post-Trigger Mind: on pain, safety and healing

I was not heartened by the reactions to my last post, Trigger Mind. You didn’t hear me, and I really wanted you to hear me. That blocked me a bit. Angered me too, and I lost motivation to post here.

I shared my experience with you. And that experience, the healing of trauma, is not simple, easy, controlled or clean. It involves pain.

Though I worked hard to be clear that it was not about my community or teachers, most of you insisted it be so, in comments here and on social media. I addressed that and will not take it further. I feel the need to be clear about what you missed, though, as there are implications.

Some of you ignored my message and steamrolled my right to heal and practice in terms that feel right and good to me. You offered unsolicited advice that you are not qualified to give. You did this, perhaps, because you are uncomfortable with pain. And who isn’t? Precious few.

Some friends understood. I’d asked a few to vet it before I posted, and had even read it to my shrink (ah yes, I do have qualified help), who responded to my, “Is this too edgy or is it okay to post?” with, “Yes, why not?”

When I shared with him the reaction from the interwebs, he asked, “Well, what did you expect?” in a tone that said “don’t be dumb. They are internet commenters. The peanut gallery.”

“What were your motives?” he continued. “Did you want pity? Did you want them to care about your pain? Well, you are right, they don’t.”

Good questions. Did I want pity? I don’t think so, not consciously. I’ve learned that if I want something unconsciously and refuse it, his mere suggestion makes me livid. This didn’t. No, I think I wanted to be understood.

Did I want the interwebs-at-large to care about my pain? Well, that’s a tall request. And while it wasn’t my motivation, I really didn’t want such strong evidence of how little you did.

Part of my motivation was to share my experience. To be understood. And yes, to make clear, to break a little bubble of fantasy that is rampant among yoga “helpers”—yoga is not some easy panacea.

Like most of you, I love yoga. I spend over 35hrs a week practicing and teaching yoga and meditation (I consider meditation to be implicit in yoga, but sometimes need to mention it). Yoga is an amazing practice, and frankly, I probably have more faith in it than I do anything else.

But it is not painless. It is not some easy cure-all that will, on its own, heal PTSD. Its growing position in the trauma industry is definitely worthy of critique. Specifically, the call to make all yoga classes “trauma-sensitive” (I’ve spoken to this earlier), and the assumption that teachers with a weekend of “trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training” (commonly led by people with no real qualifications themselves) who seek to “heal themselves by healing others,” are doing more good than harm.

Keep in mind that most studies done showing that yoga has a positive effect on PTSD involved highly trained professionals and, often, other forms of therapy.

The only thing, I believe, that truly helps heal trauma, is the capacity to face and feel your own pain, and the ability to face and hold the pain of others. This involves a lot more than “letting go” and is easier said than done.

Do you remember Annie, in the yoga chapter of van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (Chapter 16)? She was so triggered during her first trauma-sensitive yoga class at van der Kolk’s clinic that she went home and cut herself. Again, it was a trauma-sensitive class at van der Kolk’s trauma center. She went home and cut herself. Are you freaking out? Can you take that in?

What those of you who schooled me on the last post do not understand is that the body is not a safe place for a trauma survivor. We are largely split off from it, and our emotions. For us to do yoga, we must enter unsafe space—our bodies. In Trigger Mind, I stayed with my experience, my body, my emotions, and I shared it with you. And you didn’t quite listen.

When you chime in class, “You are safe here,” we cringe at your ignorance. There is nothing that betrays your cluelessness more quickly. We have spent 80% of our mental energy post-trauma (for many of us, most of our lives) in hyperarousal mode unconsciously trying to suss if we are safe. Some do-gooder cooing “you are safe here” does not magically deliver us from this deeply ingrained response. It makes us roll our eyes and pray we can get through your class, much less get something out of it.

When you try to cleanse and prevent every possible trigger in a class (which is impossible in so many ways), you miss the point entirely. Effective treatment “needs to involve (a) learning to tolerate feelings and sensations by increasing the capacity for interoception, (b) learning to modulate arousal, and (c) learning that after confrontation with physical helplessness it is essential to engage in taking effective action” (BESSEL A. VAN DER KOLK Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1071 Article first published online: 26 JUL 2006 | DOI: 10.1196/annals.1364.022). This is what I did in Trigger Mind. That is what it sounds like in real terms, experienced terms, outside of the clean, clinical, medicalese you feel safe with. That is what I wanted you to hear.

My engagement with effective action? I wrote the piece and some people got it. I talked to my shrink and decided, learned, it was better to move the moment I felt unsafe or near-triggered rather than try to be tough and stick it out. Shortly after Trigger Mind, Daddy Long Legs introduced himself (not knowing my experience) and we chatted breezily, which helped desensitize me to his limbs. While I’ve had near moments, I haven’t been triggered since that piece. Oh, and EMDR has helped, too. Not to mention the understanding and empathy of countless others.

My point here (I’ll be direct this time) is that healing trauma requires facing the unimaginable pain that could not be faced when trauma occurred. This experience is not safe, theoretical, or easy for anyone involved. There is no formula. No magic trick. Those advocating for trauma-safe yoga classes for all—fine. We have different opinions. I don’t see much, if any, value in yoga alliance, in the majority of yoga teacher trainings, and unfortunately, the majority of yoga classes out there, most of which seek to perfect the body, or power through endlessly impressive asana, or engage in magical rhetoric to numb and escape suffering. The chances of my being triggered in the average yoga class are about 85%. I would simply go on lockdown to avoid it, which is not healing in the least.

That you believe these classes can be made “safe” and trigger-free by a few hours of awareness training, that you think we can unlock, feel and process the horrors in our bodies in a room full of strangers while pop music blares, or that you think no teacher should be allowed to blare music in her yoga class, speaks to your own ideas about yoga, safety, and healing, and you’ve every right to them. But please don’t inflict them on my real-world experience and process as a survivor-practitioner. In my last year of practice, I was triggered three times (not much) at my studio, without telling my teachers or community about my experience or “condition” because that is how I want it. How I feel comfortable.

When advocacy for and teaching of trauma survivors is done with so little understanding of our actual experience, with so little willingness to take in and respect our individual, personal experience, I have to ask, who is this about? Who, here, is so desperate for safety? If you don’t have the ability to face another’s pain, to acknowledge and respect it, maybe even empathize for a second instead of stepping in to fix what isn’t yours to deem broken, please, god, do find another hobby.

First published Feb 23, 2015. (Dates changed sometimes to affect slider order on homepage.)

4 Responses to “post-Trigger Mind: on pain, safety and healing”

  1. malahat says:

    Hey. I was too busy to connect after my return. Feel happy to have a place to hear your wise and critical voice again. Love.

  2. Anastasia says:

    Thank you, M. Lovely to see you here. xo

  3. Kole says:

    Hey Anastasia, just finished reading these trigger posts. I freaking feel for you. I get it, it’s like a bomb is in your head and you are desperately trying to stop the detonator. Like Jack fumbling underwater for the right key to the gate in the hallway in Titanic. It’s pure survival savagery. The rage the instability the disintegrating perception of reality the flooding of your mind with illusions and voices of the past.

    That’s the thing I guide myself to wonder about when that happens to me. Why is the past repeating itself right now? Why am I under the illusion of attack? Why am I trying to save my life? Am I under attack? Of what? When was the first time I felt this feeling of attack? Who was there, who made me feel like this first?
    And then (when safe) go in…Head towards the eye of the storm. This isn’t easy to do especially for us dissociated individuals who aren’t sure if we’re in the storm or just on its periphery. But when we feel under attack, when we are triggered, it’s an opportunity to relive the very past that we have dissociated from. It is hell. But I say opportunity because as dissociated people, we need this visceral experience of attack and trigger to remember the original environment of attack. A mental concept of the past won’t do it for us. So what has become fragmented and forgotten to our being, can be accessed in the present. We can time travel. During a trigger, I remind myself that it’s not me against the outside world, it’s not me against that dickhead who threw the towel on my mat, it’s me against me. The fear and rage is because I choose a physical situation to represent and express my inner grief. It’s the illusion of me as I’ve created it with the architecture of the past, against me as I was born before shit happened. When I feel safe (if I need to leave I leave if I can’t I just let myself go on autopilot until I get home), I enter this grief and see who’s there making me feel this way, what I feel, and the age I am and let myself be that age right now. And then I either do EFT tapping and go on YouTube for a relevant eft vide while I stay with the trigger. A trigger can be a door to the past. Like a crystal embedded into a rock, it can be one more strike of the hammer, one more chip off the rock. However, the crystal is not the goal, the strike is the goal. The act of each strike. The strike is how much you drop into the pain you feel, the heading into the eye of the storm, the STAYING on the boat and braving the waters instead of going in the cabin and locking the door. Little by little, trigger by trigger, chipping away at the dissociation, being mindful of our focus on this trigger being a positive event that feels like total shit. Touring through hell without staying there, just like Dante touring the specifics of hell in The Inferno with his guide Virgil focusing his lens on the big picture, questioning the torment and agony he sees, accepting the ‘triggers’ as they come but knowing he must move forward. For me it helps to actually read The Inferno when I’m trying to allow, because by reflex i disallow or dissociate. Reading it reminds me of the pain and fire under my dissociation, it reminds me that it’s real, that I’m real, my pain is real. What Dante is going through is literally what I’m going through emotionally. It’s real, for now, until I realize it no longer needs to be. Until enough chips of the rock of the past have fallen off to FEEL just even my own breath entering through the 7 openings of my face. I love that you are integrating physical body to heal the mind body.
    For me, I’m not ready for yoga yet. I’m not ready to move with my physical body. I’m still getting accustomed to the idea that I have a physical body that F E E L S moment to moment, but I’m no way ready to operate solely from it. Most of the reason why I feel it’s not right for me right now is just like you said the culture of yoga Is just not on the same page as I am and I need to really monitor and distill what comes into my experience during this beginning period of transition from thought-led to experience-led living. Its the plan ultimately, but I’m easing into it painfully but surely. Yoga and Pilates is a goal in the future for my body but for now I am focusing on just accepting that I have one, and that I am allowed to feel it.
    I just realized today that the reason I’m so anxious and overthink so much during social interactions is because I’m emulating the exact anxiety and overthinking and recreating the exact environment of the past that I grew up with when socializing with my extremely emotionally abusive sister and cousin. This information that I received from my trigger today is the eye of the storm that I will engage into and envelop and tap on tonight when I’m safe in my room. I’ll let you know how it goes.
    I’ll check back here soon for more posts and just to say hello. I’m happy to have found someone like me and happy that you open up your life with us and I will try to reciprocate through these comments! Take care!

  4. anastasia says:

    Thank you, Kole! I love your comments, the feeling and flow of them. I’m a bit booked this weekend but I’ll post a proper reply sometime next week. Again, thank you!

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