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Transforming Childhood Trauma: Healing Heart, Mind & Body

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Transforming Childhood Trauma: Healing Heart, Mind & Body

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Seeing Our Strengths, Transforming Childhood Trauma

When you’re in pain, support is essential. So is releasing sorrow and anger. But we can get trapped in these emotions, too – ruminate and recreate them in our lives, over and over and again.

One way I know that the kids I counsel are getting healthier emotionally is when I see them begin to identify with their strengths more than their wounds. So, I find it helpful to encourage them to develop practices that help them connect with their gifts.

Here, I think about a boy in a middle school class I once taught. He had a really hard time expressing his strong emotions, rooted in early childhood trauma. He often had fits of anger and was easily triggered. The other kids would often tease him about this, which only led him to act out more and wind up in detention.

But in yoga class, he excelled in some of the harder poses. His peers noticed, and during our compliment processes, they often acknowledged his skill.

His transformation was beautiful to see. He would come into class with his head slumped forward – and leave tall and strong, carrying his mat over his shoulder with an obvious sense of pride. You could see him starting to “own” the positive attributes he could now see in himself. You could see him moving toward the beauty of the fierce passion that lived inside of him.

Planting Positive Seeds

new plantsThere can be no growth – and certainly no flourishing – when our focus is mainly on confronting the negative. As my husband Jim, an avid gardener, likes to say, “You can’t just weed all the time. You need to plant lots of new, desirable plants, too, to outcompete the weeds.”

That’s why, as we wrote in our first book, Yoga Calm for Children,

One of our goals…is to plant and strengthen positive seeds and provide support and education about the negative seeds that have already been planted. If, for instance, alcoholism is present, it is not effective to push that memory away…. To do this can actually strengthen the seed’s power. Secrecy develops fear and curiosity, and may in fact draw a person toward that seed. Consider the phrase, “Don’t think of a brown bear.” Immediately, the mind goes to the image, however hard you try not to think about it.

At the same time, it is important not to overemphasize a seed by discussing it daily—which can also add power to a negative influence. Telling the story of alcoholism over and over in a family system strengthens the fear and belief that the pattern will be repeated.

The idea in Yoga Calm is to acknowledge the negative seeds, allow the feelings to emerge, then plant many positive seeds to help the individual walk a path leading toward a constructive rather than destructive lifestyle.

Working from Places of Strength

Over and again in my 30+ years of working with youth and adults, I have found this strength-based approach to be extremely effective. And since the broad emergence of such approaches back in the last decades of the 20th century, a wide variety of studies have confirmed their benefit.

Strengths have been linked to prediction of positive outcomes. In a study, providing the multi-disciplinary team with strength-based data resulted in better academic, social and overall outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorders as compared to traditional socio-emotive report that focused on the problems that students were facing.

This suggests the possible usefulness of strength-based assessment. Indeed, in another study on children and adolescents living in residential homes, the level of strengths significantly predicted success in the reduction of risk behaviors. Even in the community, studies have shown the importance of focusing on strengths rather than deficits. Strengths assessments were associated with good behavioral functioning and greater competencies.

A strengths approach offers a genuine basis for people taking control of their own lives in meaningful and sustainable ways. These include

  • Focus on trusting and workable relationships.
  • Working in collaborative ways on mutually agreed upon goals.
  • Drawing upon the personal resources of motivation and hope.
  • Creating sustainable change through learning and experiential growth.
  • Empowering people to take a lead in their own care process.

Transforming Childhood Trauma

young girlThe statistics on stress and trauma are daunting, but there’s new hope with strength-based approaches that include self-care tools such as yoga to complement existing approaches.

Since stress and trauma reside in, and manifest through, the body’s physiology, learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience can substantially promote emotion regulation and self-efficacy. Yoga, mindfulness and Trauma Releasing Exercises (learn more about TRE) do just that — promoting somatic regulation and interoceptive awareness.

For as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has noted, trauma is not a cognitive state. It’s a physical experience. And just as a body was once “reset” to respond to the world as a dangerous place – traumatized – so it can be reset again through somatic therapies.

Resilience can be learned. And strength is where we begin.


You can learn new tools for a strength‐based approach in classroom and therapeutic settings with our newest course, “Transforming Childhood Trauma: Healing Heart, Mind and Body.” Join Yoga Calm co-founder Lynea Gillen and Yoga Calm national training manager Kathy Flaminio for a two-day workshop in St. Paul, March 18 – 19 or in Portland, April 29 – 30, 2017.

In this two-day course, you will learn a strength‐based approach for working with childhood trauma that engages the whole child, including their physical, mental, and emotional resources to promote healing, develop resilience and support growth.

You’ll learn to integrate evidence-based tools such as yoga, mindfulness, Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), and social-emotional learning activities into your work with youth (ages 3‐18) to safely release stress, regulate the nervous system, express and integrate feelings, and attend to the present moment.

Putting theory into practice, you will also learn how to build resilience “toolkits” and lesson/treatment plans from identified family and cultural strengths, community support, and self‐care practices.

Register now!

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Cultivating More Positive Emotions

the limbic lobeThe idea of an “emotional bank account” isn’t just a nice psychological metaphor. Science backs it up.

Just last month, a new study in Nature Neuroscience shed new light on the relationship between positive and negative memories – memories that are processed in the amygdala, a cluster of neurons deep in the brain. By inhibiting the activity of either fear- or reward-encoding neurons, the researchers found that they could affect the formation of memories in mice.

They found that when [fear-encoding] neurons were inhibited, mice could not form fearful memories, and when [reward-encoding] neurons were inhibited, they could not form positive memories.

The researchers also discovered that each population of neurons can inhibit the other: When they stimulated activity in the reward neurons, activity in the fear neurons was suppressed, and vice versa. This suggests that the brain constantly balances activity between these two populations of neurons.

“Ultimately what we have is a seesaw between positive and negative,” Kim says. “It’s highly speculative, but anxiety and depression symptoms may be the result of an imbalance between these two populations.”

We Need Both Positive & Negative Emotions

The idea of balance is borne out in the psychological literature, as well. While psychologists such as Dr. Gottman have recommended an ideal ratio of 5 good experiences to each bad one, a 2005 study in American Psychologist found that the “tipping point” was 3 to 1. That was the minimum needed, the authors suggested, for a healthy and happy life.

But there’s a role for negative emotions, as well. According to the author of the tipping point study, Barbara Frederickson,

Negative emotions…are necessary for us to flourish, and positive emotions are by nature subtle and fleeting; the secret is not to deny their transience but to find ways to increase [the quantity of positive emotions]. She recommends that, rather than try to eliminate negativity, we balance negative feelings with positive ones. Below a certain ratio of positive to negative, Fredrickson says, people get pulled into downward spirals, their behavior becomes rigid and predictable, and they begin to feel burdened and lifeless.

It’s all about balance. And mindfulness is where it begins.

SEL Starts with Mindfulness

meditation tagAs we’ve noted before, mindfulness is the foundation for the full range of social and emotional skills we’re called to nurture in children. After all, you can’t even begin to develop emotional intelligence without first having basic awareness of your thoughts and emotions – and the fact that we can control them and that they can affect our performance.

This is also why yoga is such a good match for SEL. It, too, rests upon mindfulness.

Frederickson, too, notes that mindfulness may also help us cultivate more positive emotions, helping keep our emotional bank account properly balanced. As she said in a 2009 interview in The Sun,

One way [to cultivate more positive emotions] is to be aware of the present moment, because most moments are positive. We miss many opportunities to experience positive emotions now by thinking too much about the past or worrying about the future, rather than being open to what is.

In these anxious, uncertain times, we could all benefit from this – and helping the children in our lives develop the emotional intelligence that will help them stay strong, resilient, and capable.

Learn more about how to bring positive emotions into your classroom, home and therapeutic sessions with Lynea Gillen’s free Social/Emotional Learning (SEL) webinar this Sunday, November 27, 4-5pm. In it, you’ll learn three stress busters for you and your students, how to develop SEL skills with preK-12 youth, how to deal with disruptive behavior and how to develop Grit – emotional strength and resilience. Register now!

Brain image by OpenStax College, via Wikimedia Commons;
kids image by Todd Fahrner, via Flickr

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Middle School Ages, School Setting, Listening Lesson Plan (Kubacki)

Instructor: Carrie Kubacki

Community: Middle School Ages, School Setting, 30 minutes

Plan Creation Date: November 1, 2016

Yoga Calm Principle/Lesson Goal: Listening

Lesson Plan:

Calm

  • Belly Breathing – using Hoberman Sphere. Slow, gentle inhales and exhales. Listen to our breathing, our bodies and our minds. When we listen to ourselves—can tell how we are feeling. Volunteers to help lead/count. Ask for compliments from the class for the leaders.
  • Pulse Count – Practice for 20 seconds.  Listen to our bodies again as we sit still. Bodies tell us what we need—nervous, angry, relaxed.

Activate

  • Story Telling Activity – “The Other Way to Listen” – Briefly discuss purpose of book. Encourage students to consider what they need to do to best listen to the story. After story discuss the other way to listen.  What is needed to really listen?  How does respect fit in?  Where do they go to listen?
  • Mountain – With arms at sides, pretend we are the main character in the hills, quiet and still, what can we hear?
  • Tree Pose – Student led. What type of tree would you wish to be?  Quiet cottonwood like in the story? What would your tree be trying to tell you?  Compliments for the student leader.
  • Star Pose – Student led. Imagine being out on a starry night, quiet, still. What can we hear from the stars at night?  Imagine we are all stars out in the room. Compliments for leader.
  • Mountain – Hands at heart center, sign of respect. Respect needed to listen, respect for self, others, world.

Calm

  • Belly Breathing – back to listening to own self, breath, body, mind.
  • One Minute Mindfulness – my own creation – Safe Place Listening. Where are you?  What do you see?  Hear?  Any people with you who help you feel safe?  What might they say to you?
  • Relaxation – Stillness and listening – Himalayan Singing Bowl Listening Meditation – Awareness to all the sounds, vibrations.

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Middle School Ages, School Setting, Community Lesson Plan (Kubacki)

Instructor: Carrie Kubacki

Community: Middle School Ages, School Setting, 30 minutes

Plan Creation Date: November 1, 2016

Yoga Calm Principle/Lesson Goal: Community

Lesson Plan:

Calm

  • Belly Breathing – using Hoberman Sphere – Slow, gentle inhales and exhales to bring calm to the entire group. Help out our entire class community to feel the calm breathing by being calm and still ourselves. Volunteers to help lead/count. Ask for compliments from the class for the leaders.
  • Pulse Count – Practice for 20 seconds.  Pay attention to the quiet and calm of the entire group as we all take our pulses.

Activate

  • Cat/Cow Stretches
  • Alternate Arm/Leg Kicks – Imagine reaching your support out to those around you.
  • Mountain Pose – Envision being a strong mountain range together as a group.
  • Upward Mountain – with strong arms. Imagine supporting one another with that strength.
  • Sun Salutation A – three rounds. Focus on flowing together as one community. Creating a positive energy for one another as we give thanks to the sun.
  • Tree Circle – A forest of strong trees, supporting one another, giving one another positive energy.
  • Communication Activity – Changing Tree/Mirror Tree – Volunteers to lead different types of tree—strength tree, happy tree, calm tree. Mirror Tree with a partner. Discuss communication without talking as one large group.
  • Seated Twist – As gently twist back, look at community gathered around us. Positive energy, smiles as we close physical activity.

Calm

  • Child’s Pose – Calm and quiet pose. Feel the quiet energy from the group.
  • Reclined Twist
  • Belly Breathing – on backs.
  • One Minute Mindfulness – Community Card – Think about those people who are your community, help you to feel safe and protected.
  • Relaxation – Stillness and listening – Himalayan Singing Bowl Listening Meditation.

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Middle School Ages, School Setting, Stillness Lesson Plan (Kubacki)

Instructor: Carrie Kubacki

Community: Middle School Ages, School Setting, 30 minutes

Plan Creation Date: November 1, 2016

Yoga Calm Principle/Lesson Goal: Stillness

Lesson Plan:

Calm

  • Belly Breathing – using Hoberman Sphere or fingers. Slow, gentle inhales and exhales to bring calm and stillness. Slower the breathing, the quieter our minds. Relate to previous discussions of chest, rapid and shallow breathing versus slow, controlled belly breathing. Volunteers to help lead/count. Ask for compliments from the class for the leaders.
  • Pulse Count – Practice for 20 seconds.  What does our pulse feel like when we are still and relaxed? In what situations would it be helpful to have a slow pulse versus a fast pulse?

Activate

  • Mountain Pose – Find center. Focus on standing as still as possible. Close eyes and see how our stillness changes.
  • Shoulder and Neck Rolls – Inhale roll shoulders up, exhale slowly as shoulders go back and down. In stillness can we become aware of where we might be holding muscle tension. Our bodies tell us what we need.
  • Forward Fold—Folding Star – Finding stillness in forward folds. Helps to calm and relax us. Relate to rock/child’s pose.
  • Seated Twist – Gentle, slow twist to reduce muscle tension. Be still and quiet in the twist. Three breaths each direction.
  • Teaching Lesson/Social-Emotional Activity – Lesson:  “The Importance of Sleep,” discuss amount of sleep needed, importance of sleep, effects of lack of sleep, how to improve sleep. Activity: Quiet Voice – Have students listen and then complete the worksheet on their own. Discussion of how our thoughts can influence our feelings and behaviors. Listening to our quiet voice can help us to be still.

Calm

  • Belly Breathing – with arms flowing to sides, starting with even 2:2 count and then extending the exhales to 2:4—Reminder that slow breathing and extending exhales can help us to calm ourselves and still and quiet the body and mid. When we count our breaths our minds need to quiet as well.
  • Relaxation – Stillness exercise—“Starry Night” (pre-made personal guided visualization). Students visualize walking at night as the sky changes from dusk to starry sky.

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