By Juli Alvarado, MA, LPC
Juli Alvarado is the founder and senior clinical consultant at the Alvarado Consulting and Treatment Group. For more than two decades, the Alvarado Consulting and Treatment Group has offered trauma-sensitive resources and training, life coaching, and organizational development to families and child welfare, faith-based, and community organizations. This article is adapted from Juli’s presentation at the 2018 NACAC conference. Learn more about Juli and sign up for free daily notes of inspiration here. Read about NACAC’s annual conference on adoption and foster care here.
Do you believe that your environment controls your thoughts and feelings?
Or do you believe that your thoughts and feelings control your environment?
Take a few minutes to think about your answer. Which option feels more empowering? Which option do you want to be true?
The world of adoption, attachment, and trauma-informed care can be very science and data-oriented. But science demands outcomes, time for research, and tangible “proof” of healing. This emphasis on verifiable data can make us forget that there is something else that compels healing: YOU!
If our traditional methods always effectively healed trauma, we would not still ache to feel better, happier, more joyful, and fulfilled. After 30 years of foster and adoptive parenting and working as a trauma and attachment therapist/consultant in child welfare, I can say that most of what is presently recommended in the world of therapy does not always bring the experience of healing to children and families.
Yes, all that we have learned about disrupted attachment and complex trauma is true. All that we have learned through neuroscience and brain development is true. It’s true that soothing the amygdala calms the hippocampus, frees up the frontal cortex from that dousing of cortisol, and allows us to come back to regulation.
But, I return to my earlier question: Does your thinking control your environment? Or, does your environment control your thinking? How do we soothe the amygdala in the first place? Do the thoughts needed to calm down come from your environment? Or do they come from your reaction to—what you think and feel about—your environment?
Feeling better and helping your children achieve a sense of calm means deciding to believe and live according to the idea that our thinking controls our environment—not the other way around.
Emotional Regulatory Healing: The Idea
If you wake up every morning with the same thoughts, make the same choices, and engage in the same actions and behaviors, nothing will ever change. Today will become your yesterday. Of course, if yesterday looked and felt the way you want it to, do it all over again in the exact same way!
But if, like most of us, you are still looking to feel better, you simply cannot do today what you did yesterday and expect a different outcome.
You can say you want a change, but it’s not going to happen if you don’t take action. Nothing changes until you change.
Emotional Regulatory Healing (ERH) is a response to the need for an immediate transformation of the traumatized self. While I’ve taught ERH to thousands of people, organizations, families, and faith-based communities around the world, ERH is personal for me, as a survivor of children sexual abuse, complex trauma, and loss.
I spent many years and dollars in therapy that helped me understand why I was the way I was, but did little to help me know how to change it. I have been trained in almost every model of therapy that you have heard of, and I used this training to teach others about why we do what we do, but offered few immediately effective strategies for severe and challenging behaviors. Like many of you, I believed that there must be a complex set of responses to this thing called complex trauma.
As I began to experience healing in new ways and through new thoughts and paradigms, it seemed far too simple. I pushed it away, refused to practice it, and remained in the same patterns of thinking, feeling, blaming, and judging that I had been in for years. I didn’t have time to think about being happy—I was too busy thinking about why I was unhappy. This was the early creation of ERH—the beginning of my current understanding and experience of healing.
Emotional Regulatory Healing: The Science
Every thought that you have produces an emotion, and every emotion that you experience produces a neurochemical cascade throughout your brain and body.
Negative thoughts such as anger, fear, resentment, blame, guilt, judgment, sadness, frustration, and intolerance produce chemicals that are toxic for your body. Becoming stuck in the story of our trauma, telling that story and living in that story over and over with no integration, creates a constant state of fighting for survival in our emotional and physiological system. And when these negative thoughts and emotions are consistent, the neurochemical response is also consistent.
A consistent, negative, neurochemical response causes your brain and body to respond by diminishing your:
- Ability to make health decisions
- Ability to manage tasks
- Ability to consider consequences
- Executive functioning
- Cognitive functioning
- Ability to regulate emotions
- Capacity for empathy, compassion, and attachment
- Immune system (yes, stress can make you physically ill)
In other words, if you feel depressed and you think about how depressed you feel, you will feel more depressed.
So, why do we keep thinking these negative thoughts if they keep us stuck feeling things we don’t want to feel? The average human thinks between 60,000 and 90,000 thoughts a day. Many of those thoughts are negative, anxious, and worrisome. How many negative thoughts do you think you’ve had over your lifetime? How many negative neurochemicals have been released into your brain and body? How is that affecting your mood and your day-to-day life?
Think about how often you foster loving, peaceful, grateful, forgiving, and kind thoughts. Are you more likely to think and talk about how much you love yourself or how much you are disappointed in yourself?
Are you more likely to list everything you are grateful for at the end of your day or list everything that went wrong in your day?
The positive thoughts are there, alongside the negative ones, but unless you direct the thoughts, the thoughts will direct you.
Another way to think about positive and negative thinking is to consider them as two states: creation and survival. In survival state, we live to defend against stress, trauma, and negative thinking. We believe that if we have suffered, we must live in a way that reflects that trauma. We tell the story over and over again, living in and perpetuating the harm someone else caused us. Many of us grow up to victimize ourselves as we were once victimized. We remain in violent relationships, or we partner with an addict, or we abuse our bodies in hidden and not-so-hidden ways.
In survival state, we complain. We see everything that is wrong, and we worry about everything that could go wrong. If our child is suspended from school for fighting, we worry about how we are going to make it until they are 18. If we have had one bad relationship, all relationships are seen as threatening. If we have been sexually abused, we fear surrendering to a healthy intimate relationship. As a therapist and survivor, I can say that traditional therapy sometimes keeps us stuck right where we are. Non-traditional, psychosomatic, and energy healing modalities, along with trauma sensitive methods for moving past our fight, flight, or freeze instincts can be more effective than conventional talk therapy.
Of course, in order to make sense of our pain, attach meaning to it, and put responsibility where responsibility is due, we need to talk about it. But we do not need to talk about it for the rest of our lives. We do not need to become that which was done to us.
In creation state, we understand that we have the power to create every thought, every second of every day of our entire lives. Nobody tells you what to think. The person who caused pain in your life years ago is not making you think about it today, you are choosing to think about it.
Creation is that state that we enter once we begin to take back control of our brain. We create our thoughts.
So, if healing is as simple as changing how we think, why don’t we all make the change right now and think only positive thoughts?
The brain learns through repetition. Seeking homeostasis, the brain will automatically, unconsciously return to what it is familiar with. The brain cannot decide on its own that a homeostatic place is healthy or not. This is why many kids who are accustomed to tension or intense emotions will incite drama out of nowhere, and why they will compel reactions from us that mimic how they have been treated. The brain seeks what the brain knows until we teach it something new.
Creation state is teaching the brain something new!
Emotional Regulatory Healing: The Method
The key to engaging this creation state is to become emotionally regulated. A stressed out, dysregulated brain cannot learn. There are three strategies for regulating the brain that I teach global leadership groups, first responders, and child welfare, faith-based, and community organizations. By encouraging you to maintain mindfulness and a focus on attachment, these strategies promise immediate change, regardless of the stress and trauma of your past or present.
- Elongate the exhale: When you breathe in, hold it briefly, and then exhale longer than your inhale, your brain produces more oxytocin and serotonin, which are both positive neurochemicals! These positive neurochemicals balance out the stress/toxic chemicals cascading through our body. This simple breathing exercise begins to bring your brain back to regulation quickly, quietly, easily (and for free!). And, after all, you have to breathe anyway!
Try it yourself: Every hour on the hour for seven days, set a reminder to pause and take five breaths, elongating the exhale. This will begin to set your physiological system in motion. And, in every moment when you feel stress, pause and elongate the exhale.
- Slow and low: When stress hits, slow down. Slow your body movements, slow your rate of speech, and slow your thinking. In addition, lower your tone of voice, lower your volume, and physically sit down or get lower.
Try it yourself: Start right now by lowering your tone of voice and slowing down. Slow down the rate at which you are reading. See what this feels like for you. This practice lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and brings you back toward emotional regulation. When you practice this consistently, both your physiological and your emotional state can be reset toward health. As we get slow and low, our thinking brain comes back online and our emotions remain calm. Now we can make better decisions, not act irrationally, and remain connected to our loved ones even in the storm.
- Stop, drop, and roll: When we are introspective about changing our thoughts—and when we are practicing elongating the exhale and slow and low—there will still be times that we become highly dysregulated and will struggle to return to calm. In these moments we practice stop, drop, and roll.
Stop in the moment of stress, when you notice that you are spinning out of control. Stop talking, stop arguing, stop yelling, stop fighting, and stop moving. Simply stop.
Drop into your breathing, elongating the exhale. Emotional regulation is the objective and to get there you must drop into your breathing to bridge you back to your calmer mind. Breathe for as many repetitions as you need to return to feeling slow and low. Once you are in command again, and you feel slow and low…
Roll back into the relationship. Now, you are emotionally regulated and can return to healing connections.
If life seems hard for you, I am truly sorry. I have been there. For decades, I lived without realizing that I was making my own life hard for me. Now I understand that those who hurt me are long gone. They are no longer hurting me. I can choose to live and be different any day. Why not today?
In short, your brain is the boss of your behavior. And you are the boss of your brain. You have the ability and the choice to consciously create positive thoughts and reduce the effect of trauma, pain, and suffering on your day-to-day life.
Take back your brain. Own it. Practice ERH as above: elongate the exhale, get slow and low, and when all else fails, stop, drop, and roll.