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. www.DrPayam.com    www.SomativAliveness.com 

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.  www.DrPayam.com    www.SomaticAliveness.com 

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.  www.DrPayam.com    www.SomaticAliveness.com  

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.  www.DrPayam.com , www.SomaticAliveness.com