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Trauma, Creativity, and the Autonomic Nervous System


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MOLLY: Hello and welcome to the podcast where we talk about creating experimental art and trauma-informed and sustainable ways that support artists, our communities and the organization as a whole. I'm Molly and you're listening to Any Other Anything's?


Hello everyone, welcome to episode two of Season 2 of Any Other Anything's? I'm Molly, I'll offer um some breathing today; as a way that just gives some space and some time to your nervous system to allow it to do what it needs to do, and hopefully you find this somewhat satisfying for your nervous system, hopefully it helps you come into the present moment, feel centered or feel grounded. Not every resource I offer is going to allow that but it is my hope that it allows at least a little bit. So, today I wanted to do one minute of breathing, so I started seeing this tool from several folks in some conferences. The importance of breathing six full rounds in one minute, all right. As a way to allow a balancing of both the parasympathetic and sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system and since that's one of the things that we're talking about today. Let's start to see what it's like to play with that, all right? So, here we go!


Start with exhaling everything out and then inhale for five, four, three, two, one. Exhale for five, four, three, two, one. Inhale for five, four, three, two, one. Exhale for five, four, three, two, one. Four more inhale for four, three, two, one. Exhale five, four, three, two, one. Inhale five, four, three, two, one. Exhale five, four, three, two, one. Inhale five, four, three, two, one. Exhale five, four, three, two. one. Last one, inhale for five, four, three, two, one and exhale five, four, three, two, and one. Return to your normal breathing whatever that is and take a moment to check-in with your body, check-in with your mind, check-in with your whole self. Notice, if anything changed for you and stay curious about it. Those changes might be in muscle tension; those changes might be in your heart rate or your breathing or maybe just an overall sense of where you are in time and space.


So, this episode is going to be focused on kind of the basics, the foundations uh it might be like a little on the dense-side. Um, so feel free this might be a good one to like listen to a few times. I want to talk about how I think about trauma, the kind of trauma that I'm really addressing in this season and, and with the work that I do. I'll talk about the autonomic nervous system, which I have a tendency to really like nerd out about. I will do my best to to not go like too far down that rabbit hole. Um, but I, I also really enjoy having these unscripted so we'll see how far we go. Um, I'll also talk about some theories and lenses and name some important researchers, scholars, practitioners in the field that have influenced my work as well. And, I can include in the show notes I have a living bibliography on my personal website, as another way for you to see where you can find out more about this or where some of my original influences come from.


All right, so let's start with talking about trauma and the most important thing to remember when talking about trauma is it is not this thing outside of us; it is something that, that is kind of imprinted in our nervous system that can live within our bodies. I think we get a lot of information um that tells us that traumas are very specific things that are out there in the world. They are the late breaking news, the headlines and yes those can definitely be traumatic events. Those can definitely be things that individuals perceive as trauma but when I'm talking about trauma. I'm talking about what's like living floating around in our nervous systems. I think quite broadly when it comes to trauma, like anything that's going to throw our nervous system particularly, when I talk about nervousness and I'm talking autonomic nervous system. Anything that kind of throws us slightly off balance or out of whack. I am really interested in talking about the traumas that are like often referred to as the little-t-traumas, I think of them as like the sneaky traumas that we don't realize our nervous system might be reading as trauma or chronic traumatic stress until we get out of that situation and we're like, 'holy shenanigans that was not an okay experience for me.' I think burnout is the probably best example right now. I think a lot of people are feeling it with the chronic stress of COIVD.


Burnout doesn't just suddenly happen overnight, right? It's a lot of little things that slowly build up over time and it's not until we get some distance that we are able to really see that as perhaps a traumatic experience within our own nervous system. I also want to say that like you get to decide what is traumatic for you and I think it gets thrown around a lot, especially right now. But no one gets to tell you what you experience or what you didn't experience was or was not trauma. You get to make that up because trauma is very much in the eye of the beholder. In the work that I do as an arts entrepreneur, as an arts educator, I'm really looking forward and tuning into the sneaky traumas, the little-t-traumas, the tiny things that might not be perceived as trauma responses or stress responses, but there's there's a pretty good chance that they are.


I'm not interested in dealing with like the crisis level traumas and I think that's an important distinction to make in this work. I believe it is possible to be used for all types of traumas. However, my preference is to not go into that crisis counselor mode, when I discuss being trauma-informed I'm really referring to a set of tools, skills, knowledge abilities, like this lens that I carry into a space of creativity or a space of learning and that's where my boundary stops. I am in those spaces as a director, choreographer, a teacher, my role, my responsibility within my scope of practice; which I'll talk more about in a later episode, that's where it stops. I'm trauma-informed and by being trauma-informed I do my best to not perpetuate it or re-traumatize cause any kind of vicarious or secondary trauma. The hope is always that people leave a trauma-informed space perhaps feeling a little bit better than they walked in and, like wouldn't that be great if we could go in and out of those spaces on a regular basis and just feel good afterwards; like really work towards that that pleasure which might feel therapeutic but it's not therapy, it stops there. If you are a mental health professional that is licensed and accredited and all of that perhaps this works for you, as you combine it with your credentials within the scope of practice that I have developed this work within, it stays in a pretty neutral space.


The work that I've developed trauma-informed creative practices that method one of like the pillars of it or principles, foundations of it is that trauma and creativity might not mix so well and, that's the narrative that I don't think is very loud. Can trauma and creativity mix and can creativity foster healing and be that therapy? Yes, absolutely. However, when I look at the intention and the purpose of the work that I'm doing. Um, that's not where I'm taking it, does that make sense?


I'm staying within my boundaries. I'm staying within my roles, responsibilities and for me it's also a consent thing, right? If I audition to be a part of Romeo and Juliet, I am not consenting to be a part of group therapy, right? Like, I'm there to play a role, so it's important to have that conversation, right? With whomever you're working with like, yes this might be a space where you leave feeling better than when you walked in; I hope you do. Um, it doesn't mean it's necessarily a space to work through personal traumas, right? So being sure to really draw those boundaries. Yes, it's possible however is that really the intention and purpose of the space that you are holding. So when we think about creative humans and we think about creativity in general, right? Like, it's all about this curiosity and seeking new experiences, engaging in play, collaborating with others, being comfortable with ambiguity, and taking risks; and when we look at individuals with a history of trauma. I say that like, I'm not one of them when those of us with a history of trauma um go into those spaces or are faced with those kinds of parameters that might, might not be something that we have the capability of, right? So those of us with a history of trauma we might not trust our intuition, we may not believe in our creativity, we may not be capable of imagination. Meaning we don't have access to that part of the brain and we tend to seek out really predictable and known patterns and situations.


So, at like a really basic level. I believe that trauma and creativity do not inherently mix and when using the trauma-informed creative practices and going into a creative space or a space of learning: I think they're really one and of the same. Um, I am holding that assumption in the space that not everyone in there has access to creativity. For me, this epiphany of trauma and creativity not necessarily working together has really come from a variety of research around trauma from many experts in the field. Um, I was sitting in a creativity conference one day and someone had listed out all these characteristics of creative humans and it was in that moment I started to see like, 'oh that might not be possible, if someone's having a trauma history' because each one of those there's a coping mechanism that goes with it, right? So I believe like every single human being is always trying, well most of the time always trying to feel good and always doing their best to achieve that. It's all about adapting, mitigating, coping uh to whatever is coming in around them. So if that is having a kale smoothie, then that's having a kale smoothie to feel good, if that's downing a pit on a pint of ice cream, then cool. You're doing that to feel good, like it is serving a purpose somewhere. Not all of those coping strategies are going to be sustainable ones, but in that moment it's serving a purpose.


One last thing I'd like to name about trauma and when I talk about trauma before moving on to some of the other theories. It's like I'm not talking about trauma through a lens of pathology. All right, like I prefer a much wider definition of trauma, um as I said before and I also prefer a wider definition of triggers uh quote-unquote triggers and I prefer to talk about activation of the nervous system. I believe it pairs better with that wider definition of trauma so, if we think about triggers as a light switch like there is an on and off and that is it. When I think about activation it's a dimmer switch and so we can start to see when a nervous system is activated and, and hopefully be able to address whatever might be happening in the situation, in that moment. So that we don't go 0 to 10 um, and you know punch a hole through a wall or someone's face. Like, we start to see like oh there are some like fists are starting to clench and there's a lot of tension in the upper body and starting to tune into that and and be able to address what might be going on in the space at that time.


So, most of what I will be discussing in the season is going to be heavily informed by Polyvagal theory uh, which has been uh the work of Dr. Steven Porches and Deb Dana; um that's been the work that has really like settled well within my body and my own lived experience with my nervous system. Polyvagal theory in a very, very, very tiny nutshell is looking at the organization of our autonomic nervous system. So our autonomic nervous system is what's in charge of the automatic stuff that's happening in our bodies, so your heart's beating, hopefully, and you don't have to think like, 'okay beat, okay beat, okay beat', right. It's just happening. Um we don't have to think about digesting our food, it just happens, hopefully. Once again there are always going to be those anomalies um, but at a real foundational level it's looking at the organization of the autonomic nervous system as it has evolved over time. When I do full workshops around trauma and creativity and trauma-informed creative practices, I talk about the autonomic nervous system as like there's the window, there's the ladder, there's the wheel and when I finally launch uh my revisions of it. There's also going to be a roller coaster, which is a fun new one that I've added and for the purposes of this, this podcast, this season I'm just going to focus on the latter because it's the one that really helped me kind of solidify and, and understand this in my own experience.


So with the Polyvagal ladder um, so imagine a ladder and at the top of it uh it's this green zone. So in this green zone this is a space that is ventral vagal, referred to as ventral vagal through the Polyvagal theory and we can think of it as our safe and social. It's the space where our autonomic nervous system both branches of it like they're just working in harmony. It is a really groovy space. I honestly don't hang out there very often, but I've heard good things and it's this very positive uh experience in the green zone. Where there's just this, this kind of jive happening, right. Where you're able to interact with others and still stay really anchored in a safe and social space and then as you drop down the ladder let's call that, the red zone. And, so the red zone is sympathetic area when we look at it through polyvagal theory. The red zone can also be referred to as our flight fight response, right? We've heard that before quite possibly so in the red zone, I prefer to talk about it as that sympathetic space because there's a lot of energy there. Um, when we start dropping out of safe and social we drop into a sympathetic state and our fight flight responses start to kick-in. Another way to think of it is that it's a very mobilized state to be in and we need that mobilized state in order to be creative, right? Especially, those who are in more physical arts forms, I'm thinking of all the dancers out there like, if we want to mobilize we need a little bit of that sympathetic energy. So it's not a not a bad thing to be in that sympathetic spot that's trying to not hang out in those binaries of good or bad. It is a very normal response, it is something that we should be grateful for, it keeps us in survival, and with the right amount of sympathetic response we get to be creative. Now if we hang out in that sympathetic zone a little too long um we can start to kind of burn the system out and continue to drop down the ladder and so at the bottom of the ladder let's call it the blue zone, at the bottom. This is where the parasympathetic or our rest and digest side of the autonomic nervous system dominates, right. So the red zone sympathetic energy dominates at the bottom parasympathetic dominates known as dorsal vagal through polyvagal theory rested digests in, in other in other terms that we might hear in every day. So when we're hanging out in the blue zone it is kind of the opposite of that sympathetic state, red zone sympathetic state, lots of mobilization, blue zone parasympathetic state and that is where we are immobilized.


Now again we need a certain amount of that immobilization to exist in our lives on a daily basis in order to do things like, sleep. So, again not good or bad it is something that we need to survive. All of these are built for survival, right. Um, and then where trauma comes into it all is where we start to kind of hang out in one of these states when we don't necessarily need to. So, if we are getting ready for bed and we're in a safe space to fall asleep but our sympathetic response is amped up, we're getting stuck in that red zone when we don't really need that energy. Um, and that's where going back to why I talk about stress trauma and burnout as any kind of time that our nervous systems we bit out of whack that is it, all right. I think I'm going to leave it there as we're closing in on the 20 minute mark.


So to briefly recap: talking about creativity, talking about trauma, talking about the autonomic nervous system and talking about these theories that have become quite popular to talk about in the past several years, especially with COVID. I hope that you are finding that this is somewhat of a counter narrative. Maybe it's a little bit of a review, but hopefully giving you some new things to think about. So at the end of every episode taking some time to check-out. So, dear listener, what are you thinking about and how are you doing? With this episode since there is a fair amount of content, maybe it's also useful to think about like what feels new, what feels familiar and what maybe requires a little more time for you to spend either researching it or just processing it in general. I hope this is an episode that you are able to come back to and each time find you're able to dig a little bit deeper with the material and understand it in a new way. That's definitely one thing that I've discovered about this work is it's a very cyclical experience to keep coming back to it with new lived experiences and be able to deepen it and I hope that you are able to find that as well.


Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Any Other Anything's where we're focusing on trauma and creativity. If you are interested in learning more please check out the show notes, you will be able to find our self-guided workshops that are available on our website greyboxcollective.com/shop and that is grey with an 'e'. There's also a coupon code in the show notes that gives you 10% off all services, as a thank you. If you are enjoying this episode and would like more of it please consider donating through our website again greyboxcollective.com/donate, so that we can continue to produce this episode and produce new work around trauma and creativity and trauma-informed creative practices.


Thank you all very much for listening. Take care of yourselves!




#GreyBoxCollective #AnyOtherAnythings #Podcast #Season2 #Creativity #TraumaInformed #NervousSystem #ANS #Polyvagal #GreenRedBlueZone

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MOLLY: Hello and welcome to the podcast where we talk about creating experimental art and trauma-informed and sustainable ways that support artists, our communities and the organization as a whole. I'

MOLLY: Hello and welcome to the podcast where we talk about creating experimental art in trauma-informed and sustainable ways that support artists, our communities and the organization as a whole. I'm

MOLLY: Hello and welcome to the podcast where we talk about creating experimental art and trauma-informed and sustainable ways that support artists, our communities and the organization as a whole. I'