How wonderful it was to be a child and to pretend you were a princess with magical powers, a dragon that could breathe fire at a moment’s notice or Peter Pan with the ability to fly through the air. What a pleasure it can be to sink into a novel that completely takes you away to a fantasy world that doesn’t have dirty dishes in the sink or stacks of paperwork on your desk. For many however, the ability to step through Alice’s looking glass into an alternative reality is a way of survival.
When life becomes scary and dangerous and there is no obvious way to escape, the universal biological impulse is to shut down and dissociate. This is a natural and protective response. When you cannot physically run away, you find ways to mentally and emotionally take your leave. What does dissociation look like? From the inside it is a softening of all the edges, a fogging of the mirror and a separation of self from that which is harmful. From the outside it often comes across as a blank stare and an inability to connect in real time; it has an elusive quality. Those who have lived through trauma understand how in the face of real or perceived danger, all but survival is put aside. Dissociation is a means of saving self.
Surviving one trauma may also be considerably different than surviving multiple traumas. Consider the reality of many in our world who live in a soup of extreme stress every day of their lives. Some bear the marks of childhood trauma, some live in households colored by substance abuse or are victims of domestic violence and some are combat veterans. In these cases and more, the word dissociation takes on new meaning. The diagnosis of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one we hear frequently. Less well known is the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. In Complex PTSD (also called DESNOS or Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified) the trauma is longitudinal and relational. People with DESNOS demonstrate histories of prolonged and severe interpersonal abuse according to Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. This is most heinous when the trauma begins in childhood as the marks are deeper and longer lasting. For people who are diagnosed with Complex Trauma, dissociation becomes a way of life.
How do the practices of Ayurveda help people with Complex PTSD to heal?
- Do no further harm. Ayurveda embraces the teaching of Ahimsa or non-violence. Treat yourself with gentleness and empathy. Try not to judge past experiences or choices; judgment is a subtle form of violence. A dear friend of mine would tell me “The past is perfect”. She meant that the past cannot be changed, it simply is. Reviewing actions over and over will not bring events to a different ending.
- Start from where you are. In Ayurveda we speak about removing that which is harming a person as a first step to healing. For example if we know that coffee is exacerbating symptoms of acid reflux, we remove it from our diet. In the case of trauma we may not always be able to immediately remove the offending agent. If someone continues to live with their abuser and has not yet made clear plans to leave, there is still much that can be done. Ayurveda offers ways to strengthen a person’s constitution so that they can return to a place of wholeness and come to a decision in their own time. A small first step might be to consult with a practitioner to find out what your Prakriti or constitution is. Once you have this awareness you can adopt one lifestyle guideline that is in harmony with your deepest self. If you find out that you have a lot of fire in your constitution you may find that breathing into the center part of your body will help to release heat that builds up in your solar plexus. If you are told that you are Kaphic in nature you might want to counter the abundance of heavy earth and water qualities with a brisk walk. If your mind constantly chatters and you are aware that you have a lot of the air quality in your constitution, removing raw food from your diet will help to ground you. Each step that you take back to your true nature is a step to wholeness.
- Allow for your natural urges. In Ayurveda we are taught to listen to our body’s impulses. If we have to go to the bathroom, we should honor that urge. If we need to sneeze or cough or yawn we would do well to honor these as well. When people live with or through trauma, they are often so shut down that what comes natural to some is foreign to them. They have learned to be strong and to hold back tears. They have learned to internalize anger. If, on the other side of a traumatic moment you are able to literally and figuratively shake off the occurrence and allow your body to experience its physical reality (which can include tremors or involuntary muscular reaction and tears or hysterical laughter), you may walk away with fewer symptoms. If however you are unable to allow for this process, there can be life-altering consequences. In the words of Peter A. Levine, Phd, “when these discharges are inhibited or otherwise resisted and prevented from completion, our natural rebounding abilities get stuck.”
- Find ways to be present to the moment. When we dissociate we escape to a world that is anywhere but here and now. I often define Ayurveda as the science of noticing. Here a few places you might turn your attention to. When you rise in the morning, what is your energy like? When you eat hot spices, what is your experience? Do you like the cold weather or do hot temperatures most appeal to you? When you are dissociating you are intentionally moving away from noticing your bodily sensations. Perhaps you may want to spend a few minutes each day sitting in a comfortable way and noticing how you physically connect to the chair or the floor. What parts of your body have sensation and which do not? You can always choose to look at your foot if you cannot actually feel it. Maybe you choose to twist to one side or another and see how your breath changes. Perhaps you allow yourself to feel muscle tightness or relaxation. Learning to be present to your body and the world around you takes time and patience. Allow each new awareness to be a gift that you give yourself.
Trauma evokes in us a sense of fragmentation. Conversely, Ayurveda welcomes us to a world of connection and presence. Perhaps in time you might find the healing you seek in this timeless science. David Whyte is a poet that speaks directly to my heart. We have never met yet he understands what I would say if I could find the eloquence to do so. Here he extends us an invitation back to life.
“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.”