Life

Let every day we live leave us saying:

“I have been carpeing the crap out of this diem!” – Beth Albany

To The Woman Beginning Self-Defense Training Who Has Survived Abuse or Assault

Today you are beginning self-defense training. You have been considering this for quite some time. You still aren’t sure if you should. Or, if you can. You are terrified. You have lived through horrors that most cannot imagine. You know what people in this world are capable of. You want to be able to protect yourself. You want to live. But you know that self-defense training is going to re-open all of the wounds you have been desperately trying to cauterize. You are tired. You don’t feel like you have the strength for this, but you know that this is something you have to do. For yourself. To eventually help others if you ever can.

You are not alone.

This might be completely new to you. You might not know a single person in the room. You may never have learned the difference between a hook and an upper cut, or perhaps you have never seen any of these moves before. You know you are strong, but you don’t think of yourself as a ‘fighter’. Not in this sense, at least.

You feel completely alone. But you are not alone. There are countless women, in this room and across the world, who are learning how to defend themselves.

It feels like too little too late.

It isn’t too late.

You survived. You are alive. Even if you cannot see it, or even hope for it, you are alive for a reason. You already have self-defense skills. You would not be here today if you did not.

Think of a time when you did something you did not think you could do. Do you remember how it felt when you finally did it? This is the hardest thing you will ever do. But you will do it. You are capable of learning how to physically defend yourself. You are only adding to the self-defense skills you already have.

This process requires a lot of trust: in the instructor, in the others in the class, but mostly in yourself. Because of what others have done to you, you don’t trust yourself as much as you once did. You feel responsible, even if only for not doing something differently.

I will forgive myself for what I did not know before I learned it.

Thank you for trusting yourself enough to be here today. Trust for the instructor and anyone else in the room will be earned over time. If at any time you do not feel comfortable with anything, you are welcome to step back, leave the session, or never return. You are always welcome, but it is your choice to be here.

You will be triggered. You might not sleep tonight. You might have night terrors after every class for months to come. But you will not always be triggered. You will sleep peacefully again. If you have a flashback, it will end. I cannot give you a date that you will sleep peacefully again. That will be different for each of you. But, it will end.

This, too, shall pass.

In order for you to sleep peacefully again, in order to continue to live a life full of joy and happiness, in order to achieve your dreams, you must first chase down each and every one of your fears and face them head-on. You are stronger than your fears. You are stronger than you feel right now. You are stronger than you believe. Chase your fears as passionately as you chase your dreams. Many times they are one and the same.

You dream of safety, of being able to protect yourself if you ever need to again, but you fear not being able to.

You dream of connection, with others and yourself. You dream of being able to trust others. But you fear the fact that no one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and some people will never be worthy of your trust. Mostly, you fear you will trust the wrong person, because you trusted the person who hurt you.

You will only regain trust in yourself by taking chances, making decisions, and seeing the results. This takes time. This takes courage. This takes strength. Right now, you are relying solely on faith and hope and the primal instinct of survival. That will carry you until you begin to see the results of your actions.

Celebrate your progress. If you can only do one push-up today, celebrate when you are able to do two. If you can only make eye contact with a man for half of a second today, celebrate when you are able to hold eye contact with them for a full second. In order to get where you want to go, you have to accept where you are today. Where you are today fucking sucks.

But this, too, shall pass.

Keep fighting the Good Fight, my dearest Warriors of the Light.

So, That Happened {Alt Title: I Started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu}

And, by “happened”, I mean I can’t seem to quit diving head first towards all the things that scare the absolute sh*t out of me. For me, this is a benchmark of healing. After too many years, nearly two and a half spent fighting PTSD, I’m finally getting closer to once again being my true self. My freshman year of high school I joined the swim teamfor the sole purpose of getting over my fear of water. (Note: still afraid of water. Still swim. Recently swam in the ocean. With humpback whales.)

I used to dance with my fears, I used to define myself by this character trait, and this part of me was stolen from me. Or, I guess when you’re terrified of every car door slamming, reflection and shadow, encounter with a hot man, any sound that even somewhat resembles a gun shot, and wake from night terrors more often than not, you don’t spend a single second without facing a fear.

But I’m finally learning how to dance again. Partially due to healing, but likely also partially because I’ve gotten stronger and more used to carrying this around. My stubbornness is also kicking in. I’m just done. Over it. I am alive(!!!!), and I’m sick of wasting precious time. Dear PTSD: screw you. If you’re coming along for the ride, you’re taking the trunk. I’m driving. And there’s not even a bottle back there for you to piss in.

So, I drove myself to the closest BJJ gym. Learning some form of martial arts and/or self-defense has been on my list for a while. It was on my list of 2016 goals. Less than a week after I get back in the country from Tonga and New Zealand? As good of time as any.

So, Ann. What’s it like trying to learn BJJ while having PTSD?

Like…woah. Because of my specific history (psychologically abusive marriage and, separately, assault), and the nature of BJJ, damn.

BJJ in one word: intimate.

First appointment: flashback. Plus intimacy. Cried the entire way home.

First class I watched from the sidelines: cried for hours at home until I finally fell asleep. {I haven’t cried this much this often since I was a teenager.}

I’ve watched more classes than I’ve been on the mat for so far. I feel really effing ridiculous just sitting there watching, but it so far has helped me to begin to remap my brain. Before I can get on the mat during any class other than the Women’s Class, I have a hell of a lot of instincts to rewire. I spend the entire 1-1.5 hours being triggered, then thinking through the logic of what I’m actually seeing and reprocessing it.

Example: the second(?) class, I watched as one of the women was pinned and submitted under one of the guys while live drilling. This triggered me. (Surprise.) I considered getting up and walking out, at least until the knot in my chest released and I could breathe again. Instead, I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and reminded myself that it was a safe place and that that was completely normal in that environment. I haven’t had that reaction to that specific scenario since. But, the place is full of nearly all of my triggers.

Having someone in my guard makes me feel pretty effin vulnerable and brought up quite a bit the first few times. Now, a month after I first walked in the gym, I still notice it but it doesn’t quite trigger me. I only notice that I’m laughing and joking and carrying on conversation while another woman and I are closer than I’ve been with anyone since I was assaulted. No physical reaction, the thought leaves as quickly as it came, and we carry on.

Being choked is another trigger (still trying to figure out exactly why). That happens somewhat frequently in BJJ. Last night I learned how to choke (BJJ proper), but was also on the receiving end of it. I took a moment after I tapped out the first time around, checked for any tightness in my chest or other signs of panic, and took a few deep breaths. Since it was the person that I feel safest with there (pretty much as 100% as I can possibly get), no panic attack. We kept going. I got choked a few more times. No flashbacks, and less anxiety than I would have expected. (#winning)

The environment at this gym, and the people, are exactly what I need. Logical trust level = 10. PTSD trust level is much better now with almost everyone than it was when I first walked in. “Safe” places and people are some of my biggest triggers. You would think that there would be no place safer than your own home, and no one safer than your own husband, but that isn’t true for everyone. It wasn’t true for me. So, my amygdala doesn’t trust “safe” most of the time. Sometimes, with some people, it has the complete opposite effect than it should. Sometimes it takes me a bit longer to shove the PTSD back in the trunk and take the wheel again.

I’m really not certain how long I’ll be able to stick with this. After every class I watch or am in, I think “I can’t effing do this.” And, not that I can’t learn the physical moves of BJJ or eventually learn them well enough to actually roll. That’s the least of my concerns. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stare my triggers down fiercely enough that they disappear for good. But, thinking that I can’t do it makes me want to do it even more. (Stubborn B.) Those men stole enough from me. Their aftermath has stolen enough of my life. I haven’t reached the quitting point yet, and I refuse to believe that I’m going to spend the rest of my life living with this kind of fear.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

sunset yoga by Pierce Martin

The Neurobiology of PTSD and Yoga as an Alternative Treatment

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. All information here was found in one of the resources listed and linked below, unless otherwise stated as my personal opinion based on my own experience with PTSD.

As yoga becomes more widely practiced in the US and Western cultures, more and more research of it’s benefits is shedding light as to the many different possible applications within our culture. One of the more recent applications that has gained light within the media is the use of yoga as an alternative treatment for post-traumatic stress. There are now multiple organizations that offer training for yoga teachers working with veterans, and there are many other yoga trainings available for treating a broad range of traumas.

But, what makes yoga an effective treatment for PTSD? To answer this question, it is helpful to understand both PTSD and it’s effects on the body as well as the effects of yoga. TLDR: PTSD changes the brain (and other parts of the body). Yoga has been shown to have the reverse effects.

Understanding PTSD

Post-traumatic stress is experienced after a traumatic event when a person feels an overwhelming amount of fear, helplessness, and/or terror, especially if they feel that their life is in danger. It is not the factual details of the event, but it is the individual’s subjective experience and perspective of the event, that can cause symptoms of re-experiencing (flashbacks, night terrors), activation (hyper-awareness, irritability, insomnia), and deactivation (depression, social withdrawal/dissociation, numbing, avoidance).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is identified when these symptoms continue for more than one month.

PTSD does not discriminate against age, gender, race, or any other factors, though it is thought that some factors (genetic and otherwise) can possibly predispose a person to PTSD. The majority of reported cases are female rape survivors. Abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), violence (urban, war), natural disasters, or death of a loved one are other examples of traumatic events that are known to result in PTSD.

If you have been through a traumatic event, please talk to your doctor immediately and get treatment. You are not alone.

The Neurobiology of PTSD

Studies have found that the psychological and neurological symptoms of PTSD are similar to those of some traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The primary parts of the body effected by PTSD are the brain (limbic system), nervous system (sympathetic nervous system), hormones & chemicals, adrenal glands, and thyroid.

More specifically, PTSD affects the neuroendocrine, neurochemical, and neuroanatomic systems. The increased CRH and decreased cortisol levels, as well as the increased thyroid hormones, within the neuroendocrine system lead to increased anxiety, among other issues. Abnormal regulation of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, amino acids such as GABA and glutamic acid, and peptides within the neurochemical system affect anxiety, depression, sleep regulation, and memory.

Neuroanatomic changes in PTSD patients found included a decreased volume of the hippocampus, hyperactive amygdala, and various changes in the cortex. Decreased volume of frontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortext (ACC). The ACC was also noted as having an abnormal shape, decreased gray matter, and decreased levels of NAA. The pre-frontal cortex was found to have decreased activation.

In short, PTSD has a significant impact on the body and mind. Without healing the physical components of PTSD, it seems there is little hope to heal the emotional.

How Can Yoga Help?

sunset yoga by Pierce Martin

Photo cred: Pierce Martin

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been found to increase gray matter of the hippocampus and reduce the size of the amygdala.

Yoga poses (asanas) are correlated with various health benefits, in addition to the benefit of the mindful awareness of the breath and body practiced during a vinyasa (sequence of asanas). Combining poses focusing on one of the body systems mentioned above with mindful body and breath awareness could potentially increase the effectiveness of the benefits known. (#imnotadoctor)

If you are a yoga instructor, you should always keep in mind that any student in any class could possibly be attending your class for the specific purpose of finding healing for trauma. You can see when someone enters the room if they have a physical disability, but mental and emotional limitations are rarely obvious. There is training for trauma-sensitive yoga, which some studios have begun to incorporate in 200 Hr Certification courses.

No matter what class you are teaching, always create a safe place for your students. This is especially important for any students with PTSD. Reinforce your students’ strength in poses such as Warrior II by reminding them that they are stronger than the voice inside that says they can’t do it. Always be mindful when adjusting alignment. Approach a student before adjusting within their line of sight. Respect your students’ bodies and personal space by always asking permission before adjusting.

Soften

“Soften” is a favorite phrase of many yoga instructors. It is a cue that reminds students to not strain into a pose, to relax even while making an effort. I’ve heard my friends in Yoga Teacher Training use it countless times and they seem to have gotten it stuck in my head. It has run through my mind at least a couple dozen times today alone.

The pace of my life started picking up again about a month ago after a much needed winter hibernation. A few weeks ago during a particularly stressful week, someone at work commented on how tense my face was, especially my jaw. Since then I’ve noticed that my jaw is nearly clenched at least a few times a day.

After a long YTT class last night I squeezed in a few hours of sleep before boarding a plan for a work trip with little time for rest forecasted for the next few months. Dozens of times today I noticed my mouth was drawn tight, and I instinctively reminded myself to “soften”.

This reminder has started to go deeper than just my facial muscle contractions. “Soften” has slowly crept into my internal monologue, and it has become a reminder that I need to soften in my relationships. Not just personally, but especially professionally as I begin building relationships with a new team.

I’ve started researching Yoga & PTSD for my YTT report coming up. Every time I’ve started to attempt to research it, I’ve found it difficult to even think about the topic. I’m happier than I have been in a long time, and the topic reminds me of what I hope will remain the worst time in my life.

“Soften” reminds me that I am safe.

I am safe with those I have since chosen to surround myself with. It is safe to trust. The walls that I built, the scar tissue that has thickened over the wounds from my past, they are no longer serving me. They are only getting in my way.

Since my PTSD was caused by multiple abusive relationships it is no surprise that I’m finding it so difficult (read: impossible) to communicate and build new relationships. I still feel as though I am trapped in a bubble, separated from the rest of the world. But not nearly as often as I used to.

So many people have taken brick after brick from my walls, by loving me and accepting me just as I am. By staying. By fighting for me and with me. By making me laugh. By reminding me not just of who I am, but reminding me that I am still me. I might have layers of scar tissue clouding my sight, but I’ve been here all along.

If you love someone who suffers from PTSD, know that you are the key to their healing. Don’t give up on them. Don’t stop chipping away at their walls.

Success Is Not The Point

Since I signed up for Yoga Teacher Training last month and started the classes, I’ve had a number of people ask me if I intend to quit my job and do yoga full time. A couple of people even hinted that I shouldn’t, in their opinion, as they doubt my chance of success at it.

We all have those people in our lives. The ones who try their best to be supportive but, for whatever reason that is completed unrelated to us or our potential and has everything to do with them and what they’re going through at the moment, can’t quite mask their lack of support. Too often, their voice becomes our internal voice, especially if we hold a high respect for their opinion.

Sometimes hearing that doubt, or having someone tell us we can’t do something, just so happens to light a fire under our ass and make us want to do it even more. My biggest motivator: proving people wrong. I might not have asked for their opinion, but I’ll certainly use it to my advantage if I’m able.

Aside from fueling my fire, these conversations have also gotten me thinking about what I want to do with this training. When I signed up, I didn’t have much in mind because I knew I didn’t know enough about it to have a well-formed opinion yet. I knew I wanted to learn more about how yoga helps those with PTSD, but learning was really my only goal. Now that I’ve been through a few classes and had enough time to think about it, I’ve discovered one point of certainty:

The point is not to succeed, the point is to try.

This applies to anything, and it paints my past in an entirely different shade. So many elements are beyond our control. In fact, the only thing we ultimately have control over is ourselves: our thoughts, our words, and our actions. Everything else is out of our hands. We can’t control other people. We are not responsible for their actions, words, or decisions. Making peace with knowing you did your best, and forgiving yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it, is the key to peace and fulfillment.

When it comes to what I’ll be doing with my Yoga Teaching Certification, I definitely hope to continue with training in Yoga for PTSD, learn as much as I can about as much as I can, and give back as much as I can.