Tapping the Power of the Mind in Trauma Healing
Tapping the Power of the Mind in Trauma Healing
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” ~Pema Chödrön
Since surviving sexual violence, my body has long been my anchor. Even with the unpredictable volatility of its tremendous feeling and sensation – it is the only place I call home. I can orient myself within the moment by simply following its natural rhythms and fill myself up with the flow of adrenaline, endorphin and ecstasy. Yet, sometimes I wonder why I have chosen to rely so heavily on my body as a resource for grounding when it also holds such intensity – spontaneous flooding of hormones, racing of the heart and prickling of the skin. Why would I risk balancing my life on this delicate edge of pain and pleasure not knowing when it will evolve towards or devolve away from center? Why now this new desire to investigate my mind, when modern trauma research urges the exploration of modalities that focus on befriending the body through physical movement? Is my recent curiosity to search my mind as a resource for equanimity an unconscious attempt to avoid all that still stirs beneath my skin? Is the trajectory of my healing running counter to the societal current? Or, am I re-learning again, to drop what I have been told about the path of healing and instead, endeavor to trust what makes sense from within?
I’ve relied upon my body to stabilize myself when moods and situations became unsettling. I can use my body like an instrument to assist in slowing down speedy, dark and downward moving thoughts. Many survivors are directed to psychological support after rape and it might be years, or even decades, before they desire an intentional body-based healing method. It may come as a revelation when they first recognize the underutilized power that is available within their own shape. For many valid reasons, based on personality, physiology, ability or otherwise, some survivors will organize an effective and meaningful healing practice without necessarily invoking their physical body. The ratio of “ingredients” we add to the recovery mix will necessarily be different for each of us.
The day I was raped I made a last minute choice to lace up my running shoes instead of stepping onto my already unrolled yoga mat – so connecting with myself through body and breath was already embedded within my self-care practice. Working with the body would be my starting point in healing, the doorway leading inside. When I finally thawed the first layer of shock after the rape, I needed to move again and re-learn how to feel into and animate my body if I was going to reach the other side of this wide river of grief. With that as my intention, my body has been an amazing outlet to diffuse the build up of tension – physical, mental and energetic. This capability to move freely was a privilege I was born with and whose preciousness is gold to me. My gratitude for my body and its ability to run, stretch and breathe with a certain level of ease is something I once took for granted – now I humbly recognize my tremendous fortune in having this resource.
I value the wisdom of the body, however the body’s wisdom is not simply based upon, nor is it tied to, its capabilities or limitations. Rather, the wisdom comes to us via internal sensations, however subtle – which the body offers to all of us while existing in our human shape. If we are interested in sensitizing ourselves to the unique language of our body, it will be a resource that is inclusive of a range of different abilities. The body as a resource is not limited to the body’s capacities around movement – these resources are found in the breath, pulsation, temperature, tingling, muscular noticing, and myriad other ways we experience ourselves. While the body has been an essential tool in my healing, I have a rising sense that to a degree, I can artfully escape through my body. This emphasis on the physical means that I may avoid fully facing the disturbances in my brain. When illness or busyness prevents me from having time for my movement-based self-care practice, my mind becomes startlingly activated around my trauma history. What surfaces in my stillness can alarm me. Not having the physical outlet for what is an impulse to create physiological relief, however temporary, reflects an uncomfortable, yet important reminder that the residue of rape still holds court somewhere within the recesses of my brain and my nervous system. There is still so much content left for my system to metabolize. There is still, in fact, so much left for me to say.
I realize that my practice of physically provoking the release of energy, tension, strain, negativity and emotion has been and continues to be invaluable for my healing. This “technique” of self-regulation feels safe, productive and re-vitalizing. It helps me feel more “here”. Integrated healing after sexual violence required that I invite my body and its tremendous, sensory capacity along for the trauma processing ride. When my overwhelmed brain blurred my ability to envision myself existing without this pain – my body continued to steer the way ahead. Yet, I no longer distinguish the work with my body from that of the work with my mind, nor in fact, do I separate this from the work with my soul. Increasingly, I sense that the target at which I must aim the arrow of my healing intention, lives both within and beyond my body. My challenge is to build more skills in utilizing my brain and the power of this magnificent, cosmic computer to slow myself, to soothe myself, to understand myself, and to accept the chaotic beauty that still exists within me, instead of resisting, managing or simply over-riding my physiological experience through movement.
Fortunately, the non-linear patterns of healing allow us to lean in different directions at different times. In the aftermath of trauma, I plunged into my physical body, I mourned all that it experienced and in time, learned to feel awe for all that it withstood. The roots of this connection run deep. My body helped me to savor the highs of resiliency and it whispered condolences into the core of my heart during the nights I slept curled up on a bathroom floor. The interconnection has been re-set, the innate rhythm returned. Through the physical realm, I have gained fluency in my body’s specific trauma and healing language. The metaphors and synonyms for grief, anger, hopelessness and loss are ubiquitous, while simultaneously, the evolving meanings of compassion, vulnerability and resilience have literally shaped my recovery.
I shift now to the mind and I am coming back to the reservoir of where this all began. My mind was a powerful resource that I couldn’t fully access in the throes of crisis. I couldn’t see this until a transcendent EMDR session 8 years after my rape in which I purposefully re-visited my memories. Here, and specific to my story, I was able to witness the silent support of the Universe conspiring for my survival. Counter to my narrative, I was so not alone in the forest the morning I was raped. In fact, I was surrounded by angels and animals who encircled me with the necessary strength to know innately exactly what I needed to do – with my words, with my breath, and yes, even with the freezing of my body – to come out of the woods alive. This was just a tiny glimpse into the abundance that the brain can retain, reveal to us and bring to us – in time – as a resource.
When I initially gave my psyche freedom to wander, it always gravitated to images that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It was like driving by an accident and your gut urges you to look away, but your mind and its fascination with that which it fears, tilts your gaze towards an image that will undoubtedly disturb you. You see the destruction, you offer silent hope for those beneath the shattered scene, and you sigh with a mixture of relief and guilt that it wasn’t you. Except with the memory of sexual violence, it actually was you and the sigh of relief turns into a gasp of disbelief – your nightmare came true. You can’t go back to sleep to dream a new dream. While on one level you might desperately long to fully recall the details of your own breaking, you instinctually seek distractions to bring your mind back to the task at hand, which, metaphorically speaking, is to focus on moving forward, staying alert, and following the road ahead. If you let your gaze wander too long in the wreckage of your rear view mirror, you might crash.
I am just realizing the limitless potential of returning to the work with the mind, returning to language, story-telling and the identity formation that comes from describing your vision and your trauma, exactly as you feel it – until, of course, that changes and you choose new words. While privileging tissue and breath, I have forgotten the brain and its proficiency in supporting the whole being practice of healing and recovery. It is the source from where I have the opportunity to de-program negative beliefs, patterns of shame and to carve out new ways of experiencing myself and the world. It has helped me develop a narrative that only the cells of my eccentric brain could tell. What happens in our bodies also happens in our minds – so why not emphasize the value of incorporating all of these amazing and interconnected systems of our being? I yearn to share with adjectives and verbs, poetry and prose, the magnificent depths of what my body can feel– however joyous or devastating – its capacity to communicate is a daily miracle whose praises I long to sing.
What excites me about contemporary psycho-therapeutic trends is the recognition that we bring our minds and our bodies into the space. “Talk therapy” has never been simply about the mind, since we cannot separate it out from the rest of our organismic experience. We may have ignored or misunderstood what was always present in the room by stifling our body sensation, quieting tingling, quelling our tears, exerting and efforting to control the energy rising and falling – but the body has always been there. Perhaps, we were never given permission from our therapist to invite, explore and then articulate those embodied aspects of our experience. It is also possible that for a period of time and for very good reasons, body sensation and internal tracking created such a lack of safety it was counter to the healing and stability we were seeking. In that case, focusing on thoughts, beliefs and perceptions in the mind may have been the ideal method of pursuing healing. Yet, for me, the integration that becomes possible by tethering sensation with thought, and body with mind, remains unparalleled.
In my specific experience, there has yet to be a more challenging space to work with my trauma than when I am sitting in the presence of my therapist, speaking about the trauma and its impacts, and allowing the sensory residue to emerge. The vulnerability required within the context of two people sharing the most intimate details with each other feels risky and liberating. I find that amidst verbal processing, there can in fact be quite a bit of space between words. That space might be filled with a few minutes of holding my head in my the palms of my hands – still learning to openly shed a decade of tears, or it might be the uncontrollable chattering of my teeth when I move closer to the truth. Sometime, I might need to lay on the floor and simply stretch, bend and breathe for a while. After all of this, I might have something to say.
This is a whole being experience. Something is stirred within, which then causes feeling, sensation or imagery to move towards my mind, and from there – an insight is born. It is an organic way of working through trauma. As well, the dynamic created with my therapist can be a mirror for the container I seek in any intimate relationship. It is here I have discerned what qualities allow me to be safe enough to feel and to trust enough to share my emotions without inhibitions. No filter is required – just the honesty of being deeply wounded and the courage to remain receptive to what comes up and what will come next. The words we exchange, the communication that is slow and clear between us, provides sturdy bookends around the somatic expression of my experience. This unique work to verbally process trauma while also allowing its physiological impacts to emerge can be intimidating. However, it can also create a pivotal opportunity where we might recognize and transform socially imposed messages that force us to filter, alter or quell our experience, which may have been counterproductive to our healing. An invitation to share ourselves fully, after so much self-management for our own survival can indeed create panic:
Who would want to witness this ugliness? They won’t be able to tolerate the emotion that I have within, and why would they want to? What if I let this shaking unfold and I cannot stop? Contain, contain, contain! What if these tears, turn into heaves, and turn into gasps for air that have no end? I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe! Why does every challenge I face circle back to this old story? Will I ever outrun it? Clench, clench, clench. Can I expose my vulnerability and still receive unconditional support? Can I let go of control and instead, connect with and trust the person before me, and the sensation inside of me, when everything I’ve learned and all that I have felt has taught me not to? Can I take a risk here and try something totally new?
Clearly, this is edgy space! It requires working with a skillful and seasoned therapist who can hold a container for what may arise and who knows how to pace the opening of a lot of bound energy. While I embrace the explicitly non-verbal healing techniques of the many healing arts methods I have utilized throughout my journey – there is something indescribably transcendent about synthesizing the verbal processing, the beliefs and feedback loops in the brain, with the intense and deeply cleansing, somatic responses that surface when we talk about our trauma. The physiological rawness can feel like we are on the edge between two very high cliffs with our pain like a valley carved thousands of feet below. We are distanced from, yet magnetically drawn to the relief that awaits if we can cross to the other side of that valley. There is risk in taking this leap and there is also the promise of freedom in taking flight. It is here we can finally reveal details that have burdened us for years, causing a build up of shame inside. We are excavating, we are thawing, we are liquifying the bedrock of trauma. All the while, our therapist, our witness – remains solid, present and open for whatever we bring. They contain our process with care. The witness to the worst of our pain chooses to stay right there with us. We are not alone.
Working with a therapist whose approach includes a keen awareness that our body has the ability and wants to “speak” can allow unresolved trauma to ripple to the surface where we can express it – whether with words, organic movement, rage or tears. As well, a thoughtful practitioner will have the training, sensitivity and intuition to artfully pace this process so as not to exhaust or overload us. We don’t start distance running with a marathon, nor do we typically write a book in one day – we begin those journeys with an aim towards the 5K, or outlining the first chapter. It is the same with healing. We break it up into segments that we can digest and that we can endure. We stir things up, and then we take significant time to allow for a settling to occur. We build our capacity with practice and patience. Sometimes we begin by simply imagining ourselves crossing the finish line or what the cover of our book will look like when published.
Our intentions have power. What will it look like and feel like when we have accomplished what formerly felt impossible? While there is no final destination in healing, if we pay attention to the details of the moment and let them both guide and inform us, we can savor many great and small victories along the way.
Leaders in the somatic psychology world, such as Dr. Peter Levine (Somatic Experiencing) and Pat Ogden (Sensorimotor Psychotherapy) as well as institutions such as Naropa University offering a degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology or the California Institute of Integral Studies offering Somatic Psychology, all approach trauma healing with a holistic lens – incorporating the body, mind and spirit. They train thousands of inspired practitioners every year as our country becomes increasingly aware of just how many traumas we are all carrying in our shapes and psyches and how they embed within our physiology. Importantly, they are invested in guiding us towards the natural reparation of our wounds. Ultimately, if we can unite the physical, mental and subtle aspects of the self, we can return to – or perhaps experience for the first time – more fully inhabiting our own lives. This way of living and being is in direct contrast to the disembodied experience of trauma. Over time, we value the wisdom of the pain body, we track the patterns of disturbance in our mind, and we hear our spirit whispering through dreams. We realize that we have so many options, so many inner resources, and that our system is not only resilient – it is, at its core, unshakeable.
If healing after trauma is to be increasingly accessible and sustainable, we will need to draw on the power of the body and mind working in concert with each other. While our mind can be one of our greatest barriers to recovery, it can also serve as our greatest tool. After over a decade of immersing myself within the holistic healing arts, I feel fully embodied in my physical shape and can now shift to the practice of noticing the patterning of the mind that requires attention. I have stabilized the container of my body and can now explore its deeper contents.
As our physiology speaks through the body – often before a disclosure to the mind – the ability to self-regulate with the mind offers a critical coping tool. Syncing the mind with the breath and body allows us to manage emotion, to direct it, and to even shift sensation from the recesses of the brain. This potent link allows us to be a witness, a receptacle and a mirror for the vastness of the here and now. In this precious space, there is nowhere to go and there is nothing to escape. We have already defied the conscious and unconscious threat that is bound up within the act of sexual violence – our total annihilation – and our physiology no longer needs to run at the speed of survival. With care and the careful stewardship of our healers, what can emerge is a congruent, intentional, and somatic celebration of being alive.
I have a new belief nudging inside: my mind holds just as much capacity to heal, uplift, release stuck energy, and make me feel vibrantly alive as does my body. My curiosity is once again pulled towards the limitless scope of the brain – its memory, imagination, patterns, and its blissful, albeit occasional, capacity for stillness. I want to own the fullness of who I know I truly am, which encompasses much more than the surface level tension of a personality still grappling with trauma. I seek to know, “Who is beneath the trauma? Who lives and breathes beneath the surface of my skin? What parts of me still wants to come forward and make themselves known?”
In this next stage of healing, which will inevitably be followed by another, I once again desire a space to describe these evolving feelings and sensations in my body. I want to translate the felt sense of my body into a new and beautiful spoken language. By giving voice to the mystery inside, I can even more fully claim and own how my history continues to emerge and unfold. Importantly, by tapping the power of the mind in trauma healing, I learn how to witness, without judgment, the rise and fall of my grief throughout this non-linear odyssey. It is here that I recognize a powerful distinction, suggested to me by one of my mentors – I know grief intimately, yet I am not my grief. Grief instead becomes another empathic teacher and I am its humble student.
Building resilience, slow and steady, requires a regular practice of noticing how thoughts, beliefs and pattens of behavior continue to rise. I enhance my capacity to tolerate what is there when I am simply curious about what shows itself. Why is this coming up? When does the memory or the emotion emerge? What does it feel like now, and how has it changed or stayed the same? I can remind myself to not attach to the emotion of the moment while remembering and reinforcing my unchanging center. I can return to the seat of psychotherapeutic support to uncover what still lingers. Learning and re-learning to harmonize my brain and all that it contains within the flow of my own body and soul – expansion and contraction, shifting and centering – transforms the uncomfortable void previously carved out by fixed timelines and finite answers. This post-trauma realm is now a limitless, luminous space. That spaciousness is the original state of the mind – mine and yours – and it is available, still. It is available, now. The latitude it offers beckons me to stay on this rediscovered path of full organismic trauma processing – body, mind and soul – and when they join, it is something like a prayer. No small miracle, it is now the language of resilience that leads me, that invites me and that accompanies me further inside.
Tapping the Power of the Mind in Trauma Healing was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and specifically for survivors of sexual violence in Portland, Oregon. You can read about Molly’s work sharing the practice of yoga as a holistic approach to facilitating trauma resilience by visiting her practitioner page.