Tag Archives: dissociation

Uncovering Our Stories: Steps Along a Trauma Journey

There was a time when I read nothing but novels, beautifully written fictional tales about people’s lives. I savored stepping into a different time, a far-away place. It was a lovely diversion, one I am sure I will return to at some point. Now however I am exploring story from a much different perspective. I am reading about how the narrative of some people’s lives, the reflection of days and events and relationships that make up their past, is fragmented, painful and often hidden from their consciousness. Trauma does this to a person. The more trauma that one has endured, the more patchwork their story becomes.

In the book “The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel van der Kolk writes “What one sees, the presenting problem, is often only the marker for the real problem, which lies buried in time, concealed by patient shame, secrecy and sometimes amnesia – and frequently clinician discomfort.” This sentence struck a deep chord within me. As an ayurvedic practitioner I am very aware that I am called on to help people reframe their illness or imbalance. A rash that suddenly appears, a restless sleep pattern, an inability to feel grounded are symptoms that provide a road map to what lies beneath. We can learn to soothe the rash with Neem oil, drink warm milk and spices to enhance sleep and practice walking meditation for grounding, yet these remedies are merely treating the result of something else that our bodies are bringing to awareness. How then do we find the root cause of our dis-ease? A larger question still is, can we begin to heal our bodies without consciously understanding all that we have lived through?

As a way of considering this, I offer you these thoughts by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, therapist and educator. She describes trauma and stress as forms of information overload. She further states that during these distressing moments, impulses are rejected by the brain and bounced back to other areas of the central nervous system where they are stored in both the autonomic and somatic tissues. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, waste removal and sexual arousal, all largely unconscious functions of our body. The ANS is also in charge of the fight-or-flight response. Why is this important to consider? Trauma by its very nature does not create a cohesive and available story that we can later access. Because it resides in our tissues and our nervous system, we often “remember” traumatic events through our senses. The smell of a certain perfume or a whiff of alcohol on someone’s breath can trigger a response. The sight of a child interacting with a parent or viewing a scene in a movie can bring a sense of panic to a survivor. Hearing a loud noise or a strain of music can instantaneously transport a person back decades to an unsafe time and place. Bodily sensations can be overwhelming reminders of how one felt during a traumatic event.

We all have stories that can help us to heal; some stories are verbal and have a cohesive narrative, others are more fragmented and are represented by how we sense the world around us. Surely exploring the latter takes bravery, patience and time to navigate. I offer some thoughts for your journey.

  • Recognize that it may not be possible to know all that you experienced in great detail.

Memories are not always accurate and surely not always available. It is thought that a memory remains perfect until it is first accessed. Each time we remember, our brains slightly change the detail and we end up with a diluted version of the actual event. Can you find a level of comfort in knowing that your healing is not dependent upon fully revisiting your past?

 

  • Find a way to express your story.

Allow what you do know to inform your present life. Do you keep a journal and might this be a way for you to explore your memories? Are you artistic and drawn to sing or play music, paint on a canvas or dance in your living room? Perhaps you might practice a body focused form of yoga. What appeals to you? What if you knew that you didn’t have to be good at this or get it right?

 

  • Work with an Ayurvedic Practitioner.

Perhaps the most important trait of an ayurvedic practitioner is their ability to listen and to help discern what your body is telling you. Your story is written on your cells and presents in all manner of ways. A term used in Ayurveda is Prajnaparadha which translates to crimes against wisdom. Simply put, we already know what heals and support us yet we often circumvent this wisdom and follow our senses down a different path. Learning to witness how you are affected by the food you eat, the activity you partake of, the environments you live in are all key to creating a life that will nurture health instead of undermine it.

 

  • Create a network of safe people and places.

Any time we choose to uncover that which is scary or uncomfortable, we can best support this journey by knowing how we can retreat when we have had enough and need rest. Before you begin to explore I might suggest that you have at least one friend, one family member, a clinician or a group that can act as your safety net. You might also think about a safe space where you feel able to rest without worry. This might be a spot in nature or it may be your soaking tub. It may also be a place in your mind that you can refer to when you feel ungrounded.

 

  • Read a novel.

Yes, knowing when to disconnect from our inner work is as important as feeling forward movement. I give you permission to read a light book, watch a rerun or sit idly by as your animals chase each other around the living room. It is invaluable to know that you have worth whether you are being productive or are lying on the couch catching your breath.

I have, over my lifetime, read many stories of people who have endured that which seems unimaginable. I read these autobiographical words because they give me hope that in releasing our stories into the universe, as imperfect as they are, we create space for new life and a more aware present journey. I wish you blessings as you walk your path.

Returning to the Present: Ayurveda’s Wisdom in the Face of Trauma & Dissociation

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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.”