Of Mind and Body
Our body remembers when our minds forget. For years now my body has been trying to catch up with my mind or. . . my mind has been trying to catch up with my body. When I spent so much time getting into the heartbreaking habit of muffling, numbing and causing physical pain for myself to be distracted from my mental/emotional agony, how could I begin to return to caring for myself? My tortured mind had forgotten but my body was telling me all along.
It is so much easier said than lived. I’ve been in a time of reflection which I find great discomfort in, like being in an overcrowded room, where the walls are closing and the ceiling is concaving. In the continuous process of learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable I have started to come back to myself, geared up with life changing knowledge about trauma’s role in my life.
I started returning to myself instead of running further –getting nowhere– when I started going to a kickboxing dojo. I then became my Sensei’s apprentice for his women’s self defense workshops that has led me to now: starting my very own empowerment workshop. In my workshop I want to share what I have learned about our bodies trauma responses to better understand what we’re going through. I find our nervous system and lizard brain (the amygdala) fascinating like an untapped fountain of fruitful lessons. I have learned the basics through my life changing therapy and enriching research that I will keep building on, treating my body like the treasure trove of wisdom that it is. Through this vital data collecting –becoming a trauma analyst as my therapist says– I am witnessing a subtle yet very notable change in my reactions to my triggers. Discovering our bodies' natural responses that just want to keep us safe takes away so much fear about human behavior we mustn't shame.
The body has built in protectors that care only for our safety and survival, and our protectors will do anything to establish or recover our sense of safety. I have done things automatically to protect myself that I sadly felt ashamed about which, will be a big topic of discussion in my workshop, to detangle this misplaced shame. It is a gross misservice to say the least that we are taught to harshly judge our natural human instincts that keep us alive. Unfortunately, tragically I'd say, for every human on this planet just trying to survive in our inhumane society, propagandist’s know this and they exploit our protectors all the time. Navigating this rampant fear baiting is something I am struggling greatly with as are so many, having our trauma responses ramped up into overdrive. I got struck down by something I read just this morning, so, what did I do? As I’ve learned in therapy there are simple yet powerful steps to bring us out of hyperarousal (fight/flight response, a symptom of PTSD) and back into our parasympathetic (rest/digest) state of being. My therapist asks me to ask myself,”what do I need at this moment?” An answer pings: I need to talk to my folks to process whatever it is that is causing such distress. So that’s what I did. Low and behold my breathing slowed and became less shallow. I want to help others understand these hard wired reactions we have to fear so we can be more aware of how it is exploited to take away propagandas and fear mongering’s ammunition.
The first chapter of “My Grandmother's Hands” is full of beautifully explained information on our brain’s automatic responses and the body's forces of protection. Resmaa Menakem states the crucial fact that our lizard brains can not think critically; it reflexively protects us, loving whatever it feels will keep us safe while hating whatever it feels will harm us. “All our sensory input has to pass through the reptilian part of our brain before it even reaches the cortex ,where we think and reason. Our lizard brain scans all of this input and responds, in a fraction of a second, by either letting something enter into the cortex or rejecting it and inciting a fight flee freeze response.” (Menakem, pg 6) After experiencing a traumatic event that activates our fight, flee, freeze response we can get stuck as Menakem puts it, when our soul nerve (vagus nerve) and lizard brain may embed a reflexive trauma response in our bodies. Now I know from experience how impossible it can feel to find one’s way out of the deep crevice a reflexive trauma response carves which we only want to do when we are in fact, not in any current danger.
My therapist supplied me with tools for this that I will share in my workshop, she says:”find your feet and breathe all the way down to them.” I like this image so much that it actually does get me out of the incredibly sticky hyperarousal state that has such an iron grip on me. So yes, I press my feet into the ground so I can really feel that I am in fact on solid ground and yes, I am indeed inhaling and exhaling. This brings us back to the present moment, out of a past traumatic memory that has triggered our lizard brain to think it’s happening again. Now, we are here where we are safe. When I’ve fully gotten out of the reliving of the past the next step my therapist provides is to open up to myself, to address what it is that I am feeling. “All emotions want to be named so they can be addressed.” She asks me to name them properly; anger, grief, anxiety, etc until all emotions are accounted for. This helps to sort out the mental and emotional turmoil that can get so loud one can not hear what the body is saying. Only after I’ve done these two vital steps I can then ask myself that pivotal question: what do I need right now?
These tools need lots of practice. I have been getting triggered a lot giving me abundant practice to care for myself in that hyperarousal state. I used to view getting triggered as a horrible thing to be avoided but my therapist has helped me see that it’s an opportunity to become skilled with our tools and better hearing the body's needs. But, getting into the red zone (the levels of being triggered are yellow-mild, orange- intense but manageable, and red which is too much) is not helpful so we are aiming for finding our “Window of Tolerance.” To clarify:”In order to put the past in the past, clients must process traumatic experiences in an “optimal arousal zone.” Falling between the two extremes of hyper- and hypoarousal, this zone is described as the ‘window of tolerance.’”(Ogden, Pat, pg 27) Slowly but surely, with exposure therapy practice, I have felt with my own senses what I used to think was impossible: I can handle so much pain. Knowing this is life changing.
I hope to help others realize that they too can handle the emotions that live and call out in our bodies that we often try to silence and numb out. The only way to heal our wounds is to face them. This is so much easier said than it is done and, we are not trying to face all the pain all at once –again that would put us in red hyperarousal that isn’t helpful– we need to have patience with our dear selves as we gently widen our Window of Tolerance. I have learned that we are stronger than we think, we are braver than we have been told and we are more powerful than we are led to believe. My mind is still ear splittingly loud while my protectors are being pulled in all directions by surrounding forces, and I am proving that I can handle it. I am living the vow I’ve made to myself to never disregard my body’s knowledge, to always hold it even when my heart is bleeding, for that’s when I need to feel that it is still beating.
Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas, Nv, Central Recovery Press, 2017.
Ogden, Pat, et al. Trauma and the Body : A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. New York ; London, W.W. Norton, Cop, 2006.