“The single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.”Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
Disturbing memories and emotional pain can stay in our bodies long after a traumatic event has ended. Psychiatrist, researcher and educator, Bessel van der Kolk, wrote “The Body Keeps the Score,” about the unbearable heaviness of remembering and the antidote as focusing on the use of the body as a bridge to recovery. Noticing visceral sensations is the very key to emotional healing. According to van der Kolk, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort (italics added).” Further, “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself… (italics added). The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know.” Except, often we don’t know what our bodies know. Trauma significantly impacts the mind, brain and body, and adoptees are particularly sensitive to trauma. Because we have experienced multiple traumas in our lives, our bodies can be easily triggered by situations that cause a hint of stress, whether related to adoption or not. The root cause is, the body really does keep the score.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies developed a way to store traumatic memories somatically. It is crucial to our survival to suddenly, without conscious thought, recognize dangerous triggers and situations in the environment so we can quickly avoid them and stay alive. However, chronic distress and discomfort from constant signals create a life that can be extremely challenging and, moreover, affects intimate relationships.
Sometimes it may feel as if the trauma is happening all over again when a flashback or a certain memory surfaces. All of our energy and mental resources turn toward stuffing the memories down into the recesses of our awareness as we attempt to avoid reminders and get on with life. Unfortunately, the energy this requires and the resulting tension that accumulates can actually strengthen the anxiety we so endeavor to escape. This is something I’m becoming increasingly aware of and attuned to through therapy.
Trying to create distance from emotions, thoughts and distressing body symptoms can lead to dissociation. In other words, we figure out a way to disconnect from the body to avoid emotional pain. It’s like a relief valve that allows a detour around the pain. We dissociate, or compartmentalize, to survive the next moment, but it also separates us from the wisdom of healing within our own bodies.
The pain of trauma is always held in the body. It has a location and a sensation that can be identified. I have experienced chronic neck, shoulder and back pain, likely from rigidly holding my muscles as a way to contain tension. I have also experienced a choking sensation in my throat at times when conflict arises or my body is experiencing increased stress. Notably, I also experience what I’ve learned are panic attacks typically triggered by a stress-related event. The attacks are debilitating and cause extreme nausea, numbness in my limbs and sensitivity to sound, smell and light. I feel like I’m going to pass out. Others may feel a different kind of numbness in their bodies because they are unable to perceive or manage anything that may approach heightened sensation. It becomes painful just to acknowledge the body and to live in it every day. The body becomes the enemy.
While this disconnection effectively prevents a person from feeling painful messages, it comes at a huge cost. We may have trouble receiving signs of danger, illness, hunger, satisfaction, stress or ease in the body. We have difficulty caring for ourselves because we don’t feel much. This prevents us from fully connecting with others on a deeper, more intimate level because we are, in fact, not fully connected with ourselves. We are unable to feel pain, but we are also unable to feel joy.
Because trauma is stored in the body, treatment to ease trauma must also involve the body. Movement, like exercise and trauma-sensitive yoga practices, provide supportive, self paced methods that are gentle, compassionate and nurture a sense of control, the very things that were missing during the trauma. Mindful meditation practices that involve the body, like body scanning, noting and tracking sensations in the body, grounding to the places where our body comes in contact with other solid surfaces, walking meditation and eating mindfully are all ways to reclaim connection to our own body. Proprioceptive input, or heavy work, such as yoga poses, push-ups, running, jumping rope, weight-lifting, chewing gum/sucking on a sucker, squeezing a stress ball, molding with clay or even household chores, like sweeping the floor, engage large muscles and joints and help organize and calm the body.
If you would like to start a gentle yoga or meditation practice, I highly recommend checking out Roaming Yogi by yoga teacher, Natalie. I love her YouTube videos, and she offers a wide range of yoga practices, from gentle Yin and Restorative yoga to more challenging Vinyassa flows, as well as meditations. Some of the videos are as brief as 10-15 minutes, and others are up to 45 minutes to an hour. Natalie is a great teacher and provides lots of instruction with each video, and further, you don’t have to leave your house to practice. I also like the Meditation Studio app by Muse. It’s available for iPhone and Android and includes a variety of meditations, ambient/nature sounds, instrumentals and music.
All in all, finding new ways to come back home to the safety and security of the body is the foundation of the healing process. It will have lasting positive effects on mind, body and spirit. And getting back in touch with our body feels like, as Nancy Newton-Verrier put it, coming home to self.