Internal Family Systems (IFS) Could Save Your Life Right Now

The coronavirus is on everyone’s minds, and as often happens when we have terrified parts, we revert to what we know—the medical orthodoxy’s reliance upon the usual treatments—pharmaceuticals, vaccines, ventilators, experimental plasma donations from survivors of COVID-19, and other potentially life-saving conventional medical interventions. When these kinds of treatments work, they are nothing less than miraculous, fully deserving our respect, appreciation, and gratitude.

However, right now, what conventional medicine has to offer is sorely limited. While drugs like hydroxychloroquine are being used off-label and in experimental trials with some anecdotes of success, we do not have a proven pharmaceutical cure for COVID-19. Realistic estimates for a safe vaccine are probably at least a year away. Plasma donations, while medically and even spiritually hopeful as an option, are entirely untested. And ventilators, as I described in great detail here, are not without great long term risk if you’re one of the relatively small percentage of people who are fortunate enough to ever get weaned off them.

I am a doctor, and while I’m not on the front lines, many of my clients, colleagues, and friends are, so I’m hearing from them regularly that as doctors without either adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or proven COVID-19 treatment, they feel quite helpless right now. Those who are sheltering in place at home also feel helpless, especially those who have been laid off from their jobs and are watching their financial security evaporate.

I have long been a practitioner and advocate of Internal Family Systems (IFS) as treatment for trauma and the physical and mental health aftermath of how trauma can impair human functioning. (If you don’t know what IFS is, read my review of the IFS model here.)  But now more than ever, I sincerely believe IFS can offer life, body, mind, heart, and soul—saving medicine in the wake of this pandemic. Let’s unpack exactly how and why I think you need not feel helpless or unhelpful, because IFS can help, whether you’re on the front lines, working from home, licking your wounds after being laid off at home, or battling COVID-19.

IFS As COVID-19 Prevention

First, let’s talk about how IFS could protect you from dying of COVID-19. If you get infected, full recovery from COVID-19 requires a strong immune response. Because there is no medical cure, your body must cure you, and the way it does this is by mounting an immune response and restoring homeostasis to the body. Your body knows how to do this naturally. You do this all the time, given that you’re exposed to bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that don’t kill you every day. While this is a novel virus, meaning that you have no natural immunity to it, you do have an immune system, and you will need it if you get exposed to the virus.

Here’s the key. As I describe in great physiological detail in my book Mind Over Medicine, your body’s immune system only functions at peak performance when your nervous system is in what Herbert Benson, MD at Harvard calls the “relaxation response,” also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. If your body is in the “stress response,” also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” sympathetic nervous system, your immune system’s ability to fight this virus will be impaired. While stress responses are helpful if the threat to your life is a tiger chasing you, stress responses in the face of a life-threatening infectious disease can kill you.

IFS is based on the idea that we are not one unified self but a multiplicity of parts, many of whom are traumatized but think they’re protecting us. The gist of this treatment is that we’re all made up of a school bus full of inner children, all of them different ages—some are managers who try to avert danger, some are firefighters who act out, some are vulnerable exiles burdened with intention, seemingly unbearable emotions they were too little to handle back when traumas occurred.

If you saw the awesome Pixar movie Inside Out, IFS is similar to the control deck of the little girl—with a joyful part, an angry part, a disgusted part, a sad part all vying for control of the bus. Because the main character doesn’t know how to practice Self-leadership yet, there isn’t a leader among all those parts. So she “blends” with one part after another, like most of us adults right now. Many of us (myself included) are acting like traumatized little children right about now- one part followed by another part with no grownup in charge. IFS offers us a road map to Self-leadership, and there’s no better time to make this the focus of our healing than right now.

How Parts Respond To A Crisis

A global pandemic can be terrifying to our parts, especially the manager parts, the ones that try to fend off danger—the control freak parts, the financial planning parts, the health nut parts, the survivalist parts, the germ-phobic OCD parts, the worrywart parts, the gun-buying parts, and so on. When our manager parts get flattened by a crisis like this, our firefighter parts are the second line of the defense—the parts our culture tends to demonize, hospitalize, arrest, imprison, send to rehab, or otherwise pathologize. These parts think they’re protecting us—because they’re trying to make sure we don’t get flooded with the emotions of the vulnerable inner children “exiles” they protect. But without IFS, without the Self-leadership IFS facilitates, these firefighters can cause all kinds of harm—to others and to ourselves.

We’re seeing a global spike in extreme firefighter behavior. One guy shot five neighbors for talking too loud during lockdown. Some counties are closing liquor stores because domestic violence and child abuse arrests are skyrocketing. If you’re an alcoholic and you can’t get your booze because the stores are closed, you might wind up with delirium tremens (DT’s). We’re seeing people blending with extreme hoarding parts they may not have known were in them. Hospitals like Harvard have had to ban visitors because they were stealing masks and other essential supplies. I’d venture to guess that some of these people have never stolen a thing in their life, but faced with the risk of imminent death and a global shortage of masks, they discover a thief part.

Talking transparently with my close friends (who all use the IFS model on ourselves and in our relationships with each other), we’re all discovering parts in ourselves we didn’t know, parts that take extra Self-energy to love—parts with violent tendencies that want to murder the mother fuckers who are stealing masks from doctors, suicide parts that don’t want to be on this planet anymore, parts with addict tendencies, parts with hoarding tendencies, parts with grandiose, narcissistic, “save the world” God complex tendencies, intellectualizing parts that try to collect knowledge and figure things out, and spiritual bypassing parts that jump straight to the “silver lining” and skip over the intense emotions this brings up. The doctors and other front line workers are also discovering the extremity of our martyr tendencies, the parts that will throw us under the bus to save someone else, recklessly intubating a dying person without wearing a mask and putting ourselves at risk of leaving our children orphaned—all because we can’t bear to stand by helplessly and out of control in the face of someone else’s imminent death. Like Jesus on the cross during holy week, we allow ourselves to be crucified without even pausing to ask which part the martyr protects.

Blending With Parts Disables Your Immune System

All these lit up parts cause a boatload of stress responses in the nervous system—flooding the body with cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones, which disable the immune system, rendering you vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus and being unable to mount an immune response should you get infected. IFS, on the other hand, facilitates relaxing your parts, so your nervous system is restored to the relaxation response, which releases healing hormones like oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, preparing your immune system to be fully functional. In other words, IFS could quite literally save your life right now.

How could IFS save your life? The core focus of IFS is to find the exiles your manager parts and firefighter parts protect and offering healing and “unburdening” to those wounded inner children—the parts that feel helpless, hopeless, worthless, terrified, disposable, and ashamed, the parts that carry extreme limiting beliefs like “I’m unlovable” or “I don’t deserve protection” or “I’m not enough.” The emotions these exiles carry can be so painful, so intense, that our protector parts will pull out all the stops in times like this to make us avoid getting to our exiles. But in times like this, even the most brilliantly crafty firefighters may fail. Many people are feeling their exile feelings right now, as a mass wave of helplessness, hopelessness, terror, shame, and fear wash over us like a collective tsunami. We can recoil from these feelings—or we can let them move through us like waves, using them as trailheads to heal the exiles that feel so much. IFS gives us the “how.”

Self-Leadership = Self-Healing

Within each one of us lies a Self with a capital “S,” or what I’ve called your Inner Pilot Light. If you’re running on autopilot instead of inner pilot right now, you’re probably “blending” with a lot of protector parts. But if you can help those parts trust your Self (this takes practice, but as we say in the IFS community, TSW (This Shit Works)), your protectors will give your Self permission to bond with your exiles and reparent them, and then you can “unburden” them and get them healed. Then your protector parts can get reassigned to new jobs they like better. Your nervous system—and, therefore, your body—likes this.

When you’re blended with them, parts use up a lot of your life force. It takes so much energy for your manager and firefighter protective parts to keep your exiles imprisoned in their trauma bubbles that you become vulnerable to the consequences of blocks of flow in your life force. This puts you at great risk, not just to mental health issues, but to physical disease.

But you do not have to be at such high risk, even if you are elderly or chronically ill. With all those protector parts relaxed and freed up to do jobs they like better, with all those exiles carrying intense burdens healed, energy and information are liberated inside your physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual body, reducing your risk of dying from COVID-19 or anything else. (Until it’s your time, of course. Nothing will make you immortal, not even IFS. But remember, as I wrote about here —Death Is No Ending.)

Everyone is focused on masks and ventilators right now, but most of us are helpless to solve that problem. We are not helpless though. Each of us can do our part to heal our parts, freeing up all that energy to allow us to serve with our gifts at a time when the world needs our gifts. IFS can help you heal yourself so you can heal the world and participate in this great initiation humanity is undergoing right now. (For more on this pandemic as a powerful initiation, read my blog “Earth Sent Us To Time Out” and Charles Eisenstein’s “The Coronation.”

How To Practice IFS During This Pandemic

You have lots of options if you feel called to begin practicing IFS now. First, if you can afford a one-on-one therapist, please gift yourself this life-giving, life-saving luxury. You can find an IFS-trained therapist here.

If you can’t—or if you just want to check out IFS before you commit to trauma healing therapy, the IFS website is full of paid and free resources, including books, videos, webinars, and trainings. You can also read my blog, which gives a general overview of the IFS model here. The Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual, which you can buy in the IFS bookstore, describes the IFS model in great detail and has lots of tools you can use on yourself to get to know your parts better.

If you act quickly, the IFS Circle closes tonight. I did it last cycle around, and it’s AWESOME. You don’t have to be a therapist to participate in it. You can use it for your own healing practice, but you’ll also learn a lot about how you might help clients if you’re in one of the helping professions. Join the IFS Circle here, but you have to do this right away! Enrollment ends today.

To participate in IFS founder Dick Schwartz’s collective healing COVID-19 IFS practice, watch this. I found two terrified parts in me—one felt like a past life trauma and another felt like birth trauma in this life. I felt so grateful to meet those exiles, and they’re now enveloped in the loving arms of my Self. (Welcome, new beloveds.) I hope it helps your terrified parts too.

If you’re on the front lines, Dick Schwartz and I are planning a free group healing for those of you who are experiencing the traumas of being on the front lines. We know you’re busy—working such long hours and doing everything you can to save lives. You deserve care and healing, too, so we’ll be inviting you to join with us soon. Stay tuned.

IFS Is A Spiritual Path

Until then, please be gentle with all your parts. Don’t let others parts bully them. We are all in this together, and each of us have a Self who can expand to include all of our parts in the embrace of the Divine love that exists within us all. IFS is not just a trauma healing therapy; it’s also a spiritual path. It’s a journey, a continual process, an ongoing commitment to Self-love, which allows us to love and serve others from a Self-led place. It’s also a practice that can help us make peace with death when our time inevitably comes.

I love the story Dick Schwartz told when I was attending a workshop with him. Someone asked him how this works if there’s a genuine threat to your life. He said that one day he was swimming in the ocean when he got pulled into a riptide. His parts were freaking out, screaming inside his head, “We’re drowning! We’re drowning!” Because he has been practicing what he preaches for 30 years, his parts trust the wise counsel of Dick’s Self, which said gently to the scared parts, “Yes, maybe we’re drowning, but if we are, I’m going with you. You will not be alone.” His parts calmed down, and only then was he level-headed enough to see that someone was sign-languaging to him the way out, pointing in the opposite direction of the way he was swimming. Her guidance led to his survival.

Not everyone will be as lucky as Dick was during this pandemic. Some of us will die, and what’s devastating about this virus is that hundreds of thousands of people may die alone. IFS offers a great balm in such a situation. Just like Dick telling his scared parts he would go down with them, each of us has within us a being of great comfort, a Self who can hold us when it is our time to go and until that time, a Self who can embrace all our parts when uncertainty, loss, and devastation inevitably hit.

It makes me think of the Footprints poem about Jesus carrying us when we’re at our lowest. There are many versions of this poem, and authorship is disputed, but if you don’t know it, this is it.


One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

Whether you call this force of love Jesus, Buddha, Self, or any other divinity, we are all held during troubling times. May you feel your Self holding all your parts, and may you take a deep, healing breath, even if you have COVID-19.

With respect for all your parts,

Lissa Rankin, MD


PS. If you found this helpful, I’ll be releasing more resources from my Sacred Medicine research as it applies to COVID-19 later this week. Sign up for my mailing list if you want to make sure not to miss the free ebook The Corona Cocoon: Emergency Sacred Medicine Healing Resources To Save Lives When You Don’t Know What The Hell Is Happening.

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