WHY WE CAN’T HEAL, AND HOW WE CAN - THE ESSENTIAL STEP TO HEALING TRAUMA AND PTSD
Trauma is the result of an experience we don’t want to relive, one that we feel helpless to deal with and believe there is no way out of. Our hearts are devastated, our guts wrenched and the only way possible to cope with the unbearable sensations is to numb them out. To enable us to move on, our bodies take over the unprocessed memory for us by storing the emotional energy in our muscles, tissues and organs, in effect rewiring our brains in order to forget the crushing pain we have no capacity to deal with ourselves. The brain has, in effect, been hijacked, taken over in order for us to feel safe again by dimming or even forgetting the cause. We then begin to see and experience ourselves, our lives and the world differently than we would have had the trauma never happened, because we are no longer a whole being.
The longer the trauma remains a frozen memory, the harder it is to access our buried feelings and the more it undermines our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. Part of us doesn’t know the trauma is over, because the body holds the memory as if it’s still happening, even though we might eventually believe we’ve moved on. When a trauma is not processed, so that life can return to normal again, but instead the stress reaction grows worse over time, PTSD develops. Sometimes the symptoms like reliving the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, as if a tape recording is playing over and over in our mind, trouble sleeping, feeling detached and estranged from life and others and avoiding any situation that triggers the memory can take a long time before they appear.
Never doubt that the separation of mother and child is a deep trauma to both, no matter how much we might feel we’ve moved on, given no other choice. What was missing at the time of the trauma was what was needed the most – compassionate understanding of the terrible loss. Who comforted the mother when she returned with empty arms? What adoptive mother knew to soothe her grieving infant? To survive, the painful feelings had to become deeply buried. Yet, they remained insidious, subtly developing over time. For example, at the time of the trauma the ability to trust can be shattered and become a wound. In order to protect the self, the psyche begins to see anything remotely similar as the same and the groove widens, so that eventually no one can be trusted, especially oneself, and that feels normal. Feeling invisible, shame, anger and the inability to ask for help, believing none would come anyway, are all natural results from hiding the pain and sorrow from others and oneself.
Experts explain that the body goes into fight, flight and/or freeze mode at the time of a trauma. From my observations, we primarily go into the freeze response. Hormones that flooded our system and froze at the time of the trauma, from having no way of being processed, are suddenly and unexpectedly released, especially at the time of reunion. These hormones that carry the memory of all the circumstances surrounding the trauma begin to “thaw,” and it feels like we are reliving the trauma all over again. Gone is the ability to discern past from present, safety from threat. After the body has absorbed the trauma, so many little things can become triggers: seeing a baby, going to a doctor, a touch, a smell can become triggers. Such reactions get quickly suppressed or rationalized in order to avoid the original cause. But, at the time of reunion, it can be as if we are suddenly thrown back into the past without any preparation, and we act as if the past is the present. For example, some found mothers can’t tell significant others about their secret child. They can’t believe they will be supported now, when they weren’t back then. Instead of seeing a reunion as an opportunity for healing, it is viewed as a threat to one’s very well being.
All of this feels like a life sentence, but it doesn’t have to be. Understanding our story alone, as essential as that is to begin healing, does not alone heal us. The body will still hold onto the emotional memories, as they can’t be rationalized away. From the body’s perspective, it’s still under threat and has been for a very long time. The mind/body connection is very real and it’s a two-way communication. Persistent health problems, especially those that are hard to diagnose like chronic fatigue, inflammation, insomnia, even cancer are our bodies’ attempts to communicate that we need to pay attention to the stuck emotional energy that has undermined our wellbeing.
A year before I began the search for my son, I was diagnosed with a melanoma on my left knee. It was at the earliest stages and all was fine. I always thought of it as a gift, because when I talked to the social worker, holding my records in her hands, she said she couldn’t contact the adoptive family unless there was a medical reason. At first I couldn’t think of one, since our family was healthy, but just as we were hanging up I remembered. Does a melanoma count? Yes, it did, and she would let the family know, which she did. At least now they would know I wanted to find him.
One beautiful, sunny day a few years after our reunion, which was going pretty well, I went to a friend’s for a massage. I had done her astrology chart, so this was an exchange rather than a need – or, so I thought. Everything was fine, until she began to massage my left leg and knee. Suddenly, I was shaking uncontrollably and tears were soaking my face. I was embarrassed and tried to get control of myself, but couldn’t. Then a memory popped up. I’d always remembered asking the delivery doctor to stop the anesthesia, but what I hadn’t remembered, and was now clearly seeing, was the doctor giving the anesthesiologist the sign to increase it instead. Even though I had no conscious memory of such a deception, the energy of the anger and fear I had felt had registered on my knee, as I watched the doctor through my legs high up in the stirrups. The shaking and crying was an emotional release of the part of the story I couldn’t let myself know, until then.
Therapy, without some sort of conscious physical release of the stored trauma, can only go so far. Reading about our issues can be just so helpful, and communing with those who share our pain, while essential to understanding and validating our own stories, can also intensify the trauma if we keep each other stuck, instead of moving through our stories. While all the above is vital to our healing, we can’t ignore the body’s need for healing, too, or some of the effects of the original trauma will remain and inadvertently continue to undermine our lives.
Releasing the trauma stored in our bodies isn’t difficult and can be achieved in many simple ways. The key is to become familiar with our own internal world and listen with compassion to what our aches and pains, our illnesses and our anxiety and depression, anything that is keeping us from living a healthy life is telling us. The body has to feel safe, calm and in control before the stored trauma can be slowly released over time. Remember that your body has been protecting you from unbearable feelings, but now you are strong enough to deal with whatever part of you that has been repressed as a result. The key is to have a conscious intention. In any of the practices below, trust that your brain and your body are slowly and gently being rewired back to health.
A long walk, especially in nature, while allowing your feelings to come up and paying attention to where in the body you sense them begins to thaw the frozen energy. Imagining the stuck energy leaving your body and being compassionately absorbed by the nature around you – trees are especially good at this, and sunshine - has a very real result, even if we find it hard to believe.
While soaking in a tub allow the memories to come, along with the feelings, as if the hot water is bringing them to the surface, which it is. When you feel done, watch the water go down the drain and imagine at least some of the painful feelings going down the drain, too. Even if the mind can’t grasp that this is happening, trust that it works.
Yoga is especially effective in releasing painful feelings. Certain postures bring feelings to the surface, sometimes unexpectedly. Don’t be afraid of them. Just know they are leaving and that’s why you feel them so strongly. Let them go. Some kinds of exercise don’t work as well. Running and jogging, using the treadmill, working out with weights all may reduce stress, but those forms of exercise don’t connect the brain with the body consciously, as do stretching, dancing, or any kind of movement that allows awareness of what sensations are going on internally.
Massage and acupuncture are a great help, especially if you find a compassionate practitioner whom you can trust with your story and help you work with it. Breath work can create a strong release. Breathing becomes shallow as a response to holding back emotions and changing breathing patterns can release energy in the form of sensations in the body or an emotional release. It is a powerful technique, so research it and perhaps find a facilitator in the initial stages. EMDR and Tapping have also been proven to be effective in releasing stuck emotional memories.
It might be surprisingly frightening to think about facing and letting go of all the feelings. Our bodies have protected us for a long time. How can we feel we are safe from further trauma, if all the emotional memory that has safeguarded us is gone? One way to think of it is by imagining a color photo and then draining all the color from the image. A black and white image – the memory - still remains but the emotional charge, which has caused the problems, is gone. You are still protected.
But who will I be if all the pain is gone can be a very real fear. Letting go can seem like facing a void. It’s all we’ve known for so long, so such a reaction is normal. Trust that taking such a leap of faith brings ever-increasing rewards, not just improved health but a rediscovery of our true nature. As we release we create distance, a greater perspective on the effect of the trauma on our lives and our lives naturally change for the better. If we are holding feelings of rejection and abandonment, we will find that releasing those feelings will stop attracting situations that mirror the original trauma, or at least stop the interpretation of the circumstances as the same rejection and abandonment. Framing everything that happens to us from a victim’s point of view can become so second nature we don’t even realize it. Releasing the original trauma, from when we were victims of circumstances, begins to help us realize we are much more in charge of our lives than we think. Feeling constantly angry or full of sorrow with no apparent reason will begin to dissipate, to be replaced with inner peace and joy.
As we give to our self and our body the compassionate understanding that none of us received at the time of the trauma, our suffering will begin to disappear, our true nature will begin to blossom and our lives will vastly improve. Take heart from Kahlil Gibran’s wise words: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”