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.