STORYTELLING, UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

I Hear You, Panic Attack, I’m Listening

Panic attacks.

I get them when I’m triggered.

I get them at 3 am in the morning.

I get them at 5 am in the morning.

I get them when I have to wake up to start my day.

I get them after reading an email.

They scare me and they demoralize me. They bring me to my knees.

My panic attacks can feel like a thousand chaotic voices.

This isn’t good.

That isn’t done.

You aren’t good enough.

What a failure.

When they start, I end up with waves of fear from my futile attempts to ward off the attacks.

I try silencing the voices.

I recoil in terror from all their accusations and predictions of doom and gloom.

My brain vibrates from the yelling and the shrinking, the pointing and the defending.

* * * * *

I’m learning to thank them, yes, appreciate their intention to protect me from — well — danger.

Danger from harm to the core of who I am.

Somehow, I ended up with a blinding fear of criticism about my judgment and decision-making abilities.

I have had to change my attitude of fear of criticism about my past unchangeable decisions.

* * * * *

Now I try to to tell myself:

  • I accept the past
  • I did the best that I could with what I had
  • There are consequences to all decisions
  • The only thing I can do is think about moving forward
  • My new decisions might still not be ideal
  • In the future I will be dealing with the consequences of my choices today
  • A knee-jerk reaction will be counterproductive
  • What’s the one baby step I can take right now that at least moves me in the right direction?

Okay panic attacks.

I’m ready for you.

I’m ready to listen to your warnings.

But I’m going to respond in a calm way to let you know that I can only do my best, that I did my best in the past, and that hounding me about what a terrible person I am is not going to make my life better. It’s making my present and future worse.

But I thank you for trying to protect me.

I thank you for trying to teach me.

So — now that I’ve heard you, I need you to be quiet so that I can figure out what next step to take.

BOOK REVIEW, FOCUS ON YOU, UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

Complex PTSD by Pete Walker

Without a properly functioning ego, you have no center for making healthy choices and decisions. All too often, your decisions are based on the fear of getting in trouble or getting abandoned, rather than on the principles of having meaningful and equitable interactions with the world.

How does one review a book that is so deeply personal, a book that shifted me from wandering around in despair to starting a healing journey? I know, I’ll write him a thank you note!

Dear Mr. Walker,

During the most difficult time of my life, I started searching the terms “depression,” “anxiety,” “panic attacks” etc. to try to figure out what was going on. I knew I needed help, but I couldn’t seem to find help that actually—well—helped. I also often seemed okay; I know how to fake it very well.

Needing anything from others can feel especially dangerous. The survivor’s innate capacity to experience comfort and support in relationship becomes very limited or non-existent. This is despite the fact that many high functioning survivors learn to socially function quite adequately.

It wasn’t until I found your website that I felt truly understood or even knew what kind of help I needed. I wrote to you and asked if you could take me on as a client. You very graciously answered me immediately with empathy for my suffering but also that you did not have room to take anyone else on. You suggested that I read your book, so I bought it right away and started reading.

That was a time in my life when I thought my brain was permanently damaged and that I would never be able to function normally again. Your book gave me hope and a path. It somehow normalized a lot of what I was struggling with and both reassured me that I wasn’t weak and gave me cautious optimism that it was fixable. Until I read your work, I couldn’t figure out what it actually was.

The inner critic commonly increases the intensity of a flashback via a barrage of… attacks… Flashbacks can devolve into increasingly painful levels of the abandonment depression. One attack can repetitively bleed into another and tumble us further down a spiral of hopelessness. It is awful enough to take a single punch in a fight, but when the punches keep coming, the victim is severely thrashed.

You named a condition that seemed to explain more to me than any other word or phrase. Most of the other terms I was searching just seemed to describe symptoms. Other books just wanted me to be more mindful, feel gratitude, or learn to think differently. None of them were wrong per se (and you make those suggestions too); however, the positive effects of doing those things didn’t seem to last and I couldn’t seem to get to the source of the nonstop triggering from so many potential situations, many of which seemed benign on the face of them. Why was I always so tense and ready to fight? Why did I always want to run away? Why do people scare me, especially if they pooh pooh me or, even worse, if they LIKE me and want to be my friend?

The person who never wrote in her textbooks could not stop writing notes in your book. The person who thought she could never sit through an entire book ever again read your book from cover to cover. The person who never reads the appendices in books pored over the toolboxes.

In summary, your book was exactly what I needed when I needed it and helped me heal and turn my life around. Thank you for what you do.

Sincerely,

Sherry

FOCUS ON YOU, PODCAST INTERVIEW, UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

Healing from Complex PTSD

Heal from CPTSD with Linda Meredith as your guide.

Linda Meredith is Australia’s first Certified Trauma Recovery Coach and the founder of the world’s first Trauma Recovery Academy. She is the mother of three grown children and about to be a grandmother!

Through her own healing journey, Linda has developed a gentle but powerful way to heal CPTSD – at one point, she lost all her cognitive functions. Her recovery is miraculous, but even more inspiring is what she does now to help people.

Linda has made her courses, worksheets, resources and videos available to the public.

She is a coach and a counsellor who is working to make the world an emotionally safer place for all of us, as individuals, parents and children. What a thrill it was to interview her at her home in Brisbane, Australia.

Healing from CPTSD with Linda Meredith

Of course I got the time difference wrong, so I was sitting around waiting for her and had an entire hour free from distraction (what a gift) as the husband and the kids were told to give me quiet time in the kitchen after dinner. I used the time to watch a few more of her videos and ended up getting engaged, the hour went by in a flash. Linda’s videos are short, personable, and accessible. I felt completely heard, understood, and supported. And this was BEFORE I had actually spoken to her in person.

She joined the Zoom call and immediately I just felt, well, safe. She exudes this strong yet gentle, passionate but not overwhelming personality. She has a ready smile and great screen presence. She really knows her stuff and has helped countless people understand what they are going through. In our conversation during and after the interview, she made me feel important and that I had something meaningful to contribute to the conversation.

My journey of recovery from CPTSD has been greatly enhanced by exploring her website, Facebook Community Page, Instagram, and YouTube videos.

In our podcast, we talk about:

  • CPTSD (Complex Post-Trauma Stress Disorder) and how it comes from things like ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), inter-generational abandonment issues, or emotional neglect.
  • How unspoken rules like “When anything bad happens, we don’t talk about it” are so dangerous for children.
  • She shared some of the changes she made as a parent, such as, wanting to know her kids as individuals, even down to what they liked eating.
  • She touches on how unconditional love of children is non-negotiable; otherwise it impedes their ability to keep being curious, which they need in order to develop.
  • Linda knows what it’s like to be a single mom who struggles, has financial barriers, and wants better for her children. That’s why she makes so much of her work available for free.

Her Key Message: Believe in yourself! You have to be willing to make changes where you won’t see results until your children become adults! Your vision as a parent is to make changes that impact not just your children, but also your children’s children.

I hope you enjoy ‘working’ with Linda as much as I do!

STORYTELLING

The Power of Prayer

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what religion do you practice?” she leaned in with curiosity. “Like, how comfortable would you be if I used phrases like a greater power?”

Religion and politics. Those are topics you are wise to stay away from if you want to maintain peace at gatherings of friends or family. But, let’s face it, religion and politics are the two main ways people come together, become one, support one another with passion, unite as US to fight THEM, and deeply feel love and hate.

The fighting is edges interacting. In religion and politics, those safely in the middle of the bubble feel stable and hopeful.

“My husband is an atheist and I’m agnostic.” I started habitually and continued explaining, “My family isn’t religious, but we lean Buddhist. I find it hard to believe with all my heart in anything. To be honest, I feel that there is something incredibly beautiful about all religions, until it is used to control people.”

She nodded.

I’ve always feared feeling too much. Love, hate, fear, anger, happiness, sadness… you name it, any feeling that can get extreme, I avoid. Religion brings out a lot of feelings. I tried one religion twice in junior high and at university. The group activities built a sense of community that I loved, feeling controlled made me recoil, believing that my loved ones were going to hell because they grew up in a different environment was frightening, the injustice of a baby born with original sin made me angry, singing with the choir gave me a high, and of course the cognitive dissonance of it all caused me existential depression. Fun times.

As is my way, I chose to escape it.

“As humans, I think we need to believe and have faith. But I dislike how the powerful manipulate that need, using it to gain money and control.”

She continued to give me a safe space to articulate my thoughts with a warm smile and encouraging nod.

When I was a child, we went to Buddhist temples. My Chinese birth-date falls on the day celebrated as the birthday of Guan Yin, or the Goddess of Mercy. So I was always told that I had yuan feng (rapport, destiny) with Guan Yin. The smoke of the thick sweet intense was not comforting to me, as I associated it with death. The chanting of the monks sounded more eerie rather than comforting. I just could not believe something that I didn’t understand.

The chanting and meditation were supposed to do good things, like help us pass exams or prevail over illnesses. In my youthful arrogance, these asks were just so… selfish and meaningless. Ling shi bao fo jiao was a phrase that often popped in my head: last-minute throwing oneself at the foot of Buddha, begging for help. It smacked of not doing your work and then asking to be taken care of. That was how I used to feel about prayer.

“The more I see, the more I realize that we need both faith and hope.”

She smiled and replied, “Yes, I agree completely.”

This conversation shed light on how much my ambivalence towards a greater power has robbed me of one of the most potent ways we get through difficult times. Knowing that we are never alone, that something or someone will ALWAYS be there to support you with love, that this something or someone has helped countless other people through dark times, that there is ALWAYS hope – – what a powerful feeling.

Faith is having trust in the existence of something without physical proof that it is there. Hope is having the trust that we will get there even though we aren’t there yet. Faith is saying it’s here. And hope is saying it’s there, and we may need to get through some tough times with hard work, but we will get there, together.

I once scoffed at faith, because it seemed so naïve. But now I realize that faith goes hand in hand with hope. While hope keeps us doing the hard work until we see results, faith keeps us going without the proof.

In this world of instant gratification, Google, and credit cards, many of us haven’t learned to excel in life by building all the small pieces that become the strong foundations of integrity, trust, compassion – in relation to ourselves or others. We no longer can hold that feeling of need or want without desiring it to be quenched and resolved right away. We are unable to stand that feeling of emptiness because it feels so hopeless. That is to say, the narrative in our heads is “here we go again” rather than “I know how I want to handle this one.”

Religion and politics give answers. Religion and politics give us rules, but also hope that other people are doing things to fix the bad stuff. The problem is that religion and politics are run by… human beings – and human beings… are not perfect. And therefore – while we will see wonderful things done by people in religion and politics, we will also see terrible things done by them.

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion. Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.

 Steven Weinberg

Being the critical thinkers we were taught to be (or rebellious beings as so many of us are), we often believe that the terrible part completely taints the whole, and we throw out the baby with the bath water.

My question is: Is it possible to extract only the positives involved with religion and politics without the negatives?

For me, that ignited a newfound desire to try to do that with the Heart Mantra associated with Guan Yin. I’ve always struggled with a bad memory and a fear of showing the world my secret flaw that has made everything I do so hard. I cannot use memorization to get anything important done.

But faith and hope encourage us to do things that are good for us even when it’s difficult. Like dealing with stress. Like changing bad coping mechanisms. Like quitting the addictive allure of a soothing but unhealthy activity or substance.

I burst out, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I eat. It’s my drug, it’s my coping mechanism to deal with stress. It’s my addiction.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to suggest to you to pray for self-discipline.” She suggested in response.

Prayer. That used to be a triggering word for me. I would flinch a tad because it seemed like such a futile activity. “Sending prayers and thoughts.” Or, You are imposing your beliefs on me by telling me that your God will answer your prayers to help me. But over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that we all have the right to label the power of intentional thoughts with whatever words work for us. I tried using “Sending you warm thoughts and healing hugs” which doesn’t quite comes across as well as prayers to a greater being, but it was what I was comfortable with.

But when she asked me to pray, I thought, Wait a minute, I have a prayer that is mine! It is my birth right. I just never wanted to memorize it because I couldn’t memorize a short mantra while kids from Taiwan used to memorize hundreds of history BOOKS. I felt shame and guilt about this. I tossed it aside because I didn’t believe in the power of the mantra, nor did I believe that I could do it. Which one was the real reason? No matter, they both contributed to my wanting to run away.

So, now, I am starting a new journey.

I have broken down the mantra into small pieces, four phrases a day (and if it takes me two days, I’ll be kind to myself and shift everything over by another day). I will memorize this mantra and use it as a prayer when I’m anxious. I will use it to pray for others. I will use it to pray for self-discipline when I want to overeat. I will use it to give me strength from a greater power. I will turn to my mantra to remember that I’m not alone and that I can do this.

Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.

Shariputra, form does not differ from emptinessemptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptinessemptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.

Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness.

There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment.

With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.

All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false.

Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

Sources: Translation by a team of translators who participated in the Soto Zen Translation Project, highlights and links from The Heart Sutra Part 1: Introduction to the Most Common Mahayana Text – The Zen Studies Podcast

What is your relationship with prayer?

UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

How Low Will You Go?

Depression is like sliding down a hole in the ground.

Anxiety gets the body moving to try to stop the slide, like pulling at the roots or jamming your foot to slow it down. Anxiety gives you the adrenaline to climb up or look up towards the sky. Depression makes you wonder what’s the point of doing anything, going down is inevitable.

Your fingernails get dirty from the desperate clawing along the sides of the hole. Sometimes you’re just freefalling.

There are times when you’re just sliding along and not aware of how far down you’ve gone. There are days when you’re thinking, this is as low as I’ll go, I can’t go any further. I refuse to go any lower. It has to stop here.

Light shines through the hole at the top, but sometimes you are so far down, you can no longer see the natural light. It can be difficult to remember what the light looked or felt like.

One day, you say to yourself, this is as far as I go. Any further down and I’m going to hit a point of no return. I don’t want to hit that point, because I want to get out of this hole. And yet, it can also feel comfortable and safe when it is warm and dry. The days when it rains or when someone tosses dirt on top of your head are hard and very, very uncomfortable. Painful, really.

Sometimes you feel a rope that someone threw down. You may have the strength to use it to climb up or your hands get so tired, you cannot even grab it. Or if you know how, you tie a loop to sit in and rest.

When the dirt is being tossed down, you may yell at the people to stop throwing dirt on you! You can feel it throwing you off balance, like it’s going to cause you to lose ground and fall backwards again.

When you are too far down, people at the top yelling at you to come up doesn’t help at all. It’s a little discouraging. But as you get closer, you can see them and they have their hands out to grab you and pull you up. Then you realize that they were there the whole time, trying to find ways to help… even those throwing dirt… they thought they could help fill the hole so you could get your feet on solid ground. But since they didn’t know how deep it was, they didn’t realize they were just tossing dirt on your head and in your face.

When you finally get out of the hole, you just never want to fall back in. But there are holes everywhere… so the goal is to work hard not to fall in, but if you do, you know how to stop the slide and you know how to get out and you know how to ask for help.

UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

Learning from Overwhelm

The past month has been incredibly challenging as the feeling of overwhelming stress crashed upon me. There were physical manifestations and mental lows.

Many of my friends seem to suffer from this especially during the fall. The days get shorter, the temperature chillier, and for those of us who do not love winter, the season of mush and sleet looms drearily ahead. Aches and pains get worse, fatigue sets in, and the day after a night where sleep is allusive, mini despair and spiraling start: I am tired. Why am I always tired? I didn’t get {such and such} done. I should have gotten it done. Why didn’t {so and so} do it? They don’t care about me. My back is sore. I want to nap. I really shouldn’t nap. I should doing {this and that}. Oh look at how together that person looks. I’m such a loser. I can’t make my life work. And so on.

The slide is a steep ride right down to: I don’t like this feeling. I don’t like where this is going. If I get any more anxious or depressed, I’m going to end up at that horrible moment at the (mental) cliff, the precipice, that line I really, really don’t want to cross.

So we try all sorts of things:

  • meditation (can’t because brain is chaotically in madness and won’t quiet down)
  • distraction (helps a bit, but is only temporary)
  • eating (helps a lot, but also temporary and has side effects that have to be undone at a later date)
  • yelling (sort of a distraction and valve to let off steam, but temporary too and hurts relationships)

The only way past it is through it. I hear that a lot, but didn’t really know what it meant. So many things just start sounding like clichés and sound bites. But today, I had an ah ha moment. Through it means feeling it, not running away from it. Through it means listening to it, not ignoring it. Through it means experiencing it to learn from it.

Okay then. I asked myself: What does my stress tell me? What are my feelings trying to tell me?

Emotions are what we feel after we compare our Expectations with the Reality. If the outcome is good, we feel positive. If the outcome is bad, we sad or mad.

Then I wondered: WHY do I think my emotions are trying to tell me something? And who is it exactly that is using my emotions to talk to me? Is it their language?

My theory: My body is host to so many ecosystems that make it possible for me to function. And when I feel overwhelmed, it is because what I want to get done is more than what is possible to get done with the systems in place and the resources needed. So the systems start shutting down or slowing down to rest. And the systems that haven’t done so start to bear the burden even more and then they start to shut down or slow down. As different ones respond at different times, different feelings emerge – they are the symptoms of what is happening.

My conscious mind is governed by thoughts that I try to control. And it will say things like: Suck it up. Don’t be such a baby. Just do it. You can do this. Don’t be lazy. You can’t afford to stop.

My subconscious mind is the one who is listening to the systems and making sense of it all. It knows when it’s time to stop, secure and start. It can sense when a system is breaking down. It can see when a system is slowing down.

If I listen carefully when I’m overwhelmed, I think I hear:

  • Rest and retreat
  • Recover and repair
  • Reflect and remember
  • Restart

It certainly feels a bit counterintuitive to slow down when everything in my conscious mind is screaming DO MORE! GET IT DONE! HURRY UP! But, when I do, I realize that my subconscious has been working on a solution that may be more creative, efficient or enjoyable. Or it’s trying to warn me of potential roadblocks ahead that need to be considered.

In any case, I’m learning not to panic now when I feel overwhelmed. I’m learning to just stop and let the chaos run its course, come apart and then come together again. It’s very hard and I’ve only tried this a couple of times, but inevitably after I emerge from the overwhelm with some energy or headspace to productively handle something that has been bothering me.