“I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people.” – Ram Dass
It is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is loneliness, which as a side-effect of Trauma, is one aspect which we rarely address. Trauma Survivors feel that they are the only one going through it, so they are hesitant to express their experience. However, sharing can take the power of shame away from it, and in being courageous enough here in this blog on what I went through, I hope that it may help someone else feel more comfortable in dealing with own their Trauma – you are not alone. I have been there too.
What is Trauma? Trauma is defined as a distressing or set of distressing experiences that threatens our sense of real or perceived safety to the extent that it surpasses our ability to feel safe in our bodies. It can also have roots in adverse childhood experiences. For me, it was the latter, but it was not so much the event, it was the fall-out afterwards. After voicing my experience, it was dismissed, and excused. According to the Trauma Expert, Peter A. Levine, Trauma is caused by the absence of empathetic support or an empathetic witness.
As any Trauma Survivor, I became continually on guard, bouncing between expressions of freezing, overwhelm, tuning out, anger, withdrawal, anxiety, depression, total breakdown, over-achievement, and hyper-activity. Over-time, and noted by Gabor Mate, an expert on Childhood Trauma, it can eventually manifest as chronic health, fatigue, and pain conditions. With me, my diagnosis of Arthritis in my thirties meant I had to adapt my lifestyle and Yoga was the best choice to improve my joint health.
Little did I know at the time, that as Trauma resides in the body, according to the leading Trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, that Yoga is an ideal approach to help Survivors reconnect safely to themselves. This is what I learned when I trained under David Emerson in Trauma-Sensitive Yoga which I now deliver in health care settings, mental hospitals, charities, the NHS, and in private one-to-ones.
No survivor chooses to experience Trauma as it is something that is done to them, as I did, so choice and self-empowerment is what I offer as a Yoga Therapist in a safe environment where trust is developed. This is because Trauma survivors may have been hurt in a relationship, either directly, or because people were not there or did not support them in their time of distress.
This was my exact experience – my Trauma is entirely Relational. Relational Trauma occurs between caregivers and children or teens during the critical development phase of their brain, and when they are entirely reliant on adults to be their protector because they are unable to defend themselves.
Reliving the traumatic experience as if it is happening in the now, comes through certain Triggers which can result in social withdrawal because the world feels unsafe. For me, the Trigger which sent me into a Traumatic relapse and isolation, was the death of a relative. The grief triggered all the repressed memories that came back in haunting flashbacks and terrifying nightmares, as well as an overwhelming sense of anger because I started to grieve for the lost decades destroyed by the Traumatic experience. I was able to connect all the dots between my behaviour because of what I had suffered. Trauma had altered my brain.
Practicing Yoga (bottom-up processing) and intense Talk Therapy (top-down processing) has been part of my recovery journey which has given me the empathetic understanding of what it is to be a Trauma Survivor. So, here are a few techniques from my Trauma-sensitive Yoga Therapist’s toolkit, which can sometimes preclude seeking help as well as dial down Traumatic arousal such as feeling shut down, numb, dissociated, or anxious:
• Move: Rock from foot to foot, drum or tap the outer edges of your body, wiggle your fingers, shake your arms, dance, or give yourself a hug.
• Orientate: Looking around and noticing your surroundings with all your senses (what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste). As you do this, try to relax, and feel your shoulders, neck, and jaw.
• Ground: This is when we feel our feet, legs, and the earth beneath, to feel safe, and secure.
• Centre: Centre yourself by getting in touch with the muscles in the abdomen by lifting the lower belly muscles or focus on belly breathing.
• Label: By naming the emotion we can separate from it. Try to offer the emotion compassionate distance by saying mentally ‘Hello’ to the emotion with a soft soothing voice, ‘Ah, this part of me is feeling….’
• Pendulate: Find an area in the body to sense that feels neutral and explore it with mindful curiosity for a while. Then with the emotional hotspot do the same. Then pendulate back and forth between the two, until you feel calmer.
• Journaling: This allows us to be an impartial witness and develop self-knowledge on our reactions, triggers, and the ways we have being stuck in our past conditioning.
Finally, if you know of someone close who has experienced Trauma – just be present, listen non-judgementally, allowing that person to feel seen, believed, and heard. That is the greatest gift you can give.
As an accredited and registered Yoga Therapist (CNHC) and Trauma-Sensitive Facilitator (TCTSY-F), get in touch on my contact page to find out more about how I can help you, or your organisation.