As a psychiatrist who has worked with psychological trauma for more than 20 years, I have seen and heard stories of violence, genocide, abuse, and loss from many places around the world.
The context always differs, but people everywhere share the same emotions of grief, anxiety, anger, fear, and depression that grip us in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
Anyone can learn these skills, and with practice, they can positively impact the way you respond to everyday stress.
The nonprofit organization I founded and direct, The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), teaches tools of self-care and group support to clinicians, educators, and community leaders in conflict zones and after natural disasters in Kosovo, Gaza, Israel, Haiti, southern Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, New York after 9/11, and elsewhere.
We also teach this approach to those in the U.S. who want to use our model to help themselves and others. Our goal is to create a worldwide healing community where people use practical mind-body skills to move through suffering and confusion toward a more hopeful, healthy, and confident future.
Throughout my work with CMBM, I’ve consistently used these four skills around the world to heal trauma and bring hope to people affected by war, terrorism, and natural disaster.
Anyone can easily learn these skills, and with practice, they can positively impact your life and the way you respond to traumatic events and everyday stress.
1. Guided imagery
Linda EagleSpeaker, a CMBM-trained Native American elder, works with sex-trafficked girls in Minnesota, helping them heal their trauma and reconnect with their culture. Linda uses guided imagery to allow the girls to safely process painful experiences and learn more about their heritage. Linda burns sage and blesses the girls with an Eagle feather and sweet pine powder as they sit in a small group circle.
She asks them to envision a comforting scene they can go to when they are under duress. Many of the girls imagine an open field of flowers where they happily play with their family pets and are watched over by their grandmothers. As they expand this scene, the girls create a sense of self-generated safety and their anxiety fades away.
Our guided imagery podcast will talk you through an 11-minute guided meditation, and teach you how to create images that will help you find your safe place and answers to the questions and concerns that may be distressing you.
2. Soft belly breathing
In Israel, a group called the Zaka are tasked with picking up body parts after a terrorist attack or accident. Our team in Israel worked with them to integrate mind-body skills into their everyday lives so they could cope with the traumatic scenes they witnessed. The Zaka now do “soft belly breathing” before they go on a call after a disaster and report less stress, greater ease, and less nausea and vomiting as they recover body parts; they meditate with family members whom they are informing of a death and do guided imagery to explore and resolve fears and concerns.
Soft belly breathing is the most fundamental technique we teach. It balances the “fight or flight” response with the relaxation that comes from our parasympathetic nervous system. You can listen to this podcast from anywhere when you want to begin practicing. Breathe deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This will improve the exchange of oxygen, even as it relaxes your nervous system.
Say to yourself
soft as you breathe in and
belly as you breathe out. Do this for five minutes two or three times a day — not right after meals, you may fall asleep — and at bedtime, if you’re having trouble sleeping.
Use a timer (but not at bedtime) so you won’t be preoccupied with how long you’ve been doing it or how long you have left. Soon, you’ll find that in times of stress you can take a few deep breaths and say, “Soft…belly,” and relaxation will come.
3. Drawing Exercise
Azar Jendia, a young Palestinian girl living in Gaza, witnessed the deaths of her father, two uncles, and an aunt. As a participant in one of CMBM’s Mind Body Skills Groups, she learned to express her grief and trauma through drawings. In an interview for CBS 60 Minutes, Azar describes how the drawings helped her process emotions and regain hope for her future.
First she drew her home that was bombed, with the bodies of her family members. Then as her solution to her grief, she drew herself in a coffin, lying as a martyr in a grave next to her father. After nine Mind Body Skills Group sessions, Azar drew a different present and future: she saw herself surrounded by blossoming flowers and green trees, and drew herself as a heart doctor helping to treat people who suffered during the war.
To practice the Drawing Exercise yourself, use three sheets of plain white paper and a variety of crayons. You will complete three drawings, in the following order, taking as much time as you like:
- Yourself as you are now
- Yourself with your biggest problem
- Yourself with your biggest problem solved
Afterward, you can write about your drawings in a journal and discuss them with a trusted friend, who may help you see the situation from a different perspective.
4. Shaking & dancing
After the 2005 earthquake in Haiti, I helped lead a training of Haitian clinicians, educators, and community leaders who wanted to learn more about using mind-body medicine in their work in schools, hospitals, and churches. We heard stories of injured people digging themselves out of rubble for hours, brothers and husbands who were killed during outbursts of violence, and women who had lost their children and homes to the earthquake.
Everyone in our training had suffered personal losses from the earthquake, and were dealing with the ensuing anxiety, fear, and dread. One group activity we practiced together was “shaking & dancing” to get everyone out of their chairs and back into their physical bodies.
Shaking & Dancing helps release chronic tension in the body. All you need are two pieces of music and a pause between them. I like to play five minutes of fast, driving music for the “shaking” followed by two minutes of silent relaxation and being aware.
Then I switch to upbeat, inspiring music for the “dancing”. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart and bend your knees. Notice how your body feels. Relax your shoulders and close your eyes. As the music begins, shake from your feet up through your chest, into your shoulders, head, and arms. Let your jaw hang open. Pick up the pace. It’s okay to feel silly — just keep going.
After the first music ends, stand silently, being aware of your breathing and your body. When the second music begins, let your body move as it wants, freely and spontaneously. No pattern, no name. Just let your body move. After the music stops, take a few minutes to rest and reflect on how you feel now.
All these techniques and many other simple, powerful ways to relieve stress and increase energy are described in my most recent book Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression.
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