Sit and Smile

Image Description: The blue and white cover of the book, Being Peace. Under the title, it reads “Thich Nhat Hanh,” naming the author of the book. The cover also says, “Introduction by Jack Kornfield.” At the top right is a quote that reads, “Being Peace is distilled wisdom, the language simple and clear. This book is for everyone. — Fellowship Magazine.” There are also images of two leaves falling to the ground.

A Stress Relief/Trauma Life Hack*:

Sit and smile.

Meditation is calming for the body. When we get quiet, sit still, notice our breathing, and clear our thoughts — or often more accurately, notice our thoughts as they come and go — we ease our nervous systems. We activate the calming mechanisms of the parasympathetic nervous system, and our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reactions slow down and fade for a while.

We can also practice smiling.

I’m certainly not a person who tells others, “You should smile!” (Women hear this all the time, and it’s irritating. We also know that people are feeling grief, anxiety, and stress). But when we sit and smile, breathing in and out, we can shift some of the feelings in our body.

Here’s what Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh shares in his book, Being Peace:

“I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling.

“Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

” ‘Breathing in, I calm my body.’ This line is like drinking a glass of ice water-you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

” ‘Breathing out, I smile.’ You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile.

” ‘Dwelling in the present moment.’ While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend be alive in the future, not now. We say, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive.’ When we have it, and it’s not easy to get, we say to ourselves, ‘I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.’ And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.

” ‘I know this is a wonderful moment.’ This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most wonderful task. ‘Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.’ I hope you will try it.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, pages 15-16

* I want to thank Shannon Dingle for a series of tweets she did in which she gave some valuable ‘trauma life hacks.’ I’m borrowing her phrase, so I want to give a nod to her work and her Twitter handle: @ShannonDingle

Move Your Body (Side to Side)

Image Description: A graphic of a brain viewed from above. At the top of the image, it says “Left Hemisphere” and “Right Hemisphere.”

A Stress Relief/Trauma Life Hack*:

Move your body side by side.

Bilateral stimulation is a big form of stress release for the body. Swing your arms. Left side, right side in a repetitive way. Take a walk. Left side, right side in a repetitive way. Use your hands to tap on your chest or your legs. Left side, right side in a repetitive way. With headphones, listen to bilateral stimulation music on Youtube. Left side, right side in a repetitive way.

Bilateral stimulation is soothing. Even more significant, it can help the brain store memories in new, helpful ways. (More about that in a moment).

We are emerging from a time of collective trauma, and in the midst of this, we can experience emotional flooding. We can have big, internal reactions of anxiety, irritability, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, and trouble sleeping. These physical feelings give us the sensation that we are continuously on guard, waiting for something challenging but unknown to happen. With all of these, our nervous systems are in a state called hyperarousal. Or, in emotional flooding, we can sense our emotions going flat or numb. We might sleep more, struggle to get out of the bed in the morning, have depressive symptoms, feel continuously fatigued, or get to a place of dissociation where we lose contact with our feelings — becoming disconnected from the moment, ourselves, or our typical lives. With all of these, our nervous systems are in a state called hypoarousal.

We might experience one of these more than the other, or we might bounce back and forth between hyperarousal (top of the next image) and hypoarousal (bottom of the next image). This can be jolting. If you’re experiencing any of these things, please know that they make complete sense given what we’re experiencing collectively, and you’re not alone. We can be very gentle and kind with ourselves in the midst of these things.

(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

In the midst of present, collective trauma, older traumas from our lives might resurface too, either in our thinking memories or in physical reactions in our bodies. We might not be aware that this is happening because the experience can be one of additional hyperarousal and hypoarousal without necessarily being one of thinking and recollection. We need to show ourselves gentleness and kindness here too.

Bilateral stimulation can be helpful.

When we experience trauma, individually or collectively, the memories of that trauma can be split in our brains. The thinking, recollection, logical memory of the event is stored in left brain, while the emotional memory of the event is stored in the right brain. And if these are not reprocessed physically (building brain connections between the thinking memory and the emotional memory) these can keep us feeling stuck. Hyperarousal is traumatic stress stuck “on” and hypoarousal is traumatic stress stuck “off.” In the midst of these, bilateral stimulation is soothing (try it!). And it can also help move these various forms of memory around in our brain so that they are no longer stuck.

One extremely powerful and effective form of bilateral stimulation is a form of therapy called EMDR. (Check out this article: The Best Drug I’ve Ever Taken Wasn’t Even a Drug. It was EMDR Therapy) EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. When we move our eyes back and forth side to side, or do other forms of bilateral stimulation, we can create a physical state that is something like our REM cycles of sleep. With a therapist, we can use these forms of bilateral stimulation to reprocess traumatic memories, shifting how they are stored physically in our brains and bodies. This helps us shift the ways we are stuck in post-traumatic states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal.

It’s amazing that this stuff works!

So I recommend doing EMDR with a therapist, and this can be done for large traumas and for smaller forms of stress too.

But you can try some forms of bilateral stimulation at home as well. Here’s one form of bilateral stimulation that I learned from Andrea Thomas, one of my colleagues. It’s called the Butterfly Hug.

  1. Cross your arms across your body in a self-hug.
  2. Allow your thumbs to be the “body” of the butterfly. Your other fingers are the “wings.”
  3. Tap your fingers — the wings — on your arms, left side, right side in a repetitive way.

This can be soothing. While you try this, tell yourself messages that are loving, kind, and gentle. Your brain and body are processing these messages at a deep, physical level. Bilateral stimulation makes those connections deeper.

What a great life hack.

Renee Roederer

* I want to thank Shannon Dingle for a series of tweets she did in which she gave some valuable ‘trauma life hacks.’ I’m borrowing her phrase, so I want to give a nod to her work and her Twitter handle: @ShannonDingle

Give Yourself a Hug

heart hug
Image Description: A red cartoon heart with white arms gives a self-hug.

A Stress Relief/Trauma Life Hack*:

Give yourself a hug.

Sure, you may feel silly, but try to put that away for a few reasons: 1) It’s good to give yourself self-compassion, 2) no one is watching, and most importantly, 3) this has great health benefits because it releases stress.

When we hug, our brains reduce chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine (big, feel good chemicals) and you know what? While it’s certainly great to hug another person, our brains don’t fully know the difference between an other-people hug and a self-hug, especially if we place good intentions of self care into that hug. Some are sheltering-in-place alone, and this is genuinely helpful.

Hugs also stimulate the vagus nerve. Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of activating the parasympathetic nervous system (it calms our fight or flight responses). The vagus nerve is a special hack to know about, because it plays a big role in that system. When we hug, we stimulate pressure points in our skin called pacinian corpuscles, and these receptors fire signals to the vagus nerve. Among other things, the vagus nerve plays a role in regulating blood pressure. Hugs, including self-hugs, activate this system and frequently, lower blood pressure.

So give yourself a hug. Give it a try!

Renee Roederer

* I want to thank Shannon Dingle for a series of tweets she did in which she gave some valuable ‘trauma life hacks.’ I’m borrowing her phrase, so I want to give a nod to her work and her Twitter handle: @ShannonDingle

Listen to the Birds

Image Description: A perched, baby robin.

A Stress Relief/Trauma Life Hack*:

Listen to bird songs.

A recording will definitely do, but if you can listen to the real birds outside chirping away, even better. Bird songs calm our nervous systems.

Fun Facts: The sounds of birds are lovely, and they remind us of spring (great things). But they’re also calming for evolutionary reasons too. When our early human ancestors heard birds chirping and singing in the trees, that meant there probably weren’t any predators around. So everyone could be more calm and less on guard.

And our bodies remember this. So listen away!

Bird songs, along with other forms of calm, activate our parasympathetic nervous systems. And in a time of collective trauma, this is what we need. Our autonomic nervous systems have a 1) sympathetic nervous system which ramps up our ‘fight or flight’ responses, and a 2) parasympathetic nervous system which calms them down.

So in times of stress and trauma, we want all the life hacks we can muster to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Bird songs are a good one!

Renee Roederer

* I want to thank Shannon Dingle for a series of tweets she did in which she gave some valuable ‘trauma life hacks.’ I’m borrowing her phrase, so I want to give a nod to her work and her Twitter handle: @ShannonDingle

20 Minutes Before

File:Black Lives Matter protest.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Protestors hold two signs which read, “Is my son next?” and “#BlackLivesMatter.” Public domain.

Twenty minutes before the announcement of Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdicts, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16 year old girl who lived in foster care.

The work continues.

Renee Roederer

Daunte Wright’s Parents

Daunte Wright
A photo of Daunte Wright and his child. Photo Credit: The Wright Family.

CN: Police Killings of Black People, Gun Violence, Grief, Loss of a Child

Yesterday, the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial began their deliberations. In the midst of the uncertainty of what may come next, Minneapolis looks like a military zone. This morning, my thoughts are with Black community members and activists there. They are with people everywhere who feel the grief over George Floyd’s death and anguish over police brutality across this country.

During the Derek Chauvin trial, also in the Minneapolis area, officer Kim Potter killed Daunte Wright, a beloved, 20 year old Black man. He was a son, a father, and a friend.

And here’s a thought that keeps emerging in my mind…

When George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin in a horrific, brutal way on camera — when he struggled to breathe, begged for his life, and called out for his Mama,

surely, Katie and Aubrey Wright, Daunte Wright’s parents, imagined,

What if that was my son?

And then, horrifically, later,
It was.

I imagine every parent who lost a child to police violence first saw a previous story in the news and thought,

What if that was my child?

only for it later to be their child.

This is devastating,
It is psychological violence,
It is physical violence.

What are we going to do to stop this?

Renee Roederer

On Receiving

My precious Golden Doodle friend wants me to pet him on the head.

About once a month, I have the privilege of watching my friend’s dog for a 3-4 days. I’ve written about this dog several time on this blog because I always learn something from him.

I say it is a privilege to watch him because he is such a joy. He’s wonderfully playful and very chill, alternating between these but never hyper or super-barky. And he’s so attentive. It seems he’s always aware of me, just paying attention and noticing, either passively or actively. When I get up, he gets up. When I move to a different room, he follows me. When he’s with me, he’s very attuned to me.

He’s also a natural therapy dog. He was never trained as such but he’s functioned that way for many people. He’s well known and very beloved on the University of Michigan campus, and students love to be greeted by him and have a chance to pet him.

He’s also super snuggly. He’s a giver dog. I’ll be on the couch, watching tv, and all the sudden, I’ll feel his head rest on my feet as a pillow. Or he’ll cuddle right up next to me, and it makes my heart full.

Yes, a giver. But today, I want to talk about how he’s a receiver.

He loves scritches. He likes when I pet him under his chin. I think he likes all that snuggling for himself, not just as a gift to me. I found myself thinking about this over the weekend.

I mean, yes, he’s a dog. Like all dogs, he enjoys all of that. But I was thinking about how receiving is a natural part of his life. I’m not sure why so many humans resist receiving from each other. Sometimes, we don’t like to be helped, or seen, or complimented.

This lovely, vicarious dog I have never says, “Oh no, I’m fine,” refusing to let me be the giver. He never seems to feel guilty for receiving. He never says, “Oh, I feel like such a burden.” He doesn’t get up to clean the whole kitchen to prove that giving is what his role is supposed to be. He doesn’t seem to believe he must be productive at all times. He doesn’t do a million things for me out of fear that I might leave him if he doesn’t please me perfectly. He doesn’t hide under the couch, afraid that I might see him, know him, and care.

So why do humans do and feel the equivalents of all of these things?

It’s good to receive.

Renee Roederer

Spring Emerges

I’ve started a new photography project. After my autumn journey of walking the Border to Border Trail, I’ve decided to go exploring again this spring. This time, I’m visiting all 163 parks in Ann Arbor — and in alphabetical order! We are truly fortunate — and frankly, privileged — to have so many beautiful, set-apart, outdoor spaces.

Here are some of my favorite photos from this week. Flowers, trees, and blue skies…

Renee Roederer

Can Our World Experience Post-Traumatic Growth?

Planet Earth
Image Description: The earth and the moon. Public domain image.

These days, it’s so important to give and receive gentleness from one another.

Gentleness is a consistent human need, but right now, we may need it in a particularly deep and present way. Our world seems to be reeling from waves of trauma. When we hold awareness of traumatic pain, whether we’ve experienced it directly or felt it via the news cycle, our bodies, minds, and spirits can be deeply affected.

Waves of trauma in our world are not new, of course, but right now, we are especially aware of injustices and forms of insecurity – white supremacy, economic inequality, numerous natural disasters, deportations and family separations, and violence on a massive scale. To be aware of these things is not merely to know about them but to be affected by them.

We need action – decisive, creative, and disruptive action to adequately address and rectify all of these.

And alongside that action, we also need gentleness.

Our bodies need it, our minds need it, our emotions need it, our sense of spiritual longing needs it.

And perhaps, our sense of time needs it too. Here is a paradoxical thing I have learned over the years about trauma:

Trauma often distorts time. This is especially true in a post-traumatic experience. A small detail in the present moment can suddenly pull us back into the past, making it feel as though a past upheaval is happening right now. Likewise, a small detail in the present moment can suddenly ignite anxiety, causing a tailspin of fear in which we imagine a future where the upheaval might repeat itself. In these ways, trauma can bookend the present moment with a past and future that feel quite painful and insecure.

But with gentleness,

Trauma also opens up time. This is a pretty miraculous thing. There is also concept called post-traumatic growth. (Watch this video). Some people who experience the upheaval of trauma are able to remake their lives and live them more deeply, often with a greater sense of love and spiritual meaning than they might have had before. This is in no way to suggest that the trauma is somehow a good thing or a blessing in disguise. Certainly not. But post-traumatic growth can happen alongside the traumatic distortion. When it comes to a sense of time, there can actually be a bit of reversal of what I’ve articulated above. Good memories and meaningful relationships can be internalized in such a way that they are felt as deeply present. Beloved people and life-giving moments from the past and hopes for the future can feel more accessible in the present moment among people who have experienced post-traumatic growth.

So what helps people experience this kind of growth? Two things are very important:

1) being surrounded by a community of care with relationships that add gentleness and sustaining presence


2) becoming enabled to make meaning of the traumatic experience, while learning to create a new narrative with that meaning.

So these days, in this time we’re living, I wonder,

Can our world collectively experience post-traumatic growth? Can this be a collective awakening toward deeper love and greater meaning?

Those questions are not easily answered, so they linger.

But I know this: Gentleness will be important.

Renee Roederer