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Laura van Dernoot Lipsky: Sustaining Ourselves Through Trauma and Overwhelm

Nuggets From Laura van Dernoot Lipsky's Call

Today we had the privilege of hosting an Awakin Call with Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.

Laura is the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute. Widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of trauma exposure, she is author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and of The Age of Overwhelm. Laura found her calling at age 18, when she regularly spent nights volunteering in a homeless shelter. She went on to work with survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, acute trauma of all kinds, and natural disasters. A decade into her career, Laura experienced what can best be described as a near-psychotic break—which, she came to realize, resulted not necessarily from her own direct trauma, but from years of witnessing and being intimately involved in trauma while lacking insight into how to sustain herself amidst such conditions.

The call traversed a lot of ground, including how to better align and hold ourselves accountable to our intentions and actions, how to navigate our fears and grief around climate change, and the interplay between social media and the sense of overwhelm that affects both adults and adolescents. We'll post the audio recording of the call soon, but in the meantime here are some nuggets from the conversation:

On Trauma and Trauma Exposure: One way of defining it is that trauma is something that fundamentally shifts your world view. It's not just something that was hard, or "a lot." If you are connected to yourself, if you are not numb and have a level of awareness, just going through your day, and listening to the news cycle, there's so much suffering out there that you are exposed to. That's trauma exposure.

On Trauma exposure response --There are specific manifestations of cumulative toll. A constellation of components that show up as: Feeling helpless and hopeless, A sense that one can never do enough, Hyper vigilance, Diminished creativity, Inability to embrace complexity, Minimizing, Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments, Inability to listen/Deliberate avoidance, Dissociative moments, Sense of persecution, Guilt, Fear, Anger and cynicism, Inability to empathize/numbing, Addictions, Grandiosity.

Trauma Stewardship: Many traditions and certainly Buddhism talks about these different states of craving and aversion. For many people there can be this natural pulling back instinct with pain and suffering and a bit of a resistance. Suffering in life exists, and there is a tremendous amount of pain, overwhelm and heartbreak. It was better suited for me to learn how to have an orientation towards figuring out how to care for that. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about "cradling your suffering." To me that is the orientation of Trauma Stewardship. How do we care for this suffering and pain, and how do we metabolize what we have been exposed to?

We have to intentionally metabolize to take care of our nervous system. We have to do something every day to purge and take care of our brain chemistry, our neurotransmitters. There are a host of ways to do this, traditional cultures have long been aware of this and it is embedded into things like breath work, intentional movement and gratitude practices.


The Importance of Honest Self-Reflection: Ask yourself every single day why am I doing what I'm doing? Make sure that our lives are not being done to us. We should actively be choosing to do our work rather than feeling like trapped, or obligated.

Response to a vulnerable online share: There are no words. These are times that would be better served in some kind of ritual, a circle or sweat lodge. I think that a few things to remember are -- these reactions are very natural, this is what happens when we hold it together and hold it together and hold it together to get through, and then when there's space the mind-body-spirit just has to let it disintegrate and decomp. We let go. It's very understandable and to be expected that we don't have a lot of life force in this time, or feel able to seek out help. But the isolation can be damaging, so it helps to have people we can designate to certain responsibilities. Have someone be the person who will come 5 days a week to get me out of the house -- even when I don't want to get out the house, or go to the gym, or go on a walk, and am not going to be pleasant about it. Counseling isn't for everyone, but it can be helpful for some and with the right person it can create a sacred space. If counseling feels like it would be beneficial, but finding one yourself feels overwhelming, have someone designated to be the person who helps find the right kind of counselor for you. And any amount of self-compassion you can muster for yourself is helpful, even if you're not well versed in self-compassion.

It's important to be discerning about who you spend time with but to also keep a close eye to make sure you're not isolating yourself.

The difference between self-soothing and numbing? One of the things we talk about with numbing -- we all numb ourselves to some degree, is being really honest about, when, why, and how, and to what benefit am I numbing out, and do I have a way to bring myself back to a full range of feelings?

On Deepening in Compassion: In those moments where I feel a lack of compassion I will ask myself have you ever knowingly or unknowingly caused harm to another living being? I try to kick in some measure of humility.

On the balance between serving other and serving oneself: You want to ensure that you're not colluding with martyrdom, and that you're aspiring to practice right speech, right action, right view in all things in a way that causes no harm to others or yourself.
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Those interested can read excerpts from 'Trauma Stewardship' and the 'Age of Overwhelm' here and here.


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