PREFER TO LISTEN INSTEAD? CLICK HERE (Audio recording 9 mins)
From the moment we awake each day to the last sip of conscious air we consume before drifting into sleep at night, our bodies are in constant communication with us. In addition to reminding us to meet our basic needs, such as eating, exercise and rest, our bodies play a major role in storing our memories and experiences to help us manage our daily lives, push our physical boundaries, and survive danger.
When we experience overwhelming or traumatic events that trigger conscious or unconscious memories of times that we were unable to protect or defend ourselves, our bodies will often use these emotions, memories and self protective responses as a protective shield. Put another way, our fight, flight or freeze state can become stuck in the “on position.”
“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 playing out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score”
Let’s take a moment to consider the elaborate and powerful forces at play inside our bodies–specifically, our nervous system.
The five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing are managed by exteroception. This sensory process organizes our sensitivity to stimuli outside the body that informs how we perceive our environment- the room, the temperature, the people in it. Examples include excessive heat or cold, a crowded elevator, a sparsely populated city park or sidewalk, or the presence of an angry/violent person or event.
Biological functions such as digestion, breath regulation, etc, are felt through a sensory process called interoception. This is our felt experience of the internal workings of the body.
Physical movement is consciously felt through kinesthesia and unconsciously experienced through proprioception, which is sometimes described as our “sixth sense.” Together, this sensory pair lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body, which governs balance, movement and grounding.
Danger, pain and caution are experienced through nociception. This is the sensory nerve cell input responding to potentially hazardous stimuli that informs how we perceive pain, tissue damage, potential threats, etc.
By naming these functions I aim to underscore that our bodies are naturally designed to help us fully experience life’s abundant tapestry of felt sensations, both internal and external, while also protecting us from danger and harm. When our bodies cycle into a perpetual state of fight, flight or freeze in response to trauma, the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming curious about our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.
With a little intention and consistent practice we can move into a balanced and trusting relationship with the greater wisdom of our bodies and start to uncouple some of the automatic self protective responses we use that are keeping us stuck in a past event.
It’s useful for us to become attentive to the unique way our bodies communicate to each of us. I invite you to develop a practice that allows the various parts of your body to have a voice. While meditating or practicing one of your favorite movement routines, such as yoga or Qi Gong, I invite you to take time to notice the sensations that arise:
- Does the sensation have textures, shape, size, color, direction of movement?
- Do you respond to the sensation as danger in me (DIM) or safety in me (SIM)?
- When you tune into this sensation do you notice any emotion that comes into the foreground for you?
- In what part of your body do you most notice the sensation and/or prevailing emotion?
- If the sensation or the emotion could speak, what statements would it make, or what questions would it ask?
- When you tune into this message and overall sensation, how old do you feel?
- What were your basic needs, fears and hopes during this time frame in your life?
Remember, there are no wrong answers to these questions. I encourage you to keep a notebook or journal nearby to collect your responses and experience. When feelings of shame, regret or anger come up, take a moment to repeat the process of locating the feeling in your body, listening for a statement or question, and jotting down the feedback without holding on to judgment. At this point, you might consider reconnecting with a compassionate witness, such as a close friend, trusted advisor, or practitioner versed in somatic experiencing in order to process and integrate your body’s language and communications.
Engaging in practices that provide rhythmic movements helps to balance and regulate our body’s nervous system. Examples include walking, dancing, drumming, riding a bike, singing etc. There are also a variety of effective ways we can learn to listen and engage with our bodies to further support the integration of trauma. Below you can find a list of resources that can help you explore how your body may be communicating with you. I invite you to share your favorite practices in the comment section on my website.
If you’re interested in further exploring how your body may be communicating to you and/or holding past experiences, here are a few modalities that can be very helpful:
- Support from a Somatic Experiencing (SE) Pactitioner
- Tension, Stress, Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Rolfing Bodywork
- Qi Gong or Yoga
- Dance therapy
- Play or theater therapy