Category Archives: Health & Wellness

the language of trauma

“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.

Photo by Zen Bear Yoga on Unsplash

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.

Featured Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash

lean in to the quiet moments

Greetings! I truly hope that this post finds you healthy and safe. We are all learning how to manage life in a world where sheltering in place, wearing face coverings, and working from home has become the norm. The news is scary, tragic, and heartbreaking. COVID-19 has affected all of our lives. My heart goes out to friends who have loved ones fighting for their lives at this very moment and to those who have tragically lost loved ones to this horrible virus.

My husband and I are finally recovering from what we suspect was coronavirus. We were not able to be tested, as our symptoms were considered mild, and we were told repeatedly by doctors to stay at home and self-isolate, treat symptoms with over-the counter medications, rest, and call 911 if symptoms worsened. It started out as a scratchy throat, fatigue, and general sense of feeling unwell. Initially, I thought I had the flu; however, symptoms quickly worsened including fever, weakness, fatigue and coughing. Eventually, I lost my sense of smell and taste, which lasted about four to five days. I had no appetite. The shortness of breath didn’t occur until later, and it was never extreme for us. The coughing and weakness were the worst part, as well as not having our daughter home for spring break. She stayed in her dorm to prevent us from passing anything on to her. But, my husband and I are very lucky that our illness wasn’t worse. Last weekend, I thought I was feeling better. I spent a couple of hours in the morning catching up on work. I missed a couple of days due to the virus. At least, I tried to work those weeks I was sick, although much of the time I was more annoyed by all the emails and had a really difficult time focusing for too long. We’ve all been working remotely due to COVID-19 since early March.

So last Saturday, I was sweeping our back porch when I was suddenly hit with a huge wave of nausea and dizziness. I went to lie down, and things just got worse. My husband eventually called the paramedics because I was having difficulty breathing, could barely talk, and lost feeling in my legs, arms and hands. I wasn’t sure if I was experiencing a panic attack or was just sick from overdoing it. In any case, I felt scared, and I didn’t know what was happening. My vitals were fine, and the paramedics/firemen, who were dressed head to toe in personal protective equipment, attributed the episode to overexerting myself while recovering. I spent the rest of the day and evening feeling nauseous and just wanted it all to go away. I tried desperately to fall asleep, but the nausea and headache were awful, and I was unable to. Any noise, light or smell worsened the symptoms. All I could do was stay very, very still. So, I laid in bed waiting for it all to disappear.

My husband slept out on the couch that night, and eventually I was able to get up to go to the bathroom without “tossing my cookies” again. The afternoon light turned into evening. I grabbed my phone, which my husband left on the bed, and went directly to Spotify. I chose a playlist called Acoustic to listen to and to pacify the nausea. It’s one of my favorites. In those quiet, dark moments I was soothed. The nausea and headache actually subsided, and I listened to this beautiful playlist, eyes closed, just enjoying as best I could the music, the dark and the aloneness. I know this may sound really, really silly, but it was such a profound moment. I’m a board-certified music therapist and appreciate deeply the power of music to heal. We rely upon the gate control theory of pain to bring healing to those who are suffering. The gate control theory of pain describes how non-painful sensations, like music, can override and reduce painful sensations. In those moments, I was able to tolerate the stimulation. Further, knowing that things could have been so much worse brought some amount of peace. I was not in a hospital, on a ventilator, nor was my husband, but was healing, slowly. My body was just telling me something, despite my mind telling me something else, and I needed to listen.

It’s now been about three weeks since my husband and I first started feeling ill. The cough and weakness linger still, yet we feel a lot better. I’m trying to ease back into work and life slowly and to listen to my body. I will return to my yoga practice and get outdoors for walks, maybe even some bike rides, soon. Thank you so much to those Long Beach paramedics who visited our home last Saturday to provide care, whoever and wherever you are. May you stay safe and healthy.

I hope that in the coming days, weeks, and months, you will find peace and comfort in the small things. That you will take care of yourself and others by social distancing, sheltering in at home, wearing a face mask if you need to go out, and follow all of the other health and safety guidelines set forth by the CDC. Don’t risk getting sick. Don’t risk getting others sick. I know this is a challenging time for all. May you use this time to draw closer to family, to a beloved pet, to listen to more music, to do more of what you love, and to stay connected to others in safe ways. May you find quiet moments and lean into them.

If you’d like to check out the playlist I mentioned, see a sample below, and check out the full playlist on Spotify. Take good care.

Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash