“Befriend Not Obliterate Emotions”
Trauma reorganizes our minds, brains, bodies, and perceptions. It alters not just how we think or the content of our thoughts, but also our capacity to think at all. After trauma, the world is experienced through a different lens. A person who carries trauma can become focused on suppressing what they interpret as thoughts, feelings, and sensations of inner chaos at the expense of flowing and spontaneous engagement in relationship and life. The attempts made to exert control over their physiological reactions can result in many physical and emotional symptoms. These are including long term health issues, memory and attention loss, sleep disorders, inability to regulate arousal, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. Yet traumatized people cannot recover until they become familiar and befriend the sensations happening in their bodies. That is perhaps the most difficult component of treatment. Though difficult, it is very possible and life changing.
One major indicator of trauma is what is called dissociation. Dissociation may be described and felt in many ways. Most commonly it is experienced as frozen states, numbness or inability to feel parts or all of the self, a vacancy of the body.
The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally re-lived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating. (Van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps The Score”).
At the heart of dissociation is a protective mechanism, so embodiment cannot be forced. Instead, increasing tolerance, regulation, and symptom awareness and management is recommended. They should all be integrated gradually through methods like somatic and yoga therapy.
Bringing In the Body:
On a basic level, trauma affects the physical body’s functions. Therefore effective trauma treatment should address sleep, appetite, digestion, arousal of the nervous system, and touch. These basic bodily functions affect and also show symptoms of the overall equilibrium of our well being. As discussed previously, due to the natural reaction of dissociation in trauma, many traumatized children and adults cannot identify what their bodily sensations mean though.
“Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” (Van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score”).
Slow & Steady:
Asking traumatized individuals to notice sensations for the first time can be distressing or triggering. It is also where the healing begins- gently and slowly. If images and physical sensations bombard the person with trauma, the somatic or yoga therapist is trained with ways to stem the rushing waves of sensation and emotion. These therapists can help them tolerate and change their arousal by directing the clients’ attention. Underneath the intensity of the fear and anger might be things like pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, feeling hollow, etc. This anchors the arousal to the present moment. This not only helps understanding of the past, but transforms the present and future.
Moving Forward Resiliently:
Therapists can also help clients find the resources of their individual bodies. Some examples may be their connection to the earth, their awareness of breath, or sensations of relaxation or pleasure. No matter how faintly they coexist with a triggering, resources are a way back “into” embodiment. When the inner world feels less chaotic, we are less vulnerable to the past. We are less likely to activate the old patterns of our emotional brains. “Only after learning to bear what is going on inside can we start to befriend, rather than obliterate, the emotions that keep