This blog is, in part, a platform for me to share the experiences, research, and knowledge that’s helping me transform my life into being fully present. I think that being present is a huge part of healing, and at the same time the more you heal the easier it is to be fully present. In that sense, the ability to be present is a good indicator of one’s health. But what does “being present” even mean?
To me, being present means being fully connected to myself and to reality while managing life. The key words here are “fully connected”, “reality”, and “managing”.
Let’s talk about those key words for a bit. Why are they important to me?
Being fully connected to oneself is the opposite of being dissociated. There are so many people who are very functional and get their everyday tasks done without any problems, but are still dissociated. I would even argue that the majority of people in the Western world today go through life in a dissociated state. I was one of them. But being dissociated disconnects one from oneself and, as a result of that, also from the world around us; from reality.
Being in that state prevents us from experiencing and processing the world in all the layers we’re able to when we’re fully connected to ourselves. That doesn’t just take away a significant and beautiful part of the human experience, but also makes us sick and unhappy in the long term, and even affects our ability to raise healthy children. Not only that, since dissociation disconnects us from our instincts, intuition, and emotions, we’re also less capable of picking up on threats which we’d normally recognize easily.
Being dissociated is one specific aspect of not being connected to reality. Living in reality means living in the present and acting upon the present, while also planning for and working towards your future. Of course, you can and should take your past experiences into account, but there’s a fine but important line between learning from and analyzing the past and actually tapping into past emotions and projecting them on to the present. That can be very paralyzing – and even dangerous – because engaging in that behavior takes away our ability to properly react to the present situation, meet our own present needs, make good decisions, and be there for the people around us.
Living in reality means being present in the here and now. It also means accepting things as they are instead of denying them. But in order to be present, it’s necessary to be able to manage life.
What do I mean by that?
Well, to me, there are different stages of managing life, but it all begins with being able to manage and regulate yourself. Self-regulation is the essence of being able to handle and manage the present, and to work towards your desired future. Self-regulation mainly means emotional regulation, affect regulation, and the ability to focus. But the ability to self-regulate very much depends on our health, especially on the health of our brain and our nervous system (and of our gut). I view trauma as the major cause of an imbalanced nervous system, and therefore also of self-regulation issues.
(Note: Here I mean Peter Levine’s definition of trauma. Where the trauma is not an event, or series of events, but rather not being able to regulate oneself, to the extent that our organism goes into shock and stores the energy that was generated to defend ourselves or to escape. Since no regulation takes place, the body retains that excess energy and is adversely affected by it. This view defines trauma more as a biological condition rather than just a psychological one.)
I’m currently writing down my life story in more detail. For now, here’s a brief overview.
I was born in 1992 in Germany, to parents who came there as Jewish refugees from the Republic of Moldova after the fall of the USSR the previous year. They had both been highly traumatized, and acted that out on me. I was physically and emotionally abused by both of them. As far back as I can remember, all I knew was either abuse or neglect; there was nothing in between those two extremes.
When I was 7, my sister was born. When she was two years old, my father left the family and my parents divorced.
Growing up, I saw everyone in my family spiraling down the crippling vortex of trauma.
In addition to that, my parents had no education and could barely speak German. My father was a retired pro boxer and my mother was working in a bakery. Although she worked very hard, we were very poor and got money from the state. Nevertheless it often wasn’t enough, and I remember how we sometimes lived solely on rice or potatoes at the end of the month.
I did well in school and went to a humanistic high school. There I developed a passion for science, and started to study mathematics at the University of Frankfurt while still going to high school. By the time I was 17 the situation at home had become unbearable, and I moved out and finished the last year of high school at a different school. From that point onwards I had very little contact with my family, and eventually I cut off contact with them entirely.
Right after graduating from high school, I got a scholarship for a scientific summer school at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where I spent one month. I’d already fallen in love with physics before that, and started studying physics at the University of Heidelberg, where I eventually got my bachelor degree in 2015.
During that time – or actually since as far back as I can remember – I was always highly functional, but I was also highly traumatized and most of the time I was dissociated. Because I never knew how it felt to not be traumatized or dissociated, I never knew that the way I feel, process the world, and react to certain triggers was not how it should be.
Only after having long-term insomnia, nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, and moments where my full body would shut down and go into paralysis did I realize that the effects of trauma were worse than I thought. I started reading about PTSI, and realized that I’d always had the symptoms described there. Some of them were becoming less frequent, but were getting much worse in intensity. I called a therapist and went into therapy for about four years.
At around the same time, I started training martial arts, kickboxing, and submission wrestling/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). That was during the last year of my bachelor degree. When I was done with my degree, I decided to work for a while and see if I still wanted to have an academic career. So I worked as a programmer. Because my PTSI symptoms were getting pretty severe at that point, I quit.
Since starting martial arts I had trained every day, and it became my passion to study the art – but I also really wanted to compete. After quitting programming, I worked as everything from personal manager at a gym to office jobs, tutor for mathematics and physics, teaching maths courses at university, and working at organic markets and farms. At the same time I trained and competed as much as I could; in kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, and I had several Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights, both amateur and professional.
I decided to focus my life on studying, training, and teaching martial arts – mainly jiu-jitsu – and was a jiu-jitsu instructor for about a year before I ultimately decided to focus on and commit to healing myself first.
Well, I might go more into detail with this in future podcasts, posts, and videos, but to sum it up:
Because I was always stuck in my trauma response, my behavior just created more and more trauma in my life, and after a long period of unfortunate and very triggering events that vortex reached its apex. I went from being highly functional and dissociated to not being functional at all anymore. Some people might call this “burnout”. But I had had PTSI symptoms my whole life, and at some point my body as well as my mind just completely broke down. I hadn’t listened to the voice of my organism for too long, and now I was feeling the consequences.
At first, I didn’t listen to the voice of my organism simply because I didn’t hear it; I was so dissociated from it. Later, even after learning to recognize that voice in therapy, I very often still just ignored it. The consequence was that my insomnia and nightmares got so bad that I had horrific panic attacks. I started getting panic attacks in public, at work. I would lose my hearing or my vision for more than 10 minutes, and I would get blackouts in the sense of not knowing where I was in the middle of the day.
My health declined very quickly. I gained weight despite training and eating well, my strength decreased, and I injured my knee badly because I went to compete at a tournament despite not having slept more than two hours per night for 14 days beforehand. I did an entirely normal move and my knee just popped three times.
My organism clearly showed me that its self-healing, self-regulating, and recovery abilities were not working properly anymore. As an athlete, I know that the process of recovery is as important as training, and that I couldn’t last much longer if my internal recovery ability was out of balance. Basically, I decided to prioritize healing my nervous system because I simply wasn’t able to do what I love anymore.
Once I made the decision to focus on healing, I started to do a lot of research. As a scientist, I like to collect data and to look for sources I trust and see if that matches my own experiences.
But reading about something and actually applying it are two different things, and only the results you get from applying something actually matter (when the subject is healing). Inspired by the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, Peter Levine, Dami Charf, Philip Zimbardo, Daniel Mackler, Abdul Saad, C. G. Jung, Erich Neumann, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and several others, I engaged in self-therapy, studied trauma and the nervous system, and tried methods to heal myself.
There will be future content about exactly what I did to heal my PTSI symptoms, but learning about and applying the following concepts made me go from rock bottom to balancing my nervous system and restoring the self-healing and recovering ability of my organism, which is the foundation to be able to heal.
There are two misconceptions in modern medicine: one is that the body is separate from the mind, and the other is that the individual is separate from his/her environment.
Another problem is that we’re constantly taught to seek healing and emotional regulation from external sources through substances, people, or extreme hedonism.
That makes us biased, and encourages us to not listen to the voice of our organism. But listening to that voice is the key to healing.
I took a step back from looking at myself as a biological machine (my body) enhanced with consciousness and rational thinking, and started looking at myself as an organism. At the end of the day, our essence is the same as of any other living being. Just like plants and animals, we are an organism that has its own wisdom. The wisdom of the organism is the source of our self-healing and self-regulating ability.
Of course, simply changing your perspective is not enough; you actually need to change your behavior to match. Since our actions are in alignment with our self-healing and self-regulating abilities, healing and thriving will happen as a consequence.
Self-therapy and self-regulation are the long-term goal, but in certain situations or conditions everyone might need some assistance from a professional or a trusted person in order to reconnect with the voice of your organism, and to help with regulating emotions and sensations.
The definition of trauma that looks at it as more of a biological condition does not contradict any psychological approaches, because obviously our psyche is a part of our organism. A combination of different methods can be very useful, as long as they don’t re-traumatize you. (Many forms of talk therapy can do that, which is the reason why individuals and therapists should be careful when considering it. On the other hand, body-oriented trauma therapy such as Somatic Experiencing or Somatic Emotional Integration do not require you to talk about the traumatic events, and therefore has a lower risk of retraumatizing).
Since unresolved trauma forces our organism into a very inflexible and “frozen” condition, this has an effect on our psyche. We basically become stuck in time, and sometimes we don’t even notice it.
Philip Zimbardo has developed some tools to measure if and where a person is stuck in time, and developed a therapy called Time Perspective Therapy that assists in healing that particular aspect.
Basically, I understood that because of the abuse and emotional neglect in my childhood, and the inability of my parents to regulate themselves and to regulate me (which is the job of parenting), I never learned how self-regulation works. I had to learn it in order to bring my nervous system back into balance, and I think that many people out there are facing the same problem in their own way.
After resolving a lot of trauma and restoring the capacity of my nervous system, I’ve started to experience life in a much more alive and flexible way. I will continue my healing process on that foundation. I’m actually able to feel my body, which is still so new to me that it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. But at the same time I’ve never felt better, and I’m excited about my future because for the first time I feel that I can actually create the life I desire.
I’ve been so touched by the change in myself, and the realization it’s possible to engage with life in this way even after so much repetitive trauma, that I really want to spread that message and assist people with their own healing journey.
For now, I’m going to travel for a few months and train martial arts, but after that I’m planning on training in Somatic Emotional Integration (a method by Dami Charf) and Time Perspective Therapy in order to become a practising therapist, specializing in trauma therapy.
I want to keep studying, training, and teaching martial arts. Simply put – it has become a way of life for me. I’m also planning to have more professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fights again in the future, but I don’t want to rush that.
Besides having a passion for martial arts and recognising its use as a platform for self-improvement and staying grounded, I’m thinking about combining it with some methods for self-regulation.
Martial arts trains the body, the mind, the nervous system, breathing, and the way they all work together. At the same time, it requires the availability of both the Fight and the Flight reflex, and the conscious management of both. As such it can easily expose imbalances in the availability of those reflexes, and help with balancing them.
My personal approach to teaching martial arts focuses a lot on that, since managing those different modes and avoiding the freeze response is the essence of the art of fighting.