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In the library, book review of No Comfort Zone by Marla Handy.

I encountered a recommendation for this author in an article on whether people have to move on from their trauma. Handy was suggested as an author who had written about acceptance of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a condition that may not ever go away. At the time, I knew this was something I’d need to read but it felt too painful to do that yet.

This week became the right time, so I bought the ebook version on my kindle. It is a well paced book, beginning with an eloquent chapter on what living with PTSD is like. Handy is very skilled at using metaphors to explain the aspects of trauma that I struggle to explain to people. Her images of the split screen TV, the box of shit and the strings of photos building up her memories allow her to talk about the stages of trauma recovery in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before.

The most comforting thing about this book is that Handy remains determined not to resort to clichés but to be honest about her journey. She does include details of the abuse that she suffers but only in a very sparing way, I understood the significance without being caught up in reliving the feelings the abuse evoked. Each story connects up years of Handy not knowing why she was different and then her new acceptance and coping around that trauma. There’s a sense of connection to this book, a gathering up of shattered fragments and then the affirmation that even if there is no fix, life can still be beautiful.

I’m glad I purchased this, there is a lot to mull over. I’ll re read it and I suspect I’ll make time for some personal journalling inspired by it. It’s a rare book that can be a companion in times of pain, unrelentingly frank but also gentle, and this book does that for me.

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Restorative Yoga, Yay or nay?

This weekend I took part in Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Day Of Dance. I chose not to take any of the dance workshops due to being low on spoons and triggered from a week of flashbacks. Instead, I chose a drumming workshop and a restorative Yoga Session.

Yoga is generally acknowledged as helpful in recovering from trauma. There are many types of Yoga, meaning that you can try a class you’re suited to. I think a bikram steam class would be panic attack city for me but I like the sound of Yoga in the park. The beauty of a discipline like Yoga is that there are lots of ways to tailor it to your needs. Yoga classes are available in most areas at cheap prices. The principles of Yoga; breathing, awareness, engaging your muscles to stretch your body and calm your nerves are all ones that appear to apply to trauma recovery.

That said, I can well see why ‘try a Yoga class!’ may not be the helpful advice people intend it to be. Yoga has a lot of spiritual connotations that can form a challenge for survivors of ritual abuse. Typically, ritual abuse is seen as to do with Satanic cults but it can include any kind of faith based rituals used to accompany/mask abuse. Eastern philosophies and guru devotee relationships have been exploited by abusers. So it’s not necessarily true that a survivor of sexual abuse would feel safe in a Yoga class. I myself have difficulties with guided meditation which my abuser liked to use to make me compliant and confused.

As much as physical movement has a role in releasing somatic symptoms, taking an exercise class when I am a PTSD flare up hurts. I feel very vulnerable going in to a class in form fitting clothing and being in close proximity to strangers. Loving ones body is a popular concept in Yoga but there are days when hearing the advice to be kind to my body is incredibly painful to hear, let alone attempt to do. I find being in my body means having to face up to muscular pain, body memories, tight chestedness and my own feelings. The movements that exert someone who is tired or anxious feel like a marathon when I am in a state of PTSD exhaustion. Yes, moving around helps in the medium term. But in the short term, I suffer. So for a Yoga class to feel worth it, I need to feel safe.

Thus I arrived at the Restorative Yoga class feeling apprehensive. Luckily my Mum joined me, which made me feel committed enough to give the class a chance. The class was billed as:

‘ slow paced including some short flow to start and then moving into longer held forward folds, deep hip openers and twists to really help you stretch out the body, unwind your mind from your day’s activities & revitalise you without over stimulating. A great tonic for a restful sleep. This practice will be accessible for all levels of practitioners – a great opportunity to practice a gentle yoga practice and a perfect counter balance to dynamic yoga, a busy day of moving, been sitting static for long periods or been caught up in the chaos of general day to day life!’

The teacher was a calm gentle woman who gave us students ample time to find a space we felt ok about, so I had enough personal space to feel calm. I could pick a spot near the door. She explained clearly what Restorative Yoga is, how it works and what the point of the class was – to try out a few poses (called Asanas) to get a feel for relaxing. Restorative Yoga doesn’t rely on getting into poses via muscular strength. Instead the teacher taught us how to arrange props (cushions, blocks, blankets,  straps) so that we could get into a pose and lie there, the props taking our weight. Each pose lasted a good five minutes. The idea was that I could just ‘be’ and notice what my body was feeling vs trying to hold a pose.

I enjoyed this different approach. It was a lot less physically tiring and had I been struggling with injuries – I often have them from dissociation while working out – I could still have participated. None of the poses put any stress on my chest that might have induced panic. Traditional yoga tends to freak me out because I find some bending movements too scary but I didn’t have to do those. The teacher stuck to images of relaxation like letting gravity hold the body, which helped me. The pace of the class gave me time to adjust my body if I found I was uncomfortable. I managed to do an hour and a half without feeling overwhelmed.

After class, I noticed feeling looser and more rested. The poses were simple enough that I’d consider doing a few at home, particularly when I use a self compassion meditation exercise.

If you want to know more about Restorative Yoga, this is a link to the yoga journals articles on it:

http://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/restorative-types-of-yoga

In the library: book review of ‘The Body Keeps Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the transformation of trauma.’ Bessel van der Kolk.

Libraries are one of safe places when I am in public. As a kid, I felt a rare sense of home in my local library and I still feel it among the shelves in my town library. Libraries are places where anyone can seek sanctuary. This is my virtual library, where I can natter with you about books. We can natter as loudly as we like. There is no virtual librarian here..

So, the Body Keeps Score. What does that mean?  I arrived in therapy with several low level physical ailments that I was ignoring (acid reflux, severe neck pain, injuries from accidents I had whilst dissociated) and these weird sensations. It turns out, they were painful or weird sensations that turned up when my PTSD was triggered, along with memories and flashbacks came migraines, vomiting, muscle pains, my body was keeping score. The premise of van der Kolk book holds true and I wanted to see what he suggested as a remedy.

This book is written by a psychiatric doctor whose practice has led him to seek treatments beyond medication and talk therapy to treat his traumatised patients. There’s an interesting tension in modern medicine about whether people should be treated primarily with meds/talk therapy and how to prescribe complementary therapies. The Body Keeps Score discusses the scientific evidence of how trauma affects us physiologically and then talks about treatments like:

Yoga

Sport

Drama

EMDR

Meditation.

Van der Kolk looks at each treatment and shares his experience of trials where it has succeeded or failed. He includes case examples of people with various kinds of trauma, which I found useful. It’s hard to make judgment calls on whether to try a treatment like EMDR or meditation and van der Kolk is honest about what types of people benefit the most. The distinction he draws between PTSD and complex PTSD – and the challenges of recovering – really helped me see what might work for me.

I learned about a few new approaches that may work for me. The book was well written, it included a lot of passion and personal experiences from the author about his own life. I find it easy to read along without getting muddled which I can do if a book becomes too clinical or detailed. It made me consider whether I would find some relief in yoga/dance and how I could better look after my body as it recovers.

It’s worth mentioning that the case examples of patients include a few harrowing accounts of war and abuse. Each one is relevant to the treatment discussed but if you are effected by reading others accounts, that’s worth knowing.