Last night on the way to my best dreamgirl’s house, I listened to a podcast interview with Bessel van der kolk, the author of The Body Keeps Score and lifelong studier of trauma. Bessel began working with Vietnam vets in the 1970s and was part of the revolution that put a name to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He’s continued to be a part of the effort that expanded that diagnosis to other populations including survivors of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault.
He is so full of words of wisdom that I kept having to hit pause on the podcast so that I could tell Siri to remind me of things to remember to write about. So much of what he said was the perfect jumping off point for this week’s LoveLetter where I wanted to write to you about loving and living in your body.
Maybe right now you are asking, “What does loving my body have to do with trauma?” My answer is absolutely everything.
Bessel spoke about how – as a society – we are more disconnected from our bodies than ever. We have come to value our minds and thinking or rationalizing over our bodies and their inherit wisdom. This is true whether you have experienced trauma or not.
We are a nation that is largely being driven by the tiny thought machines that are trapped in the attics of our minds and we have grown unaccustomed or even desensitized to what it feels like to be embodied.
What a great word that is, right? EMBODIED. Close your eyes right now and try to feel the full length of your body. Take a deep breath into your belly – letting it become full of lifegiving oxygen. Feel your energy filling this framework of blood, skin and bones that is so beautiful. Feel the head to toe essence that is YOU.
Another cool thing that Bessel said was that our sense of self is a somatic experience. I’ll say that again so that it can sink in:
“Our Sense of Self is a Somatic Experience.”
Meaning, when we think about who we are and how we interact in their word, the immediate thoughts/sensations/feelings that come to mind are all tied to how it feels to move and inhabit our bodies through this world.
Yet, I would be that most of the time when someone asks you how you are feeling, you would say, “I’m fine.” You would give this answer regardless of what the truth is because, until that moment, you haven’t paid any conscious attention to how you are feeling, and you are stumped for a different answer.
This disconnected and disembodied experience has become the standard operating mode for our culture, and it is doubly true for those who have experienced trauma. Because trauma turns the world at large and our own bodies into unsafe places to exist. Bessel said…
“The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves.”
What this means is that as we are trying to go about our lives, we are continuously hijacked from reality (aka the present moment) because our bodies are constantly on high alert having become wired to assume that world is an unsafe place and that includes our own bodies.
The result is that ANY sensations that we feel in our bodies FEEL WEIRD and uncomfortable. We are just not used to feeling our bodies anymore and we resist these natural sensations at every turn and constantly look for ways to make them go away.
This desire to feel only good (and make the uncomfortable go away) is directly responsible for substance abuse being the number one mental health issue in our country along with rising levels of obesity and debt.
There was this band that I used to listen to in college called “The Tomorrowpeople” and a line from one of their songs said, “Feeling pain was so outdated.” I freaking love that line, which was followed with, “We have to try to find a way to make you feel alright.” That song was all about alcohol and drug use.
Yep, that was largely my first half of life experience. But now that I am staring down the last 15 months until I turn 50, I am trying to make peace with my body by telling my brain to stand down more often.
Bessel also said that the function of the brain is to take care of the body, which is backwards from the way we were brought up to think, right? But because we have experienced trauma and our nervous systems are always on high alert and predisposed to interpret the world as an unsafe place, our brains pickup on subtle signals that we are in danger. However, since we are most often not actually in real danger, our brain starts to make up a story about the situation to fit the sensations in our body.
Once both the body and the brain are engaged in this warfare against sensation, you can forget trying think you way out of the elevated levels of anxiety and panic that you now feel because you are in full on fight, flight or freeze. The quickest way back to feeling normal, aka feeling nothing (which is actually NOT normal) is to allow yourself to FEEL what’s happening inside your body.
The only way out is through.
I know that’s quite a circle of thinking there but does it make sense to you at the gut level? As trauma survivors, we have to learn to come home to our bodies and give ourselves the grace to feel all the messy, uncomfortable and scary sensations that come along with being fully human and fully alive.
This means that we have to stop running from the fear, the self-judgment, the anger, the sadness, heartbreak and uncertainty that has been chasing after and begging for our attention throughout our lives.
It’s not easy and I have come to believe recovering from trauma and becoming embodied, is a lifelong process. I believe that the practices of self-regulation and self-care are the ways that we do that.
I know that tonight is New Year’s Eve and so you may be engaging in the obligatory over-celebrating wrapped up in all that, but I would challenge you enter the New Year full of peace and presence. Have fun for sure but know the difference between adrenaline and joy…between enjoying some bubbly and numbing out.
And let me tell you, there is nothing more worthy of celebrating than a woman who has learned to accept and own who she is and has learned the art of coming home and inhabiting her own body. There is nothing more beautiful than a woman who has truly learned how to be ALIVE.
So, when you wake up tomorrow and start drafting that list of resolutions, be sure to include sleep, yoga, breathwork and laughter (so embodied) in your must-haves for 2020. A regulated nervous system should become like your new, American Express card:
Don’t leave home without it.
Until next time, have a safe, peaceful and present New Year and please accept my gratitude for allowing me to come alone for the ride.