Any overwhelming external situation has two distinct impacts on us. It impacts our thoughts and our emotions. Thoughts usually replay the images of the event on the mind’s inner screen. It builds possible scenarios – “I should have said this to him” or “How useless I was. I didn’t say anything”. The thoughts also take us forward in time “the next time I meet her, I will give it back twofold”. Thoughts are linked to time. In fact the very notion of time is created by our thoughts.
The second impact is on our emotions. For most people, this is harder to recognize and process compared to thoughts. But when examined, emotions have distinct physical impacts on the body. As we saw in an earlier post, the throat chokes, the heart flutters, the stomach sinks or our feet tremble. This is the body’s way of registering a threat to itself.
Usually, when something terrible happens, we are scarcely aware of our thoughts and feelings. The external situation evokes thoughts and feelings in us and we are pulled into the story of the event. The event is finite – it ends. But our bodies and minds perpetuate that as thoughts and emotions – desperately trying to resolve them. This is the basis of trauma. Trauma is an imprint of an intense external event on the mind and the body.
If left unresolved, these emotions and thoughts leave imprints in our unconscious. You can think of them as weeds that keep sprouting up in your garden when the rains come. We haven’t eliminated the seeds – the potentiality – of the weeds from our garden. And therefore when the environment is right, they spring up once again. Our mental and emotional scars are similar. They just wait for the appropriate external event, person or thing to trigger a response. And because we haven’t resolved them, the response is similar. It may be an outburst of anger at a seemingly small thing. It maybe a deep depression triggered by an object. It could be a pang of jealousy evoked by something someone bought.
Most of us do two things when faced with an overwhelming situation. We either get overwhelmed by it and drown in sorrow. Or we avoid it through distractions. In general, the sensitive kinds get subsumed by the event. The insensitive ones, learn to shrug it by becoming workaholics, overly social, or by drinking too much. In both these approaches, the underlying thoughts and feelings remain unresolved. Peter A. Levine in his marvellous book says this:
Unfortunately, this mutual denial [of emotions] can prevent us from healing. In our culture there is a lack of tolerance for the emotional vulnerability that traumatized people experience. Little time is allotted for the working through of emotional events. We are routinely pressured into adjusting too quickly in the aftermath of an overwhelming situation. Denial is so common in our culture that it has become a cliché. How often have you heard these words? “Pull yourself together, it’s over now. You should forget about it. Grin and bear it. It’s time to get on with your life.”Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
What we must do is to develop the courage to face these feelings. This can be brought about by firstly becoming aware of them. When you are triggered by an external event, begin by separating the thoughts and feelings. Notice the impacts on the body – the throat, the heart region and so on. When we bring our attention to the body, thoughts subside. And as we focus on the physical sensation, we may experience jerks in the body, or tears, or tremors. This is natural and is the body’s way to release trauma. In fact this phenomena has been medically documented and is known as psychogenic tremors. Dr. David Berceli, explains this well in this lecture. He claims that induced shaking of the body restores the body to homeostasis and helps deal with post-traumatic disorders.
Tremors or other similar bodily sensations are the echoes of the original trauma registered in the body. They are crucial to restore the natural equilibrium of the body. This is also why we laugh or cry. These outer expressions of our inner states of feeling are needed to ‘resolve’ the event. When we leave these energetic inner forms unresolved, it leads to blockages. And this could possibly be the root of mental and physical diseases.
The healing of trauma is a natural process that can be accessed through an inner awareness of the body. It does not require years of psychological therapy, or that memories be repeatedly dredged up and expunged from the unconscious.Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
Post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear.
So far, we have seen that external events create impacts on the mind and the body as thoughts and emotions. We can begin to heal and resolve these challenging situations by bringing our awareness to the bodily sensations. This act, severs the link between thinking and feeling and over time stops the mind from carrying us into a stream of thoughts.
Being with the emotion, can be very challenging for many. Especially those among us who are afraid of our emotions. Here, we can use the breath to assist us when it gets too much. Breathing in deeply through the nose and out through the mouth grounds us in the body. The breath can be ‘directed’ into the area where the sensation is felt strongest. One has to use one’s imagination here. You imagine the stomach or the throat as the centre of the breathing pump – sucking in air and expelling it out. Similar to the centre of a wheel or the eye of a whirlpool. This irrational imagination is necessary to release that blocked energy in our body. This is why Yoga has the concept of chakras (literally wheels). These are not physical manifestations in the body, but are psychological, imagined centers – linked to areas where we feel emotions strongest.
When we slowly learn to ‘be with’ the emotion, we can sense it consolidating. We know that it is located in a particular place in the body. This gives us back the power of control for we know that it isn’t present everywhere. And therefore it becomes manageable. I often compare this to the bug within Neo’s body in the movie Matrix. When the bug has to be removed, it needs to be trapped within a specific area of the body and then extracted using a special device.
We have to do something similar. We need to isolate the sensation and effuse it with our loving awareness. This is the only way we can dissolve our feelings. At this time, the dissolution of the feelings can take place as crying or a violent shaking of the body. This is natural and indicates that the body is healing from the echoes of trauma.
Understand that trauma is the echo of unresolved thoughts or feelings. Know that we cannot run away from it. It will eventually catch up with us and is currently haunting us. Our reactions, behaviors and choices stem from these unconscious traumatic patterns. This is why we keep falling for an abusive partner. Or we keep choosing a job that helps us establish power over others, while harming us. Most of our likes and dislikes have deep emotional scars behind them. And in order to lead free lives, we must begin to free ourselves from these karmic baggages – not by fleeing them – but by having the loving courage to sit down with them. By giving yourself the space to cry, or shout or yell – and allow the body to express those things that it hasn’t.
We all come with deep scars. But we all have the capacity to heal. And trauma is the doorway. Look at it as a gift from the infinite – to help us grow, to become more wise. I leave you with a quote from Peter A. Levine
Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. Not only can trauma be healed, but with appropriate guidance and support, it can be transformative. Trauma has the potential to be one of the most significant forces for psychological, social, and spiritual awakening and evolution.Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.