Two techniques to build your courage.
The challenges are daunting. Yes, we are vulnerable.
But each of us can find the courage room inside.
The first part of this article is a story about how frightening the current pandemic is for some of us, and how one young woman is finding her courage every day. (This client has given me permission to share some of her story, hoping her courage is contagious.)
The second part describes two different practices for courage-building. If either one resonates, grab a journal or open a fresh computer doc and WRITE IT OUT or (with bilateral stimulation) DO IT. The key is to act because action is POWER: a main ingredient of COURAGE.
Angel of a New Life.
She’s so distraught that she needs time to cry before the session can begin. “But I’m afraid of dying. I will die . . .This could be Armageddon. Couldn’t it?” Since COVID-19 has become a pandemic, Angel, a woman who recently left an apocalyptic religion, has experienced a resurgence of acute PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms: panic attacks, overwhelming fear, dissociation, feelings of abandonment.
I respond, into my computer screen, “No, Angel. I don’t believe it’s Armageddon. We’ve talked about this. And I know you’re scared. Before we keep going, please find your feet on the floor.”
I give her a moment. “Do your feet feel the same on either side?” At first, she can’t feel her right foot. At all: she’s dissociated—unable to feel her body fully. For Angel, this manifests first in her feet; she cannot feel the ground. This brings on a new round of panicked tears. I speak again, wishing that our two bodies were in the same room instead of on opposite sides of Toronto and opposite sides of our screens. When someone is upset, dissociating, crying, just sitting quietly with a loving witness can be a great help. Our brains and bodies are inherently social; the presence of an emotionally-regulated person brings calm to an individual or even a group in acute distress. Our emotions are contagious.
Does it work through a screen, though? Therapists all over the world are asking themselves that question right now. “Angel, I’m here. I’m with you. Keep your eyes open. Look at me. If you can’t feel the right foot, just focus on your left foot. Move your toes up and down. Lift your heel. Now touch your one hand to the opposite knee. Then the other hand. That’s it.” She shivers, sighs, touches and touches, back and forth.
After this short round of bilateral stimulation — rhythmic touches on alternating sides of the body — a wave passes through her body, top to the bottom. Though I can’t see her right foot — we’re working in separate rooms, each on our screens — I know from her and eyes face that her awareness has entered the ‘missing’ foot, connecting her back to the floor and to the present. “Back in the feet? ” I ask the familiar question.
She answers, “Yes, back in my body.”
Touching one side, then the other: it’s a deceptively simple grounding technique, but it works in profound ways. Bilateral stimulation can be tactile, visual, or auditory — gentle rhythmic stimulation to either side of the body/ears/eyes to calm and soothe the nervous system.
Eastern physical and spiritual practices like yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and all the martial arts have elaborate systems based on this technique; Western neuroscience and psychotherapy have finally joined the club. Most of the somatic trauma therapies developed in the last twenty years use some form of bilateral stimulation. Though I work a lot with visualization and mindfulness, my core practice as a therapist is OEI — Observed Experiential Integration — another bilateral stimulation therapy that changed my life twenty years ago, when I was healing from the traumas of my childhood.
We Live in a Beautiful, Traumatized World.
Many of us have extensive histories of abandonment and trauma: child abuse, including neglect, insecure attachment to caregivers, religious trauma similar to Angel’s; violent and emotionally abusive adult relationships; combat experiences; assaults of many kinds; school, academic, and workplace bullying; life-altering accidents, shootings. Many trauma victims grow into kind, productive individuals who have healed, who are healing, who want to heal. Yet many more are in prison or live in prison-like personal circumstances, trapped in the pain and disconnection of traumatic reenactment.
While life protects none of us from misfortune, with the spread of Covid-19, some people are experiencing traumatic stress as daily reality for the first time. Having never experienced anything like this before, many people are deeply confused, which often expresses itself as an inability to focus. When everything normal has changed, it is natural to feel disoriented and fearful.
Even for those of us who are relatively safe, this pandemic carries all the markers of the traumatic experience:
Powerlessness. Intense anxiety. Lack of predictability.
Fear of impending injury or death. A disordered sense of reality and time.
Disrupted social bonds.
For those who are working in essential services and healthcare, the dangers are potentially lethal. The brave work some people are doing now will leave the deep internal scars of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the rest of us also have to contend with this frightening time. Later in the session, Angel asked, “But how can my parents not even call me? How can they not check in on me? Did they never love me at all?” Her family has disowned her for leaving ‘the truth.’ She’s had very little contact with her family or old JW friends. She already has created a small circle of new friends, but she craves contact with her ‘old world’ and her parents and siblings.
Ostracism is one of the most wounding things a group can do to an individual or family unit. Social death is truly a form of death. And with this pandemic, because we’re so cut off from each other, millions of people are experiencing a taste of social death and ostracism. Our internal and external social engagement systems have been disturbed or completely overturned. Forced isolation is painful.
Single clients tell me — on a phone or computer screen, at this time — that they think they are going “fucking crazy.” I nod and say, “Let’s work with that.” We are social creatures; our bodies and our brains are social machines. We can now see on MRI scans that our brains respond to and interact with each other all the time — right down to the level of mirror neurons. We experience our connections with each other as both emotions and physical feelings in the body.
That’s why the glance of a stranger’s eyes or the gaze of a loved one can be so powerful. It’s brain to brain contact. By reading this, you share with me a moment, a small world of thought.
I continue to work with Angel on her renewed symptoms. She feels deep grief for the loss of her family. This is part of religious and betrayal trauma: in breaking away from an abusive religion or relationship, the person often loses a community as well as an identity. Sometimes, when Angel feels like she can’t cope with this world and her fear, I remind her of the extraordinary courage she found to make her escape in the first place.
My therapy and mentorship practice is called The Courage Room. That doesn’t only indicate the name of the place; it’s also another way of saying ‘the human body’. Each of us has within a room of resilience and strength. You are the courage room. I am the courage room. We are in this together.
Below, you will find two techniques for building your courage (finding your calm is an extra benefit.)
Finding The Courage Room Inside: two basic techniques
#1. Make Courage Real: Visualize The Courage Resource
The first step in building courage is to imagine it. Never underestimate the healing power of the imagination.
Usually every one of us, even those who’ve lived through damaging experiences, can remember a time and a place where we were safe, where we experienced a sense of happiness and contentment. In therapy-speak, we call this a resource; remembering the resource place or activity is called resourcing. We summon up those places in our memories we can use for self-nourishment and stabilization.
These do not have to be fancy places. Often they are humble. One safe place in a house: for one client, it was under the dining room table of her childhood. Sometimes it’s a backyard or garden. A park you used to love as a kid (or still love as an adult). A safe relative or friend’s house.
So think of (or imagine — custom-build one) your place of courage and safety.
Meditate upon it. Daydream about it. Honour it in your mind and heart.
Courage can also be contained, like a talisman, in one small object in our mind or physical life. Imagine the space or the object.
Hold it in your hand if exists: turn it into your courage talisman.
Now, grab the journal or open the fresh document and write down the story of your courage room/object. Really DO IT: the physical act is an act of power. Accessing power through your imagination gives you courage. Courage COMES from the imagination. More on that in another blog post, and a book I’m writing . . .
My house is full of small and large rocks and stones because at different times, they’ve given me courage, or a view into another possibility. Rocks and stones especially are dense, beautiful objects of power. Their solidity is dependable. And one of my most important ‘courage’ rooms and talismans combined is a big tree in my neighbourhood. I visit it almost every day. I love that tree!
Close your eyes and think about how the courage of this space/object can grow, expand, giving you both strength and a sense of calm. When you experience distress, upset, exhaustion, fear, PTSD symptoms, go to your room/object and get in touch with your courage resource. The more you work with this, the more powerful it becomes.
Visualization can be many things, including a spiritual practice that’s part of meditation, but it’s also a form of brain exercise that translates into physical results. For decades, elite athletes have employed visualization in their training; a whole body of research shows how effective visualization is for building co-ordination, strength, and spatial memory.
#2. Bilateral Stimulation
Anyone can experiment with stimulating each side of their body in a simple alternating sensory pattern. When we touch the body, or focus our vision or hearing in a certain way, we send signals to the brain: it’s the brain that actually allows us to feel, see, hear, taste, smell. Focused, intentional bilateral stimulation has a regulating effect on the brain, the body, and the entire nervous system.
So next time you are panicking, ready to scream at someone, filled with the pressure to harm yourself or another person in any way (in reality or in your imagination) please count to ten, take a few deep conscious breaths, and give the techniques below a try. We bilaterally stimulate naturally when we walk, dance, push the pedals of our bicycle.
First and foremost, as I did with Angel above, put your feet on the floor. Feel your feet. Feel how each side might give you a slightly or a radically different sensation. Pay attention. Go back and forth. Just stay with your feet; the feeling will come into them.
Breathe into your belly. You don’t want to have the breath up in your throat; pull it all that way into the bottom of your lungs and let your belly fill with air.
Take your right hand and gently tap your left knee or thigh. (Further focus comes when we cross the midline of the body, hence the left to right sequencing.) Take your left hand and gently tap your right knee or thigh.
Repeat 20 times, paying careful attention to how this simple exercise helps to calm down your body. Keep breathing into your lower lungs and belly. Feel your feet on the floor. Repeat more if it helps.
If you want to get more active, stand up. Feel your feet on the floor. Lift your right knee up and touch it with your left hand. Repeat on the other side. Do this bilateral stimulation march for a few steps, remaining in place, to see if it works for you.
Turn these two basic, easy techniques into part of a mental health hygiene routine. Share these techniques with friends and family. Kids can also use conscious bilateral stimulation to calm down, to feel better, to focus on homework, and to self-soothe.
The Beginning, Not the End, of The World
Social distancing has brought Angel into a renewed period of mourning for the loss of her family; it’s an ongoing sorrow, especially in a time when most of us are anxious to connect, to remind ourselves that we belong, we are part of our families and of the human family. In a recent session, Angel talked at length about losing her family, her friends, feeling that she had died to them; none of the community members that she’s known her whole life have called to see how she’s doing.
“It’s like Armageddon has already come and I’m dead!” Her face seemed to be ready to crumple. I thought she might cry. But something else happened. Her expression altered and opened; her face lit up. And her voice became stronger as she said, “But I’m not dead. Obviously! I’m ALIVE. I’ve already resurrected myself. That’s what leaving was for me. Resurrection. And it’s the only kind of resurrection I will ever know. So I’m not going to waste it.” Then she did something she’s only recently started doing, after almost thirty-three years of living: she swore, with great feeling, “Fuck that!” We burst out laughing, each leaning in to get closer on either side of our computer screens.
Here’s to self-resurrection. Here’s to spring, which shows us every year how to come alive again.
(Disclaimer: Dear Reader, this article is not a substitute for therapy or counselling. If you are experiencing serious distress, please call a hotline or a trusted friend for support.!)
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