Digital Minimalism came into my life at a time when I most needed it. I was still living in NYC (occupied Lenape territory) and was quite literally going to movement classes just to have an hour a day where my phone was out of reach. I was so lost in the Digital Maximalism so many of us, especially those trying to run our own business or hustles, are basically required to be. Posting my work online was serving my career, but it was also hurting my nervous system. I had no time “offline” and it felt like work and my devices ran my life.

When we reach for our phones, we are often reaching for them because of something we are feeling, or something we don’t want to be feeling. Boredom, overwhelm, loneliness, validation, connection, information, and so on. We want to feel better, or feel distracted, and often those things are the same thing, as most of us are taught in this world that feelings are bad, or that boredom is bad. Our brains have a way out of an extremely normal part of human life, one that is full of color and dopamine and pictures of everyone you have ever known, or videos on how to learn anything you might ever want to learn.

For so many of us, technology has also created a lot of good in our lives. Through COVID we Zoomed to stay connected and for some of us it allowed us to continue our jobs from home. For small business owners, we can get our work out there and find clients. Social media has made it possible for so many people to run their own businesses who could of never before. Movements like BLM and Free Palestine are able to amass huge numbers of people at marches and demonstrations because we can get the word out. Surgerys and memorial funds are created online. It’s not all bad. But what about the time spent online that isn’t for this? Or what about when technology takes over your life, even when you are online to grow your business? What happens when we can’t unplug?

You are not unique in this scenario. Entire books have been written about Big Tech and Big Data, and how they are exploiting our very nature as humans to keep us locked into our devices.

What happens to our nervous system when we don’t get to complete our feelings or our survival responses? When we can always be working? What happens to our lives when we can distract ourselves with something, constantly, instead of sitting with what isn’t working about our life and doing something about it or feelings our feelings, or seeing what gets born from our boredom?

A common phrase in Polyvagal Theory is “Stuck not Broken” (there is even a podcast named that.) This perfectly sums up the beauty of the theory that dictates my psychotherapy practice, and honestly, my personal life as well. We get stuck. In patterns, on our phones, in bad relationships, in toxic jobs, and so on. That doesn’t mean we are broken, it just means that we have to get ourselves, and our nervous systems out of something, and bring them somewhere new. This could be a physical place, an emotional one, or it could be a nervous system state. Leaving sympathetic (fight or flight) or dorsal (numb and collapsed) behind, so we can live in the beautiful land of ventral vagal (safe and social.) For some of us, depression and anxiety are places we get stuck. For some of us, they are places in our brain and body that we will be unsticking ourselves from time and time again for our whole lives, because it’s how our brain and nervous system formed, or responded to trauma. I know for me, that this framework is not a quick fix. I have hundreds of years of trauma encoded into my nervous system, as literally every single one of my ancestors has withstood persecution and violence since as long as I know. I know that for me, getting unstuck is not something that I can do just once. It is an ever unfolding process, with the added layers of trauma from this lifetime. I also know I can’t heal, or get unstuck, when I am glued to my device.

For those of us with trauma, with traumatized lineages, who are neurodivergent, who struggle with pain that shows up psychologically and physically, who live at the intersections of identities that are devalued in this world, our devices are great distractors. If you are someone who is prone to dissociation, the scroll hole of social media provides the perfect highway straight there. For those of us who struggle with hyper arousal, i.e. being keyed up, anxious, stressed, it gives us something to do with all that energy building up inside of us.

But it often keeps us stuck. We may feel momentarily better after a scroll episode, after posting, after seeing messages pile up in our DM’s, but the original stressor is still there. The stress energy in our bodies might be quieted for a while, or we might of numbed out just enough to feel ok for a bit, but it’s what my teacher Dr. Janina Fisher calls, a false window of tolerance. We feel good, or ok enough, but it’s really mostly fake, and it doesn’t last.

There are some expectations to this with technology of course, as I mentioned above. Most of us feel true happiness after a call or FaceTime with friends and/or family. We get to see their faces (which our ventral vagal nerve of connection loves) and/or hear their voices. My nervous system loves tracking the birds I see on Merlin Birding App, or hunting down a little known campground on The Dyrt. Technology is not all bad. We just have to learn how to hack it for our benefit, not have it hack our brains for Capitalism. I am sure I’m not the first to bestow this information on you, but the more we use technology (specifically social media & Google) the more Big Data knows about us, and can market products specifically selected for us, better.

Digital Minimalism is a radical reclaiming of our time, in the sense that we take our attention away from Capitalism and towards other things, time with loved ones, nature, a good book, cooking, caring for ourselves, but it is also a radical reclamining of our awareness, and in return, our nervous systems, and our feelings. When we are able to stop ourselves from reaching for our phones mindlessly, and ask ourselves “what is happening inside me that made me feel like I need my phone?” , we are taking our power back. We are also learning to pay attention to our inner experience. For example, “I am feeling bored, which is why I reached for my phone. I know I feel bored because my body feels tired but my legs also feel jumpy.” We are watching ourselves, and then we can ask “so what do I really need right now?” Spoiler: it is very rarely our phones.

For boredom, I suggest clients carry a good book with them like they would a cell phone. Or, to learn to sit in the discomfort of boredom, which we often did as children quite often, and let the thoughts just happen. Turns out, many of us were so creative as kids because we were BORED.

For overwhelming emotions, carrying a journal and writing about what we are feeling instead of stuffing it down is helpful. Or, the psychotherapy modality Internal Family Systems, which helps us prompt questions to ourselves like, “Who is feeling overwhelmed?” meaning, what part of our psyche or what age of our many inner children. Then, we are able to give that part of that kid what they really need (love, compassion, kind self talk, food, rest etc.) instead of ignoring them, which is only more triggering!

For loneliness, we can write postcards to friends, schedule a time to see them or talk with them. We find a way to get human to human contact (sometimes through tech, see it’s not all bad!) instead of the shallow interactions that social media brings. Or, we can sit with that loneliness and repeat the skills above. This is what brings us out of that dorsal vagal state.

For anxiety, we move our bodies, or vent to someone or vent to our journal, to get ourselves out of sympathetic activation. We learn to get curious about the anxiety instead of trying to ignore it, all while it just grows and grows.

For dissociation, we learn to bring ourselves back into the present moment, crawling up our Polyvagal ladder. I even use the Oak app on my phone sometimes for a nice gong noise, and some guided meditation. We can orient ourselves to where we are, the time and day, who we are (it can be very powerful to just say your name out loud, write it, or repeat it in your head!), and notice ourselves come back into my body.

This is my version of getting unstuck, gifted to me by the framework of somatic trauma therapy, and deeply informed by Polyvagal Theory. It is obviously more complicated than the example above, and takes a lot of practice, but at the same time, it really is that simple.

As soon as I stopped being on my phone so much, the parts of my life that weren’t working became unbearable. I couldn’t continue on as I had been. I got unstuck. I made changes I would of never made if I had stayed glued to my device. I got to know my nervous system. I started listening to her. “Ok, you hate loud cities, I didn’t know that. Ok, you like cooking almost all of your own food, also didn’t know that. Ok, you have felt stuck in survival mode, that makes sense.”

Being unplugged and in the woods is my nervous system medicine. That, and my own therapy, my feeling of purpose when I get to work with my clients, and the meaning making I do around my trauma, and the trauma of my ancestors. This isn’t self help, this is having a body. This is listening to that body. This is making sense of your trauma, of being honest about the stress levels in your life, and understanding how to support yourself. Life is still hard, horrible things still happen, but when we aren’t lost in our devices, we have our connection to our body, to our feelings, to our lives. This is what guides us. It’s still technology, but it’s deep within us, it’s ancient.

So much of self help or somatic therapy is about “coping tools and advice”. This idea, of reconnecting with our bodies, nervous systems, and feelings, and putting down our phones, isn’t really a tool or a piece of advice. It’s just how we are biologically designed. We are meant to be responding to our nervous system, our body, our feelings, not ignoring them. We are meant to be expressing ourselves, in big, loud, creative ways, not silently scrolling. We are meant to be in deep relationship to one another and to this land, not stuck at our desks alone. We live as we were meant to when we are ignoring ourselves and being manipulated into being online, constantly. Or so disconnected from our ancestors' traditions, or our core needs as humans. Or always working. Capitalism only allows us so much, and we have to take what we can. Technology often robs us of the time we do have for us.

Maybe for you, it's not your phone. It’s over working, or drinking too much, or being in relationships that don’t support your authentic self. Maybe it's all of them. Either way, listening to our body, your nervous system, and being compassionate to all parts of yourself is how you get unstuck.

It’s time to start listening. It’s time to get free.

Resources on Digital Minimalism:

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

My workshop, Digital Minimalism

How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

How to be Bored by Eva Hoffman

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As one of my teachers Janina Fisher writes about in her groundbreaking book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, many of us have had to “fragment” in order to get by in our daily lives. As in, we compartmentalize parts of us that have experienced trauma, so we can carry on with what Fisher calls our “normal life selves” driving the bus of our actions and consciousness. However, when a trigger comes up, it can feel as though we are taken over by a traumatized part. This can look like a typical survival response, fight flight freeze fawn attach etc. Or, we can feel a different age, like a younger version of ourselves.

Internal Family Systems, developed by Richard Swartz, teaches that most of us, trauma survivors or not, actually contain these multitudes like a family contains different systems. We have different parts to our personalities (who interact like members of a family or group.) We can have parts like our perfectionist part, our wounded kid part (or inner child, IFS is a more complex version of inner child work) and more. No matter what, at the center of everything, this core self, that we can learn to connect with in order to center back to who we truly are, what our real desires and motives are at their truest form (I call my core self my Andrea-ness.) There are things in my life I know I would have loved without trauma (cooking, animals, nature, reading, writing, my queerness, the love I have for my body) and when I am connected to that part of myself I feel the most centered & embodied.

What typically ends up happening, is that we learn to reject certain parts of us. Either because they weren’t embraced or accepted (I banished my queer part after my first attempt at coming out failed, and she was locked away for 10 years, the longest period of time where I felt the least like myself, like my life was not mine) or because we don’t want to see the trauma they went through because it is painful & overwhelming. Oftentimes, we develop protector parts. These parts step in front of wounded, kid parts to keep them safe. We can find ourselves living life in these protector modes, whether it be through codependency, perfectionism and overworking, or drinking, drug use, gambling, overspending, and dissociating. These protector parts learn survival coping responses to minimize pain, to distract us from our past or present trauma. The most dear, needing of love and care parts of us get shoved somewhere that our protectors believe they will be safe. However, this cuts us off from ourselves and makes those hurt parts feel even more unloveable.

Getting to know our parts means learning who these protectors are and who these wounded, banished parts are, and sending both parts love and compassion. They have truly stepped up (protectors, going on with life selves) to keep us safe, or they have retreated (wounded parts) to avoid further harm and to try and find safety. Getting to know these parts also means finding a language for how to best understand them for ourselves, cognitively. This is different for everyone. For me, I have my kid part, my teen part, my young 20’s part, and then my Andrea-ness. I also have some protectors in there like overworking & over scheduling, or my dear fight response. For others, they think about it purely as their survival parts (fight, flight, freeze, fawn, attach), and for some, they have their protectors and their wounded parts, each one with a different archetype (the lost child, the firefighter, the productive worker etc.)

Part of cultivating a relationship with these parts is also locating where they live in the body. For example, I know my kid part lives in my chest, and when my chest gets tight and I feel like I’m going to cry, she needs some love and attention. I know my protector part of overworking is in my sympathetic nervous system, and when I get too keyed up around planning and productivity, I need to ask her to take a step back.

We can get a little more control over these parts (instead of having them running the show) by locating them, finding out what they need, and asking them (or showing them with some somatic movement) to take a step back, so what Susan McConnell calls in her incredible text Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy calls our “embodied self”, can take the driver's seat of our emotions and actions.

Utilizing our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that goes offline during trauma or a trigger, we can remind ourselves we have been hijacked by a part, and this consciousness brings our PFC back online, helping us get out of our emotion and survival brain (limbic system & brain stem.)

More than anything, we want to build a loving relationship with these parts, with so much understanding for what they have been through, why they are here, and find ways to give them what they didn't get. Love, compassion, a break, safety, awareness, a hug, creative time, time in nature, space to cry, space to be heard.

You can learn more on parts work in the books mentioned above and here (and stay tuned for an upcoming workshop!):

Self-Therapy By Jay Early

Self-Therapy Workbook by Jay Early

Radical Compassion by Tara Brach

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I always thought I hated the gym because something was wrong with me. I was broken, lazy, not athletic. As I’ve grown to learn more about the body and what we need to feel inside ourselves, I now understand my aversion (other than the obvious body shame and diet culture that happens there).

When we exercise to check a box, to complete a certain amount of time, to “do what we have to do”, we check out. The image I’m thinking is younger me, on a machine, watching TV and trying to pretend I wasn’t working out.

When our connection to movement isn’t about being inside of ourselves, completing that stress response cycle, and even having fun (yes it’s possible) we leave. Movement is a gift. For some people it very well may be running or lifting at the gym and if that’s you that’s wonderful IF YOU’RE INSIDE YOURSELF. Not necessarily for every single moment, but at least sometimes.

When we push through because we “should” we don’t get to connect with our bodies. We ignore our bodies signals of “stop this is boring” or even sometimes “stop this place is triggering”.

80 percent of our experience is processed through the body.

The things we read in books about healing, our sessions with healers/therapists, changes we are making in our lives, can be physically integrated through a practice of connecting with our bodies in a loving, mindful, and intentional way.

This can literally be breathing. Or self massage. Or stretching. It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing. But when we care for our physical selves, when we inhabit our bodies, when we gain mastery over something (a new skill, a new breath pattern, a new pose) or feel something click into place inside of us, or connect more deeply with ourselves, we heal.

Some ideas for trauma informed, body positive or neutral, and healing movement:

1. Do something with a friend! Activate that ventral vagal nerve that lights up when we are engaging with someone! Compliment each other. Ask beforehand what kind of compliments each of you wants, do they need to be only about skill or about a particular part of the body? Invite each other to connect with your bodies, together, i.e. “stay with that breath”, “we are here to have fun”, “you are so strong”.

2. Take a body positive or at least body neutral class! Still ventral vagal activation through having a teacher and classmates. Here, there are no phones, no screens, but plenty of connection! Call a studio ahead of time and ask about the language they use and the purpose of the class, i.e “Hello! Is this class going to use any language about weight loss?”, “Are there hands on adjustments in this class?”, “if this teacher body positive, neutral, trauma informed?”. When we advocate for our needs we also heal. If the class isn’t for you and is triggering, walk out. That in itself is deeply healing.

3.Get outside! Take a walk/run/hike. Breathe in fresh air. Connect with the earth which also lights up that ventral vagal!

4. Stay at home if it’s your safe place and check out someone like Yoga with Adriene whose on YouTube FOR FREE and very warm & positive.

5. Work with a body/queer/trauma informed trainer. There are so many wonderful folks out there who want to help you get strong, connect with yourself, and who won’t resort to body negative language to motivate you. People like Q GRIT Fitness & Decolonizing Fitness

6. Breathwork! Breathing is movement. When we breathe, we healing. When we breathe through discomfort, we build lung capacity and muscle in places that can help us re-pattern our body to breathe more deeply on a regular basis. Check out Jennifer Patternson’s new book The Power of Breathwork or a breathwork class near you.

7. Pick up Thomas Hanna’s book Somatics. It is full of low impact movement exercises to help you connect with your body and undo the every day physical trauma of living in this world. In no way is it about exercise or losing weight.

And again, whatever that practice is needs to be affirming for your body, as it is, today. Having any other frame can release stress hormones and totally defeat the purpose of this important practice. You deserve to be inside your body in a way that is healing and exciting, not stress producing or shaming.

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