Blog

How to Heal Your Space

What does your environment say to you?

Does your space say, “I am free, healthy, wealthy and safe,” or “I live a life of bleak, pointless drudgery”?

I’m not asking what it says about you. Psychology is not my field. I’m asking what kind of messages your mind receives from your surroundings on a regular basis. Are they positive, negative or neutral?

Too often, we behave as though we are brains in a vacuum. Just as we ignore our health until it breaks down, we can overlook the fact that our surroundings play a huge part in how we function. If we complain about such things as loud noises, bad smells or fluorescent lighting, we acquire the dread label, ‘sensitive,’ as though we were too weak to handle reality.

But whether or not we are aware of it, we live in a continual feedback loop with our environment. When we’re in our ‘ideal habitat,’ we are maximally comfortable, productive, relaxed, energized and happy. When our surroundings are less than ideal, they can drain and exhaust us.

Some of those negative elements are things we can’t fix. We can’t control traffic, or our co-workers’ conversations, or the music they choose to play at the corner café. Most of us don’t have the resources to remodel our houses and offices, or to move to new ones. We’re even restricted as to what type of light bulbs we can buy.

But often we overlook simple ways to maximize the good things about the places we live and work, and mitigate the nuisances. So if you suspect you might be operating in a space that sabotages your health and productivity, read on.

Step 1: What do I need, really?

The Eastern principle of feng-shui can be summed up in one sentence: Have nothing in your home which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. Bonus points if it’s both.

If you’re holding onto something because it might turn out to be useful someday, get rid of it. If you’re keeping something out of guilt, give it away. If it’s ugly, broken, substandard, past its sell-by date, hopelessly outmoded–you get the picture.

This isn’t easy for a lot of people. There are whole industries springing up to address hoarding and related problems. But if you just need a way to get started, ask yourself some more questions.

Step 2: What do I do in here?

It may seem obvious what the kitchen is for: cooking. So why is the mail piling up on the counter? An object is only useful when it lives in the proper context.

I once altered the whole character of a friend’s room from “crazy person” to “eccentric genius” by putting the (hundreds of) books on the bookshelves and the laundry in the closet, instead of vice versa. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, do a little bit of sorting. You don’t have to decide the final resting place of every stray item in your home. First decide in what general area it belongs, and take it there.

Step 3: How do I want to feel when I’m in here?

You don’t have to be June Cleaver to have a kitchen that says, “I am healthy, grounded and inspired,” rather than “I am a miserable drudge.” You may hate cooking, but you still have to eat; might as well nourish your spirit at the same time.

So go through each room of your home and note the things you actually do there (as opposed to the things you think you ought to.) Then ask whether the space supports the activity. Is your bedroom a restful place to be, or do you close your eyes merely to shut out the mess? Does your office say, “I am brilliant and inspired,” or “I am drowning in pointless minutiae”? Is your dining room a haven of nourishment and good cheer, or a bleak, semi-functional filling station?

Once you’ve got a general idea of what you want your space to accomplish, you can work on adjusting the mood.

next: working with light and color.

An excellent resource for those who are overwhelmed: FlyLady.net

 

The Roots of Chronic Pain

New research shows direct hormonal links between childhood trauma and adulthood disease:

There are two pieces of information that really provide the bridge to understand the connection between emotional trauma and adult disease, and the HPA axis is one of those pieces. The other is epigenetics. It starts with the hypothalamus in the brain, so that when we perceive any kind of threat to ourselves through the senses, through eyes or ears or nose or touch or whatever, that message comes into the brain and hits the hypothalamus. Then hypothalamus sends the message to the pituitary gland, which sits just below it, which in turn sends the message to the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each of the kidneys. This generates the flow of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. Adrenaline and cortisol are the hormones of stress. So there’s a connection between the hypothalamus, the pituitary, which is part of the endocrine system, and the adrenal gland, which is part of the immune system. That means that what happens to us emotionally affects our immune and endocrine functions.

When that happens early in life and chronically, it disregulates that whole system. “Trauma” means that stress is occurring over and over again chronically, so the HPA gets revved up and stays in the red zone. It upsets literally all of our physiology, activating the genetic proclivity we might have for whatever disease, setting the stage for it in the beginning, and oftentimes those systems don’t appear later in our lives until after our reproductive years. There is often a total disconnect between those diseases and its root in early chronic emotional trauma.

This is something I’ve suspected for years. I’ve noticed a strong correlation between my clients with chronic pain conditions–fibromyalgia, migraines, PTSD, anxiety, and vague neurological disorders such as primary lateral sclerosis(PLS)–and explicit or implicit childhood trauma. Often these clients have been further abused at the hands of a Western medical system which dismisses their pain and disability as ‘psychosomatic’ because doctors cannot pinpoint a specific cause.

As the linked article goes on to discuss, it is much harder to reverse this process than to prevent it. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way of addressing it in adulthood. The nervous system is plastic; if it is possible to mess it up through repeated stress, it is also possible to re-wire it. Bodywork is an excellent place to start. Massage therapy, craniosacral therapy, andnetwork spinal analysis all work directly and gently upon the nervous system to stimulate release of trauma and deep relaxation.

This is not a rapid process. Generally speaking, the more deeply rooted the trauma, the longer it takes to unwind. Our ‘silver bullet’ medical system tends to want to treat everything with surgery or a pill; nobody likes to hear that chronic conditions are, well, chronic. On the other hand, spending an hour or four a month on a massage table is a lot more enjoyable than pills or surgery. Isn’t that a piece of good news?

Grace

I used to be a dancer. Got bitten by ballet at the age of four, and pursued it with pathological focus until the age of seventeen, when I abruptly quit and devoted myself to breakdancing at indy-rock clubs instead.

At the same time, I studied anatomy and physiology in a pre-med level of detail, complete–I suppose–with all the kinesiology any good bodyworker might need. Muscular origin, insertion, action, antagonist. I memorized enough to ace the exams, but none of it made any intuitive sense to me.

Because any being who inhabits movement–which is all of us–rarely, if ever, flexes a muscle in isolation. We move in curves. Long, seamless, coordinated curves. Watch a cat when it makes a considering remark with its tail, and ask if it knows from infra-spinous flexion, or if it’s got calculus wired into its brain.

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

Calculus, now, that makes sense. You determine a curve by calculating the rate of change at every point along it–by measuring movement. And movement is meaningless unless it is relative to something else, maybe everything else.

Grace of movement, then, is about connection. An injury is a violent disconnection; a block or a restriction is a subtle one. The practice of bodywork is the re-integration of broken connections.

Last week I checked in with a regular client who lives with chronic pain. I was concerned that, on an objective scale, he wasn’t seeing sufficient improvement over time, and wondered if the work was valuable to him.

“Oh, it’s priceless,” he replied. “Every week, when I am on the table and for several hours afterward, I feel no pain. I feel light, my mind is clear. It’s the best I feel, ever.”

The Great Bell Chant (The End of Suffering) from R Smittenaar on Vimeo.

May you experience grace in every moment.

The Perils of Positive Thinking

Now, I’m not going to name any names. Let’s just say that There are Those Out There who will tell you, with great fluidity and earnestness, that you are what you think. That “your attitude determines your altitude.” That changing your mind will change your life. They will tell you this in a spiritual context, in a relationship context, in a financial context, in a healing context.

And without naming names, or going into detail, I will allow that they are partly correct. The mind is an amazing thing. Recent research into the placebo effect indicates that the brain releases endorphins that alleviate pain even when youknow you’re taking a placebo. Your thoughts can actually program your body for health or destruction, as well as for many things in between.

However, many New Age healers take this paradigm a step too far. They will kindly, earnestly and abusively tell a sick person that they ‘created their illness,’ and, by implication, that they can cure themselves by will alone. This is the kind of thing that generates  much antipathy toward New Age healers in certain circles.

heart

“Heart,” oil on canvas, 36″x 48″, Stephanie Lee Jackson 2007.

Two things. First of all, the mind-body connection is not a one-way street. It is a feedback loop. As much as your state of mind can affect your body (psycho-somatic), the state of your body certainly affects your mind (somato-psychic). There are a few people with such naturally sunny dispositions that their minds carry their bodies on an effortless wave of health and prosperity, but those aren’t most of us. Most of us get crabby when we have a headache, let alone a major illness, and we’re not going to think our way out of it.

Second of all–and this is something I’ve only discovered after years of giving and receiving both thought-based therapy and bodywork–your body locks in thought patterns that can only be accessed somatically. The reason you can’t will your way out of an injury or illness (besides the obvious) is that most somatic memory lies beneath the level of conscious awareness. Trying to ‘change your thoughts to attract health and abundance’ when you have oodles of trauma locked in your tissues only creates guilt, frustration, rage and misery.

In my experience, undertaking a healing path is a continuous, spiraling journey. Entertaining a new way of thinking can help a lot. I have undergone surges of positive thinking which performed as advertised–they attract health, joy, abundance and fabulous new friends. However, I have just as often fought my own thoughts for decades, only to have an expert bodyworker fiddle with my arm, my solar plexus or my big toe and trigger an unforeseen breakthrough, both physically and psychologically.

After the Fall

Recently a new client, Susie M., booked a four-session package sight unseen. “When I read about your ankle, I knew you were the one for me,” she said.

Susie sprained, and possibly broke, her right ankle four years ago. There was some confusion as to whether there was a bone chip floating around in there or not; what was certain was that she hadn’t been able to work out since. The ankle was chronically swollen and painful even after four years of treatment, including physical therapy and six months of myofascial release. Doctors had given her steroid injections to ease the swelling, but these did nothing but cause burn marks at the injection site.

As soon as I started work, I noticed that the anatomy train leading from her swollen ankle, up the right peroneal compartment, threading through her hip, and crossing the body to her left shoulder was bunched, knotted and compressed. There were so many adhesions in her right peroneals that I suspected the swelling was almost entirely a result of impaired circulation. Muscles and fascia don’t operate independently of the circulatory system; if they are compressed, they’re compressing everything around them.

After her first session, Susie declared, “I think you released more in one session than happened in six months of myofascial release.” She reported sharp pains in her left leg, hip and groin during the next few days, but on her next visit the swelling in the right ankle was 80% gone. She kept coming regularly as things unwound, and every week there was a different issue to confront, but ankle pain was not one of them. After four years, she was able to go back to the gym.

This re-confirms a long-held observation – that if one part of your body is injured, the trauma doesn’t just stay in one place. The body quickly redistributes strain to deal with it, but once the original injury heals, your body is still out of balance. This imbalance can then create a whole host of other problems unless it is addressed.

(“Confusion,” oil on linen, 36″x 48″, 2008 by Stephanie Lee Jackson, www.stephart.com

The Body Remembers

I am so thankful for the treatment that I received!!! I walked in the office a horrific mess, and Stephanie showed her concern and learned what the issue was that I was having and in four short weeks, my body responded to the gentle, yet firm work that she was putting into it.  My recovery was felt within the first visit, and continuously improved with each visit.

—Camille A., on Yelp.com

thornsivy

More than a year ago, Camille was struck by a car while she was crossing the street on foot. Most of the impact was sustained by her left hip. She underwent a plethora of treatments at the time, and reduced her pain to almost nil. Then one afternoon she ‘turned her head the wrong way,’ and it all started up, worse than before.

When Camille first came to me, she was stooped at nearly a 60 degree angle. She couldn’t lie prone with her back straight; she couldn’t lie on her back at all. She was in continuous pain in all positions. and I was concerned that she had problems outside of the scope of my ability to treat.

But she’d been to chiropractors, MDs and physical therapists, and the most recent chiropractor recommended massage. So I worked on her in the most non-invasive manner possible, adjusting positions to compensate for her pain. The entire left side of her body was in an extreme state of spasm, particularly her left piriformis and adductor muscles.

After her first session with me, she felt some relief, and decided to book a Crisis Intervention package. I didn’t find evidence of active trauma, such as inflammation, a slipped disc or scar tissue, so I simply encouraged her spasming muscles to calm down.

And ultimately, this seemed to be all that was required. By the end of her treatment, she was moving normally, the spasming had ceased, and she was nearly pain-free.

As I told Camille (and as I wrote to her lawyer, at her request), my belief is that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress. Memory of trauma is actually stored in our cells until it can be safely released; sometimes the smallest twitch is all that is required to re-activate the signal.

What does this mean, for clients and for therapists? Well, the good news is that it’s not permanent. Over time, and with patient engagement, the tissues will literally ‘release’ both the memories and the pain.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember that not all pain can be resolved by actively ‘fixing’ a problem. Some treatments, such as drugs and surgery, can make it worse. All too often, people take a hammer to a problem that merely needs a bit of unwinding.

Why Are Rehab Centers So Ugly? (Part II)

I’ve been a professional fine artist for half my life. The aesthetics of my surroundings are as important to me as the quality of the air I breathe. A vast empty wall in my living space makes me feel as though I am in prison. I can make a case for the notion that kitsch is morally wrong.

But is this just about my personal quirks? Do the aesthetics of surroundings really matter enough that hospitals, rehab centers and doctor’s offices ought to be concerned about them?

It has been established that the environment of psychiatric hospitals plays a significant role in both patient and staff functioning. The recommendations read like a manual for holistic health–natural or full-spectrum light, access to nature, calming colors, comfortable furniture, and access to private spaces. Artwork (soothing, not exciting) is recommended.

So it would seem that the converse–bright or fluorescent lights, bare white walls, ‘highly reverberent spaces’ (a psychiatric hospital no-no), and windowless rooms might be stressful for patients and staff alike. When we are in stressful environments, our bodies produce stress hormones which inhibit immune functioning.

A Tip for Young Healers

Several years ago, a guy from my yoga class offered me a ‘free nutritional counseling session.’ He was a student at a holistic health program and needed to get practice credits. I said sure, why not–even though I’m pretty confident that my nutritional needs get met, and have the bursting health to prove it, I can always learn something new. Besides, I was suffering from chronic tendonitis in my ankle at the time, and was consulting every available source for some insight into healing it.

When we set up a place and a time to meet, I told him about the ankle, along with some contextual information about the place and time of my Pilates class. It was obviously superfluous and boring to him, because after two more confirmation calls, he showed up in the wrong spot.

I was annoyed. So annoyed that I refused to reschedule an appointment, even though it was ‘free,’ and even though he wasn’t upset about our ‘miscommunication.’ Because it wasn’t a ‘miscommunication.’ The screw-up was entirely due to the fact that in the course of three conversations, he failed to pay attention to 95% of the words coming out of my mouth.

And in my opinion, listening is the most important skill an aspiring healer can practice. If you don’t do that, all your other skills are worthless.

Because however much you know, you don’t know more than a tiny fraction of the information out there. You don’t know what your client knows, or has tried. You don’t know what you’re doing, most of the time. Most problems are things you can’t fix. Very often, the only real service you can provide is to listen, with your full attention, to whatever your client needs to tell you.

This is a service because most people don’t get anywhere near the amount of attention they need. Particularly when you’ve got chronic health concerns, people don’t want to hear about them. It makes them uncomfortable; they want to fix it, they can’t, they get frustrated. Healthcare professionals are overscheduled, overworked and often underpaid.

One of the worst things about chronic pain and illness is the overwhelming sense of isolation it can induce. I was coping with that, in my bout with tendonitis–as a bodyworker living in a fourth-floor walkup in New York City, having chronic ankle problems was literally crippling, on many levels. The last thing I needed was for some jackass to come along and ‘help’ me by inundating me with first-year New Age nutritional information, most of which I’d known since the age of six. I just needed someone to listen to my long, boring saga of Pilates classes, acupuncture, MRIs, chiropractors, glucosamine, chondrotin, ankle braces, orthotics, pain, and loneliness.

That should have been easy. So if you’re getting into a healing profession in order to ‘help’ people by telling them all the brilliant things you know, examine your motives. Who are you really talking to?

How Art Heals

As a visual artist, I have long maintained that one’s surroundings have a profound effect on one’s health, or lack thereof. I once founded a gallery in Brooklyn named ‘Healing Arts.’ Now a friend of mine, Kesha Bruce, is producing a project called 6×6, based on the premise that artists can exhibit, market and sell their work without a gallery doing it for them. I asked her a few leading questions for her 6×6 Blog Tour: see if you can spot my agenda.

rainmaker_keshabruce

KILLING GOD’S RAINMAKER, 2006 by Kesha Bruce. Ink, gouache, collage on paper. 7 x 9 in. (18 x 23 cm.)

 

• You’ve said you have a spiritual connection with art-making. How does this manifest? In the way you work, in the subject matter, or in other ways?

My way of working really relies on getting to a place where I can tune out all the “noise” in my head and get to the story.  Or maybe a better description would be, getting still and quiet enough so that the story reveals itself.  To get there I use a technique I learned in college that’s meant to be a warm up, but I use it more as a “calm down”.   I do anywhere from 50 -100, non-stop, 5-minute drawings of the same image or idea. I think of it as a drawing meditation.

• Can art be used to heal? How?

 

I think the experience of making and the experience of viewing art are both incredibly healing.

From the standpoint of an art –maker I can tell you that the process of making art is a critical part of my well-being. I quite literally think it is good for my health.

And in terms of how viewing art can be used to heal Visual imagery is powerful.  The experience of beauty, however you define it, is powerful. The beauty around you has the power to make you whole again.  I think that’s what healing is.

• How has your work with Kickstarter, 6X6, and consulting influenced your studio practice?

 

This whole past year has been about me learning to reach out and in turn let people in.  Asking people, sometimes complete strangers, to support my project has been an amazing learning experience.  It’s made me understand how important it is to connect with people and learn about them–and also be willing to share.

My work has always been about the stories people tell, but I can definitely see my focus moving towards more collaborative ideas.  The energy and the ideas that I’ve had access to as a result of planning 6×6 have totally transformed the way I think about what it means to be an artist.  Working alone my studio to produce new work is a solo task, but everything else, absolutely everything else, is about connection.

 

To hear more about 6×6, read Kesha’s weekly articles on art, art marketing, and creativity, and to download a free copy of “The 5 Step Art Career Make-Over” visit her blog at www.KeshaBrucestudio.com.

Physician Heal Thyself

Piriformis_muscle

Image via Wikipedia

–guest post by Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.

Having a family full of doctors can be such a mixed blessing. Most physicians are aware of the pitfalls of being related to someone who knows way too much about every little ache or cough.

When I was a fourth-year medical student interviewing for residency positions in psychiatry, I met up with the department chair at UT Southwestern in Dallas, whose wife was also a physician. I guess he must have gotten bored with the usual interview questions, or perhaps he took one look at my transcript and decided there was no way was he accepting me into his program, because the discussion took a personal turn.

He asked me what it was like having two physicians for parents, and hinted that certain issues had arisen over the years with his own children. My response was simply, “Well, when I was a kid, and I got sick, they either didn’t care at all … or they totally freaked out.” He just about died laughing at that one. It must have sounded incredibly familiar to him. Perhaps that answer meant that I would have gotten accepted into his program after all.

Now I am a grown-up shrink, and I still have a family full of doctors who provide ample advice, both solicited and unsolicited, for every ailment imaginable.

A few months ago, I got up quickly after sitting in an awkward position on the edge of my couch, and I thought that my right leg was asleep. Well, walking it off, of course, was the solution. Only … whoops! I had foot drop. For those of you who don’t know, this means that when you try to walk your toes drag the ground. Flashback to those med school classes, trying to remember what that meant. Was I having a stroke? A compressed nerve? Hysterical paralysis?

Med school was 20 years ago, as was my last neurology rotation, so of course I had no idea. But I knew that Google would save me … hmm … “damage to the peroneal nerve.” Ok, that sounded reasonable.

But wait, it wasn’t so simple. I also started having twinges under my right seat bone, with radiating pain down the back of my thigh and around to the front of my lower leg. Not good. I had to cancel a trip to Texas, because I had been planning to drive but couldn’t sit for that long.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

My mom the family practitioner called me up, and suggested all sorts of narcotics and muscle relaxants that I could take. She said that if I came down to Texas my sister the radiologist would get me a free MRI. My cousin the orthopedic surgeon asked me if I had back pain, and wanted to know the positional nature of the symptoms.

My aunt the pathologist told me that the real problem was that I needed to acquire more padding on my ass, and suggested having a mojito to get that process started ASAP. As a side note here, one of the really wonderful things about belonging to an Indian family is that you get updates on how much weight you have gained or lost every time you see them, even if the scale says that you haven’t gone up or down 2-3 pounds in the last five years.

My uncle the vascular surgeon, after having a few scotches at that same gathering, started off with a recommendation for a nerve removal, assuring me that yes he had done neurosurgery rotations back in the 1970s (!) and finished with the brilliant idea that a total leg amputation would be a more permanent solution and also earn him more money.

My father the emergency room physician had the most practical advice of all, which was simply, “Don’t drive to Texas.” Words to live by.

Fortunately, another cousin of mine and her husband are physical therapists. I showed them where it hurt, and they immediately said, “Aha! Piriformis!” I said, “What???” We either hadn’t learned about that one in anatomy class, or I had forgotten. More likely than not the latter.

Basically, the problem was a tight muscle which was compressing the nerve. They showed me a stretch that would relieve the tightness — sitting on the floor with my knees bent, crossing the right leg over the left, and using my left hand to pull my right knee towards my left shoulder.

Soon the party at my cousin’s house turned into a mini-yoga class for everyone, which was hilarious but also more therapeutic than any advice that I had received from any of the physicians. I did the stretches that they showed me every morning, and I haven’t had a problem with that nerve since then.

Obviously I am lucky to have such a caring family, and their intentions were nothing but the best. But this story is a great example of how maybe we doctors are too quick to turn to pills, diagnostic equipment, and the knife in every situation. When those things are not indicated, we have few other resources to fall back on.

Back in the old days, doctors didn’t have all the fancy tests that we have now, so they had to spend a lot more time listening to and observing the patient in order to make their diagnosis. You might even say that the close personal relationships which they had with their patients were their best diagnostic and therapeutic tools. We could all use a lot more of that these days.