Barbara Johnson is a senior Breathwork Practitioner with the Inspiration Community (www.inspirationcommunity.org) in Baltimore, MD. She traveled to Haiti as a volunteer with Global Grassroots for two weeks in March to offer trauma healing using breathwork to help women traumatized by the earthquake. Following is a letter from Barbara to her family and friends.
I returned from Haiti early yesterday morning. I was and am so grateful for your support (financial, spiritual, emotional, all of it!) which was a touchstone during my amazing time there.
We arrived March 1 and drove to the site of the ruined Hotel Montana, which was, before January 12, the finest hotel in Haiti; a lovely site on a hilltop overlooking the city of Port-au-Prince and the sea. The site, now referred to by the search and recovery teams as “The Pile”, was my home for 12 days. Our camp had been established by Gretchen and Andrew Wallace and Gretchen’s brother Brian Steidle when they arrived a few days after the quake, to aid with the huge multinational recovery of the hundreds of victims at that site.
Gretchen and I went to teach a simple practice we learned last month from Dr. Richard Brown of Columbia University and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg of New York Medical College (www.haveahealthymind.com). This technique has been shown to prevent chronic PTSD and has been used with victims of natural disasters, with first responders, and with war veterans.
When people suffer a traumatic event, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system engages. This “fight, flight or freeze” response, so essential to us when we need to escape or otherwise summon strength and alertness, often stays engaged, overwhelming the normal swing back to the parasympathetic branch (the “rest, digest, and recover” response). Symptoms people experience when stuck in the stress response include sleeplessness, nightmares, constant worry and vigilance, overactive startle reflex, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression and numbness, anger and irritability, muscle tension manifesting as head, jaw or back pain, and shallow breathing. People who are caring for traumatized people often suffer their own trauma, experiencing the same symptoms.
The practice we learned has three parts; movement, Coherent Breathing, and group bonding. The movement piece is useful because trauma victims are often mentally dissociated from their bodies. The breath component, 10 minutes of lying down and breathing 5 breaths/minute through the nose, uses the optimal rate for engaging the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The bonding piece at the end, which includes group sharing and singing, helps integrate the process into normal life activities and community.
With the help of a generous and gracious translator [working as the operations director for partner organization AMURTEL, http://amurtel.org] named Jayatii, we taught this technique to refugees, to aid workers, to Haitian community liaisons, to NGO employees, and to school children. Our smallest group was 6 people and our largest about 150.
When we described the stress response as a normal reaction to trauma, we heard, over and over, statements like: “I thought I was crazy”, “I thought I was the only one”, “I have been angry with myself that I can’t just get over this”, “I thought I was getting a bad disease”, and “I’m exhausted taking care of my grieving friend”.
After the breathing, many people shared the experience of feeling relief. We heard repeated versions of: “I feel like I have been born into a new life”, “I feel like a heavy weight has been removed”, “My headache is gone”, “My back isn’t hurting now”, “I haven’t felt this relaxed since the earthquake” “I feel happy that I have a way to help myself feel better” and “I’m going to show this to my grandmother”.
We told them they could use the breathing practice when they were going to sleep and when they were distressed, and that the relaxed breathing would become more easy and natural with daily practice. We encouraged them to share this simple method with their loved ones, and many told us they had been or planned to.
I was inspired and moved beyond the telling by these resilient, courageous, beleaguered people. I had expected to find a war zone peopled with zombies. The war zone was right, but zombies they are most emphatically not. They are vibrantly busy with the work of rebuilding their lives, businesses and communities despite nationwide grief, seemingly insurmountable devastation, terrible lack of food, water, medical care and housing, desperate poverty, and the prospect of being moved away from their communities into the unknown.
I wish to thank Drs. Brown and Gerbarg for their research, their work, and their teaching expertise, and for their generosity. They donated a weekend to training us in their home and fielding many questions.
I want to thank and acknowledge Gretchen Wallace of Global Grassroots for inviting me along and for exposing me to her great courage, grace, persistence, sensitivity and skill in teaming with individuals and organizations, and in working with people from other cultures. Global Grassroots is investigating some exciting opportunities to continue serving communities in Haiti. I will pass these on as they are formalized. And I will be posting photos and videos of our work.
Thanks again for your interest!