This week a colleague asked me if many people are willing to acknowledge that they’ve experienced “trauma”- would they accept that things could be different if they could recognize the effect the traumatic stress has had on them? He asked, “isn’t trauma really only when you have a car crash, or were in a war, or if you were abused as a child?”
It’s a good question. When’s the last time you had something stressful happen in your life in which you were so overwhelmed with a feeling or an emotion that you couldn’t respond adequately? You may remember it as anger or rage that was debilitating to you (and those around you). Or you may have been in denial, or became dissociated from your body because the event and your emotional pain were too hard to deal with.
Or you may have seen that “deer in the headlights” look on someone you know- the freeze state that happens when you don’t know what should come next because you’re immobilized by the pain.
In fact, deer and other animals whose biological response causes them to run from their predators will literally freeze right before they’re caught as a way to avoid the pain they know is pending, and also because they might just get away if they play dead.
That’s the natural response of all mammals- to first run or fight, then freeze, as a means of survival. And to allow the stress response to work its way out of the body, immediately.
But because as a human you have a thinking brain, you dissociate from the phase where the stress is supposed to ‘work its way out’ because it’s too painful, more than you can bear. And you hide from it.
And what happens is that because you think that facing the stress or trauma from your past is going to produce more pain now, you cover it up even further. But your body knows it’s still there- it’s lurking inside your cells as trapped energy that needs a way to come out.
When you cover up the fact that you experienced stress or trauma, you are, in fact, certain to re-experience it. Over and over again.
That is, until you reintegrate the experience in your body and allow the natural healing to happen.
To heal significant stress or trauma, you have to learn to safely come back into your body, experiencing it as a ‘container’ for your feelings, rather than as a prison for your pain.
If you have experienced symptoms of stress or trauma, you likely shut down your body’s natural healing method, which reinforces the symptoms, and causes you to further disconnect from your own body.
Think about the last time you had to respond to an emergency or deal with a stressful conflict. You likely became hyper-aroused (increased heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing, racing mind), developed a knot in your gut (result of decreased blood to the organs so your legs can run father), became disconnected mentally from your body, and may have become helpless or immobile if the event was serious enough.
And if you suppressed the event and decided not to deal with it, later you might have developed a ‘guardedness’ or become startled easily, have mood swings, less ability to deal with stress, or difficulty sleeping.
Even further down the road you may have developed symptoms that included panic or anxiety attacks, a spaced-out feeling, an attraction to danger, or addictive patterns like smoking, overeating or drinking.
And if you’ve decided to ignore your symptoms most of your life, even longer-term symptoms of stress and trauma include an inability to respond emotionally, chronic fatigue, immune disorders, headaches or migraines, chronic pain, digestive problems, asthma, depression and feelings of isolation.
Pretty raunchy list of symptoms, huh?
And what you’ll really be excited about is that since you denied or disconnected from the trauma early in life, your body has decided to help you out by repeating similar events, over and over, just so you’ll eventually have to face it.
The cool thing is, it’s just not that hard to learn to jump back into your body again and do the natural healing thing.
The body naturally wants to heal your stress or trauma. It’s begging you- that’s why it keeps offering you symptoms.
Those symptoms are your body’s way of saying, “Hey, listen up you scaredy-cat! I need to do some work here. Stop shutting me down!”
Whoaaaa. Seriously? You mean if I just faced the symptoms it would all go away?
It’s not quite that easy, but there are mind-body techniques, like Somatic Experiencing, mindfulness, and Integral Coaching, that can help you learn to reintegrate the trapped energy in a more productive way that will eventually also change the way you experience it in your body, and how you think about stress.
And ultimately, allowing your body to heal naturally will free you from the fear and anxiety that keeps your heart racing, palms sweating and feeling ashamed in difficult situations.
Ready to learn more about how the body-mind connection works? Click here to download the Free Report Calm Your Body & Mind, Reduce Your Stress: 10 Easy Ways to Counteract Life’s Rollercoaster, and you’ll get some great mindfulness training and free articles every month to reduce your stress and anxiety. Please forward to a friend if you liked this post!
Holly Woods, Ph.D. uses Integral Coaching, Somatic Experiencing and mindfulness techniques to help adults who are weighed down by stress or trauma, and who want to be free of the overwhelm so they can find a life full of joy and purpose.