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Anxiety and Fear, PTSD, Trauma and Panic Attacks
If you were not identified as dyslexic in your schooling and denied the learning methods that fit you, you might have been told you were “stupid” or “thick” or were just ignored. This is especially true for people who grew up before dyslexia was better understood. It is a common story for kids with unrecognized dyslexia to be asked to read aloud in front of the class when they can’t, even when the teacher knows this is putting the child through a profoundly shameful experience. Or the teachers may ignore the student entirely and let him or her slip through the cracks. Kids are naturally curious and want to learn. They see their peers succeeding and yet dyslexic kids are unable to succeed in a “conventional” (ie, narrow-band) learning setting even if they apply themselves through “conventional” methods. The result is the experience of failing over and over, including failing in public. Other kids may make fun of them, exclude them, or bully them. Going to school becomes a daily act of going into a war zone, with all the accompanying trauma.
- After finishing school, dyslexics can find the newness of any endeavor, especially in the presence of others whether friends, family or work colleagues, to be particularly stressful because of the fear that new experiences may result in failing, being judged, criticized, or rejected. Dyslexics can run a constant background of anxiety and fear. If a situation is particularly stressful, their overwhelmed emotional system can even result in a panic attack. In order to shift the daily background feelings from fear to curiosity, reparative experiences need to happen to re-set the system. It is true—you can learn to re-boot your system.
Trauma is a response to a perceived threat. We need to react to threats in the moment to keep ourselves safe, usually by “fighting,” “fleeing” or “freezing.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, happens after an initial event, when someone gets “triggered” by something they see, hear, or smell and begins to feel that they are back reliving the traumatic moment. Some traumatic reactions occur from accidents, disasters, and attacks. However, we also experience trauma when the reactions of others are so harsh that we have no choice but to put ourselves away inside. The loneliness and pain of denying oneself is a matter of life and death to our emotional system, especially as a child or teen.
- The triggers for trauma and panic attacks can be seemingly “mundane” objects, people, or experiences—like seeing the four o’clock sunlight come through the window. They can immediately conjure up overwhelming past memories and difficult experiences. Dyslexics can find themselves triggered by things like new tasks, seeing child-size chairs, talking to new people even about things you know and love, or talking to someone you find out is a teacher.
When people get triggered, they may respond in a number of ways: feeling overwhelmed, numbing, freezing, spacing out, being quick to anger. They may find themselves anxious and depressed. They can get panic attacks. Sometimes they avoid certain situations entirely. Life can become really small and dark. But healing is possible!
Help On The Quest
We start to feel whole and safe when we can find a way into our body that feels nourishing, pleasurable, and brings us into the present moment. Here’s a simple exercise that offers a way to offload anxious thoughts and feelings and find the way home to a pleasurable present. In the present we are in our True Selves and can both enjoy life and have more resources to deal with difficulties.
Visualizations use some right brain functions to help us shift into a more embodied state. When we are anxious or upset, it is helpful to have a toolset that brings us back into balanced brain function, and using right brain gifts is really helpful. The right brain is a major player in how we experience the following:
- our body and physical sensations
- humor, jokes, metaphors
- express creativity and come up with new ideas
- compassion for others (putting ourselves in another person’s shoes) and for ourselves
- connection to the heart
That’s a lot of good stuff! So making use of the right brain’s gifts in visualization naturally brings us back into balance!
Every single human has a lot of “practice” feeling anxious, freaked out, nervous and scared. By practice, I mean that when we get triggered by something we engage in these states over and over until they become habit. Because they are habit, they are easy to start and easy to keep doing. It can be harder—at first—to feel calm, grounded and at peace with the world. It can be even harder—at first—to recover from difficult feelings. However, we can “practice” making new habits to feel the pleasure and joy in life, and to retain our equilibrium in the face of difficulty. It’s like learning to ride a bike—at first it might have seemed scary or even impossible—but we learned and pretty soon we found we could ride along without even thinking. Look Ma! No hands!
When we use lots of sensory detail in guided meditations or visualizations, we are engaging the right brain in a positive and healing way that naturally switches up how we are using our brain circuits. That’s right—you can learn to move from anxious circuits to grounded circuits by using sensory details. You are creating new neural paths! If you are visual, use lots of visual details. If you aren’t visual, no worries—use sensations, so you might feel the sand under your feet at the beach while a visual person sees the color of the sand. What is best is using as many elements of sensations as you can—hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting.
In addition, if you add an element of feeling grateful, you strengthen the connection between right brain and heart. The heart also has neurons, just like the brain does. Using gratefulness means bringing to mind something beautiful or kind and staying with the feeling of appreciation. Some examples are: remembering a beautiful sunset, an act of kindness you witnessed, someone you love, etc. When you allow yourself to feel appreciation—and fill in all the sensory details!—you are also bringing your parasympathetic nervous system online. This is the part of our nervous system that naturally stimulates our brain and body to produce feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine instead of fight-flight-freeze ones like adrenalin and cortisol. You actually are your own prescribing chemist when you bring a kind face to mind or remember walking in a beautiful forest.
Below are two exercises for pushing the reset button to calm yourself. The more you practice, the more you strengthen these brain circuits, the more you learn to live from this state, and when life throws you a curve ball you have more resources to deal with the ball. If you want to learn more about how the brain works and have lots of exercises, you can check out: Buddha’s Brain, The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, and The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb.
At The Beach*
*A variation is to go into the forest where a river is flowing nearby.
- Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet room.
- Let yourself softly breathe in and out several times. On the outbreath make a sighing sound.
- Now imagine yourself at your favorite beach. It could be a real beach you’ve visited, or an imaginary one.
- For this exercise, this is a beach where only you may go, so you have a lot of privacy.
- Begin to fill in the details of your experience: Feel the warm sand under your feet, or the cool pebbles if it is a shingle beach. See the immense sweep of the beach. What trees are there? What birds? What color is the water? Smell the salt air. Fill in all the details.
- Now especially listen for the pounding as the waves fall upon the beach and feel the reverberation in your bones. Hear the ssssst as the waves withdraw. Be with that rhythm, ever constant and ever varying.
- Now, give one layer of anything that you’d like to let go of to the outgoing tide. It could be a tension, an ache, a worry, a tightness. Just one little layer at a time. Don’t worry about trying to give it all away. Just give a little bit to the outgoing tide, knowing that the tide will take care of it. Notice your experience as the layer leaves out, out, out to sea.
- As you let go of little layers, allow yourself to begin to notice yourself feeling more space for yourself or perhaps it is yummy softening. You might notice you are taking a bigger breath—savor the bigger breath and the spaciousness in your chest. You might notice the pleasant weight of your bones, the warmth of your breath, your feet on the ground. As you feel yourself slowing down and your mind empties, savor the quiet and the slowing pace. Let yourself take time with any relief, peace, spaciousness, weight of your bones, calmness, slowness.
- Notice in a playful way who is noticing—this is your True Self, your Home Base You.
- Thank the world for it’s beauty, and notice what that thanking brings.
- Thank yourself for allowing yourself to be with the beauty, and noticing what that thanking brings.
Gratefulness Reset Button
You can do this anywhere, anytime. Gratefulness and appreciation of nature and of kindness switches our neural circuits and helps our parasympathetic (feel good chemicals) to start flowing. A few moments of doing this exercise can really facilitate a shift. Making it a regular practice helps it be an important tool in your toolkit of wellbeing.
- Stretch your hands over your head and yawn and sigh aloud—this primes the pump of the right brain.
- Feel the little glow of the stretch and yawn.
- Sit comfortably, neither slouching nor trying to sit up straight: find your sitsbones, let your spine rise from your pelvic bowl, allow your head to float on top of your spine. It’s okay to use the back of the chair to lean on, (just don’t slouch as slouching compresses your chest cavity and breath, which makes your brain nervous as it isn’t getting enough oxygen).
- Breathe in your nose and out your mouth three times. On the outbreath make an audible sigh (ie, make a sound)—ahhh. Making a sound when you sigh automatically signals your nervous system that you are safe and allows it to produce the feel-good chemicals.
- Now bring to mind any of the following: a scene of beauty; an act of kindness you witnessed or received; the face of someone who cares about you (an easy person, not one you are having any difficulty with—the easier, the better).
- Let yourself feel appreciation for this scene or person.
- “Take the elevator down”—bring the beautiful sunset, the caring face, down into your chest and notice the sensations in your chest that accompany the sunset, the care, the kindness. Pay especial attention to any of the following: softening, spaciousness, slowing, flow.
- If you want, you can put your hand on your heart and feel what happens with that.
- Notice who is feeling grateful—this is your True Self.
- Thank whatever is beautiful and kind; thank yourself for participating. Notice what this thanking brings.
Please note, the exercises you will find here are not meant to replace professional help. If you find that they are activating to you, please seek the guidance of a professional.
Healing Trauma: The Top Thirteen List
Drawn from Bessel van der Kolk and Belleruth Naparstek, leading experts in healing trauma.
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy or Somatic Experiencing (to help reset the limbic system)
- A Good Support Network (family, friends, mentors, colleagues, therapists, bodyworkers, pets)
- Music, Dance, Singing (group activities that regulate the nervous system and promote human connection)
- Bodywork and Massage
- Mindfulness Practices
- Guided Visualizations and Imagery
- True Self and Parts Work (such as Internal Family Systems, or other modalities such as Hakomi and Re-Creation of the Self)
- Yoga (Note: Bessel van der Kolk notes studies in his book that cite six weeks of yoga has shown to be more effective than Prozac)
- Medications when necessary
Healing From Trauma Means Befriending Your Body
Bessel van der Kolk is author of The Body Keeps The Score. He is one of the leading experts on working with trauma. He has created a list of effective modalities that help heal trauma based upon years of research. At the core, healing trauma first entails re-learning how to have a sense of safety in your body. That is absolutely key. At some point it will be necessary to integrate what happened to you—to acknowledge it, feel it and let it move through you and out of your nervous system. That happens in your own time, and usually with the help of understanding others who are close to you—friends, family, or professionals.