Monday, July 22, 2019

What I've been learning. How trauma and loss effects your body

I first noticed it in those blurry months following Patrick’s fatal accident.Still in a haggard state of shock and trauma, I tried to go back to my yoga mat, desperate for some moments of relief. But each time I rolled out my mat and lowered myself into a simple child’s pose, allowing my forehead to sink into the floor, an eruption of sobs would rise from deep within my chest. 

Each time I would sit in meditation and focus on breathing in and breathing out, my body would react by releasing a torrent of grief that I eventually realized, had now permeated every muscle and ligament in my stiff body.

The idea that our emotions can be pent up within our bodies is nothing new.

As a practicing clinician I had spent years working with eating disordered women, and I know the effects of unexpressed feelings on our psyche, and in certain situation how experiencing trauma can dislodge the natural connection we feel with our body. 

Honestly. I’ve lost count of the number of tragic stories I’ve listened to from women who suffered molestation at young ages, and who vividly describe feeling strangely detached from their physical body while it’s happening.

I’ve heard hundreds of women describe the odd sensation of watching their abuse from above—of feeling outside their own bodies as if they were watching a movie.

But you don’t have to experience physical or sexual abuse to have experienced something that felt traumatic. Or to understand how it feels to have heavy, uncomfortable feelings stuck in your throat, unable to be expressed comfortably to others. 

Each of these experiences is evidence of the powerful connection that exists between our emotions and our physical body.

Pent up feelings

In the grief group I recently finished, one of the wisest messages we heard was that there are 40 kinds of losses in addition to death-- that we all experience in our daily lives, yet most of us don’t take the time to acknowledge our wispy feelings of sadness, let alone feel them. 

In this same group, we were asked to plot our life losses on a graph line. This was to help us identify how we treat our losses, and whether we allow ourselves to fully grieve as we move through our lives.

I saw so many members of our group who were shocked to learn that they had joined the group because they were motivated by their most recent loss, only to discover another more powerful loss from their past that felt even more urgent; a loss they had never dealt with, that was still having rippling effects in their lives. 

The other night I was reading Yoga for Grief Relief, by Antonio Sausys, a somatic psychotherapist and leading teacher in understanding the Body/Mind connection. And he was talking about the Western world’s stoic approach to our emotions, how we believe we can plow through our pain by being ‘strong.’ But it’s this very approach that leaves us in what he calls, “a perpetual state of unacknowledged grief.” 

We minimize our own feelings. And we (unknowingly) bury our feelings of loss deep inside us, where they stay trapped in both body and mind.

The Body never lies

I found his personal story especially fascinating.

When he was twenty years old, Antonio lost his mother from a sudden stroke. But for the next two and a half years he lived in total denial. He simply couldn’t deal with the sudden trauma of losing her and he completely disconnected from his feelings. When he was finally able to be fully present for his emotional pain, to his astonishment he discovered that his body had created an additional calcium deposit between his ribs and breastbone. This is what the body can do in response to a fracture. 

And for him, it was the clearest proof, that what the mind insists on hiding, the physical body will show. 

He had suffered a broken heart, and his body had confirmed it.

I do need to clarify though, not all losses are traumatic. 

Grief specialists consider losing a child always a trauma. And dealing with any sudden and unexpected death (like Antonio’s mother) is also considered traumatic. 

But as all of us move through transitions or big changes in our lives, it’s natural for anyone to notice feelings of loss. The main point is simply to allow our feelings—whatever they are—to be expressed freely and honestly. 

But this is easier said than done, as Antonio’s story illustrates.

Personally, it was my years inside the world of eating disorders that helped me see first-hand, that even when we think we’re avoiding our most difficult feelings, our emotions will make themselves known through our bodies. 

Either we begin to notice physical symptoms or our pent-up feelings can go ‘underground’ and show up as apathy or body dissatisfaction. 

Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling down or depressed and you look in the mirror, and suddenly all you notice are your flaws?  It’s as if the more unhappy you are, the more you suddenly notice your weight or that facial feature that bugs you. 

Susan Sands Ph.D, is a wonderful eating disorder specialist who coined the phrase, “distorted mirroring,” to explain how we look in the mirror and instead of seeing our whole self, we instantly zero in on our body parts.  

Working with bulimics taught me that if we keep ignoring our emotions, eventually we’ll lose our ability to recognize why and what we’re specifically feeling. A bulimic only knows she’s upset. But instead of addressing a person or a problem situation that caused her reactions, she uses food. Binging, throwing up and feeling temporary relief. But sadly, her original feelings remain unresolved. So her destructive cycle continues. 

“Trauma causes a disconnection from our self. And our body.”
                                              --Dr. Gabor Mate

What I've learned-- is to be curious about a prolonged disconnect with our bodies, which can show up as a feeling of ‘just not caring’ about our body’s needs for movement and better nutrition, and consider it an invitation to look deeper.

 Recognize there may be important feelings that are inside you needing to be fully expressed.

Listening to my body

Some months after Patrick’s accident, I was talking to a yoga friend when I mentioned the distinct feeling that I had trauma stuck inside my body. 

I knew it sounded odd, but I just blurted it out, relying on my instincts and my curious observations of my body. I knew one thing; I had never felt such a deep paralyzing fatigue in my life. It was a profound heaviness that seemed to affect every muscle in my body that made the mere thought of exercising out of the question.

I didn’t realize at that moment—how grief expresses itself in the body. But I noticed little things. 

I couldn’t sleep without help.
I no longer had access to any dreams.
And my body felt so different.

I missed having strong arms. I missed seeing the muscles in my legs. And I missed slipping on my pants and feeling that looseness around my bottom. 

But here’s the important part. I watched it all happening and I couldn’t care less. 

I felt like a detached observer with a total disregard for my physical conditioning and muscular strength. Stripped of my ego and in a state of profound pain I didn’t care one bit about my looks, my skin, my makeup. 

I even detected a quiet resentment towards my body.

It was as if my mother’s mind was saying,
I never got a chance to trade places with Patrick. To exchange my living-breathing, healthy body for his beautiful one, because he’s the one who deserves to be here. 

And I was heartsick and bewildered by this horrific loss of control.

Taking care of my body?

All I knew is that the mere idea of going back to the gym or back to the yoga classes that I once loved, would bring me face-to-face with this mother’s internal conflict I felt simmering inside me that always began with…why???? 

Why am I still here when my beautiful son is not?

Time is not the healer; it’s what we do with our Time

So, what’s changed?

Only in these last several weeks—10 long months after the accident--do I feel myself emerging from the hazy fog of disbelief and numbness that I now realize had been insulating me from feeling the full effects of Patrick’s loss in our lives.

Trauma specialists explain that the mind will do this. The mind will try to protect us from near lethal shock by erecting a numbing veil around us--a type of emotional anesthesia—that we don’t even realize is there.

I understand it now. Because that’s what happened to me in those early morning hours of September 15, 2018 when I felt my world collapse around me.

But lately I’m noticing tiny, incremental changes.

These days I am finally able to breath for longer periods so I can meditate without being interrupted by instant sobbing, or overcome by aching thoughts of Patrick.

I am back to slow, deep stretching on my yoga mat. And I’m beginning to integrate the grief yoga practice established by Antonio Sausys.

But it takes time.

I still wake up every morning feeling unbearable aching in my heart. And still stunned that Patrick’s not with us.

But I’m working through the remnants of my trauma. Trauma still evident when my heartbeat starts racing and the mental flashbacks pop up: 
  • at the first sound of sirens in the distance
  • or when I’m in a fast-moving car on the freeway
  • or when I’m in my bed and I notice the clock ticking toward midnight.
Each of these experiences can easily flood me with heartache and unwanted images but I’m now slowing facing the harrowing moments of Patrick’s accident so that my grieving body and soul can heal.

Losing a child—who happened to be the most astonishing light in the world—is literally hell on earth. It's pretty much horrendous.

But I don’t want to waste all this pain. I want to use it. I want to share what I’m learning along the way in case you’re ever struggling with your own heavy heart. Or you find yourself in your own dark night of the Soul. 

I want you know that there’s only one way through your pain, and that’s to face it.

These are some of the things I’m doing that help me: 

Think: one hour at a time.
Being present for my feelings. (Eckhart Tolle has some great podcasts on this)
Returning to my breath. (a skill that comes with yoga)
Meditation every day.
Going to my Compassionate Friends Group.
Being real with my therapist.
Oh---and writing about this insane journey that I never expected to be on.

But here I am.


I can't say this enough. I am surviving by Love.
Thank you dear ones for all your prayers and kindness.

*if you have private reactions to this post or questions that you don't want to post in a comment, feel free to email me 

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