Unwinding what we go through

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Last November I came across a course on how to train your brain to overcome trauma. This “mind fitness” training was originally developed with health professionals, first responders and the military in mind – people whose professions put them in highly intense and potentially traumatizing positions.
The person who created and teaches this method of recovering from trauma knows how trauma can spring from stress and what it can do to the mind and body. She, herself, went blind as a result of a build-up of undealt-with stress she’d accumulated in her decades of service as an Army intelligence officer. But after lying in bed without sight for 3 weeks, Elizabeth Stanley decided she was going to figure how this had happened to her body and how she could unwind it.
She spent 15 years studying stress and how it lives in the body, what causes stress to cross over into trauma and how to get the survival brain and the thinking brain in alignment. Along the way she also picked up degrees from Yale, Harvard and MIT and then became a Buddhist nun in Burma, as well, as a way to really understand the role of consciousness because that’s just the kind of all-in person she is. (She’s now a Georgetown University professor.) The ultimate method she came up with combines the neurobiology of stress, the attentional control we can develop through mindfulness and the warrior tradition of the military.
Considering the incredible stress frontline health professionals are under this year of the pandemic, this online course is free to those on the frontlines right now. However, given the widespread occurrence of stress and trauma for everyone at this point in time, the course is now also open to the general public. Of course I signed up, being ever alert to my own stress and potential trauma. (The link to sign up is the same for everyone.) I finished the 8-module coursework a few weeks ago but will continue to participate in the monthly question/answer sessions with Liz for the total of 12 months that comes with the course. There is some reading but most of the content is via a lecture video with Liz in addition to a number of somatic/body-based exercises and mindfulness activities.
I won’t lie; taking these classes was intense. You will be asked to deal with some stuff, but that’s pretty much the point. It was entirely worthwhile. Here are the key points that really hit home and are coming along with me for the rest of the ride:
  1. The crucial interaction between the survival brain and the thinking brain via neuroception and interoception. Neuroception is how our neural circuits distinguish whether we are safe or if we are in danger. The complication is the survival brain “neurocepts” this before our thinking brain knows what’s going on and the only way to reach the survival brain and put it at ease is via the body. However the thinking brain can direct this body/survival brain connection through “interoception.”  Interoception is bringing acute and exquisite attunement to what is going on in the body and then getting yourself grounded so the survival brain feels supported and safe.
  2. How you ground the body through points of contact – whatever your body is in contact with that is solid; i.e., the chair, the ground, a wall. As I said, the sensation of these contact points is exquisitely specific and attuned so that it really sinks in with the survival brain. There is no shortcut here.
  3. The impact the relative security/insecurity of our original attachment style (developed in the first two years of life) has on our susceptibility to trauma.
  4. How the military’s warrior tradition of wisdom and courage translates in the recovery of stress and trauma which is the wisdom to direct your attention to what is useful and the courage to be with your experience just as it is.
You can get a free copy of the Mountain Exercise – my favorite points of contact guided meditation – right here when you sign up for Liz’s newsletter.

You can listen to a Sounds True podcast with Liz talking about Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training right here, which is how I learned about MMFIT.