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 


NanaDiana said...

I read every word and I know that there are losses that were so deep that I chose not to deal with them. My father died and because I lived 1500 miles away I did not see him often. It was easy after his funeral to pretend he was still "up north". Then, one day FIVE YEARS LATER I picked up a picture my mother had taken of him in his casket (OMG) and the grief just overwhelmed me.

We also lost a precious grandgirl and there have been other losses that I have chosen to put on a back shelf and let them sit there rather than go through the grieving process.

Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful post today. I needed to hear it. Much love to you- we are all mothers-of-the-heart and when someone we know loses a child (no matter the age) our motherly instincts kick in and we grieve right along with you. Blessings to you- my belief is that you will be reunited with your son someday...not that it makes today any easier........

Leslie Harris said...

Diana. Thank you for this beautiful comment. You never fail to lift me with your words. And yes, I also believe that we're bonded as mothers (biological or not) and that we truly try to feel the imagined pain when another mother suffers the loss of her child. That fact that someone would open her heart and try to understand my loss takes so much courage and I'm so grateful. Truly. Thank you.
And I thank anyone who would read my posts because I realize it's such an uncomfortable topic.

sending love

Linda @ Itsy Bits And Pieces said...

Oh Leslie. There is so much wisdom and honesty in this post. I have had the worst health problems of my life during periods of loss...and I have to say, in all honesty, I was not surprised. I didn't see how my body could continue under such stress and pain without breaking. Sharing your journey and your insights has been really eye-opening for me. Our bodies do their best protect our spirits. Your recent instagram post touched my heart, glad you have been able to go back to yoga. xo

Karen said...

I feel like I'm learning so much as I read your blog and your experience with something all of us hope never happens to us. Sometime after your loss, one of my dearest friends lost her daughter unexpectedly. My friend's sweet daughter was someone my family watched grow up and as she was the sweetest young woman, mother, wife, daughter, and friend one could know. I didn't share your blog connection with her but it gave me strength and understanding to know a little of what she might be going through, and I've been saddened by the loss of this wonderful's hard not to wonder why this happened.
Thank you for your open discussion and wisdom. I'm benefiting from it even if I leave after reading each post in tears.

Leslie Harris said...

Thank you Linda for sharing your reactions to this post. I do remember when you were having health problems and I sure hope those days are past. And I'm so glad you found some insight here. I can't thank you enough for your support. And yes, it was a big thing finally going through a whole yoga class, although it helped that it was at the beach. :)

Susan Nowell @ My Place to Yours said...

Leslie, your ability to put into words such deeply personal and insightful feelings is surely therapeutic - for you and for your readers. I never take for granted how hard it must be to share the "raw", and I am grateful for your honesty. Besides the losses of 5 dear friends we have personally encountered this year, our smalltown community has experienced two tragedies; the loss is almost palpable. Two families dealing with so much pain, and a community learning how to be supportive amidst such senseless and heart wrenching reality. Your words today helped me realize just how much I need to stop "going underground" with my feelings and start listening to my body. Thank you, friend.

Loree said...

Thank you for sharing this with us. The list of primary and secondary loss is very interesting as there are some types of loss on it that I would never have classified as such. It has got me thinking a lot. Something rather strange happened last week. I was at a reflexologist (first time ever) and she mentioned that she felt I was grieving for someone or something. I couldn't really think what that might be but now that I have read your list I may be able to identify it.
I have not been reading your blog for very long but I think of you often.

michele said...

I feel such warmth toward you as you move through this pain and stay awake because I know how tempting it must be to check out and say F this S, time to numb. Thank you for writing all of this down, for recycling the energy and sadness, and for your rare vulnerability. I'm all too familiar with mind-body-spirit connections and find myself taking an awfully long time to physically heal even as I do all the right things and put in the work (including allowing myself to rage so my poor, under-performing liver has a chance). When pain comes, it helps so much to hear someone say a version of 'it's going to pass' because it always does. If you lived closer, when it felt bearable for you, I would want to hear about Patrick's favorite things. Maybe we would dance to his favorite music or watch his favorite films. Praying for you and sending love.

La Contessa said...


Marilyn said...

I continue to learn from you. Writing about your tragedy is theraputic for you, and enlightening for us. I admire your courage and strength in speaking your truth.

Marilyn (in Dallas)

brenda murphy said...

Thinking of you. Take care. I love that you are using your yoga and meditation to heal. It is exactly the recipe that I use. xob

Melanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richella Parham said...

Oh, Leslie. I'm amazed that it's been 10 months already since Patrick's death. My heart aches as I think of your loss, but it's also lifted as I read about how you are not only seeking healing but now sharing your wisdom with others. I bless you for this. I hate the fact that this fallen world can bring us so much sorrow as well as so much joy, but I am deeply grateful when someone shares what they've learned and tries to help others. We will keep praying for you.

Thank you so much for joining the Grace at Home party at Imparting Grace. I'm featuring you this week--I can just imagine how many people might need to read your words. God bless you, friend.

Mary Ann Pickett said...

Just beautiful. And so helpful.

Marksgran said...

I have only just found your blog today. You write beautifully about your feelings and some of the information you have gathered is hugely helpful. My dad died in April and my mum is struggling with grief and I feel some of the information regarding the physical forms of grief will be helpful for her to know about. Thank you for being so honest, I cannot and do not want to imagine the pain you must be in. Sending you heartfelt condolonces and love from Scotland. x

cindy hattersley design said...

Leslie I can't even imagine how many you have helped by sharing your grief and and wisdom with others. You are an amazing soul. I wished you lived closer so I could give you a big hug.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...