I have been working with people with losses unfathomable by most of us in the US and deeply aware of how our bodies hold the energy from the traumatic events. It is no wonder people experience extreme physical complaints as well as develop significant diseases. Unless that energy is released from the body, they continue to experience the same trauma response as they did during the original trauma. Each time anything happens in our lives that even feels remotely similar to the original traumatic event, our bodies will react. Our minds don’t even have to remember or acknowledge the similarities. It is our central nervous system that is responding and left only with our minds, we are totally powerless.
So what is the body’s response to trauma? It starts with hyperarousal. This is simply how our bodies respond to stress or conflict. Symptoms such as increased heart rate and breathing, racing thoughts, sleep difficulties, agitation, muscle tension, and sometimes anxiety attacks. This heightened internal arousal indicates that the body is attempting to mobilize against a potential threat. The next three components or physical responses operate to protect us from that threat.
Constriction in our bodies and perceptions occurs and we experience altered breathing, muscle tone and posture. Blood vessels constrict to allow more blood to our muscles which are tensed and prepared for action. Our perception or awareness of our environment also becomes constricted as our full attention becomes directed at the threat. This is often called hypervigilence.
When constriction is not sufficient to contain the threat, the body uses disassociation. Disassociation is a breakdown of the “felt sense” which is a physical experience in which the body is aware of a situation, person or event. It always involves distortions of time and perception. In mild form it presents as a type of spaciness or small lapses in time. In its most extreme, people develop dissociative amnesia; what used to be called multiple personality disorder. Dissociation is the most classic, subtle and mysterious gift of trauma. It allows a person to endure experiences that at that moment are beyond endurance.
The last physical response that operates when danger is perceived by the nervous system is the freezing response. This involves a sense of helplessness and the body is not able to move. This sense of paralysis is real and a person is unable to scream, move or feel. When the central nervous system becomes aroused to respond to danger however we are unable to defend ourselves or flee, the next strategy employed is immobilization. It plays a leading role in both the development and the transformation of trauma.
During a recent plane ride I sat next to a woman who commented on my latest read on healing trauma; Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. We also discussed a more recent book called The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. She proceeded to tell me a story of how she transformed her own trauma. She quickly and unemotionally recounted an accident on a ski lift in which she barely escaped death. She described a scenario in which she was essentially hanging from a noose and was physically paralyzed afterwards. She also experienced significant memory loss. As she talked about her recovery which involved physical therapy as well as other types of body work, I was aware that she was given opportunities to discharge the traumatic energy from her body early on and on a daily basis. She also spoke of symptoms of anxiety and panic and discussed the impact of her memory loss on her mental health. She described a technique she developed on her own in which she wrote down bits and pieces of information as she remembered things. She described this piecing together as instrumental to her acceptance of the trauma as well as her ability to cope and heal.
I’m hoping some of you Bitches out there can relate to this trauma reaction and may have more of an understanding of your own body’s reactions to past trauma. I’m grateful for this story about the transformation of trauma. I can get discouraged at times seeing how disabling it can be. I see people lose jobs, health, relationships and hope after trauma. Thank you Love for the story of hope.