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Trauma Response: When the Breath of Life becomes the Kiss of Death

The Last Kiss is blasting on the radio. The sun is low. A Starbucks coffee mug is nestled into the car’s cup holder. “Charlie” sings softly, feeling sad as the words register. She sighs deeply and brakes for the stop sign. The car behind is not slowing. Everything in her world slows down. She brakes harder, willing the other driver to stop but watches as if from another place as the red Porsche crashes into the rear of her Honda and it accordions up to right behind her driver’s seat.

3 days later: The phone rings. “Can you help me? I was in a car accident. I wasn’t hurt but I can’t get back into my body. I go to work and talk with people but it as if I am not really there. I am driving a rental car but every time I brake I see the car behind crashing into me. I smell a cup of coffee and I freeze. I feel like I’m going crazy.” Gilly Thomas is a Certified Rubenfeld Synergist and works with people through a combination of a gentle touch and simple talk. This stimulation of both the right, sensory emotive side of the brain and the left, logical and verbal side is very effective at healing trauma.

In the past 15 years there has been a blossoming of new brain research which has resulted in a deeper understanding of the mechanics of the trauma response. Physical traumas, such as motor vehicle accidents or surgeries; or emotional such as sexual or emotional abuse or war veterans – all share a similar pattern.

Why? The human body and mind are complex and simple at the same time. When a person is threatened there is a specific sequence of events, now known as: “The Trauma Response”. The threat jumpstarts the body into a fight, flight or freeze response. The limbic (lower) brain is activated, hormones are released and the body is primed to defend itself from danger. Animals in the wild are apparently able to shake off the after-effects of such a response and continue on in their day as though nothing happened. Humans are different.

This highly adaptive response becomes problematic when perception is shaped by past experience – so: sadness, twilight hour, or rifts that are similar to those in The Last Kiss, the smell of coffee, sighing, and braking are some of the triggers that will send “Charlie” into a heightened state of alertness. A one-time trauma is easily remedied if caught in time. If not, it can develop in the same way as childhood abuse, neglect or repetitive trauma into a functional response pattern gone haywire. Over time, danger might be perceived everywhere.

People such as Charlie can find no more enjoyment in crying during a sad movie, drinking coffee, or even taking a deep breath. All can trigger the trauma response. Following are some of the identifiable symptoms centrally or peripherally associated with trauma responses:

Physical: short term: headaches, backaches, TMJ, ,trouble falling or staying asleep, general anxiety, inability to relax, shallow breathing, skin complaints, long term: chronic low back and pelvic pain, musculoskeletal problems, cardiac and arterial problems, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, lower gastrointestinal tract problems, dermatological, fibromyalgia…
Cognitive: memory lapses, trouble with focus, concentration, dissociation
Emotional: anxiety, panic, rage, loneliness, grief, terror, shame, despair, helplessness, guilt
Behavioral: avoidance, isolation, substance abuse and addictive behavior, learned helplessness, reenactments (flirting with disaster), self-mutilation and injury

The next time the young woman Charlie smells coffee her heart starts to race, her breathing becomes rapid and shallow and she spirals into a panic attack. She feels as though she is losing control and going crazy. In fact, her survival mechanism is functioning well. The part of her brain that responds to keep her alive, short circuits the logical rational neocortex that likes coffee (thinking part of the brain), and charges her body to respond to the danger again. This all occurs on a subconscious level. Not only does the coffee trigger her – (an external trigger) — there are internal triggers too, every time she applies the brake she feels anxious, and when the sun is setting she has a sense of unease. Even when she is sitting at her desk at work and her muscles return to the same sitting position as just prior to the accident, her body responds to the perceived danger.

This however is exhausting. The single event path into trauma becomes a neural superhighway as triggers send her again and again into the same response. Because much of the trauma experience is subconscious, and because the part of the brain that is involved in speech is bypassed in the trauma response, it is often impossible to put words to the trauma experience and ongoing manifestations. Months or years after the event, she feels tired; hypo alertness becomes routine and normal sensations numb. This can lead to the chronic symptoms of which there appears to be no solution because the traumatized person may experience the reality of the body rather than the mind.

Compassion and understanding of the trauma response helps. And there are avenues leading to change: psychosomatic therapies (like the Rubenfeld Synergy Method), EMDR, meditation, breathing, and visualization, all have an effect in decoupling the neural super-pathways formed by the trauma response and in re-invigorating the rational sensate existence. The Rubenfeld Synergy Method provides a very effective bridge to reconnect and integrate a person with themselves and their experience.

“Charlie” was able to reintegrate into her body. She was able to realize that the accident was in the past and that she was no longer in danger. She could relax and enjoy her life. The pieces of the puzzle that made no sense because she had not been able to put them together now formed a complete picture. She could safely feel sad, drink coffee, drive her car, sit at her desk and enjoy the sunset. The moments of freeze and dissociation were in her past, memorable but not governing her life.

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How Can I Respond To Fear of an Impending Natural Disaster?

You Can Respond to Impending Disaster by Listening to Your Body and Heart.

When hearing about another impending natural disaster, like Hurricane Florence, how do we respond? How do we show up for ourselves and those impacted?

Fear is Felt in Our Body.

I have felt the constriction in my body building as the weather reports detail the twists and turns of Hurricane Florence. My brain attempts to re-Mind me that I am living in the Northwest. I am safe. Yet I feel tense.

Have you felt it too? We automatically experience tightness, anxiety, when we hear disastrous news. We tense up when we’re about to be hit or slammed.

Soothe Yourself so You Can Respond with an Open Heart

  1. Use the closest, most easeful solution – your breathing.  Simply pause, cast your eyes down or close them.
  2. Take a deep cleansing breath. Then breathe in through your nose.
  3. Notice the temperature of the breath coming in. Immediately your attention moves from your muddled mind to your nostrils.
  4. Then, rest a hand on the farthest place in your body where the air moves. Your stomach? Your lower chest?
  5. Pause and notice, “Oh my _________(name the body part).”
  6. Now, exhale. Notice the temperature now.

Repeat this sequence for one minute.

You’ll feel your body has rested. Your mind has relaxed, and your emotions are soothed. The fear has dissipated.

Now You Can Access the Wisdom of Your Heart

When I practice this breathing, I find my body at rest, my mind at peace, and my heart re-minds me ‘we are all connected’.

This connection breaks my heart wide open. And I listen. What is mine to do?

Prompted by my heart’s answer, I go on-line and find the churches and shelters opening their doors to entire families. Families with people and pets. Everyone is welcome there.

My heart sends love and protection out to them in the form of prayers. Who among us isn’t praying for the hurricane to change its course, slow its energy, and implode in the middle of the Atlantic?

I remember that line in the Bible where Jesus teaches, “Ask and the door is opened.”

So, I ask for guidance as I pray. What is the highest and best for this situation thousands of miles away?

My heart is open, powerful, and connected. I’m not praying out of fear.

Whatever the outcome, my body is soothed, my mind relaxed ready to act because my heart is leading the way.


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[Rerun] Self-care made simple


One of the most potent things I have found, both in my training and with my clients, is the utmost importance of self-care. For every acute problem, every chronic stress, every relationship explosion, cancer diagnosis, loathed job or existential crisis, self-care comes up again and again as not just the most important, but the very first thing that needs doing.

This is true not just for my clients, but for me, and other practitioners.  As they say, you’ve gotta make sure your own oxygen mask is secure before helping others.  And as the Rubenfeld principle goes, self care is the first step to client care.  And, lest we forget that other principle: each client is ultimately responsible for his or her own healing.

So it’s not all that surprising that when a client tells me something difficult, and I can feel my mirror neurons firing and my shoulders tightening, my breath growing shallow…the first thing I need to do, before I can even respond, is to check my own breath, my own body, return to my center, and respond from there.  If I do anything else, I put myself in it with them.  And, as anyone who has had someone so upset over something that happened to you that you ended up taking care of them knows, nothing good can come of that.

In my own continuing therapeutic journey, I’ve recently been introduced to Oasis in the Overwhelm, a little book by ex-Catholic nun, nightclub singer, type A go-getter, and Rubenfeld Synergist Millie Grenough.  Its essential core is four 60-second strategies for re-centering and calming yourself, basically at any time and place.

I already have a number of strategies that I use for this, and I pass them on to my clients when I feel they are needed. And of course there are more involved self-care pieces: working out more, eating better, getting enough sleep – all those things that your doctor is always telling you to do.

But for people who want solutions that they can learn quickly and use anywhere…I have to say that this is pretty fabulous.  Once I internalize them myself, I will definitely be incorporating them into my practice. Hint: they involve stretching, breathing, checking in with your body, and focusing on an object of comfort.

Go check it out.


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A Transformation…Through Touch


When did machines replace humans as the place to go to for touch?  We live in such a sterile environment in North Americ
a.  We are told to use antibacterial soap, which has contributed to super bugs.  We are told not to touch, which has contributed to a lack of connection between people.  Why do you think a ‘touch pad,phone or device is so desirable?  …because people long to touch …  and be touched.  However, machines cannot replace human contact.

I remember when I was a kid at school and falling and hurting my knee, a teacher gave me a hug, rubbed my knee and held my hand as he walked me, sobbing to the sink to clean off the dirt.  The touch was soothing, comforting and calmed me down in a way that words would not.

There were an outrageous number of child molestations going on in “the good old days”.  And there was an even greater amount of healthy, caring non-sexualized touch.  This is the lost art of human connection.

Science is finally supporting the health and wealth benefits of touch.  A few seconds of friendly contact releases oxytocin, decreases cortisol and impacts the vagus nerve.  What does this do?  Reduces feelings of stress and anxiety because of lowered heart and breathing rates.  This generates  feelings of trust and bonding. (1) How sweet and easy is that?  Wealth also can increase:  if waiters made physical contact with the people at their table, the amount of tips increased. (2)

In Psychology Today, Ray Williams  identifies several reasons we need to increase touch:  it decreases violence and disease, strengthens the immune system, improves team dynamics, increases non sexual emotional intimacy and learning engagement.  (3)

I have travelled a great deal and discovered that other countries do touch,  we could learn from them.  People in the Mediterranean, Central and South America hold hands, put arms around each other’s shoulders, touch faces, or have a hand on a leg or arm whilst talking.  Initially it was a shock to experience, however I soon grew to love the warm greetings and close engagement with relative strangers. The stories exchanged were happy, loving, exciting, sad …  and not sexual.

Not that there isn’t a place for sexual touch  – there is and it can be wonderful.  It is simply that not all touch is sexual or has sexual intention.  Intention is important because we understand the emotional message behind touch.   Hertenstein did an experiment to deepen the knowledge that people’s emotions are interpreted based on facial expression and body language.  Tactile communication had not been investigated, prior to his work. The study concluded that people do communicate clearly through touch. (4)

Human touch is many things: caring, supportive, encouraging…. Try it out with yourself and/or someone else this week.   Use your hands and connect to the world through touch.  If you feel anxious or nervous, rub your hands together.   Say hello and shake someone’s hand.  Flu season be damned! The next time you are on the bus, allow your leg, shoulder or hand to sit naturally and relaxed while resting against the person beside you.  While talking, reach  out and touch the person you are speaking to.  Hug a friend or family member and hold on for five seconds! Let yourself experience a world where touch is subtle form of connection and communication.

How different could your life be if you allow yourself to simply touch and be touched.


(1) NPR News

(2,3) Psychology Today:


(4) The Communication of Emotion Via Touch  []


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