The Body's Viaduct for Healing and Connection

There is a place in the human body that, when stimulated, can promote and ignite self-healing, connectedness, compassion, and human kindness (DiSalvo, 2009; Keltner, 2009; Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, Maiti, 1994). What's best, we can access this place anytime we choose.   This physiological structure, known as the vagus nerve, has been a source of fascination and inquiry for many researchers. The vagus nerve is actually a bundle of nerves, the longest in the human body, and it connects the brain to the heart, lungs, and digestive system. 

Perhaps the most interesting function of the vagus nerve is that it triggers the parasympathetic system's "relaxation response," essentially the reverse effect of the notorious "fight or flight" response. The relaxation response is composed of hormones and enzymes like acetylcholine (which signals smooth muscle tissues to relax, thereby encouraging blood vessels to open up), vasopressin (which promotes homeostasis and pair bonding or forming close connections with others), and oxytocin (which promotes social intimacy, connection, and feelings of love). Activation of the vagus response has also been linked with reduced inflammation.

In other words, activation of this bundle of nerves can have a powerful impact on our health and the quality of our relationship to others.  Practiced in moderation (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, Keltner, 2008),  stimulation of the vagus nerve can have positive effects on our physical, emotional, mental, and social health. This can be particularly useful in times of stress, when we are prone to let fear take over our systems. Something as simple as a long hug may initiate the vagus response. If you are alone, try spending a few minutes breathing deeply and lying on the ground so that the forehead, chest, and stomach are in contact with the foundation of the ground beneath you. Lying on your belly, draw attention inward toward the center of the body, perhaps even envisioning this physiological viaduct activating with each breath. Or, perhaps if you are stuck in traffic and need a quick fix, simply place your hand on your heart and chest, allowing yourself to sense the vitality of this magnificent nerve that connects with your beating heart, and breathe deeply for a few minutes. These quick and simple actions can send a physiological signal to your brain that any perceived threats in the environment can be reframed as challenges that you are capable of facing. 

We often falsely assume that the security and comfort that we seek will be found outside of ourselves: in the perfect relationship, career, environment, etc. But what we are coming to realize as we explore the neuroscience of the vagus nerve is that at least a portion of this comfort, healing, and connection can be found within our own bodies. Don't be fooled, it's not as easy as swallowing a pill and waiting for the effects. In order to truly experience the gifts of the vagus nerve, we are required to direct our attention inward and fully inhabit our bodies, which is something that can be difficult, even counterintuitive, when we are feeling anxious or fearful. It's much easier to look for quick and easy distractions, to ignore our bodies altogether. 

I have been thinking a lot about this powerful bundle of nerves, and how we might find our way back inward during times of stress. It is my belief, supported by years of research in the field of embodied cognition, that the quickest shortcut to changing our mindset is through some form of physical, embodied practice. In honor of this extraordinary physiological viaduct for self-healing, I have created a short and quick sequence of yoga asanas, intended to stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby activate your innate capacity for relaxation and connection. Finally, I leave you with a quote by Eve Ensler that serves as a nice accompaniment to the yoga sequence I am sharing. I suggest using these words as a meditation and reminder when you need to reconnect to your own body and heart: "I feel therefore I am. I feel therefore I can feel my existence. I feel my body. I feel the breath. I feel the living, breathing fiber that is humanness." - Eve Ensler

 

Background music by: Higher Planes Drifter "Yesterday's Demons are Tomorrow's Angels" https://soundcloud.com/higherplanesdrifter

DiSalvo, D. (2009). Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts. Scientific American Mind20(5), 18-19.

Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: too much of a good thing? Emotion8(1), 23.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. WW Norton & Company.

Porges, S. W., Doussard‐Roosevelt, J. A., & Maiti, A. K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development59(2‐3), 167-186.

Wake Up and Live

It has been a time of great uncertainty for me. A lot of changes are happening in the domain of work and life. In all honesty, I have found myself becoming totally preoccupied with thoughts about the unknown future ahead, too overwhelmed to do some of the things I really love doing like spending time with my family, reading, getting outdoors, and blogging (sorry, friends). Many of us experience these prolonged transitions, which are inherently unsettling. Humans are really bad at uncertainty, as we are hardwired for pattern-recognition and predicting the future. When something happens in our life that we can’t neatly identify, categorize, predict, and control, we tend to experience a great amount of distress. This was the basis of my early graduate research with Dr. Kate Sweeny, examining the psychology of uncertainty. Despite having literally co-written the chapter on navigating work-related uncertainty (Sweeny & Ghane, 2015), I find myself in the realm of anxiety, bracing for worst-case scenarios, ruminating on the unknown, and perhaps most upsetting to me: neglecting the present moment. 

The problem with our obsession with the future is that it comes at the cost of our current, real-time experience. Sometimes I require constant reminders to tune out the speculations and redirect my attention to what is currently happening. It’s important to note that what is currently happening is always much more rudimentary than the complex, abstract, hypothetical thoughts I could be having about the future. For example, right now, what is currently happening is the familiar (even comforting) sensation of the smooth, warm computer keys under my fingers, and the intuitive dance between hands and keys that allows me to project my innermost ideas on the screen. It’s also the drone of the lawnmower somewhere in my neighborhood, layered with the sound of my cat fervently chasing her toy, and the birds’ intermittent chirping just beyond the patio. It is the aftertaste of coffee and the satisfaction from eating breakfast. It is the rhythm of breath moving through my body. I could go on and on. In fact, I often find that the present moment can become infinitely deep and ever-changing. The more I pay attention to it, the more and more I find.  This is what my yoga mentor Scott Miller once described as "jellyfish" consciousness, sensing ourselves in the word, in the most fundamental form.

 Copyright: Dr. Arezou Ghane

 Copyright: Dr. Arezou Ghane

 

Furthermore, by bringing myself back into this real-time experience of my life, I am allowing myself to live more fully. I am intentionally choosing to be more psychologically present in whatever is happening right now. The decision to live more fully becomes more striking when we are reminded of the Greatest Uncertainty: Mortality. Among other notable artistic contemplations of human mortality, this sentiment has been captured in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Kurosawa’s Ikiru. However, in America, we tend to label this kind of thought as morbid, often resulting in a sense of fear or terror. But, researchers like Kenneth Vail show that the idea of mortality can sometimes inspire us to live a better life (Vail, Juhl, Arndt, Vess, Routledge, & Rutjens, 2012), marked by greater likelihood of helping others in need (Gailliot, Stillman, Schmeichel, Maner, & Plant, 2008), making environmentally conscious decisions, promoting sustainability (Fritsche, Jonas, Kayser, & Koranyi, 2010), and taking better care of our own health (Cooper, Goldenberg, & Ardnt, 2011). One of my favorite examples of how an awareness and acceptance of death can inspire a more vibrant approach to life comes from Bronnie Ware. Based on the conversations she had with her patients when she worked in a hospice clinic, Ware compiled a list of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. The list inevitably sparks reflection of our own lives.  I’ll leave you here with this piece. I hope it inspires you all to claim this moment as your own and, in the words of Bob Marley, "Wake up and live." 

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

 

Cooper, D. P., Goldenberg, J. L., & Arndt, J. (2011). Empowering the self: Using the terror management health model to promote breast self-examination. Self and Identity, 10(3), 315-325.

Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Kayser, D. N., & Koranyi, N. (2010). Existential threat and compliance with pro-environmental norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(1), 67-79.

Gailliot, M. T., Stillman, T. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Maner, J. K., & Plant, E. A. (2008). Mortality salience increases adherence to salient norms and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 993-1003.

Sweeny, K., & Ghane, A. (2015). Principles for effective coping in uncertain situations. To appear in J. Vuori, R. Blonk, & R. Price (Eds.), Sustainable Working Lives: Managing Work Transitions and Health throughout the Life Course. Springer.

Vail, K. E., Juhl, J., Arndt, J., Vess, M., Routledge, C., & Rutjens, B. T. (2012). When Death is Good for Life Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(4), 303-329.

Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Hay House, Inc.

 

 

 

What is Trauma?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl


This post was written in collaboration with Dr. Laura Cueva-Miller, clinical psychologist. Dr. Cueva-Miller is a cherished contributor to Auteur and will continue to join us as we explore issues related to trauma and psychological healing via embodied channels. 


What is trauma? Dictionaries define trauma as: “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain,” or “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” The DSM-5 PTSD diagnosis criteria describes trauma as "exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

As psychology vocabulary becomes more and more popularized, these terms often become distorted or misunderstood. In our culture, the word “trauma” often connotes some form of pathology.  By pathologizing trauma, we impose all of the stigmas that our culture attaches to pathology and mental illness, perhaps suggesting that trauma entails weakness or severe, irreparable damage. 

Perhaps we may consider that trauma takes place more commonly than we realize. As such, we find a more appropriate definition presented in the book Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy by David Emerson: trauma is an experience involving an extreme lack of choice.  

Using this definition, let’s explore the ways that we can identify and acknowledge trauma in otherwise hidden places, As a woman, living in a large city in California, I know that I experience an extreme lack of choice in many situations.  For instance, when I leave my office building at night, I make sure that I have my keys in my hand, before leaving the building. When I exit the building, I walk standing tall and make sure to look at my surroundings repeatedly as I walk to my car.  I also look in my car to make sure that nothing unexpected is in my car before I get in. Regardless of how others may interpret this decision, in my day to day life, I do not believe that I have a choice as to whether or not to engage in this set of behaviors (even though I work and live in an area that I would consider to be quite safe).

In 2016, many of us have experienced what we can call "micro-traumas" on a regular basis, perhaps even on a daily basis. The example above can be categorized as a micro-trauma. Trauma is not just something that affects war veterans and rape survivors. You might experience trauma in the aftermath of an unhealthy relationship that left you feeling cynical about future relationships. Furthermore, the work of Dr. Roxane Cohen-Silver finds that people may also experience indirect trauma, or collective trauma when we are repeatedly exposed to stories and images of police brutality, terrorism, war, and other forms of violence. In light of these new perspectives on trauma, we can only imagine how many traumas are experienced and brushed off as "just a part of this life today." 

How many of us realize how our repeated experiences of micro-traumas have an impact on our bodies and our brains? In his best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score,  Dr. Bessel van der Kolk describes the impact of trauma on the brain, specifically the right limbic area and Broca's area. These areas of the brain oversee emotional experiences and language formation.  According Dr. Van der Kolk, in the aftermath of trauma, it is common for people to find difficulty verbalizing their experiences. Furthermore, when any trauma is remembered, the brain experiences the memory as if the trauma were happening again - the same areas of the brain are impacted with just the act of remembering. On a sensory level, when we recall a traumatic event, it may feel as though we are experiencing the event all over again in real time. We may remember vividly the sights, sounds, and emotions that we associate with the trauma. However, we have trouble translating these experiences into words. Furthermore, we don’t always have control over when we think about these experiences again, as these memories may be triggered by any (seemingly arbitrary) stimuli that we may associate with the traumatic event: perhaps a color, a location, a phrase, or even a particular person can become a trigger for this memory. 

 So, what do we do when we expose trauma within ourselves and within our culture?  

First, we acknowledge it. Without conscious awareness or effort, we are compelled to fully relive our traumas each and every time we remember them, without ever being able to fully process or integrate these experiences into the story of our lives. We may find sometimes that we are reacting unknowingly from a place of defensiveness, without sovereignty from our emotions. 

Next, we begin the “work” of disentangling ourselves from the grip of trauma.  Where there is difficulty with language, there is yoga and movement. Fortunately for us, our bodies have a direct system of communication with the brain via sensorimotor neurons, and by rerouting the sensorimotor messages the brain is receiving, we may begin to claim the story of our traumas and become the authors of our lives again. 

What happens when we consciously choose to reroute our biological responses to traumatic memories by allowing space for choice? By inviting the breath to help us pause and sense ourselves in a situation that is triggering, without closing down to protect ourselves: perhaps we will find new options, new approaches, and new solutions that reach beyond the moments when we may otherwise perceive an extreme lack of choice. 

We live in a culture where our personal and collective traumas and micro-traumas may often be unconsciously triggered by the environment that we live in. It’s a reality that suggests that we, as individuals and as a culture, might need to invest in the process of healing, particularly if we care to tune in to the stories we are telling ourselves. Although the word trauma can hold some very heavy significance, we find that we can create space by settling back into the foundations of the body and breath, and pausing to acknowledge when trauma is being triggered again. This work of disentangling ourselves and healing can be done only in safe places, and preferably in the presence of a compassionate guide. 

We will continue to explore these pathways in future blog posts and we hope that you will join us in this process of discovering and healing our bodies, our thoughts, and our cultures.  

Kintsukuroi: When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. Let's explore the preciousness of every chip, crack, and aperture. Let's celebrate our wayward histories.

Kintsukuroi: When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
Let's explore the preciousness of every chip, crack, and aperture. Let's celebrate our wayward histories.

Natural Medicine

I am fortunate to live in sunny southern California. Shamefully, I admit that some days I forget to fully appreciate it. When I can remember to do it, I like to take a few moments to walk outside and savor the sensation of the sunlight enveloping me, the breeze sweeping my skin, and the purity of the oxygen moving through my body with every breath.

Some days, I have no choice. I may wake up with every intention to be productive and cross some items off of my to do list, but I may find that my heart is heavy or that my mind is preoccupied. The shift in feeling can be very subtle, but if I don’t pay attention and accurately identify this quality of my experience early on, I might risk the possibility of doing anything useful at all that day. I might sit in front of my computer, with the burden of my agenda heavily at my side, and attempt to work. But more often than not, days like this are not marked by miraculous bouts of generativity, but by wooly thoughts, ingrown efforts, and wasted hours. Perhaps you’ve had days like this.

A few days ago, I woke up in this very state. So I stepped outside and started walking. I soon found myself at one of my favorite sanctuaries: the beach. It was a quiet and early morning, so I was able to deeply tune in to the details of my sensory experiences. I moved slowly and keenly along the shoreline, admiring the courtship between the cold, crashing waves and my bare feet. I let myself be enchanted by the iridescent flicker of the light reflected against the water. I found a place to sit and I closed my eyes for a few minutes, breathing and cherishing the taste of the air.

IMG_3997.JPG

It may sound like an indulgence, and when I’m in the thick of a chaotic work week, it’s the last thing I think I have time to do. But, I can say with certainty that I have never regretted any days, hours, or minutes spent in nature.

Research is now beginning to demonstrate the potential for nature’s curative ability. Just 5 minutes spent in a lush, natural setting can boost mood and self esteem [1]. Quality time in nature targets the mental and emotional states that are particularly troublesome for productivity, like anxiety, rumination (i.e., dwelling on or replaying negative thoughts), and memory [2].

We also know that time in nature helps to boost immune functioning. A series of studies conducted by Japanese researchers suggests that some of this benefit can be linked to the airborne chemicals released by trees and plants to protect against insects, called phytoncides. When inhaled by humans, these chemicals can boost the activity of white blood and natural killer cells [3,4]

Other studies have found that the emotional experience of awe elicited by quality time in nature can reduce inflammation [5].  Awe is a positive emotional state that is often triggered when we encounter something unexpected and extraordinary; it is an emotion that stirs us and inspires a sense of humility. You may have experienced this emotion when you watched or listened to a creative masterpiece created by one of your favorite artists. You might experience it just by watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PN5JJDh78I

It’s strange, but even though I have walked that same walk along the same shoreline countless times since I’ve moved to my home in Long Beach, I still experience a state of awe almost every time I return. Part of this emotional experience is something that I have learned to intentionally direct and motivate for myself, by opening myself to the possibility of awe.

There are so many different ways to interpret and understand the world. As children, we all navigated the world in a state of awe and wonder, because we had not yet formed the cognitive categories that allow us to quickly and efficiently sort incoming stimuli. The highly organized structures of our adult minds allow us to exercise control in our lives by making the world seem more comfortable, predictable, and familiar. But, familiarity stands in the way of finding something unexpected and incredible in the world.

IMG_3998.JPG

So, when I went for my walk, I intentionally approached the landscape without expectation, I tried to pay attention to details I had never noticed before. I let myself be perplexed by the vastness of the horizon. It helps that I happened to make my visit at a relatively vacant time of day, which allowed me to really contemplate the dreamlike beauty of this landscape, as though for the first time.

Sometimes, when I’m really having a hard time flipping my perspective, I will take the dramatic measure of literally flipping my perspective, via cartwheels or another favorite inversion. If nothing else, these postures help me to remember not to take myself so seriously. 

My panacea of choice

My panacea of choice

Although it may feel particularly counterintuitive on the busiest and most stressful days when productivity is our primary goal, it’s times like these that we must let allow ourselves a little bit of awe. 


1.              Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental science & technology, 44, 3947-3955.

2.              Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41-50.

3.              Li, Q., Nakadai, A., Matsushima, H., Miyazaki, Y., Krensky, A. M., Kawada, T., & Morimoto, K. (2006). Phytoncides (wood essential oils) induce human natural killer cell activity. Immunopharmacology and immunotoxicology, 28(2), 319-333.

4.              Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Shimizu, T., Kawada, T., Park, B.J. & Ohira, T. (2009). Effect of phytoncide from  trees on human natural killer cell function. International journal ofimmu nopathology and pharmacology, 22, 951-959.

5.              Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positiveemotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15, 129.



What is your story?

Everybody has a story: that famous celebrity, scholar, or successful business person that you put on a pedestal, the homeless person who looks into your eyes when you are stuck in traffic on your way to work, your parents… everybody. You have a story. It helps you understand who you are, what you value, and why you think and act the way that you do. Your story also has the power to influence how you will act in the future.

 

My story

I was born in Iran at the height of the Revolution. My family fled the country to pursue a lifestyle that allowed for greater political and social freedom. Two years after emigrating to America, my mother lost her battle with cancer and fell into a coma for one year. During this time, my father worked multiple jobs to sustain our little family in this significantly more expensive country. He spent his free hours driving to and from the hospital with my brother and I in tow. It was a painful year, but our family endured. My mother passed away when I was 6 years old, and our little family continued to do everything we could to stay afloat. Our family survived many more financial and emotional hardships for years to come. I personally survived a series of textbook traumatic life events, including violence, abuse, and harmful relationships. 

My Mother, Guity. Her name translated means  world  or  earth .

My Mother, Guity. Her name translated means world or earth.

I did find refuge in the classroom, however. I identified as an industrious and successful student. I received praise from my school teachers for my hard work and dedication to learning. Unfortunately, this identity was not enough to keep me healthy and happy long term. Because I measured my worth by my academic success, I became desperate to achieve perfection. And, as with all such echoes of Icarus, I learned the hard way that I had to find balance in my life.

In my early twenties, I was already living like I was near the end of my life. I was overweight, plagued by insomnia, migraines, vertigo, and anxiety. I was tired all of the time. My greatest source of pleasure came from overindulging in comfort foods. I dissociated from the image of myself reflected in the mirror, in reality, I dissociated from my body completely. It was during this time that I learned that it was impossible to separate my mind from my body and environment. 

Something happened. Surely, many things had to happen to catalyze the shift in my life. But, looking back, it seemed to happen all at once. I underwent a drastic mental and physical transformation. It was all about movement. While I was once in a state of inertia, paralyzed by my own obsession with success, something in my life inspired me to seek movement. I started dancing again for the first time in a decade. It was the most therapeutic practice I had ever known. When I danced (like really truly danced with all of my heart, leaving my ego behind) I could find moments of solitude from the hypercritical perfection-seeking narrator that typically followed me in all of my other daily events. In the midst of the most tumultuous times in my life, I found an opportunity to celebrate the gifts that I had been given. I found a language with which to express my gratitude, my sorrows, my vulnerabilities, my strengths, and my love of beauty. Movement was my conduit for transformation; it was a gateway for me to find a more authentic path to be more deeply present in my own life, in this world, at this moment.  

Like most people, my story has evolved, and continues evolving, over the years. The fundamental content is always the same, but how I have come to make sense of the events themselves and the overall tone of the story can shift based on how I allocate value and worth. Research by Timothy Wilson and colleagues suggest that we have the power to redirect our personal narratives, and that this ability to refine our life stories can manifest in hard outcomes like how effectively we cope with and heal from traumatic life events and how likely we are to maintain long term health habits.

I have decided to redirect my life story. Even though there are moments in my story that have been challenging and painful, I chose to make my narrative one of redemption. Upon sitting with these thoughts and this vision that is coming together for me, inspired by my love of science, my personal life experiences, and the stories of my dearest friends and collaborators, I would like to dedicate Auteur to those who are driven to take ownership over their stories and take action towards living healthier and happier lives. Welcome to Auteur. What is your story?