What happened to you?

One Step Closer to the Center of Wellbeing

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

“What is wrong with me?”

It’s a familiar enough question – it’s typically how we think of ourselves and others when something is off. But according to Dr. Perry, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who has spent his career studying the effect our experiences have on our brains, that’s the wrong question, the real question is, “What happened to me?” This is the question that traces the neurological changes that have occurred in our brains based on our experience back to our experience. From this standpoint we can see we aren’t “wrong” -- we make perfect neurological sense based on what happened to us. And from this standpoint we can see from a brain perspective what can and needs to be done to get us back into functional shape. This is the basis of Dr. Perry’s new book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.

As for us, what happened to us is a pandemic. A pandemic is going to bend us out of shape. However, while we are able to bend ourselves back into a functional shape, we just aren’t going to bend back exactly as we were before the trauma. We’re not Nerf balls that pop back exactly as they were before being squeezed. We are coat hangers that have been bent out of shape. We can bend the coat hanger back but there will be some bumps that just won’t smooth out even though we can get it back into shape so it can still hang a shirt. Therefore, how we manage to bend ourselves back is an adaptation – a not-the-same-but-something-that-serves workaround.

If that sounds like we’re being compromised I agree; in some cases, devastatingly so. While this wasn’t acceptable to me for so many years, I was missing how adaptation is a big part of resilience. And the alternative -- not being resilient -- is terribly compromising when you think about where that leaves us. What’s more, adaptability is one of our most hopeful and miraculous neurological feats made possible by a brain quality called neuroplasticity -- the brain’s ability to change in response to stimuli. We’re resilient but not in the Nerf ball way. We’re resilient because of our malleability.

But bendable as we are, being able to bend and adapt does require a certain amount of body system regulation. Not much can happen from a state of agitation. One way to regulate according to Dr. Perry is by doing regulating rhythmic activities since rhythm is embedded in our body systems. (This is why rocking is so soothing to babies.) There are endless activities that have an underlying rhythm and regulating pattern: walking, knitting, singing, rocking, dancing, breathing, getting in the groove of an activity, listening to music, making mandalas, listening to the sounds of the ocean, even just going from room – to – room making beds. When you think about it, practically any activity can be done in a rhythmically regulating way. When our body/mind systems are regulated and in balance is when we get that sense of wellbeing.

Taking the steps to recover our sense of wellbeing requires putting ourselves within the context of this extraordinary year. Something did happen to us. Maybe the effects are obvious or maybe the effects are more subtle but we have absolutely been touched. Our neurology has been touched. Now we are in a place of re-regulating ourselves. Finding our own set of rhythmically regulating activities helps our coat hanger be more bendable so we can go back to hanging up shirts. It’s also possible that in the re-bending we discover a whole new shape and reason for being. That’s the beauty of the neuroplastic adaptability we’ve got going for us. We can take a tragedy and live through it and sometimes even bend something good out of it.

And while we’re at it, let’s bend the way we think about mental health into something more acceptable, common and every day to talk about. We’re neuroplastic. We can do this. We can become more psychologically flexible. What better month to open our minds around this than May, the merry month of Mental Health Awareness?

And now, to my great delight, I get to introduce this week’s three wonderful employees who get real about their own challenges of the past year! Meet Steven Votey, Respiratory Technician, NL Primary Care-Southwest Harbor, Maine Coast Memorial Hospital; Amanda Odeley, RN, Eastern Maine Medical Center Critical Care Unit; and Kelli Magoon, Operations Manager, Clinical Informatics, Northern Light. Thank you so much for making our world bigger through your eyes and to all of you who have continued to let us in on your life and hold yourself accountable via this week’s Accountability Track.
The Accountability Track
Be sure to update the Accountability Tracker each week!. The Accountability Track link is the same from week to week so at the end of one week just go in and update it based on your most recent experience. Same questions, each time. As always, use your real name or an invented name if you prefer since The Accountability Track is a shared public document.

Northern Light resources for happy, healthy minds
Don’t forget, EAP is there for you 24/7.  Just give them a call at 1 – 800 – 769 – 9819.

Healthy Life Resources
Do you need support with your mental health and well-being? Healthy Life Resources is helping Northern Light Health team members like you with issues like anxiety, trauma, and stress. Ask the experts or use our mental health screening tool and myStrength self-guided app to get started. Go to intranet.emhs.org/Acadia/Portals/Healthy-Life-Resources.aspx.