The Spirit in Mind-Body-Spirt Trauma Healing
I admit it: I get tired sometimes of seeing articles on how science has validated the value of yoga, mindfulness, meditation or an alternative medical or therapeutic treatment. While I am thrilled that such research has introduced these modalities to more people, particularly trauma survivors, I worry that the rush to define these as measurable and knowable through science threatens to diminish their connection to that which is immeasurable and beyond knowing – spirit. Many of these modalities are rooted in ancient spiritual traditions, and holistic healing is about addressing the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. Within the trauma healing community, I sometimes worry that spirit is getting lost.
There are many reasons for this. Our society is secularizing in general, and for those who do consider themselves spiritual, an increasing number are not aligned with a formal tradition. Organized religion has become politicized, and political rhetoric heated, so some healers and therapists wish to steer clear of the topic with clients. Amongst those who work with sexual trauma survivors, the sexual abuse scandals that have surfaced within virtually every organized religion in the last decade has added to this discomfort. On the other hand, the quick fix spiritual consumerism that often accompanies mind-body-spirit marketing – i.e. ‘our groundbreaking crystal water vapor dispenser based on our patented lightwave technology will clear all your chakras of trauma for only $99.99’ – comes with its own set of problems.
As an energy worker, I don’t actually consider myself a spiritual healer per se, but many others do. I believe that our energy, or subtle, body forms an interface between our mind, physical body and spirit that may well be measurable through mainstream science someday, but isn’t yet (and there are some in the energy medicine field who would disagree with me on that, and say research has already proven its validity.) I consider this work technical, part of an energetic technology within us anyone can learn to utilize, and not particularly ‘owned’ by any spiritual tradition – but this puts me decidedly out there on the woo-hoo and new age spectrum. I am also certified in mindfulness and other more mainstream approaches, and I can see how much more comfortable that makes some people when I introduce myself. I meet each client where they are at, utilizing the tools they most resonate with.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I believe there is a piece of what I do that is wholly beyond rational comprehension. I have witnessed transformations and healings that are truly of the spirit, inexplicable any other way. And there are many, many trauma survivors who seek spiritual, energetic, or intuitive healing. When I go to energy healer or intuitive healer gatherings, trauma healing is always a primary topic. There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of energy workers/healers, intuitives and spiritual coaches working with trauma survivors every day. My own clients, which I think are quite typical, have communicated several reasons for this:
Many are combining modalities – for example talk therapy with energy work, or somatic body work with intuitive healing – because they feel this best addresses them as a whole person.
Some have done a lot of talk therapy already and though they feel they gained much understanding of their trauma, they are looking for more tools, more ways to work on a deeper level, and/or on an explicitly spiritual level.
Some feel they are intuitive, empathic, and/or energetically sensitive themselves, and so seek a modality that embraces these.
Some have had bad experiences with mainstream medicine and/or therapy, coming away feeling invalidated for their spiritual or intuitive beliefs and experiences.
Unfortunately these last two groups often overlap, and this makes me particularly sad (or angry, depending on the day!) because of course there is nothing worse we can do than make a trauma survivor feel invalidated. For sexual trauma survivors this is particularly tender, as they very likely have already received invalidating messages regarding their abuse or assault, whether from the perpetrator, friends and family, law enforcement, or society.
So why does this invalidation occur? I think a therapist friend of mine pinpointed one of the biggest reasons in a conversation we recently had about the discomfort she sometimes feels when clients reference spiritual or intuitive experiences or practices: That they can all too often fuel patterns of disembodiment, or even disassociation. A mind-body duality is posited in much spirituality, equating spiritual realization or connection with transcending the body. A popular term in new age spirituality nowadays – ‘ascension’ – seems to imply this kind of transcendence (ascending to where? From what?) While theologically we can argue about whether or not any of these traditions are really teaching a denial of the body (I would argue many contain teachings on spiritual embodiment as well), there is no doubt they are often interpreted this way.
For trauma survivors who disassociate, this can be problematic. Meditation, prayer, visualization, energy practices, and intuitive experiences can in fact become another form of disassociating from the body. For sexual trauma survivors this can be even more problematic, as they may harbor feelings of shame or hatred towards their bodies, making the idea of transcending physicality even more appealing. In addition, sometimes narratives can arise from such practices and experiences that fuel victim-blaming. Popular modern spiritual themes such as ‘everything happens for a reason’, ‘we get the experiences we need to learn’, or ‘the universe/God/Goddess/etc. has a plan for me’ can be interpreted by victims to mean that they brought on their own abuse or assault, or are somehow at fault for it. I admit to myself being uncomfortable when a client tells me ‘my angels/guides told me the assault is what I needed to grow’; ‘I saw in a past-life vision that I abused my uncle in a past life so this was my karma for him to do it to me back and now we can both move on’; or ‘I can see I needed this to happen in order to heal others’ (I have heard all these things.)
Yet if these are part of someone’s spiritual belief system, to refute them is indeed invalidating, and serves no constructive purpose. It may be helpful to share concerns regarding internalizing self-blame in a caring way that does not invalidate, such as ‘Ok, thank you for sharing that. I don’t know whether or not it is true, but I respect your beliefs. What I’d like to explore is whether you are holding any self-blame or unworthiness in your body that isn’t serving you?’ Developing bodily awareness is one of the cornerstones of working with trauma survivors in almost any modality (and yes, this is validated by science) and any modality can incorporate it. I know intuitives who ask their clients to focus in on where they are feeling a particular intuition in their body, or what they feel in their bodies when experiencing a vision, as a starting point for bridging the metaphysical and physical. As someone who uses the chakras (energy centers) as a foundation for much of my own client work, I emphasize lower chakra work more than upper for some time. I find that some survivors who have difficulty working with their lower body through other modalities are able to hold visuals of colored light or symbols in their lower chakras, and this can become a gentle way of transitioning them to a more embodied state.
In fact, within my own clientele I find that a high number of childhood abuse survivors have exceptionally well-developed intuitive abilities and/or consider themselves highly empathic. When I have spoken with other energy healers and intuitives about this, they have always said the same. While this is of course based solely on anecdotal evidence I believe the hyper-vigilance often developed in childhood in an attempt to stay safe in an abusive home fine tunes these individual’s intuitive and empathic functions. They developed the ability to sense the moods of those around them at a very young age. In some cases this has become a problem for them in adulthood, as they struggle to separate their own emotions from those of others, and to draw firm boundaries. Invalidating their experience of this is not helpful, but helping them stay in their bodies and assert firmer boundaries on every level, is. Empathic trauma survivors often find that when they are able to do this they can own these intuitive and empathic tendencies as a gift, rather than a liability, for the first time.
There is another important role that spiritual beliefs and narratives can provide in a survivor’s healing journey, and that’s a sense safety and belonging. Whether it is from a spiritual community, a spiritual guide, or metaphysical experiences, if it provides a survivor with safety and belonging, it is perhaps the most valuable tool they have. Learning to draw upon these feelings, noticing how it feels to relax in a way they may never have known before, drawing attention to how this impacts their body and the way they are in their body when they feel held in a spiritual sense, can assure spirituality becomes a pathway to deeper embodiment, rather than disassociation.
So these then, are perhaps the basic principles for incorporating spirituality and metaphysical experience into trauma treatment of any type:
Validate, or at least suspend disbelief and invalidation, of any experience or belief shared.
Find ways to bridge spiritual or metaphysical experience with bodily awareness, by asking individuals’ what they feel and where, when they are experiencing them.
Work with, rather than ignoring or denying, individuals’ sense of intuitive and empathic tendencies, helping them develop boundaries and transform these into gifts.
Draw upon any experiences that provide them a sense of safety and belonging to help them accustom to these feelings, particularly as felt in the body.
Without invalidating anything you are told, gently guide individuals’ into exploring any feelings of unworthiness or self-blame that may be fueled by spiritual narratives, and work with those emotions directly, without refuting the narrative.
Of course there are many therapists and medical practitioners who are deeply affirming of spirituality and metaphysical experience, even while embracing scientific studies on the impact of trauma on the body. But for those still working out the role these might play, the above guidelines offer a good start. The exchange of information amongst all of us working with trauma survivors can only increase the number of individuals able to receive the help they need, and find the modalities that best serve them. Let’s keep the spirit in mind-body-spirit trauma healing!
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