Our school system has changed a great deal over the past thirty years. Schools today are geared toward building left-brain academic skills. As a result, art and music programs have been decimated. Recess time is often taken away as a punishment if a child can’t sit still in class. Physical education might only happen a few times a week and often involves standing in line for most of a class in order to have a few minutes of time learning the rules of a game. As we’ve learned from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight”, using the right brain allows us to feel calm, safe and connected. Positive and negative emotions aren’t judged by the right brain; instead they’re accepted so we feel at peace.
Children are spending hours on handheld devices instead of hours in rhythmic play. Instead of developing the large muscles of the body first, as has always happened in every generation, now we are allowing our kids to develop the small, fine motor skills first. It’s not likely to be a design improvement on the human species, but at least both sides of the brain are being used, unlike when they’re in school or at home spending the majority of their free time doing homework. When kids are upset, they often don’t have the resources of the right brain to turn to in order to calm down. Suicide rates among children and teenagers are rising. So is binge-drinking and prescription drug abuse. These are alarming trends that are accelerating.
Humans are a social species. Those of us who lead very charmed public lives, like Tiger Woods did before Thanksgiving 2009, and who then fall off society’s pedestal as dramatically in scandal as he did, are likely to be stuck in trauma. The same holds true for Michael Jackson after his public trial. But PTSD is much more common among the general population than is widely known. Divorce can cause it, as can job loss, the death of a loved one or even just breaking a bone, let alone what happened to Woods. Rush Limbaugh has been through three divorces, as well as living through all sorts of potentially traumatizing controversy in his professional life. As for Prince, the loss of his newborn son to a devastating birth defect, as well as the loss of two marriages were possible triggers.
Those of us who have gone through trauma are in pain because the reptilian and emotional brains are locked into freeze and flight, which overdevelops fascia and tightens the muscles, especially those in the back of the body. Our rest-and-digest system, powered by the vagus nerve, becomes chronically underactive.
Being stuck in trauma means we haven’t processed our emotions around an event. Most people never do. We aren’t taught how to. Instead, our culture glorifies drinking or drugging our problems away, particularly for young men, though that path only leads to more pain as our lives spin out of control.
Having spent the first forty years of my life avoiding any type of negative emotion, I’ve spent the last ten learning how to deal with them. In the process, I’ve learned that the most vital of all loves is self-love. I can tell you that the only reason our unconscious is a Pandora’s box is because we refuse to look at it. Taking it on is a bit like cleaning up after a hurricane. At first it seems overwhelming, but eventually we can turn the tide and see order not restored, because it wasn’t there to begin with, but developed. We see resilience and tenacity. We have a deeper hold on our unconscious gifts, like creativity, insight and empathy.
It’s possible to learn how to process emotions. Find a safe space at home every day. Start with an easy event that you want to clear and focus on what’s going on in your body. Pay attention to all the sensations, not just what you identify as an emotion. Allow the sensations to unfold without diverting your attention from them. Keep breathing through it. Sensations will shift all over your body as the neurochemicals do their thing. That’s normal. Once you can no longer find the connected emotion and sensations, bring in a feeling of love or joy or peace. Cultivate your ability to shift to the positive once you process an emotion. As you get better at it, you can try processing more challenging events. Over time, you may notice that emotions you thought set in stone begin to change because you’re not quashing them anymore.
Here’s where adding in a meditation practice can help. If it seems too foreign to you, when meditating, use a mantra as simple as A-E-I-O-U. If you’re Christian, try a mantra made up of the names of your five favorite books of the Bible, like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts.
Throughout the day, pay attention to your thoughts. Are you labeling things negatively or are you being encouraging to yourself? Act like you’re coaching an adorable four-year- old; keep it positive and light. You can do this. ______________________________________________________________________________
Elizabeth Gould is the author of “Your Best Health by Friday: How to Overcome Anxiety, Depression, Stress, Trauma, PTSD, and Chronic Illness” (Rincon Star Press, November 2017, available at lulu.com.) Elizabeth is the founder of Right Brain University. She lives in Santa Barbara, California.