Dr. Alauna Curry is like every other therapist out there–a regular person with struggles and pain just like the rest of us. And in 2017, when her marriage, finances, and health all came crashing down, she was reminded that everyone has trauma–but not all of us know how it affects us or the empathy with which we view the world. This episode’s practice is about understanding our traumas, and using our brains to learn practical skills that will help us heal them.
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Resources from the show
- Learn more about ACES (Adverse Childhood Events) here.
- Check out Oprah’s interview with 60 minutes talking about ACES
- Read “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel van der Kolk.
Learn more about today’s guest:
- Sign up for Dr. Alauna’s Trauma Recovery Courses
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Claire, Dr. Alauna Curry
Hi, I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. Welcome to NEW DAY. Whenever I meet a stranger, say on an airplane, and they asked me what I do, I always panic a little. If I tell them I’m an author, they’ll ask what I write about. And then I’ll have to say, death and grief. And if I tell them, I’m a therapist, then I’m opening up a whole other can of worms. Immediately they’ll do one of two things. Either they will get nervous and fidgety, and assume I’m analyzing everything about them, I’m definitely not. Or they will begin to tell me something deeply personal about themselves, or about a friend or someone in their family. But I’m not always in therapist mode. In fact, most of the time, I’m not. I’m a regular person in the world with struggles and questions and failures and insecurities. Now hearing me say this might make some people nervous. Like, I don’t want to see a therapist who’s a mess.
But to that, I say, why would you want to see a therapist who hasn’t had to work through their own hard stuff. My guest today, Dr. Alauna Curry is also a therapist. But we’re going to talk about what it’s like behind the scenes, about our lives as moms, as regular people about what it looks like when we struggle, and also about what inspires us and motivates us to continue trying to break the stigma around mental health. Dr. Alauna in particular has been hard at work, helping our culture reframe how we think about trauma, which is a really important part of the conversation you’re about to hear. I know that for myself, doing this work has helped me to understand that everyone struggles that no one gets through life unscathed. And that even the people who seem to have it all together, have secrets and mistakes and things they’re ashamed of, even therapists.
Hi, Dr. Alauna
Dr. Alauna Curry
So, I want to start by talking about something you have on your website, you say, I’m Dr. Alauna Curry, and I want you to know, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re far from alone. We are all connected in trauma. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means? And also, you know, your background, how did you become a trauma therapist?
Dr. Alauna Curry
Well, it’s interesting, because it’s not what I set out to be for sure. That’s not where I thought this was going. I was drawn to trauma in August of 2014, when Michael Brown Jr. was killed. I mean, that whole situation just put me in a space of forced empathy. Because I could understand both sides of the situation, I was once a rather troubled teen in St. Louis. And then I also understood the law enforcement side of it, and you know, how they would experience it. And I began to really study trauma and read anything I could get my hands on about how it affects us. And I began to see in my own life and other people’s life, that everybody had trauma, I was listening, hearing the same patterns of exaggerated thinking, fear thinking that was coming from my patients. I was fighting to get in my friends, I was hearing it in my family. I was hearing it and anybody that I talked to, and the last place that I looked, was myself. And it was a it was astounding to me that when I really began to study myself, that I could see and hear the same trauma patterns, but I had the knowledge of these particular aspects of the brain, like the reticular activating system. But as I started to understand my brain better, I could see where my traumas were directly impacting the blind spots that I had in my life or the way that I was operating. And it blew my mind.
That’s amazing. I want to get into some of the technical stuff and then I want to save it for just a minute and get a little personal first, because I think I think it’s a really interesting time to be a therapist. You know, you and I both come to this work from very personal places, you know, we both have our trauma I have a lot of loss in my life and I love hearing you talk about how you are exploring yourself and doing work on yourself while you’re working with clients. I think some people are under the impression that therapists should have everything figured out. Yeah, but that’s not always true. You know, we’re always kind of continuing to do our own work. I mean, I think we need to have a certain base level of figured out but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. We are real people as well. And we are people in the world that are trying to get through day to day, in addition to really helping other people do it and really providing a lot of information and knowledge for others. Do you ever feel like imposter syndrome?
Dr. Alauna Curry
I don’t, I think I’ve been really blessed to have the experience of really always feeling very firm and sure in what I want it to do. And I think that, on some level, I had my I think I was raised with this awareness that like, as a black woman, I have to perform above and beyond what other people do. And I could see that I was capable of doing that. And so I think that that protected me in some ways from imposter syndrome. But I do think that what I went through at one point, really around 2017, I hit a wall in my life. And it was a combination of things, my marriage crashed, my health crashed, I developed arthritis and neuropathy to the point where I couldn’t walk. I mean, I was using a cane limping into work every day, it got to the point where I couldn’t even sustain part time work, my finances crashed, like everything just hit the wall in 2017. But that also was a space where I took all of that trauma. And it was when I was really in contemplation, like, I need to explain this to everybody, I need to lean into the educational side of being a doctor, because I don’t think that physicians and I don’t think any of us do a good enough job of helping people connect from what’s happening inside of them to their biology, because the systems that we use, lack empathy, true empathy. It made me realize like we are looking at trauma as a subset of mental health. But trauma is a core experience that we will all have.
I have to ask you about that. And I still want to come back to some personal stuff. But it’s interesting, I was reading a lot about your work. And I was thinking about trauma. And for me, when my mom died when I was 18. And then my father shortly after that, and there was a long, maybe a decade when I did not acknowledge that that was traumatic, I didn’t use that word. I felt like that wasn’t an accessible word, given my circumstances and my experience. And then something has really shifted in just really in the zeitgeist in the last few years where I think we’re really acknowledging trauma and how many of us go through it. And that yes, of course, losing my parents at a young age was traumatic, and it wasn’t trauma. But do you know what I’m talking about this shift? That’s been recent? Tell me about that.
Dr. Alauna Curry
This is not how we’ve been trained to approach ourselves. And learning and understanding this was like, to me was like popping out on the other side of a black hole. I looked at myself, and the rest of the world. And I’m like, either, I’m crazy, or everybody’s traumatize. And I’m pretty sure that it’s not me. To be clear, that sub field does not exist in the field of psychiatry and medicine. We have child and adolescent; we have substance and addiction. But we do not have a trauma subset yet, in the last few years, we have started to understand trauma as a core impact on who we are and how we think, we’ve talked about aces, adverse childhood events.
I’m so fascinated by those. Can you explain a little bit more of what they are to listeners who aren’t familiar, because this is so important.
Dr. Alauna Curry
Absolutely. Then there’s many of them, you can actually take a test online, you could just look up adverse childhood event, checklist, and it’s things like poverty, or having a caregiver who has an addiction or substance problem, or experiencing divorce or separation from your family, or adoption or abuse..
Death of a parent, which is what I specialize in.
Dr. Alauna Curry
There you go. So there are so many things that shape how we think and what we believe. And what I began to understand was that how you think manifest out of your mouth, your thoughts actually create sensations and things that percolate inside of your body and set off triggers of hormones and other things and then your words or actions that impact you and other people, right so when you say something that flies across space, and smacks the other person and vice versa, and I started to recognize like, all of us are kind of semi delusional, delusion being a fixed false belief, because we think that our version of reality and what our brain is transmitting into us. We think that our version is the version.
If we’re all traumatized, what does that mean? if everybody’s traumatized, what, what are we going to do?
Dr. Alauna Curry
It means that we can get rid of the stigma of mental health, there and treat everyone as if they’re going through something because they are, and we can reprogram our own brains. The beautiful part about this to me, and what gives me hope, is that it starts working so quickly, when people understand that they have a prefrontal cortex, you have a part of your brain right here behind your forehead, I tell people tap it and wake it up. And that part of our brain, humans are using like 10 to 15% of that, yeah, our primitive brain, our amygdala, where our emotions, they get so big and so loud, and there’s so much a part of how people move, that they’re not engaging this prefrontal cortex. So I thought long and hard. And in the midst of my own trauma, I was like, okay, how do I turn this thing on? How do I design things, tools to help me activate my best brain. So I came up with like, the love skill and the done skill and other things that people can implement, to start telling the difference between that primitive and evolve thinking, and you can alter how you feel about things by understanding how you can be skillful with your brain.
Can you tell me kind of like a personal example of how this worked for you, like I’m thinking about, you know, I’ve done similar work on myself and then brought it into my larger work, you know, like anxiety is something I specialize in after going through a loss. And for me that looked like panic attacks after my mom died, and hypochondria, and social phobias and when I began to work on those things, it was so many different techniques I discovered sought out use meditation was a big one, you know, doing some cognitive behavioral work, really starting to understand anxiety and what it meant. And I did so much of that work, but it wasn’t easy. It was hard one. What was it like for you personally? Like what were you working through? And how was it in the very beginning, when you were like tapping on your forehead and turning that stuff on?
Dr. Alauna Curry 12:38
Oh, my gosh, well, it was painful, I would do existential crisis, because I realized that I had gone to a lot of school and done a lot of work and was operating in a very high level in my field. But yet, I was not, I had not been taught some of the basics, like holding ice to get out of a panic attack. As it relates to your biology and how meditating on that ice can help pull somebody’s brain out of that spin out of that cycle. And that was part of our work in the rover and wiser programs where I worked at the VA is that we couldn’t give medicines and people were upset or angry or having a panic attack, we really had to teach them skills. And when I started to apply the skills that I taught my veterans for years, to my own life, it got me through the divorce, it got me through a year of not being paid. It got me through the retirement process. They got me through the uncertainty of moving and recalibrating my whole life and be even stepping into this role as Dr. Alauna trauma psychiatrists.
Dr. Alauna Curry
But honestly, the most traumatic thing that I think has happened to me was my son being burned in 2020. Right before the pandemic, my son was eight at the time, and he was trying to be helpful, and pulled a cup of hot water out of the microwave onto his face, his head, and he literally burnt all of the skin off of his face. And it was awful. I was right there next to him. My mother was there. Like, I think that some of the thoughts were like, what kind of parent are you? You’re right there. Why couldn’t you stop it? You know, guilt about if I hadn’t heated it up so hot or said maybe to him don’t do it. But he had never even done that before. Like just I never even occurred to me. Yeah, that he could go and pull that out of the microwave. So you know, we spent a week in the hospital. I mean, it was grotesque, like it was really difficult and he’s healed beautifully, thank God. But I went through a lot of shitty thinking which is subjective, harsh, intense, terrorizing to yourself. And I knew that was my primitive brain like beating me up for this situation. But I was like, no, use the done skill, be descriptive, objective, nonjudgmental and effective on yourself.
How did you get through each day of that, though, you know, like, I know that you know, the skills, I know the skills, but there are days when I can’t do the skills, you know, there. And those sound like some days that I would have had a hard time doing the skills.
Dr. Alauna Curry
It’s a blur. You know, I think every day, I had to, every day, multiple times a day and I still do this, I say reset, I reset myself, I remind myself who I am, who I want to be, how this works, and how powerful my own mind is to create my experience or how I feel about something, I once I understood, I can control my emotions, you mean to tell me that I have the ability to challenge my own amygdala. And I thank it, I’m like, thank you for showing me the worst possible case scenario, I know that t is an option. But I use the love skill, listen and look with suspended judgment, observe the emotions, validate the differing yet equal experiences, and be an effective creator, express yourself effectively is he and every day, every day, oh, I put it on, like I put on a hat.
I love that when I first started doing some real work around my anxiety, it was so similar and you know, I would have these catastrophic thoughts all the time, you know, I would get a pain in my side. And I’d be like, oh my god, I have stage four colon cancer, just like my mother, that would be my very first thought. And for a long time in my life, I would go down a rabbit hole with that thought, you know, I would play out some fantasy, I’d be at a hospital bed saying goodbye to my kids, you know, and then I’d be like an anxious wreck the rest of the day. And when I began to do that work, I had to do the same thing. You’re talking about how to use a lot of self-compassion, I had to be like, okay, there’s the thought thank you for that idea. I’m not going to go with that one. And I would have to have some self-compassion as I moved away from that thought I couldn’t do it without really just softening a little bit.
Dr. Alauna Curry
Yes, be gentle with yourself.
But where does the change start? You know, like, I’m thinking about like social emotional learning in school, that does not sound like enough like what I know that my kids are doing in their schools in terms of social emotional learning. I’m glad it’s happening. But where do we start with this, because what is happening is people are hitting these walls. They’re, they’re, you know, they’re at such a critical point when they come in for help, or when they realize they need help, or when they realize they need to start learning skills. So we’re hitting these really critical points before we get there. How can we preempt that? How can we start educating people before they hit critical points? How can we start educating ourselves?
Dr. Alauna Curry
Well, I believe that it starts with self-work that most people have not done. Most people haven’t been to a therapist or, you know, really invested in thinking about what do you think about, how do your thoughts work and understanding that to be a product of our brain, but I think we need to focus on evolving, right? I need to upgrade the way that I think about you and see you as a spiritual being having a human experience, just like me, and your version of reality is just as real to you and believable to you as mine is to me, right? And if I can master me and master my own traumas, I can show other people how to have a healthy response. I can show other people how to objectively find a realistic in between point and help them take action that gets them where they need to go. That’s a start. I’m not saying that therapy is not important or that you might need a psychiatrist. Medication sometimes can be helpful for different things, but the core of it is upgrade yourself like update how you think about yourself because you are far more powerful than you’d ever have been taught.
I’m thinking now about times in my life when I didn’t feel enough strength or clarity to start to do that work by my life blew up in 2013 years was 2017. I went through divorce I had two small daughters. And I was working as a therapist. I was working on my second book and like my life was falling apart you know, financial ruin. Marriage apart. And there were definitely a lot of times during that year when it felt much more like survival mode. And I know a lot of people are in that place all the time, you know. And so I knew that the work I needed to be doing was down the road in some ways, but I wanted to be doing it then. But I just couldn’t everyday like some days were about just like, making it through the day. And I think a lot of people are going through that right now, especially this year 2021. And coming out of last year. At what point do we kind of get to a place where we can do some of that higher self-work? I mean, it’s so important, but sometimes it feels hard to get to.
Dr. Alauna Curry 20:38
Yeah, I think that that is one of the most important questions that people have to ask themselves, like, what is my priority, and the reality is, is that you don’t have time to not do this, right? You don’t have time to keep operating like this, because you will continue to spin and continue to be a captive of your trauma patterns, if you don’t take the time to learn your brain and understand it, because you can, okay, I know you had your childhood trauma, you were abused, or, you know, you’ve experienced loss, or you’re experiencing COVID, or you’re experiencing racism, that you’re experiencing sexism, and all of these things still come down to your brain is being programmed by these negative experiences, to generalize, to stereotype to overreact, to emphasize traumatic things coming to you. And so your mind, your brain, your biology, is pulling you towards your traumas, and pulling you towards manifesting exactly what you do not want. And then we get there and we go, oh, how did this happen? It’s you, it’s your person, you made me feel this way. And then I acted that way. I’m like, no, take back your power. And every day, I have to remind myself, it’s not them, it’s me, I have to control me. There are so many things about our behavior that are tied into our biology, that you don’t have time not to understand it, because it is driving the bus. Your biology is likely driving the bus for you and your life. Unless you do this work to get to know it.
I think people don’t realize that enough. And I think they feel very powerless over their own thoughts and that their thoughts are not changeable. You know, they don’t even think they feel that separate from them. And, and I think that’s a that’s a large part of the work that I’ve had to do, you know, I’m thinking about there was a real shift I had in my early 30s, of just realizing I had been focusing on my whole life through one lens of like loss and abandonment, right. And I finally was like, This is the story I’m really holding on to and I’m not sure why I keep holding on to it. Yes, there are versions of it that are true, but it’s not serving me to only see the world through this lens. And when I dropped it, it was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done.
Dr. Alauna Curry
It’s night and day. It’s amazing. And that’s the reason why I say people will hear me say we are creators, every single one of us anatomically are creating, even if you’re doing nothing, you’re sitting still you’re doing something, you’re still in operation mode. So the time that you’re born, the time that you get here, and the time that you leave, you are making choices, you’re manifesting things, and you’re creating things. So it really is an identity thing, I think, because like you said, our minds are so powerful our imaginations create whole worlds. And when we put those imaginings in action, they manifesting like all the things that we’re experiencing in the world right now because somebody cared enough about a thing. Like we fly planes through the sky now. And we think nothing of getting on a flying metal machine. Right? Because many, many people have put hours and hours and hours of thought into making that experience happen. And then we start to take that process of creation for granted. But every time you think a thought is creating the emotions, proportional to what you’re telling yourself about that thing, and if you are swimming in that type of imaginings, you will be experiencing painful, devastating experiences on the inside that might make you feel suicidal, it might make you angry, it might make you homicidal, like there are so many things that are tied to our lack of understanding about what is happening inside of our bodies.
But I want to acknowledge that this work is challenging though. I think it’s only really hard in the beginning because once you get into it, the positive reinforcement of it again like when I was able to kind of flip the switch in my life, it was so liberating, but I never wanted to go back. And so continuing to change my thoughts was actually pretty easy from there. But it was hard to get to that point. And I want to ask you this, like, okay, you’ve got you’ve got young kids like I do. And I’m sure you talk about this stuff with them.
Dr. Alauna Curry
I do I try.
When I talk about this stuff with like, my kids, they’re like, Mom, no, enough, you know, like, my seventh grader is having a hard time. It’s Middle School, seventh grade, she’s in a new school. And I’m like, just change your thoughts. She’s like, get out of my room, you know?
Dr. Alauna Curry
I honestly have found that is more empowering for people to instead of asking them to maybe change the thoughts, I help them connect to the biology of it. Because I think that it does feel like how can I change my thoughts? How can I just change how I feel, right? That’s people like what, that doesn’t make sense. But when once you understand that, biologically, your beliefs are operative. So if you’re telling yourself, nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I guess I’ll eat some worms, I used to be my favorite. But if that’s what you’re saying to yourself, then you’re giving yourself that experience, you will interpret that that person who looked in that way, is another person who doesn’t like you. And you are very likely fooling yourself into thinking that there’s nobody you can connect to, which will close off your mind’s eye to see all that person over there. I can sit with them, talk to them, and we become the best of friends. So I think it’s difficult. I have 710 and 21, my 21-year-old has heard me and with me through this evolution, so I think she gets it now.
Dr. Alauna Curry 26:54
So I just kind of remind myself, it’s especially hard with my son, because we’ve gone through these traumas together. Yeah. And I think that is hardest for him to respond to me. So I have us in therapy, I have experts helping us work on our relationship and our dynamic and the way that we talk. And I wrestled myself constantly, just the other day, he snapped at me. And I was like, breathe, breathe, honey, because I’m like, I told him, bro, y’all understand, I’m from St. Louis, like we’ve, like my clap back is very strong. I don’t want to clap on you, I don’t want to hit you. I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to snap at you, I’m trying really hard to model for him. The behaviors that I want him to do, because I know his mirror neurons are picking up on the things that I say and how we talk and think. So I rescue myself every day. I’m like, I am not only the president, but I’m also a client of the Dr. Alauna Trauma Recovery Institute.
That’s awesome. Yeah, those moments are really hard. I think that’s when I’m put to the test more than anything is when my kids really pushed me into those places. And I really got to step back and breathe. And because it’s the modeling, you’re right, what did you call it?
Dr. Alauna Curry
Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are one of the brain systems that I teach about that is predictably, programmed by traumatic experiences. And an example of mirror neurons would be how we soak up words or sometimes like we have a lot of people who get their news. And then they take the information from the news that they hear. And if you ask them questions, they will often tell you the things that they’ve heard from the sources that they value. So our mirror neurons are very active. But if you don’t recognize how, you know, this is for the parents, kids do what you do, not what you say, right? So that’s those mirror neurons that are soaking up the information, the sounds, sound bites, and so when a child is triggered, or when they’re, you know, if I yell at him, and I, you know, put my hands on him, when I’m angry, when he gets angry, he’s gonna yell and do the same thing. So my job is to figure out how to hold my amygdala in check and get words out. So using that skill helps me activate my prefrontal cortex and wrestle pass like doing what would be the contribute to the trauma cycle, contribute to this, you know, getting people to do things through physical force and intimidation versus making it make sense for them why they want to do what you’re saying. And it’s just a constant practice. That’s why I call my methodology empathy skills practice. Yeah, because I have to use the empathy I have to choose to use it. I have to know that it’s this skill that I have to, you know, if you’re trying to drill a hole, and you’re doing it with your finger, instead of picking up your tool and doing it with your screwdriver or you know, then you are leaving your best self on the table. So empathy skills, practice, practice is how we grow.
So for someone who’s listening right now, and maybe having one of those lightbulb moments like man, maybe I am just telling myself the same negative story over and over, what’s an easy way, what’s an easy thing to do to start to make that shift.
Dr. Alauna Curry
Truly, my favorite, one of my favorite skills is the done skill. Be descriptive, objective, nonjudgmental, effective, be descriptive, meaning use language that is fact base things that people can agree on. objective is taking the perspective not just from yourself, but also trying to look at it from how the other person might be experiencing it. The in his nonjudgmental, meaning recognize that we all make judgments, that’s what our brain does, however, we are none of us are privy to the entire picture. So putting our judgment to the side, and not shooting ourselves. The E is effective. Thinking about instead of thinking about something as right or wrong, like I want to do the right thing or wrong thing, or I want to this is true or not think of it as what can I do? What are the words? What are the phrases? What are the actions that are needed, in order to move us to where we need to be. So that’s being effective. And it’s work, it’s work to do that. There’s so many things that need to be updated and upgraded. I really believe that we just need a collective hard reset. And a collective commitment to empathy and making empathy go viral. That’s my thing I’d like even before the pandemic came out, I was saying we need to make empathy go viral, we need to push it out to the rest of the world, and just begin to use it in everything that we do, and it will bear fruit.
Trauma as a subset of mental health. What would it mean if we were all to begin acknowledging our own traumas, and not just ours but everyone else’s too. To open up to the most empathic versions of ourselves that we can be? I know that we can’t do that without doing our own work, our own healing. But I think Dr. Lada had a lot of great ideas about ways to begin doing that. And I know some of the things we talked about are easier said than done. But learning to understand your thoughts and step back from some of the more unproductive emotions can really be the key to moving through trauma. So for this week’s practice, I want you to try a couple of things. The first is to think about your own traumas. And if you have a hard time knowing what they are, consider thinking of various adverse childhood experiences you may have had. adverse childhood experiences or aces include things like abuse, neglect, racism, or the death of a parent. There’s a simple list of aces that can help you understand your own trauma. We have a link to it in our show notes. And if you look at the aces and you have a score of zero, then you’re perfect. Just kidding.
There’s plenty of trauma that we experienced as adults. Once you’ve pinpointed what your traumas are, give some thought to how these experiences may shape some of your thinking. What surprised you? Maybe there are experiences that you never thought of as trauma that are impacting the way you move through the world now, everything from your parenting your relationships to who you are at work. Acknowledging the underlying trauma behind some of these issues is what can help you to do the work to change your behavior and emotions. Or as Oprah says, to live your best life. The second thing I’d love for you to do is see others through this lens. Everyone you encounter from friends, to grocery clerks, to your therapists. Imagine that they’re all carrying their own traumas. Let yourself softened the humanity all around you. It will change everything about how you feel in the world. You can dig deeper on everything you heard Dr. Alauna talk about through the courses she offers on our website, trauma recovery Academy calm. And speaking of Oprah, she got really into talking about aces in 2018. She made it accessible for everyone to talk about. I really recommend checking out her 60 Minutes interview about it. I also recommend reading the book the body keeps the score by Bessel van der Kolk. As always, thanks so much for listening. Next week tune in for my conversation with Lily Cornell silver, who talks about her experience losing her dad, musician and Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell to suicide. We also have a fascinating conversation about mental health in your 20s.
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