The Superpower of Trauma

Feb 26, 2019

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When we don't fully process our traumas we get trapped in the past, and events in our present can trigger emotions and sensations that impede our ability to function — let alone thrive. But with a thoughtful, delicate balance of embodied practices and personal reflection we can begin to heal our traumas, leading us to live a more joyful life, and maybe even help others to do the same. Hala Khouri, co-founder of Off the Mat, Into The World joins us for an actionable conversation on a difficult subject.

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Hala: My name is Hala Khouri. I teach yoga. I'm a clinician. I'm a therapist. I run a nonprofit that bridges yoga and social justice. I'm a mom.

Jeff: That's a lot.

Hala: I do a lot.

Jeff: You have an interesting upbringing. You were born in or you grew up in Beirut.

Hala: Well, until I was three.

Jeff: What was that like?

Hala: I have memories, but I think it's because people told me about them. I was told that there was a time where my dad was a doctor. He was working at the hospital up the hill and we were actually living in the Beqaa Valley in a town called Zahle. During the war, the tank would come pick him up, and we'd watch the tank go up the hill to the hospital and hope it didn't get bombed on the way. Those were some of the war memories I was told, and memories of gunshots going off and my mom saying it was someone's birthday and those were fireworks. Most of my memories are of incredible food and huge feasts and the importance of family and people's sense of humor.

Jeff: This is like the mid '70s or so, right?

Hala: ’73 and ’75, civil war broke out and we left in ’76.

Jeff: Do you feel that some of that trauma that you witnessed or endured as a child influenced you going forward and the decisions that you made about your career?

Hala: Absolutely. I don't know how conscious it was, but I always say there's a little girl in me that wants people to heal their trauma so they're not fighting with each other. I mean, the history in Lebanon is fighting because of religious differences or political differences, land. It's not surprising that my work is in trauma basically.

Jeff: Tell me about trauma at a basic level. How do people experience stress and trauma?

Hala: Trauma and stress are different things. You can look at them on a continuum, but with trauma, when it's not resolved, we get trapped in a past experience, and we experience things in the present as triggering emotions or sensations from the past. What happens with trauma is we literally can't be present because the present is intolerable because it connects us to something that was intolerable. It's hard to find evidence that things are okay when the nervous system is in a constant fight flight.

Jeff: Your experience things that trigger a memory that is painful or uncomfortable.

Hala: Sometimes, we're not even aware that we're having a memory. It can just be a sensation or a feeling. We think, "Well, what's happening now is what's bothering me," but actually what's happening now reminds us of something else, but we're not even aware.

Jeff: Is this something that's uniquely human?

Hala: A lot of my training was with Peter Levine who developed somatic experiencing who actually is a medical biophysicist. He found that animals in the wild are not showing signs of trauma, even though they're constantly threatened by predators, but domesticated animals are and humans are. I think so that yes, it is uniquely human.

Jeff: Is that because we have some consciousness or awareness or more developed intellectual brain that essentially supersedes or transcend that reptilian brain, which is very much connected to fight or flight?

Hala: Exactly. We have this huge neocortex. It's three fifths of the human brain. It can say to us like, "Why are you feeling that way? That doesn't make sense. Stop." Whereas the animal in the wild, isn't it like, "Oh my God, they're going to think I'm weird because I'm shaking or whatever." We can observe ourselves. That's a gift to be able to observe, and sometimes it's a limitation to not just be fully connected to our instincts and our impulses.

Jeff: How do embodied and spiritual practices help us process trauma?

Hala: They help us reconnect to our body and reconnect to what I like to call our wildness. In many ways, we've been civilized out of our capacity to heal. We're supposed to be civilized. When life happens, sometimes we shake, we tremble, we cry. We do things that might feel embarrassing based on social standards. Embodied practices can help us reconnect to sensations, emotions, impulses in a way that's not overwhelming. They can be great for trauma survivors who are overwhelmed by their own inner state.

Jeff: In a way, it's licensed shaking. I mean, I've heard you give examples of the animals that are essentially engaged in different kinds of physical activities, post stress or post trauma.

Hala: There's an interesting video of a polar bear where the scientists have to...they shoot the polar bear with a tranquilizer because they've got a tag it or whatever. When the polar bear is coming out of the tranquilizer, it shakes and shakes and shakes and then it gets up and walks off. Once in a while, they'll have a bear that doesn't do the shaking, and those bears actually don't survive back out in the wild. Animals, whether it's that example or an attack by another animal, will shake and tremble and discharge the energy. In discharging the energy, they're actually completing the fight flight impulse that they never were able to complete in real life. Then that event is done, and it's gone because they've completed the impulses necessary.

Jeff: Right, so when we go through a traumatic or stressful experience and then it resolves, someone takes care of it for us or whatever happens, but then we don't then discharge that energy from our nervous system. Does that trauma then get literally stuck in our bodies? Is that what happens?

Hala: The energy gets trapped in the body and then our bodies want to heal, so we're going to look for times to release it, but then what happens is we make mistakes. We think, "Okay, I should release it now. I'm home with my partner and they're being really annoying. I'm going to scream at them versus actually this was energy meant for something else." There is an interesting story about these 12 young boys that got caught in the bottom of a well, and they froze. They were overwhelmed. They were trapped, but two of the boys dug and they dug everybody out. The two boys who dug did not show signs of trauma. They didn't have nightmares or anxiety or panic, but the 10 who didn't dig did have symptoms because they never got to physically do anything to escape.

Jeff: Wow. Are there things that we can do to deal with situations that are stressful or potentially traumatic? I mean, this sounds very like plebeian but like, "Go for a run. Engage in physical activity in a way to just discharge that energy from our bodies." Is that something you recommend?

Hala: Absolutely. I mean, I think any form of movement can be discharged. It's limited if we're not actually connecting to our bodies. If you're running but you're unconscious, it can feel good just for that moment, but the next day, it's all back again. We want to connect the physical with actually sensing our bodies and our sensations. I remember years ago having somebody come to me for therapy and he was a runner. He would run every marathon every year for the last 20 years and his body was falling apart. At one point, I just looked at him. I knew he shared an abusive father. I just said, "What are you running from?"

No matter how many marathons he ran, until he connected it to the emotion, it wasn't going to matter.

Jeff: I think you see a couple of different sort of archetypal reactions to stress or to trauma. I mean, I generally, I get very tired. I sent me shutdown. That's the way I deal with it, but I see other people, they have other kinds of reactions.

Hala: Well, I like to call it the on and the off people. It's kind of like the electrical wiring in the house. If you get a big surge of electricity, either the surge protectors shut everything off and so you off people. You'll sleep. You'll shut down, but on people like us, we're running. We're making spreadsheets. I'm sweeping the house, but they're both signs of stress.

My husband's an off. We're usually drawn to the person who is opposite to us.

Jeff: He's just watching movies.

Hala: He's in the back watching movies. I'm bringing budgets for the next five years of our life.

Jeff: That works out pretty good.

Hala: Totally.

Jeff: But that's generally an indication that you haven't brought processed or you haven't used some of the tools that are available to you to discharge some of that energy?

Hala: It's an indication that we've accumulated too much. We haven't metabolized it. The way to metabolize the stress energy is usually through embodied practices as well as mind body practices. That has to be connected to our emotions and our thoughts. Then it's like cleaning your house. If you just kind clean up as you go along, things are going to be good, but if you never clean, all of a sudden, one day you open your eyes and you're like, "Oh my gosh. This is a big job."

Jeff: I win and I saw Byron Katie last week who is just a wonderful woman and incredible teacher. She had a great quote.

“You can't hurt me, that's my job.” But just kind of unpacking that a little bit, there is a lot of suffering. Trauma, I think has come into more of the national discussion around PTSD. Our soldiers coming back whether that's from Iraq or Afghanistan, and now there's a little bit more medical research to actually diagnose PTSD. Is it possible for people that have endured just the worst kind of abuse and torture to process that trauma and live contented, happy lives? Is that possible?

Hala: I think it is. I have seen people who survived things that are unimaginable come out on the other side. I like to say, trauma doesn't just break you, it can turn you into a superhero. It's really, really important because otherwise we sort of sentence trauma survivors to being broken forever. We know from the research that actually people that have no trauma look really anxious and depressed. If you haven't been through anything difficult, you don't know you can get through difficulty and that's traumatic.

Part of being okay is knowing you can handle the bad stuff.  So, Kelly McGonigal over at Stanford has done some research around that. Too little life challenges also can be detrimental. I think people are superheroes. I think people turn the most difficult situations into the most incredible opportunities.

Jeff: Yeah. That those things can be your greatest teacher.

Hala: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeff: So, connect for me embodied practice and leadership. Why are these practices so important for stepping into your capacity to lead?

Hala: As a leader, if we're not in relationship with our own, not just our own trauma, but our own privileges our own advantages, if we don't have that awareness of ourselves, we're going to be playing out all that unconscious material with the world. The stakes are higher if you're in a leadership position, you're going to be impacting more people. Then if you're a leader and you're interested in working in places where there has been trauma, it's really important to have your own practice.

A, for self care. There's a term called vicarious trauma where we're going to pick up on the traumas that we are witnessing and hearing about. B, we might unconsciously do harm if we're not aware. If we're not managing our own rage, our own grief, our own dissociation, whatever comes up for us if it shows up in our leadership because often we might be in a position of power. I think of embodied practices as practices of self-accountability and self-care. If you're a leader, it's especially important you do that because you're impacting other people.

Jeff: I mean, you've been around a lot of leaders and have engaged in a lot of leadership yourself around social justice. I wonder, do you feel that leaders are instinctively attracted to leading in areas that are connected to their trauma?

Hala: Yeah.

Jeff: Or the opposite?

Hala: No, I do. Like for me, I came from trauma, right? So I am really interested in working with people around trauma to decrease violence in the world, because that's an embodied experience that I've had. So I think that our life experience shapes us. I mean, I've seen leaders all over the place. Whether it's like someone who's child died of cancer starts a foundation to work with families, or some of the survivors of the mass shootings are starting nonprofits. Going in and helping is a great way to actually heal from our own traumas.

The problem becomes if we're not at all addressing our trauma and we're just simply wanting to address it out there. We risk, again, either burnout, self-harm or harming others. I've seen leaders who aren't doing this work become the problem they wish to eradicate. They become bitter, they become divisive, they become polarized within their own community. So, these practices are absolutely vital.

Jeff: Yeah. I have a friend, Nick Ortner, who is a...he is a master tapper. He's an emotional freedom technique. He lives in Newtown, Connecticut. So he was there at the Sandy Hook tragedy. On the back of that, he was like, I'm right here and what I offer is relief from trauma. At first very naively but he essentially became a first responder for the victims in his own hometown. But that got him thinking about, what if there was a team of first responders that could go and work with local clinicians wherever things happen to essentially address acute needs.

So he did put together a group that then went to Parkland right after the shooting in Parkland and worked with the local clinicians there to provide an extra layer of services for kids and families to process. I wonder if that's something that you've ever thought about? Like, how do we actually scale some of these tools and techniques and provide them for as many people as possible, given kind of all the incredible challenges that exist in our world?

Hala: So many of these tools are actually so simple.

Jeff: Right. You don't need much.

Hala: So simple. There's actually an amazing toolkit called Capacitar created by a woman named Pat Cane. She's been working with victims of political violence for 30 years. They've trained thousands and thousands of people. They were in Rwanda. They were down in South and Central America. They have this toolkit translated into 27 languages. It's tapping, it's breath work. It's the most simple of things. Her whole model is this public education. This does not have to be just in the realm of clinicians and people of all this education, we can teach this to each other. These are very simple tools.

Jeff: Right. You don't need fancy devices or-

Hala: And fancy degrees. If we make these tools too elite, then there's no purpose to them. They need to be accessible to everybody.

Jeff: Right. Who are some of your key teachers along the way that you could recommend for other people that are looking to build some of these skillsets?

Hala: For sure, Peter Levine with Somatic Experiencing, Bessel van der Kolk, who had a beautiful book called The body Keeps the Score. His work is great. He does a lot of connecting yoga with trauma. Umm I would say in terms of the trauma work, Pat Ogden, Pat Cane, who I just mentioned with Capacitar and her resources are available to anybody to download online. Those have been my big influences in terms of the trauma work.

Jeff: Where are you focused right now as you kind of think towards the second half of your life. What's the legacy that you want to create for yourself?

Hala: Phase two is coming with this next PhD that I'm getting in community psychology with an emphasis and liberation studies and eco-psychology. I really see this next phase is taking a lot of the one-on-one and small group work I've been doing and thinking about entire communities. I've been working with direct service providers and schools and educators on practicing the self-regulation and self-awareness skills so that they can address things like implicit bias and trauma. We just piloted a program at two Title 1 schools here in L.A. So I'm really interested in looking at these sort of groups and systems of people and helping build cultures that are trauma informed and culturally competent.

Jeff: That's super interesting. I interviewed a gentleman who is I think considered sort of the world expert on forgiveness. His name is Robert Enright. He's been a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for like 35 years of studying forgiveness. Most of his early work focused on self-forgiveness and forgiveness and reconciliation between one person and another. But now he's started to focus his energy on this notion of group forgiveness, and exactly like how you said, essentially institutionalize forgiveness.

Because he's then traveling around the world and he's going to places like in Northern Ireland or all over Africa, where there's like, essentially generations of deep seated anger that is often attributable to like mass genocide. I mean, horrible, awful circumstances that then gets perpetuated generation over generation. What he's trying to do is go into governmental institutions, educational institutions, hospitals, all the kind of institutions and be able to essentially institutionalize group forgiveness.

Hala: I love that.

Jeff: But it's hard because no one has paved a lot of his work, right?

Hala: Yeah. I mean, I think you can look at the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa as like one model of bearing witness and truth telling and forgiveness and we need more of that. Because what happens is unresolved trauma in large groups gets encoded as culture. And so then it feels like it's just in the bedrock of the culture, but it's actually trauma. So yeah, I love that and I think disrupting trauma and rebuilding culture is it's one of the unfortunate tasks that we have in our lifetime.

Jeff: Yeah. I mean in the last couple of years, at least in this country, you know the scab has been sort of ripped off a lot of, social justice issues, race issues, gender issues. It is a time right now that begs for leadership. It begs for people who are perhaps numb, or complacent, or busy, to step forth and bend the arc of history.

What would you say to people that know that they have an inner leader, but for one reason and another, they don't feel confident enough to step forward, or they feel paralyzed in the face of the enormity of the problems. Whatever it is, what is that call to action, to get more people on the front lines? And people are stepping up.

Hala: Yeah...

Jeff: But what is that call?

Hala: You know, I would say like, for folks that are overwhelmed, figure out what your piece is. You're not going to fix all of it, right, and if everybody does their piece ... and everybody's piece might feel small to them ... but if everybody does their piece, then we can really change the course of history.

I would also say leadership can look many, many different ways, and a lot of us think about leadership as the, we're the person up front. But you know, I'm friends with Julia Butterfly Hill, who, you know sat in a tree for two and a half years, but you know, she's the one that gets all the attention, but there are hundreds of people, like sending her meals, and calling the press, and building her place where she was staying.

It took...all those people are leaders as well.

Jeff: Right.

Hala: So I would say, you know, your leadership can be an extension of who you are. You don't have to change your personality to be a leader.

Jeff: Yeah and I think that that's such a great point, as it pertains to leadership, 'cause yeah, you don't necessarily have to be the person, you know, standing on top of the steps with the megaphone.

Hala: Exactly.

Jeff: There's so many ways to contribute, and local ways.

Hala: Yeah, and especially these days. I do think transformation is going to happen, bubbling up from the grass roots. So the more that we have small groups of people on the ground, caring for each other, being vocal about the issues that they're passionate about, that's how I think things are going to change. And for sure, for some people their leadership is going to look like, you know, them standing with a megaphone, go for it. But we just have, I think, too many budding leaders who don't perceive themselves that way. Like we need folks doing the spreadsheets. We need to feed people, you know, we need to nurture people. There's a lot of important roles.

Jeff: Yeah. What would you say are the most pressing, the most salient issues facing our country and our world today?

Hala: Oh boy, deep breath.

I mean the umbrella, for me, is dominator culture. That we need to disrupt this culture of domination, whether we're dominating nature, other people, other genders, other races, our own bodies. How do we shift from that into a culture of collaboration and mutuality? I think that overwhelm is one of our biggest obstacles, and so how do we figure out how to come out of overwhelm to the extent that we can. I think we need to figure out how to all get along.

Jeff: And are there examples that you can draw inspiration from, where that actually is happening?

Hala: You know, Michelle Alexander, who's the author of The New Jim Crow, said that this is something that's never been done before. There's something about this time, about the way that we're being called to live amongst...with difference, that feels fairly unique.

I can look around in my world and say that I see it, you know, I can see folks from, you know, different races, different ethnicities and gender identities being close and loving each other. That's definitely my small world that I run in. I don't think we have a model for this.

Jeff: Yeah. I mean what I wonder, and I ask myself this question every day, is that, can we, as a world and as a society, re-embrace the notion of the common good?

Hala: Yeah.

Jeff: Because we have been living in a world completely dominated by individual materialism for two generations, maybe three. I think what you've generally seen is this slow march of building picket fences around your house, of disconnectedness in the name of individual advancement. And this country was born out of the notion of sort of brokering that relationship between the individual and the common good.

Hala: Exactly.

Jeff: That there was actually an opportunity for anyone that would work hard and apply themselves to the promise of that dream. And I think we've seen, at least in our country, different levels of willingness, or different paradigm shifts that have embraced that.

I think, you know, you saw coming out of the Great Depression, a swing back towards the realization that the common good was really important. That a chicken in every pot was actually something that was a good idea, that bringing seven or eight million GIs back to get college education, and pay for that, was a good idea. Because that was going to help all of society, and that we were connected. And if, you know, my kid can read, but my neighbor's kid can't, then that's not okay.

Hala: Yeah, and I think it is the foundation of what this country was meant to be built it, it's just that not everybody was included in that, right, in the we. And then who deserves that, and so how do we expand that sense of who deserves that. And I do, I feel like we have the possibility, I'm super optimistic. I do think that on a big level, you know, things are being revealed. Sometimes I like to think that, you know, things aren't getting worse, they're getting revealed. And the more people that are awake, especially the people who've been okay, like you said, they're uncomfortable, they're awake now, and we can work together to change things.

Jeff: On our own, or with support, we have the power to resolve our traumas with mindful, embodied practices. If we do this work, we can not only break free from our past and find more happiness in our present, but this work ripples outward. Healing ourselves makes us better equipped to heal the world.

There’s lots more where this came from in our course Redefining Leadership, so check it out at

Thanks for listening to the Commune podcast, I’m your host Jeff Krasno, and I’ll see ya next time.

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