Healing with Nature: Mindfulness and Somatic practices to heal from Trauma Introduction:
One summer morning, our canyon hillside is cleared to reduce the fire hazard of dry grasses. Afterward, I am struck by how nature reacts. The birds chirp more erratically and flying in strange, rushed, excited patterns. The rabbits retreat to the bushes beyond the arbitrary 30 feet from the buildings and peek out to see if it’s safe to forage in the now-open landscape. The land looks exposed, raw, and vulnerable to the elements. My heart aches for a while. I know clearing the hillside provides protection, while at the same time these acts cause disruption and chaos for my wild friends and the land.
In the days that follow, I see wildlife and the land begin to heal herself. The birds find new graceful flights, singing with a tempo that simultaneously lulls and enlivens the hill. The rabbits have made new burrows deep in the sagebrush and succulents. And the soil begins to wake up as seeds are offered up and smells of tilled earth waft over the landscape, creating space for new life to emerge. I am reminded that nature has an inherent impulse to restore itself to wholeness and to thrive.
Responding to Trauma with Care
Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms your ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, changes your sense of self, and diminishes your ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. Traumatic events are often unexpected. If you do not have the coping resources to manage and find a sense of balance, you may go on to have difficulty in work, relationships, finances, health, or other meaningful aspects of life.
Traumatic experiences come in many different forms. The psychological community has classically defined traumatic events as natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war/combat, rape, or other violent personal assaults. But trauma can also arise from experiences of loss of control, like medical trauma (including life-threatening illness, surgeries, or childbirth) or loss of a loved one. Depending on the circumstances, betrayal, racism, bullying, abuse of power, helplessness, political unrest, and the climate crisis may also be traumatic experiences for an individual or a society.
Trauma is a widely shared human experience. If you have suffered trauma at some point in your life, you are not alone. According to the World Health Organization, over 70 percent of people experience trauma within their lifetime, with an average of at least three events per person, and 78 percent of people who’d had a traumatic experience went on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Bejet, 2016)
Trauma can leave you feeling disconnected from yourself and separated from the good of humanity. You may try to manage the difficulty by avoiding reminders of the experience, denying that it happened, or repressing the memories. This can evolve into dysfunction in other areas of life and go on to cause greater suffering. You might begin to experience feelings of shame, which can lead you to avoid interacting with other people. The wounds of trauma are often unseen, and this can leave you feeling isolated. You may try to sidestep the mental or emotional pain by avoiding upsetting situations. And, like many people who’ve experienced trauma, you may try to soothe yourself through things like drinking, eating, or binge-watching TV.
Because trauma and its aftereffects are so distressing and potentially overwhelming, you may come to believe it’s necessary to just “move past” what has happened. Our mainstream cultural approach to difficult experiences reinforces this idea of “fixing” and “moving on from” trauma. Consider a natural disaster like a flood, in which people lose their homes and can no longer meet their daily needs. Our typical response is to jump into action to restore the basics: food and shelter. The media covers the amazing stories of what was overcome, and the larger community feels a sense of relief, believing things have been resolved and that we “got through it.” While this is necessary and helpful and reflects the kindness of humanity, there is often very little attention to the restoration of a person’s psyche after trauma. As a society, we tend to want to know the distressing parts only if we also know that the distressing parts were “fixed” or “moved on from.”
In this context, it’s easy to fall into the mainstream mindset of just getting on with life and letting time pass, hoping this will help you cope. But with traumatic experiences, it’s not that easy. People’s suffering doesn’t resolve because someone “fixed” the situation and the traumatized person moved on. Instead, the suffering can continue for months or even years, while others may not acknowledge or address it because that would require them to feel discomfort, too.
So, we may deal with trauma by trying to “get on with life,” by isolating ourselves, by avoiding upsetting reminders, or by looking for ways to numb the pain. All of these strategies are kinds of escape. While they may serve us in the immediate sense, they often cause other problems, and they don’t ultimately restore us to wholeness or wellness. The traumatic experience needs attention and care to heal. In order to heal from trauma, we must first turn toward the experiences of the trauma.
You may be thinking, That sounds awful. Why on earth would I want to turn toward my trauma? This is where the wisdom of the natural world can help. Nature has an intrinsic tendency to thrive, and it always works with and toward the traumatic or difficult experience to find a new way of being and restore health. You can see this in the way a branch grows back after a limb is torn off by the wind, or in the way a tiny patch of grass knows how to grow up through the crack in the concrete. In nature, healing is supported by interconnection. This shows up in the way a young animal who has lost his mother may be helped by another member of the herd to ensure his survival. In my backyard canyon, when the land was unexpectedly cleared, all of life reacted together. Through the days that followed, the life of the canyon found a new rhythm, new ways to forage and survive, and the canyon began to restore itself to a new norm, still present to its changed surroundings but in a new way trusting its instincts to survive and thrive together.
We humans tend to think of ourselves as separate from nature, but the truth is we are part of nature. We too can learn how to respond skillfully to our traumatic wounds, find ways to heal, trust in our interconnection, and ultimately thrive and become whole again. We can move closer to our trauma, take care of it, and heal its mental, emotional, and physical challenges. Trauma is not something to be ashamed of, to hide from, or to resist. When you choose to meet the experience with caring, responsiveness, and openness, you can heal from trauma, not just move on from it. From nature, we can learn to turn toward the painful experiences and transform them into more wholesome states of being.
My hope in this book is to share the support and inspiration of nature, and to teach the healing skills and pathways needed for the traumatic experiences you may have met in your life. By feeling the support of the natural world and deepening your connection to it, you can develop a greater sense of wholeness and well-being. You will re-enter the stream of your life with more health, ease, and happiness, and experience the fullness of life. As you grow in this newly healed way, you will find a deeper sense of interconnection with all of life, giving you greater purpose, hope, and love for life.
The Aftereffects of Trauma
The human body has a natural system for responding to danger. When we have a threatening experience, our fight-or-flight response arises to help us defend ourselves or flee from the threat. The sympathetic nervous system switches on to increase blood supply to the muscles, increase muscle tension, dilate our pupils (for better vision), and accelerate heart rate and breathing. All of these changes prepare us to take action to survive. Once the threat or stressor is past, the parasympathetic nervous system turns on to slow the heart rate, increase intestinal activity, and relax the muscles. This allows the body to resume functions like digestion, sleep, and sexual arousal, all of which are also important to our survival.
When this system works as it’s designed to, we make our way through the threatening experience, and then life returns to normal. But in the days, months, and years after a traumatic experience, we may begin to experience a range of symptoms, affecting every aspect of our life:
· Hyper arousal of the nervous system- hyper-vigilance, tension, agitation
· Sleep disturbances
· Gastrointestinal difficulties
· Respiratory challenges
· Memory difficulties
· Ruminative thinking
· Catastrophic thinking
· Excessive or inappropriate thoughts of guilt
· Intrusive thoughts/memories/flashbacks
· Dissociation (feelings of detachment)
· Derealization (feelings of unreality)
· Heightened anxiety/feeling on guard or fearful
· Irritability, agitation or anger outbursts
· Feelings of shame or embarrassment
· Difficulty feeling positive emotions, and/or feeling numb
· Excessive use of alcohol, compulsive or addictive use of illicit substances
· Over use of screens- TV watching, gaming, computer/device use
· Self-harm- cutting
· Illicit activity (stealing, unsafe sexual behaviors).
· Withdrawal or avoidance of close relationships
· Fear of trusting others/ being taken advantage of
· Over-reliance on relationships to feel safe
If we have a built-in system to protect ourselves from danger and then recover, why do some experiences cause us so much trouble in the long run? The answer begins with whether it was possible during the experience to take action to defend ourselves or flee. If we had the opportunity to engage in a response needed to help us survive (such as fighting back, taking shelter, running away, or calling for help), we may not go on to experience further difficulties after the threatening situation has resolved. If the body, mind and heart have full capacity to engage their healthy inner resources, we can reestablish equilibrium.
However, if for any reason (due to the nature of the threatening event or the persons with whom the trauma occurred) we are unable to take protective action, we are more likely to have distressing symptoms afterward. When the fight or flight system is engaged and yet we cannot do the things that are needed to ensure survival, the trauma reaction gets “stuck” in the body- it has nowhere to go. As a result, the sympathetic nervous system often will stay “on” in an attempt to protect us- but ultimately this gives way to symptoms like flashbacks, intrusive memories, being hyper-aware of our surroundings, going over the experience mentally, and feeling fearful.
When the sympathetic nervous system stays “on,” the parasympathetic system does not have a chance to serve its purpose of restoring regulation and homeostasis, and it is turned “off.” This results in our feeling “on guard” and having difficulty sleeping, working, and so on. Many of the symptoms that arise after trauma happen because the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems have become imbalanced and are not able to turn on and off harmoniously.
In addition to the fight and flight responses, the human body has yet a third evolutionarily developed way of attempting to protect us from danger. When a threat arises and we are unable to fight back or get away, we may “freeze” instead. This can be adaptive as a way to get through a one-time traumatic event or series of events, especially if we cant find a way to actively cope. However, this way of responding can include feelings and experiences of immobility and helplessness. And if “freezing” is our only way of coping with trauma- if no fight or flight response is ever found or engaged in- this mode too can begin to stay “on,” causing symptoms like feeling numb, checking out/day dreaming, or dissociating.
Not having the opportunity to actively manage the danger can cause problems in a couple of other ways. The amygdala is a very old (evolutionarily speaking) part of the brain which helps us register whether a perceived threat is real. It helps us decide what to do when danger arises. In people who have experienced trauma repeatedly without being able to escape or cope, the amygdala is overworked. In time, it may grow in size and become oversensitive, registering things as threatening because they are associated with past trauma, even when they may not actually be a threat in the present. This continued over-activity of the amygdala sends signals to the sympathetic nervous system to keep it “on”- which continues the cycle of dys-regulation in the body.
Some people who’ve experienced trauma have trouble remembering, recalling, or being able to perceive, feel, and think through experiences in a way that seems logical. These symptoms arise because of the effect of trauma on two regions in the brain, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, the hippocampus helps us with memory, and the prefrontal cortex helps us reason and make decisions. When we have experienced trauma that we could not manage or renegotiate afterward, these areas of the brain are affected and cannot function as well. And, as with the amygdala, the impact to the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex sends signals to the other parts of the sympathetic nervous system, continuing the difficulty returning to healthy functioning.
With traumatic events come emotions: Fear, anxiety, worry, anger, frustration, irritability, sadness, grief, shame, and guilt. When we experience a traumatic event and the distressing feelings that follow it, we may begin to develop problematic ways of coping. We may try to avoid, ignore, or suppress these distressing emotions. For example, if we feel worry and anxiety, we may drink alcohol to manage those feelings. If we feel shame or guilt, we may throw ourselves into our work as a distraction. These strategies provide some relief in the moment, but they fall short as a long-term solution. While they might help us move through or past the emotion, they deprive us of the opportunity to cope or resolve the emotion; it is just suppressed. Over time, because the emotion is never properly processed, it likely will arise again and again, and increase in severity.
Traumatic events also come with certain kinds of thoughts: Believing that we’re not good enough or not strong enough; having negative thoughts about the event or the people associated with the trauma; rumination, difficult memories, and flashbacks; and confusion. Because our thoughts can be so upsetting and overwhelming, we may avoid, suppress, or ignore them. We may try to control our thoughts, or distract ourselves. As with managing emotions, these strategies often fall short because they keep us from processing these thoughts and beliefs in a healthy and functional way. If we haven’t developed healthy ways to cope with and manage distressing thoughts and emotions- the impact of trauma on our psyche can lead to more dys-regulation and dysfunction in life.
The experience of trauma affects our social connections, our relationships, and even our view of ourselves. From infancy, we depend on our cooperative relationships with others for safety and survival. We are able to thrive and grow when we have a healthy sense of connection and support, as well as a sense that we have a valuable role in our tribe. When the nervous system is dysregulated due to trauma, it changes our orientation in our social connections. We may view others as unsafe or untrustworthy. We may hesitate to share too much for fear of being excluded or not supported by the group. We may have difficulty making friends, maintaining friendships, or feeling safe and connected in our familial relationships. And finally, these disrupted social relationships can leave us feeling isolated and different. We may come to see ourselves as the victim, as not good enough, or as less than other people.
This all negatively impacts our view of ourselves and the story we tell about ourselves. It often limits the way we are able to engage meaningfully in the world and find pleasure, joy, and purpose in life. As with the physical, mental, and emotional after effects of trauma, the damage to our relationships and our view of ourselves can create further difficulties in life until we bring them back in balance.
As you can see, there are a number of factors that can make it more difficult to recover from a traumatic experience. There are also some things that can aid us in recovery. First, it matters that we acknowledge the event as challenging and take action to seek help and support. It’s helpful to have an action-oriented coping style – that is, to look for a positive way to transform the difficulties that are arising inwardly. And finally, we may recover more completely if we look at the trauma as a learning experience, an opportunity to grow and change, and a reason to find greater purpose. You may recognize some of these characteristics in yourself already. But even if you have not yet done any of these things, you can do them now, and this book will help.
Eco-Systems of Healing
The inherent desire of our nervous system and brain is to be in balance. We are made of nature. Our biology is of the Earth. Our bones, our muscles, our organs: all our components are matter that is of the earth. And, just like the Earth has many different systems to regulate itself and function as a system- cycles of the moon, seasons, climates, and terrains- we too have these biological of cycles within, and when we understand and traverse our own terrains, our system can regulate itself and function.
The impact of trauma on our biological, psychological, and relational systems are themselves the eco-systems in which to cultivate harmony, health and wholeness. The way to heal is to move towards the trauma, to be with it, to befriend it, to attend to the wounds, to that which is painful, difficult, and challenging. We can restore our inner biology, psyche, and relationship to ourselves and the world by cultivating mindfulness, body-awareness practices, and connection to nature. Each of us has the potential to heal and fully experience life.
Mindfulness is clear and kind awareness to our inner and outer experiences. It is the capacity to bring something to the forefront of our awareness and fully experience it. In this moment, bring your breath into awareness. Notice the experience of the breath in this moment. Is it shallow, deep, slow, fast, warm, cool? Just this moment of paying attention to the breath as it is now is mindfulness. From this place of truly inhabiting what here in the present moment, we begin to see that we have choice points in our life– opportunities to step out of our habits and experience new ways of living. Noticing the breath as slow and cool can give rise to more ease and calm. This is a new way of being with the body that has arisen just by being mindful with the breath.
Trauma can make us reactive in our biology, psyche, and relational experiences. The reactivity can leave us feeling as though we are out of control, with no choices available. If we can learn to bring mindfulness to our sensations, thoughts, emotions, and interactions- if we allow them to be held in clear and kind awareness- we can open into new and healthier ways of engaging in life. Mindfulness shows us that we can meet each moment without reactivity, judgment or commentary about what is arising. The ability our experiences this way ultimately gives rise to more curiosity, openness, acceptance, ease, compassion, mystery, joy, and love.
Mindfulness has been shown to help heal the body, the mind, and relationships affected by trauma. Throughout this book I will share practices to deepen your understanding of mindfulness and show you how it can help resolve some of the patterns of reactivity in your biology, psyche, and relationships and help you experience life in fuller and more meaningful way.
Somatic experiencing (SE) is a body-awareness treatment approach developed by Peter Levine (Levine, 1997). The theory behind SE is that trauma-related symptoms are expressions of sympathetic arousal- the stress response- that are residing in our bodies because we weren’t able to defend or protect ourselves completely at the time of the trauma. The goal of SE is to learn to increase our tolerance of the body sensations and related thoughts and emotions, allowing the activation –the “trauma”- to leave the body. SE helps you meet the symptoms of trauma, re-negotiate them and find resolution to the trauma. Over time, your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system regain the ability to engage when needed, then turn off again. SE does not require re-telling the story of the traumatic event. If the trauma is stuck in the body, then it is the body that needs to find the way to release it.
Somatic Experiencing shows promise as an effective approach to heal PTSD, anxiety, depression, secondary traumatic stress (in care-givers who work with trauma related incidents), and chronic pain (Anderson, 2017) (Leitch, 2009)) (Brom, 2017). Given that SE is centered in body-awareness, it is a great compliment to the practice of mindfulness. In the coming sections of this book, I will teach somatic experiencing practices and show how SE can awaken new pathways of healing trauma.
Never have humans been so far removed from nature. The average American spends 93% of his or her time (Klepis, 2001)indoors. American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening or interacting with tablets, smartphones, computers, or TV. This engagement with the non-natural world and disengagement from the natural world is associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease, among other problems.
At the same time, there is a growing interest in the ways nature can restore our health and well-being. Research has shown that nature can improve our memory, restore mental energy, provide stress relief, reduce inflammation in our bodies, improve our vision, improve our concentration, and develop sharper thinking and creativity.
Florence Williams in her recent book The Nature Fix (Williams, 2017) discovered from people researching the benefits of nature that:
-after 5 minutes in a forest surrounded by trees, the heart rate slows, facial muscles relax and the pre-frontal cortex quiets
-Water and birdsong improve mood and alertness
-15 minutes in nature can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol
-Spending time in natural landscapes improves alpha waves in the brain, which are associated with calm and alertness
-Spend 1.5 hours in nature and you will become less pre-occupied with problems and feel more connected to people and the world around you
-Spending 5 hours in nature per month can make you happier overall in life
Since nature heals exactly those areas that are affected by trauma, it makes sense to consider nature as a support to heal from trauma. Returning to her can help us regain our sense of well-being. It is as though we have unknowingly left our true original restorer of well-being, which in and of itself has been traumatic. We have forgotten that nature is essential to our survival, to well-being and to humanity. Through our disconnection from her we have become homeless, uprooted, and displaced. Since trauma often creates a feeling of displacement, nature is an essential force we can return home to, finding our place again within her womb. When we re-connect to her we can more deeply experience ourselves and each other and experience health and wholeness.
A Path To Healing Trauma
Mindfulness in nature is the doorway to becoming aware, to “unlearning” our reactivity, and to learning compassion, kindness and acceptance for our experiences. Somatic experiencing in nature is a doorway to re-inhabiting the body in a way that feels safe and restores balance in the brain, body, psyche and relational field. And nature is the container and support for it all.
Throughout this book you will learn mindfulness and somatic experiencing practices to heal. Each will be offered with the support of nature. Learning these practices in the context of nature deepens the experience of healing and provides a source of support that is always here for us. There will be opportunities to reflect and write, so you may wish to keep a journal. If trauma is interfering with your life in significant ways, you may wish to seek professional help and use this book with the support of a therapist.
Mother earth is and has always been here to support us. We are made of all the elements of nature. If we learn to deeply connect to our inner natural way of being, we can more deeply connect to ourselves, and this allows us to heal, to connect to others and the world, and to participate in life in harmony with one another. As you awaken and experience healing in nature, wholeness is restored. From this place of health and well-being, you can engage fully in life.
And the journey begins.