The Road Not Built:

Saving Sacred Lands — the Grand Staircase Escalante

I celebrate the action of President Biden to restore the monuments of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience these areas’ sacred and unique beauty, I share a personal account about why their preservation remains significant. My story includes the history of my aunt’s activism in the 1970s to stop a road, which remains central to the area’s remoteness today.

My Family’s History in Utah:

When I was nine years old, my father moved my family from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City to live near his sister, the late June Viavant. Our families spent significant time hiking, camping, running rivers, and backpacking in southern Utah. My father bought a 4 wheel drive vehicle to access the very remote areas of the state.

My aunt loved the Grand Staircase-Escalante in particular. She spent years hiking and exploring this majestic region and became devoted to protecting it. My aunt loved the spectacular beauty of the unique red rock formations, waterfalls, arches, cliffs, and slot canyons carved through centuries, unique to the Escalante.

In 1996 (unfortunately after my aunt’s death), President Clinton declared the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering about 1.8 million acres of land — primarily accessible only by a few rough roads. The area includes:

  • The Escalante Canyon (a red rock canyon with a river running through it and many side canyons, including several narrow slot canyons)
  • The Kaiparowits Plateau (a wide desert plateau area standing above the nearby lands)
  • The Grand Staircase (referring to the layered geology in this extended area)

Raised in New Hampshire, June and her family pioneered camping and backpacking, in the 1950s, long before these activities were popular. My grandfather, a YMCA camp director, and my grandmother, later gave talks on the wildlife and birds of New England. June was always an active political advocate as well. At family dinners, for example, she often required us to write letters to our representatives (in the days before email and online petitions), advocating for the protection of places like the Escalante. When hiking together, she made sure we picked up every bit of litter and never took shortcuts of the trails.

While our families frequently vacationed in southern Utah, Thanksgiving became a favored time to go. With four days off and fewer crowds, we celebrated the holiday in this sanctuary. We camped in Zion National Park or backpacked into the Escalante or Waterpocket Fold, carrying Thanksgiving dinner on our backs. We packed turkey, dressing, homemade sticky buns, pies, and wine to enjoy around a campfire (we skipped some of the vegetables and, of course, ice cream to top the pies!). One of the memorable parts of these trips was sitting around the fire after dinner. In late November, it gets dark early, and we joked about how slow the time passed. We enjoyed singing and sang for what felt like hours when it was only 6:30 or 7:00. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone would proclaim, but there wasn’t much else to do, so we slept a lot.

On one family trip to Death Hollow, a side canyon of the Escalante canyon, we searched for hours through the desert to find the trailhead as this was the 1970’s and trails were not yet marked. Once we located the steep trail going into the canyon, we had to pass our packs to each other, heavy with Thanksgiving fixings, to maneuver the steep cliffs. We waded through water up to our waists, on another trip, carrying our packs above our heads. We hiked through places where a stream had carved basins in the rock, with one beautiful pool following another. We camped beneath a large overhang and explored native American ruins not seen by others. We experienced the quiet, awe, and reverence of places largely untouched by humans.

June’s Political Activism to Stop the Highway:

June treasured the solitude and wildness of Grand Staircase-Escalante. She spent a lot of time backpacking in this area backpacking and she became passionate about preserving it. She worked as a school counselor in Salt Lake City, and I think what she liked best about the job was the time off it afforded her to spend in southern Utah.

In the late 1960s, June co-founded the Escalante Wilderness Committee with Ruth Frear. June and Ruth argued before the US Senate in 1970 to halt the proposed Trans-Escalante highway. The road would have cut through the heart of the Escalante wilderness, ruining its remoteness. They gathered letters from hundreds of people who expressed their intent for it to be kept wild.They testified before the US Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation.

In her testimony to the US Senate in 1970, June argued for the value of maintaining it as wilderness, stating:

The Escalante is a contrast of the huge and the minute, of openness and hidden glens — an endless expanse of Forty-Mile Bench complemented by walls eighteen inches apart, hundreds of feet high in Davis Gulch. It displays the beginnings in its massive sandstone walls, the end in its fragile ferns. The Escalante is a little of the Grand Canyon, some of Bryce and Zion, a reminder of Mesa Verde, and the last great remnant of Glen Canyon — but it possesses a unique spirit of its own. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 78)

She went on to describe her experience of the spirituality of the region:

Who can stand within the perfection of the Escalante and not in some way experience a hint of the supernatural? We all have our personal religions. To some of us, wilderness is the place worship; of what, depends on the individual. One man sees desert canyons as a hell of a place to lose a cow. Another stands alone on the rim of the Escalante Canyon and thinks ‘Perhaps when God was driven from Glen Canyon, He came to live in the Escalante.’ We can approach this beautiful, ecologically fragile area with the care and the love of a people that respects and values its last few remaining pockets of wilderness, or we can come with bulldozers and pavement, blasting our way across them. People deserve to have a chance to be drawn into the Escalante naturally — to follow a canyon stream or a canyon rim on foot, wondering what is around the next bend. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 79)

It is worthy to note that she also specifically addressed the value of the area for mining and drilling in her testimony. She referenced a document called “Geology of the Circle Cliffs Area, Garfield and Kane Counties, Utah, United States Geological Survey Bulletin #1229, Prepared on behalf of the US Atomic Energy Commission.” She reported that the document states: “The uranium deposits are small, and opportunity for discovery of any large deposits seems poor.” She goes on to comment: “no mines of consequence have yet been developed and the depth of burial would preclude its exploration in many places. No pattern of ore bodies of significant size exists to allow confident prediction of more ore bodies.” Additionally, she references the problem with drilling for oil in the area related to the lack of abundant water which remains an issue today (United States Senate, 1970, p. 80).

In Canyon Country Zephyr in 2015, Ken Sleight praised the conservation work of Ruth and June, stating:

…speaking of the Sierra Club, I’ll never forget the valiant and hard work of two of their most able leaders, Ruth Frear and June Viavant. They helped stop the proposed Trans-Escalante highway that would have stretched from Bullfrog to Wahweap marina. The road would have bridged across the Escalante canyon just downstream from Stevens Arch and Coyote Gulch. This was one of the environmentalists’ finest hours in Utah. (Sleight, paragraph 31)

June smiling in the Escalante Canyon with snow on the ground
June in Escalante Canyon, circa 1980. Photo provided by Tim Viavant

The Fragile Environment: Biological Soil Crust

While June publicly defended the Escalante, she also taught us about the crust covering much of the open desert of southern Utah, which takes many years to form. The vast expanses of land between the beautiful canyons look barren, lifeless, and desolate, but on this, we learned, lives a fragile crust unique to this environment. My aunt implored us to be mindful of where we walked to minimize the damage to this delicate crust, as even a single step can destroy it.

The fragile crust — called “biological soil crust” — consists of various organisms, including lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. Together they work to control erosion and hold water to allow plants to grow in the dry environment. One of these organisms — called cyanobacteria, or green-blue algae — is believed to be among the first living organisms on Earth! Amazingly, it can take thousands of years for this crust to form (NPS, 2020). In building roads and development of all types, fragile organisms would experience irreparable damage, including extinction.

The Bees of the Escalante — Who Knew?!!

I have recently learned that the Grand Staircase is also home to over 650 unique species of bees! Bee biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, and a team of volunteers, spent four years researching bees in the area. They found huge numbers of bees varying in size, colors, and shapes. (Zimmer, 2018) Carril and her crew produced a film about their work titled: The Bees of Grand Staircase Escalante. (You can view this interesting film at this link: https://beesofgsenm.com)

On the topic of roads, the film shows a large group of bees that lived in the unpaved, dry road going through the national monument. Sadly, a road crew using heavy equipment to grade the road devastated these bees, even after the researchers informed them of the existence of the bees and requested that they work around them. In watching the film, I reflected on the number of species of bees that would have been lost, if the road my aunt and her colleagues effectively stopped in the 1970s, had been built.

Many bee species, along with the fragile ecosystem, risked permanent damage in the recent reduction of the size of the national monument. This policy of dominance, which continues to permeate the political landscape in the United States, does not respect the needs of the other. Dominance accepts the destruction of anything in its way, especially if viewed as inferior, vulnerable, or fragile. Further, policy based on dominance does not tend to what comes after it.

Prayers, Gratitude, and Celebration

And so, I speak in honor of this tender place.

I speak for the right of untamed places to exist and of their need for protection. I speak about the incredible resiliency of life forms to thrive and adapt in even the harshest of conditions and the ability of fragile life forms to be damaged irreparably by a single action or series of actions.

I honor the efforts of people like my aunt and so many others who dedicate their lives to protecting fragile, remote environments and ecosystems so they may thrive and endure.

I hear echoes of the centuries of ancestors who called this land home, on the people who currently live there, and the expectations of generations to come who wish to enjoy this wild and wonderful planet.

I acknowledge the value of the vulnerability within every one of us, which these lands reflect.

Today I celebrate the win for places like this whose abundant riches lie in something far more significant than in the finite resources that we can extract from them.

The words of June from the introduction of the book Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest published in 1971 ring true to me: “Much has been done to protect these wild, beautiful, lonely places. Much remains to be done. We can win many successive steps of a conservation battle, but we can lose only once” (Abbey, p. 14.) Gratefully, wildness has won again.

References:

Abbey, E., Hyde, P. (1971). Slickrock: endangered canyons of the southwest. Sierra Club/Charles Scribner’s Sons

National Park Service. (2020, Feb 15) Biological soil crust of southeast Utah. https://www.nps.gov/articles/seug-soil-crust.htm

Sleight, K. (2015, June 1). Canyon Country Zephyr. Ken Sleight remembers, part 5: the 60s, “memories of Escalante.” Retrieved from: https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/06/01/ken-sleight-remembers-part-5-the-60s-memories-of-escalante-by-ken-sleight/

United States Senate. Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. (1970). Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=KwTx470b8t8C&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&dq=United+States+Senate.+Canyonlands+National+Park+and+Glen+Canyon+National+Recreational+Area.+Hearing+before+the+Subcommittee+on+Parks+and+Recreation+of+the+Committee+on+Interior+and+Insular+Affairs.+(1970)&source=bl&ots=bUBoEb6vXN&sig=ACfU3U1l4a1i-5a6Ba3lkVMEZshkjdl8KA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiA98y0y73zAhUdonIEHdwfAVIQ6AF6BAgDEAM#v=onepage&q=United%20States%20Senate.%20Canyonlands%20National%20Park%20and%20Glen%20Canyon%20National%20Recreational%20Area.%20Hearing%20before%20the%20Subcommittee%20on%20Parks%20and%20Recreation%20of%20the%20Committee%20on%20Interior%20and%20Insular%20Affairs.%20(1970)&f=false

Zimmer, K. (2018, December 17). National Geographic. 660 species of bees live in the newly shrunk national monument. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/bee-city-at-risk-after-grand-staircase-escalante-divided

Beyond Gold

Four lessons from Simone Biles about trauma and life

After the flame from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics extinguished and I reflected on the events, my attention focused, more than anything else, on the experience of Simone Biles. In her conduct, she exemplified excellence as a role model and a teacher. In addition, through her example, she has offered invaluable lessons about honoring limits, the mind/body connection, recovering from traumatic stress, and shifting from an individual orientation to a collective focus.

1 — Respecting limits

While Simone has already brought the sport of gymnastics to a new level through all kinds of amazing feats on the balance beam, vault, and uneven bars, in this Olympics, she showed to the world that being human includes limits that deserve acknowledgment and respect.

While she had spent countless hours preparing to compete, and the hopes and expectations of many people were riding upon her success, she bravely confronted the reality that she could not compete safely. Accepting these limits and honoring the boundaries of her capacity meant valuing her safety over the accompanying disappointment — for herself and others. In this Olympics, respecting her physical, psychological, and emotional limits became one of her most remarkable feats yet.

2 — The mind/body connection

Simone has become a teacher about the mind/body connection. Though her body likely could have physically done what was required to compete, her mind could not do its part. While I do not claim to fully comprehend what happened for her (with the “twisties”), my experience as a body/mind psychotherapist provides me with theories.

From her significant training, she had sufficient muscle memory to perform her routines, and she had managed the pressure of this situation in many past competitions. Simone’s struggles emerged in twists, which requires the mind to tolerate the disorientation of the body moving through space while simultaneously finely calibrating to locate contact with the ground. The mental focus and attention required to navigate this eluded her this time.

3 — Post Traumatic Stress Response

Understanding the limits of Simone’s focus requires exploring the impact of post-traumatic stress. Specifically, Simone stated that being at the Olympics activated memories of Dr. Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, who repeatedly abused her and numerous other Olympic athletes, including at the last Olympics of 2016.

From my practice as a psychotherapist working with clients who suffered traumatic events, I have learned that people can compartmentalize painful events, putting them out of their mind for long periods — years or even decades.

When something in the present reminds them of the painful event, memories return. Along with memories, painful emotions emerge and require attention. This can derail a person from focusing on other things until the memory and emotions are acknowledged, felt, witnessed, and processed.

Processing traumatic events requires significant mental and emotional energy. A person coping with post-traumatic stress may be able to manage familiar, straightforward tasks of life (i.e., driving, walking, cooking, eating), but they do not have the focus required for tasks that require more of them.

I can imagine that gymnastics involving the mental feat of orientating in space through twists may have been more than Simone’s mind could manage, in conjunction with processing the complex emotions and memories from the trauma. With her body connected to the ground and moving in a relatively linear direction, she could access the mental energy necessary to block out difficult memories and emotions.

However, twisting and turning through space mixes up one’s thoughts and feelings and one’s body; her mind may not have been able to both block or process painful experiences and also focus on the complexity required with twists.

I had an experience with my partner recently, which provided a simpler example of this. Our dog had become ill, which activated memories for my partner of previous pet illnesses with unfavorable outcomes (if you’ve had pets for any length of time, you know this is inevitable but sad and sometimes painful).

My partner rested more than usual over the weekend, and on Sunday afternoon, we went for a walk at a familiar place. The walk began on pavement and then moved onto a path in the woods. Shortly after shifting into the woods, with the uneven ground, she took a bad fall. I believe that in her compromised state of processing past trauma and the anxiety which accompanied this, her mind could manage walking on pavement, but not the more complex adjustments required to navigate the uneven woods path.

4 — From me to we: a value beyond winning

Finally, through the likely deep disappointment of not being able to compete fully in the Tokyo Olympics, Simone maintained a positive attitude and became a great support for her teammates rather than keeping the focus on herself. Throughout the remainder of the competition, she coached them, cheered for them, celebrated their victories, and shared their losses.

While Simone may have felt frustrated about her inability to compete at her usual level, she did not become consumed with hopelessness, bitterness, or resentment. Instead, she adjusted her expectations, shifted her balance beam routine, and encouraged her team members.

Simone may not have brought home a gold medal this time, but she landed solidly on her feet. She taught the world what exists beyond gold by honoring herself, including her limits and needs, modeling the importance of mental health, and demonstrating leadership in supporting her teammates.

Thank you, Simone

A Different Take on Anxiety & Fear

Your fear may have an important message for you. Acknowledging it doesn’t mean you let it stop you from doing things you want to do.

In my psychotherapy practice, I recently received a call from a potential client stating she wanted help “getting rid of anxiety.” Anxiety, which I think of as fear in motion, manifests in ways that cause discomfort — a fast heart rate, sweaty palms, tense muscles, worry or racing thoughts, and difficulty sleeping. I can appreciate wanting to get rid of these symptoms. However, in my experience, acknowledging fear, which underlies anxiety, and exploring it, provides a more effective and long-lasting solution.

Rather than admitting to being afraid, people often identify being anxious which, while still not pleasant, as being more acceptable, or at least not as overwhelming, as simply being afraid. Men especially, generally view fear as being unattractive, not manly, a sign of weakness, or even shameful. Sometimes other emotional states, such as fits of anger or even depression, hide underlying fear. Addictions can be a cover for fear as well.

Fear is a natural, physiological response to danger — real or perceived (to our bodies there is no difference). It alerts us to pay attention. Our heart races, breathing quickens, and muscles become tense to confront the threat. Sometimes adrenaline is released providing excess energy. The threat may be out of conscious awareness, but the symptoms call our attention. Fear can be a natural response to doing something new and to a situation filled with uncertainty.

As I thought about writing this article, for example, I woke up early one morning, aware of a big knot in my gut. If you’ve ever had one of these you know it’s not comfortable. Fortunately for me, I remembered to follow the advice I was preparing to write about! I exaggerated the gnarly knot. I acknowledged to myself: “I’m afraid.” I explored the cause of my fear — being vulnerable, open to judgment, and/or criticism. I remembered my childhood experience where getting attention was not always positive. I focused on my reason for writing this — my desire to share the tools I’ve learned to help people feel more alive. And I tolerated the discomfort in my gut, breathing into it, with the hand on the knotted area, without trying to make it go away. Slowly, the knot released.

Understanding Fear & Anxiety

Sometimes fear leads to immobilization, as in the phrases: “stopped in my tracks” or “frozen in fear.” Fear is generally at the root of anxiety, but anxiety also includes feeling jittery, worrying about things in the past or the future, and discomfort from excess physical energy. A search about fear in Google or on Medium provides links to many excellent articles about overcoming the immobilization caused by fear to do things out of one’s comfort zone.

Approaches to anxiety, and the fear which underlies it, generally focus on symptom reduction. Techniques from mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises offer guidance on shifting one’s thoughts, learning to control breathing patterns, and relaxation techniques. Medications are often prescribed as a way to calm anxious nerves.

The pandemic has caused increased fear and a spike in anxiety in most people. Most of us have not previously encountered the danger of a potentially life-threatening virus, transmitted from one person to another, often without awareness. We have come to fear normal interactions — being close and greeting one another with a handshake or a hug. What used to be benign gatherings with relatives or friends became potentially dangerous, let alone gatherings with larger groups. Physical symptoms of anxiety alert us to be cautious in getting close.

Other situations, such as public speaking, a performance, social gatherings (aside from the concerns due to the pandemic), or going on a blind date cause an increase in anxiety for different reasons. We fear the possibility of psychological danger from embarrassment or humiliation from failing publicly. In these situations, when the event ends, our anxiety symptoms stop as well. Chronic anxiety or persistent fear presents a bigger problem.

The Bioenergetic Approach to Addressing Fear & Anxiety

As a bioenergetic therapist, integrating active work with the body along with the mind, my approach begins with helping clients begin to identify and explore their discomfort. I invite them to notice their bodily sensations in the safe space of my office and to describe them in as much detail as possible. For some clients, this is easy while others need coaching in bringing awareness to their bodies. I suggest they note areas that call their attention, areas where they feel tense or relaxed, and notice their breathing pattern.

Next, I often suggest something really crazy. Though it’s counterintuitive, I explain, as I understand they want the discomfort to stop, I encourage them to exaggerate the symptoms. I may ask, for example, what would it look like if you allowed your whole body to express this feeling? After initially looking confused, they usually comply. They may breathe more quickly, they might stand and shake in a wild manner, or they may make a knot tighter. I suggest they also speak about their worry and/or racing thoughts, which generally accompany the symptoms. As they do this, I invite them to explore the underlying message of their body.

They begin to own their fear, with a simple statement such as: “I’m afraid of being rejected” or “I fear being out of control.” Other fears include being alone, being overwhelmed, being hurt by someone who has power over them or failing. Sometimes people express feeling afraid of their anxiety (like being afraid of being afraid)!

For many of my clients, acknowledging and naming their fear provides a good beginning towards feeling calmer. It interrupts their belief that it’s not acceptable to be afraid or to admit feeling fear. It breaks through to the truth of what they feel. Rather than using the exhausting effort of denial, in time, they can relax, in facing what is.

Some situations require not acknowledging fear at the moment. If you are in the midst of danger your resources (both physical and mental) are used to confront the situation. If you are accosted by an intruder in your home, for example, don’t stop to tell them you are afraid! If you are in imminent danger for any reason, you need to focus on thinking and acting as quickly as possible to protect yourself and those around you.

Fear, Muscle Tension & Traumatic Relational Experiences

Similarly, children experiencing abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence in their homes often are not safe enough to admit being afraid. The fear may live in their body as muscle tension, generally out of awareness, for years, even decades. Healing and recovering include acknowledging the fear. If you experienced this, you may need support to process your fear, along with the other feelings from the painful experiences. Your body needs to release the tension and the excess energy from the adrenaline that was produced to face the threat — both from the past and possibly from situations in the present. You need compassion and comfort to express the pain of what you suffered. You may need repeated experience with acknowledging your fear, along with your underlying feelings, and having your boundaries respected, to begin to release the tension associated with your fear and to feel calmer and safer.

The alternative to recovering from situations where you were afraid, which includes admitting your fear and working through your feelings, involves chronically tense muscles. You may have hidden your fear, along with suppressing other emotions, such as anger, sadness, or disgust, through tensing your muscles and holding your breath. A child trying not to cry, for instance, tenses and holds their breath to stop the emotion from moving through.

While holding back emotions is important in the midst of danger, chronically tense muscles stress your body. This leads to being depleted as your body’s energy is used in holding tension. The tension is likely out of your awareness as you have become accustomed to it, but this affects you all the time. You may have stopped identifying the source of your fear or even that you are afraid. Chronic tension contributes to decreased vitality and overall health. Stress from chronically suppressing emotions contributes to, or at least exacerbates, many mental and physical illnesses including heart disease, depression, hypertension, headaches, etc. Like an emotional mute button that’s always on, it leads to a decreased ability to experience pleasure or to enjoy your life. It may cause conflicts in your relationships, especially if you lash out at those you love, rather than softening to address and share your feelings and needs.

If you deny your fear out of needing to appear “cool” or you have not had the permission or felt safe enough (especially in situations of childhood abuse) to admit you were afraid, I give you this permission. No one has the right to tell you not to be afraid. You can benefit from the help of a professional to work through these limitations. You may fear the depth of sorrow, grief, or anger beneath the fear. You may fear your ability to hurt yourself or someone else if you unleash the rage and pain you feel. You may need support to learn to tolerate these feelings and to express them in positive, non-destructive ways.

Abuse and neglect, in my experience, are generally perpetrated by people riddled with fear of pain and wounding from their own past. Unable to face their own pain, out of fear combined with shame, they abuse others who are vulnerable and dependent on them. Healing the cycle of shame and abuse is not easy and takes time. Admitting your fear is a beginning, along with working through the wounding you have experienced. This includes telling the story, allowing your emotions, and, perhaps the next most difficult part — asking for help.

Even some popular leaders in the spiritual and psychology worlds fear emotions such as anger. Rather than admitting their fear, however, they state that anger is bad and that in order to be spiritually advanced you need to “rise above it.” Other leaders deny the value of working with anger in grounded and safe ways and criticize modalities that offer this.

Client Examples

The extremely abusive father of one of my clients could not tolerate her emotions, especially her tears. She learned not to cry at all costs. I have come to believe that her father was terrified of his own emotional pain and could not tolerate seeing pain mirrored in her. Even after years of therapy and frequent reminders from me that her tears are welcome, my client uses tremendous effort not to cry. In response to something that has naturally upset her, I observe her hold her breath, deny that anything’s wrong, and state “I’m okay, everything’s fine.” She needs frequent reassurance that I’m not angry if she cries or is upset.

Another client experienced heightened anxiety following being in a potentially dangerous situation where his car stalled on the ramp of a major highway. As we explored the feeling of anxiety in his body, I encouraged him to put a hand on his solar plexus which he identified as being tense. As he owned the fear from the situation and brought some comfort to himself with his hand, his anxiety gradually lessened.

In another situation, working with a client, born male, now identifying as gender-neutral using pronouns they/them, we identified their feeling of fear beneath anxiety and depression. My client was at a point of uncertainty and transition regarding work and relationships. They noted a pattern of going to sleep late and playing computer games excessively to avoid the anxiety and underlying fear at bedtime.

In one session, we began with noting body sensations and exaggerating them. When I suggested exploring the underlying message of their experience, my client asked for help as this was not initially clear to them. I talked about how fear often underlies tension. This resonated with them. Spontaneously, their breathing slowed with this awareness.

I next suggested they find a pillow or blanket they like (we were working by telehealth) and hug it. In doing this, I realized it was a slightly risky intervention to suggest for a young person who was raised as a male. But I felt it was what they needed. As they hugged the pillow, they immediately relaxed. Their breathing slowed even more with several deep sighs. They reported feeling calmer. We discussed the initial discomfort they felt in doing this, with the cultural conditioning of males to be strong, not show vulnerability or need. But the benefit to my client was palpable. They later reported that the feeling of calm and relaxation lingered for several days after the session.

Admitting Your Fear

I invite you to explore admitting your fear if you dare. For men, quite possibly, you might discover a new definition of being a man. Most people, including partners who want to view you as strong, sexy, manly, and desirable, will respond favorably to your honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability. If they don’t, consider more open discussions about this and/or explore couple’s counseling. Women may feel some relief from permission to acknowledge feeling afraid. Explore what you fear and consider getting help in understanding it, including your history. Experiment with bringing your attention to the uncomfortable physical sensations that accompany being anxious or afraid. Consider what you might learn from the feelings rather than immediately aiming to make them go away.

Think about what comfort or support you need and where you can get it — from yourself (possibly with the help of something soft like your hand or a pillow) and/or from people or a pet. In time, after the initial resistance, you may experience more relaxation and soften of tension, when you receive comfort and support. If those you love aren’t able to hear your fears and respond to your needs, seek help from those who can, so you can release your fears and live more relaxed. Similarly, if someone tells you they are afraid, start by listening and offering support, rather than trying to fix or change it. Explore what the person needs which might be some type of comfort or just being heard.

Acknowledging fear in yourself or someone else provides a first step to accepting it. Your fear may have an important message for you. Paying attention to it doesn’t mean you let it stop you from doing things you want to do. Rather, it can help you to get the comfort or support you need to become more relaxed. Your relationships, along with your well-being and the well-being of those around you will benefit.

Recovering from Pandemic Stress?: You’re not Alone

I’ve noticed waves of strong emotions in myself recently, along with a confusing mix of wanting time alone with an urge to be around people. I shared this with a group of friends on a text thread and discovered several of them experienced this too, along with feeling more tired than usual and considering big life changes. Perhaps you are experiencing some of this as well.

As more people become vaccinated and COVID case rates generally drop, we enter a new phase related to the collective traumatic stress of the pandemic. There’s a reason PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – occurs after the stressful event. In the midst of traumatic stress, our resources – body, mind and spirit – focus on addressing the immediacy of the stress. In the pandemic this has included adjusting to working, teaching or learning online, managing childcare along with work, coping with tight finances for people who’ve lost jobs, tending to the overwhelm of ill patients for medical professionals, finding new ways to connect with family and/or friends, tending to ill family members, exercising caution with regular activities, along with worrying and wondering how long this global crisis will last. 

We have entered a new phase of uncertainty and recovery. For many people, the immediate danger has passed. They are returning to the office and to social gatherings. But questions and concerns remain. Uncertainty about the impact of variants looms. The border with Canada has not opened. Other countries have different travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. Encounters with people who haven’t been vaccinated pose uncomfortable questions.  

Being around people – especially a larger group in an enclosed space – may not feel safe. Symptoms of anxiety run high. This is an example of a trauma “trigger.” The word “trigger” has become associated with situations that remind us of a traumatic event. A more thorough explanation of this connection may help in understanding present responses.

Trauma, from a standpoint of positive adaptation, provides signals to us about protection. Take a classic example of a relatively vivid and simple trauma: the pain of touching a hot stove the trauma of the pain from the touch makes a strong and lasting imprint on your memory. Seeing a hot stove “triggers” your memory of the pain you experienced when touching it. This protects you from hurting yourself as you avoid touching hot stoves in the future. 

In the case of COVID, the trauma trigger comes from being close to people, especially lots of people in an enclosed space. The knowledge that being close to someone could cause either them to get sick from you unknowingly passing on the virus, or you to get sick from them, causes you to avoid this. Further, the concern about unintentionally passing the virus onto someone we care about who is vulnerable has exacerbated the danger. The risk of this goes up in enclosed spaces and with more people. Caution about this situation is normal, predictable and may last for a long time.

As in the caution of touching a stove, even when we know the stove isn’t hot, we are cautious around stoves as they have caused us pain. Similarly, with the virus, we have become more cautious of being physically close to people, even when we know the danger of the virus has passed. 

Further, I expect that most people, myself included, had not previously considered the possibility that a virus could change nearly everyone’s life so dramatically, extending for over 15 months! We had not thought that schools, restaurants, bars, gyms, offices, hair salons could close for this long. This reality has unearthed a deeper fear – what other catastrophe could disrupt our lives?? We no longer feel able to depend on a predictability we previously thought unlikely to change. Realities of climate change – with dramatic record low and high temperatures, rising sea levels, raging fires, droughts, storms, etc. further compound the feeling of unease and uncertainty. Political conflicts and strife add another layer of unease.

The way our adjustment to the realities of the pandemic have changed us adds another factor in our current time of change. The dramatic increase in real estate prices in suburban areas points to the exodus out of urban areas for many people. You may have learned that you have greater hunger to be around nature than you previously realized. You may have developed more comfort with solitude. Or, perhaps you have become clearer the friendships or family relationships that matter most to you and wish to focus on those. You might be making up for lost time with activities you hadn’t been able to do, or developed an interest in new activities or a different direction for your life. You may be recovering from specific stressors related to the pandemic, which takes time. 

With all of these reactions – fears, uncertainties, anxieties, possibly feelings of sadness and loss – you are not alone. You may feel alone, but you are not! The need for mental health services has grown exponentially in recent months. Finding providers to meet the demand can be challenging. Emotions and physical responses (such as exhaustion) generally surface after the traumatic event passes. You may find yourself feeling emotions unfamiliar to you or at unexpected times. You may have stronger reactions to situations you tolerated before (such as avoiding crowds). You may be more tired than usual. You may begin to consider new directions for your life. Or, someone close to you may surprise you with a sudden shift in their direction. Your interests may change.

These are predictable responses to the time of post traumatic stress. A simple exercise from bioenergetic therapy can help you find greater strength in yourself to weather these challenges. 

The exercise is called “grounding.” Alexander Lowen, MD, who started bioenergetic analysis in the 1950’s developed this. Lowen is credited with getting people off the couch (as in psychoanalysis, which was popular at that time) onto their feet. Currently, bioenergetic therapists use this exercise to invite clients out of the passivity of the chair into a more active positive of standing. Grounding aims to help you feel more solid in yourself through identifying with your body rather than only your mind. In the exercise, focus on listening to your honest, unfiltered body rather than your complex and ambivalent mind. Think of a tree that sinks its roots into the earth. The roots provide stability to the tree, enabling it to remain standing through storms. The tree also draws in water and nutrients through its roots. Like the tree, grounding exercises can help you tolerate uncertainty and decrease anxiety through the storms of life. 

The exercise works best standing, if you are able. (If you are not able to stand, you can also do it sitting.) Put your feet flat on the floor or the ground. Remove your shoes and socks if possible, to increase the contact of your feet with the floor (or ground). Put your feet hip-width apart with your toes facing forward and parallel. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your knees. When straightening your knees, be sure not to lock them, as this cuts off your contact with the ground. Press your feet down onto the floor. Notice your breathing and bring attention to your body. If you are sitting, press your feet down onto the floor and press your butt down onto the chair as you breathe in and relax as you breathe out. 

You can expand the exercise by leaning your upper body forward over your feet. Go slowly if this is new for you. Let your upper body hang. Let your head go. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs a few times. Take some deep breaths. Focus on breathing in as your bend and breathing out as you straighten. Continue to press your feet onto the floor. Be sure not to lock your knees. If your legs shake, allow this to happen. This is a natural response to stressing the muscles. When you’re ready to come up, bend your knees, press down and roll up slowly. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded (which can happen if you aren’t used to letting your head go), stamp your feet down. Notice the sensations in your body. 

Generally people report feeling calmer after the exercise. If, however, you notice emotions or feelings that are unfamiliar or cause you discomfort, you might start with writing about them in a journal and/or sharing your feelings with a friend or family member. You may also benefit by seeking help from a mental health professional. 

Exploring Your Body’s Messages: Working with the body in psychotherapy – the bioenergetic approach

Modern psychotherapy generally occurs with the therapist and client sitting on chairs or on a couch. The client(s) talks about their problems, the therapist listens, asks questions and offers insights. While bioenergetic therapy starts in this way, it doesn’t end there. Bioenergetic therapists incorporate movement as part of the therapy. The movement includes exercises to be more connected to the ground, to open restricted breathing patterns, to practice asserting personal boundaries and to express sometimes unpleasant or repressed emotions, safely and appropriately.

Rooted in awareness of the fundamental connection between mind and body, modern bioenergetic therapy offers an integrated approach to mental health. While this therapy was developed in the 1950s, contemporary scientific advances support the value of working with the body in psychotherapy. Neuroscientists and other researchers emphasize the important role of the body in common conditions such as depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book How Emotions Are Made, for example, links the body and emotions stating: “your body and your mind are deeply interconnected…the most important thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget in good shape.” (Barrett, 2017) Bioenergetics addresses this through active participation of both body and mind in therapy for maximum effectiveness.  

As a bioenergetic therapist, I begin most sessions by checking in with my client (or clients when working with a couple) about their current experience. As in any other psychotherapy approach, listening attentively provides a starting point. Developing a trusting therapeutic relationship, where the client feels safe, valued and respected, builds a necessary foundation for our work. 

As the client talks, along with listening, I observe my client’s body language. I pay attention to their spontaneous movements, to the sound of their voice, to the quality of their breathing and to their overall posture. I look for clues from what their body expresses, which may be out of their awareness.

In a break in the conversation, I often ask my client: What are you aware of sensing in your body as you are talking? Their responses vary widely. Some clients look at me confused and state they don’t feel anything or they don’t know what they feel. In this situation we need to dig deeper and I may offer suggestions about what to explore. I encourage them to scan their body looking for areas that call their attention. I suggest they observe if they feel tense or in pain. I tell them to notice their breathing patterns, their level or hunger or thirst, heat or cold, and tiredness or energy. 

Many times, clients offer a clear response to my question about what they notice in their body. Their hand goes to their heart, for example. Or they identify a specific area of tension – such as their shoulders, neck or solar plexus. They may say “I feel exhausted.” or “I feel hungry.” With a focus on connecting their body, their mind and their emotions, this is important information. Their responses often provide a useful place to begin further exploration. 

Bioenergetic therapy is an intuitive method, focused on what the client needs moment to moment, rather than on a specified set of instructions. This allows for creativity and flexibility to meet the client where they are and guide them towards their desired goals. Bioenergetic therapists are trained in techniques – both physical and mental – to address a variety of issues. We assess what our client needs and offer suggestions for using the techniques to their benefit. 

Based on the client’s story, along with information gained from their body awareness, a direction for the session emerges. In a recent session, for instance, my client identified feeling tense in a particular spot in her upper back. I encouraged her to bring her awareness there and invited her to put a hand on the area. I suggested that she start with exaggerating the tension. I explained that this is counterintuitive as the tension was uncomfortable, but invited her to see it as an exploration of a message from her body. 

As she exaggerated the tension, she described feeling disgust. I encouraged her to stand so she could move more freely with this emotion. We worked with a grounding exercise of simply bending and straightening her legs while pressing her feet down on the floor. She spontaneously began to shake out her arms and her head. I encouraged her to allow this movement and to continue with the shaking. She then talked about memories of times from her childhood when her father violated her boundaries (such as walking in when she was in the shower as a young teenager). 

In listening to her describe these memories, I felt anger rising in my body – which I identify as a natural response to this type of violation. Sympathetic responses are common. Some of you might put your hand to your own heart when you hear someone else’s bad news, or you may feel angry when hearing about someone being hurt or violated. 

I know this client well as we have worked together weekly for a few years. She has been through significant difficulties in the time she has been coming to therapy and has a solid sense of herself. She has expressed her anger many times previously in her therapy sessions. From this, I assessed that she would benefit from working actively with her anger. I felt clear that she could integrate these feelings while staying grounded in herself. 

With a client I did not know as well or who did not have this level of ego strength, I would have moved more slowly. I would have likely suggested more grounding exercises and would have explored their feelings, offering empathy and compassion for the painful memories. I would introduce movement and encourage expression more gradually. 

With this client, I invited her to get a towel (we were working on tele health) and to start by twisting it. I encouraged her to express to her father what she couldn’t say when she was a child, with both words and sounds. I suggested she bend and straighten her legs a few times to stay solidly grounded. If she had said she did not feel angry, we would have explored what she felt instead. But this direction resonated for her. She expressed her anger at her father – saying, “Get out!” and “Go away!” She made sounds which expressed her anger and frustration as well. After a few minutes of doing this, her expression slowed. She spontaneously shook out her arms, releasing the emotion and the memory. 

I encouraged her to continue bending and straightening her legs to emphasize grounding, as the emotion moved through her and she integrated the experience. I also encouraged her to put her arms out in front of her with her palms facing outward to affirm her right to her boundaries and her ability to assert them in the present. After doing this for a few minutes she reported feeling better. She was calmer and the tension in her upper back had released.

Working with her body provided a safe way for the memories and emotions from the past to move through her. Through grounding in her body, she could identify that what happened was not acceptable and that she has the strength as an adult (which she could not have as a child) to protect her boundaries. She was able to learn from the message of her body (the tension in her back). As she processed the painful memories and related emotions, the tension released. More tension will likely appear for her as there may be more difficult memories to uncover, but she has the experience to know she can work through it and come out feeling better than she did before. 

In other situations, I use an exercise ball or a bioenergetic stool (which looks like a step ladder with a rolled up blanket on top) to help clients release tensions which constrict their breathing. I instruct clients to slowly lower their body backwards over the ball or the stool, with their hands supporting their head, gently stretching it back to rest on the ball or stool. Some people need a pillow behind their head to support their neck. I tell them that their balance is in their legs so remind them to keep one foot on the floor at all times. 

In this position I encourage my clients to notice what they sense in their body. I suggest they breathe into any areas of tension, even putting a hand on those areas for support. I let them experience this stretch. I observe what happens in their body, especially with their breathing, in the process. I often invite them to focus their mind on what’s happening in their body. I suggest they give in to the support of the ball or stool, letting it hold them. 

This exercise elicits a variety of responses. Sometimes an emotion arises, such as sadness, anger or fear. Often my clients observe changes in their breathing. At other times, a memory emerges or they note various sensations in their body. We work with whatever emerges and follow with appropriate movements. If sadness arises, for example, I encourage them to allow it to move through, which may include tears. Some movements lead to pleasurable sensations, which we aim to allow and even to increase. Making sounds can help with releasing tensions and expressing emotions. Most people experience this as awkward or uncomfortable initially. But over time, as they do it repeatedly, they observe that it feels good and helps to let go of stress. Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of the Polyvagal Theory, confirms this in his descriptions of how singing and vocalizing help to calm the vagus nerve. (Porges, 2017).

These are some of the ways that bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body in psychotherapy. Bioenergetic therapists explore their client’s story, including both present issues and childhood experiences. We integrate work with a person’s mind, body, spirit, emotions and relationships to offer an opportunity for maximum effectiveness. This method is not quick or easy, but can offer hope in addressing some of the most challenging conditions such as trauma, loss, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addictions, etc. Bioenergetics focuses on helping people have more vitality and capacity to enjoy their life. I have witnessed many clients grow enormously. Many have stated in the course of therapy: “Bioenergetic therapy has saved my life!” I have personally experienced deep, life-changing transformation through this approach. 

References:

Feldman Barrett, L. 2017. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176

Porges, S. 2017. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. 185 – 186

You have a right to your boundaries: If someone doesn’t respect them, make them stronger

A friend recently asked me to look over an email conversation with her father. She wanted feedback about how to proceed in their relationship and asked for my opinion as an objective professional. She explained that she had told him in no uncertain terms that she did not want to get together in person. He persisted to pressure her for this. I did not need to see the emails to advise her; she had asserted her limits clearly and he did not respect her limit. It was clear, she needed to make a stronger boundary. We discussed what that would mean for her. I encouraged her to follow her instinct (almost always a good first step) – to stop communicating with him, at least for now and thus end, or at least pause, the power struggle. 

The challenge with making strong boundaries comes when you prioritize being nice over reinforcing your boundary. Wanting to be liked by the other person, wanting them to understand your position, or wanting them to change can keep you from enforcing your limit. You may not want to be seen as rude. But, when you express a limit, you have a right to have this acknowledged and respected. Period. If the other person does not provide due respect, this leaves you with only one viable option: making your limit stronger. You may lose your connection with the person, either temporarily or permanently. But it’s a risk you sometimes must take, to preserve your mental health, self-respect and well being.

An exception to this is when setting limits puts you in danger, or even puts your life at risk. In some situations with authority figures, such as police or customs security, for example, you could be treated worse if you set limits, especially if you are a person of color. I don’t recommend saying to a police officer, for example: “I’ll only hand you my license and step out of my care if you treat me with respect.” Or, in abusive situations, where you are not able to leave, your best option for self-protection may be to surrender to the wishes of your abuser until you can safely leave. Setting limits may not be a good choice. If you depend on someone for important needs, the risk of losing this support may also be too great to risk setting limits. In these difficult situations you need to prioritize your safety. 

From the perspective of modern bioenergetic therapy, personal boundaries includes the whole range of interactions – both setting limits and reaching out for what you need and want.  My colleague Terry Hunt, EdD, Certified Bioenergetic Therapist defines personal boundaries as “transactions at the point of contact between people.” (It can also include transactions between a person and an animal or between animals).  For some people setting limits is easy, but reaching out is challenging. Others have no problem asking for what they need or want, but they may find setting limits to be difficult. Boundary transactions occur in a variety of realms – including physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual. Both positive transactions and violations can occur in each of these areas. 

In many interactions boundary transactions go smoothly. One person, for example, requests something of the other, such as a hug, getting together for coffee, cooking dinner, etc. The person agrees to provide it, everyone gets what they need or want and all is well. Or, a person is not able to do something the other wants and communicates this clearly. The person may not like it, but accepts the limit with respect. Frequently, however, these transactions do not go so smoothly. In these situations, like with my friend, something had to change in the relationship. Either the person who is not being respected subjugates their needs to their own detriment, or they set a stronger limit. 

In my practice as a bioenergetic therapist, I combine active work with the body along with traditional talk psychotherapy (for more information about bioenergetic therapy, see my website at: www.laurieure.com). I work with clients regularly on issues of personal boundaries. Most people have not learned that they have a right to their boundaries. I witness the impact of unclear boundary communications between my clients and their intimate partners or family members frequently. It leads to a lot of unhappiness! Boundary challenges occur in all types of relationships – with children, parents, siblings, co-workers, friends, extended family, intimate partners, etc.

In a relationship where there has been a power differential in the past, such as with a parent or child, the expectations of established power dynamics may continue. My friend is an example of this. I believe her father expected her to yield to his wishes. As an adult, she is creating new patterns in their relationship. Making a stronger boundary with her father than she has been accustomed to in the past was uncomfortable initially. She felt guilty, which is partially why she asked for my support. But asserting herself in this way is necessary for establishing their adult relationship as equals going forward. She has to take this risk to change the expectations and dynamics between them. 

With clients, I have observed that unclarity about boundaries can cause misery, both from allowing people to take advantage of them or from not getting their needs met. My clients need education about their right to their boundaries. They need practice in expressing boundary communications more clearly. As they take risks, experimenting with new and unfamiliar behaviors, they need support. It takes time and repeated practice. My clients also often need help processing the pain from past boundary violations. If you need this type of support with boundaries, a therapist skilled in this type of work can help.

Bioenergetic therapists have the added benefit of working with boundary exercises physically. This brings the significant bonus of working with both body language and words. Since humans communicate at least as much non-verbally as verbally, a bioenergetic therapist can help you match your body language with your words and the tone of your voice. This is very effective for practicing boundary communications and for getting stronger in clearly expressing boundaries. 

In working with boundaries physically, I generally start with a grounding exercise from bioenergetics. I encourage my clients to stand. From a standing position you have more options for movement and it is a position of greater strength than sitting. If you wish to experience the exercise, put your feet about hip width apart, with your knees slightly bent and your weight evenly divided on both feet, centered over you arches. Bend and straighten your legs a few times while pressing your feet down on the floor. Having a solid sense of grounding in yourself is a prerequisite for communicating clearly with others.

We explore boundaries through a few basic exercises. There are many variations and ways of working with these exercises. If you feel anxious or if feelings come up, you can stop at any time and return to the grounding exercise. Generally, we start with setting limits, so you can feel your ability to enforce your limits before you risk reaching out with vulnerability. Put your arms out in front of you at shoulder level. Face your palms outward with your wrists bent backwards. Press outwards, into your palms. You can add words such as “I have a right to my boundary.” or “This is my space.” or simply “No.” Notice how it is for you to do the exercise. What do you feel? Is it new for you, or familiar? 

To work with reaching out, do the grounding exercise again. Then reach your arms forward, at shoulder level. Reach with your fingers straight our and your palms facing each other about a foot apart. Keep your elbows soft. You can add words such as: “I want.” or “I need.” or “Please help me.” Again, notice how it is for you to do the exercise. What do you feel? Is it new for you, or familiar? 

For some people reaching out causes fear. For others, setting limits may increase their anxiety. This is a natural response. Do the grounding exercise again to allow these feelings move through you. Go slowly and explore what comes up as you do the exercises.

Bioenergetic exercise classes often include practicing these boundary exercises. Everyone can benefit from regular practice – asserting your right to have clear, strong limits and to reach out for what you desire. Practicing in a group adds the benefit of mutual support. 

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry have recently modeled for the world the difficult and sometimes painful choices in asserting personal boundaries. in their interview with Oprah on March 7, 2021, they described the boundary violations they experienced. These included disrespect of Meghan, based on the color of her skin. She was not permitted to leave the palace grounds on her own. They also revealed that family members expressed concerns about the color of their son’s skin. Meghan and Harry stated that their son would not be granted royal status within the family or afforded the necessary security that goes with this status. This led to deep depression in Meghan, including suicidal thoughts. When they requested help for her mental state, she was refused the help she needed. Understandably, this was not acceptable. Their only choice was to make their boundary stronger. For them, this meant leaving the royal family and the country. This was a life-saving choice, when there were not other options available. We can concur that her depression would have continued and likely worsened if they had stayed in that situation. This has meant tremendous loss for them, but the loss involved with staying would have been worse.

Whether you need help from a therapist, or simply words of encouragement, I can assure you that you have an essential right to have your boundaries and to express both your limits and your desires in your relationships. If someone does not respect your limits, you have a right and an obligation to yourself to assert them more strongly. What it actually means to have a stronger limit varies from one situation to another. In the case of my friend, she needed to cease communications with her father. For Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, it meant leaving their royal status and emigrating to the US. 

Similarly, for you, having stronger limits may mean withdrawing from a friendship or family member, at least temporarily. Having a stronger boundary does not mean you are being rude. Consider: it may be that the other person is rude by not respecting your limits. In many relationships, if you start by asking for what you want, you may be able negotiate. You won’t get all of what you want but you may get more of what you want. Sometimes, however, negotiating is not an option. If, for example, you are in an unsafe situation, you will need to assess when it is in your best interest to do this and when it is not. 

If you express your boundary clearly and are treated with disrespect, make your boundary stronger. This may result in significant losses, which may be sad and painful. It can cause you to feel guilty at first. But I can assure you that as you work through the loss, the guilt and the discomfort, in time you will have greater self-respect and an opportunity for more satisfying relationships. 

Stress causing cracked teeth or grinding?

A simple exercise from Bioenergetics can help, with a caveat

Ah, stress…! We are all too familiar with it, from the impacts of the pandemic, finances, racism, the political situation, etc. One of the ways stress affects people is muscle tension. Our bodies tense to brace against injury or attack. We also tense to hold back emotions or expressions we consider unpleasant or unacceptable. This tension generally happens unconsciously. While it is sometimes necessary to tense the muscles in the jaw to hold back emotions, doing it consistently can cause significant damage, such as with temporomandibular disorders (in the temporomandibular joint, incorrectly referred to as TMJ), grinding at night or cracked teeth. A simple exercise can help to release tension from your jaw. This is an important exercise to add to your daily stress relief routine.

An article in the NY Times, from Sept 8, 2020, titled: “A Dentist Sees More Cracked Teeth: What’s Going On” confirms this. The dentist, Dr. Tammy Chen, DDS, stated that she had seen more cracked teeth in a 6 week period (from mid July to early Sept), than in the previous 6 years! That was in September, before COVID cases skyrocketed and escalation from the US elections.

The masseter muscle of the jaw is one of the strongest muscles in the body https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle. You can find this muscle by putting your fingers on your face at the back of your jaw. Go to the hinge of your jaw and come slightly forward. If you press in with your thumbs you will likely feel some pain. You have likely found your masseter muscles along with your temporomandibular joint. The jaw muscles can exert tremendous force, necessary for activities such as chewing and biting Clenching these muscles, therefore, requires significant effort (even if we are unaware of the clenching), especially if we clench chronically. Releasing these tight muscles will take conscious effort. 

Background (you can skip this and go straight to the exercise, but it will give you some info about the complexity of the issue.) As a Bioenergetic therapist, I have learned about some of the reasons people chronically clench their jaw. For some people, chronic jaw tension starts in infancy. The mouth is one of the first ways an infant makes contact with the world – from the need to suck for eating and from vocal self-expression. If an infant is not given sufficient nurturing, they will clench their jaw to hold against the pain of the unmet need. Or, if the infant is punished excessively for screaming or crying, they will clench their jaw to hold back the sounds. As the infant grows and develops the ability to bite, if the punishment for their biting is too severe, the infant will clench to hold back their natural aggressive/biting instinct. 

As adults, chronic tension in the jaw can continue out of our awareness. With an increase in overall stress, the jaw becomes a key area of tension. We may tighten our jaw to hold back anger or frustration about an increased demand on our time and attention. Jaw tension can manifest when we feel conflicted, worried or anxious.  Spending too much time on the computer can cause tension in the neck and shoulders which contributes to tension in the jaw. To explore this for yourself, think about something that causes you stress and notice what happens in your jaw. 

Try this exercise: jut your lower jaw forward as far as you can. If you have not done this exercise before, look in a mirror to confirm you are jutting your lower jaw forward, rather than clenching your teeth while holding your lower jaw back. Your lower teeth should come out in front of your upper teeth. Experiment with the stretch by moving your lower jaw from side to side. (If you are self-conscious about how it looks, don’t keep looking in the mirror. This is about releasing tension, not looking good!) You can also help the muscle to release by massaging the masseter muscle, gently inviting the muscles to relax. You may wish to continue by massaging the muscles that extend to your temples as well.

The caveat: this exercise will likely hurt, especially if you hold a lot of tension in this area. This is natural, as the intensity of pain usually relates to the amount of tension in the muscle. If you feel a lot of pain, use your breath, taking deep, slow breaths, to help the muscles release. Tolerate some pain, if you can, without tensing against it. If you have serious pain or you have an injury or arthritis, go very slowly. You can complain, which sometimes helps, and keep taking deep breaths. If the pain becomes too intense, take a break. As a way to understand the pain, imagine tensing your hand by making a fist for several minutes. When you start to open your fist, it would feel uncomfortable and even painful at first. Experiment with the stretch until you can feel some release in the jaw muscle. Notice if the pain of releasing feels different from the pain of straining a muscle. Your jaw may feel sore afterwards. 

Variation of the exercise: roll a clean washcloth or hand towel and put it as far back in your jaw as you can. Bite down on the towel. Move your jaw from side to side. Think of a dog biting on a toy, growling and shaking their head. Dogs work tension out of their jaws in this way, and we can take a lesson from them. You can also play silly growling games with your kids. Or open and close your mouth widely and move your lower jaw from side to side. You’ll probably feel strange doing it at first, but if you practice regularly, you might feel less stressed and even cause less injury to your teeth – likely a fair exchange!

Because muscles generally tense out of fear, as you do these stretches, you may feel some anxiety or fear. Other emotions, such as sadness or anger, may arise as well. If this happens, go slowly and be gentle with yourself. You can stop at any time. Do something soothing to help you tolerate the feelings. If you feel overwhelmed by the emotions or if you suffer from heightened anxiety, depression or memories of trauma, I encourage you to find a psychotherapist. Likewise, if you have severe TMD (the correct term for what we usually call TMJ), you may want to see a massage therapist or physical therapist. 

I suggest you do these exercises regularly. It takes time to release the tension from the past and you need to let go of stress regularly. Doing it just before bed can help you relax and be able to sleep, including reducing grinding your teeth. Adding this to a routine with other stretches before bed, like rotating your shoulders, moving your neck and grounding with your legs and feet can further help you to relax and release stress from the day. Many of my clients experience greater relaxation, deeper sleep and less jaw tension from stretching before bed. For similar exercises, including grounding and making boundaries, go to the articles section on my website. 

Bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body along with traditional talk therapy. The physical exercises incorporated in Bioenergetic therapy help clients to release chronic tensions, set healthy boundaries and explore emotional expression in a safe and supportive environment. For more information about this approach or for where to find a Bioenergetic therapist go to: www.nanziba.com or www.bioenergetic-therapy.com.

What seeds to plant for 2021?

A variety of events have recently coincided to signal a shift of energies. The solstice, marking the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere (and the longest day in the southern hemisphere), has just passed with the accompanying turn towards longer days and more light. The vaccine against the Coronavirus, produced in amazing speed, gives reason to be hopeful about a shift from this issue. The new administration in the US, to be inaugurated on Jan 21, will bring a different focus. The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was a significant astrological and astronomical event around the solstice, which occurs only every 20 years. But the last time the planets were visible this close to each other was in 1226! And, on Jan 1, we welcome in 2021.

I recently found some seed packages which I had intended to plant last summer, but it was too late for planting when they arrived. I realized that it is almost time to plant seeds now for the coming spring and summer. I remembered the vegetable seeds I planted last year – kale, lettuce, cucumbers, basil – which I nursed into seedlings and tended through the season. I remember carefully picking worms from the kale which they were devouring. I can think back to harvesting an abundance of cucumbers and giving up on my slow-growing, tender basil plants. 

This is a time for considering what seeds to plant this year – both metaphorically and literally. Where I live, in the northeast, it’s not time to plant yet, but to start looking forward to the time to plant. How many cucumbers do I want this year? Shall I give up on the basil? I will definitely plant those flower seeds I received late last year. 

Along with the seeds, it’s a time to reflect on the paths in my life. Realistically, I can have many paths going, but can only be on 1 at a time. Which paths do I choose? What paths do I invest in now and which do I put aside? Likewise, I only have time and energy for so many relationships. It’s a good time to reflect on these, too.  

As you celebrate the winter holidays, marking the days of cold and hibernation and begin to move into  2021, I encourage you to consider the following questions. What seeds do you want to plant in your life this year? What paths will you take? Which of your relationships matter most to you? 

You might reflect on what have been the challenges – both positive and negative – for you in the past year. In what ways have you grown, through the challenges, and how have your priorities shifted as you look ahead? What paths have you chosen this year? Where have those paths led? 

Ponder which relationships you have invested in recently and where that has brought you. From your current perspective, looking back, are you satisfied with where you are, or do you wish to make adjustments as you move forward? You might reflect on which relationships nurture you and which drain you. Focusing on those which nurture you may mean divesting from others. This may involve hard choices and some losses. But, as you move in the direction of choosing your satisfaction, clarity, along with enjoyment, and possibly even pleasure, awaits you. 

Menu additions, holidays 2020: a serving of disappointment, a side of relief, a cup of conflict & a heap of anxiety?? 

This holiday season brings a variety of new feelings and experiences for most of us. With the surging virus rates, traditional holiday plans require shifts and changes. For many people, this may bring the next in a series of disappointments in 2020, along with canceled weddings, graduations, trips, classes, reunions, etc. Others may experience relief at having an excuse to get out of gatherings they dread. Family conflicts are at an all time high, while anxiety about a variety of things impacts almost everyone.

Disappointment falls in the category of feelings that no one likes. We feel it when  external circumstances change, without our control. Anticipation is wired in our bodies. Images and smells of food leads us to salivate in preparation for tasting and digestion. Thinking about and planning beloved holiday traditions can bring comfort and joy, which is now lost. Many people look forward to holidays as a time to gather with family or friends who are otherwise busy or who live far away. These rituals live deep in our bones. 

Other people, who traditionally experience the holidays as a time of loneliness or missing family and friends, may feel a sense of relief this year. Rather than being alone and feeling sad, at a time when it seems everyone is happy and celebrating with loved ones, they may experience relief that their sadness is more widely shared. Meanwhile some people may cherish the opportunity to choose how to spend the holidays, rather than joining in perfunctory gatherings. 

Conflicts, especially in families where people have differing political perspectives and/or where people have been working or studying together, may be more prevalent during this year’s holiday celebrations. Tensions from the disappointments and lack of opportunity to gather with others, may further the conflicts. Many people have strong opinions and being cooped up with people who don’t share their perspectives can be difficult.

Lastly, who doesn’t feel heightened anxiety this year? With so much uncertainty, loss, fear and change, anxiety is rampant. Some worry about feeding themselves and their family, others worry about paying their rent, while many worry about getting sick or losing loved ones. For some people the worries loom large about when they will be able to return to work or travel or gather with friends and family again. 

While we may wish to live only in the moment, untouched by the pain of disappointment and not impacted by anxiety about the future, we are not wired this way. Our response generally involves a mix of anger at having things taken from us and sadness about the loss of anticipated joy. Unfortunately, denial does not make it go away. For this holiday season, I encourage you to start by acknowledging all or your feelings, including fear, anxiety, sadness, anger and disappointment.

I suggest you be conscious of things you do to avoid feeling, such as drinking too much alcohol, overeating, losing yourself in TV or in playing games on your phone. Instead, consider taking the risk of sharing your feelings with people close to you. Seek alternative ways to be with yourself and each other.  Find connection in simple pleasures such as being outside, moving your body and receiving solace in the constancy of nature. If possible, take quiet time to reflect on what you value and how to do or have more of that in your life. Make plans for things you want to do when you can gather and/or travel again. Notice the people around you and do something kind for someone in need. Or, risk reaching out to ask for something you need or want.

For those with family conflicts, I suggest two options. If you can listen to each other to learn and share perspectives, do that. If you are too polarized, agree to avoid these topics. Everyone has a right to their opinion and everyone also has a right to their boundaries. It’s important to allow each other space and time alone. If you are confined and need time apart, look for even small ways to get this. 

The changes thrust upon us this year can bring gifts along with the many losses. I wish for you gifts of clarity, of shifting priorities, of simple pleasures and having enough of what you truly need. 

Experiencing Post Election Traumatic Stress? You are not alone!

Post Election Traumatic Stress (PETS) compares to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but since it is pervasive and a normal response rather than a “disorder” I leave the D off. One could debate if it is comparable to PTSD as one of the key components of PTSD is life-threatening stress – either for yourself or for someone you witness. With so much at stake in this election (democracy, climate change, systemic racism, health care, the government response to the Coronavirus, women’s rights to choices about their bodies, preserving wilderness, gun laws, the judicial system, and more) we can argue that the stress IS potentially life threatening.

Symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Checking the news on your TV or phone repeatedly for updates and info
  • Holding your breath
  • Expecting the worst
  • Forgetfulness
  • Despair
  • Hopelessness
  • Shock and disbelief at the number of people who have voted for the current regime
  • Thoughts of moving or seceding from the United States
  • Physical symptoms such as a pit in your stomach, grinding your teeth, or overall tension
  • Questioning the future of humanity on this planet
  • Social media obsession
  • Eating junk food or drinking more than you normally do
  • Excessive focus on distractions such as baking
  • Anxiety about what will happen next
  • Anger that fellow citizens voted to reelect entrenched power mongers despite their heinous acts 
  • Sadness and grief
  • Losing temper or yelling at those around you

Another important symptom is reconsidering priorities and boundaries with people in your life. Realizing that colleagues, friends and family members cast their vote for a president with a proven record of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-environmentalism, anti-science, misogyny, anti-semitism and fascism, without empathy for innocent beings and little regard for others may be a wake up call in your relationships. You may have less tolerance for the intolerance of others. You may reevaluate your willingness to spend your precious time with people who have voted for these values. As a client astutely stated: “I have a problem with a vote for trump that I can’t just go along to get along with. I can’t forgive that vote. If someone were to change their mind later and realize that, I’d accept them with open post-pandemic arms. But until that, they don’t get to be in my life.” This reevaluation is a healthy response. Lines in the sand have been drawn. While this does not make space for hostility or acts of aggression, it makes space for personal choices about who you choose to have around you, and what behavior you choose to permit in your presence. 

In our response today we have an opportunity to reflect on the long road to progress walked by those before us. We can inquire into the experience of generations of black people living enslaved with their necks every moment under the boot of the white ruling class. We can empathize with disabled people undervalued for years before gaining rights they fought hard to win. We can imagine the pain of gay, lesbian, bi and trans sisters and brothers denied acceptance and rights in their families and society. We can remember innocent people who are incarcerated and wake up day after day after day facing the cold, harshness of a jail cell. We can remember the first peoples of our nation who continue to grieve the loss of their sacred lands. So rest today as you are able. Take comfort in the presence of those you love and trust. Exercise, walk, get fresh air if you can. Reach out to connect with loved ones. Tend to your health and enjoy your beloved pets. Listen to restorative music. Tomorrow our journey begins as we take our next steps in this fight. 

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