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
















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


Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Somatic Perspective on the Trauma of Growing up Gay by Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.






For almost three decades, I have immersed myself in the life stories of many people of the LGBTQ community who had painful homophobic and transphobic upbringings. Many of the gay men’s personal narratives that I have heard are not very different from my own. Regardless of national origin, we are part of a tribe with similar stories of growing up in a homophobic and heterosexist world where our gayness was repeatedly assaulted. We are everywhere, and unfortunately so is homophobia.

Many gay men have shared with me that as long they could recall they always felt different. They were unable to articulate why they felt that way, and, at the same time, they did not feel safe to talk about it. Some knew this feeling of being different was related to something forbidden. “It felt like keeping an ugly secret that I could not even understand,” described one person. Other gay men have disclosed to me that this feeling revealed itself in the form of gender nonconformity, which could not be kept secret. Therefore, it made them more vulnerable to homophobic mistreatment at school and often at home. Gay men of color reported even worse experiences due to the additional stress of racism and racial bullying.

Many school-age children organize their school experiences around the notion of not coming across as different, in particular, queer. Any school-age child’s worst nightmare is being labeled faggot, which was commonly experienced by many gay individuals who did not flow with the mainstream. Educational institutions felt like a scary place for many of them who were scapegoated as queer growing up. Therefore, they had to cope with a daily assault of shame and humiliation without any support. This is a form of child abuse on a collective level, and it needs to stop.

So much has been written about the devastating impact of homophobia on gay people’s psychological functioning but not enough on the biological impact of it. It is important to understand how repeated hateful acts toward gay youngsters can impact the way their bodies and minds function, including the functioning of their nervous system. Unfortunately, this also applies to any child who is a target of hate and abuse. As Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, stated, “Trauma is not in the event, but in the nervous system.” Based on my personal and clinical work, I also concur that trauma becomes embodied during a person's life and can affect the working of the autonomic nervous system (“ANS”). Much of the healing from this trauma needs to happen through the body. In particular, the nervous system needs to be regulated.

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 can become dysregulated due to the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze in the aftermath of trauma.

The ANS is central to our experience of safety, connection with others, and our ability to bounce back from life’s overwhelming experiences. This ability to recover defines resilience and requires the help of our ANS to keep us in our “window of tolerance”, which has been defined in the book Nurturing Resilience by trauma specialists Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell “as the zone where we effectively process environmental signals without becoming too reactive or too withdrawn, given the circumstances.” The window of tolerance as a frame work is very helpful to understand where we feel safe, unsafe, and how to expand our optimal arousal zone.

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. Drawing from their work and my decades of experience, it is my understanding the ongoing stress from homophobia can activate a youngster’s nervous system and “unresolved activation will be stored in the body as bound energy and manifest as trauma symptoms.” In other words, under a daily homophobic assault, a child’s sympathetic system (“stress response” or “fight or flight” response) gets overly activated. Often during such stressful situations, neither fighting nor fleeing can resolve the overwhelming situation, and the thwarted or incomplete fight and flight responses can become “trapped” within the body and dysregulate the nervous system. Such a dysregulated nervous system is more 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.

According to many studies, gay individuals who experienced homophobic related stress showed increased production of the stress hormone cortisol compared to peers in safer environments.  This experience of being stuck on “high” continuously activates a person’s stress response system, which leads to the release of stress hormones. Research in this area has shown overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones leads to numerous health problem including headaches, oversensitivity to touch or sound, weight gain, heart disease, concentration impairment, and sleep disturbance.

On the other hand, there are gay men whose nervous systems are stuck on “low” or hypo-arousal, which can result from being terrorized growing up with no hope of protection. Faced with isolation, confusion, physical violence, not being valued, and carrying a secret that the youngster connects with something terrible and unthinkable is too stressful for any child to endure, especially when there is no empathic other to help him sort it out. Such experience is often beyond the youngster’s “window of tolerance.”  This is when the dorsal vagus can shut down the entire system, and the mistreated youngster can go into freeze. In other words, the youngster suffers in silence with numbness or dissociation as his only available survival mechanism.

Stephen Porges, the founder of Polyvagal Theory, has expanded our view of the vagus nerve, one of the largest nerves in the body and a major part of the Parasympathetic system. The word “vagus” means wandering in Latin. The dorsal vagus is a branch of the vagus nerve which is a much older part of the nervous system. Dorsal vagus regulates organs below the diaphragm. Dorsal vagus is instrumental in activating the “shutdown” of the body as discussed in cases of overwhelming fear which can result from homophobic mistreatment. This automatic survival mechanism can become a long-standing pattern of how individuals might cope with fear and stress in life. For example, 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.

In my counseling work, 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 sexual acting out, excessive gambling, and crystal meth (crystal methamphetamine) use are ways 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 to escape his inner deadness and another person might use it to dampen his anxiety that often results from being stuck in a state of hyper-arousal.

As Peter Levine stated, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”  For those of us who have had painful struggles with homophobia, life after the closet needs to include dealing with memories of homophobic mistreatment that can lie dormant in our body. Recovery from it needs to start with resourcing and then progressing to completing the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze. Such healing can reset the nervous system and restore inner balance. In Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes about a body-centered approach to healing which allows “the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.”

How far the LGBTQ community has come in our 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.

The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute offers trainings and seminars on the biology of traumatic stress reactions including tools on how to bring the body-mind-spirit back into balance. Participating in their trainings has enhanced my ability to help others who are interested to tap into the wisdom of their bodies for healing and growth.  There are many other institutes that offer body-centered approaches toward healing which reflect the increased popularity of such work.

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