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