Trauma-Informed Healthcare

wallpaper of different flowers and plants

By Hazelle Palmer

Health care is such an intricate part of everything that we do and I’ve always noticed how health care institutions interact with different populations and different communities, genders, people of different orientation, racialized groups… But some of those interactions are so systemically driven and in many ways very oppressive. I want to see that health care reflects what I think we all deserve, which is health care that is responsive to our needs, and that every individual needs to be a partner in their own health care.

Sherbourne has built a unique space which allows folks to feel comfortable and safe when receiving care. Being able to relate to experiences is really important. We hire staff who have similar lived experience, to exemplify the importance of culturally competent care. We highlight our focus on anti-racism, anti-oppression as being something that we do with all staff upon their hiring here. Being able to live those principles in the work that we do and how we do the work is so important.

At Sherbourne, we have quite a range of programs that speak to these different experiences of (lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-queer) LGBTQ communities and I think we’re starting now to do more around Indigenous and 2-Spirit communities, but I think that we have really tried to look at and create space for (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) BIPOC youth and for LGBT youth; and overall we’ve tried to address the issues of homelessness and substance use. We’ve looked at trying to create places where people can just meet because social connection is so important. We’ve created forums where we can listen and engage with folks to get a sense of how we can improve what we’re doing already.

We’ve also been an advocate. For example, through our province-wide Rainbow Health Ontario program, we underline the importance of Human Rights and the areas that we feel still are discriminatory or infringe on the rights of people from the LGBTQ communities… We are also training doctors across the province to be able to provide competent care. Access everywhere is important.

Looking to the future, Sherbourne is beginning to focus more on marginalized populations including BIPOC populations, and the intersections they face. We understand that people can be dealing with sexual orientation but also dealing with substance use, they may also be homeless, they may be a newcomer to Canada, they may be dealing with other forms of discrimination …  or trauma that deeply affects their ability to achieve health and wellness. We have staff teams who deal with under-housed folks and those experiencing homelessness, (lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-2 spirit-queer) LGBT2SQ, as well as newcomers to Canada, but mental health and trauma were key areas that really stood out as impacting every community.

At Sherbourne, we acknowledge the significance of trauma and so with our new mental health framework we’ve embedded trauma-informed approaches. It’s really acknowledging that many of us in some way have experienced trauma. And while that trauma differs along a continuum, when we hear stories about people’s experiences with stigma, discrimination, substance use, or even the conditions that make them have to leave home early, or the abuse they’ve suffered in their life which may result in PTSD, it tells us that trauma is really a significant factor in people’s lives.

I strongly believe that we, all have our own resilience. And organizations like Sherbourne are there to empower, to help people to find that resilience in themselves. What’s challenging about intersectionality is that the burden of all the issues we deal with is so great, that it can feel so overwhelming. … Sometimes we think about some of the systemic things that we can’t control, whether it’s within politics, whether it’s the justice system, policing, all of the things that make it really so overwhelming and so discouraging but on the other hand I always am so admiring of −, I’m a queer person myself −, I’m admiring of our communities because we’ve gone through so much, and yet we continue on. And that’s true of people who are from BIPOC communities who are also dealing with issues around race and discrimination and stigma every single day and yet we march on. And we know from our history and social justice movements that we are stronger together.

Hazelle is a seasoned senior executive with more than 18 years experience in the non-profit sector.  Before becoming the CEO of Sherbourne Health, she was Executive Director of the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and previously Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Toronto. Hazelle holds a Master’s Certificate in Health Care Management as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Carleton University.

Accessing Embodied Ancestral Knowledge

by Zainab Amadahy

When intuition was all we had, we trained, developed and honed it. But as The Divine Masculine tilted into patriarchy, intuition lost its value. We were encouraged to trust only the measurable, tangible and reproducible. We stopped investing in the intuitive. Our skills deteriorated. Our trust waned. Perception yielded to science. Our instincts receded in favor of ideas that separated us into disconnected individuals living in a survival-of-the-fittest competition.

Above Artwork by Jayal Chung 

This process occurred in different ways around the world. For most of us, colonization imposed a Eurocentric worldview that ridiculed and discounted the notion of even valuing, much less reclaiming ancestral knowledge. At the same time, Indigenous knowledge were often reframed, re-storied and fed back to us as “science”. Now researchers are columbusing  (“discovering”/rediscovering) there are profound and verifiable truths to our diverse wisdom traditions and that ancestral knowledge either resides in or can be accessed through our body. In this article, we will explore some of those findings and I will leave you with a simple process for accessing ancestral wisdom.

Before we proceed, consider these questions: What is ancestral knowledge? Is it quantifiable facts and information? Wisdom to guide the use of knowledge? Insights into the nature of our perceived reality? Is it all that and more? Furthermore, the word “ancestral” suggests we are accessing information from the past. But the linear (and even cyclical) passage of time is only an illusion, a consequence of our existence in a material/physical world. Given this realization can we access information from what we perceive as the future; from our descendants? I can’t answer these questions for you but they come up for me as I research what my body knows/remembers/catches. My answers to these questions are not static or easily pinned down. They move like an undulating snake, assuring me that what I don’t know is immeasurably vast. Nevertheless, I welcome this opportunity to share what I think I know.

I’ve intersected with concepts of inherited knowledge in Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous African, diasporic African, First Nations, Maori, and Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) wisdom traditions. There are, of course, many more teachings from other traditions. Often that knowledge is encoded in metaphor, allegory and subtext. Many wisdom traditions encourage experiential learning but beliefs always colour one’s experience. The rational, logical, analytical mind can’t easily access, comprehend, quantify and categorize information that comes in subtle, symbolic forms. The scientific method requires the reproduction of measurable, repeated, and clearly defined outcomes before it will declare any experience as “real”. Unique, personalized, diverse and inconsistent experiences that can only be interpreted by the experiencer do not lend themselves to scientific investigation.

However, you don’t have to quantify or otherwise make experiences tangible to extract their value. As Malidoma Somé (Dagara, Burkina Faso) has noted in The Healing Wisdom of Africa, “The more intense an experience, the more likely indigenous people are to leave it in the language in which it came rather than to discuss and dissect it with words. It is almost as if discussing diminishes what is being discussed. Villagers feel that words conquer experience, dislodging experience from its rightful place of power. So unless powerful experiences and ideas are addressed poetically, or with proverbs, people don’t want to take the risk of losing in a fog of words what they have struggled so hard to acquire.” Likewise, reductionist scientific inquiries that dissect and verify experience related to ancestors can diminish its power and significance. Hence, we must ask ourselves if the scientific story of reclaiming embodied ancestral knowledge has its limits.

Given that many spiritual and cultural paradigms have varied and effective ways of understanding, acquiring and applying ancestral knowledge you may have no need of the science. However, you can choose to add scientific stories to your personal and cultural understandings.

The Science of Ancestral Knowledge: Epigenetic Inheritance and Biofield Studies

There are two areas of research that can enhance our understandings of accessing embodied ancestral knowledge: 1) epigenetic inheritance and 2) biofield studies. Epigenetic inheritance is now well accepted by establishment scientists. Many peer-reviewed articles in recent decades show that social and physical environment impacts how our genes express themselves and that the traumas and chronic stress suffered by our ancestors can impact the form and function of our bodies and mind. Essentially our body produces proteins in response to our physical and social environments. These proteins will inform how genes express themselves.

We’ve known about the impact of the physical environment on our genes for some time. Toxic chemicals, gamma radiation (x-rays) and ultraviolet light provide unfortunate examples of how the external environment can adversely impact our genes. At the same time, we know that healthy food, adequate exercise and time spent in pristine natural environments also impact our genes in the direction of wellness and longevity. 

Relatively new information in the world of epigenetics illustrates that your reaction to your environment will also produce biochemicals that impact your genetic expression, for better or worse. Ancestors who were raised in nurturing, healthy, loving environments and lived lives of relative safety and privilege likely had many experiences that enabled their bodies to produce biochemicals that promoted wellness and resiliency. Thus, they were able to pass down physical and genetic attributes that promote wellbeing in their descendants.

Ancestors who were enslaved, forced to attend residential school, grew up in war zones or suffered forms of abuse lived for extended periods (if not their whole lives) in a state of chronic stress. Their bodies produced biochemistry that reflected and exacerbated their stress-filled, unsafe lives. Those molecules, in turn, shaped their bodies, mind and genes. These ancestors can easily have passed down a genetic legacy that predisposes their descendants to chronic stress and illness.

At the level of DNA, recent discoveries by cell biologist Glen Rein are further illustrative. DNA is the material located in the cell’s nucleus that makes up the chromosomes and genes. Rein found that “positive” emotions expand the DNA molecule, making it more resilient and consequently better able to contribute to healing and wellness. “Only the love-based emotions stimulate DNA to decompress so that messenger RNA can access codes for healing”. On the other hand, contractive emotional states compress the DNA helix, “severely limiting access to genetic information necessary for healing as well as evolution”.  (“Effect of Conscious Intention on Human DNA”, Proceedings of the International Forum on New Science, Denver, Colorado, October 1996 

While the limitations and specifics of epigenetic inheritance are still being investigated, the science is broadly accepted because it can be explained in terms of molecular interactions. Nevertheless, there is still recognition of what ancient wisdom traditions have known for millennia: that our bodies contain inherited physical, emotional and mental information. On the other hand, biofield studies, which focus on the conversation between energy fields, is less understood in mainstream circles.

According to “Biofield Science and Healing: An Emerging Frontier in Medicine”, (Global Advances in Health and Medicine, November 2015) the term biofield was coined in 1992 at a US National Institutes of Health conference, where it was defined as “a massless field, not necessarily electromagnetic, that surrounds and permeates living bodies and affects the body.” The National Institutes of Health and several pharmaceutical companies are currently investing in research that will map the body’s bioelectromagnetic fields in the hope of better understanding how frequencies of light, sound or other forms of electromagnetism impact and interact with the body.

In Vibrational Medicine (March 2001) Richard Gerber, MD defines biofield as “the energy field that surrounds and interpenetrates the physical body. The biofield is made up of magnetic and electromagnetic energies generated by living cells.” My definition of the biofield is that it’s a collection of energy fields, some produced by and others interacting with the body. Biofields can be influenced by and also influence the structure and function of a living body.

When I started reading about biofield research, I couldn’t help but note the parallels between the theoretical science and wellness paradigms offered by many wisdom traditions. According to several researchers in the above-referenced journal, “Biofield concepts are rooted in indigenous schools of medicine, as evidenced by ‘whole medical systems’ practices such as Chinese, Tibetan, Native American, African and Ayurvedic medicine”.

The DNA molecule resides in every living cell of your body and has its own biofield that vibrates to its own signature frequency. Some scientists have described this vibration as a “theme song”. Since your ancestors are represented in your DNA you could say, metaphorically, that their songs weave your biofield. Singing, drumming and/or dancing life into existence are common motifs in the creation of stories of many cultures. These artistic practices are also employed in ceremonies and rituals that connect with ancestors. Such activities reflect a pre-colonial understanding of very sophisticated knowledge.

There are many aspects of biofield science that I find relevant to recovering ancestral wisdom. Among decades of research findings that biologist Rupert Sheldrake points to, is evidence of what he calls a “morphogenic” field that organizes and stores information in the universe, including that which comprises our physical bodies. Knowledge stored in the field can pass from one generation to the next. This has been shown to happen in animal species such as lab rats where if you teach one generation a skill, such as how to run a maze, their offspring will learn that skill faster. In fact, each generation increases the speed at which the skill is learned. As these findings began to be repeated it was learned that a direct genetic link to the previous generation was not needed for the rats to learn faster. What rats mastered in London could be passed on to the next generation of the same species in Japan, Mexico or anywhere.

Studies controlling for social and environmental conditions also began producing multi-decade-long studies suggesting the same thing: that each succeeding generation of humans has the capacity to learn at a faster rate.

Biofield and consciousness studies, admittedly controversial, have spawned a lot of theorizing about memory and knowledge being located outside of the brain; that there is a network of interacting energy fields containing universal knowledge and that our bodies and brains can act as filters of that information in order for us to have a human experience in the physical world. This theory suggests that the processes and protocols of many ceremonies, rituals and practices (breathing, meditation, chanting, drumming, etc.) aimed at reclaiming ancestral knowledge might be about opening the body’s filters to allow information already in the morphogenic field to drip through into our conscious awareness. 

From biofield theory, we can further speculate that, if our physical bodies are, at their core, nothing more than a collection of energy fields interacting with each other, death does not destroy the information contained in those fields. In addition, each of us inherits information from in those fields, specifically 50% from each biological parent. (This percentage comes from the fact that 50% of our genetic information is inherited from each parent and genetic information at its core is an energy field). The information that comprises any individual is timeless, eternal, and maybe that is what you access through rituals, ceremonies, practices and the dreamtime. Then again, some of it, most certainly, resides in your own biofield. Yet other information might be called in from the cosmic fields with which we interact.

This emerging science begs the questions of who we are connecting with when accessing ancestral wisdom and does it matter? Do all ancestors belong to everyone? Does a genetic connection matter? Are we able to access information from other entities in the universe? Again, I urge you to experiment and see what your body tells you.

Bringing Ancestral Knowledge Back Into our Bodies

While some of these newer scientific stories align with some ancestral wisdoms, we have to understand that, in comparison to the wealth of cultural and spiritual knowledge, the scientific story is a very tiny file in a vast collection of data.

Science aside, my own experiences attest to the human capacity to “catch” knowledge we were never given in any formal way. I carry several cultural, scientific and intuitive stories about how that happens and you are welcome to develop or learn your own stories. My purpose from here on is to share what I’ve learned about ways to access ancestral knowledge, whether stored, filtered by or otherwise accessed through the body.

Some of the cultural protocols around connecting with ancestors are very precise and specific. If you prefer to use these practices and work with knowledge keepers, it certainly doesn’t hurt. At the risk of disagreeing with some folks, I don’t happen to believe these protocols are essential to connecting with ancestral wisdom. This is evidenced for me by the many times I’ve been able to do it outside of the prescribed practices of one culture or another and by the anecdotal evidence, others have done the same. This happens with dreams, meditation, drug-induced and other experiences. I’ve even been known to catch a download or two in the middle of my swim workout.

At the same time, cultural practices that have been in use for centuries, and served communities perfectly well for millennia, can definitely help you connect. They can also provide a level of emotional safety if you harbour any anxieties about interacting with the “dead”. Furthermore, ceremonies and rituals practiced in community can be far more powerful and significant in terms of outcomes. The land on which the ceremony takes place, the experience and skills of ritual leadership as well as other factors can also provide an enhanced connection. So, the choice is yours.

I am not qualified to share any culturally specific protocols around accessing ancestral knowledge through body-oriented process. Nor do I feel the written word is the best way to do that. What I can share is one small practice of my own design that I use and teach.

The initial step in any processes is always to set intentions. Intention-setting is a two-step exercise: First, decide why you are entering into the process. What is your desire, aspiration or goal? What outcome(s) are you looking for? Do you need help or clarity? Do you want to learn something specific? You can clarify your intention and help your focus by writing it down.

The second step is to remain open to whatever shows up. Drop your ideas about what you want and be willing to accept what comes. Trust that the beings/energies you’re interacting with understand what you want and what is behind that want, as well as how much growth is needed before you get to a place where you can handle what you want.

The step after setting up an intention is to breathe. In Power up Your Brain neuroscientist Dr. David Perlmutter and medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo (also a self-described shaman) wrote about how hyper-oxygenation can stir up memories. Perlmutter used a hyperbaric chamber in one of his experiments but there really isn’t any need for expensive equipment to generate similar results.

There are many breathing patterns that will increase the oxygen content in your body. The simplest one is to breathe deeply and continuously (no breaks between inhales and exhales) for a time. In a group exercise I’ll go for 4-7 minutes but if you’re on your own go for as long as you like. Often what happens is that folks begin remembering stuff they’ve forgotten or haven’t thought about in a while. These can be pleasant or anxiety producing. What can also happen is a sense of vague discomfort that isn’t attached to any specific memory but is felt in the body. At the same time you might feel highly energized and giddy. This is normal and desirable. Sometimes you won’t have a conscious awareness of memories you stir up because it didn’t happen in your lifetime but your body remembers (or accesses) the event.

Once you’ve excavated the memories you can calm your body by switching to a breathing rhythm that relaxes the involuntary nervous system. My favorite aligns with a 4-4-8 rhythmic pattern. Find the rhythm of your heartbeat, inhale for four beats, hold for four and exhale for eight. Repeat until you relax. This rhythm maintains the highly oxygenated state while calming anxieties or excess energies. When you are sufficiently calm you can revert to a comfortable breathing pattern and lay quiet for some moments, noticing what arises and falls in the body. In this state the “knowledge” can trickle in at its own pace in its own unique way.

Practice this technique regularly and it will get easier. You might find that once you’ve initiated the process, the revelations, information and wisdom can land at any time in a variety of ways. Many teachings tell us the ancestors are always trying to communicate with us. Whether you take this literally or metaphorically my hope is that you enjoy the process of connecting to the knowledge.

In the end, please remember that science discovers because it must see before it believes. Intuition creates because it believes what it cannot see and all creations reside in the timeless morphogenic field.


Zainab Amadahy
Based in peri-apocalyptic Toronto, Zainab Amadahy is an author, screenwriter, self-empowerment facilitator, professional development consultant, researcher and educator. Her background in medical and photovoltaic technologies, as well as community service in the areas of Indigenous knowledge reclamation, curanderismo, non-profit housing, women’s services, migrant settlement and community arts, inform her work. Links to Zainab’s articles, essays and other literary work can be found on her website:

Jayal Chung
Jayal Chung is a queer and Chinese woman, born and raised in Thunder Bay, ON. A self-taught visual and spoken word artist, she is passionate about arts, community organizing and community building, advocacy, making zines, and co-hosting Queer Radio Hour on CILU 102.7 FM.