Today, I’m so pleased to welcome author Ilene Smith to the show. Ilene is the author of the new book, Moving Beyond Trauma: The Roadmap to Healing from Your Past and Living with Ease and Vitality. In this episode, Ilene talks about how her work and research with healing the nervous system applies directly to the pandemic we all find ourselves in the midst of right now.
She offers insight into how we are being impacted on a nervous system level, the ways in which this new reality is actually helping us to be healthier, and tips for being aware when we do find ourselves in moments of fear and anxiety.
Nikki Van Noy: Ilene, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us.
Ilene Smith: Well, thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m so excited to talk to you in general. And also, specifically at this period in our history when so much of what you have to say is really relevant. First and foremost, though, before we get into where we’re at currently, I would love it if you could just provide listeners with your definition of what trauma actually is.
Ilene Smith: What a great way to start. So, the way I see trauma is that it’s anything that happens too much, too fast and too soon, without any ability to defend yourself. That energy gets locked in our bodies and that’s really the trauma. It’s not really about the event. It’s about that energy that we hold on to in that experience.
Nikki Van Noy: I just love that description because trauma is sort of framed as such a dramatic word and something that tends to happen to other people and not to us. But this is a much more broad definition that you’re giving to it.
Ilene Smith: Well, one of the things that I always like to tell people is that if you’re human, on some level, you’re going to experience trauma. Even now with the coronavirus crisis that we’re in, I mean, we can see everyone’s reacting to it differently. But certainly, too much too soon, too
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, that’s true, the coronavirus is sort of the epitome of what you described as trauma.
Ilene Smith: For sure. It’s been wild from my perspective to be observing the world around us and it’s pretty crazy.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. I really want to dig into that. But to lay the groundwork for that conversation, I want to talk about your thoughts, as a therapist, because so many of us think of therapy in a more traditional sense, such as sitting down and talking with a counselor or it being this more cognitive intellectual process. I’d love you to share what you do and how you think about therapy.
Ilene Smith: You know, it’s really interesting. Just to give you the name of it, it’s called Somatic Experiencing and it’s developed by Doctor Peter Lavine. And in Somatic Experiencing, the talking is less about the story, and while we all need an empathic witness to our story, the stories that are told in the kind of therapy that I do are really to get us to the real story, which is what’s held in the body.
I think that talk therapy is a wonderful way to get to know yourself. It’s a wonderful vehicle to create insight to understand your past, to link your past to how you’re experiencing life today. But to really resolve trauma, we need to bring the body into the healing process.
The body, it’s almost like the body needs an empathic witness. You know, when we experience trauma, our bodies lose their sense of safety and so if you think about someone who has let’s say PTSD would be a good example, the person with the PTSD is walking around the world and they experience everything with a sense of danger. Because if they’ve been through a traumatic event and they didn’t get to defend themselves, that memory gets held in their bodies and in their tissue.
In Somatic Experiencing and in body-based therapies, what we’re trying to do is really build the body as a safe container so that we can move through these past experiences with some sense of mastery. And when we do that, we reintegrate and renegotiate those trauma memories back into the body.
Nikki Van Noy: I love what you’re talking about because if I really stop and think about it, in the times when I am triggered or my nervous system is fired up, that’s something that I feel. It’s a physical experience.
Ilene Smith: Yeah, for sure. If you think about it, people say they’re anxious. Well, I ask clients all the time, how do you know you’re anxious? What basically what you’re often going to hear from a person is, “Well, I feel it in my stomach, my heart’s racing.” Yes, these emotions that we talk about, they’re actually sensations. Every emotion is linked to a sensation.
So, if you think of it from that perspective, why wouldn’t we bring the body into the process to try to heal?
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s start to wind this into where we’re at right now and first, give listeners the opportunity to identify where they might be at right now. If the current pandemic is something that is triggering your nervous system in some way, what are some of the ways that might feel like?
Ilene Smith: Well, think about what we’re seeing at the supermarkets. People are so anxious. They’re stocking up. And we’re seeing a lot of fear. Everything around this is because of all the uncertainty, we don’t feel safe.
Uncertainty is going to bread fear. We live in a society where we’re so used to and we’re so conditioned for things to be a certain way and our whole world right now is turned upside down. I think we’re seeing panic. Look at what’s happening in the financial markets. We’re seeing people fearful of being ill, obviously. What we’re experiencing right now is we’re really experiencing a collective trauma vortex.
Nikki Van Noy: Well, first of all, explain to me what you mean by trauma vortex?
Ilene Smith: A trauma vortex would be, we don’t have any sense of safety right now. When our bodies are not feeling safe, what happens is our defense mechanisms basically turn on.
We know that our defense mechanisms of fight, flight, or freeze are meant for acute states. What we’re experiencing right now is people living in this fight, flight, or freeze and it’s becoming a chronic state because we’re in a crisis. We’re in a pandemic crisis. The vortex is that we’re swirling in those survival skills. Our stress hormones are up and collectively, we’re manifesting more anxiety.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, you know, I was really struck by what you were saying about the experience of going to the grocery store. Because I know me, personally, I’ve been tracking this story since early January when it was in China, I had an awareness of the virus and what it meant and how it could be optimally dealt with. I was keeping it pretty cool. And it was not great to find out, but interesting to me to find out, that I did okay until I went to the grocery store and that was when I really felt myself starting to go.
Ilene Smith: Well, it would make sense. Everybody around you is activated. Their systems are on high alert. So, think about, if other people are on high alert, think about what that’s going to do to the next person’s nervous system. I think what’s happening at the grocery stores is that one person is seeing that there’s no food left, and everyone experiences this collective panic.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, your survival instincts kick in. In a way totally separate from the virus itself.
Ilene Smith: Right, why are people hoarding toilet paper?
Nikki Van Noy: It’s so bizarre.
Ilene Smith: It makes no sense. But I know when I went to the store and there was no toilet paper, I came home, and I took inventory.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. Well yeah, you have to, totally. With all of this in mind, what are some things that we can practice especially when we’re in this situation where it’s sort of all-encompassing and anything you do to move about your daily life, you’re reminded of this situation we’re in right now?
Ilene Smith: Well, that is a great question. The first thing I want to share is that, in order for a person to recover from a potentially traumatic event, the sooner a person can feel safe in the aftermath of the trauma, the more they have the capacity to recover.
What does that mean? I just wrote an article on this. Staying connected to people–finding our safe people to be connected with. We can’t obviously go out and socialize but we can certainly do Face Time and whatever else we need to do to stay connected.
I think the other thing which goes back to Somatic Experiencing and body-based therapies is that we really need to, during this time, to try to stay embodied. What does that mean? It means keeping our bodies moving. It’s about not disconnecting from ourselves. That may mean getting out for a walk if your state is allowing you to. It might mean rolling out that yoga mat. Maybe it’s just dancing around your house and putting music on. But it’s really about that we need to try to stay connected to ourselves and to people around us, and we need to keep ourselves as a safe container as best as we can in the midst of all this.
Those would be the big things, I would say. And I think, if you have children, I think it’s really important that you talk to them and you’re honest and you share with full disclosure. But also try to create safety for them–giving them all the things that they need to be doing to keep themselves safe.
Because we don’t feel safe. Within our own little bubbles that we’re living in right now, we have to try to create that.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, I love this piece of what you just said because we are in such a sea of a lack of control right now. This is a little piece of driftwood to hold on to, which is that we’re in a very unique position of being able to understand that we are in a traumatic situation or potentially traumatic situation as we are actually in the midst of it.
I was struck by you saying that the quicker we can recognize trauma, the easier it is to reset or heal, however you put it.
Ilene Smith: Yeah. I think it’s really more about finding some sense of safety and orientation, like being able to find little pockets of safety within all of this. For me, part of my safety right now is keeping a routine. It is making sure that I have some sense of organization in my day, because what is going on around us is completely disorganized, and as a society, we are very disoriented to this new normal. It doesn’t feel normal.
The other piece of this too is that we are not used to our lives moving this slowly. So, our nervous systems are not used to this experience. I mean this is kind of old school. Everything is slowing down. You know everything has been moving so fast in our world for so long.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, it’s so true. I find myself constantly flashing back to the 80s when I was a kid. Like all of a sudden, the 80s feel so present in my mind.
Ilene Smith: Oh completely, I am here in Arizona, so we are just now getting on the shelter thing. I have never seen more people out walking than I have in the last couple of weeks because there is nothing else to do. So, people are now walking around the neighborhoods, as we did as kids. People sitting out in their front lawns or their front porches and waiting for people to come by to create some connection. It is very interesting.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s fascinating. I noticed about a week and a half into this that, despite the fact that there is this very real pressing thing, my body all of a sudden unlocks and I haven’t even realized how tight it was until all of a sudden one day, I realized, “Whoa, it’s gone.” And to me it seems like there’s this other thing that can be happening right now, at least I am experiencing it, where it is almost like we have this opportunity to trade in those million invisible little stresses that just compound from all of this running around and all of the busy things we do, sort of trading it in for this one very big stressful thing.
But it is something we can see and that we have to be slow in the face of.
Ilene Smith: Yeah, we are being forced. I think it is changing our perspective on everything. I think that people are really beginning to re-prioritize, which you know is not a bad thing. I mean this is awful–the pandemic is awful. But there are going to be some really wonderful things that come out of this for a lot of people.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, I agree with you. What, as someone in your line of work, would you like to see people take away from this?
Ilene Smith: That is a really good question. I think that the big thing, I would say is the connectivity piece that is happening right now. I know for myself, I have heard from people that I haven’t heard from forever.
So, all of a sudden, we’re talking because we have more time, we are actually taking the time to talk to each other. There is less texting and there is more Face Timing and there are more phone calls. There is just more real connectivity.
I think the big thing is the connectivity piece. We are not as impulsive, I think, because we are being forced to not be able to have instant gratification on so many levels.
Nikki Van Noy: The escapes are gone.
Ilene Smith: All of our distractions are gone. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had days where I am like, “Well, I’m bored,” and I’m like, “Wait a minute that is a choice.” Being bored is going to be a choice. So, I think the big things are really connectivity and seeing that we are becoming less impulsive through this.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, it is such a fascinating experience to have all of your outlets and distractions taken away at once. I’m in California and there was a moment here, and this was really only a couple of days, but when everything was shut down, we were just adapting to this. It was closer to the beginning and then along with that, the internet started going down because there was just so much usage. That was a really interesting feeling, watching all of the places we run to one by one sort of go away.
Ilene Smith: Yeah, I think things are beginning to settle. I think people are settling into this, but I think the first week or so of this the level of anxiety that I was seeing around me, our nervous systems were almost overloaded with the slowness. It is like our systems couldn’t tolerate the fact that we had to slow. We were being forced to slow down this much.
Being an Observer
Nikki Van Noy: Ilene, what I would love to do is give listeners just a little tool to walk away with. So, say we’re at a moment where we are getting a grocery delivery and can feel our nervous system sort of ticking up out of fear about cardboard boxes or making hand-to-hand exchanges with people. What can we do in that moment to begin to bring ourselves down?
Ilene Smith: The first thing we need to do is we need to start observing. So, especially with all of the media coming at us, we are so caught up in the story. Every day there is a new piece to the story.
So, when we are dealing with ourselves and the delivery guy shows up, the narrative needs to look something like, “I notice that I am feeling nervous about this guy coming towards my house. I notice that I am not six feet away. I notice that…” whatever it is that you’re noticing within your system, “I notice that my heart is beating faster.” Because the first step in trying to manage the nervous system is, we have to become our own observers. We are so conditioned not to feel and not to be in our own experiences that we have to reel it back in. The reason why we get more caught up in our story than being in our own observation is because it’s scary for us to feel. But until we can start observing ourselves, we really can’t start healing. Observation is always the first step.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. I love that because each one of us has the capacity to do that.
Ilene Smith: Yeah, it is available to us at any time. We are so caught up in the why we’re experiencing things. So, now if we can just bring ourselves back to what’s happening because we use the why’s as a distraction to the what. Because the what means we have to experience our bodies. What is happening in the body is really scary for us. On many levels, we just keep wanting to go deeper into a cognitive process and that takes us further away from being present.
Nikki Van Noy: What struck me is you were just saying that is that we’ve been talking about opportunities that exist within this and it seems to me like whereas in so many of our own personal lives when we are working through things at least it can feel like there is a complicated story or all of these unknown pieces we have to fit together. This is not complicated, necessarily. We know what’s going on and why it’s happening.
So, it seems like that can get into the habit of getting out of the why, like you just said, and allowing us to observe ourselves and move from there.
Ilene Smith: Well, think about why people watch the news so much. If you watch the news you don’t have to be in your own experience.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah.
Ilene Smith: One of the things I recommend for people is to find a good news source, stick to that source and check in with your news source two or three times a day for 15 to 20 minutes and that’s it. Because beyond that then you are just trying not to have to feel. Watching the news all day is a way to numb yourself out from what you are experiencing.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, or to throw yourself into a panic. I mean I know I’ve had that experience before. I’ve learned I just have to stay away from the news at this point or else I go into a pretty big reaction.
Ilene Smith: Oh, for sure. Even the reaction is a way to distract you from what you were experiencing before you turned the news on.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay.
Ilene Smith: So, if I turn the news on, I can distract myself from that and I can be in this other story. It moves you away from your own experience of the intensity that you are feeling within yourself. You can get into the bigger collective trauma piece of it.
Nikki Van Noy: So, what I am taking away from this that I know I will be cognizant of in my own life is to really be mindful about connecting, about observing, and about moving, making sure there is some physical activity built in the day.
Ilene Smith: 110%. And the movement piece, I tell people this all the time. If you’re not embodied, you can’t get curious about what’s going on within you and around you. This is really an opportunity for us at this time since we’re home that we can get curious about different things. We have opportunities to learn and educate ourselves and maybe take up new hobbies. And so, if we not embodied and we are hovering above ourselves, we are never going to take advantage of this time for those things.
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. All right, the book again is Moving Beyond Trauma by Ilene Smith.
I just want to point out that obviously Ilene, you cover a much broader range of topics in this book. I just could not resist the opportunity to talk to you about what is going on right now because I think you do have such valuable and pertinent things to say in this situation.
Ilene Smith: Well, thank you. I feel on some level grateful for the timing of this book because I really do think that it will help people move through this experience and find a way to heal from it because we are going to need a lot of healing from this.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely, Ilene outside of the book where else can listeners find you?
Ilene Smith: My website is ilenesmith.com. I am also on Instagram, which is Ilene Smith Trauma Healing and Facebook as well and I think that is about it.
Nikki Van Noy: Perfect. Your voice is so calming, I think the next time that I go into a grocery store panic, I am just going to call you.
Ilene Smith: You are welcome to call me anytime.
Nikki Van Noy: All right Ilene, best of luck with the book. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Ilene Smith: Thank you so much.