Imagine that as a child you became separated from your parents and were lost for several hours in a crowded mall. The fear was paralyzing. There was a tightness in the chest that felt as if it might choke you. Even now, the same feeling comes back every time you worry. You try to push the feeling away by any number of things: overeating, drugs, alcohol, burying yourself in work, exercising excessively, shopping, watching tv - anything to distract your mind and numb out.
In order to overcome the imprints of trauma, we must befriend our bodily sensations, both the good and the bad.
Almost everyone has experienced traumatic events in their life. One of the hallmarks of trauma is a feeling of uncomfortable physical sensations: the chest feeling crushed, tension in the shoulders and neck, shallow breathing, abdominal pain, and the conviction that you’re helpless to do anything about it.
The trauma is a thing of the past, but the body keeps reacting as if there is imminent danger. These internal triggers can transform your inner world into a minefield. Even though on some level you know the danger is over, the sensations churning around inside keep warning you of impending doom.
Many traumatized people try to numb themselves with drugs and alcohol, or learn that self-injury such as cutting can make these sensations more dull. Others engage in risky behavior, which gives them a sense of control. These physical manifestations take on a life of their own. The constant tension leads to muscle contractions and eventually migraines, fibromyalgia and chronic pain. These can lead to more medication, diagnostic tests, and repeated doctors visits, none of which truly address the underlying problem.
In The Body of Life, psychotherapist Thomas Hanna writes: “We cannot hate or be angry without an organism that hates and is angry. We cannot love and hope and expect without actively, movingly, physiologically loving hoping and expecting. Hate, anger, love, and hope are not “psychological states,” existing in some “mental” vacuum; they are somatic states that exist in the entirety of a living organism.”
In seeing hundreds of patients, I’ve realized that helping people learn to befriend their bodies is of paramount importance. Too many people deal with negative feelings by harming themselves, either by making repeated tiny cuts when they feel overwhelmed, to picking at their bodies until sores develop and eventually get infected, to numbing out with alcohol or drugs.
Mind-body therapy (sometimes referred to as yoga therapy) is one way for people to achieve a more loving relationship with their body. This type of therapy uses breathing techniques, movement, meditation, and guided imagery to explore emotions and sensations in the body, and learn to tolerate the discomfort of the negative ones. The curious paradox is that in doing so, negative thoughts and harmful behaviors usually start to subside. Mind-body therapy provides people with a lifelong stress management skill.
In the introduction of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, Dr. Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma, states: “...people who are traumatized need to have physical and sensory experiences to unlock their bodies, activate effective fight/flight responses, tolerate their sensations, befriend their inner experiences, and cultivate new action patterns.”
Being able to tolerate, be curious, and observe these physical sensations are key to moving into the role of survivor rather than victim. I love working with people using yoga therapy in combination with talk therapy. To learn more, give me a call or email. I'd love to hear from you!
I write about human behavior, meditation, body awareness, and a variety of other things that pique my interest.