Thursday, November 2, 2017

FLOWING to Wellbeing –  (part 6)
N for Nurture

Have you ever noticed times of illness arising just as a stressful period reaches its conclusion; the annoying cold or strained muscle that lingers through your well-earned vacation?  As old energy blocks move through our lives and our bodies, a sort of systemic detox can emerge at physical emotional and inter/intrapersonal levels, across the lifespan. Knowing as we do that recovery from trauma is tied directly to the nervous system via attachment processes in primary relationships, it should not be a surprise that NURTURE is a central component of the FLOWING model of recovery.  The meaning of nurture is to participate in providing the means of furthering one-another’s continued growth. In terms of mental health, nurturing is a process of consolidation of neuro-INTEGRATIVE gains from feeling accepted, WITNESSed and valued.  Such witnessing is essential to recovery, whether in earliest relationships, current ones or within our internal relationship with Parts holding onto old pain or loss.

Nurturing is at the heart of parenting.  Those early emotional models and energies have lasting influence in adult relationships.  In some cases, those first relational patterns are positive, offering developmental support through OPEN-HEARTed acceptance. In other cases, including among many who seek therapeutic support, the family model extends to more negative beliefs tending to block growth and wellbeing.  Such blocks may arise as internal mistrust or bodymind pain - limiting emotional regulation, disrupting relationships, and even compromising our immune systems.

Disruptions in the environment have broad implications across the bodymind spectrum.  The ACEs research of recent decades, has left no question that familial and social dynamics influence physical and mental health in profound ways (Felitti et al., 1998). In the study, adult patients’ family histories were collected from those receiving services at medical facilities.  “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and their chronicity or combination were discovered to predict with nearly mathematical precision, severely compromised immune systems leading to illnesses and death from diseases ranging from obesity, to drug addictions, to cancers. Adversities such as poverty, mental illness, child abuse and violence were vastly over-represented in the family histories of those seeking treatment for these diseases, when compared to patient populations reporting more nurturing home environments. While there can be many contributors to ill health, the results of the ACESs research are too extreme to be ignored.

Turning our attention to “detoxing” from developmental PTSD or other traumatic experiences, it’s clear that physical and psychological recovery includes the release of neurochemical, biological and other emotion-based processes.  Such efforts demand engagement with bodily states of imbalance (e.g., pain, disease and “body memories”) at the body’s “weak link” on its immune system chain.  However, history need not determine outcomes.  Despite the ill effects of stressors or the number of ‘ACEs’ in our histories, the good news is that our minds and bodies remain amenable to change at the deepest levels of influence.  

INTEGRATIVE opportunities available in the practice of FLOWING can be renewed continuously within Self-NURTURING practices. It would be simplistic to think that all effects of developmental stressors could be reversed by a few nurturing activities, but a broad sweep of attention and consistent practice will likely support change in unexpected ways.  FEELING, LISTENING and bearing WITNESS to our own experiences and sense of meaning are fundamental requirements of recovery and wellbeing, and are cornerstones of bodymind health.  Mindfulness practices based in internally directed awareness have been found to remediate pain, release emotional burdens and even lead to changes at the genetic level. These practices, when consistent and supported by behavioral choices, can lead to bodymind integration. Once such burdens have been witnessed and released, it becomes essential to maintain that integration through nurturing practices.

In recovery from trauma and neglect, the shift from other to Self-Leadership is dependent on providing a sufficient structure of basic security. If such a structure was unsupported by childhood environments and relationships, its lack leaves us free-floating on the currents of external influences.  Achieving the ability to regulate our emotions necessitates an anchor, one only available in NURTURING environments and relationships.  If not well managed in early times, there are a wide array of meaningful options for engaging that anchor in later efforts, whether therapeutically, or Self-guided. 

Among the NURTURING practices known to be most effective are many movement based, expressive and nutritional opportunities.  Yoga, meditation, and creative expression are but a few of the options for nurturing practices. What is most important is the structure offered by regular engagement, with an emphasis on extending Self-Compassion supporting competence within our own bodymind system. Opportunities to explore a range of options, and to seek new Self-knowledge will further nurturing.

While secular practices are essential for some, spiritual aspects may appeal to many and may further broaden a sense of community as a meaningful aspect of practice.  Group classes and services expand awareness of our connection to others in our relational universe, and can add elements of support and GENERATIVITY to our NURTURING activities.  Whatever the case, it is important that the practice includes a perspective of valuing and non-judgment, rather than separating and categorizing into “us and them,” or otherwise blaming Self or others for unintended outcomes.  OPEN-HEARTedness is a necessary element to promote nurturing, since it will not feel safe to express vulnerability in the face of judgement.  This does not preclude taking responsibility for mistakes, only that we do so with the awareness that even best intentions may be thwarted by limitations of the moment, especially when insecurity is high.

Seeking regular opportunities for NURTURING is an expansive practice of curiosity and exploration, with room for celebrations and rituals of deep historic meaning, as well as new and exciting discoveries of meaningful engagement.  From such practices arise resources and supports for bodymind INTEGRATION, leading to the confidence needed to further share such gifts through GENERATIVITY.  This final element of the ING in FLOWING will be discussed in the next article of "FLOWING to Wellbeing."

Ellen C. Ranney, PhD. Is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice. She specializes in work with trauma survivors and their families.  Dr. Ranney is the author of Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, (c)2016, available at

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S, (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4). 245 – 259. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

FLOWING to Wellbeing: (Part 5)
I for Integration

In the FLOWING Recovery model described in Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, the final three letters - ING - refer to active efforts and processes for maintenance of our survivorship. It might be argued that the I in the model which stands for Integration is the most important element.  Instead of taking a “get over it” approach to recovery, effective integration efforts require consistent, supported engagement on a neuro-physical level, within an extensive series of interactions, to bring the process to fruition.  While this description may sound complicated, the process of integration is ongoing at a subconscious level, and can be furthered by self-awareness with positive intentions.  In simple terms, integration is a journey of self-discovery.

The word integration is defined as a process of combining one thing with another to make a (new) whole, e.g., Integrative Medicine purports to add holistic elements to standard western medical practices.  However, when the term relates to healing at the level of our nervous system it is less about adding something, and more a matter of removing/releasing that which blocks access to best functioning.  When we FLOW (Feel, Listen, Open to and Witness), developmental effects and distorted perceptions that result from traumatic events can be engaged with and released, allowing us to experience a new sense of self.  Into that newly opened space, we can expand and update life lessons and engage in repair, by direct participation in the naturally occurring processes of integration. Once the toxic secrets are out, the present moment can be attended to and considered as it is – no longer being filtered through past associations with negative meanings and influences.  

Our mindbodies are always seeking their own repair, and it is from a sense of being neglected or underserved (according to our nervous system’s preset/default mode) that symptoms of unbalance arise and are, all too often, reinforced by our interactions with family and society.  Negative implications are especially likely to influence our self-perceptions, as they tend to have the stronger “survival based” filters.  It is at the level of those negative understandings that the golden key to recovery is found.

Integration is both the umbrella for, and the outcome of, all mindbody recovery efforts; it is the essence of secure attachment.  Dr. Dan Siegel points to the match between attachment theory’s “secure” status and the outcome of mindfulness-based integration (Mindsight, 2009).  In childhood, responsive caretaking, family resources (education, nutrition, emotional availability) and environmental safety are the building blocks of secure attachment, but in the absence or disruption of these - most meaningfully those supporting emotional regulation within our closest developmental relationships - our attachment status will suffer significant damage.

Advancements in brain imaging have contributed greatly to an understanding that despite such developmental disruptions, the nervous system stays amenable to repair across the lifespan.  In addition, energy directed toward change can improve its likelihood.  As we attend to internally held meanings, we can locate physical and emotional markers of imbalance and reactivity, allowing for more focused exploration and expression of previously blocked receptors.  For example, the memory of a time of loss, when attended to, can offer validation and context (past vs. present) to compassionately heal and release those exiled emotions that initially established the blockage.  Those pockets of exiled energy exist in all of us, having been based upon the availability of emotional /physical/relational resources at the time of the disruption (loss or trauma).  These complex exiles tend to exist in a sort of time warp of un-integrated, often child based energy.

Working with the FLOWING model, multiple levels and areas of awareness and expression can be addressed over time.  Attending to body energies and thought processes that we so often ignore or dismiss for fear of the emotions that may be carried there, can offer us ongoing access to integration.  Each element of the FLOWING model holds its own inherent integrative properties and opportunities.  When we FEEL we connect meaningfully with muscles, bones, circulation, as well as the nervous system and the emotional cues held within, down to the cellular level.  The implications of this practical focus extend even to genetics and internally held attachment effects.  LISTENING mindfully engages our attention on a level of symbols (images) and meanings to direct access to our own heart-felt truths, some of which were in “cold storage” awaiting such an opportunity for release.  Emotional access does not simply emerge casually at the earliest efforts to engage after long, hard experience at protective withholding - often under heavy guard.  The road to our heart-truths often winds through dark places, requiring great courage and patience.  Maintaining an OPEN receptivity to knowing about the pain and loss suffered along the way and releasing them, once WITNESSED, is the essence of engagement in INTEGRATION as a life-long practice.

In support of integration-as-practice, the elements of the FLOWING model each suggest creative expression of mindbody experiences as release, and as resource.  Attention to the microlevel of our own sense of “safety vs. harm” (as determined by the nervous system), along with deliberate efforts to connect with and express those events/objects/images, will help us to sustain integration on a regular and flowing basis.  From this point, we become more able to NURTURE our practice through routines, rituals, and celebrations. Further, we can expand them to include compassionate engagement with others, through a process known as GENERATIVITY.  These N and G elements the model bring recovery from a mere survival struggle, to fully expressed, continually renewed, integration, as will be explored in the next two essays within the FLOWING to Wellness series.

Ellen C. Ranney, PhD. Is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice. She specializes in work with trauma survivors and their families.  Dr. Ranney is the author of Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, (c)2016, available at