Healing from Trauma: Reconnecting to the Body
Befriending My Senses
It used to be that my senses were numb and my body was the enemy. I was in survival mode and I believed my senses would only get me into trouble. Now, all that has changed.
I like to garden barefoot. I feel the cool dirt under my feet and the warmth of the sun soaked grass as I step across the yard. I love to feel textures on my skin. I confess, I don’twant to dump the sand out of my shoes when I leave the beach…I like the sand between my toes!
When I am connected to my senses I feel alive. I love the smell of the dirt as I dig out the new pathway beside my house. I light up with delight when I see the bright pink of the Cosmos, yellow of the Black-eyed Susans, and purple of Bearded Iris outside my window. I go nuts when I smell Jasmine and cannot walk by it without burying my face in it for at least a moment.
Sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and sights all provide for me a smorgasbord of experience. Some days I feel like a sense-seeking missile. But this wasn’t always the case.
In response, to my childhood abuse, I shut down all receptors that would let anything from the outside in. I had to keep memories at bay and was unable to be connected to my body. My unconscious belief was that my body had betrayed me and I didn’t trust it.
Survival Selves vs. Authentic Selves
Our senses are what connect us to ourselves and to the outside world; but if we are trying to keep certain memories at bay and do not trust the outside world, the senses cannot be allowed to function fully.We may believe that being disconnected from our senses keeps us safe, but it also keeps us from living from our authentic selves, from the heart.
I believe that most of us carry within ourselves at least two parts: our survival selves and our authentic selves. Some people call these the “Authentic Self” and the “Inauthentic Self.” Carol Adrienne, Ph.D, writes in an article entitledAuthenticity, “The voice of the authentic self seems to be the same as the intuitive voice, that quiet, but persistent voice that whispers new ideas to us in the middle of the night, on vacation, or after meditating. Intuition speaks in short, clear messages that are qualitatively different from the repetitive mind chatter that makes us feel anxious.”
Our authentic selves are connected to the core of heart and body. They feel deeply and experience things through all of our senses. “Rediscovering freedom involves regaining a feeling of comfort in your own skin. The awkward layers that have been assumed to please others are shed, and the real person is revealed – an authentic person… The fake person has lost their connection to the real person inside” (author unknown).
Dr. Phil writes about an authentic self and a “fictional self.” He defines the authentic self as “ the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you not defined by your job, function or role. It is the composite of all your skills, talents and wisdom. It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression.” He goes on to say, “When you’re not living faithfully to your authentic self, you find yourself feeling incomplete, as if there is a hole in your soul…Living this way drains you of the critical life energy you need to pursue the things you truly value.”
The Senses and Trauma
We all probably remember the excitement as a child of going to the beach or the snow for the first time, or laying awake in bed with great anticipation of tomorrow’s birthday party. As children, prior to abuse, we are open to life and we respond fully to it, engaging all of our selves. When a child goes to the beach, they have to feel the salt water on their skin and cover themselves in the sand. Playing is not a spectator sport. It involves all of their senses. They don’t wait for the sun to come out to go outside. Puddle jumping is the first order of business when it rains.
What happens to a child’s sensory faculties when he/she is abused? When senses are used to bring things that are confusing and painful, feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, and perhaps even tasting become openings for negative sensations. Perhaps something being done to a child physically feels pleasant, but those very pleasant feelings bring mental and emotional trauma. Even feeling good, then, often becomes connected to trauma and must be kept at bay at all costs.
Our bodies don’t forget what happened to us, even if our minds do for a time. Every act of abuse is stored on a cellular level in the body. The body is often one of the most accurate storage devices of memory. It may not remember all the specific details, but it will remember with great accuracy how we felt when something happened to us. Have you ever smelled a certain scent and been immediately transported in your mind to the time and place that smell entered your senses?
We have all heard the first three notes of a song and been flooded with the body sensations of where we were and what we were doing when that song became significant to us. I remember where I was, who I was with, and what the room smelled like when I first heard about the Challenger crash. We all have the details of the smells, sights, and sounds of our environment when our stomachs sank with the news of 9-11. That’s trauma, and the brain stores those memories differently than other memories. They are so real that you may think you are reliving it when you think about them.
Honoring our “Survival Selves”
Our bodies are much like a hard drive connected to our computer brains. If there is something in that hard drive that we are unconsciously trying to avoid remembering and feeling, we learn to dull everything that touches it. When someone hugs us, we don’t really let the hug get inside us. When we feel the sand or dirt beneath our feet, we walk on without letting the sensation affect us. The older we get, the more dulled our senses may become.
Unless, that is, we make a conscious decision to reconnect with our bodies and learn to live from our authentic selves.
Our survival selves play an important role for us. They, indeed, have helped us survive! Perhaps both you and I are here today because our survival selves did what they needed to do to get us here. We can develop an appreciation for that part of our selves that did the dirty work—they did what needed to be done to keep us alive. It is important to honor that part and the role he/she has played. Now, we can choose how we want to move forward from here. Maybe some of our survival ways have worked well and are still working for us. Others, perhaps, are not.
One of my survival skills was to become very organized. I call on that skill almost daily, but now I can also choose to set it aside and abide some amount of disorder when that serves me too. I learned to live in my head and I became a great administrator. I have since discovered that I really don’t like doing administrative work. When I was able to let go of almost obsessively organizing my surroundings, I found inside of myself a very creative person. When I am able to let go of my control over my environment, I create an opening for that creative part of me to paint and dig in the dirt.
Letting Go Takes Courage
Letting go of control takes courage. It has meant opening myself up to remember. Along with painting and digging in the dirt have come some things I would rather have avoided. Body memories have come to the surface that are challenging to deal with. I have become aware of at least one of the reasons that my digestive system has such a difficult time working correctly. My body learned that what is put inside it can make me very sick and decided very early on to fight anything that came down my throat. The memory surfacing was painful. It requires noticing, minimizing (yes, part of the process!), feeling, accepting, and then fully grieving a terrible thing that happened to me. But on the other side of that dark tunnel comes life.
My body slowly loosens its death grip over my digestive system as it is able to learn that not everything that goes down my throat is going to hurt me. In the place that my mind and body and heart held this dark secret, I experience a new freedom and peace. Previously unknown options begin to open up for me to see and do things in new ways. In the midst of this challenging process, I learn how to listen to my body and give it what it really needs. I shed the protective skin of blocking out the pain and develop the ability to allow life to touch me and I begin to touch it back.
When we take our gardening gloves, or shoes, off and come into direct contact with the earth, we will find things that bring us delight and things that have potential to cause us pain. When we choose to open our bodies, minds, and hearts and allow ourselves to be touched by the outside world and connected to our authentic selves, we take a risk. We will feel positive things and negative things, joy and sorrow. Our choice is to feel both or feel neither. As for me, I choose to shed my gloves and my shoes, to get dirt underneath my fingernails, and fully experience the world underneath my feet. I choose life.