Part 1: Our Brains Need a Software Update
Here's how we can begin to 'debug the code'
▶️ Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the podcast, which includes off-the-cuff stories and commentary not included in the written text of the article. ⬆️
America has PTSD and needs a healing.
Depression among adults in the United States tripled in early 2020 —jumping from 8.5 percent before the pandemic to a staggering 27.8 percent. New research from Boston University Public Health reveals an elevated rate of depression persisting into 2021, climbing to 32.8 percent!
It’s no surprise then that mental health tools are also on the rise.
As I began healing from my own trauma and near-death traumatic brain injury, I noticed that America was collectively self-sabotaging.
That makes sense. We’ve lived through a collective trauma. 750,000 of us died from COVID-19. And the microcosm and macrocosm inform one another. The pandemic perfectly illustrates the interconnectedness of all things.
I like to think that healing from trauma is a bit like updating software.
The superego’s job is to repress the parts of ourselves that are considered “wrong” or socially unacceptable. Traumatic or negative experiences can become part of this superego, which may cause us to feel inherent guilt and shame without understanding exactly why.
I think of the superego as “software” that dictates how we interact with the world.
For the most part, the average person doesn’t know how software does what it does. If we find a bug, we can’t fix it without learning the code and searching deep within it.
In other words, we will keep repeating these unconscious programs on autopilot unless we deep dive into the ‘code’ underneath.
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So how do we begin to debug the code?
The answer is complicated.
The result of a society of ‘toxic masculinity’ is a populace that’s unable to feel its feelings.
And BTW—when I use the term ‘toxic masculinity,’ I am not insinuating that masculinity itself is inherently toxic. Rather, I’m saying that that the power imbalance between masculine and feminine ‘energy’ has grown so great that it has become toxic for society.
It’s widely considered ‘weak’ to connect to one’s emotions but when we become estranged from them, they inevitably come out sideways.
Healing is a fundamentally feminine trait but for the last approximately 10,000 years, humans have lived in a patriarchal social system that defaults power and authority to men. You can’t suppress half of your being for thousands of years and not suffer consequences.
And men aren’t exactly thriving under this toxic masculine paradigm either. Seven out of 10 suicides are committed by white, middle-aged men.
The strongman archetype always hardens on himself in the end.
So to heal, we’ve got to embrace the suppressed parts of ourselves to seek balance and go through a little darkness and discomfort to get to the other side.
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There’s some practical utility to suppressing our feelings and trauma, at least some of the time. We are expected to subordinate our emotions to the task at hand and stay calm and collected in order to be functioning members of society. Plus, we’re not exactly rewarded by our friends and family for airing our ‘dirty laundry.’
But in his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk claims that when we suppress our feelings for the long term, we are fundamentally at war with ourselves.
Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy. It saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down. Meanwhile, stress hormones keep flooding your body, leading to disease and discomfort. This certainly resonates with my personal experience.
“Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something. Usually ourselves.”
— Pema Chödrön
The steps I took to begin to debug my own code were as follows (and preferably in this order):
Drop an anchor in the present (meditation)
Heal and establish safety in the body
Inner excavation (self-inquiry)
Begin to ‘own’ the emotional brain (feel the feelings and increase distress tolerance)
In Part 1, we’ll cover the first two and come back for the others in Part 2.
Drop an anchor in the present: meditating
The first step of this process is both the easiest and the most difficult.
Traumatized people feel chronically unsafe in their bodies. As long as trauma is not resolved, the body continues to secrete stress hormones and replay defensive movements and emotional responses. Dr. Van Der Kolk often says, “dissociation is the essence of trauma.” When your body is constantly being bombarded by visceral warning signs, it’s instinctual to attempt to control the process by ignoring gut feelings and numbing awareness of what is being played out deep inside. Social media, materialism, promiscuity, and substance abuse aid this process.
To begin to establish safety in the body, we must first train in simply being present. This is where meditation comes in.
Even if just for five minutes a day, we relax into the nakedness of experience and open ourselves fully to the pleasures and pain of life. We let go and empty ourselves out. We learn to rest in our own restlessness, observe our thoughts with compassion, and stop struggling against ourselves. We quiet all the extraneous bullshit and, even if just for a moment, we feel what it is to truly be human in this body in this moment.
Inevitably, meditation will feel excruciating from time to time. When I’m sitting in meditation and feeling fidgety or restless or uncomfortable and I want to bolt, I remind myself of a mantra of sorts that I learned from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: “stay, just stay.”
And with time, we begin to feel calmer, more centered, less restless, and safer in the moment. We begin to create new neural networks in the brain, develop distress tolerance, and no longer feel the need to cling so tightly to experience.
Heal and establish safety in the body
Trauma makes you feel like you are stuck forever in a helpless state of horror. Naturally, living in that state makes one tense. When people are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension ultimately leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain.
On top of that, trauma dulls our physical senses. When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive. This combination can create a scenario where we’re alternating between sensation seeking and numbing. At least half of all traumatized people try to dull their intolerable inner world with drugs or alcohol.
We must learn to integrate ordinary sensory experiences so we can live with the natural flow of feelings and feel secure and complete in our bodies. Meditation is the first part of this process. It’s dropping out of the mind and into the body. Once we’ve achieved that, we can deepen our sense of safety in the body by releasing stuck energy and pain.
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies and their deeper emotions. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
— Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk
We do this through exercise and bodywork like massage, acupuncture, or trigger point therapy.
In Dr. Van Der Kolk’s research supported by the NIH, he and his colleagues found that ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment.
As a longtime yoga practitioner (I’m certified to teach!), I can vouch for its mind + body benefits. However, I think any form of regular exercise that stimulates bloodflow, if approached mindfully, can help move stuck energy from the body and help clear the mind.
I view exercise as a preventative measure and as routine maintenance. Recent research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that just 15 minutes of exercise per day reduces the risk of major depression.
Our other tools are massage, acupuncture, and trigger point therapy.
After my brain injury, I went through extensive trigger point therapy for excruciating myofascial pain syndrome. Neck, shoulder, and back pain plagued me for years after my accident. But it was made so much worse because it layered on top of vague preexisting pain I was carrying around because of old unresolved trauma. I don’t ever remember a time when my back and neck weren’t knotted to hell. The pain has always made it hard for me to sit completely still for any meaningful length of time.
Trigger points — or muscle knots — are muscle fibers that the brain and hormones work together to contract or shorten. This can restrict blood flow, causing the spots to harden and accumulate toxicity over time. We become literally encased in our old memories. These spots are painful and can even refer pain to other areas of the body.
In yoga teacher training we were taught that our muscles hold on to old emotions and that this is often why we feel so much better after we stretch. During my trigger point therapy, I would sometimes cry or scream for no reason at all during a big release. It felt incredibly emotionally catharctic afterward, like I’d lost fifty pounds of dead weight. Doing trigger point work along with regular exercise, meditation, and talk therapy resulted in a rapid improvement in my overall physical and emotional health.