Talking to the Lizard Brain

Last month, I talked about how old trauma replays in the body like a broken record. So today, let’s look at how we can use body sensing to tune in to this “recording” and let it play through in a new way, rewiring and releasing the trauma.

Let’s start with our lizard brain…

The most primitive part of our brain—the reptilian brain—is the brain stem. It controls our fight-or-flight responses. And it operates below the level of cognitive thought.

So, let’s say you’re out hiking. You come around a bend and see what looks like a snake on the trail. And, wham, your body jumps out of the way before your thinking brain can process that it’s just a stick.

The lizard took over.

Now, when we’re traumatized…

We’ve got all of this fight-or-flight energy stuck in our body, especially in the central nervous system. We’re locked in fight-or-flight, which means we’re operating mainly in the brain stem. To transform this, we’ve got to speak brain stem.

The neocortex understands words. The limbic brain speaks emotions. But the brain stem? It speaks sensations.

So, for instance…

Let’s say you’re in a session and notice an electrical buzz along your arms and chest. As you stay with that sensation, it starts to transform. Soon it turns to heat. You might get some flash images of an old car accident. And you start to sweat and tremble. You’re discharging old shock energy.

Or perhaps you feel a sprung tension in your legs, like they’re poised to take off running. As you stay with that tension, it slowly grows and you feel the urge to move. On the table, your legs begin a slow running motion that builds. They’re running away now—an action they didn’t get to complete before.

Body sensing is an effective way to transform trauma

When we access sensations, we are talking to the lizard brain. This lets us engage directly with the trauma, but in a way that slows it down and helps it transform.

We can discharge the pent-up energy. And we can rewire nervous system patterns that keep signaling our muscles to do things like run or block. In other words, we can reintegrate all of the nonverbal trauma patterns held in our tissues.

Most importantly, we can transform trauma in a way that’s slow, that avoids emotional flooding, and that’s grounded in a sense of what feels safe and OK in the moment.

Trauma: Maybe Not What You Think

When people think of trauma, they often think of the “big” stuff, like combat, child abuse, car accidents, and natural disasters. And from there, the thought process often goes: PTSD…flashbacks…find a therapist…fix the head.


Big stuff can be traumatic, but so can many other things we often discount.

And the symptoms of trauma are a lot broader than flashbacks.

And it’s not the “head” that’s traumatized—it’s the whole body.

Which is key.

It means we can’t just “talk to the head” to transform trauma; we have to talk to the body. And much of that conversation happens below the level of the conscious mind.

First, a definition…

Right, so people (really) argue over the definition of trauma. But for our purposes, trauma happens when your survival or well-being is threatened by something that overwhelms your capacity to respond and leaves you feeling terrified and helpless.

Trauma can fly under the radar

A lot of common experiences can be traumatizing. For instance, many medical procedures routinely cause trauma, especially for small children or if you were immobilized or anesthetized. Other examples include:

  • Repetitive painful childhood experiences like bullying, neglect, or a lack of support for being gay
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Difficult birth (for mom or baby)
  • Illness or high fevers
  • Falls and physical injuries

…and so much more.

How humans muck it up

Our bodies are uniquely designed to move through traumatic experiences unscathed. Animals in the wild do it all of the time. An antelope escapes a wolf pack. It bucks and trembles, shaking off the adrenaline. It walks away calmly.

But humans…

Our big brains take over and stop this instinctual process—or well-meaning people interfere. We shut down the shaking. We don’t let our bodies kick or block or run. All of that fight-or-flight chemistry and energy just implodes, getting stuck in our bodies.

How this shows up

That’s when the headaches start…or the nightmares, the constant anxiety, the crummy immunity, the depression. Or maybe its muscle tension or hair-trigger anger. Maybe you jump at the slightest sound. Maybe you can’t feel pleasure.

Trauma symptoms show up in a million ways. But they are all held in the body…old events on replay, like a broken record. Through body sensing, we can tune in to the “recording” and let it play through in a new way, rewiring and releasing the trauma.

Next month, in part two of this topic, I’ll describe how.

A Super Simple Way to Recharge

On a recent weekend in April, I found myself exhausted. Not the kind of exhaustion you get from lack of sleep. No, this was the emotionally drained, I’ve felt too much, dealt with too much, can’t do any more kind of exhaustion.

I decided it was time for an Enough Day. This was a concept I was lucky to meet up with in bodywork school (thank you Diana). It’s a day when just waking up is enough, no plans or accomplishments beyond that needed. It a day just to be…and see what unfolds. Pajamas encouraged.

I wanted to take the day to just relax. Ha!

Picture me on the sofa, drained and “relaxing,” while my mind keeps asking, “What are we doing? What are we doing?” and my wired body buzzes. Maybe you’ve been there?

Yeah…when I get myself into these places, I know my body needs a little help getting out of them. I often turn to nature. Camping for a couple of nights would have done it. Wading into the ocean waves for a while might have, too. But those involved getting off the couch, which wasn’t happening.

That’s when I remembered my somatic therapist’s suggestion to watch nature videos with the sound off. Just let yourself watch, he’d said, and check in with your body. That one seemed manageable.

I found a gorgeous production of coastal waterways, muted the TV, and started watching colorful fish dart between reefs. The fish captivated my attention, but in a soothing, slightly hypnotic way. From time to time, I checked in with my body.

The first thing I noticed was my body gasping for breath. Every few seconds, it would take deep, gulping breaths, as if surfacing from underwater. Guess I hadn’t been breathing much.

After a while, the gasping stopped, but my body was still buzzing. Ocean kelp came on. It floated in sunlit water, a slow tidal motion. My breathing slowed. The buzzing stilled.

Coastal waterways rolled into Amazon rainforest, which rolled into desert savannah. At some point, I fell asleep. When I woke up, my cat, Mara, sat rapt in front of the TV watching lions hunt.

I laughed. A few minutes later, I started wondering why there were five tigers together in a troop…weren’t they solitary animals? My thinking mind had kicked back in. That was OK, though. I felt much better. Mara and I played bat-the-birdie for a while. It was enough.

CBD for Pain? Here’s What to Know

If you haven’t heard of CBD, you will. It’s the hottest new cure-all, added to everything from lotion to smoothies. My clients tend to ask me about CBD oil and creams for pain. But CBD products are also being sold for a much wider variety of issues, including anxiety, sleeplessness, and inflammation. So, what is CBD and does it work?

Cannabis without the high

CBD stands for cannabidiol. It is one of the two most abundant compounds in cannabis, a family of plants which includes both hemp and marijuana. Marijuana is rich in THC, the ingredient that gets you high. Hemp is rich in CBD—which won’t get you stoned—and contains almost no THC.

So, is it a miracle cure-all?

OK, a couple of things to know for starters.

First, there are a lot of wild claims about what CBD can do. The FTC is starting to crack down on some manufacturers for unsubstantiated claims. Second, research into the health benefits of CBD is still in its infancy. So there’s a lot that medical science hasn’t tested. That said, here’s what the NIH and Harvard Health are saying so far….

There’s strong evidence for CBD as a treatment for a couple of severe forms of childhood epilepsy. There’s no strong evidence for anything else. Yet. But…

The next most promising areas of study are looking at CBD for anxiety, pain, and inflammation. But most of this evidence comes from studies in animals, not humans.

Is it legal?

It’s complicated…and depends on your state. In California, all cannabis is legal (with a caveat below). Nationally, hemp is legal, but it’s not in some states. Oh, and…the FDA doesn’t yet permit CBD from hemp in supplements, food, and drinks (even though that ship has sailed), and California follows this rule. So legally, you can buy a pot brownie here but not a CBD gummy made from hemp.

Confused? Join the club. The FDA is actively working to sort out the mess.

If you’re going to buy CBD products, just know that it’s kind of the Wild West out there. Though CBD is generally regarded as safe, there’s not a lot yet known about side effects or drug interactions. And what you get in the bottle (vape juice, latte, gummy bear), may or may not be what’s claimed on the label. Do your research.

So how about you?

Have you used CBD products for pain or other issues? If so, I’d love to hear back from you on what worked, what didn’t, and anything you’d recommend.

The Creature Within

When I was in massage school, my instructors would often talk about the creature within. It was that knowing, thinking, other intelligence inside. Call it the body wisdom. Call it the subconscious. By any name, it has a lot of opinions—if we’re willing to listen.

My own creature decided I needed a good talking to the night after my recent birthday celebrations. I woke up from a dream in which an inner healer came to me with some stern advice about my health.

The healer told me in no uncertain terms that refined sugars were playing havoc with my hormones and damaging my health. I needed to quit all refined sugars, she said. Then she loaded up my arms with healthy protein sources like lentils.

I woke up and said, “Got it. I’ll cut out the sugars and eat more healthy protein.” And then I got to enjoy a week of sugar withdrawal. Ugh, not fun. But worth it.

Your inner creature has access to information and wisdom beyond what you have. So it’s well worth it to come into relationship with this part of yourself. But you have to be willing to listen.

Listen to what?

Dreams are just one way our inner creatures speak with us. They can also speak in imagery, sensations, symptoms, illness, and spontaneous movements. To start a relationship with your inner creature, try these steps…

First, decide which channel is easiest to tune in to: dreams, images, sensations, or movement.

Second, tell your inner self you’d like to connect.

Third, reach out through the easiest channel. You could ask a specific question or just invite your inner creature to talk through:

  • Dreams: Put a notebook or phone by your bed at night. Ask for communication in a dream. Write down or record whatever comes.
  • Images: Go to a safe, inner space. Invite your inner wisdom to come talk. Be open to what shows up.
  • Sensations: Tune in to a body sensation. Describe it to yourself with words, images, gestures…whatever resonates. Ask your body if the description fits and describes all of it. Listen for the response.
  • Movement: Allow your body to move spontaneously. Do these movements speak to you? Do they tell a story or bring up any new awareness?

Finally, be persistent. It may take a few tries before your inner creature trusts you enough to respond. Be sincere. Listen and try to understand. And be willing to act in response, even if you don’t like the message.

Your Inner Scaffolding

Ever peeled that thin, white layer off a piece of raw chicken? That’s fascia. Most of us view our bodies as muscles, bones, and organs, held together by skin. But it’s actually fascia that holds us together. And it’s fascia causing so many of our aches and pains.

Imagine that, layered just beneath your skin, is a stretchy wetsuit covering your whole body. And if you tug on that wetsuit at the shoulder, it will pull all the way down your back and lower. Imagine, too, that this stretchy stuff extends all through the inside of your body, wrapping each part. So, if you melted away everything but the fascia, you’d have a complete replica of a human body with all of its organs, muscles, and bones.

Welcome to your body.

Fascia ties your entire body together in one, interconnected web. It lets your muscles and organs glide smoothly over one another. And it holds those organs in place. (You didn’t think they just sat there loose in your torso, did you?) It also stores lots of water and keeps it moving. Without fascia, your fluids would all pool at your feet.

So far, so good. So what’s the problem?

Just like with a sweater, a snag in one part of the fascia can pull on and cause pain in other parts. What causes these snags? Injuries. Repetitive movements. Poor posture. Physical strain causes fascia to shorten, tighten, and lay down more fibers to support overworked muscles. But this thick, tight fascia becomes stiff and painful. Its layers get glued together so it can’t glide. And it pulls on other areas, making them hurt, too.

And it goes even deeper…

Your brain and spinal cord are wrapped in tough fascia, called dura. It’s the deepest layer of fascia in the body. And it can tighten, twist, and get snags, too. So a snag at the base of your head could pull all the way to your tailbone. Or a twist in the dura at the neck could pull on the nerve root sheath that connects to fascia all down your arm.

Fortunately, fascia is malleable and can change with new input. Bodywork can be great for this. But what fascia loves best is movement. Movement helps it stay healthy, moist, and elastic. So stretch your body. Dance to the radio. Or walk some extra steps. Because a lot of what people call aging…it’s just their fascia getting tight, stiff, and dry.