For most of my life I lived in a suspended cycle of fear initiated by childhood sexual abuse. I continuously wondered when the next abuse might happen. Living this way, in fear and with trauma lurking in the recesses of my body and mind, was life limiting. I developed migraine headaches in my teen’s that grew with intensity and frequency as I got older. I struggled with depression and later, anxiety. That is until the gift of touch helped to release the firm clutch trauma had on me.
It was during my apprenticeship with Navina ® – Thai Yoga Therapy I had a revelation. Touch facilitated a release of trauma stuck in my body and mind, disrupting the cycle of trauma.
First, let’s define Trauma. Trauma is a broad topic and it can be difficult to have a clear definition of it. This one fits the context of this blog – “Psychological Trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” (reference)
What is a Trauma Cycle?
It is a sequence of events involving physiological and psychological responses a person goes through when a traumatic (life-threatening) event occurs; some people get stuck in this chain reaction without cycling through all the stages. If a person’s response cycle, which by the way is a normal function of our nervous system, is interrupted whenever their environment resembles the initial traumatic event they will continue to repeat the cycle, from the initial response to where it was interrupted. Creating a cycle of trauma.
Let me paint a picture of a severely distressing event and how it can affect the mind and body. Imagine you are walking home from work, it is getting dark, you decide to take a short cut through the alley to hurry home. You turn the corner, in that moment you interrupt an exchange, your eyes meet with one of the people, next someone grabs you and drags you further into the alley where no one can see…. What do you think your body and mind would be experiencing?
Most people will feel their body tense to readiness perhaps with goose bumps and/or hair on their arms raised, a rush of hormones are released, heart rate increases, a bracing – muscles contract ready to run, fight, or become immobilized and collapse. All of these are protective responses from the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze). This signals the first stages of the response cycle our bodies go through when faced with stressful/traumatic experiences.
After the event, given you survive, your body is meant to normalize and your mind settles into understanding it’s safe again, however that isn’t always the case – here is where the interruption happens. Physiologically you hold tension within the tissues and psychologically you might experience denial or dissociation – this is your mind saving you from the memories of such an overwhelming stressful occurrence, it is a protective mechanism your brain defaults to in traumatic events if you can’t cope. Peter Levine describes this in his book ‘Waking the Tiger’, “When the mind’s protective reaction to overwhelm return to normal, the body’s response is also meant to normalize after the event. When this restorative process is thwarted, the effects of trauma become fixated and the person becomes traumatized.” (reference) When Peter talks about the restorative process being thwarted this is when the body and mind do not return to a normal state but rather get stuck in the trauma cycle. Their nervous system imprint’s the traumatic event leaving them suspended in fear and the trauma then gets trapped in both their mind and body.
Remember that severely distressing event I described before? Here is how the trauma cycle unfolds in that scenario. We had an Arousal the interruption of an exchange and the eyes meet, then someone grabs you Unsuccessful escape, The Experience of fear and helplessness is all the sensations you would feel when the person carries out the attack, and lastly Immobility (freeze) the person’s nervous system is overwhelmed and shuts down during attack in preparation for death.
Immobility is where the restorative cycle would get thwarted leaving a person traumatized. If or when a person mobilizes, this is when they wake up or regain awareness, unlike the animal kingdom, they don’t just shake off the event and go about their day as if it never happened; the human brain is much more evolved. Most people have a good degree of memory of the event whether it is conscious or unconscious. A common mistake people make post traumatic event is that nothing is done to discharge the effects of the life-threatening experience. So, how do we do that? We do this by disrupting the trauma cycle and move through the stages of the restorative process – more on that in a minute.
Inappropriate touch created my initial trauma. Repeated episodes, and other stress-inducing experiences compounded the effects of the trauma that got stored in my body and later resulting in a variety of symptoms. When I received this hands on bodywork – Thai Yoga Therapy (touch) it put me in a situation that resembled those earlier experiences. This ignited a fear response similar to what I had gone through during the traumatic events. The key factors that lead to the disruption of my trauma cycle were heavily aligned with one of our concepts at Navina ® – “slow it down”. I used this mantra/motto often to become more connected with my body – it allowed me to stay in it when I was being touched. Staying in my body let me feel the sensations of my fear response while witnessing the dialog that played out in my mind – this is the “felt sense.” Equally, the practitioner Drew applied the “slow it down” concept throughout his approach during the bodywork I was receiving. This helped me to move past the point where I got stuck in the trauma cycle, facilitating a completion process.
Sensations – like goose bumps, and heart racing that occur in the body when someone is experiencing a stressful event are indicators or signals that your body is going into the fight, flight, freeze response of your sympathetic nervous system. Bringing your attention to these sensations and staying focused upon them in observation is considered the “Felt Sense.” This could also be associated with body awareness. When you hold your attention on something without manipulating it you are in awareness. Observing the various qualities that sensation has to offer allows you to connect with what is happening inside your body. If you stay long enough in the observation of sensation you can witness the shift from one state to the other.
Here is a universal example of how to experience the “Felt Sense.” Say your leg falls asleep in meditation, when you’re finished; you begin to move your leg to wake it up. First you’ll notice the heaviness, dissociation – that limb has no feeling, than you feel warmth as the blood flows back into the area. Next some minor electrical impulses – tingles or prickles, and than perhaps more intense impulses – pins and needles if you begin to move your leg around or try to walk on it.
Next time your leg falls asleep I encourage you to explore what happens and have your own experience. Straighten your leg out and keep it still, resist the temptation to move it, sit and observe what happens. Witness all of the sensations mentioned above. You might be surprised, and not get the pins and needles you are expecting, but you will get the “Felt Sense.”
Now, let’s tie this all together and share my revelation of how touch facilitated the disruption of my trauma cycle!
I was assisting our principle certification program with Drew Hume -Director/Owner of Navina®, he was demonstrating Knee to Elbow (a posture from our module 2 curriculum) on me when I suddenly began to feel my heart rate increase, low grade trembling through out my body, a contraction of my leg muscles, my breath was rapid than I started to hold it, and began losing awareness. Mentally, I felt scared and nervous like I was about to have a panic attack, I wanted to push Drew away with my leg but was frozen. My entire body now tense.
I had to open my eyes, find a fixed point in the room to reestablish myself – I utilized the “slow it down” mantra. I tuned into my breath, slowed it down, and took long deep nostril breaths. I observed the sensations and stayed in that awareness of the “Felt Sense” while I coached myself slowly and silently repeating, “I am safe, Drew is safe, he is demonstrating on me, and I could get away if I needed to.” After what seemed like a extended period of time I began to sob and everything settled, my heart rate and breath regulated, all my muscles relaxed allowing Drew to move slowly deeper into the posture, I felt a deep calm and thought “ah…everything is okay, wow…I’m okay.”
In that moment I realized, everything really would be! Slowing myself down to stay present and Drew moving slowly and responding to the reactions of my body had disrupted my cycle of trauma.
The disruption unfolded above as Arousal – receiving the knee to elbow posture, Successful escape – avoided dissociation by utilizing “slow it down” concept I connected to my breath, stayed present with awareness of the “Felt Sense” and coached myself through it to Empowerment – I cried, my body finally released, settled in to calm, and I realized that I was safe. I had achieved the restorative process – my mind and body return to normal without storing any traumatic effects. I was no longer a victim caught in my trauma cycle.
When a person is in a situation that is reminiscent of the primary scenario they experience it as a reenactment, or what might be perceived as a traumatic event. This is when an individuals’ trauma cycle gets triggered and they immediately response the same way they did in the initial event and begin to play out the entire cycle; Arousal – Unsuccessful escape – Experience of fear and helplessness – Immobilization. Every time this happens the person accumulates the effects worsen them along the way. When there is no discharge of trauma this leads to chronic illness and disease.
Remember for me this presented as depression and migraines, symptoms of my childhood sexual abuse, when trauma was imprinted, suspended, and compounded by other episodes. Later stressful events in my adult life, having nothing to do with my childhood abuse, would further exacerbate my trauma. Keeping me in a continuous state of victimization, which displayed as major depressive disorder, and mild anxiety disorder. Anytime I felt stressed and threatened despite whether or not it was real, my response would immediately be my trauma cycle. I’d get stuck and stay a victim. My perception on the reality and level of threat had become distorted in these situations. However, that topic is for another blog “Real danger or perceived danger, the body doesn’t differentiate.”
Trauma, chronic illness, and disease, are all symptoms of blocked energy in both the mind and body. After a traumatic event we need to reroute, discharge, and let out that energy in a healthy way; movement and breath are key to the release. As Thai Yoga Therapy Practitioners we can facilitate and maintain the free flow of energy through the gift of our touch. It is our duty to portray and educate on the inherently intimate nature of touch, and how this can be a powerful tool in trauma recovery and the healing process.
Touch has the power to create and resolve trauma. Receiving Thai Yoga Therapy facilitated the restorative process and helped me move through the trauma cycle I had been stuck in for so long. The grip of trauma has been released, liberating me – and I continue to evolve with my new language of touch. I still get migraines, however the intensity and frequency of them have greatly decreased. My depression and anxiety is well managed through a lifestyle of holistic practices that include Thai Yoga Therapy. I celebrate these victories as they have given me my life back.
If this blog touched a part of you, still resonates even after you leave here, or you simply want to find out more information, please comment below or send me a direct email [email protected] I will be happy to connect with you.