessness

Crying spells

Increased use of alcohol or drug use in order to cope with a depressed mood

Thoughts of death/suicidal ideation

Many people might not have the awareness that the underlying cause of the above-mentioned symptoms is depression; therefore, they cannot get the treatment they need. It is difficult to treat something that one has not identified yet. Over time, serious levels of depression that are not addressed get worse and can lead to other health-related issues. It can even lead to suicide.

There are different kinds of depression; hence, one person’s needs will differ from those of someone else. Psychotherapy is the most common treatment for depression. Psychotherapy can help on many different levels including integration of the clients’ body experiences in relation to their thoughts and emotions along with resolving or coping with issues that may contribute to their depression. Most mental health providers agree treatments for depression with suicidal ideation or other serious symptoms require a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy. Some patients who might not show progress with standard treatments for depression might need additional resources.

In my counseling work with people who suffer from depression, I often notice that they have an inner critic which constantly makes them feel discouraged, inadequate and in many cases worthless. When the inner critic is the dominant voice inside a person, depression is likely to be present. Identifying the inner critic can be done by encouraging clients to pay attention to their body and their nervous system activation. For example, when Jack noticed his neck and shoulders curved forward, his head looking down, and unpleasant tension in his jaw, he was invited to become curious about this body language. The body language is a voice that does not use words and always tells the truth. He discovered an inner dialogue associated with this body posture, and it involved the following thought, “I am going to lose my job.” He realized how often he tells himself that his job is at jeopardy. When he was invited to examine all the reasons that he won’t lose his job, and all the resources that can help him to find another job in case he was let go, he noticed a shift in his body. He started sitting up straight with his shoulder pushing out, his jaw loosened, and he reported feeling more confident. He was encouraged to embody this new level of confidence by noticing all the positive shifts in his body including his deeper breath and feeling more relaxed in his shoulders. By tracking his pleasant bodily sensations that he was experiencing as result of identifying helpful resources, he was creating a physiological event in his body which led to regulating his nervous system. This can be a powerful approach to help someone suffering from negative self talk to use their body as a resource to modify such self-defeating dialogue.

There are many ways to work with negative inner dialogues and painful emotions that accompany them. It is helpful for clients and therapists to explore different treatment options as they work together. A collaborative therapeutic approach helps people to feel empowered and  in control of their recovery from depression.

Working with a mental health therapist to explore treatment options for depression is an important step toward healing. I hope anyone who is suffering from depression reaches out and gets the help they need. Everyone’s pain is unique, and no one deserves to suffer in silence. Reaching out and asking for help is a courageous act that people can do in response to suffering from depression.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D., is  a marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Hollywood, California. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Role of Trauma Therapists in the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius

A great change is upon humanity. The Age of Aquarius which values social conscience combined with love and unity is replacing the Piscean Age of dualism, hierarchy, and power. No one knows exactly when each age begins or ends, but most experts seem to agree that humanity is in a very important transition period. Unprecedented change and upheaval can happen when Piscean values that have lasted for over two thousand years is taken down to make room for a new world. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic with its devastating impact on health and the economy is related to such a seismic shift.

This transition to a new age is gradual and has been in progress for a long time. The world will become a better place once the transition is completed, and humanity can celebrate the promises of the Aquarian Age. Such promises include peace on Earth, end of poverty, love and kindness, pure spiritual awareness, true democracy and more. Some of these promises are happening now as humanity is racing to combat the coronavirus with medical breakthroughs, along with caring for the sick and dying. The sacrifices of the frontline medical personnel and many essential workers reflects humanity’s  love and kindness.

Everyone has a role to play in welcoming the new energy of the Aquarian Age. It involves letting go of the illusion of materialism as the “secret” road toward fulfillment. Instead, embracing cooperation and humanitarianism is a part of this evolution of consciousness that is needed for this major change. Without a fundamental shift in consciousness and spiritual evolution, humanity won’t be able to move in the new direction. The pure spirituality associated with this new age is the innate knowing of the Divine’s love within one’s heart and not extreme religious ideology.

During such a challenging transition, pure spiritual leaders, along with trauma therapists, can play major roles in helping people. Spiritual leaders can  help humanity realize that this shift to a new era can become less chaotic when people stop worshipping money and power as their source of security. When the world economy is based on infinite expansion which leads to the depletion of the Earth’s resources, suffering is inevitable. Given the fact that economic expansion has resulted in replacing fish in the oceans with plastic,  forests with urban housing, clean air with pollution, and turning the ecosystem into a garbage bin, transformation to a new age is necessary. Spiritual leaders need to remind everyone that an outdated frame of reference to a past era won’t help  love the Earth back to health. It is time to welcome the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

“The darkest hour is just before the dawn,” as humanity stands upon the cusp of the Piscean-Aquarian Age. They need to be prepared for disruptions that can happen before the completion of this major shift. As exciting as it sounds to move to a different era that can open the world to the splendor of a new life, the transformation might be intense and at times beyond  humanity’s “window of tolerance”. There might be more climate catastrophes, pandemics, mass shootings, political chaos, terrorism, wars, xenophobia, homophobia and other ugly phenomena. To be aware of what is happening allows everyone to prepare, and work in cooperation with this  energy of the new era. Crisis is not always about danger but also the opportunity to transform. Trauma therapists are more than ever needed to hold space and help people  recover from the intensity that is associated with this major transformation. They can play a vital role as the universal trauma holders and healers. Helping people to stay centered and grounded during a crisis is among the contributions that healers of any kind can offer.

Those of us who have spent decades helping traumatized people feel safe again know that trauma is a fact of life. Healing from any kind of injuries involves offering helpful resources for those in need of treatment. Since it is easy to feel helpless in the face of trauma, resource is power. One of the most accessible resources for anyone looking to grow, evolve, and/or heal beyond any traumatic experience is working with the body, in particular the nervous system. Healers who are trained to work with trauma can help people  become more resilient living in this transitional time by teaching them how to find safety within their bodies. As a recent example, a man who survived the AIDS crisis of the past century, and now recovering from a COVID-19 infection, shared during the peak of his illness, there was an episode in which breathing became very difficult to the point he thought he was going to die. It was a scary moment for him since he was living  alone at the time. He did not know if he was experiencing a panic attack, difficulty breathing due to COVID-19, or both. He reported what helped him  lessen the intensity of that terrifying moment so that he could call 911 was hearing a “gentle voice” of his therapist inside him inviting him to notice his feet, hands, and the felt sense of the support his body was experiencing lying on the bed. Perhaps, knowing how to track his pleasant sensations initiated a physiological event that resulted in helping him breathe a little easier until the paramedics arrived. How to track his bodily sensations was an important resource which he described as a “lifesaver.” Another woman, who was struggling with COVID-19, reported listening to calming music helped her chest  feel less tight and began to experience warm sensations flowing around her heart. Tracking her pleasant sensations improved her mood and her physical symptoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered many people’s survival mechanisms, and their nervous systems have become fixated in one or more processes. For some in a high sympathetic tone (fight/ flight) that can involve being restless, anxious, and for others in the state of  dorsal vagal response that might involve shutdown, freeze, and other acute stress response. Body-inclusive therapy offers  techniques that can help people in distress  shift their autonomic state that is stuck on FFF (fight/flight/freeze) toward safety and relaxation. Offering people resources to lower activation and regulate their nervous system is an example of the important roles trauma informed healers can play during the current pandemic or any crisis. “Body-inclusive” therapy is one approach that healers can offer people in distress to lower their activation and regulate the nervous system. There are many different paths toward healing. One size does not fit all. A resource needs to be tailored to the needs of the individual.

As the planet goes through a turbulent transitional period paving the way to the Aquarian Age, humanity can witness disastrous events, turmoil and other intense experiences. The transition from the Age of Pisces to Aquarius might feel like a traumatic birth that once endured will result in a glorious birth of a new consciousness with universal love at its core.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Resource is Power in Dealing with COVID-19 By Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D.

COVID-19 is the uninvited guest that has crashed our daily lives. This virus has forced us to take a collective “time out,” and shelter in our homes. Most of our plans are now on pause, and we are living with a great deal of uncertainty. For many of us, fear, helplessness, and confusion are among the common reactions to the coronavirus outbreak. It feels scary to deal with an invisible enemy that can attack the respiratory system and jeopardize our well-being or the health of our loved ones. No one should feel judged for having an emotional reaction to this pandemic. It is important to have empathy for our painful feelings, and our struggle dealing with this situation. Everyone’s pain is unique, and no one deserves to suffer in silence. Reaching out and asking for help is a courageous act that we can do in response to our need for support.

When it comes to asking for help, it is important to notice where we experience our distress. We often notice our overwhelming emotions and our intense thinking patterns when it comes to stressful situations. It is important to start with how our body experiences the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly its impact on our nervous system. Everything that happens to us starts with how our nervous system receives it. Our body comes with a built in autonomic nervous system (ANS) that provides many vital functions including helping us experience safety. Relying on neuroception, a term coined by Porges, the ANS helps our body differentiate between safety, danger, and a life threat. Our nervous system gets affected by what happens around or inside us. For example, the cues of danger that many of us sense by just making a short trip to our neighborhood grocery store is enough to dysregulate our nervous system. It is very difficult to function optimally when we are in a constant state of dysregulation caused by the threat of the coronavirus. As human beings, we need a sense of safety. We can’t thrive without it.

At times like this, we need to help our body feel safe and learn how to regulate our nervous system. We need to protect ourselves from getting infected by the virus or recover from it without getting paralyzed by fear and stress. Luckily, by providing the right resources, our body can become a vessel of safety to settle ourselves. A settled body can become a protective container during these turbulent times.

Our best ally to help our nervous system deal with the COVID-19 pandemic or any life challenge is accessing resources. What is a resource? A resource is power. It is anything in the universe that can empower us, support our wellbeing, help us feel safe and create a healthy connection with others. A resource is not only about what can help us thrive but also how helping ourselves can positively impact others and the Earth. A resource can be as simple as listening to calming music that can relax us or practicing physical distancing with others that can reduce our exposure to the coronavirus. We all have resources, and some of us might need support to identify them. It is very difficult to identify resources if we feel anxious, overwhelmed, or dealing with chronic habits of negative thinking.

We can start accessing  our resources by being present in our body. When we identify a helpful resource, we can notice our body’s reaction to it. For example, when we witness and slow down our breathing, along with silently repeating a meaningful mantra, we might be able to help our nervous system shift toward the experience of calmness. According to many scientists, slow breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and help us go into the parasympathetic mode.  Moreover, for some of us by having body awareness during slow abdominal breathing, we can track positive sensations such as relaxation or calmness. Such tracking can help us  befriend our internal sensations and contribute to our nervous system regulation.

It is important to note not everyone finds meditation or slow breathing helpful. One size does not fit all. A resource needs to be tailored to the needs of the individual. For instance, some of us find certain dances or movements helpful. Our body might respond positively to such  experience by releasing tension. Other people might notice feeling lighter in their body after watching a comedy. No one should feel judged for not finding certain resources helpful.

The right resources can help with nervous system regulation and help our body experience safety. A regulated nervous system helps with creating a strong foundation to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, there is magic in a breath that flows from a person with a regulated nervous system since it can add harmony to the collective nervous system. Everyone has a nervous system and embracing the oneness of our humanity can include awareness of our collective nervous system. Since we are all part of one humanity, our attempt to create inner peace is good for everyone’s nervous system.  If a virus can be spread so quickly and globally, peace can too.

We can create a list of the resources that can assist us dealing with the impact of this pandemic. We can create it on our own, with the help of a therapist or a trusted person. Again, it is okay to reach out and ask for help even when it comes with resource making. As we make this list, we can bring awareness to what it is like on the inside knowing we have resources. For many, resource-making can be an act of self-care that can lead to a sense of aliveness. It can also be empowering and help our body experience a sense of safety. Peace, serenity, and a sense of safety can be very empowering for the immune system. In addition, resources can help us collectively. For example, a collective breath is a resource that can help us pause and change our old way of living. As our life story with COVID-19 unfolds, let’s reflect and realize a crisis is not always about danger but also the opportunity to transform.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Breath & Love: A Different Kind of Intoxication by Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D.

The word intoxication often gets associated with substance use. Even though some people do experience a physical high through drinking or drug use, such behaviors have nothing to do with the real desire of the soul for elevation. There is a different kind of intoxication that comes from certain body-mind practices. Such practice draws breath and love together with the intention of a journey into the heart, which is into an inner place you can call “home.” 

Every journey has a beginning.  The journey into the heart starts with awareness of breath, which is one of the most accessible paths to the present moment and has the potential for transformation. Breathing is an automatic bodily function that you can consciously work with.  For instance, you can infuse each breath you take with a silent mantra, which can be performed anytime and anywhere. A mantra can be given by one’s mentor or can be found through personal research. A conscious breath that is combined with a deeply personal mantra has a different quality than an automatic one. It is a beautiful breath with a potential to connect you to a deeper place within yourself.  

There are many ways of breathing. Each with their own physiological impact on the body including the impact on the nervous system. For example, when you witness and slow down your breathing going out and coming in, along with silently repeating a meaningful mantra, you can help your nervous system shift toward the experience of calmness. According to many scientists, slow breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and help you go into the parasympathetic mode.  Moreover, by having body awareness during slow abdominal breathing, you can track positive sensations such as relaxation or calmness. Such tracking can help you to befriend your internal sensations and contribute to your nervous system regulation. A regulated nervous system helps with creating a strong foundation for your personal or spiritual journey along with deepening your connection to your body, mind, and soul. In addition, there is magic in a breath that flows from a person with a regulated nervous system since it can add harmony to the collective nervous system. Everyone has a nervous system and embracing the oneness of our humanity can include awareness of our collective nervous system. Since we are all part of one humanity, your attempt to create inner peace is good for everyone’s nervous system. 

As you journey into the heart with awareness of  breath, you need to invite love into this process. Love is more than an emotion. It is an experience, and you can access it through your imagination. For instance, as you notice your breathing, imagine a moment in your life when you  felt real love and kindness. Notice the bodily “felt sense” of this pleasant experience as you imagine it. Let the pleasant sensation(s) that can come up infuse every part of your body. Take all the time you need and dive into this heartwarming experience. Such a practice can become a doorway to an inner space where a mystical dance of breath and love give rise to an intoxicating experience. This is how you can connect with your heart and immerse your mind into the energy of love. This is how you can  “go home.” 

When such  practice is done not just for the sake of personal growth but to add more harmony to life, it can expand beyond yourself and help the world. Breathing with the intention of a union with love can add more love to the web of universal connectivity and increase  participation in creating balance within the universe. Currently, the world needs more love, and our personal journey needs to include compassion for the Earth and each other.

The combination of breath and love is a free elixir that is available to everyone and is the fuel needed to “go home.” However, for some people with unresolved past traumas it might be challenging to benefit from such combination. The sense of bliss that you can experience when love merges with breath is difficult to access in a body frozen by trauma. That is why in order to “go home” one needs to claim the body from unhealed trauma. Since unhealed trauma can affect the working of the autonomic nervous system, it can be difficult for many trauma survivors to feel safe enough to let go and experience such a deep inner journey. The nervous system has many functions including helping us experience a sense of safety. Since trauma is in the body,  particularly the nervous system, somatic psychotherapy can be a helpful approach toward healing from trauma.  

The practice of combining love and breath can help you journey into a sacred place within your heart you can call “home.” This practice helps you  realize love is more accessible than your past wants you to believe. Such a practice can be an inner container for love where its intoxicating magic can transform you.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California. ,

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Royal Road to Nervous System Regulation By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

Many years ago, my husband and I worked on a small movie project that involved reshooting and editing some of the scenes. Inspired by that experience, I view life as a movie with the opportunity to reshoot and edit some of the upsetting or disappointing scenes. The editing tool is our imagination. Life experiences can consist of traumatic or tragic scenes, but we don't have to live in the shadow of our tragedies. As Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing stated, "Trauma is a fact of life, but it doesn't have to be a life sentence."

With the help of our imagination, we can come up with an alternative to any unsettling life experience. Since these events impact the nervous system, the most important part of this work is noticing how the body responds to the new take along with the bodily sensations that can arise. Noticing how our body responds to a positive replica of an event can help embody a new relationship to the original experience. Many of us have heard how changing our thinking about a situation can impact the intensity of it. This is a similar concept except we work with the imagination along with the inner sensations and any unresolved excess energy within the nervous system. Stephen Porges’, Bessel van der Kolk’s, and Peter Levine’s research and writings have significantly reworked my understanding of how the nervous system responds to threat and trauma. As a result of studying their work, I have gained more respect for the body especially the autonomic nervous system (ANS). 

Since our life tragedies live in the body, they can be experienced as unpleasant sensations. For example, it is not uncommon for people with unhealed trauma to experience sensations such as tightness, freezing, heaviness, tension, shaking or others in their body. Some people that I have worked with have reported the bodily experience of “spacious” in the chest area or a sense of vitality after modifying the original unpleasant event in their imagination. Through my training in Somatic Experiencing, I have been learning about the importance of tracking bodily sensations that often come up during one’s healing journey. In general, this tracking involves paying attention to sensations within the nervous system and distinguishing between pleasant and unpleasant ones. In my experience, the more we bring pleasant sensations to our focus, the more regulated our nervous system can become. Using the imagination to take bad memories and form something new along with embracing pleasant sensations is the royal road to regulating our nervous system.

It is important to note that using our imagination for healing purposes needs to be done with the help of a professional who has training in healing trauma. We need to make sure that there is a trained person available in case we become overwhelmed by the imagination and can't cut it off. Different approaches work for different people, and there is no one size fits all when it comes to therapy. It is empowering when we offer people choices regarding interventions and healing modalities.

When we use our imagination to edit some of the painful scenes in our history, we can experience more mastery over situations that we felt powerless at the time. Imagination as the Sufi mystic Inayat Khan explained “is the stream that feeds the fountain of your mind."  Many people do not tap into the current of this stream and nourish their mind and body with its healing energy. By using our imagination to rewrite some of our life events, we can become an active player and connect with abilities and potencies that we may not have experienced previously. Our imagination can also be utilized in any current situation where we experience powerlessness. We can use it to create a solution or coping strategy for any life challenges we encounter. As Bessel van der Kolk stated, “Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true.”

One way of editing our life story is by choosing an unhappy scene from our experience, and just like a movie director, use our imagination and reshoot the scene. Most of our life events have a beginning, middle, and end. We can choose a segment and change the scene to how we wished it had happened. For some, changing the beginning of an event makes more sense and for others modifying the middle or the end feels better. How and what to modify with the intention of creating an alternative scene is a very personal decision.

I once worked with an actor who felt devastated after learning his part in a popular television series was suddenly cut. The producer ended his role by having him killed in one of the episodes. He felt incredibly sad for not being in that show anymore. Sharing and receiving empathy along with grieving for the loss of his role was helpful but not enough. He still had difficulty feeling confident to pursue his acting career. At some point in our work, I invited him to imagine a different take from what had happened. A scene that was completely opposite to the original painful experience. Before starting the re-imagining, I encouraged him to find a comfortable position and notice how his back was touching the couch. Bringing his awareness to sensations that were comfortable in his body helped him be in the present moment in a relaxed way. It is important to be grounded in the present moment when doing this work. While he was imagining a more pleasant alternative to his original devastating experience, he noticed his body became infused with a pleasant warm sensation along with a change in his breathing and a delightful smile appeared on his face. As he was sharing how the exercise was helping him not to feel stuck, he was making a movement with his hands that seemed meaningful. By inviting him to notice the movement, he realized talking about letting go of defeat led to opening of his clinched fist. As he was noticing the movement and slowing it down, he started to sense some tingling in his hands. Something began to change for him in that moment that words could not describe. As Carl Jung stated, "Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain." In our follow up meeting, he reported feeling less bothered by the loss of his acting job and more relaxed in his body. He also felt more confident showing up for auditions. 

Offering this approach to people has been very interesting. There is a level of unpredictability that makes the process adventurous. I never know how the person is going to re-imagine a scene or what the imagination is going to offer. For some people who are spiritually grounded, I have noticed they tend to receive an offering from their imagination in forms of helpful figures, guides or healing images. For example, one of the refugees from the Middle East who came to deal with his war trauma noticed the appearance of his beloved Sufi teacher who offered him a protective shield made of glowing light. Receiving the shield from his spiritual teacher gave him an “incredible sense of safety” that he had never experienced before. His body was mirroring his imaginal experience with a sense of calmness and relaxation. Having experienced war and other trauma, he often felt nervous in his body. His imagination became an important healing resource by offering him an experience that was in contradiction to the tension he often carried in his body. Every time he imagined the protective shield, he immediately felt safe.

Many people who talk about distressing life experiences in therapy are never given the opportunity to work with the experience in the arena of their imagination. The sky is the limit when it comes to using our imagination to work with any life scenarios. I recently met a gay man who felt traumatized growing up gay in a religious small town. All his past therapy consisted of sharing about his trauma and making the feelings associated with it more conscious. It was important and useful for him to address those feelings and have regard for them. He told me he was done addressing them. He wanted something different than talking about his trauma. Since he was very much into comic books growing up, he imagined one of his favorite comic book heroes rescuing him from this oppressive homophobic environment. The experience felt so real in his body. He had never experienced so much aliveness in a therapy session that involved dealing with his traumas of growing up gay in a homophobic and heterosexist world. For the first time in his life, he experienced the freedom to use his imagination for the purpose of changing what he could not change as a child. He was not in denial about the horror he experienced. For once in his life, he began to feel the opposite of the trauma. A safe therapeutic space can help people to imagine their painful history in a completely different way. Scenes can be added, deleted, modified with a different ending.

Our life traumas or tragedies are not just mental concepts. They are part of our bodily memories that can impact our nervous system. As Peter Levine stated, “Trauma is not in the event, but in the nervous system.” There are many paths toward healing those upsetting life experiences that has kept our nervous system dysregulated. By working with a licensed professional who has training in “body-inclusive therapy”, we can work on healing our nervous system from unresolved traumas. Our imagination can be a very powerful resource and an ally in this process. Trauma does not have to have the last word. 

For more articles by Dr. Payam, please click on the following link:

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), and a SE student in private practice in West Hollywood, California.