Our bodies carry the stories of our lives. Often a more reliable witness than our minds, our physical reactions can give clues to past traumas and offer a path to healing. Emma Johnson explores the unique connection between our emotional past and our physical present
Despite what you may think, trauma is not something that happens to every living being. It is a human, domestic experience of stress that lingers in our bodies because due to cultural expectation and our lack of connection with our wild, natural selves – we are unable to process our experiences in the way our bodies, and minds, need us to.
‘Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present,’ explains the author of The Body Keeps Score, Bessel A. van der Kolk. ‘Trauma results in a fundamental reorganisation of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.’
In the wild, animals experience fear, loss, crisis and pain – but they do not experience the aftermath of the trauma that comes with these events.
The Cycle of Life
In her extraordinary book Call of the Wild: How we Heal Trauma, Awaken our Own Power and Use it for Good, Kimberly Ann Johnson explains that wild animals are able to ‘move through the complete nervous system cascade’ thus processing events, and moving on from them.
Johnson uses the example of wild rabbits ‘playing dead’ to avoid becoming prey to a wolf or fox. This instinct is not something they have control over, when threatened, a rabbit’s body will shut down its system to protect it. When danger has passed, the seemingly dead rabbit will jump up, shaking for a while as its body processes the event, and then it will simply stop shaking and run off. ‘The cycle is complete,’ writes Johnson. ‘The rabbit doesn’t hop around trembling for the rest of the day, avoiding the pasture. The wolf doesn’t stalk that same area again and again. They go on without the imprint of that hunt impeding or determining how they behave in the future.’
And they can do this because they are not subject to the kind of social conditioning that typifies our human world. Social norms, self-consciousness, surgery and anaesthesia, betrayal and boundary ruptures are all ways that our natural systems get interrupted along the cycle of ‘activation’ (the stress response, playing dead in the case of the rabbit) and subsequent deactivation (the point when the rabbit recovers and moves off and on with its day).
The Stuck Record
In this way, trauma remains stuck in our system, a sort of skip in a record, constantly replaying in our minds, while our bodies continually try to complete these stress response cycles – a process which shows up physically in myriad ways.
Multidisciplinary artist and actor Heather Agyepong whose new show The Body Remembers features interviews with Black British women in trauma recovery, explains how our body’s response to events is the first clue that we are holding onto unresolved trauma. ‘The body is an archive. It remembers everything – even the things that the head forgets… no-one knew they had been through something traumatic until their body started giving them reminders – pain, palpitations, panic attacks.’
Living with this level of unresolved trauma can be completely debilitating. Experiences from the past replay across your nervous system as if they are happening in the present moment, while your brain is also unable to separate current events from past ones. The lines between what happened to you and what is happening now become increasingly blurred. ‘Traumatised people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies,’ says van der Kolk. ‘The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.’
To survive, we try to shut down, the trauma remains trapped in our bodies, causing a host of issues, and even leading to long term disease and chronic conditions. In his book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, author Gabor Maté explains how our immune systems are seriously compromised by the stress and trauma we carry with us. ‘Stress in particular works to disarm our immune systems… cortisol helps us survive in acute short-term instances, but when stress becomes chronic, lasting for long periods, high levels of cortisol can destroy tissue, raise blood pressure and damage the heart.’ In the worst cases, Maté says, chronic stress can contribute to the onset and exacerbation of illnesses like MS, cancer and ALS.
‘Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them,’ says van der Kolk.
Befriending the Body
The body is a more truthful narrator than the mind. It cannot filter and re-examine memories, thus changing, softening or explaining them away, as the brain does. ‘Our bodies don’t rationalise, assess or interpret, and as such are a trustworthy record,’ explains Johnson.
And yet, despite this, we focus all our efforts at recovery, healing and success in our minds. The attention paid to things such as mindset coaching, positive psychology and the importance of willpower creates a ‘top-down’ approach to healing that entirely ignores the language of the body. ‘There is a deeper underlying organic intelligence more foundational than your mind – it resides in your body, which is often begging for your attention. That intelligence
is the true compass,’ says Johnson.
The answer to moving forward from trauma lies in returning to the body, to making peace with the messages it is sending us, and acting in accordance with our current reality, and not the past. We have to start listening. The body will point the way. ‘Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past,’ says van der Kolk.
Resolving Past and Present
‘The only way to get through trauma is to process it,’ says Agyepong. ‘At first, I thought I’d be writing a play with lots of other characters in it. Over time,
I stripped it back and decided the process of recovery is the piece itself.’
In wanting to share the process of recovery, Agyepong’s live performance – which is narrated by her co-creator Imogen Knight – sees her working through six areas of her body to find and resolve hidden heaviness or residual traumatic tension. ‘As I move through the sequence I investigate my head, throat, heart, stomach, womb and hands. Imogen’s voice asks “what’s happening in your throat?” and I display whatever is happening for me at that moment.’
Agyepong’s performance brings to mind a meditative body scan, a fantastic tool for connecting us with what our body is telling us. This connection is the key to recovery, but establishing this connection is also part of the journey of healing.
‘The mind needs to be re-educated to feel physical sensations,’ says van de Kolk. ‘And the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts
of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.’
As with mediation or a theatrical performance, the key is in the repetition of the process, and the development of your practice. It’s something you work out consciously, through daily exercises, visualisations or therapy.Consistency is key. You need to get into a daily rhythm of being present and connecting to the language of your body.Only then can you begin to connect with the truth of the past and resolve it enough to let go of it in the present.
‘When I stopped burying and began processing, I soon discovered that there is joy in healing and recovery,’ says Agyepong. ‘Those two things aren’t opposites. Joy and trauma are linked – processing trauma leads to the joy.’