Rise into a New Year

It’s 12 days into 2021. Today is the first New Moon of 2021 so a perfect time to look at the year ahead, with a strong back and soft heart. I’m still not convinced i feel the shift of a new year yet. So much lingers from last year: My kids are doing remote-learning from home as all school-age children are in my province; Covid cases are at a drastic high; and the cold winter days make it hard to feel in contact with nature.

And yet we press on. Because we are resilient and because we have to. It’s not easy, and i know my version is easier than most – I’m in a secure relationship with my partner, I have worked consistently during the pandemic, and we are healthy. Some of my resilience and reality comes from privilege, white privilege namely, as well as living in Canada.

I am also privileged because i am a therapist who is resourced with tools to take care of my mental health. Most of the time i know what to do. As an imperfect human, there are times that my humanness during the pandemic gets in the way of my Therapist Part. Most of the time, I’m okay with that. I have learned that my reflection and response to my children when in conflict is as important to being perfectly regulated in the first place. I am not always perfectly regulated because, well, Covid. And being attuned to my own body’s needs is a relatively new tool. I am modelling for them and for my own Inner Child that apology for snapping at them, or being inpatient is not their fault, nor is it mine. It’s because I’m stretched thin and needing to rest. Rest that does not come easily these days.

So i use the energy and guidance of the moon to help set a pace for me. I am slowly down my to-do list this week and giving myself permission to not be productive. There is no need to rush ahead.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions as they set us up to fail, compete, and produce. Rather, i sit and take stock inwards, and listen to what is aligning within me. I also sit with what the collective needs, and what is moving me forward instead of staying stuck.

Each year, i have been reflecting on the year that was and planning intentions for the year about to begin. This help me set guideposts of intentions for my coming year. This ritual also helps me get a sense of how to pace myself and live my life fully. Like many of us, 2020 threw me a for a loop. I sat with core words like reflect, rest, reset, intention, strength, safety, empathy, and encourage. And while all the words sounded good, they just didn’t speak to what my body was quietly and consistently whispering.

In the final months of 2020, i saw where i was able to show up for myself, my family and community. I also saw where that was harder for me. I came face to face with my needs and realities and did an evaluation of what was at the core for me.

For instance, i love to learn, both personal courses like learning how to do macrame, as well as professional development. And yet, when i continue to be a perpetual student, i don’t always have the energy to step into the learning and allow time for a new role to emerge. After several courses in 2020 (i think it was a record high of 12), i am taking a pause and stepping sideways.

I rise.

I am stepping into the wings of the emergent butterfly, the phoenix using from the ashes of 2020, and of the moon showing its wisdom in all its phases.

I don’t mean I’m going to rise and and claim space that is not mine, or even to assume I’m an expert, but rather rise my head up high and take what is mine to feel proud of. To not stay quiet, to walk with an embodied dignity, grace, and confidence. This is what my core essence is speaking to, to calling me towards.

“Just like moons and like suns with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, still i RISE” Maya Angelou

I rise as a white woman who wants to do the hard work of addressing and challenging white supremacy.
I rise as a feminist who is a mother raising feminists and co-conspirators for change
I rise as an adult who wants to be wild, free, and fully human
I rise as a woman who wants to embody her feminine strength
I rise as a therapist who knows, shares, and loves working with people to heal from trauma
I rise as a human who is working on healing her Inner Child Part who wants to Play
I rise as a being who is attuning to her mind body soul
I rise as a partner who is working on her reactions versus seeping knowing around what she needs in the moment
I rise as a leader who has been doing work on healing trauma and gender-based violence for over 20 years
I rise as the imperfect person who believes that change is possible

What does that mean? Well, stay tuned for some exciting projects i have in the works. For now, there are two things i want to share with you.

Reflections of the Year Guidebook
First, i created a workbook to help you find your word, goals, or dreams for 2021. After years of doing others, i compiled and created a guidebook that speaks to me. It’s a 14 page booklet that you can get and use for yourself. All you have to do is – click the link to get your own free copy!

Secondly, the other word that kept coming to me was REST. Rest my mind body soul after the hard year of 2020. Honour the need for us all to rest, as we learned that more than anything, we need to rest during collective trauma, not be productive worker bees. Yes, we can pivot and work from home, but should we? I definitely didn’t want the blurred lines of work and home balance.

Then, i made a connection to something else that is near and dear to me – supporting women who have experienced abuse and trauma. A big part of my work journey to now has been supporting women (many who are parents) who have developmental trauma and/or experienced intimate partner violence. As the trauma impacts all aspects of who they are, it’s no surprise that parenthood has been made even challenging.

So, I give you REST – Resources for Empowerment and Support after Trauma.

No one else can empower someone. Each of us has capacity to be resilient and heal after trauma. This is at the essence of post-traumatic growth. We cannot do this work in isolation or alone. This is where collective healing comes into fruition.

This has been a big part of my individual support to people, and I’m excited to see where this chapter takes me next. As community is so important to me, I hope to foster a community via groups, webinars, and some other intentional sharing of resources. I have been sitting in stillness and have had my thoughts lead me to some great ideas! So, stay tuned for more articles, resources, and programs coming up later this year…

Tips to a Find a Good Trauma Therapist

you are already whole just like the moon, who is only going through stages

I’ve been going through a bit of a metamorphosis in my own life, as i have grappled with a decision to do what is best for me, versus something that may have been more aligned with an earlier version of me. I think my wings of transformation have been able to be fully opened now.

I recently made a big decision in my life, which is to fully embrace my private practice full-time. While it was something that i have been deliberating about for some time, i have been in the VAW (violence against women) field so long that it has shaped my identity as a therapist and human. After over 22 years, it is now time to accept this transition. It was hard to let go of this identity, as i jumped into it with all my being. It is also what has made me be the therapist i am today.

When i started my private practice in 2015, it was to complement my work as a gender-based violence counsellor. The work i did initially in my practice was supporting new parents, especially those that experienced a traumatic birth or were having a hard time integrating this new role of parent in their life. It was also a way to balance the hard, necessary and all-encompassing work as a VAW/gender-based violence counsellor.

As my two work hats started to blend over the years (because we cannot separate the intersections of parenthood, trauma, and past abuse), it gave me pause with where i wanted to go moving forward.

Covid and the pandemic has played a role in my decision. As a working mother, it is important for me to balance and have a rhythm that works for me. When schools, extra-curriculars and summer camps all shut down, i noticed the toll of working from home with my children home as well. I also noticed that i need more clear boundaries and self-care practices in order to be the mom and therapist (and friend and partner and daughter) i want to be. Let alone the woman for my own Self. Yes i was burning out, and yes i was not alone with this. And yes we deserve better. (In another post, i will speak to my anger with how this year has gone for us as working moms). I may be a therapist who knows about vicarious trauma, burn-out and self-care, and i am also a human experiencing a collective trauma with everyone else.

Welcome to the new me here: The trauma therapist

While working my decision to make this change, i sat with what kind of therapist i am, what kind of therapist i strive to be, and what makes a ‘good therapist.’ Last year, i shared my thoughts on what is important for therapy to work. You can read it here. Of course, as anything, what makes something good for one person is not necessarily true for others. And yet, there are some important factors to think about when you are looking at starting your path with a therapist.

You have the right to shop around to find the fit that feels right. Book calls with a few therapists – if they don’t offer this free consult, that itself is a sign. Read about what you need in therapy, like Annie Wright’s article. What feels right may be different for each of us, but some things to consider are:

1) Relational
As a general rule, we need to have RAPPORT so that you feel safe enough to want to come back and share intimate things. Rapport is a bit of a vague term, so some things i look for are: using humor, a warm smile and nod, holding space and making room for all emotions and choices, being a compassionate witness to your pain – i really do care about you and have hope for your healing journey. I want you to live the life you love.

Building trust, respect, rapport and a safe container are probably the most important key ingredients for therapy to work. If we don’t have trust, it is hard to go deeper. I can’t promise to fix you or even have a fully safe space, but i do work from a relational place and am honoured when you choose to get support from me. Trust is earned and respect is something we all deserve all the time (and i know that we don’t always get). For instance, when I make a mistake, can you call me in and do i make the changes you ask of me? Do you look forward to therapy, even if that means you may cry or bring up stuff? Do you feel lighter when we are done, even if you feel raw?

Some other ways to show respect are how i treat my space, your boundaries and information. For instance, i strive to provide a safe(r) space and container, which includes privacy. I am committed to write you back quickly, write client-centred notes that i share with you. It is also important to me that you know I am listening fully. My room (even virtually now!) is inviting and i remember details of your life, like the name of your dog or a favourite vacation.

Working from a relational place in therapy means i have a unique, good and special relationship together with you, and what comes up in session is organic and active. I share my delight in seeing you, i see the best in you no matter what, and am grateful and honoured that you come and share vulnerability with me. Our relationship does not exist in a bubble, even though it is a unique one, that usually does live in some secrecy from the outside world. Is the foundation of the relationship solid, and do you get a sense of my authenticity, empathy and compassion for you?

My work is rooted in attachment theory so it shows up in sessions in an overt way. I don’t just mean i ask you about your childhood (full disclosure, i do), but we also work on healing old attachment wounds by repairing your unresolved need for attunement. As social creatures, we thrive when in connection with others. Healing this type of rupture with a therapist is instrumental to get to a more secure attachment style in your present life. This itself depends on the relationship between us that we are working on together.

2) Trauma-Informed
Not all therapists work from a trauma-infomred place, even though we all work with trauma as each human has experienced trauma in their life. So, a respectful and more safe way to support people is to have trauma humility. It starts with learning about what is trauma, the systems that perpetuate trauma, and ways to help integrate the traumatized part into the rest of our Self. This means therapists need to support you to have resources before going to trauma resolution work; we need to ensure you feel safe enough and are within a window of tolerance (or capacity might be a better word to describe this. We are not just building tolerance to hard feelings but the ability to handle them). If we open the wounds too fast, the healing takes longer.

If you are human you have experienced trauma

Being trauma-informed also means that i hold hope for you and you can feel it. I believe that you can get better, and have hope for healing with post-traumatic growth. I am just here as an alchemist, adding the right ingredients to help you get there. You are doing the work. I act as an anchor to guides you and gives you the resources you need to take the plunge.

Another part of trauma-informed care and philosophy is the awareness of Intersectionaity for each of us. Living as a cis-gendered white therapist, i have to do my own work to unpack my inherited white privilege. I can do harm if i do not prioritize this work. A layer of this is to to have unconditional positive regard and a non-judgemental stance of you. I am not afraid of you, and all your emotions are valid, though i can be worried FOR you.

Being a trauma-focused therapist takes it a step further. To help you heal the traumatized part means i honour and sit with your pain without trying to change it, but rather help you find resources that are already there within you. I co-regulate from a place of a regulated Nervous System myself; I do this by staying present and regulated even while feeling compassion and moved by your experience. As Resmaa Menakem shares in his book, this is a necessary part of a good therapeutic alliance: I provide a safe container without assuming safety.

A lot of clients earlier in my career believed it was important for their own healing to tell me their trauma story. While i struggled with this as i intuitively knew this was re-traumatizing them, I honoured their need. Now i know better in how to frame this support. Trauma resolution doesn’t mean I need you to share the details of the actual event; In fact, it is not necessary or even helpful to do so. It runs the risk of re-living the abuse.

3) Integrative
Therapy as a practice is not a new concept. People have been talking to others for support, guidance, and a listening ear for millennia. It is actually also an art, with things coming up organically in the space where there is no agenda. It is a very present and attuned practice. When people come to me for therapy, i do not hold an agenda in mind and the hour flows from there.

We need to be client-centred in order for the work to have any effect. And so there are so many different modalities and styles, approaches and specialities. I believe that knowledge about trauma, anti-oppression, body-based therapies, and working from an integrative and holistic place are the ingredients to make therapy impactful. Honouring the mind body spirit is also integral. That also means that therapists need to continue learning, adapting, unlearning and being vulnerable with their peers. Growth happens when we are uncomfortable as that leads to change.

There are so many therapists with all sorts of training. It is a sign of strength and passion when therapists want to keep learning, as it keeps them humble and human – no one knows everything. I may know a lot about trauma and supports that work, but i cannot assume any expertise in what you need – that is up to you.

Good therapists also seek their own supervision, whether with another colleague, in a peer group or more informally. I do all of these, and i also see my own therapist. This helps me stay grounded, accountable, and present at all times. It also helps me take notice of transference or counter-transference experiences.

I also think it’s important for the people i support to know that i am passionate and committed to this work. I may make people cry for a living, and my compassion for you helps me hold space for you when those tears come up. Do you get a sense that i am skilled and confident in my abilities as a therapist? Do i show that i want to do the best for you?

I wholeheartedly believe that good therapists have learned various modalities. Even if they have a couple of preferences (mine are Feminist Narrative Therapy and somatic therapies), no two people are the same. Part of the art of therapy is that we follow the flow of what comes up organically in a session. So, we need to be integrative because the client is their own expert and the approach on a given day also depends on what is present in the room at the time. We may pull from several modalities in one session, or for one situation are you struggling with. If you are new to therapy, read about the therapists’ bios and see if it feels like a right fit – does the idea of somatic or body-based attunement speak to you, are you more into staying cerebral, for instance?

Further, therapy should not just be talk or cognitive-based – it is imperative to also include emotion-focused resources, as well as somatic/body tools and other ways to learn like expressive arts mediums. There is a time for talk and there also needs space for pause, quiet, and using our pre-verbal, creative part. This is also where our Ventral Vagus Nerves lives, so it makes sense that it needs to be activated in therapy sessions.

This year specifically, i have made a commitment to learn more about how to be a better Anti-racism co-conspirator. I have read books, taken courses, had discussions, and made changes to my business to honour this work. The learning is not a one-time act, nor should it be performative.

4) Own Expert
You are on your Own journey. While i have the honour to support you for a time, i only see you for an hour each week. In between sessions, or when you move on after therapy, you have your Self to get you through. I am happy to meet you where you are willing to go, and to model self-regulation as a mirror. What you do with it is up to you.

I meet you where you’re at and i am next to you on this journey. I may make suggestions – and not the dreaded ‘should’ statements. Sometimes, people i support ask for me what i would do, or to give them advice, and i need to remind that i cannot answer this. I am not in their shoes and empowerment to feel good after a decision only comes from within.This is where change lives too. I do not want to set up for failure either. At times, i may share my own experience. I do this not for you to copy my choices, but rather as a way to honour the attunement and self-compassionat practice of shared humanity.

I also believe that therapy must include advocacy for you and larger systems at play. I am hear (spelling intentional) to help you heal as well as challenge the systemic issues that are impacting our collective healing. We heal in community as we are social creatures, not unlike jaguars, wolves and elephants.

You are in charge of the session. My service to you is professional and catered to what you need. That means you navigate the session and i do not act on my own agenda. If i every steer you away from something you want to focus on, it is your right to get back to the work you want to do. This is Agency. I don’t take this personally. I also ask explicitly (called a frame) what direction you want to go to when we are faced with two paths. This is an example of consent being sought intentionally.

I am a trauma survivor and have done my work to resolve it. This knowledge informs my work, as well as gives me access to lived experience and a shared humanity that healing is possible. I am at a very good place in my own life, as i have done my work, and my nervous system is regulated: You do not need to take care of me when feelings show up in the room together.

Sometimes, we need to normalize the experience of your reaction, by also honouring your unique story. I offer psychoeducation about your reaction as a way of providing safety when a part of you starts to feel shame, guilt, or even anxiety about choices you made when you were scared or hurt. When we know others have felt and responded in similar ways, it resets our nervous system and negative self-talk that we are a worse version of ourselves.

5) Exquisite Risk-Taker
It takes courage to seek out therapy. I push you to take exquisite risks that are NOT beyond your limits. Therapy does not exist in isolation. The hope is that you start to see increments of change, even after a few sessions. Therapists cannot guarantee to ‘fix you.’ Therapy is also NOT a cyclical or linear process, as each session is unique and alive in the here-and-not moment. But it is a moving forward process. It is also not a place to purge your thoughts without also being a space for reflection and support. It helps to think about what is said in a session during the week, and see if you want to work on the resources that are offered. It is not ‘homework’ that gets marked or judged, but rather an opportunity to practice a new language of self-healing.

One of my favourite compliments is when i hear “What would vania tell me.”

I am hear to offer you choice and options, whether it is for resources, or things i hold in my grounding basket. I may make suggestions when i contact (notice) a body or emotion-based response during a session, but i don’t want you to feel that i cannot handle your emotions. I will not pass you a tissue to suggest you need to stop crying. I am here to welcome and honour all the feelings, and to slow them down in order for you to build your capacity to sit with them. Our society is not good with the hard feelings – we typically only welcome joy, surprise, and sometimes fear. Otherwise, we feel like we have to hide the other ones as the person who is with us cannot handle them – which turns into an internalized translation to them not being able to handle us.

I love the word “Organicity.” Pat Ogden’s body of work Sensorimortor Psychotherapy speaks about this concept. It means what happens in the room during a session is what to work on, or what happens together is the work. Sometimes there is some risk to stay with something that is only poked at typically, or passed over quickly. Narrative Therapy and somatic therapies both intentionally dive deeper into the implicit. Kind of like Russian Nesting Dolls where we open up to a new story or opportunity, or version of our Self. We do experiments together, with curiousity. Taking risks can get to a more whole and new stage in your healing. We need this courage to get to a new place, otherwise our cycle remains active.

One way to start to notice if the therapist you are working with is a good fit is to take stock and see if you can sense the change in you and see new positive opportunities. Do you laugh together and have a sense of play together? Does your therapist delight in your progress and process without claiming responsibility or saviourism? This is the balance of taking risks and being held.

I will meet you there.

I am still transitioning into this new role, and version of myself. As a white, cis-gendered and able-bodies female therapist, I know i carry and hold a lot of power and privilege. The world of private practice therapy already feels so reflective of the two-tiered approach that I usually cringe over. This is part of my work – continuously reflecting, checking, and sitting with my discomfort and working towards a new feminist model of private practice therapy that is more inclusive and accessible.

Did you notice how I tilted this ‘good therapist’ and not great or perfect? For one, i don’t believe in perfect anything but i do trust that there are better fits just like there is a perfect hair stylist for each of us. I also think you are the one doing the work, and i am beside you, so the emphasis of the work being done is for you, not for me to take the credit.

Harvesting a Good Feeling

Raise your hand if you have been having some big feelings these last few months! Don’t worry if you are reading this alone, because chances are, all of us are raising our hand in a big YES to this question.

And guess what?! We can slow down the overwhelm of big and hard feelings. Magic happens when you practice alchemy by adding more time noticing the good and gentle feelings. The magic is when we can control the cognitive realm of our Self by adding positive cognitions and more present awareness.

Does that sound hard or give you a headache? One amazing aspect of our body is the energy it exudes, so we become more intentional or in control of our thoughts. Our body has an energy field called Torus, which is the external expression of our nervous system. Our heart is known to have a donut-shaped (torus) energy. This is that feeling you have when you ‘just have a feeling’ or a gut instinct. I love how this aura permeates from our centre, as it can also symbolize that feeling when we are close to someone meaningful and special to us. It shows up in those butterflies in the stomach or blush on our face. These are some ways we can start to notice the impact of our thoughts and choices, and how they might linger in our body. A beautiful outcome of this energy is the glow we can feel when we are accessing something positive or happy even.

Our body gets impacted by intergenerational trauma and well as more direct experiences of trauma. A traumatic memory starts to linger in the body and becomes so blended that it makes it hard for the person to step outside of the traumatized part. This is when the torus field gets compromised and then impacts our general physical health with continued ailments, health challenges, and continued incidents of trauma. During MRIs, our brain lights up as the colour blue when we feel rested and at peace, and red when it’s in fight or flight, or anxious. We need to find ways to get the brain to be blue, to rest and get to the glow.

When we start to balance or titrate these harder experiences with more pleasant, positive or optimistic ones, we give our body a chance to rest. We then start to heal that part that is still struggling. Our toric field and nervous system starts to heal and notice signs of distress earlier. Taking time to take stock of our energetic somatic level is a great way to start intentionally building an emotional wellness toolkit, especially as the Winter months are coming.

The wonderful work on Polyvagal Theory has brought so much rich goodness to healing and living more embodied, especially during this pandemic. In Deb Dana’s latest book, Polyvagal Exercises for Rest and Connection, she speaks about Glow and Glimmers. Glimmers are the opposite of a trigger; they are the sensations in our body that help us get to a safe and connected zone. Glows are the more sustaining feeling when our Ventral Vagus Nerve is activated. They are the deepened state of feeling calm and connected.

Another beautiful concept of this body of work is the ‘Soul Nerve’, from Resmaa Menakem (the author of the important and pivotal book My Grandmother’s Hands). In his book, he shares that this is where we experience a felt sense of love, compassion, and the full range of emotions as well, like sadness, hope anxiety, disgust, fear, grief. The felt sense lives in our body, in our lizard brain and also is easiest to access near our solar plexus and gut (known sometimes as our second brain). The amygdala aka lizard brain is where our body feels the 4 F’s (flight fight freeze fawn) and respond. We need to intentionally activate the mammalian brain of connection and rest, where we feel vibrant, and relaxed as well.

So, what do we do with all this knowledge of our body and brain? One simple way is to start to have a pleasure practice. Pleasure does not have to have an overtly sexual connotation but rather a more embodied sense of feeling ease and pleasure in a here-and-now moment. For instance, you can meditation, stroke your body in a self-massage, slowly add lotion after a bath or shower, masturbate, do a yoga yin practise, connect with the 5 senses to anchor a good moment in your body, be present, watch a candle burn for a few moments and follow it with your breath.

I recently heard a helpful strategy called the “5 percent Pleasure Rule by Ann Nguyen; find ways to ask yourself how to make an event or activity 5 % more pleasurable than it is right now. Maybe you are eating dinner – can you make it a bit more pleasurable by lighting candles, having a cloth napkin or tablecloth, or maybe it is adding lemon slices to your glass of water. How can you build capacity to ENJOY your day more – this increases pleasure which then tells your body and mind that you are resting and not always activated in flight or fight.

Think about in the bedroom, where you enjoy more sexual and intimate pleasure. Can you surrender a few percent to build up the pleasure muscle? How might that look for you?

The Vagus nerve (as I’ve written about before) is active throughout your body. As it’s known as the second brain in the gut as well as easily accessible in the solar plexus, there are ways to help access it intentionally when you’re feeling activated or under distress. Think of ways to access it now that you know where it lives in your body – as you are reading this now, see what happens when you hum a bit, sigh out OM, buzz like a bee, give yourself a vagus throat stroke, sing, chant, rub your belly, do belly breathing, rock or sway. Did you notice an exhalation or softening?

When we notice what is happening in our body and have resources to take care of ourself, it helps us hold agency and choice. We can then follow the pull for rest versus feeling compelled to push through.

We have been taught that we need to be productive even during a pandemic. We’ve also been taught that self-care is selfish and rest is both a sign of weakness as well as a luxury. One big step is to reclaim this process and see you rest as worthy and actually sustainable. These breaks can help productivity AND also increase your access to the nerve that helps your body rest and digest.

Here is a list of ways to relax and access the ventral vagus nerve. What might you add to your own personalized list?

* Take a break – re-centre yourself, pause, take in the surroundings, do it during a busy day
* Cook or bake something new
* Be off social media, devices
* Read for hours
* Journal
* Laugh
* Hammock or swing – sway back and forth
* Between moments of busyness take in your senses – 5 senses game
* Get bored to unwind after feeling overloaded – jog, podcast, one thing at a time
* Meditate
* Draw or paint
* Play with clay or dough
* Dance
* Change your meal plan
* Play catch
* Skip rope
* Sing
* Play music while cooking and sing
* Eat a fresh veg and fruit meal – find ways to savour them and pick your own fresh produce
* Treat yourself to a bouquet of flowers
* Watch adorable videos – cute animals
* Clean a spot in your home and relish that order
* Water bath – swim, look at photos, bliss out in the water
* Enjoy a view – mountain, forest or beach – in real life or photos
* Hug someone even yourself
* Talk to someone you love
* Tea break with a ritual process
* Do nothing but watch a kettle boil
* Eat chocolate
* Write a real letter to a loved one and mail it
* Watch a favourite happy movie scene or show
* Re-read a favourite book and recall where you read it before
* Cuddle a pet or someone else’s
* Play a fun game like Animal Crossing, or a game that takes you to your youth like Go Fish or Connect Four and recall how it made you feel back then
* Be barefoot outdoors
* Nap
* Cuddle with someone
* Sit in a rocking chair
* Plant something in soil get your hands dirty
* Wake with the dawn – watch a sunrise or sunset and look closely at how the horizon change
* Cold bath plunge
* Bird watch – or watch a butterfly in flight, a snail at a slow pace…
* Self-massage
* Happy place mediation

It might be overwhelming to think of things to do so why not split them up by season? With the Fall Equinox happening this week, it’s a great time to intentionally notice what things might help you glow. Fall is a perfect time to get back in rhythm as it shows us how cycles can be re-invigorating and helps us bring this awareness into our own life. Think of the 5 senses to help you start a list. Notice how you can navigate a new mindset shift and bring a sense of peace and warmth to your everyday. When we can anticipate a GOOD feeling and something we are looking for instead of dreading, that is a healing way to reset and get back to a rhythm. Have you heard of the concept of Hygge? This is the perfect time to add cozy and rest-encouraged activities and rituals in your everyday life. Let’s harvest some.

What are some things you look forward to this Fall?
* Drink chai or a spicy tea
* Puzzle play, crosswords, stock up on board games and new books
* Knit (or learn to)another new craft like weaving or macrame
* Get a new journal to write in and capture moments of gratitude
* Light a candle or oils
* Put lotion on your hands and feet at bedtime
* Put together a calming playlist and listen – do nothing else but catch your breathe
* Make Fire Cider
* Have a bath
* Can some fresh food for winter
* Apple picking
* Get a cozy blanket and keep it ready
* Stock up on indoor plants
* Witness a sunrise or sunset
* Get comfy clothes
* Hot apple cider
* Bake – bread, cookies, warm up store-bought cinnamon rolls
* Hug a tree and stare at its branches – fractals are repetitive patterns that help your brain meditate, or effortless looking
* Forest bath – mindful walk in a forest. Lie in it. Be still and focus. Hike. Notice the leaves and their change in colours
* Sitting by a crackling fire

In the next few days, why don’t you sit down with a cup of warm nourishing tea and a piece of paper and pen. Then, jot down some ways that you can add these activities of rest for yourself. What you come up with will be part of your Wellness Toolkit as we prepare for the Winter ahead, one that may be harder than years past. See what you can harvest. Find what makes you glow.

The Tipping Point: Power and Control During the Pandemic

I have worked in the Violence against Women Sector all of my career. Fresh out of university, i jumped into work in various shelters and helplines, both in my own city, as well as in India and Kazahkstan. It is something that i am very passionate about: My identity as a therapist is very connected to the part of me that is a VAW (violence against women) Counsellor, and has been for the past 22 years.

In my new role as a private practice therapist, I work predominantly with various types of trauma, especially with people who have experienced relational trauma as well as developmental trauma from their childhoods. While abuse from relationships is just one type of trauma, it is one that has lasting impact and yet we can still heal from it.

I share this history into my work past as it holds weight for what I know – abuse is still prevalent in our homes and is even more intense now because of the Covid19 pandemic. The pandemic is a ‘perfect storm’ that intensifies this type of trauma for both adults and children alike.

I also know that abuse isn’t just directed to women from men, and I appreciate the more inclusive language of ‘gender-based violence’ as it takes many forms, including intimate partner violence of people from all genders. And yet, it is without question mainly women that experience this type of abuse, by their male partners.

Why? Because of the need for Power and Control. That is also very steeped in male privilege, patriarchy, misogyny and gender-based violence. Men who use violence are also victims of our sexist society that views vulnerability as weakness, imperfection as a demerit, crying as a fault, and the old boys club status to aspire to.

During the pandemic, the pull for power and control is even more amplified because so many of us feel out of control, and that leads to internalized feelings like guilt, shame, fear or insecurity. Loss of work impacts our sense of status and contribution, it also makes us question or worth as we are taught to be productive at all costs. That internalized felt sense needs an output and for many of us, we were not taught how to expel anger, fear and sadness.

Then we lash out to get the feelings out and to feel in control again, even if that means we are not controlling others or displaying power OVER someone instead of power within.

I also know that people who use violence are not just the perpetrator but most likely have lived through their own story of abuse and trauma from their past or childhood. Some of the responsibility in this consequence of the pandemic lies not just on interpersonal relationships but at the systems that perpetuate them. Funding for shelters and helplines have been drastically cut, and people are isolated from each other and cannot access help.

No one deserves to be hurt no matter what.

One of the first tools I learned when i school to be a Feminist Therapist was the Power and Control Wheel, originally created in Wisconsin at the Duluth Centre. It helps create a visual image of the various ways that abuse is perpetuated. Since its original example, many others have been created to show reference to inclusivity and intersectionality. In all of them, they show how power and control are at the centre. They also depict the various forms of violence, especially ones that are more covert and therefore less likely to be noticed. This tool may be hard for some to read, and please note it’s used for educational reasons, to help others see what types of abuse exist. The impact on the person who is being abused is unique to each person and will be the focus of another article soon.

I’m not sure if the folx at the Centre have created a wheel for the pandemic: As no one today has ever lived through a global event like this, I wanted to share how abuse can be started or escalated during a pandemic. The wheel looks at interpersonal violence, so it’s important to note that there is a larger societal role that is steeps in how our community and global society continue to perpetuate Power and Control (stay tuned for another journal article soon on this).

In following the original model, we can assume most people have a general sense of Physical and Sexual Violence – for the most part they are easier to see or detect, and are a criminal offence. And yet there are other more covert or implicit types of violence as well. In keeping with the Wheel, I have broken them down here. This pandemic also alters the types of violence used, even physical and sexual examples. Please note that this list is not exhaustive, as there are unfortunately other examples as well. It is also a draft as more research and sharing of experiences is just being collected. Some of these examples are from the people i support first-hand.

Physical Abuse
Hitting, slapping, pulling hair, pushing; all mainly focused below the face as it is the only visual cue to others if the person is using video conferencing for work or social calls.

Sexual Violence
Forced sexual acts against consent; kissing and other forms of touch without consent or use of
health and safety precautions; being coerced or pressured for sexual acts because they are claiming to risk their health to come for a visit or are lonely and need to feel connected; not disclosing health concerns to sexual partner; having more than one sexual partner without disclosure; pressure to do sexually things virtually that makes person uncomfortable

Financial Abuse
Making the person take a leave from work and collect CERB or another social welfare program as it keeps them at home all the time; not allowing them access to funds – whether cannot go to bank machine due to pandemic or not sharing funds directly; Threaten to report person to take department or social welfare office to intimidate them; this is a form of financial abuse, threats, as well as privilege because it is used as a form of power if they are not using the same sources of income; not allow partner to share planning budget, paying bills, and otherwise knowing what the household income is; controlling what is bought for the home including groceries when only one partner leaves the home; quitting work themselves without consulting partner and relying on them for financial support

Threats
Using intimidation or threats to keep the person at home and not socializing, even via social media; threatening to tell authorities if person breaks ‘physical distancing’ rule; threaten to leave them or hurt themselves if partner leaves; intimidation to be violent with words or actions; breaks belongings or threatens to take things important to them; threats or hurts pet; partners may not live together and one uses power to pressure the other to visit even if they do not feel safe due to health and safety cautions.

Impact on Children
When abuse starts or escalates at home with children, they witness it even if they do no see it directly; can also increase incidents of child abuse due to stress at home and misdirected anger; using children in between former partners during exchange or access visits; telling ex-partner they cannot see children due to fear of getting virus; not allowing partner’s children from other person to visit or stay with them; involving children to be messenger of info

Emotional/Mental Abuse
Being at home with the person who uses violence is very stressful – there is no break and tensions can rise; conflict or stress can escalate and the perpetrator may be more diligent and hurtful in their language, put-downs on food preparation, demands on time, name-calling or derogatory and mean words. They may minimize their actions (called gaslighting); blame the person for the abuse or being stuck at home; claiming safety concerns to justify behaviour; minimizing the threat of the virus and using conspiracy theories to pressure partner to go out when they feel anxious to; not asking them how they are and providing support and only focusing on positive feelings

Isolation
During a pandemic when we are to stay in our homes is isolating enough; people who use violence can use this to not allow their partner to contact friends or family by phone or video; pressure them to not go out in the community; jealousy and control that leads to partner not wanting to go out; do all the social outings like groceries, etc which keeps the person stuck at home and not able to ask for help; ghosting their partner during Covid19

Using Privilege
Treats partner like a servant and makes all the decisions regarding the household alone; other forms of privilege include threatening to out the person if they are LGBTQI2S and want to leave partner, or having white privilege and is not a target in the community, or citizenship privilege and can access supports that someone who doesn’t have status can’t; able-bodied privilege where they do not understand the further impact on someone who needs physical support and their care workers cannot do home visits during pandemic.

There have been some great initiatives that have started during this pandemic to help support people who have experiencing this in their homes. If you are someone, or know someone who needs support or to learn about safety plans, please be mindful when doing searches online. Reach out for help, as you are not alone and deserve better.

A Tiger Named Covid

I’m a big fan of tigers, jaguars and panthers. I love how they live in a pack, are caring for the little ones, and are so tough. And yet they are used a lot as reference to the things our bodies fear the most. Have you heard the expression “your body is afraid of the tiger in the bushes?” We either flee them, play dead, or try to fight back. In today’s current global crisis, Covid has become that tiger. Our body prepares to keep us safe by bringing up times we were in harm’s way, similar to an alarm system. Our ancestors surely faced more dangerous tigers, and we still embody this primitive, reptilian reaction in our present life.

I’ve spent my career supporting others who are healing from trauma, both relational or developmental trauma as well as birth trauma. I’d like to think I know a few things about how to help others heal. In fact, I am so passionate about helping people heal from their past trauma and believe that they can. I have gone through my own experiences of trauma and pain. And yet, I have never gone through a pre-traumatic event with any of my clients or community.

None of us have.

This pandemic is the first collective trauma of this kind any of us in this lifetime has endured. Of course, some of us have endured other forms of trauma including relational abuse and war. Some of have faced institutional oppression, racism, and genocide. Some of us have ancestors who experienced violence and trauma and still are impacted by it – as well as us as our bodies have inherited that lived experience of trauma. In today’s pandemic, we may not be impacted by it in the same way, and yet we are all experiencing some level of pain from this global health crisis.

Our body and brain are experiencing some levels of stress. Some of us still have to leave their homes to work and that is anxiety-inducing. Some of us have family members who need to leave home to work and that is nerve-wracking. Others of us have to stay at home with someone who is abusive towards them, and they are in a constant state of activation. Others have lost income due to jobs that are no longer there, or have family who has been diagnosed with Covid19.

The current collective trauma is a re-traumatizing experience for those that experienced trauma in the past. Being stuck indoors reactivates the body’s reminder that it cannot leave and needs to flee in order to be safe. Some clients have shared with me that their former trauma is really resurfacing for them as their body recalls similar sensations as in the past trauma experience. Their bodies feel stuck, they can’t release their feelings, or feel like they are walking on eggshells in order to not cause a volcano explosion – their partners, theirs, or their children’s. A lot of us are just within or outside our Window of Tolerance of regulation.

We do not have to be trauma survivors to experience fear and trauma during this crisis. Double trauma is the new experience mixed with old ones, and peritrauma is the potential of becoming traumatized during this event. After all, trauma is defined as something too big, too much and too fast to bear. I know I am experiencing a lot right now that is too much and too fast to digest.

Trauma is an embodied felt sense after experiencing something hard we are not able to rebound from. Trauma lives in our body as well as mind so we need strategies that help both parts heal. This helps us move past a startle defense response that keeps trauma active in the body.
We are now past the initial “Honeymoon stage” of life temporarily in Quarantine and Distancing. Some of us have found some ways to imbed a new routine and others are feeling more activated by the ongoing pandemic and its impact on our everyday lives. We have the potential to bounce back after this experience, but the uncertainty of when it ends keeps us feeling stuck.

Our brain’s Central Nervous System is made up of 2 parts – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Our sympathetic nervous system helps us prepare for things and keeps us protected. You many have heard of the term “Fight or Flight” as reference to our body’s way of reacting to feeling unsafe and needing to either flee the tiger or fight off the tiger. Two more ‘f Words’ are Freeze and Fawn, which are at the other end of our brain’s way of responding to threat to safety. Each are an innate instinctual response to threat, as our body’s alarm system is activated to respond in a pre-determined way. We can’t typically change how we respond but we can lessen the impact and severity.

An embodied sense of trauma is not so much about what happened to us as how it lingers in our body, so we don’t need to talk about the event itself. Rather, what we need is having empathic listening, resources, and rest. We have an innate capacity to move through trauma, it just needs to be supported. It helps to have someone bear witness to us so that we don’t hold inside the trauma in absence of a compassionate witness. In my previous post, I shared ways to build this community so you feel less alone in your experience.

Trauma processing work doesn’t erase the trauma but rather minimizes how it grabs us. A main goal of therapy is to uncouple trauma-based emotions from the sensation that is stored in your body. This will then help you integrate the impact in your body as a memory rather than a real-life reminder in the here and now.

You can definitely do things in the here and now to lessen the impact of peri-trauma in your body. While therapy is a key support, it is not alone in ways to help yourself.

Things to do for you now “Without tools trauma rules”

We build resilience as we build our capacity to take care of ourselves after trauma. It may help to notice what your response is. Do you have a sense of this already? If not, this article may help a lot as it may be beneficial to sit with your thoughts as you reflect on times in your life where you reacted to something that upset you. Try not to think of something too big as it may make you re-live it, but rather a time when you were surprised and how your body responded.

For instance, I am a Freezer. I freeze when I am scared. My body feels stuck in place and my feet feel like they are frozen in ice. And not like Elsa. Let me share this story to paint the picture a bit better: my son fell down the stairs once when he was not even 2 years old. As he inched closer to the stairs, I noticed my alarm system react. But I felt stuck in ice or quicksand and could not move to rescue him. I screamed and responded to him when he was already at the bottom of the stairs. He was fine, and only bit his lip. Now, whenever he or his sister is at the top of any staircase, I recall this sensation in my body.

My son is a Fighter – even the lightest tickle will turn my son into a green mini-Hulk. He cannot bear the sensation, even if by accident and he will hit with fists to protect himself. My daughter is a Fawn who seeks closeness to us when scared, and also is more quick to bounce back and people please after a conflict.

Once you get a sense of the reaction in your own body, it makes it easier to know the tools, resources and exercises that help you in the here and now moment of your SNS kicking in. Here are some tips to help you when your Alarm system (aka SNS) is on and you can’t access the parasympathetic part of social connection or rest. Accessing these resources may help you get back into regulation during this pandemic.

Flight
* Go outside – take a drive, even your balcony, and look for nature prompts to stay in here and now. Play the 5 Senses Game to stay present.
* Walk around home space or go for a walk outside safely. Do a mindful walk or ecstatic dance and move your arms. Let your arms take flight as your reaction may feel stuck in the core of your body. Moving your periphery is very stabilizing
* Orient in the space around you with your eyes – move your head side to side to help you see different perspectives. This bi-lateral work is great for your brain to regulate.
* Do a sun salutation yoga sequence to get you flowing
* Breathe work – try a Self-Compassion Break exercise

Fight
* Roar like a Lion – Have an outburst of anger and scream as tension in your body gets stuck in the throat so breathing helps it be let out.
* Move your breath down to your belly – short breaths are connected to running, and we associate running from tigers. If we can breathe deeply then we are not scared. It sends a message to your brain that you are safe.
* Have a cool shower to regulate the heat that is rising with anger
* Run in spot then bring breath back, jumping jacks, box in pillow to get the anger out in a safe way
* Give yourself a small smile too as it loosens the tension in the jaw and sends a message to your brain that you are okay
* Push your hands against a wall, with your feet planted firmly on the ground
* Do some yoga Warrior poses

Freeze
* Warm UP – the felt sense of numbness, disconnection, chronic pain, disconnected from emotions needs warm so use a warm bath or blanket. Get your shoulders to feel the weight and warmth of it.
* Do some breathe work with the word Vooo to release some of the stuck energy.
* Body exercises like alternate foot step, progressive muscle relaxation, or playing catch with a ball helps your brain also get stimulated and distracted. This movement also warms your body up.
* Guided visualizations of a warm soothing place
* Lie against a wall and put your legs up the wall – this helps your flow and energy change and your heart beats more rhythmically.
* Find a restorative yoga class to follow online

Fawn
* Connect with others – join groups online or classes, or reach out to others
* Listen to podcasts to hear another voice in your home to decrease feeling of loneliness
* Heart breath work including placing your hands over our heart and breathing out more slowly than in but saying ‘shhhhh’ outloud
* Visualization of a happy memory activates estrogen, a bonding hormone
* We orient to others to engage so turn your neck and eyes from side to side, to seek out someone in a photo, the radio, on TV
* Write a letter to a loved one or look at photo albums
* * Give yourself a hug or get a hug from someone, try the Butterfly Hug. This helps slow down the stress hormone cortisol and slow breathing into your chest. Hug a pillow and breath out – we need to get to belly breathing here too

Not knowing when the trauma or fear is going to leave is what re-triggers the body in the here and now. Our brain stays stuck in the activated part to keep our alarm system on, but it works too hard and doesn’t know when to shut off. Kind of like that fire alarm in your home that doesn’t stop when the battery runs out. With any of these reactions, think of a part of you that needs to know it can move – feet, arms, orientation of periphery and tend to it. You can massage your feet, dance, move, walk around. Send lovingkindness, compassion, and gratitude to your body for being there to protect you.

Think of learning these resources like a way to enact a Nervous System bubble. In our current situation, think of things that are activating you. Is it wearing a mask? Is it seeing others in masks? Is it going to the grocery store? Or is it being stuck at home and unsure of what the future holds? Once you have somatic resources like these listed above, you are better able to respond to the need and titrate the sensation.

In previous posts, i have shared the concept of Titration; it allows us the experience of looking back at the trauma in the body but in a way that is controlled and not overwhelming. As we start to look at this, our body can resist and get overwhelmed because it’s been so used to holding back or stopping feelings from coming up again. So, pause and think of a more gentle memory. Slow down the overwhelm or anxiousness that enters your body but intentionally connecting to what you sense.

I love to garden and April is meant for planting seeds of intention, so having this affirmation handy may be a way of taking care of your heart too: you are the medicine for your own trauma. Dig deep for only you can make those wildflowers bloom again (source unknown)

Having a natural curiosity to explore your options to heal trauma is a key ingredient to heal. It may feel scary to do this work in this moment and yet staying with your feelings and doing somatic mindfulness work in the here and now is what will help your body know you are safe right now. Of course you are scared and overwhelmed – that makes so much sense with what we are living through right now. Give yourself the practice of self-compassion – speak to yourself about yourself with a kind heart, give yourself grace and patience.

On the Day of Your Funeral

Please note this is a raw and heart felt poem I wrote as I held space for my client. It was also a way to process the grief I felt. I share it now as a reminder of the many layers of trauma.

I learned recently that a client of mine died unexpectedly. Her death was more peaceful and gentle than her life. Her final hours were not so peaceful. At the end, she died doing something she was familiar with, that had been a coping tool for too many years. She died because she was trying to quiet the sadness and demons that were living in her.

On this day of your funeral, i am crying quietly to myself. I’m so sad that i never got one more visit with your vibrant and curious mind. I loved our loud sessions, and your hope for better.

She died because she had internalized the abuse and shame that had been poking at her for too long.

On this day of your funeral, I’m so angry at the economic context that criminalizes drug use at the same time as not having more support for trauma survivors.

She died because she was sexually abused as a child and her childhood was taken from her.

On this day of your funeral, i am present thinking of all the sexual abuse survivors i have known, worked with, supported, and been a part of their healing journey.

She died because people feel uncomfortable with mental health and ‘those people.’

On this day of your funeral, i am holding space for you and all that you had to endure. To say that you lived a life of trauma and suffering is an understatement. You deserved a better life.

She died because she had fallen through the cracks like so many women, who live in poverty, with mental health diagnoses and addiction.

On this day of your funeral, i am so proud of your resilience – you had overcome so much and were working on a better life for yourself. I know that your final days were not the main part of you, but rather parts of you that were too wounded still.

She died because her body was carrying around so much baggage and pain from being sexually assaulted and physically abused for all those years.

On this day of your funeral, i am honoured that you shared your life with me and trusted me with parts of you that were so vulnerable, ugly, unspoken, and raw.

She died because the world doesn’t give a fuck about how trauma impacts us, but instead values success and independence and white picket fences.

On this day of your funeral, i’m so sad that you were alone when you died. That you felt alone and hopeless. There are so many people who loved you for who you are

She died in pain – her heart was broken and her body was exhausted.

On this day of your funeral, I am curious what you’re wearing as I know your style was a big part of your reclaiming of your body.

She died dying to reclaim her body and find pleasure again – her sexualized sense of self was still a work in progress.

On this day of your funeral, i’m sorry that i wasn’t there more to bear witness to the parts of you that struggled to come out.

She died because she wasn’t seen and we let her down.

On this day of your funeral, may your next adventure be the one of your dreams.

I Write This Post for December 6

This week marks the anniversary of the the Montreal Massacre. On December 6, 1989 14 women were killed because they were attending school to be engineers. A lone gunman felt threatened by their presence and his misogyny lead to his decision to kill them and himself.

I write this after reading about a few more women and trans folk in Toronto who have been killed this year, this month even, or have gone missing. While we have made great strides to create change and lessen violence against women, it is still something that we are faced with on a regular basis.

I write this as someone who has worked in this field for 20 years, as a shelter worker, helpline staff, and now as a therapist for women who have experienced violence.

I write this as someone who sees so many forms of violence and unhealthy relationships in my own personal life. My own relationship with my partner is solid and happy, but like so many of us i have experienced harassment, abuse and unhealthy relationships in my past. Friends of mine still do.

I write this because some of the women i support are working on leaving their abusive partners, people that they have small children with and know that they deserve better. It’s such a complicated and courageous step to make – putting our own needs on the list means sometimes that we have to make a hard decision.

I write this because while we hope to change and help others, we cannot do it unless that is wanted. We can love ourselves more and trust that we when we fall, we will do so standing up with others around us for support.

I write this because we deserve to be safe, and happy, and feel valued.

I write this because i don’t think someone can be a good dad or parent if they are using violence on someone else. I also know that it’s ok to be angry and show all our emotions, but it’s never ok to have others afraid of us when doing so.

I write this because i have small children, a boy and a girl and i don’t want either of them to think that any form of violence is okay.

I write this because i support people who were raped and sexually violated in their lives, and that trauma impacts their life now. It’s hard to think about giving birth without connecting it to the pain and suffering of something that was taken from us.

I write this because there are communities of us that are disproportionately targeted – women of colour, Indigenous women, women with dis/abilities, and trans people. This is not okay. If violence is about feeling like you have power over someone, the intersections that we are labeled with seem to have even further oppressions.

I write this because sometimes abuse starts or escalates when we are pregnant. When we are already more vulnerable, and needing more support, love and understanding. This form of abuse happens when someone else is feeling or low or unneeded, and in order to make up for these feelings, they target their partner to feel more in control.

I write this because i’m angry that someone would be jealous of something that i feel like a Goddess for – being privileged to grow another being inside me. That someone would be jealous of this connection and feel like it means they don’t get the same attention.

I write this because i want to not have to write this again.