MaryCatherine McDonald: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong

March 23, 2023

MaryCatherine McDonald: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong

MaryCatherine McDonald March 23, 2023

For centuries, we’ve been taught that being traumatized means we are somehow broken—and that trauma only happens to people who are too fragile or flawed to deal with hardship. Instead, says Dr. MaryCatherine McDonald, the trauma response proves our spirit cannot be broken. In this podcast, Tami Simon and “MC” (as her students call her) discuss her new book, Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong—And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life, and how we might as a society begin to update our understanding of trauma and its healing. 

Tune in for this inspiring conversation about the impact of trauma on the narratives that make up our identity; recalibrating the nervous system after trauma; memory and the hippocampus; relearning a sense of embodied safety; dealing with loss in our grief-phobic culture; trauma defined as “an unbearable emotional experience that lacks a relational home”; the unconscious nature of triggers, and how to raise awareness around them; the miracle of your adaptive brain and body; trust and community in the healing of trauma; reconciling life’s ultimate vulnerability; finding resilience and strength in these uncertain times; attunement, holding space, honesty, and other elements that provide a relational home; realizing an anchor in the “tiny little joys”; the healing power of… Tetris?; healthy regulation; and more.

MaryCatherine McDonald, PhD, is a research professor and life coach who specializes in the psychology and philosophy of trauma. She has been researching, lecturing, and publishing on the neuroscience, psychology, and lived experience of trauma since completing her PhD in 2016. She’s published two academic books and many research papers, and is the creator of a trauma-based curriculum that serves previously incarcerated folks and veterans. She lives in Los Angeles. For more, alchemycoaching.life.

Author photo © Stephanie Mohan

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Also By Author

The Trauma Response is Never Wrong

We have been tricked to believe that the trauma response is a sign of weakness and disorder. What science shows us is that the trauma response is in fact a sign of strength and proof of an inherent human drive to survive. We need society to catch up with science, and fast. We are no longer living in an era where we can assume that trauma impacts a minority of the population. Trauma impacts us all. This has always been true, but we can no longer pretend otherwise.

Unbroken is a book about the miracle of the trauma response, the importance of acceptance and self-compassion, and the transformative healing potential that lies within us all. Drawing on my experience as a trauma researcher, coach, as well as my own personal journey of healing, this book offers a new perspective on trauma that emphasizes the wisdom of the body and the resilience of the human spirit.

If you’re struggling with the after-effects of trauma, Unbroken can help you understand your experience in a new light. You’ll learn how trauma impacts the brain, the body, and the spirit, and how you can use this knowledge to start your journey of healing. You’ll discover practical tools and strategies for managing trauma triggers, regulating your emotions, and cultivating self-compassion. Most importantly, you’ll learn that the trauma response is never wrong – it’s a natural and adaptive response to a difficult situation.

One of the most important lessons of Unbroken is that the trauma response is never wrong. This means that even if you’re struggling with symptoms like anxiety, depression, or dissociation, your body is doing exactly what it needs to do to protect you. By embracing this truth, you can start to shift from a place of shame and self-blame to a place of self-compassion and empowerment. The book is chock full of tools that will help you understand and appreciate your trauma response and how to intervene when that response is tripped off unnecessarily. I can’t wait for you to dig in and I can’t wait to hear how this book changes you. It certainly changed me.

MaryCatherine McDonald, PhD, is a research professor and life coach who specializes in the psychology and philosophy of trauma. She has been researching, lecturing, and publishing on the neuroscience, psychology, and lived experience of trauma since the beginning of her PhD in 2009. She’s published two academic books and many research papers, and she is the creator of a trauma-based curriculum designed to serve previously incarcerated folks and veterans

MaryCatherine McDonald: The Trauma Response Is Never W...

For centuries, we’ve been taught that being traumatized means we are somehow broken—and that trauma only happens to people who are too fragile or flawed to deal with hardship. Instead, says Dr. MaryCatherine McDonald, the trauma response proves our spirit cannot be broken. In this podcast, Tami Simon and “MC” (as her students call her) discuss her new book, Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong—And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life, and how we might as a society begin to update our understanding of trauma and its healing. 

Tune in for this inspiring conversation about the impact of trauma on the narratives that make up our identity; recalibrating the nervous system after trauma; memory and the hippocampus; relearning a sense of embodied safety; dealing with loss in our grief-phobic culture; trauma defined as “an unbearable emotional experience that lacks a relational home”; the unconscious nature of triggers, and how to raise awareness around them; the miracle of your adaptive brain and body; trust and community in the healing of trauma; reconciling life’s ultimate vulnerability; finding resilience and strength in these uncertain times; attunement, holding space, honesty, and other elements that provide a relational home; realizing an anchor in the “tiny little joys”; the healing power of… Tetris?; healthy regulation; and more.

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5 Tools to Create More Space in Your Mind

Busyness, distraction, and stress have all led to the shrinking of the modern mind.

I realize that’s a strange thing to say. Most of us don’t think of our mind as something with space in it, as a thing that can either be big or small, expensive or claustrophobic.

But just think about the last time you felt overwhelmed, stressed, or out of control. Chances are, you might not even have to think that hard. You might be experiencing that state right now as you read these words.

What happens in these moments? 

First, our mind wanders. It spins through all sorts of random thoughts about the past and the future. As a result, we lose touch with the direct experience of present time.

Second, we lose perspective. We can’t see the big picture anymore. Instead, it’s like we’re viewing life through a long and narrow tunnel. We become blind to possibility, fixated on problems.

Put these two together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for eradicating space in the mind. The landscape of the mind begins to feel like a calendar jammed with so many meetings, events, and obligations that these neon colored boxes cover-up even the smallest slivers of white space. 

So it could be nice for our partner, for our kids, and, mostly, for our ourselves to consider: how can we create more space in the mind?

Here are five tools for creating mental space. If you want to go deeper, check out my new book with Sounds True on the topic called OPEN: Living With an Expansive Mind in a Distracted World.

1. Meditation.

You’ve no doubt heard about all of the scientifically validated benefits of this practice. It reduces stress. It boosts productivity. It enhances focus.

That is all true. But here is the real benefit of meditation: it creates more space in the mind. To get started, try it out for just a few minutes a day. Use an app or guided practice to help you.

2. Movement.

So, maybe you’re not the meditating type. That’s fine. You can still create space in the mind by setting aside time for undistracted movement.

The key word here is “undistracted.” For many of us, exercise and movement have become yet another time where our headspace gets covered over by texts, podcasts, or our favorite Netflix series. 

There’s nothing wrong with this. But it can be powerful to leave the earbuds behind every once in a while and allow the mind to rest while you walk, stretch, run, bike, swim, or practice yoga.

3. Relax.

When it comes to creating headspace, we moderns, with our smartphone-flooded, overly-stimulated, minds seem to inevitably encounter a problem: we’re often too stressed, amped, and agitated to open.

Relaxation – calming the nervous system – is perhaps the best way to counter this effect and create more fertile ground for opening. When we relax – the real kind, not the Netflix or TikTok kind –  the grip of difficult emotions loosens, the speed of our whirling thoughts slows, and, most important, the sense of space in our mind begins to expand.

How can you relax? Try yoga. Try extended exhale breathing, where you inhale four counts, exhale eight counts. Try yoga nidra. Or, just treat yourself to a nap.

4. See bigger.

When life gets crazy, the mind isn’t the only thing that shrinks. The size of our visual field also gets smaller. Our eyes strain. Our peripheral vision falls out of awareness.

What’s the antidote to this tunnel vision view? See bigger.

Try it right now. With a soft gaze, allow the edges of your visual field to slowly expand. Imagine you’re seeing whatever happens to be in front of you from the top of a vast mountain peak. Now bring this more expansive, panoramic, way of seeing with you for the rest of the day.

5. Do nothing.

Now for the most advanced practice. It’s advanced because it cuts against everything our culture believes in. In a world where everyone is trying desperately to get more done, one of the most radical acts is to not do — to do nothing.

Even just a few minutes of this paradoxical practice can help you experience an expansion of space in the mind.

Lie on the floor or outside on the grass. Close your eyes. Put on your favorite music if you want. Set an alarm for a few minutes so you don’t freak out too much. 

Then, stop. Drop the technique. Drop the effort. Just allow yourself to savor this rare experience of doing absolutely nothing.

Nate Klemp, PhD, is a philosopher, writer, and mindfulness entrepreneur. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Start Here and the New York Times critics’ pick The 80/80 Marriage. His work has been featured in the LA Times, Psychology Today, the Times of London, and more, and his appearances include Good Morning America and Talks at Google. He’s a cofounder of LifeXT and founding partner at Mindful. For more, visit nateklemp.com or @Nate_Klemp on Instagram.

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