I have been fortunate to receive some grant money allocated for therapists who are treating victims of rape and child sexual abuse with body-centered approaches. It’s provided a great opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of these approaches in an empirical sort of way.
I’ve been working with a client for a couple of months and she’s been pleasantly surprised at a significant reduction, if not complete release, of chronic anxiety, hypervigilence, and hyperarousal. Recently however, she presented with an issue that she described as a “stupid overreaction“ to a seemingly innocuous event.
She was in a situation in which there were a lot of other people focused on her and the interaction she was having with a well-known public figure. She innocently reached out and touched him on his shoulder, in order to balance herself more than anything else, when his bodyguard intervened. She said she was mortified and felt an overwhelming sense of shame at having done “something wrong” in front of other people. She said that over the next few days she reached for her habitual ways to self-medicate, all the while berating herself for doing so, adding to her feelings of self-hatred.
As I invited her to work with this memory somatically, her deep feelings of shame and “I’m bad” evolved into a memory of CSA when she was 10 or 11 years old. She said she had always dismissed this memory as “playing doctor” especially since her mother dismissed it as “what it means to be a girl.” As we continued to track the feelings, but more importantly stayed with the body sensations underneath them, she burst into sobs and started rocking herself. I helped her stay grounded as the “energy” moved through her body and into awareness, at which point she remembered a particular detail of this event that she had completely blocked out.
She and her young perpetrator were “caught” while finishing the act, by other young relatives in the family. It was the look on their faces that left a deep scar of shame in her psyche. She couldn’t believe that with all the therapy she’s had, she had completely blocked out this vital piece.
I’m sure you’ve all had surprising experiences like this one while working with traumatic memories, but I wanted to share it, because it emphasizes the power of tracking the body and the felt sense. And I’m reminded once again, in a pretty dramatic way that . . .
"Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past."
Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score
Like a big honkin’ zit that was finally ready to pop, current events have brought the issue of sexual assault and sexual abuse to a head. It’s a good thing. So let the healing begin.
It’s not my place to say what anyone’s healing path should look like. I can only tell you that when it comes to traumatic memories, it can be tricky. My own experience is an example. First and foremost, it taught me that I can always count on my body to tell the truth and lead the way to lasting healing.
I had no visual memories of what happened to me. I still don’t. But in time I learned how to work with and release terrifying “body memories." Feelings of dread, terror, and rage would rise up, unexpectedly at times, exacerbated by the frightening out-of-control feelings that came from not knowing where all of the other feelings were coming from.
Of course there were plenty of times I doubted myself - figured I was just crazy. But the feelings wouldn’t leave me alone. My body was relentless and would continue to present me with physical pain, and an accompanying sense of something terrible happening, until I acknowledged the feelings and let them run their course.
Early in this process, I was working at a mental health facility whose director did not believe that sexual abuse really happened or that repressed memories were possible! So there I was, going into enemy territory it seemed, as a tightly wound ball of unresolved primal energy. It was a serious “walking-through-fire” experience, in which every button I had was pushed hard.
One fateful day, back in 1993, I was triggered by an argument with my ex-husband. I slammed down the phone in a red-hot rage and declared to myself, “OK. Let’s go. I’m ready to get this thing (traumatic event) out of me.” So I called on Divine help and let myself surrender to the full flood of feelings and sensations and let my body express and “act out” what it remembered.
Again, I don’t remember, in the way we typically think of as memory, but I can tell you this: whatever happened, whenever it happened, wherever it happened, I was very very small, I thought I was going to die, it physically hurt - my face and my jaw - and I felt trapped and tried to brace against it with my neck and the base of my skull. Afterwards, I was cold and wet, shivering, in shock and alone, and I didn’t want to be here anymore.
It wouldn’t hold up in court. I can’t prove it. But in my case, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that in those years of intense healing, I got really good at working with primal emotions, the bodymind, the felt sense, and the unknown. I came to trust myself and what my body has to say. I guess you could say that I got my body back and when I did I found something in myself that no one can take away – ever again.
And while I wouldn’t wish it on anybody else, I wouldn’t trade what happened to me . . . for anything.
Peace and healing to all of you,
To see video, Trauma and the Bodymind: Shelly's Story, click below.
experiment with the following: (Please try to approach this, not with an attitude of wanting to, hurry up and be still so you can release your stress, but with curiosity and a sense of experimentation and/or play.
1) See if you can notice how you know that you're feeling tension. In other words, how can you tell? What's happening in your body? Just do your best to get a general felt sense of where it is. (If all you're noticing is a kind of swirling in your head that's fine too - and by the way, very common).
2) See if you can get a sense of the quality of it. For example, is tight, gripping, or clenchy, or is it more subtle or vague, like a sense of pressure?
3) Now see if you can notice someplace in your body where it isn't. Scan your body and see where you notice a lack of tension or a neutral feeling. Sometimes we think that tension is everywhere, particularly if we're in a heightened state. But see if it's actually in your big toe, for example.
4) Now rest your awareness on where the tension is, for maybe 8-10 seconds, get a feel for it, and then rest your attention on where it isn't for about 8-10 seconds. (Make sure you're taking adequate time and attention to get a sense of what "where it isn't" feels like. It's tempting to want to rush through this part). Go back and forth between where it is and where it isn't, for 8-10 seconds each, and simply notice what that's like - what happens inside as you do so. It also helps if you can feel your feet and breathe while you're doing this:).
The Sedona Method calls this process Holistic Releasing. Peter Levine creator of Somatic Experiencing calls this pendulation.
This process usually works to balance out the stressful feelings. It can be used in extreme states of emotional arousal or when you're washing dishes or even while driving. (You might find that you'll be less tired when you get where you're going).
If you'd like some help with it, please let me know.
Feeling tired, like I want to take a nap, or feeling a tight pinch at the base of my skull, or a heaviness in my chest, are often symptoms - not of an illness or disease, but of a resistance to the truth.
I like to think of myself as pretty self-aware - more in touch with what's going on with me emotionally than most people and more willing to acknowledge it. But this morning after my regular chores, I wanted to go back in the house and take a nap. Although it seemed strange since it was still early in the day and I'd had a good night's sleep, I decided it was a residual tired from last week's stomach bug.
But first I had to let my horse Brown back out into her pasture. As she followed me to the gate and I turned to speak to her, I burst into tears and heard myself say, let myself say, "Brown, I'm gonna miss you so much."
Brown has bladder cancer and while I've known this for awhile and have felt waves of grief ever since her diagnosis, the feelings surprised me this time. I didn't know they were there and didn't feel them coming.
So I took the time to let myself cry - a deep from my heart kind of sobbing - and felt into the quality and tone of my grief as it rumbled from and out through my chest. And after some time of staying with and tracking the sensations I began to feel an opening in my face and chest. It was as if I'd opened a window inside myself, releasing a light, soft, love-feeling that spilled out of me and into the space around me. I felt light and buoyant as I walked back to the house, realizing with surprise, that I no longer needed a nap. It was then that I realized that the unconscious internal bracing and the protective closure around my heart, were the source of my tiredness.
Despite having experienced this, maybe hundreds of times, (with myself and my clients), I'm often still surprised at how much stuff can be happening at the level of the bodily felt sense and my Shelly-brain not know. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Gay Hendricks. He says, "Tension is the energy it takes to keep the truth out of awareness."
And I'm reminded too, that while the unconscious bracing around my heart thinks it's protecting me, it's actually the bracing itself that hurts.
As for me and Brown, we're in a process. But she continues to remind me to be present - not just with her, but mostly with myself and to the truth of my inner experience. So if my heart is breaking, it's best to just let it break and let it break open, because only an open heart can know love and lightness and freedom.
Notice that I said "work with it," not "How to kick its ass and kill it." And by the way, this process can be used with any type of craving.
If you’re willing to try this in the midst of a craving, (if not you can try to remember the last time you had one), here’s how:
Warning: If you approach this experiment with an attitude or "energy" of trying to fix your food craving, your efforts will probably backfire and you'll end up feeling frustrated. The resistance to “what is” is what keeps “what is” stuck.
Assuming that you weren’t directly involved in the accident and traumatized yourself, here’s how to offer comfort that might prevent someone from developing long-term residual trauma.
Please let me know if you have any questions or would like more information.
If you are not yet working with the felt sense and at the level of the body, please consider doing so. I stumbled onto to this way of working 25 years ago, born completely out of personal necessity and personal trauma, and I haven’t looked back.
Early in my training as a therapist in 1992, I started having bizarre pain and overwhelming emotions that seemed to come out of nowhere. It seemed that something was getting triggered in me, but I had no memory of any trauma in my childhood and nothing that I could attribute this to. It soon became clear that no amount of talk-therapy was going to help me get to the bottom of what was going on. Fortunately, the therapist I was working with at the time, was familiar with repressed memories and the mind-body-spirit connection. She eventually referred me to what were then considered fringe modalities – like Holotropic Breathwork and Hakomi.
I took to this kind of work like a fish to water and over time I became increasingly comfortable with allowing my body sensations and their accompanying primal feelings to surface - making a space for them in my body, staying with them and tracking them, adding my breath and sometimes movement, until they released.
One day, triggered by a phone conversation with my ex-husband, I knew I was ready to “remember” what happened to me and allowed my body to essentially re-enact a very early childhood trauma. While I had no visual memory of the trauma, and still don’t, I nevertheless let my body move through it to completion. (I was essentially doing Somatic Experiencing long before anybody knew what SE was)!
At that point I was hooked. I knew that I would dedicate my life to pursuing body-centered approaches that would help me clear out whatever was inside of me that was holding me back and help others do the same. (See video Trauma and the Body: Shelly's Story).
Feeling marginalized by and frustrated with the lack of recognition and support our profession was giving to this kind of work, I entered a life coach training program in 2005, hoping to feel freer without the heavy cloak of the medical model, which is, let’s face it, always lagging behind. (When I got EMDR training in 2004, it was considered “fringe” and as far as I knew, agencies scoffed at it and insurance companies would not pay for it).
Since then, I have been working quietly, doing my thing, letting myself be misunderstood as some kind of new-age witch doctor, when along comes Bessel Van Der Kolk with his research (which I’m a little late hearing about because frankly, research bores me and whatever news I get from the professional literature about this topic rarely seems like news to me).
But lo and behold it turns out, according to Bessel and some of my younger colleagues, I am doing evidence-based, trauma-informed counseling and coaching and have been doing so for the last 20-plus years. Who knew? Well, I didn’t. But thanks to Bessel, I feel vindicated and validated, knowing that despite the lack of recognition and support, I am on the right track and have been. (It’s a shame we need research to know what we know, but that’s another blog post entirely).
If you want to learn more about the felt sense, how emotional content is stored in the body, and how to access and release it, you don’t have to travel far and you don’t have to pay a fortune. Give me a call. Or better yet, come to the farm for a visit. The horses and I have lots to say on the topic.
Love to you all,
"Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score.
Perhaps like many of you, I sometimes find myself overeating – especially at night. I know I’m not really hungry – not physically hungry anyway. And, yes, I have the tools to release and work with the feelings that are driving my craving for just one more cookie. (I tell myself it’s OK because they’re sugar and gluten-free). But, I don’t want to use my tools. I want to eat my cookies!
But this morning I awoke with sense of longing – a longing for comfort – which didn’t really surprise me since I’d already figured that I was trying to comfort myself with food. But it wasn’t until this morning that I tapped into the feeling of longing and took the time to get a clearer sense, a clearer felt sense, of its tone and texture, and how it was vibrating in my body. It became clear that my longing for comfort was more specific than a longing for comfort. It was a longing to be comforted by another human being. While the two might sound very similar, at the level of the felt sense, they are very different. The former is conceptual, but the latter is palpable and requires me to feel and access something deeper and more vulnerable inside myself.
As I continued to track my body sensations and the feeling that came with them, I had a feeling-image of a kind woman sitting next to me on the ground, touching my hand, and speaking softly, after a car accident I had 15 years ago. It felt so good to let in her kindness, her touch, and the comfort of another human being’s ability to just let me be – where I was and how I felt.
In reality, after that accident, I was all alone and in shock. I went to lie down on the ground so I could get grounded and breathe and let my body shake, when an EMS person asked me to get up. She said I was traumatizing the other drivers who were being routed around the accident site! In my state of shock and victimhood I complied.
Perhaps this unmet need for comfort following the traumatic event had gotten stuck in my bodymind - maybe exacerbated by being unable to complete the discharge of energy following the accident. Or perhaps I was “remembering” other times that I didn’t receive the comfort that I needed, but it’s not really important.
Working at the level of the body has shown me over and over again that the story doesn’t matter. The whys are irrelevant. Simply allowing myself to be with the felt sense of longing, allowed an image to come, and allowed for a compassionate space for the feeling to dissolve. I’ll keep you posted on my cookie habit, but until then I think my boy Bessel Van Der Kolk says it best,
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score.
Related article: What Are You Hungry For: A Therapist's Encounter With A Food Craving
Most of you who know me pretty well, know that I tend to stay off Facebook, avoid the news - on television, radio, or any such device - and generally stick to myself.
I'm just too sensitive and don't always have time or want to take the time or want to be bothered or inconvenienced, by the feelings that get triggered in me when I'm exposed to the news. I've got plenty of feelings to deal with, just living my life and tending to what's mine to tend to. I don't see the point in adding extra drama to the mix.
While most of the time, this approach feels like good self-care, I sometimes wonder if I'm missing out on (or avoiding) some pretty rich healing opportunities.
Like today when I was looking at my Weather Channel App. (It's actually one that I monitor closely, and sometimes get hooked by the news stories there).
There was a video of a dog, hiding in the ashy remains of a burned out house in Greece. "Ninety-one dead," they said and not sure who the dog belonged to and whether or not his owners were alive, and a young girl speaking in soft sweet tones, cajoling the dog to come out. She might have been speaking Greek, but my heart understood every word she said, and I sat down at the kitchen table, with my head in my hands, and cried - cried for the people in Greece, cried for the people in California, and cried because there are fires and floods and devastation and loss.
And yet somehow strangely, I felt myself soothed, as I opened my heart, acknowledged my humanness, and joined the dance.
This article was written by Candace Pert, PhD, neuroscientist, pharmacologist, and discoverer of the opiate receptor in the brain. It is taken from a talk she gave in 2003 and was copied below directly from her website: www.CandacePert.com.
For me, it explains why so much of our time, energy, and effort goes into moving toward those things which make us feel good, or at least offer the promise of making us feel good, and try to avoid or distance ourselves from things that make us feel bad. I think deep down - way deep down - we know we're meant to feel good.
It's just that somewhere along the way, we got confused about where our good feelings come from. We started thinking that something, someone, or some condition outside of us held the key.
"Is it possible that we are all biologically programmed for happiness? I believe so. In fact, my research over the last 30 years has led me to this conclusion: we’re actually “hardwired” for bliss—both physical and divine. By hardwired I mean that we have major endorphin pathways that lead from the back of the brain to the frontal cortex, where we have the most opiate receptors—the cellular binding sites for endorphins.
Endorphins are naturally occurring opiates that dull pain and produce euphoria when they bind with opiate receptors. Thus they literally alter our mood on the cellular level. It sounds amazing, but my work has shown me that we are physically hardwired to pay attention to, and plan for, pleasure. That’s just how we’re designed. The pathways of many neurosubstances throughout the body have been mapped by other researchers, but none of those maps explicitly convey that the human brain has evolved to appreciate, pay attention to, and be guided by pleasure.
It’s unnatural for people to live without pleasure. I believe that at other times and places in history people probably experienced much more pleasure than we do in our modern era. The root of the problem today may be that we’re always looking for the bliss that’s going to come “When I…”, “When I graduate,” “When I finish this,” “When I do that.”
Another obstacle to experiencing pleasure today may be the thought that we are separate from each other and from the rest of creation. We really all are one. When you start to get this, maybe even only on a subconscious level, I think you will start to experience more bliss."
Heaven On Earth Farm
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P.O. Box 1233
Pickens, SC 29671