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Exploring PTSD After Trauma With Peggy Hays And Kelly Larson

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

TED 53 | Safety Belt

You can't just remove trauma; it takes time to heal. In this episode, we sit down with two incredible guests and discuss strategies for controlling symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. Peggy Hays returns to discuss some of her traumatic experiences as a wife of a cardiac arrest survivor and as a nurse anesthetist, as well as her journey toward recovery. Kelly Larson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Director of Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center, and Brainspotting Trainer. Kelly talks to us about the effects of trauma and the various methods that can help with depression, anxiety, and PTSD recovery. If you, or someone you know, has ever experienced any form of depression, anxiety, or PTSD, this is an episode with content you won't want to miss!


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Exploring PTSD After Trauma With Peggy Hays And Kelly Larson

Welcome to another episode. Please keep in mind that the content of this episode does not constitute medical advice but is purely for the purpose of education. This episode was sponsored by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists. We are bringing back a guest who has talked with us before, Peggy Hays. As you may recall, Peggy is a nurse anesthetist and witnessed her husband have a heart attack on the side of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The medics and staff were able to resuscitate Jim, who, after a long recovery, is now doing well.

After that episode, Peggy and I talked a bit about PTSD after her experience, as well as PTSD in the healthcare community after traumatic experiences. We also talked about how the healthcare community tends to ignore sadness and anxiety and not talk about the traumas and difficulties we endure. Peggy and I decided this would be a great topic for another episode. With that, we are so grateful to have you back, Peggy.

Thank you so much for wanting to do this episode in the first place. It is so important to shed light on this topic and my hope is to demystify PTSD and remove the perceived perception of shame. I’m grateful to be here.

Those are such important topics and I’m so glad we will get a chance to address some of them. In this episode, we are talking about PTSD. PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a disorder characterized by difficulty recovering after being a part of or witnessing a traumatic event. Peggy has had many traumas as a result of Jim’s cardiac arrest. Not the least of which is watching everything happen moment-to-moment and actually giving Jim CPR. However, Peggy is also a medical professional and has had many traumas as a result of her work in the medical field.

Having gone through all of these traumas and then emphasized by the events with her husband, Peggy realized she was experiencing PTSD and sought help. Peggy, I know this has been difficult to talk about in the past, but can you tell us a bit more about the trauma with Jim, your sister, the pandemic, and all of these things rolled into one?

We were skiing in Wyoming when Jim had a heart attack on top of a mountain. I had to start emergency measures. A few minutes later, a vacationing emergency room doctor skied up to assist me, which is phenomenal in itself. What seemed like a lifetime later, the ski patrol en masse came to save Jim’s life. We were then life-flighted to Idaho, where we stayed for six days and then again, life-flighted to the University of Utah, where we stayed for 27 days.

All in, Jim endured 10 days on an Impella heart pump, 11 days of intubation, upper and lower GI bleeds, several scares of a stroke, and multiple days with high rates of AFib and flutter. To top it off, he had acalculous cholecystitis and pancreatitis that resulted in sepsis. We were in the hospital for a total of 33 days but finally left for home on April 2nd, 2020.

On June 1st, 2020, he had another heart attack where I performed CPR on him again in our home until the paramedics came around. Two weeks later, my brother called to tell me that my sister had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She was diagnosed on June 1st, the same day that Jim went down with his heart attack.

All I have to say is you can’t make this stuff up and do not ever ask what is next because you do not ever want to know what is next. I went back to work in May 2020. A whole new world of pandemic anesthesia was there awaiting me and lots of new protocols, out of operating room intubations, and such a different environment from when I had left prior to Jim having his heart attack. That about wraps it up.

That is so much for one person to handle. Every time I hear you talk about this, I’m so amazed at your resilience and how you have been able to handle all of these things because trauma is compound. They can add up. I remain incredibly impressed with you. Can you also give me a couple of examples of how your work as a medical provider could contribute to PTSD?

Especially in the early months of the pandemic, gearing up in the PAPR, which is one of those powered air-purifying respirators. You are totally in a space outfit. You are trying to get into that gear as quickly as possible so that you can run up to the ICU for intubation after intubation. Sometimes, we had had multiple intubations at the same time where they were like, “Now you need to go to this room next.”

Medical providers are human too. Sometimes, they need time to process before they shift to the next case.

That in itself was a whole new world for me. With these intubations, especially with COVID, knowing that this could be that person’s possibly their last breath off of a machine, that does get to you. Not knowing if that is the right medical treatment at that time, and it is seeing not only the older people but the young and fairly healthy people die again and again.

Sometimes it is doing a big case where the person is very sick, to begin with, and then there is a lot of blood loss. You are working hard and fast, not just physically but mentally, for hours sometimes. You are invested in that person’s life and the outcome for them. When that case is over, you drop them off into the recovery room PACU, and then you are expected to move along to the next case.

We are humans. Sometimes, we need to process and take a breath before we shift to the next case. Throughout my career, I have six distinctive events from anesthesia that are blazed in my memory. I can tell you pretty much everything about that person and what happened many years ago for the first two. These were not deaths that occurred either. These events scarred me.

Those events add up and compound over time. When you do not have time in between those events to process them, it becomes even more difficult to move on, as you were saying, from one room to the next room. As you and I were talking before this episode, I realized there are specific airways that I remember.

I remember everything about the patient, their family, and what their airway looked like. Those are emblazoned in my memory forever. While it is not something that, when it happens every once in a while, you can’t handle or move on from, but when it happens day-after-day, multiple times a day, it can become very difficult to process and move through some of those traumas.

I’m sure those are a few of the many examples of mental, emotional, and psychological trauma that you have experienced in your career and life. In reality, there is even more that you are not remembering and are repressed. As we have been saying, those traumas can add up and they can become difficult to handle.

We have another guest with us in this episode who is going to tell us a bit about how one can learn to cope with trauma and resolve some of the symptoms of PTSD. Kelly Larson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Director of the Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center, and Brainspotting Trainer. We are so grateful to have you with us to talk to us more about PTSD and recovery. Welcome, Kelly.

Thank you so much for having me on. Peggy, I am so in awe of how you have made it your mission to turn around and use your experience to provide so much education, insight, and awareness. It means so much to be able to circle back with you, see all that you have done since then, to see that glow in your face and that skip in your step.

I’m grateful to have been a part of your journey. Thank you for reaching out in general, and Alaina, thank you for having me on. My hope for this discussion is that there are so many misconceptions about trauma and how it impacts people. We can simplify what it might look in our systems when they are overwhelmed by trauma so that we can start to spot it a little bit easier in ourselves and in others.

Let’s talk about the trauma response. Can you tell me about how it works?

One of the big misconceptions about trauma is that in order for it to be worthy of being considered a trauma, a lot of people perceive that there has to be an actual, genuine threat to life. We will think combat veterans, armed robbery or a serious car accident. Those are obvious big traumas, but the truth is that the way that trauma impacts us individually can be so subjective and quite insidious in nature for a lot of people. If we can shift the focus from what is it that causes trauma and more onto what does it look when our systems are actually overwhelmed by traumatic experiences, we can start to spot it a little easier.

The big traumas are obvious, but it is more of the compounding effect of the daily stressors that can surprise people that, “Maybe my body is actually stuck in this response as well.” If we look at a regulated nervous system that is not being impacted by trauma, we are all going to experience fluctuations and a stress response or a calming response throughout the day. If you are driving down the freeway and somebody pumps on their brakes unexpectedly, a normal regulated nervous system will feel a flood of stress response. Once we recognize that we are safe and the danger has passed, our body will regulate back down to its normal baseline.

PTSD After Trauma: Trauma will push your nervous system out of its capacity to regulate itself. So it will either push your system into an overly sympathetic state or a stuck-off state.

What happens with trauma is it will push your nervous system out of its capacity to regulate itself. One of two things will happen when that goes on. A lot of times, it will push your system into an overly sympathetic state. Your sympathetic nervous system is over-activated, and it is stuck on. The cluster of symptoms that you are going to look at is heightened senses of anxiety, more panic than you are used to, restlessness or difficulty sleeping. For some people, it can be a short fuse. They are way quicker to anger and reactivity. It can go all the way down to the GI tract of irritable bowel syndrome or diarrhea.

It can be hyper-vigilance and that exaggerated startle response. Some of those more on-edge stuck on, and can’t rest types of symptoms will happen with an overly sympathetic nervous system. Not all of those symptoms are for everybody, but that is the common cluster of possibilities. Sometimes, it will go the opposite way where your nervous system gets stuck off. That is going to be indicative of an overly parasympathetic nervous system. That is going to look a lot more like a typical display of depression, so chronic fatigue, a lot of oversleeping but not feeling rested, exhaustion, floating through your day and not feeling anything, feeling numb, and losing motivation.

When we are looking at the GI symptoms with that, some constipation can be present as well. It is affecting the whole system. Usually, one person or people will go from one to the other or sometimes switch between the two of them. When we are looking at emergency medicine or emergency responders, they have to be in the fight or flight step on when they are on shift. What happens is they get off and they flip right into the overly parasympathetic. They are in their room and they are not engaging with their family. Their body has to go into retreat mode. Those are some of the symptoms of, “My body my nervous system is completely hijacked by prolonged stress or trauma.”

That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for that incredible explanation. Peggy, how does this compare to what you experienced with Jim?

I was listening to Kelly and thinking, “I did not know all that, even when we did our therapy.” In the hospital, I immediately started to have an irrational fear that if I left Jim, something bad would happen to him. That meant going to eat or leave for the night, I would get super upset. I did not even know what this was all about, but I knew it was totally irrational. Going to eat, I would freak out.

I called a friend to update her about Jim and she is also a family counselor. She is the one that told me, “You are having anxiety.” I was like, “This is what anxiety is? I do not like this.” That was first when I started to know that I was going to need help getting rid of this. Seeing Jim’s face on the mountain, that did not start until we got home from the hospital. That part of my PTSD did not take effect until he was home and, in my mind, safe, and then other things started to trigger.

After recognizing that you were having a lot of difficulties recovering from these events, you decided to seek help. Tell us a bit more about what you tried and what worked and did not work.

While Jim was in the hospital, I used adult coloring books. They were given to me by a friend who was a counselor. She overnighted these adult coloring books. Those helped me focus on something else and it helped quiet my mind. When we finally got home, my first tactic was ignoring it. That definitely does not help. I started to see Jim’s face on the mountain at various points in the day. Not generally, when I was sleeping, I wouldn’t wake up from that. All of a sudden, I would be sitting doing something normal and I would see his pale foaming mouth face. I knew I had to get all that stuff out of my head. I’m like, “I can’t keep seeing this vision over and over again.”

When I would be doing gardening or anything, I would burst into tears. Horrible, very boo-hoo tears. After Jim’s second heart attack, that is when it drove even deeper into my brain. I was irrationally ever-vigilant, checking on him napping over and over, going in and checking, “Is he breathing?” I would sleep with my hand on his chest so I could check for his breathing to make sure that he was still alive, “Where is the phone? How many steps to the door if I have to let the paramedics in?” It was a lot of irrational things happening. I would not even leave him to go for a walk. I was in the house with him all the time.

Friends and neighbors brought us food because I was like, “I’m not going to the store. I’m not leaving him at all.” This was when I decided to reach out to my healthcare system. They got me in contact with a psychiatrist. That psychiatrist prescribed a medication known to help PTSD in specific, which raises serotonin levels in the brain. Although a lot of us do not want to be on medications, I thought of this as my bridge to the other side until I could seek treatment and get help.

The truth about trauma is that it can be subjective and quite insidious in nature for a lot of people.

At that point, you reached out to the Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center where you started using Brainspotting. Kelly, can you tell us more about what Brainspotting is and how it works?

Brainspotting is something I am extremely passionate about. Brainspotting is a brain-based therapy that is using our eyes and our field of vision to locate where in the brain a person is storing and holding trauma or any negative experience. It does not have to be a single incident trauma, although it can be remarkably rapidly effective for a single incident trauma. It can be something as diffuse as a pressure that you wake up with on your chest every day or this sense of worthlessness or hopelessness. Any negative experience, we are able to use our field of vision to access where it is actually located so that we can process it and release it.

We have this tagline in Brainspotting that is, “Where you look affects how you feel.” To give a felt-sense example of what we mean by that, I would love to walk you all through a quick exercise. I will do it with the two of you but for anybody who is reading at home, please only participate to the level you are able to safely.

Everybody take a quick breath. Get settled in your body real quick. I want you all to think about an issue that is bothering you. Since we do not have time to process a big trauma, we are thinking on a scale of 0 to 10 of disturbance or feeling upset. Something that might be a 4 or a 5 that is causing a little bit of stress, worry, or anxiety. Let’s try and think of something that you have access to that is bothering you. I’ll give you a moment to think of that.

Are we opening our eyes or closing our eyes?

Whatever feels organic. There is no direction. Follow whatever feels right for you to connect to that. Once you have thought about that issue, I want you to see if you can connect to it in whatever way makes sense to you. Thinking about the worst part about it or how it is impacting you and let your body get connected into what this issue is. Let yourself start to feel any feelings or emotions associated with that. If you are able to identify what emotion it is, see if that is possible for you. Once you feel that, scan your body from head to toe and notice any sensations, no matter how subtle they are, that is going on in your body. Maybe tightness, a flutter, or tension. Notice where your body is holding that.

Note as 0 to 10, how strong it feels in this moment. When you are ready, look at any still point in your room to your left. You can move your head or your eyes. It doesn’t matter. Notice what happens to that sensation. Does it change at all? Does it stay the same? Does it decrease or increase? Now, look at any still point in the center. Notice any changes in the sensation here. When you are ready, look at any still point to the right, tuning into this issue and the sensations and notice what happens. Now, shake it out real quick. Did either of you notice or want to share what you experienced when you switched different positions?

I have done this before. I can immediately feel whatever the problem is. It always comes up in my throat. This time, although the traumas with Jim, it seemed that it was always off to the right, but this time definitely, it was my left. I could absolutely feel it up in my throat. When I look center, it goes away. I look right, it went away.

If we were to be working together, would you want to go where there was nothing or would you want to work on where there was something?

I would definitely work with there was something.

PTSD After Trauma: Brainspotting is a brain-based therapy that uses your eyes and field of vision to locate where you're storing trauma or any kind of a negative experience in the brain.

That is so interesting that it is to the left. Is this a totally different issue?


You never know what to expect with that. What about for you, Alaina? Did you notice any perceived change when you moved your eyes?

I felt an increased tension when I looked to the left. There was some muscle tension that I was feeling, epigastric, or mid-stomach. It did not seem as strong when I looked in other directions, which is interesting to me, trying to figure out why and understand that.

That is the challenge. It is trying to put the why to why this experience was discovered many years ago by accident. Dr. David Grant discovered it. He’s a remarkable mentor of mine and a brilliant man. Since he accidentally discovered it in his therapy room, brain science has helped us understand more about why it is that this works. If we go all the way back to when we were all developing in the womb, the retina originates as an outgrowth of the developing brain. On the back of the retina, there are brain cells that connect into the thalamus, which then goes all the way down the spinal thalamic track, which is connected into every organ in our body.

When we are saying, “Where you look affects how you feel.” It is not just where we are looking. It is a highly neurological and physiological experience that has profound psychological consequences. When we can use our eyes to tap into different places in our brain, we can locate where we are storing our issues and how much impacts our entire system and help process and release it.

I will make a comment here about that. I had no idea, but my close friends would know that during all of this, when we were still in the hospital, I kept feeling like, “Am I stroking my left eye?” My whole left side of my face would have such incredible pain. I kept touching it and it would hurt so bad for that whole 33 days until I finally got to the Brainspotting and could release that. It was so crazy to me. It felt a little woo-woo. I was like, “How did that happen?” I did not have any pain on me left side of my face or my left eye.

It is pretty remarkable. The things that I see in the therapy room, the things that are seemingly so unconnected to the emotional trauma that is happening physically, are remarkably improving. We will never claim to treat any medical disorders. It feels almost miraculous when I see somebody coming in with profound MS working on their childhood trauma and noticing that their symptomology has gone down so intensely because the body is not holding such an overproduction of cortisol anymore.

Cortisol leads to inflammation, which is the source of all pain within a lot of chronic illnesses. If we can release the stress and the cortisol response in the body, we can also help so much of the physiological responses that are keeping people in that chronic pain and chronic fatigue that leads to depression and anxiety as well. We need to be able to work within the whole system in the therapy room.

From the exercise that we did, when someone has identified a direction of increased tension or increased symptom, how would they go about relieving that then?

Adult coloring books can really help quiet your mind and take your focus off a problem.

Doing that exercise, which is such a brief tiny snippet of what a session might look like. If you were to go and get some Brainspotting therapy, one of the things that your client or your therapist would do would be to help you connect into the issue that you want to work on. Symbolically, I look at it like we got to turn on the light in the brain so we can find it. We are going to spend as much time as you need, trying to connect into it on a somatic level, if possible. Body awareness is stored in the brainstem, which is in the midbrain, which is what holds a lot of our trauma, so we are going to want to connect into that.

We are going to use a variety of methods to help you find an I-position. If you were able to notice yourself that, “On this side, I feel it stronger.” We use what we call a magic wand, but it is a pointer to help find and precisely hold a spot where there is the perceived strongest felt sense of activation. This gives us some information. It is like a lighthouse in the brain saying, “There is a file here that is important.” By maintaining a fixed gaze in that spot, it will essentially hold open that file of what we are working on. By being present in the actual part of the brain where this is stored and being mindful of what’s going on in our body, it allows it to unwind, reprocess, and release to find some resolution there.

It is like point injections for trauma.

I’m assuming you are right. I am not a doctor, but that sounds right.

A trigger point injection is where when people have areas of muscle tension or muscle strains, you can inject lidocaine, water, or even use dry needling to break up some of those areas of tension. It leads to the release of some of those muscle issues.

That sounds like a perfect metaphor to explain what we are doing in Brainspotting. It is a precise way of locating where these individualized capsules get stuck and fragmented off when our systems are overwhelmed. We find where they are and by being in them. Allowing ourselves to be mindfully aware of the sensations, the experiences, and the emotions going on when we are in that capsule allows it to start to release.

Why is Brainspotting or other methods better than talk therapy for PTSD?

I do not want to single this out to incidence. People that are in high-stress jobs where they have to be in fight or flight mode or people who are raised in dysregulated households where they do not know if they are safe or going to be cared for. This type of prolonged stress or traumatic experience is all stored in the limbic system in the midbrain.

If you were to drill down in your brain from the bridge of your nose back, from the mid-nose down is where a lot of these trauma and anxiety symptoms are stored. The prefrontal cortex is the executive functioning in our brain that we will use during talk therapy. That is remarkable for problem-solving strategies or for even building good insight, but it does not have the capacity to have good communication with that limbic system in that midbrain.

You could work on your trauma all day by talking about it, but you are not going to get to access it to get any release. Some people will feel, “I feel so much better after that therapy session.” There is no bottom-up processing there. It is back to the same feeling by the next week. Research has shown us that Brainspotting, with relative ease, is able to access the midbrain and the limbic system. By being able to access the part of the brain and that file where it is stored, and opening it up and being mindfully aware of it. We are able to access the part of the brain where it stores it so that we can productively process it through and release it.

PTSD After Trauma: The prefrontal cortex is good for problem-solving strategies but it doesn't solve trauma. It doesn't have good communication with that limbic system in that midbrain.

What other methods are useful for recovering from PTSD or depression and anxiety associated with a traumatic event?

There is one brain trick that not many people know about that wants to spread to the world. I tell everybody, “Use this. You do not need any tools. You can do it anywhere.” It is called Vergence Therapy. Vergence therapy is something that you can do when you are feeling a heightened sense of anxiety or perhaps you suffer from panic attacks and you know your triggers and you want to be able to stop or decrease the intensity of your panic attacks. Before coming on this show, I got a little wave of performance anxiety. I was like, “I’m going to do some vergence and help my body calm down.”

I’m going to walk you guys through another exercise if you want to do this with me. Again, any readers at home, please only participate if you can do so safely. If you can put your finger up in front of your face at about eye level, about maybe one foot away from your face if you can, you start by gazing at the tip of your finger and then look through your finger and let your gaze fall as far back as you can see in the room or the space you are.

Right now, I’m looking through my window at a tree, and then bring your gaze and back to your fingertip. You are going to alternate every 3 to 10 seconds at a fast pace between looking near and then far. Keep looking at the near space and the far space and alternate between doing that. As you do it, I’m going to explain what’s going on here.

As your eyes converge or come together, which is looking at the nearest spot, or diverge or go further out, which is looking at the further spot, you are activating what’s called the Oculocardiac reflex. This is going to give you a quick parasympathetic nerve response, which will help slow down your heart rate, slow down your breathing, and release body tension. This is a fantastic tool of you feel that tightening in your chest after an interaction with somebody or if you are feeling performance anxiety or your normal symptoms of anxiety that you are waking up with. This can help bring a little bit more of a reflexive relaxation feeling in your body.

I do feel like I had a sensation of my breathing slowing down, but my arm was getting tired. I do not know about the release of muscle tension. I probably should not have held it so high.

You can rest your elbow and grab a pen or even I have got a water bottle right here. All it is, is, “How can I move my eyes together and move them apart?” Looking at near and then far is an easy way to do that. I have got high school students that come to me and they are like, “I do not want to look weird in class if I’m doing this. I do not want anyone to know I’m having anxiety.” I say, “Casually hold your pencil up and look like you are gazing off. Nobody has to know that you are doing it. You can do it anywhere and anytime.”

That is one big tool I like to teach people. I love what Peggy said earlier. The adult coloring books are a sense of mindfulness, which is at the core of Brainspotting is. It is bringing yourself into the present moment into what you are doing in that experience, which can help distract your mind from all of the fears of the past, the anxiety of the future, and that stuff that can get you feeling overwhelmed. Anything that can bring you into the moment, meditative exercises, yoga, and somatic body-based therapies are the most effective for trauma. We are looking at Brainspotting and EMDR is a great tool for somatic experiencing as well.

I had a couple that I loved. The first one, I learned from Kelly. I still love my bilateral music. I learned all this from Kelly. What I found out about it is when you are being held captive by that bilateral stimulation. Two things happen. You can’t think of the problem and you start to feel relaxed, which leads to the ways the memory of the problem is stored. I use it even when I’m doing finances or start to feel anxious. I even pop it in gardening. I will tell everybody about that. The other thing that I liked was a book that I have read and I’m rereading it again.

It is called The Body Keeps the Score. This is an amazing book because I’m so science-based, sometimes I felt like things were a little like, “What? I do not understand how all this works, the Brainspotting.” This book is over 30 years of research on trauma and the brain. I loved the science part of it. The other thing I learned, which was a biggie for me, is that it is not about the mind. It is about the brain. Sometimes in medicine, we think, “I can pull myself up by my bootstraps and carry on to the next thing.” It is not about that. It is those little scars on the brain.

Bring yourself into the present moment and distract your mind from all of the fears of the past and anxieties of the future.

I hope that we can start to reframe this as it is not that you are weak and not able to get control of your emotions. It is that your nervous system is hijacked. It is a physiological condition, just like if you had any medical illness that can be treated as long as we give it the same space that we would anything else. On the bilateral note for anybody that is reading, that can be found for free in so many different locations. It has to be listened to with headphones on.

If you have access to YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, or any place where you can find music, if you type in bilateral music and plug it in with some headphones, it will alternate with music going from one side to the other. That is another way to activate that parasympathetic reflex, which will help slow down your breathing. If you can add the added bilateral movement of walking while you are listening to it, you are going to double up on those benefits.

I did not know that I was going to start doing that.

Those are all amazing resources. I’m going to have to check that book out. I love when I can understand the reasoning behind why something works. I also think when you experience something and feel it start working, then you do not necessarily need to know the science behind it to know that it works.

One of the phrases in Brainspotting is you do not have to know what it is to know that it is” You see some pretty profound things that happened with the way some people process. Sometimes people are shaking or twitching or getting hot or cold, all nervous system reactions. Sometimes that is what I’ll say is, “You do not have to know what’s happening to know that something important is happening. Notice where that goes and we’ll see what happens.” Later on, your neocortex is like, “Let me understand more so I can lean in even deeper next time.” That is why I love to geek out on the brain science behind it. We know something important is happening here, but let’s follow up and understand it on a logical level.

Peggy, I also remember you saying that gratitude has played a huge role in your recovery. You and Jim have been very intentional about reaching out to the healthcare teams and the Lucas engineers who helped treat Jim to thank them. Can either of you talk a bit more about how gratitude or changing mental models can help with recovery?

Right away, Jim and I were so grateful for all the skills and experience we received in the hospital. I kept a notebook with most of the doctors’ and nurses’ names so that I could write thank you letters later. It wasn’t a conscious effort. I always knew that you would be grateful and thank these people and their excellence and their expertise and to let them know that this is what all of their education and their hard work results in. It changes people’s lives. I’m not just saying Jim’s life, but all of his family’s lives. It is not just one person.

With the first Brainspotting, when I hooked up with Kelly, the very first thing I was working on was getting rid of seeing Jim’s face that would pop up. The first thing that happened was my brain changed it to gratitude. I did not know it. I wasn’t mindfully doing it. My brain changed it to gratitude for all the people that were on the mountain that could help save Jim’s life and get them to that next destination. That helped a lot.

Kelly, did you have any thoughts?

Gratitude is profoundly helpful, but the reality is a lot of people that are steeped in anxiety, trauma, panic, and depression do not actually have access to some of those more positive emotions like gratitude and hope. I honor that is where our system is. Brainspotting is so client-oriented and person-oriented that we are going to work with where you are. I find that when we are able to regulate the nervous system and the brain more, it allows such greater access to those more positive neural networks like spontaneous gratitude.

You weren’t looking for that, Peggy. It was found through regulating that dysregulation in your brain of seeing his face. Sometimes you need to go through the muck and be able to find that light and be able to lean into the gratitude, but it is in such an authentic bottom-up way. It is not you trying to force from the top down, “Feel grateful, but it is not really there. I have so many other things that I’m feeling pissed off about, hurt, or scared.” That is where you need to honor, “This is where I’m at. My intention is to find that gratitude. Until I get through the weeds, I’m not going to be able to access it quite yet.” it is a good tool to get to those more positive spaces that you are hoping to get to.

I love that gratitude was innately there for you and Jim, Peggy. As medical providers, so rarely do we get to see the recovery, especially because you are there intubating someone and I’m in the emergency department, so we see people at their worst moments and do not get to see them once they are better. I love so much that you have gone to all of these emergency responders and let them know what a difference their work made. I’m sure that has meant the world to them. Those I’ve talked to, I know it has meant the world to them.

It means the world to us to let them know like, “We are okay. You guys were on your A-game and it makes a difference. It makes a difference in a lot of people’s lives.” We are very fortunate that we have been able to do that.

If any of our readers want to learn more, what resources would you suggest?

If you want to learn any more about Brainspotting, you can go to to go to the main global website. If you are interested in seeking therapeutic services, Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center has a lot of therapists that are highly trained to the fullest degree in Brainspotting. Any one of them can do some great work with whatever trauma or stress you are dealing with and can do via Zoom. You can go to and learn more about what we do there as well as Brainspotting.

Are you only available for patients in California?

We have a couple of therapists that are able to see it using a different degree. For the most part, we do treat people in California, but we can help turn people to different states. should also have a directory that can help find people local to you that are trained or certified in Brainspotting.

I know we have a lot of international readers. Being able to access is an ideal resource for them to reach out to if they need it.

There are people all over the world being trained in Brainspotting every single weekend. It is globally growing by the minute.

Any final thoughts either of you would like to share before we wrap up this episode?

When I returned to work, I was very open about my experience with PTSD. I wasn’t ashamed about it at all. It wasn’t anything I could help. I could not help but think that Brainspotting could help so many people. From first responders, think of all that they see to those of us in medicine. Trauma comes at all forms and there is help and it works. That is what I want people to know. There is help and it works. Again, this is not about the conscious mind. It is about the brain.

“You do not have to know what’s happening to know that something important is happening. Notice where that goes, and we’ll see what happens.”

It doesn’t necessarily have to be trauma related to the medical field or to a loss of life. Trauma can occur in any number of ways throughout your life. Whatever trauma might be limiting you is something that you should reach out and potentially investigate further.

Thank you so much to both of you for having me on this and let me talk to both of you about this very important issue. Peggy, I’m so glad you are shining so bright.

Thank you both so much for joining us. We appreciated all of your insight, Kelly and we appreciate your willingness to share your experiences, Peggy. That is it for this episode. Our guests were Peggy Hays, a nurse anesthetist and trauma survivor, and Kelly Larson at the Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center. If you would like to learn more about PTSD and Brainspotting, you can visit or You can also reach out to us at This episode was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists. Until next time.

Important Links:

About Peggy Hays

TED 53 | Safety Belt

Peggy Hays has been doing anesthesia for nearly thirty years. However, in March of 2020, her skills were put to a much more personal test. While Peggy and her husband, Jim, were skiing down the mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Jim had a heart attack. Peggy immediately started emergency measures. After initially being given just a 5% likelihood of surviving, 33 days later, Peggy was able to help Jim walk out of the hospital. Just three months later, while recovering at home, Jim had a second heart attack. Peggy performed CPR on her husband a second time. And against all odds, Jim made an incredible recovery.

About Kelly Larson

Kelly is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Director and Clinical Supervisor at Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center in Folsom California. Kelly utilizes the powerful modality of Brainspotting to help her clients suffering from emotional trauma find rapid and lasting healing. In addition to seeing clients, she has found passion in teaching this healing technique to other therapists and healing professionals as a Brainspotting Trainer and Consultant. For more information on Kelly or Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center, go to and


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