Trauma dysregulates the body. It moves energy levels away from baseline to extremes of hyperarousal (“too much,” panic, overwhelm) and sometimes hypoarousal (“low,” lethargy, emptiness), not only alternating but sometimes getting stuck in either extreme.
When we experience overwhelm in the body, one natural response to this dysregulation (and accompanying confusion or relational struggles) is to just get away—perhaps through drinking, sex, anxiety medication, working out, or power-watching television series online.
For some, especially when trauma occurs early in life or when physical escape is not an option, dissociation (mentally drifting, wandering, “spacing out”) becomes the path to something that approximates peace or safety. Whatever route you take to numbness, it ultimately leads to separation from overwhelming sensory input coming through the body. Studies have shown that even when mental denial occurs, when we tell ourselves we are not upset, our body still shows all the standard symptoms of activation and overwhelm.
Big names in trauma, including Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk, advocate not for desensitization approaches that dull perception (repetitive reprocessing of trauma), but for practices that resensitize somatically to awareness of the present moment, the physical narrative, and an embodied experience of safety and control.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.
—Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
When we split from Self, we become our own enemy. We deem some core part of Self unacceptable or unsafe and expend huge amounts of energy in an effort to contain and subdue that part.
Sometimes the numbness soothes.
Sometimes it smothers.
Especially in trauma, we move to extremes.
Where we once sought freedom from overwhelming sensations, we eventually embody the separation: fully numb, divorced from life, split from Self, desperately seeking a way to feel real again, to feel connected to others and to life … to feel anything but the empty nothingness we sought and created.
The experience changes from one person to the next. For some, it may be less conscious or intentional. Maybe awareness of behaviors comes from the feedback of others as they accuse you of being irritable or irrational. Maybe they point out how analytical you’ve become, how rigid you’ve become in your rules and boundaries in some apparent quest to manufacture security.
Sometimes the extremes seem less extreme. Especially from a patterned “freeze” response or “learned helplessness,” the only noticing may be more of a familiar giving up, an acceptance of circumstance, buying in to the belief that this is all there is. From the perspective of onlookers—seeing your shoulders fall, your head drop slightly—it might look like a physical collapse.
Character development over the years, adapting around ongoing waves of trauma, commonly moves toward extremes of highly responsible or irresponsible behavior—rigid or chaotic. It might be a complex blend of both, creating artificial structure to protect and control, then engaging in high-risk behaviors to drown out or anesthetize the pain.
Sometimes there’s just the safety of the same old patterns.
Sometimes an anger rises against that monotony. That part contains screams out from inside of you.
Whether it feels safe or not, that unknown, incessant core part of Self keeps making itself known, keeps drawing your attention.
Coming back into your body often means a return to the original overwhelm.
Sometimes we can feel it coming. Other times, we are so split from our bodily senses that we don’t feel the pain until it’s too intense to ignore. It might feel like an instant move from “just fine” to overwhelm. What would it be like to drive a car with a speedometer that shows zero or 100 but nothing in between?
“Trauma changes the insula, the self-awareness systems. Traumatized people often become insensible to themselves. They find it difficult to sense pleasure and to feel engaged. These understandings force us to use methods to awaken the sensory modalities in the person.”
—Bessel van der Kolk
Sometimes the only way out is through … through the natural physical sequence of fight or flight—whatever motor pattern that represents in your body, whatever unfinished story it represents in your behavior. Sometimes this requires the help of a trauma therapist, including a therapeutic process of training and resourcing, developing a bond of trust and a mindful grounding in the present moment. The accessing of uncomfortable physical sensations (and state-dependent beliefs that come with the sensations) can become a healing experience rather than a confirmation of negative beliefs formed at a time when you felt incapable of meeting the occasion.
Some people find a grounding, resensitizing support in nature. Others find a necessary social/attachment support in structured groups. For some, it might be yoga or martial arts that return your body to a felt sense of control. Many therapists, particularly those trained in trauma or body-based experiential approaches, come equipped to help a person internalize (to gradually take in, to incorporate into his or her character) an experience and a knowing of safety and control with Self and with Other (the therapist). Whatever the method, for those who have separated from their bodily self, the move to incorporate bodily sensation into their awareness often proves to be a life-altering process.
To Manageable Pain
Sometimes it’s in the shower, cooking a meal, sitting in a garden, or “being” with a therapist. The nervous system drops to a calm hum, the physical containment ceases, and the memories process, unbidden, unstopped. And finally, in stillness, with internal safety and compassion, we observe, feel, accept, and integrate. Sometimes the body shakes—with or without tears. And after all the years of struggle, sometimes a gentle sadness lingers.
Once the overwhelm is past and underlying truths are part of present awareness, only grieving remains. Each new level of awareness brings with it a comparison between what was and what could have been—grieving for the time lost, missed opportunities in life, unmet wishes, past distractions from this centered place of living.
There may be decades of fighting the overwhelm of grieving, and then just the simple, natural, bodily directed process of grieving. No longer does one part of the body expend energy containing the “unwanted” energy of another part. No longer is it “too much” to bear. It just is. We are able to sit with the experience without reaction, without separation, with nonjudgmental presence. It might be less letting go and more letting be.
Emerging on the other side of pain, many people find new connections. Many find that the quality of external integration echoes the quality of internal integration, and once Self is internally acceptable, we begin attracting others who also accept and value those parts of Self that we truly value, that perhaps we preserved in hiding so many years.
“If you are divided from your body, you are also divided from the body of the world, which then appears to be other than you or separate from you, rather than the living continuum to which you belong.”
—Philip Shepherd, author of New Self, New World
- Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Viking.