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Lessons and Reflections from a day at Occupy ICE PDX

If no one has told you this today dear reader, I love you. You are a miracle of nature, a child of light, and by your birthright you are entitled to love and compassion.

I have the privilege to volunteer my skills as a mental health counselor to heal and support the selfless volunteers protesting the caging of children, separation of families, and the intergenerational trauma being created to refugees at our border. For those of you unfamiliar with the Occupy Movement, it’s powerful. The people create self-sustaining communities with healthy meals, medical care, child care, wellness services, and so much more. There is so much love there, all for the cause of helping those less fortunate than themselves. I met some incredible souls and want to share just a few of their stories. Details about these people have been masked to preserve their confidentiality.

She was once a child immigrant herself, now she’s a proud citizen. She’s a mother, a Master’s student, and works to pay the bills; I’m in awe of anyone who just does one of those things. Her family fled the terrors of Soviet occupation to create a better life here in the United States. Though she is busy trying to create a better life for herself, she cannot stand idly by after learning about the horrors happening here that remind her of her childhood. I spoke to her about burnout, about the need to restore our energy, and held space for the historical trauma. Mostly, I marveled at her bravery and determination to do what she knows to be right despite all that is happening in her world. Her energy and passion is a gift to us all.

A grandfather now in his seventies made the drive from the other side of Oregon. Age has provided him wisdom in addition to aching bones and joints; he’s slept on the sidewalks, participated in active protests and is doing his part to contribute. He was arrested, cuffed, and taken to jail when armed DHS soldiers labeled police came to clear out part of the camp. They took his possessions, and did not return them to him upon his discharge from jail. This could have been an easy time to give up, wallow in his pain and losses and go back home, however he is committed to the cause: he cannot stand idly by knowing parent’s less fortunate than him have had their children ripped away, just for the crime of trying to find a better life. He was focused on the gifts he had to give, to make the world a better place and to share his love. It was an honor to meet such a loving and passionate soul.

A young man in his late twenties is marching the front lines. He stands face to face with DHS soldiers, provides emotional support to other volunteers, and remarks upon the horrors the children being held in Portland must be facing. He’s been going hard at the protests for a week straight. He’s also a victim of Portland’s housing crisis, works 2 jobs, and sleeps in his car. He barely has the means to take care of himself, yet he’s been spending all of his free time to give to the cause. He knows that the protest in itself is not enough, that the numbers need to grow, that facilitated action needs to be taken by the masses if we truly want justice. For evil wins when good people do nothing, and standing idly by in the face of injustice is always taking the side of the oppressor; cynicism and apathy are weapons of the oppressive forces; yet here he marches giving his all. I counseled him about wellness and energy, and making sure he was looking at the cause as a marathon on not a sprint. Mostly I was in awe of a man who has so little that can give so much. May we all have the gift of this man’s resilience and dedication to values in the face of adversity.

I had the privilege yesterday to be surrounded by a community of love. Love, is not just an abstract feeling, it is a verb. The Love acts with compassion, is giving, and sacrifices for the greater good. Love sets tough boundaries, holds space, acts when it would be convenient to step aside, and shines the light towards the path when others cannot see the way.

We all want companionship, compassion, to be part of a community, to be loved for who we are, to grow and thrive, and to feel part of something greater than ourselves. Children in cages and families fleeing from one terror to another don’t have those opportunities. Now is the time to act with love.

Vote, organize with your families, friends and community members, donate to a just cause, help those who cannot help themselves, volunteer. Write a song or some poetry, share your story, help those who have fallen, and redirect those who have lost their way. Feed the hungry, tend to the sick, and take care of yourself.

And if you haven’t heard it today, know that I love you. Thank you for reading.

Jon

Trauma and the Lasting Psychological Impact of the Current U.S. Border Policy

President Trump and his administration’s “zero tolerance policy” of migrants coming to the U.S. borders has separated thousands of children from their families. There are thousands of documents of abuse and neglect, reports of denying children the right to hug their siblings, and reports of children held naked, handcuffed and beaten. The current suffering has led parents to commit suicide. The trauma will last for generations.

What is Psychological Trauma?

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mindbody that happens as a result of either a singular distressing event – or a multitude of stressful events over time – that exceeds our ability to cope. This can include (but isn’t limited to): forced separation from one’s parents, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, isolation, accidents, natural disasters, oppression, bullying, abandonment, or neglect. In fact, you can experience psychological trauma just by witnessing or learning about an event. In the case of secondary trauma, exposure to someone who has been traumatized becomes traumatic.

The Scars of Trauma

The basics of our stress response system is our fight-or-flight reaction. The mindbody can take this to extremes during traumatic events. When flight to safety isn’t possible, flight from the present can be the next step. In such cases the mind may detach from the body, turn inward, and withdraw from its connection to the present moment. If the fight instinct is activated it can project immense energy outward, expressed in tension, explosive emotions (like anger), thoughts, and behaviors in order to gain control.

When psychological trauma occurs the mind undergoes some fundamental changes in its assumptions of reality. The mind may learn lessons like: the world is unsafe, other people are threats, or that the self does not have the tools to cope with reality. The mind may rationalize that such traumatic events occur because the Self is evil, unloveable, incomplete, or deserving of trauma. These narratives shift people’s worldview and connection with the Self and as a result they become very sensitive to any sign of potential threats including: feeling trapped, close connections to others, isolation, or any physical, mental, or emotional reminders of the trauma.

As a whole psychological trauma disturbs thinking patterns, arousal, concentration, memory, sleep, appetite, attachment, and energy. Psychological trauma also makes the autonomic nervous system more sensitive to stressors, which makes it more difficult for people to regulate and self-soothe. Trauma can disrupt every phase of life. Below is a general list of acute stress symptoms, note that some people may only present with a few symptoms while others with many.

• Recurrent memories, thoughts, dreams, or nightmares that are about, or related in content to, the traumatic event(s)

• Flashbacks, feeling disconnected from body (some people describe it as though they are watching their life as it were a movie)

• The feeling that the world is fake/an illusion, or lack of awareness of surroundings.

• Attempts to avoid distressing thoughts, memories, emotions, or reminders about the event.

• Negative alterations of thoughts and mood. Inability to experience positive emotions

• Persistent negative beliefs or expectations about oneself or the world.

• Persistent negative emotional states: fear, horror, anger, guilt, sadness, shame, irritability.

• Loss of interest or reduced participation in normal activities

• Feeling detached or estranged from others.

• Amnesia about the events

• Explosive anger, irritability, or sadness/crying outbursts with little or no provocation.

• Reckless or self-destructive behaviors. Substance use to self-medicate.

• Feeling keyed up, tense, the need to know everything going on, constant worry

• Exaggerated startle responses

• Problems with concentration, or memory

• Impairment in social, work, school, family or other realms of functioning.

Everyone Experiences Traumatic Events, Why Doesn’t Everyone Have the Symptoms?

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop psychological trauma. Genetics, environment, experience, coping mechanisms, vulnerability factors, and resources all play a role as far as how susceptible to trauma a person is.

Risk Factors Include

• Social Isolation of Families

• Not getting developmental needs met

• Poverty, economic disadvantage

• Family disorganization, dissolution, or violence

• Emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive caretakers

• Parental stress, Family History of Abuse

• Community Violence

• Parents/Grandparents were Traumatized

• Previous Exposure to Traumatic Events

Protective Factors Include

• A supportive and nurturing home environment

• Dependable and stable family relationships

• Receiving healthy affection

• Higher Socioeconomic Status

• Economic Stability

• Adequate housing

• Caring adults inside and outside family who provide nurture and act as role models

• Access to health care and community support

As for the thousands of migrants currently being held in detention, they come from areas where they are at an economic disadvantage, victims of violence, and are having a lack of family continuity. This means that the migrants who come to the U.S. borders are at elevated risk of experiencing trauma, and that the current policies remove protective factors and increase the risk of psychological trauma.

Impact of Trauma on Attachment and Relationships

People who have unhealed psychological trauma tend to have problems with interpersonal relationships. One challenge is that trauma interferes with people from communicating emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Trauma itself can prevent people from experiencing humor or joy. Emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, or anxiety are often interpreted by the mindbody to be a threat (as they are associated bad experiences) and thus can set off even more explosive reactions or a dissociative (withdrawing) responses. This makes it very difficult for people with psychological trauma to interact with others.

People who have unhealed psychological trauma tend to have problems with attachment. Some people who have experienced trauma try to keep people at a distance, for fear of being too vulnerable. Romantic relationships and friendships involve a certain level of intimacy. If someone developed the narrative that other people are dangerous, becoming close to someone is a threatening proposition. Alternatively, if someone incorporated the idea that they are unloveable, becoming closer to people means that those people might find out how unloveable they are, which represents the threat of abandonment. Withdrawal, flight, irritability, betrayal, and anger are often great tools for keeping people at a distance,

Other trauma reactions are to pull people in close. People who experience neglect, isolation, or abandonment as a trauma might cling closely to those who they connect with, for fear of abandonment again. Anxiety, worry, excessive kindness and even self-harm are frequently tools used to try deepen connections. Unfortunately, such reactions usually push people away. Other people experience a confusing mix of both reactions where they both crave and fear closeness to others. This process is sometimes referred as disorganized attachment.

People who experience psychological trauma are more likely to enter into abusive relationships. They tend to have more problems with romantic relationships, friendships, and authority figures compared to other people. Given the trauma of loss of family, the abuse by jailers, and the horrors faced at home, the children being held in detention facilities here in the U.S. are more likely to develop all of these social problems.

The Impact of Trauma on Learning

Psychological trauma causes problems with thinking clearly, reasoning, and problem solving. The traumatized mind’s default is crisis mode. It has learned that the world is unsafe and needs to be aware of potential threats. It does this by identifying and criticizing problems of the past, analyzing potential threats in the present, or anticipating catastrophes of the future. As a result people who have experienced trauma have problems staying calm, regulating behavior, and learning new information.

All of this brain activity makes it incredibly difficult to concentrate, let alone navigate the rigors of education. Children who have a history of trauma demonstrate developmental delays, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems in school. Without an intervention they are less likely to achieve in the academic realm, and more likely to have problems achieving stable, high paying employment.

The children being held in detention already had a socioeconomic disadvantage when they arrived at the U.S. border. The current policy and environments these children and their parents are being held in makes it worse. Remember, some of the risk factors for developing psychological trauma include economic disadvantage and having parents who experienced trauma. The current policy of treating immigrants like prisoners is more likely to create psychological trauma not just for those being held, but also their future children. This type of policy manufactures inter-generational trauma.

Impact of Trauma on Mental Health

In short, psychological trauma is bad for mental health. The negative worldview, self-view, and hyper-arousal trauma creates leads to all sorts of mental health issues. People who have a history of psychological trauma are more prone to volatile, oppositional, and extreme behaviors. Emotionally they tend to be prone to defensiveness, aggression, spaciness, and difficulty regulating emotions. They are also more likely to demonstrate dangerous behaviors like self-harm, unsafe sex, recklessness, substance use, and suicide. There is plenty of data which demonstrates that childhood trauma alters brains development.

Children who experience trauma are more likely to develop the following types mental health disorders later in life: Schizophrenia (and other psychotic disorders), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Personality Disorders. As a clinician who has worked on healing with hundreds of people who navigate hallucinations, delusions, or personality disorders I have yet to meet a person experiencing such a disorder that was not exposed to childhood trauma.

Poor mental health does not just cause psychological suffering and problems with functioning, it is associated with increased risk of physical health issues as well. People with mental health issues are at increased risk for heart-disease, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions. People diagnosed with serious mental illness (schizophrenia spectrum, bipolar disorder, or severe depression) have a decreased life expectancy by 20 years.

Impact of Current Policies as a Whole

In this article we explored the nature of psychological trauma, its effects on the mindbody, and the long-term outcomes. The Trump administration’s current policies are traumatic acts that will cause lasting harm. Indefinite detention, keeping people in cages, and family separation, of migrants who are already fleeing violence will cause the development mental and physiological health problems. These policies are likely to cause economic and academic, and long-lasting inter-generational trauma. It is impossible to tell the totality of suffering this is creating now. Reuniting families, ending indefinite detention, and creating humane solutions that involve healing, nurturing, and hope is essential for our collective health in the present and the future.

Resources

This page includes list of crisis numbers, books, wellness practitioners we recommend, and other resources we think are valuable.

Mental Health Crisis Numbers

Multnomah County Crisis Line: 503-988-4888

National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-873-825

Crisis Text Line: 741741 – Type CONNECT to get connected

 

Helpful Articles

What is Stress?

Guidelines for Healthy Conflict in Relationships

Mental Health Disorders are Stress Reactions

How-to guide for quick mindful breathing

Video: Guided Body Scan Practice for Relaxation

Wellness Practitioners We Recommend

Baby Nest Birth Services: Baby Nest Birth Services provide Birth and Postpartum Doulas, Birthing Classes, Placenta Encapsulation and more! Check them out at  https://babynestbirth.com/

Just a Few of the Books We Recommend (in no particular order)

The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D. Siegel

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Act with Love by Russ Harris

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda

13 Rules for Fair and Healthy Fighting in Relationships

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If you’re in an intimate relationship fights and conflict are bound to happen. After all, you’re different people with different experiences, expectations, drives, perceptions, and desires. Just because you are going to have a fight with your partner doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. The following guidelines are for navigating conflict in a healthy way.

  1. Embrace conflict: Conflict is normal and healthy. Differences between you mean that there is room for each of you to learn, grow, and further develop your relationship. Avoidance of conflict tends to breed fear, resentment, worry, and disengagement.
  2. Define the issue at hand: Before you begin you may want to know “what exactly is bothering me? What do I want to express?” Set your goals, what do you want to be the outcome of the discussion? It’s not about who will win or lose, or who is right or who is wrong, but creating a workable solution that resolves the problem at hand, or moves the relationship in the direction you would like it to go. Remember your partner is your friend and you want to be their friend.
  3. Set a time for discussion in a reasonable time line.
  4. Use I/you statements that state the facts and your reactions. Avoid judgmental statements, blaming, shoulds, or all-or-nothing blanket statements. For example, “You make me angry when you don’t clean up. You should just clean up after yourself. You’re so irresponsible.” In this sentence, the other person is blamed for emotions, a “should” indicates whatever really happened is wrong, and the statement of irresponsibility is a judgment. Instead a statement like, “I see dirty dishes there on the coffee table. When I see a mess in the house it really makes me feel frustrated. I would appreciate it if you would clear the dishes after you finish using them.” communicates the specific problem, reactions, and desires.
  5. Actively listen to your partner. Active listening means giving your partner 100% of your attention, no multitasking, turning away, going into a shell, or interrupting. Validate feelings, reflect what you’ve heard to make sure you understand what’s being communicated. Try to adopt an attitude of open curiosity, even if your reaction is initially a defensive one. Something is going on in each of your worlds and it’s important for your relationship to understand. Try to take your partner’s viewpoint, separate from your own.
  6. Invite the other person to share their point of view after you’ve finished speaking. Use active listening skills, and demonstrate genuine interest and curiosity. Validate feelings. Try to take your partner’s viewpoint separate from your own.
  7. Speak with calm, assertive awareness. When we yell, or shout, and make intimidating gestures, we are less likely to be heard, and more likely to create a defensive reaction in our partners. Your partner will be more likely to focus on the delivery of the message rather than the content when you yell. When we speak too softly, with slumped posture, or a withdrawn demeanor we are more likely to be dismissed. When you speak calmly, with relaxed body language, and assert your experience, you are more likely to be positively received and heard.
  8. Stop and use time-outs when necessary. If you feel that the discussion is getting too heated, waiting until you feel calmer is just fine. 20 minute breaks can be very helpful. Having conversations while going for a walk, or in a serene place may also be helpful, rather than having a debate at home.
  9. Propose specific solutions, invite your partner to propose solutions as well. Be willing to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal, and be willing to compromise, though do not be willing to break your hard boundaries.
  10. Avoid digging up the past, keeping score, or stockpiling events. If an issue has been buried and resolved, leave it in the past and don’t dig up the grave to only have to bury it again. Focus on the issue at hand and how you both can resolve the issue going forward. If it is an ongoing issue, stick to the specifics, and how you can create resolution from there. Keeping score creates a power differential in the relationship and creates a tit-for-tat atmosphere that tends not to be workable.  When we stockpile events they tend to breed resentment. It is also is difficult to create resolutions when we’re not focused on one issue at a time.
  11. Avoid personal attacks/low blows. When we’re intimate with our partner, we know exactly what to say if we really want to hurt them, bringing up old insecurities or wounds. This doesn’t serve to resolve conflict, only to create more hurt than is already being experienced.
  12. Create your own Ground Rules for Fair Fighting.
  13. After making a resolution, give yourself a space to process the emotions you’ve experienced, let go of what you can, repair what needs to be repaired, and engage as friends/lovers to the best of your ability. This can be done by making silly faces, a hug, kiss, fun date night. Whatever it is that helps you both get back to baseline.

Negativity Bias, Running Late, Anxiety, and Mindfulness

I woke up to my alarm for the 2nd time that morning feeling groggy. It was two hours earlier than I normally would wake on a Friday, and yet I was running late; whoever invented the snooze alarm is an evil genius. I hate running late, though it’s a situation I often find myself in. My mind began to focus on some solutions to my time problem: just have some cereal for breakfast, skip a shower, move faster, and eat faster…things like that. I sped into to the kitchen to make breakfast and discovered there was no coffee in the house. Who’s supposed to function in the wee hours of the morning without coffee? A friend needed a ride to an important appointment and I needed to make sure they got there on time. And with each misstep that morning I could feel the tension increasing in my traps, and the need to move faster. Unfortunately while operating at this pace I was making more mistakes, wasting valuable time. And then, I couldn’t find the keys. The tension was overwhelming. My mind started racing through worst-case scenarios. What if they missed their appointment because I hit the snooze, or couldn’t find my keys? That would be my fault, and would make me a terrible friend. And what would happen to them? The tension in my traps felt more intense and spread throughout my body, my jaw got tight. I felt like I couldn’t contain it. “Damnit” I shouted in frustration…Anxiety is a powerful force.

Fast forward to an hour later. I drove to my friend’s place and got to them on time. Traffic was light that morning and I dropped them off at their appointment with 20 minutes to spare. All of those catastrophe scenarios my mind generated suddenly seemed so silly in retrospect. I could breathe, my trapezius muscles could soften, I could finally relax and was on my way to getting myself a well-earned cup of coffee. In reflection it is pretty easy to see that my response to anxiety that morning was not very helpful except for causing me some distress.

Breaking down this situation: here’s how much anxiety I would like to have felt given the totality of the situation.

JS hits MW slow mo

And here’s how much anxiety I experienced.

MW hits JS

Ah the absurdity of being human.

JS MW Laugh

That morning I was not very mindful. I disconnected from the present moment and allowed my mind to pull me into worries of the future, and ponder catastrophes yet to happen. It also pulled me towards the past with my critical mind, “if you only didn’t press that snooze button you wouldn’t be running late. Why didn’t you check to see if there was coffee yesterday?” My mind went to blaming. “If you weren’t making so many stupid decisions in the past, you wouldn’t be in this position now. If my friend didn’t need a ride, I wouldn’t be in this mess.” I also allowed my feelings to control me, reacting to the powerful hormones of anxiety by hurrying up, getting into flight mode.

We humans have a negativity bias. We naturally connect with experiences and thoughts that tell us that we are in danger more than ones that tell us we’re OK. Danger can mean many things: for our ancestors that could’ve meant a large predator in the wilderness. In the modern era danger can be a car rolling through a stop sign, a fight with our partner, a work deadline, or running late for a meeting. Evolutionary psychologists call our propensity to be on guard for danger the false alarm effect. A great way to think about this process is like having an internal fire (danger) alarm. If a fire-alarm is extra sensitive and it goes off when it’s not supposed to it can be a nuisance at worst, but it doesn’t place your survival at risk. If a fire alarm isn’t sensitive enough and it fails to alert you to a fire, your survival is at stake. Thus it makes sense that we evolved to have a more sensitive alarm for danger instead of a dull one. When our alarms go off, regardless if the danger is due to a large jungle cat, fire, or running late, our fight-or-flight response activates increasing physical tension and narrowing the focus of our minds.

Complicating matters is the fact that the mind is a compelling story-teller. It tells us stories all throughout the day. Sometimes it daydreams ridiculous stories of possessing magical powers, or rehearses the big meeting coming up. Other times, it likes to catastrophize, magnify, minimize, judge and blame. It can weave tales of black and white about a rainbow. It told me I was a bad friend because I hit a snooze alarm, it told me that for sure my mistakes would cause my friend to miss court. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we say that when our mind tells us a story changes our perception of reality we have fused with that thought. When you disconnect from that thought, it is called defusion.

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That morning I fused with the story that “I am running late, I need to move faster.” And I reacted to that fusion with anxiety. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, tension, gastrointestinal issues, tingling, numbness, sweating, clenching, panic and/or goosebumps. Typical psychological symptoms of anxiety include: racing thoughts, worry, catastrophic thinking, self-criticism, poor self-confidence, apprehension, problems with decision making, and/or fear. Some of the common behavioral reactions to anxiety include: avoidance through distraction, substances, staying away from reminders of the anxiety, suppressing thoughts, or substance use. Other reactions to anxiety include rushing, pacing, nervous laughter, combativeness, or working extra hard to compensate for the feelings of anxiety.

In essence, our minds are prone to seeing the world in a more negative light, restricting our focus from seeing other perspectives, create stories that may enhance those negative perceptions, and then in response to believe the stories your mind tells you your body releases a series of hormones which make it more difficult to defuse from the story. Suddenly you get a vicious-self feeding cycle. That morning I rushed through my morning routine due to anxiety, and as a result I made more errors, which led to an increase of the anxiety. I was so focused on the negative that I couldn’t see the blanket truth happening in the world around me.


So how do we manage our minds when they combine negativity bias and compelling stories? Well for starters we can stop minding our minds. With mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other mindbody practices we can learn to take the observer role, learn how to ground, notice that thoughts and feelings can be inaccurate and they happen automatically. When we develop such skills we develop the power to choose which thoughts and feelings we want to engage with, and how we want to react to them. Mindfulness is an active practice that can be used throughout your lifespan. Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all that means we can achieve a state of being that removes us from human paradoxes and drama, but it helps a lot.

Other ways of managing mindbody reactions include taking active self-care to reduce our psychological vulnerability to unhelpful frames of mind. When our mindbodies are in peak health they adapt to stressors with more flexibility, creativity and ease. Peak health is often achieved by having good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, feeling safe and secure, relaxation, managing stress, and satisfying our social, psychological, and physiological needs. When I gave my friend a ride that morning, I was sleep deprived and I also did not participate in exercise that week. Those factors made me more vulnerable to having an intense anxiety reaction compared to when I experience similar stressors of running late when I’m well rested and exercise regularly throughout the week.

Today we explored some of the nature of anxiety. The human mindbody is sensitive towards danger signals, and responds by activating our fight-or-flight system. Additionally the mind is a compelling story teller and it can tell us tales of disaster, judgment, or catastrophe. And when we aren’t in peak health conditions we’re more vulnerable to unhelpful frames of mind. Anxiety is experienced through physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses. Mindfulness activities, stress management, and self-care can help us manage our responses to our internal systems and give use more power to choose how we want to react to what is happening in the here and now. Thank you for taking the time to read this article dear reader. Until next time, farewell.