16 February 2015

Grief, Self-Love, and Healing Emotional Trauma with Food, Yoga and Art.

By Heather Jo Flores
February 2015

For many years of my life, I thought I had depression. I would spend days at a time crying, eating, sleeping and hating myself for having no control over the process. I sabotaged relationships and hated my family and the world for what had been done to me. I tried different kinds of therapy but held a general disdain for it. I never tried pharmaceuticals, but I dabbled in many forms of self medication.

Grief, by Heather Jo Flores. Oil on canvas.
And then a few years ago, I did some reading about Complex PTSD and a lot of what I read lined up with what I had experienced. I realized that I wasn't suffering because of a chemical imbalance in my brain, I was creating the chemical imbalance through denial, negative thought patterns, self-abuse (weed, binge-eating, bad boys). And when I finally identified the cause, deeply rooted in a failure to properly grieve several traumatic losses…I was able to begin a healing process.

A big part of that process was about learning how to grieve. My grief wasn't associated with the death of a loved one. It was associated with the loss of other things:
  • My opportunity for a peaceful childhood (absent father, negligent mother, you know the story.)
  • My wasted time spent screwing things up for myself as a young adult.
  • My failed relationships with lovers and friends.
These things, compounded by my years spent as an envrionmental activist and the pain that comes from witnessing firsthand the devastation of the planet, had sent me into a downward spiral of grief, and I had never taken the time to really deal with it.

And so, since I had just started grad school when these realizatons occurred, I focused most of my MFA on using art, music and movement to overcome trauma associated with loss. I learned a lot of amazing stuff. If you can relate to my story, perhaps these suggestions will help you. I will just give you a handful of ideas so please, don't give yourself any excuses not to try them!

Learn about the grieving process.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Since then these stages have become widely accepted as a path that we can move through to cope with loss and put it behind us. The five stages, briefly, are: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. If you find yourself stuck in one of these places, see if you can keep moving forward. Like climbing a mountain, it won't be easy and parts of it will suck really bad. But when you reach the summit, you will feel triumphant at having persevered.

At this point, I cannot understate the importance of finding someone to help you through these phases. If you can talk yourself into it, see a professional therapist who specializes in grief and trauma. I know I said I has a disdain for therapy, but I eventually found the right therapist to help me work it all out. I only saw her a few times but I don't know how I could have done it without her. Most cities offer free and low-cost options, and if you have to spend some money, what could be more worth it than your own healing and happiness? Don't let Facebook and people who know you personally be your only therapy. They are not qualified. Commit to at least three or four sessions and GO.

Diet and Exercise.
You already know this. Moving your body releases endorphins that help you feel happier. Getting in shape helps you feel better about yourself. Avoiding toxins like corn syrup, sugar and too much cholesterol gives your liver a chance to process the good food you are eating and give you energy instead of making you feel sluggish and depressed. For me, I found that certain types of exercise, namely dance and yoga (and the breathwork that comes with yoga) were especially helpful to my healing process. Commit to a program and stick it out for at least four months. Think about all the time you have spent feeling bad, and try to strike a balance by spending that much time exercising and preparing healthy food.

As for food, the most important part of that puzzle is to make sure that you get some sort of natural protein in your face within a half hour of waking up. Not a breakfast person? I don't care. Eat a handful of nuts and get on with your morning. Protein feeds the new neurons that are forming in your brain just after you wake up, and you need those new neurons to form the fresh pathways that you are trying to create with your healing process. No protein, no new pathways. That's just scientific fact.

Avoid drugs, weed, sugar and alcohol.
These coping mechanisms are only making things worse. They are taxing your liver, hijacking your digestive system, and literally, fucking with your head. Brain and body chemistry are a big part of this, so be diligent and I promise you, you will see results.

Be creative.
Channel all of that passionate, if dark, energy into something productive. Learn an instrument, take some dance classes. Make pottery. Paint big creepy pictures of that proverbial monster under your bed. Whatever feels right, do it. Don't let all that power go to waste. And when you have turned those horrific feelings into something beautiful, you will feel better. Even if you fill your room with the worst art and poetry that was ever made, you will still feel better.

Getting your hands in the soil has been scientifically proven to make you happier. (See this blog post for details.) Go out and plant something. If you don't have a garden, go help a friend. Focusing on the needs of others, be they people, plants or animals is another great way to overcome grief and loss. Gardening covers all of these bases, and also connects to better nutrition and exercise habits. 

Ok, I know I might sound like a self-help freak, but isn't that what this is about? Helping yourself? And perhaps once you feel better, then you can go out and help others, So truly, self-care (I prefer to think of it as self-love) is activism. Don't let anyone tell you different. I was an activist for many years and then my PTSD put me out of the game for a long time. Now, after learning all of this stuff, my activist work is stronger, more meaningful and more effective than ever.

Finally, I highly recommend this book:
Free to Love, Free to Heal, by David Simon. This book incorporates yoga and ayurvedic tradition into a slow and steady journey. It gives specific, accessible “homework” assignments that you can do to work through the healing and grieving processes. Do the assignments. I did. It took about four months to do them all. I ended up with some of the best writing I had ever done and a new resolve and understanding about where I had been, what I had accomplished, and where to go next.

The last thing I want to say is something that took me a long time to accept: There is no short cut. Emotional trauma is like breaking your femur. If you don't set the bone right, if you don't get help and give it the healing time it deserves, it will cripple you for life. But if you take the time to heal it right, you'll eventually be right back on your feet, and stronger for the experience.

Thanks for reading and good luck!


M Sophia Santiago said...

I am so happy and thankful to you for this insight (great article!). And thank you for introducing me to David Simon, MD. I look forward to collaborating with you (Food Not Lawns) and to seeing you Heather Jo, in May when you come to Santa Cruz. Namasté Sister, love, M Sophia Santiago

Danielle Pate said...

I need ideas. As you know, I was recently hospitalized for suicidal ideations. I am on pharmaceutical drugs, but I refuse to ever try new ones, as this has made me suicidal for the second time now. I'm a CPS casewoeker and a single parent and I recently (JUST recently) accepted that I don't have to be a superhero. This cured a lot of my baisc panicky feeling. It's a long road.

Birch Tree said...

Hey Heather! Great article!

I think you hit the nail on the head with your thought that you creating the toxic emotions were what was hurting you, not the other way around. This fact is really key, because it empowers us, instead of making us feel dependent on some outside source for healing.

I have recently been engaging with my own emotional trauma in a more directed way and have been pleased with the results. I, too, share a similar past of nastiness that has kept me in a chain of self-victimization. But realizing that I can choose how to feel, at least the majority of the time, is revolutionizing my life.

I have heard of David Simon, can't say where, but will have to check out his work. A friend and colleague of mine from the shamanic side of things, Alida Birch, recently wrote a self-help (yes - self-love) book called The Co-Creation Handbook which I am working with similarly to how it sounds like you worked with Simon's book. You made the commitment to the work and you reaped the results! Your brief story about your process is highly encouraging.

I like the majority of your article and appreciate your stringing together the emotional with the physical into a bigger picture, however I am also wondering if I could offer a few other comments?

You mention to "avoid toxins like corn syrup, sugar and too much cholesterol" I know this is a really brief post and your intended audience is probably people with an average
(no offense!) science awareness, but when you lump those three things together it comes across as a little oversimplified. Corn syrup is probably nasty stuff, but it's also "sugar" --fructose and glucose, mostly. And what is too much cholesterol? I guess you leave it to the reader to decide.

Well, anyway, just my opinions. For an interesting source on this topic, here's a link to a Scientific American article (mainstream, but pretty decent) with a great comments section that debates the article's pros and cons: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2013/07/15/is-sugar-really-toxic-sifting-through-the-evidence/

Thanks, looking forward to more postings!