Training Your Brain & Body to Thrive During Stress + Recover from Trauma with Dr. Liz Stanley
In this Feel Good Effect podcast episode, we are talking about how to train your body and your brain to thrive during stress, recover from trauma, and find resilience every day with Dr. Elizabeth Stanley. She talks about how to widen your window for stress tolerance, how stress and trauma affect the mind, body, and soul, and how to discharge stress to get out of the trauma loop.
Training Your Brain & Body to Thrive During Stress + Recover from Trauma with Dr. Liz Stanley
Liz’s military background
Liz comes from a long military lineage, with a Stanley serving in the U.S. Army for every generation since the Civil War, although she is the first female to serve in her family.
With that many warriors in her lineage with unresolved trauma, combat PTSD specifically, the initial wiring of her body was influenced by the stresses and trauma of her parents.
Liz’s initial tolerance for stress was wired very narrowly because of these experiences, which continued to narrow from unresolved shock trauma events, eventually, manifesting in depression, PTSD, and several physical illnesses.
Her healing journey began with mindfulness, talk therapy, and body-based trauma therapy all providing some but not complete relief at first.
With her clinical training, Liz put these together and designed a resilience training program, which has been tested four different times with troops prior to deployment.
Her book is an accumulation of all of this, including her story, stories of the people in high-stress environments, and a whole lot of science.
She wanted to share all of this information with readers to offer them the same empowerment she came across after learning all of this information.
For Liz, practicing mindfulness was difficult for two reasons:
1 | Her mind was always racing and it was hard to pay attention.
But really, this was just part of being new to the practice.
2 | Bringing mindfulness into the body can potentially cause our survival brain, the oldest parts of our brain, to feel threatened and experience more stress arousal.
This was the part that she did not realize until her own clinical training
This concept is called “kindling” and it’s very common for people who have experienced chronic stress or trauma without recovery.
For Liz, this led to panic attacks, flashbacks, intense nausea, rapid heart rate, insomnia, and nightmares.
Her mindfulness practice was not moving in the direction she had expected as a result of where she was choosing to direct her attention, which was exactly where she was instructed to direct her attention for such mindfulness practices.
At this time, there wasn’t a strong understanding of how to make mindfulness trauma-sensitive.
In Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), the program Liz designed, there is a clear sequence to the target objects of attention to build up a tolerance for sensations in the body slowly and keep the survival brain from freaking out.
Stress and trauma
Stress and trauma are a continuum.
Stress is the energy that our mind and body mobilize anytime our survival brains perceive a situation to be threatening or challenging.
If there is something external (e.g. traffic, incoming deadline) or internal (e.g. recovery from an illness, distressing thoughts, shallow breath) that our survival brain perceives to be threatening or challenging, it will turn on stress arousal, which is all about mobilizing energy to respond to the current threat.
Ideally, when we are in a regulated equilibrium, we can mobilize the energy, get through the challenge, and then discharge all of the energy and activation to come back to baseline.
However, most of us don’t do this discharge part; we turn the stress on but we don’t turn it off, which turns into chronic stress.
Neurobiologically, trauma happens when the survival brain is turning stress on while also perceiving us to be powerless, helpless, or lacking control.
It’s really important to recognize that our survival brain can perceive something as traumatic even if the thinking part, the part of our brain making decisions, may think it’s no big deal.
Things that many of us write off as not traumatic may actually be something you do feel helpless and powerless in (e.g. watching a child you know be bullied or losing out on a promotion because of discrimination)
It’s the addition of powerlessness and helplessness to the stress that makes trauma.
Chronic childhood stress most often has a traumatic overtone.
As children, we don’t have a lot of external or internal resources, not having a car or money but also not having had wired thinking brain functions that allow us to gain perspective.
Many of us have had traumatic stress in childhood, never recovered, and then our survival brains learn and generalize patterns from that.
So, when something happens now as an adult that our thinking brain doesn’t worry about, there can be an echo or cue to the earlier experience.
One of the big aims Liz had when she developed MMFT was to help people learn how to access choices in every moment.
Even when we can’t control the situation around us, we always can choose where we’re directing our attention.
We might not have a lot of power in the external situation, but we can still have a choice, which helps our survival brain not feel helpless and powerless.
Being able to access choice in every moment is the biggest possible protection we have against trauma.
You may not have a choice in what’s happening to you, but you do have a choice in where you’re directing your attention.
Even in the midst of uncontrolled life circumstances, we always have a choice of where we’re directing our attention and how we choose to relate to what’s going on that comes out of training our attention.
Widening the window of tolerance
The window is a metaphor for the window of tolerance to stress arousal that each of us has.
When we are inside our window, our thinking brain and our survival brain can work together in an allied way.
When our window is wide, we can go through threatening and challenging events, keeping our decision-making abilities online, and letting our behavior be really intentional and ethical.
Everybody’s window can be narrowed, and Liz highlights three pathways to narrowing one’s window:
Childhood stress and trauma: this starts while we are still in the womb, wiring our nervous system and brain.
Shock trauma events: terrorist attack, natural disaster, sexual assault, combat.
Everyday chronic stress without recovery: even things as mundane as chronic sleep deprivation.
Everybody’s window can be widened.
Resilience is actually a very active process.
People with wide windows are much better at flowing flexibly when life gives us a curveball, they’re better with uncertainty and ambiguity, and being able to give and receive social support during stress.
In MMFT, there’s a series of mental fitness training exercises, which range from 5- to 30-minutes, to train attention, intentional control, and our ability to tolerate uncomfortable experiences in our bodies and minds.
The first exercise of the sequence is available for download on her site.
It’s a 5-minute exercise called Contact Points that is really helpful for helping to train our attention to show our survival brain that we are grounded and stable at any moment.
5-minutes a day, everyday can make a big difference; repeated experience is important in making shifts.
We can’t control what’s happened to us, but widening the window is so actionable and it’s where we have agency.
Be empowered in choice
Agency: our ability to feel empowered to access choice.
We always have agency in a situation, but sometimes we struggle to find it.
With agency, we can help our survival brain to turn on the recovery functions and decrease the stress in our body, help recover from all of our physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms that aren’t serving us.
We are also able to access choice interpersonally, even during stressful or difficult interactions with other people.
“Everything happens in our mind and body as a result of repeated experiences”.
We can practice little shifts every day for tremendous payout in our brain structures, nervous, immune, and hormone systems.
Specific habits to window your window
In her book, Liz lays out six habits to widen your window.
1 | Sleep- really aiming for eight hours every night.
There is research support that less than eight hours on a consistent basis has negative effects (e.g. weight gain, emotional reactivity, cognitive decline, shifts in the immune system)
2 | Exercise- if we are getting enough cardiovascular exercise, it’s really helpful for expending excess stress hormones and getting quality sleep.
It’s also been shown that regular physical exercise helps turn off detrimental epigenetic changes (epigenetics being gene expression)
Whether a gene is turned on has everything to do with repeated experiences.
3 | Diet and microbiome regulation- making sure that our microbiome (the gut bacteria in our intestinal tract) is healthy and balanced.
70% of our immune system lives in and 95% of our serotonin production takes place in our gut, which affects things like anxiety, insomnia, and IBS.
Less caffeine, less sugar, more whole foods, less pain medication, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet are key.
4 | Daily awareness and reflection practice- whether it’s journaling or prayer, setting some time each day aside to tend to awareness and reflection.
5 | Social connections- our neurobiological wiring is really linked to other people, so it’s important to have enough social connections with people that we really care for.
Make sure you’re getting enough time with close friends.
These core things, sleep, whole foods, mindfulness, and attention are connected to resilience.
It won’t be a pill that you take or hack that you do once, it’s all of these habits that are a way of life.
Repeated experience matters.
Genetics don’t determine our lives; we can make new choices in a repeated way and turn genes off.
Feeling in control
Many of us have watched people in our lives go through big events and then neatly file it away and keep on.
It’s how we’ve been socialized to deal with it, but when we do that, our body loses out having to carry it without the opportunity to work through it.
It’s encoded in our survival brain, which takes that learning and generalizing it to everything else in our life.
The first place to direct our attention to, whenever we are feeling powerless, is just our weight in the chair, our feet against the floor, or other places of pressure, which help the survival brain know that at this moment you are grounded and safe.
Over time, it can start to unravel all that we have stored away.
Being in your body: resilience
Just from guiding the attention to contact points, the troops in these studies got better sleep, improved on attention and working memory, showed changes in blood biomarkers with increases in immune function and resilience, and showed a faster peak and return to baseline in their stress.
There was also a shift in the way that the brain fired in regions responsible for stress, emotions, and pain.
This all came from just showing the survival brain that we are stable and grounded in our bodies.
Liz has been thrilled to receive emails from people all over the world who have already started seeing shifts in their minds and bodies.
It was vulnerable to share so much of her story and it makes her so happy to know that it was the right call.
What it really means to be healthy
“To live a life that is prioritizing physical wellbeing, connection to others, and some amount of joy every day. We can be healthy even when we are coping with a health condition. It really has… everything to do with this ability to access choice and to set up… the ground habits… that support even changing things happening”.
Make it happen:
Do a little poking around on Dr. Stanley’s site and check out that first module of her MMFT training.
Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD, is an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. She is the creator of Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®, taught to thousands in civilian and military high-stress environments. MMFT® research has been featured on 60 Minutes, ABC Evening News, NPR, and in Time magazine and many other media outlets. An award-winning author and U.S. Army veteran with service in Asia and Europe, she holds degrees from Yale, Harvard, and MIT. She’s also is a certified practitioner of Somatic Experiencing, a body-based trauma therapy.