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:  https://drpayam.com/articles_and_book


© 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.  www.DrPayam.com


Sunday, March 24, 2019

Becoming Our Own Protective Container by Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D.




As human beings, we need a sense of safety. We can’t thrive without it. Given the current sociopolitical circumstances in America, many of us don’t feel safe.  As a gay man, it doesn’t make me feel secure when I witness the dismantling of our LGBTQ+ rights by homophobic politicians. Since the mental health of the individual and sociopolitical factors are deeply intertwined, no wonder we are seeing more anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and suicide than ever before.


At times like this we need to learn to become our own protective container. A vessel in which to settle ourselves and access our sense of safety. Luckily, we all have a protective container, which is our body. Our body has amazing protective and healing potentials. We just need to learn how to access it. A settled body can be a resource to contain us during turbulent times. By learning how to work with touch, breath, movement, gesture, form, and their accompanying sensations, we can tap into our somatic resources. We can also notice and work with images and meanings that emerge when working with our body-based resources. Working with these resources not only help us to ground ourselves but also to manage stress and feel empowered. They can also lead to a physically felt experience of well-being. For example, noticing and following our breath with the intention to connect with our physical body is one way to access our somatic resources. Awareness of breath is the most accessible way to the present moment, and one of the fundamental teaching of many spiritual paths. Witnessing the journey of the out-breath and the return of the breath back into our body can be a grounding experience. I often notice, when I mindfully pay attention to the space in between the out-breath and in-breath, I am more grounded and present in my body. Being grounded and present in my body help me respond more effectively to challenging situations. It is the opposite of being impulsive and reactionary.

As more research on utilizing somatic therapy is showing positive results with self-regulation and healing, we are entering an era of somatic technology. An era of turning to our somatic resources as a starting point for healing. Many of us associate technology with complicated devices outside of ourselves. In fact, somatic technology can be a set of practices and methods that rely on our natural bodily resources and is accessible to everyone. Such technology is based on our own somatic wisdom and awareness in the service of healing and growth.

Somatic technology that works with bodily resources might help humanity to evolve. We were not always human beings. We evolved from sea creatures to something else. Then some million years after that, we became human beings. The journey continues, and we evolve again. Perhaps, working with somatic resources within ourselves, and learning to settle ourselves in our body is how we are contributing to this journey of human evolution. Perhaps, each time we settle ourselves in our body, we are designing ourselves in a new way.

I have gained more respect for the body as I am learning more about its amazing functions. For example, our body comes with 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 many unconscious bodily functions such as breathing, digesting food, and regulating the heart rate. It also plays an important role of supplying information from our organs to our brain. In addition, the ANS plays an enormous role in helping us experience safety. Once regulated, our ANS can help our body settle and make it easier to tap into our power and resist toxic stuff like discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, class, and more. It is also easier to handle many other stressful situations that can overwhelm us. When I experience prejudice based on my gayness or my status as an immigrant in the United States, I notice how my body gets activated. Noticing and working with my body’s activation and willingness to ask for support from other empathic people is a starting point to take back my power in such circumstances. Having somatic tools to deal with activation helps to regulate my nervous system and become my own protective container.

For some of us, the biggest challenge on having a “body-inclusive approach” toward becoming our own container is the difficulty experiencing a sense of safety in our bodies. Since our ANS is shaped by our life experience, having a history of unresolved trauma or dealing with a current overwhelming situation can negatively influence our ANS’s ability to help us feel safe. 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. We now know the ANS can become dysregulated due to the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze in the aftermath of trauma. Relying on neuroception, a term coined by Porges, the ANS helps our body to differentiate between safety, danger, and a life threat. Neuroception is automatic. It does not go through thinking. Everything from sound to smell to temperature in our environment, people’s tone of voice, and eye contact can influence our neuroception. Neuroception is like a “guardian angel” that helps us take immediate action in the face of danger or threat. Its goal is to keep us safe and alive. When neuroception does not function properly due to unhealed traumas, it can make us feel unsafe even where there is no real threat.

We can’t become our own protective container without knowing how to claim our body from our unhealed traumas. Trauma is not only about the bad things that happen to us but also what we keep inside as a reaction to those things. According to Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, trauma is more about “what we hold inside in the absence of an empathic witness.” Resmaa Menakem, the author of My Grandmother’s Hands states, “Our bodies exist in the present. To our thinking brain, there is past, present, and future, but to a traumatized body there is only now. That now is the home of intense survival energy.” Such intense survival energy, left undone, can keep our body in a stressful state of trauma response. Therefore, much of the healing from our traumas need to happen through the body. In particular, the nervous system needs to be regulated. As Peter Levine stated, “Trauma is not in the event, but in the nervous system.”

Jungian psychology talks about the shadow, the dark side of the personality that sometimes the conscious mind is avoiding. Even though the shadow can also be a positive aspect of us, not dealing with it can cause anguish. Incorporating this concept here, we can say our body has a shadow too. From a somatic perspective, the shadow can be the incomplete bodily responses that have been trapped in the body and not been dealt with. In other words, our nervous system is designed to help our body get mobilized and deal with threatening situations. When our body is ready to respond to a threat and there is not enough time or resources for our body to complete its natural protective responses, what ended up happening is our body gets stuck with intense survival energy. When our body does not release this survival energy, it stays trapped in our nervous system and dysregulates it. Not addressing the body’s shadow, our bodily responses that are trapped, can lead to many physical and emotional problems including nightmares, “too many accidents,” and number of medical problems with no logical explanation. Many somatic therapists, in particular, trained Somatic Experiencing Practitioners (SEPs), can offer techniques to help people with the release of a trapped trauma response and the regulation of the nervous system. It is important to use a body inclusive approach to healing with the guidance of trained professionals who have formal training in somatic modality.

In her book, Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana discusses Stephen Porges’s theory and makes Polyvagal Theory more accessible for clinicians who wish to apply it to their clinical practice. She explains how the ANS responds to sensations in the body and signals from the environment through three pathways of response: “ventral vagus, sympathetic nervous system, and dorsal vagus.” These pathways can impact our participation in life, and how we cope with many situations including sociopolitical factors.

When it comes to healing our body from trauma and regulating our nervous system, we have an ally called the ventral vagus. Accessing the health, growth, and restoration resources of the ventral vagus system, we can support our personal growth. Deb Dana discusses how being firmly grounded in our ventral vagus pathway can help our body to feel safe and our social engagement system to come online. When the body feels safe and our social engagement system is not overwhelmed with distressing sensations, it is easier to connect with people, nature, our pets, ourselves, our spiritual path, and the present moment. As explained earlier, the quality of our breathing can influence our ANS and support ventral vagus activity. For example, slow conscious breathing can increase the parasympathetic tone. That is why the awareness of breath is an important practice to regulate the ANS. Also, since the nervous system becomes what it senses, by meditating on pleasant sensations of warmth, tenderness and aliveness, we can recruit ventral vagus activity, and shape the nervous system not only toward safety and security, but also love. We can become a container for love when we embody our pleasant sensations as we notice a loving experience. 

Our sympathetic system (“stress response” or “fight or flight response”) gets activated in response to danger. Many of us who don’t feel safe in America are often in a state of sympathetic activation. Ongoing sympathetic activation can be dangerous for our body due to increased production of the stress hormone cortisol. Learning to turn our body into a vessel of protection through regulating our ANS, we can be more effective in pushing back against dark forces in America. Such dark forces are trying to strip our civil liberties. We need more than ever to settle in our protective container and connect to our sense of aliveness.

As mentioned earlier, there is a dark side to our nervous system. The physiology behind it involves the dorsal vagus working in partnership with fear. Dorsal vagus is another nervous system pathway that when it works in partnership with the ventral vagus can help us among many things, to pray, meditate, sleep, relax, and make love. When dorsal vagus is activated with intense fear, it can throw the body into a freeze state. It is difficult to become one’s own container and fight oppression when the body remains in dorsal vagus shut down mode. This is one reason why healing from trauma can contribute to our effort to protect our democracy.

The world in its current state needs more love. The body can become the container for this love. Just like a watermelon has a protective shell to house its sweetness, our body is home to the sweetness of our soul. Inayat Khan described the body as “a garment of the soul.” This garment needs our help to settle as our soul journey continues. Our body can help deepen our relationship to our soul when we focus on love and kindness during meditation.

With one nervous system at a time, we can learn to release the effect of our unresolved trauma which often blocks our movement toward wholeness and redeem our aliveness. Increased somatic awareness can help people not stay frozen in oppressive political circumstances and march toward liberation. As Nietzsche stated, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” This wisdom is real because “the body never lies.”  





For more articles by Dr. Payam, please click on the following link:  https://drpayam.com/articles_and_book

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