Back in June, I shared about an upcoming retreat that I planned on attending. This incredible retreat offered by The Younique Foundation is specifically designed for adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The four-day retreat is filled with activities to provide participants with tools to help them on their healing journey.
Last week, my time to attend the retreat was upon me. Even though I knew it was going to be a time of relaxation, rejuvenation, and restoration, I was feeling quite anxious about the entire thing. On Sunday Morning, August 13th, I headed out on a 9-hour drive to Utah. I tried to push to the side my nerves about meeting new people, staying in a new place for 4 days, focusing on trauma from my past, and driving highways that were new to me. The drive was beautiful. I chose to take a Colorado highway that I had not been on before. It looped me through gorgeous mountains and at one point I ended up driving along the most beautiful piece of Colorado that I have ever seen, Twin Lakes in Leadville. In fact, I texted my husband later that day to tell him that we would need to make some time soon to explore the lake together. It’s STUNNING. I debated pulling over to take pictures but knew that I still had hours and hours to drive. Looking back, I kind of wish I had pulled over and spent some time at the lake. It would have been worth it.
Worship music and Tina Fey’s Bossypants audiobook made the car ride go by rather quickly and soon I was in Springville, Utah for the night. The next morning, I would join about 26 other women at The Haven Retreat.
I Have Arrived
When I first arrived at the retreat I was blown away by the beauty of it. It was surrounded by towering mountains and gorgeous aspen and pine trees. There were two ponds on the property, one even had resident swans. Everything was so peaceful, so green, so relaxing. I felt truly safe, which was very important to me.
About 18 of the retreat participants stayed in the main house and I was in the cabin with 7 other women. The cabin was absolutely perfect. I met my fabulous roommate, unloaded my things and headed to the main house for lunch. At the retreat, we had incredible chefs who prepared delicious and healthy meals for us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were also told NOT to do our dishes. 3 cooked meals per day and no clean-up? A girl could get used to this!
After lunch, we headed into the great room for an orientation where we met the staff and heard more about the activities that we would have to choose from over the next few days.
Stronger in the Broken Places
Next up was the part I had been looking forward to the most: Kintsugi. My group of 8 retreated back to the cabin and got ready for this beautifully healing activity.
Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that takes broken pottery and repairs it with gold lacquer. For a survivor, it is a beautiful metaphor. Although we are broken, we still have value. No matter what happened in our past, we still have a bright future. With the proper tools, we can heal and become even more beautiful. It took me a few tries to break my bowl and I have to tell you that gluing it back together wasn’t easy. In fact, it was quite messy. The gold glue stuck to my fingertips and as I tried gluing my pieces back together, I noticed that I started leaving little gold smudges all over my bowl. Several times I thought that a piece was glued on well, but when I let go, it would immediately fall, crashing down onto the table. So, I would repeat the process..applying more gold lacquer and holding the piece into place once again.
Like my bowl, my healing journey has been quite messy. But with time and patience, my broken parts are going to come together in a beautiful way and I will be stronger and more radiant than ever.
Trauma and the Brain
Survival mode is supposed to be a phase that helps save your life. It is not meant to be how you live. – Michele Rosenthal
After Kintsugi, we headed back to the main house for a class that covered not only trauma and the brain, but also the 5 key strategies that we would be using on our healing journey: Awareness, Acknowledgment, Power through surrender, Mindfulness, and Faith.
I was thankful that the class briefly covered how childhood trauma affects the developing brain. I think it is important to understand, especially for survivors. I am borrowing some information from the retreat’s Reclaim Hope book to better explain it. This may be long, so I apologize in advance.
While our brain has three distinct parts, we focused on two parts of the brain: 1. The limbic system and 2. The prefrontal cortex.
The limbic system has three main goals: Survive, Avoid Pain, and Seek Pleasure. It is the part of the brain where survival comes from and it’s also where traumatic memories are stored. It’s the part of the brain where fear lives and thrives. When trauma occurs early in life, and sexual abuse trauma in particular, this part of the brain can become wired to view the world through the lens of fear.
Deep in the limbic system is another area called the amygdala. Its job is to make sure that we survive. It’s the place where our fight, flight and freeze instincts are found.
The prefrontal cortex is the moral, logical part of the brain that sits above the limbic system. This part of the brain is in charge of abstract thinking, thought analysis, and regulating behavior. It’s where our sense of right and wrong comes from. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for deciding on actions. While it is referred to as “the higher brain,” the prefrontal cortex is easily manipulated by the limbic system.
Neuroscientists believe that 85 to 90 percent of our behavior is automatically driven from the limbic system, mostly outside of our awareness.
Our limbic system develops first and our prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until our mid 20’s. If sexual abuse trauma is experienced during child and/or teen years, the brain can be hindered in its development and view the world as an unsafe place. This is especially true when the abuser is someone who should have been trustworthy.
Understanding the relationship between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex is critical for the healing process. For example, a person can receive a cue or influence from the outside world from any of the five senses: sight, sound, hearing, touch, or smell. All of these stimuli travel through the limbic system before they can reach the higher functioning or rational brain, the prefrontal cortex. If some type of stimuli is associated with a past trauma event then it can trigger a survival response even if the person isn’t in danger. By natural law the limbic system takes over because its job is to keep us alive. Some survivors can find themselves always living in a heightened state, in their limbic system.
The core issue, in restoring a trauma survivor to health, is to help create a healthy balance between their prefrontal cortex and their limbic system. With proper training, the two-part brain can become integrated. The limbic system will need to trust the prefrontal cortex. As the prefrontal cortex becomes more familiar with the limbic system and the language it uses to communicate, trust can be built and healing expedited.
Drumming and Healing
After class and a delectable dinner, we headed to the pool house for drumming. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a group drumming session. Noise can sometimes overwhelm me and with 26 women banging on drums, I was sure that I was going to want to curl up and hide under a rock. But, the drumming session was amazing! Several times during the session, we worked together to make our own drumming rhythm. We discussed how rhythm is both sound and silence. It is the silence that determines the rhythm. If there is no silence, no pause, it’s just noise. I likened that to my healing journey. If I am stressed, if my days are chaotic, if I am go, go, go all of the time and there is no pause, no silence, I am not living in rhythm. It’s just all noise. I need to make time for silence. I need to take pauses for myself. I need to live in a healthy rhythm.
I did some quick research about drumming therapy and found the following facts:
- Drumming induces deep relaxation, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress.
- Drumming not only synchronizes both hemispheres of the brain, but it also connects the limbic system and prefrontal cortex.
- Group drumming provides a sense of connectedness, which made this the perfect activity for our first night. It helped bring our groups together, in unity.
- Drumming produces emotional release and stimulates the release of negative cellular memories.
As you can see, Day 1 was pretty eventful. Thanks to the beautiful setting, instructional classes, Kintsugi and drumming, I was already starting to see some healing take place. I went to sleep with a happy heart, so grateful for this incredible retreat and so excited for the days to come.
Read about Day 2 here.