Healing is An Inside Job
The human body is an amazing and complex system, and understanding how it works is essential for true healing. Most people are beginning to understand the importance of physical and emotional health, but few understand the connection between the two. That connection is fascia, the connective tissue that runs throughout the body and hold every blood vessel, bone, nerve fiber, and muscle in place.
Fascia is also responsible for the transmission of neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine) throughout your body. This connective tissue transmits hormones such as adrenaline and oxytocin throughout your body as well. What does this all mean? The long and the short is that your fascia is deeply intertwined with the nervous system.
Fascia plays a major role in how we physically experience stress, including traumatic events. When the body experiences trauma, it creates tension in the fascia that can cause pain and limit movement. This tension can become chronic and prevent the body from healing completely. When emotional trauma occurs, the body also responds by creating tension in the fascia. Lack of moment, emotional stress, physical injury, and previous unresolved trauma can lead to physical and physiological changes to the fascia, which is often then associated with the symptoms most frequently seen in patients with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, and inflammation.
If you scroll throughout this blog, it is apparent I frequently refer to the vagus nerve in my posts. To briefly review what the vagus nerve is, the vagus nerve plays a key role in communicating changes that occur within the fascia to your brain. The vagus nerve assists in maintaining the channels of communication between the brain and body that helps regulate your autonomic nervous system (ANS). The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is associated with fight or flight will increase the speed at which your body wants to respond or react to stimuli and the vagus nerve provides a steady brake to slow things down. In situations that are traumatic or life threatening, this “emergency brake” can kick in abruptly, bringing you to a sudden and hard stop. Sometimes this may result in physical symptoms including nausea, dizziness, or fainting.
Fascia is the largest sensory organ in your body and its primary role is to communicate information about what is happening in your body to your brain. When we experience trauma, we either move into freeze (immobility) or faint. If this trauma response does not resolve we can feel stuck and over time, lose our connection to our bodily sensations. We may feel more disconnected or dissociated.
When working to heal trauma, it is so important to understand how these vital physiological and anatomical structures play a pivotal role in not only recovering from traumatic events, but to also understand how we can work with these structures using mind-body sensory awareness. The key is to progress slowly on the path towards reconnecting with your body and restoring a relationship to your body after trauma.
`I am counting down the days until the 2022 Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) Food Allergy Summit officially begins! This year the summit will be taking place in Orlando, Florida.
I am both thrilled and honored to be co-leading a mental health presentation with Catherine Walker, who recently began studying as a freshman at Tufts University. Catherine has not let her food allergies define who she is and her story is so inspiring. You can read more about Catherine and her story here.
I am also delighted to be leading an adults only workshop where will be discussing mental health and practical tips on how we can support overall mental well-being for adults and everyone in the family.
You can learn more about FARE and the 2022 Summit by clicking here.
Summertime Showcase and Student Athletes
Now that the June 15th deadline has passed and college coaches can reach out to high school athletes, the pressure felt by athletes is palpable. When I work with athletes, we collaboratively establish a mental game plan to assist them in preparation for a diverse variety of challenges ahead.
For example, when a student athlete learns to focus on small, but impactful goals, I notice a shift in their mindset. As the internal pressure for perfection decreases, the motivation to instead achieve excellence increases. Instead of focusing on the outcome of performance, we work on developing intentional awareness to areas of the game they want to improve.
I believe sports are played with the body, but are won in the mind. And if an athlete concentrates primarily on impressing others through their performance, they are creating extra-tension which clouds purpose, passion and can lead to burnout.
If you or your student athlete is feeling overrun with pressure, let's get a game plan together.
Me, Myself, & My Gut Feeling
Do you ever have a gut feeling that you know you need to listen to? Our bodies are part of our minds and they speak to us every day. And when you pay attention, it can improve your life.
Sometimes your body knows what is right for you. It sends you signals. When your feelings are in a spin, the message from your body becomes very clear. However, the message or messages can become difficult to interpret when our mental health is in poor shape.
Anxiety and inner conflict arise if our inner compass is cloudy and if our mind is at odds with itself in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. In my practice, I both encourage and educate my patients to learn how to listen to their own insides and actively tune into the sensations they experience in their bodies. By doing so, we can identify what is right for us and and feel empowered to take the small, safe steps towards healing.
This type of somatic awareness can help us to become aligned in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The gut feelings we experience are not just for emergency "fight or flight" situations, they are present all the time. Just as you are reading this blog post, if you focus your attention on the heart and gut regions of your body, you will begin to notice a response to my words. Just notice if any part of you feels my words to be true, or perhaps you feel "no that can't be true". Perhaps you notice your attention going elsewhere? Like reading ahead to see how much longer this post is? Just notice how quickly or slowly your body is able to take a complex situation and summarize it quickly, or moment by moment.
There is to come on this topic, so stay tuned!
Vulnerability And Mental Toughness
In recent news, Dallas Cowboys Quarterback, Dak Prescott had the courage to speak openly about his depression and grief. A sports columnist openly dismissed Presscott's vulnerability, going as far to say it weakens his leadership qualities. ESPN anchor, Scott Van Pelt responded to the remarks by using his voice to acknowledge the person behind the helmet who spoke openly and bravely about his mental health and emotional pain. Van Pelt also took the opportunity to use his platform to validate and empower athletes to speak openly about his or her mental health. Thank you Scott Van Pelt for saying what needed to be said. We must continue to build a culture within sports where we can drop the veil of shame in speaking openly about mental health. There is NO shame in mental health.
If you are not already aware, Shark Week on the Discovery Channel begins tonight! That being said, Sharks are my most favorite animal in the entire world. Unfortunately they get a bad reputation for being blood thirsty and aggressive predators. The photo you see above is from a trip to Jupiter, Florida. We traveled to Jupiter just to swim with sharks in the ocean.
The day we were out on the water, we initially encountered some very shy bull sharks. Gradually once we passed the vibe check and the sharks could trust us, there were twenty-one plus bull sharks coming to the surface. Because the sharks could trust that we were not going to harm them and were not weak or injured prey, they allowed us to swim closely with them. The bull sharks approaching us was not an instant process. They key word here is PROCESS.
Trust is critical for any working relationship. In therapy, trust is an important if not critical factor for successful outcomes and progress.
Have We Met Yet?
Have we met yet? If not, I want to take this time to introduce myself.
1. I am Amy Pope-Latham - Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of Florida. I am originally from Long Island, New York or as it is pronounced back home, "Lawng Guyland".
2. I am a Certified Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist. I utilize a Somatic Attachment Focused EMDR (SAFE) model in my practice as a trauma therapist.
3. I specialize in working with athletes and adolescents! I also have the privilege of working with a variety of amazing people, regardless of my specializations.
4. I love medicine and I have tremendous respect and admiration for the human body. That being said, I largely use biology, neuroscience, and physiology concepts in my practice to better help my clients.
5. My posts on social media and this blog are not therapy and should never be considered a replacement for therapy. You are allowed to laugh and enjoy the content I share though!
Thank you for attending my Ted-Talk. Enjoy the rest of your day!
Anxiety is NOT just in your head
As a mental health expert specializing in working with elite and professional athletes, playing a sport won't "solve" or "cure" issues related to mental health.
What I generally observe is a disconnect occurring between the mind and body, affecting performance, and ultimately affecting emotional safety and health. This cycle circulates in one big loop, or what I love to phrase as a "pattern".
At the same time, it is also important to recognize that an athlete is still a human being under the helmet or uniform he or she wears.
Just because a person can compartmentalize and carry pain well does not mean it is not heavy for that person.
With Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy becoming popularized as a mental health treatment, I would like to spend some time with you today talking about the various mechanisms of trauma and how it affects our brain and its functioning.
A primary question I often receive centers on the question of "what is dissociation" and "will I dissociate during EMDR?". Dissociation is a survival oriented process. Dissociation is the way the brain has the ability to take something that is so overwhelming when a patient cannot escape a stressful event and/or is caught in the freeze response.
So for example, there might be a child being hurt by a caregiver. Children are often too small to run away or fight back. They are the victim of the grown up. What the brain does during this type of scenario is that it allows the child to be there and not be there at the same time. In other words, the dissociative process of the brain is protecting the child so they can survive the experience.
EMDR therapy helps patients move through the dissociative process, which is inherent in any kind of trauma. EMDR helps the patient move through the experience with a much reduced rate of emotional arousal.
For the previous thirty years when trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were added to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), it only categorized trauma as specifically large or “Big T” events. However, adverse life experiences or “little traumas” can also have a major impact on social, emotional, psychological, and physiological functioning.
I personally choose not to define trauma by “little” or “big” events. What is significant to me in my professional opinion is how the smaller, more repetitive patterns of events become recorded in the nervous system and because of its repetition, these experiences gradually accumulate in the brain.
Where in the brain does this all get stored? Please allow me to introduce to you, if you have not already learned about the amygdala. The amygdala is within the right hemisphere of the brain, known for responding to a heightened sense of arousal. The amygdala translates information that it receives from the other parts of the brain into an emotional response. This type of response can manifest in a variety of ways within the body (e.g. heightened blood pressure, more rapid breathing, blood moving from the central part of the body to the peripheral, and the release of adrenaline).
In my next post, I will continue to discuss two key symptom behaviors that are congruent with trauma: avoidance and rumination. Stay tuned!
Athletes face various challenges in their career on and off the sports field. I feel that a greater knowledge of the conceptualization of mindfulness and its impact on psychological skills could truly shift the way athletes maintain and even improve performance before, during, and after game time. In the unforgiving environment of professional sports, dysfunctional thinking can impact and interfere with performance.
When working with professional athletes, I love collaborating with my clients to develop specific strategies to address dysfunctional thinking patterns and other challenges. Coping strategies offer athletes additional psychological opportunities to enhance his or her chances of performing at his or her highest level under very demanding, stressful, and sometimes even hostile conditions.
Before going any further in this blog post, I believe it is important to give credit to where credit it is due. Mindfulness is popular and used generously among mental health professionals as treatment for a variety of mental health disorders, including most notably, anxiety and trauma-related disorders. My two personal favorite types of Mindfulness interventions are Mindfulness Based- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I was first introduced to Dr. Kabat-Zinn and MBSR in graduate school. Although I attended Stony Brook University, I was offered the opportunity to enroll in a research-based elective, dually offered by Columbia University and it's Advanced Consortium on "Evidence Based Practices", and in reflection, I am so happy I accepted the opportunity!
High performance athletes can experience a variety of performance-inhibiting stressors. Most frequently, my clients come to session and process topics that induce stress such as: unrealistic expectations because of perfectionism, competition anxiety, anger and other negative emotions, fear of failure, perceived pressure, and avoidance behavior. Additionally, other factors that can negatively impact performance include: having an avoidant coping style, interpersonal problems, or life-balance difficulties.
However, similar to the most successful surgeons, athletes have the distinct superpower to transform stressors automatically into fuel in order to meet the specific demands of the game. In other words, athletes use this automatic process, similar to autopilot as a way to use stress as energy, resulting in enhanced performance. Most frequently this superpower is an alternative label for more well-known defense mechanisms such as "compartmentalization" and "sublimation".
So if athletes have metaphorical black belts in compartmentalizing and channeling emotional and psychological stress into elite performance fuel, why are we focusing on Mindfulness? Mindfulness focuses on changing the function, not the form of behavior, emotion, thinking, or how we experience things. Mindfulness aims to change the relationship of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has no desire to change the content of those thoughts and emotions. How can this be integrated into elite sports? Perhaps breathing exercises can be introduced in a non-sport setting. Athletes can integrate mindfulness exercises directly during a big play when they focus on the breath or letting go of thoughts of pain or discomfort. One of my favorite techniques is using a body scan exercise. Again, thinking of how this can be woven into the tapestry of sport, a body scan exercise can be easily completed during the cool-down at the end of practice or training.
I don’t want to suggest that using mindfulness will automatically lead to major shifts in performance overnight. But down the road with further inclusion of mental health support in professional sports, I think we will start to see a happier and overall healthier group of professional athletes and role models.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a board certified mental health professional in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.