Mental Health, Meditation, New Start

The Algorithm Of The Mind

Over the course of the past 18 years we have steadily increased our exposure to social media. Since Facebook launched its platform, countless other social media platforms came on the scene and each had its own way of curating content by what was encouraged to post in combination with how others responded to those posts. I was recently struck by a conversation with a client that mentioned concern about how much time they felt they spent scrolling through Instagram. This is actually a familiar topic for psychologists given the state of exposure to various social media platforms. I have a wide range of clients so I’ve heard complaints from: parents with frustration about how their kids are using or misusing social media, young adults feeling overly pressured to post and be liked, and even content creators exhausted by the demand to keep posting new content for fear of losing followers. While social media is useful, it also has a “mind of its own” so to speak. Well it’s not really a mind, but it is designed to work so similarly to the mind. Take for example, the political climate over the past 5 years, which has really highlighted the impact of social media’s algorithm. This algorithm is so good at recognizing what you are interested in based on what you like, time spent on content, what you share, what you comment on, and who you follow. Any one of these data points are easily used to continue to direct content, drive interest, and even sell product in line with that said interest. I was reflecting on my various clients’ experiences as I was pondering the algorithm and how similarly it behaves like the mind. Let’s explore that a bit further. 

Social Feed

Although everyone enjoys some social media content, I’m sure there are times you might be surprised by the feed. You might even wonder, what happened how did I end up with all these XYZ videos. After all, you might have had just a mild, yet, curious interest in something, you saw something provocative and couldn’t turn away right then, the interest was actually a mood that eventually passed, or perhaps you might have a genuine interest, but now you do not get a break from the topic at all. This is how you are left with a feed that keeps pushing content that you might be less interested in, but since it is there you consistently look. This is the moment you might begin to question how much time you spend on social media, scrolling endlessly through the feed or content.  I can’t help to see the similarities between this experience and the one we’ve all had when we are bombarded by thoughts we do not wish to think about or see. They plague us at night when we are trying rest and certainly take over whenever we have even a moment of down time. 

The mind has it’s own algorithm and begins to feed endless and continues thoughts and images of something that was emotionally provocative about our lives regardless of whether it’s from the past, the present, or fear about an unknown future. It could be something as simple as someone cutting you off on the drive to work, which then leads to memories of other times that happened, or how your boss undervalues you or that your parents ignored you. It always starts with something that triggers the cascade of other thoughts that are similar in some way. Each thought, memory, experience is provocative enough that you linger, letting yourself sift through the content or images. How many times have you said to yourself, I’m tired of thinking negatively, or of having to replay this conversation, memory, or having this feeling.  This will inevitability lead to the moment you wish to stop thinking or stop the fluctuations of the mind. If you find yourself bothered by this then it is time to change the algorithm. Just like we might reset our settings for social media to change the algorithm we can also reset the settings of our mind.

A Fresh Start

There are many times in our lives when we need a fresh start. It can be as small as a mid-day need for a reset, or as big as a mid-life transformation. Somewhere in the middle lies a new year resolution. Wherever you are on this spectrum, you might need a practice for grounding yourself as you prepare for new beginnings. The gift of feeling grounded can be cultivated through daily insight oriented meditation. This type of meditation is designed to help us understand our underlying motivations. The more awareness you have the easier it will be to be present and avoid being carried away by the underlying motivations. However, since it is frequently difficult to observe our underlying motivations it is necessary to set up a practice that helps us slow down or decrease the intensity of thoughts as their provocative nature can be very distracting. I periodically encourage my clients to use the following meditation to start fresh. This is a perfect meditation to use at the beginning of the year if you are ready to set an intention for a new beginning, a new way of seeing a problem, or a new way of being. 

Meditation: Ground First and Start Fresh

  1. To begin set the following intention: I am ready to become aware of what blocks my ability to start fresh or to see things from a new perspective.
  2. Take some deep breaths and soften the body where ever you can. Release the tension in you muscles and begin loosening each muscle group. 
  3. Imagine yourself being in a green space, imagine yourself in nature… there may be trees, hills, bushes, and a field of grass. 
  4. Visualize being barefoot and stepping directly on grass. It is a perfect day, with perfect weather, the sun is out and it is easy for you to notice the sounds in this space, notice the familiar odors, and become aware of what it is like to walk around and be there. 
  5. Recall the sensation of being barefoot on grass and how the soil squishes down when you stand on it. When you have become aware of all the sensations linked to the points of contact between your feet and the ground then let your self scan the body until you reach the top.
  6. Bring awareness to the top of your head (you will notice the thoughts moving fast, you might feel light headed, or have a headache- these are often present when your head is thinking too much about the thing that is bothersome to you). There may be a tingling sensation accompanying it or you may feel a light buzzing at the top of you head. 
  7. Take deep breaths and identify what that bothersome energy actually is (it typically falls into one of the following categories: anger, sadness, fear, shame, misdirected love). Consciously state in your mind that you surrender that bothersome (call it what it is) energy. Then set an intention to push all that excess energy down. Visualize the energy pushing down through the different parts of the body until you get to the soles of the feet.  Then visualize the energy moving out through the soles of your feet and getting absorbed into the ground.
  8. Visualize an energy exchange between your body and earth. As you breath in visualize the earth’s energy being pulled into you and feel it moving up through your feet all the way to the top of your head. 
  9. Repeat as needed. 
  10. Last step- when it is all clear to you, thank your self for revealing the old coping habit. Be kind and gentle with yourself because that old coping habit was useful at some point and was designed to protect you. Consciously state you let go of the old way of being, and state you are open to a new and enlightened way of seeing things that you will use from this day forward. 

When you’ve completed the exercise you will feel more calm and able to think more clearly about the underlying cause of your emotional discomfort. You will have increased awareness about how that underlying motivation influenced your behaviors, way of being, and your thought patterns. 

Mental Health and Trauma

The Trauma of Trauma

Trauma is one of the of those words that has been absorbed into our everyday conversations, and when people use the term they mean psychological trauma. This is a huge departure from previous decades where people might have felt too much shame to discuss their trauma in public, while others considered that they might be overreacting given that their emotional trauma was nothing compared to those with “real PTSD.” In today’s day, it is frequently shown on social media posts, TikTok’s, and the many wellness coaches encouraging everyone to heal from their trauma to feel free. The positive thing about being able to talk about it openly is that the average person appears to be more aware of how their past difficult experiences continue to affect them years and years later. They are not wrong in their assessment as trauma can absolutely cause harm. Let’s start with the simple definition of trauma. According to psychology today: “Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience.” Few people can go through life without encountering some kind of trauma. To be fair, it really does not take much to experience trauma. We might both minimize or exaggerate our experiences for different reasons. I do not judge how someone copes or faces life because this is a completely subjective experience. I know I’m departing from the norm as many might easily jump to problem-solving, advise giving, and evaluating how someone else is managing a situation that they think they might respond to in a different way. The other thing that adds to the subjective experience is that there are different types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, and Complex. Plus a person’s temperament also contributes to their response style. I’m getting a little ahead, so let’s start by examining the elements of trauma and then expand on the types of trauma. 

Ingredients of Trauma 

We are confronted with various challenges throughout our lives and we are fortunate to have a general capacity to confront most of them readily and easily. However, when these four ingredients are present we most often experience a traumatic event:  

  1. The event/experience is unexpected 
  2. The person feels unprepared to confront or manage it
  3. There is nothing the person can do to stop it or get away from it
  4. The person lacks support to address the event/experience

When all of these ingredients are present we experience a deep activation of our nervous system. This might look like overwhelm, shock, disbelief, withdrawal, anger, fear, sadness…, etc., in essence our fight-or-flight gets activated. Okay, so this means that humans basically only experience these three states of being

  1. Safe– when we feel good, even keeled, happy, engaged in life
  2. Active– threat or excitement activates hyperarousal (fight-or-flight), the body gets flooded with stress hormones: epinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and body stops non essential tasks like digestion. This is typically associated with anxiety or PTSD. Although unexpected positive experiences can also activate this physiological response; think of military dad surprising family after being gone for an extended period of time, you will see hyperarousal with crying and because there is no threat the nervous system is able to calm back down rather quickly. 
  3. Inactive– extreme danger or threat is perceived and person shuts down. At times people are completely frozen (complete withdrawal from social engagement or refusal to make decisions), or dissociation can happen. Think of this as the worst states of PTSD we can imagine with all the dissociation. I would even go as far as saying some people might even go on automatic pilot. The person engages in life activities, but most people can tell they are not present. 

Types of Trauma

So we’ve discussed what trauma is, how trauma happens, and how to differentiate between states of being: safe, active, inactive or in other words, engaged, hyperaroused, or dissociated. Now let’s expand on the types of trauma (Acute, Chronic, and Complex) and what leads to difficulty with coping. 

Acute Trauma– When a person is exposed to a single event that threatens the physical or emotional safety of an individual. Take for instance the following examples: a car accident, a house break-in, or witnessing an act of physical violence; each individually would cause the person distress, however after discussing it repeatedly the person would eventually go back to a regulated nervous system. Processing the event and letting time pass helps the person regulate. Additionally, the fact that the event is not repeated helps the person remember they are safe. 

Chronic Trauma- When a person is exposed to multiple, long-term or prolonged distressing events over an extended period of time. Some examples of this type of trauma might be: bullying, chronic illness, violence in the community, or even a pandemic. While time will heal wounds, typically chronic trauma has lasting effects and might change the person’s outlook on life. People may either take more risks or no risks at all. You are more likely to see intense commitment to certain behaviors. 

My personal story of having limited support from extended family members really shaped me. One generational trauma pattern I noticed in my family is that in-laws could not get along. My parents could not get along with each others’ in-laws, my grandparents also did not get along with each others’ in-laws, and I noticed my husband had a similar story. Fast forward to my current life and family and I noticed a similar pattern starting to form. When I take inventory of my spouse avoiding his family or not allow them to get to close to me for fear of frequent criticism and my desire to overly engage in family activities with my family for fear of break down, I know it’s all trauma related. I had to learn to change how I relate to my family to have a healthier connection with everyone and decrease the chances of interpersonal family challenges. 

Complex Trauma- This is the same as chronic trauma; exposure to prolonged distressing events over an extended period of time, however it has the added component of being in an interpersonal relationship with the source of the trauma. For instance, being a child of a parent, having family members, or sibling causing abuse, being a person with chronic illness dealing with health issues or medical professionals, or being part of a community that is frequently a victim of violence. The common thread is that the “victim” is often trapped or unable to get away from the situation at all because of aspects they cannot control such as: age, sexual orientation, gender, culture, disability, health status, immigration status…etc., This type of trauma typically has the most severe impact on the person’s mind. The lack of support and the inability to get away makes it incredibly frightening. This explains, for instance, why abuse victims have a hard time speaking up or getting away. 

How to Manage Distress of Trauma

First of all, it is important to note that coping with trauma can only happen after the exposure to the trauma has stopped. If the trauma is still happening then the best case scenario is learning how to use coping and distraction while you are facing the trauma until the exposure stops. Once the trauma has stopped then we can focus on working through the trauma. Consider the following steps to begin coping and working through trauma:

Acknowledging: Start by acknowledging the trauma and what it is that has happened through radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is the immediate acceptance that what happened was real and that it had an impact on you. This will help stop you from engaging in the trap of thinking about why it happened or that it should not have happened. When we get stuck in that trap then we are in a perpetual state of emotional distress and pain. Acceptance allows us to take inventory and simply begin to move past the anger or sadness about it happening. This step is supremely important because humans are story tellers by nature and we make up stories about ourselves regarding why the trauma happened and what it meant/means about us. However, story telling while you are in a state of hyperarousal does not make sense given that this state is primarily focused on determining whether you are safe or not safe. 

Identify Emotions: While everyone talks about emotions and feelings as interchangeable words, they are two separate things. Emotions are physiological responses in the body. The core emotions are: anger, sadness, fear, and love/joy. We also have combinations of emotions: sadness and fear equal shame, anger and sadness equal depression, anger and fear equal anxiety, and anger, sadness, fear, and love equal grief. Feelings on the other hand are our interpretations of the interaction between our environment and the physiological reactions. Traumatic events consistently engender shame due to feeling powerless during the events. The impact of the event does not go away once the event is over especially because people either dissociate, ignore, avoid, or frequently replay the memories.

Trauma of Trauma: Be careful of the trap of replaying the trauma memories  because it can be traumatic to keep thinking of the pain. It is not uncommon for individuals to feel retraumatized especially when it involves a negative story about the self as a result about the trauma. 

Stabilize the Nervous System: A very important step is learning how to regulate the nervous system. Deep breathing exercises are the most common and easiest way to stabilize. If it is difficult to engage in deep breathing exercises then using any activity that would allow for physical movement with controlled breathing will be the most helpful. You could do this through yoga, dancing, singing, gardening, walking, or exercising. Use of any of these physical activities, paired with breathing while setting a personal intention to calm your nervous system down will give you the desired effect of calming the nervous system. 

Tell Your Story: The goal of healing is not to stop thinking about your story, but rather to be able to think about your story, or tell your story completely from beginning to middle and end without activating your nervous system. 

Trauma can happen to anyone. It can affect anyone because no one is immune. Our minds are super powerful, but they are a double edged sword. The mind can be both the thing that heals us and the thing that causes us the most pain since we can easily feel trapped in our own minds. However, please know that you can heal anytime and remember that whenever you come to your healing journey IS the right time. 


We Begin Healing Through Awareness

This is the beginning of a new journey for me. I’ve never committed to writing a blog or sharing about my personal journey. For context it’s a little bit like the loud chaotic part of a river as I am in the process of rediscovering myself and want to offer both commentary and insight about the healing journey. I will be writing a series of blogs on the topic of personal healing that will span the process of having awareness, gathering knowledge about how things could be and eventually developing skills to work on your healing. This means we will start by taking inventory of early life experiences all the way through using meditation to advance the healing experience. These blogs will also be available via podcast and possibly video podcast so stay tuned.

First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Nadia Torres-Eaton, I have a doctorate degree in Clinical-Community Psychology. This is relevant because although I am a clinician, I was also trained to help heal people through community and many other resources outside of individual clinical psychology- that will become more apparent later. I am also a board certified clinical psychologist, which means I joined a prestigious organization named the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) by allowing them (several peers from the organization) to review my work both written, through video, and via a several hour-long oral examination (panel of board certified peers). Upon completion and review of my work, I was certified as a more than competent clinician and permitted access to join the organization.

My Family Background

I grew up in California, to a mother who was born in Texas, but raised both in the U.S. and Mexico (her parents went back and forth for a while before finally settling in New Mexico). She completed some education in Mexico and obtained a secretary certificate, but when my grandfather decided to move back to the U.S. she asked to go to finish high school in California and live with cousins (that was an unpleasant experience for her) when she was 17 years-old. It was after finishing high school and while living in California that she met my father. She was the eldest of 9 children, a very responsible and hardworking woman. She was expected to take care of her siblings, so leaving to California for school was a chance to get away. There is more to her story, but I will wrap it up by saying she was only 19 years old when she married my father, while living with friends, a married couple, in California and she had me at 21 years of age. She died at 38, leaving behind 4 children. I am the eldest of the four siblings and I was 17 years-old at the time of her death. My father is from El Salvador. He came to the U.S. about 7 years before the civil war broke out in his home country. However, it is important to know he grew up in a country with serious political unrest and division, to parents that both had very little education and resources. It is of note, that his father was orphaned during school aged years and he was the youngest of 3. My father’s mother ran away from home at 12 and was basically raised by a German family while she was a nanny and maid for them. My father was the eldest of 3 children, but he was a second child to my grandmother as her first was still born. The constant fighting in the country led to men being pulled into the military or guerrilla groups, which of course frequently led to death leaving fewer and fewer available men in the country. Many women put up with conditions that were less than ideal given that men often had more than one family, as was the case for my father. I share this part because even though my father is responsible for the terrible choices he’s made in life I do understand his limitations based on his background. This is the backdrop to the parents that raised me. 

Childhood Background 

I was an only child for 8 years before my first sister was born, my next sister was born 2 years later, and my brother about 2 years after that. My mother was tired and relied on me to help her with the kids, she worked long hours, plus she was in a traditional marriage where the balance of household demands fell on her, but she also managed the money. At first I helped  reluctantly. I was repeatedly told I was the oldest so I was supposed to be the model daughter and I needed to look out for my siblings. Eventually I took this seriously and started correcting, monitoring, watching out, and guiding my siblings. Plus I would get in trouble if I didn’t follow my parents expectations. So, when my mother died it felt like a seamless transition to just keep taking care of them. During this transition, my father basically acted as if I had replaced my mother. By psychology standards we would call this “parentification, conditioning, and generational trauma.”  

Patterns That Needed Healing

Parentification is when a parent deliberately places responsibilities on a child that are inappropriate for their age and abilities. The responsibilities can be practical duties, paying bills, or being an emotional support, such as acting as a confidant. If you’ve had a similar background or relate to some of my story then you might have already noticed that this can have a negative effect on a child and set one up for complicated relationships in which the individual almost always thinks of others needs first before their own. 

Conditioning is a psychological term to describe a type of learning. It is when a stimulus becomes increasingly effective at evoking a specific response. In fact, when the exact conditions are present the evoked or elicited response is consistent. For example, a parent might withhold love, or affection, in exchange for the elicited response. In my case, I only got positive attention for doing my duties as a responsible older sister that watched out or looked out for my siblings. 

Generational trauma is when a parent or a group passes down the effects of their historical or individual trauma down to a younger generation. Examples of this are: domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, drug and alcohol addiction, survivorship of war related trauma…etc., More specifically a parent that grew up with domestic violence is more likely to repeat the cycle of violence in their own life and have their children witness it which is then likely repeated again in the next generation because it is seen as normal. 

It took me a very very very long time to truly come to terms with what these experiences (parentification, conditioning, and generational trauma) meant about who I was and how I got along with people. This is important because one might think how can a clinical psychologist have issues to deal with?  Well it’s like I tell my friends, “I obtained this psychology knowledge years after my trauma and the knowledge did not protect me from my early childhood experiences.” Having said that, please know that whenever you come to the healing journey IS the right time. I hope you will join the healing journey and discover your own story of origin. I hope that you are brave enough to ask yourself the question: Who have I been programmed to be? You might have had a pattern of even minimizing your own story, but please know that we humans are very tender and we form a hard shell of protection quickly and easily. 

Taking The First Step:

If you are ready to begin your healing journey start by taking inventory about the following:

  1. Who were the important adults/caretakers in your life?
  2. What were their strengths and weaknesses?
  3. What events shaped those adults/caretakers?
  4. How did their style affect you?
  5. What were your consistent or inconsistent experiences with those caretakers?
  6. What are the feelings that come forward when you think about these experiences? 

This journey is about stopping the pattern of ignoring our story and our pain and truly decide what you want to do with these very real feelings. We cannot heal what is outside of our awareness. You might notice emotions of anger, sadness, or fear coming forward and just begin acknowledging that these emotions are in you.

Stay tuned for the next topic, where we’ll talk more about trauma.