There’s been a lot of talk about yoga and trauma of late (especially here). It may beg the question: “Wait. I think and act like this sometimes. I’m not traumatized.”
Some argue that everyone is traumatized in the post-post-modern era. While we certainly live in an age of anxiety (Kali Yuga for sure), and anxiety sufferers may experience life in similar ways, not everyone has been traumatized. Trauma is not an abstraction or a dramatic manner of describing experience.
Clinically, trauma survivors suffer from PTSD, survivors of repeated trauma (e.g. child abuse) CPTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I avoid these labels as I find them unhelpful. They flatten human experience and elicit cliché. They are, however, extremely accurate regarding the symptoms and experiences of trauma survivors. If you are curious, Judith Herman’s beautiful Trauma and Recovery is the book to read:
At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.
Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life. Unlike commonplace misfortunes, traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence or death. They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe. According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.’
The ordinary human response to danger is a complex, integrated system of reactions, encompassing both body and mind. Threat initially arouses the sympathetic nervous system, causing the person in danger to feel an adrenaline rush and go into a state of alert…. Finally, threat evokes intense feelings of fear and anger. These changes in arousal, attention, perception, and emotion are normal, adaptive reactions. They mobilize the threatened person for strenuous action, either in battle or in flight.
Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. Each component of the ordinary response to danger, having lost its utility, tends to persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the danger is over. Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory. Moreover, traumatic events may sever these normally integrated functions from one another. The traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or may remember everything in detail but without emotion. She may find herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without knowing why. Traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and take on a life of their own. pp 33-34.
The worst fear of any traumatized person is that the moment of horror will recur, and this fear is realized in victims of chronic abuse. Not surprisingly, the repetition of trauma amplifies all the hyperarousal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. p 86.
Unprocessed feelings of intense anger and fear become locked into the body and unconscious mind, waiting for release, easily triggered by sights and sounds that would not phase someone with a relaxed nervous system. Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice offers a remarkable explanation from a medical perspective. He explains why and how trauma becomes frozen in the body, and what to do about it. Another must read.
Avoid most common internet literature, usually about veterans, often asking why some people suffer shell shock (the WWI appellation) and others don’t. C/PTSD is the normal human biological reaction to devastating events that cannot be integrated into a person’s larger experience often due to the level of horror, as well as a lack of understanding, empathy and support. Herman underlines the social complications of trauma recovery, which we’ve seen much of in the media lately, e.g. victim blaming in rape cases. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering” (Trauma and Recovery, p 7).
Since I began writing about yoga and trauma, several students, colleagues, and friends have come out to me as trauma survivors. As Herman says, trauma is not rare. Nor is it imagined. Survivors have many biological markers that identify them (low heart rate variability, HRV, among others). It has raised a lot of questions for me about yoga and trauma, teaching survivors in designated classes and out, in classes for the general population. (More on this next time.)
My own yoga practice has often been subsumed by observing my traumatic reactions: fight or flight in asana practice, and freeze (dissociation) in asana and meditation. This only began after years and years of practice, when I finally found enough safety (through a solid, caring relationship) to explore. It was an opening of sorts.
Before when agitated in practice, I just numbed out. A vigorous practice can be good for that, with the endorphins and all. (This, in my honest observations, is how most people practice yoga. Like athletes who force and train the body, rather than being in and of it.) I didn’t experience my anxiety or nerves. It was all on lockdown, deeply repressed. I can pretend nothing bothers me better than most, and when my nervous system is agitated and I feel unsafe, I often do just that. Sometimes, I numb and float upward. It can actually feel pretty good, especially when my muscles go all soft and give up.
But the racing heart and shortness of breath of a challenging practice can also trigger hyperarousal and shift me into fight or flight. I shut down feeling and move faster, trying to break free.
Even when I feel safe and calm, sending breath and awareness into long held parts of my body brings up energy (and emotions and memories) I’m not sure what to do with. It can be scary. One’s own body is not a safe place for trauma survivors. No where is.
This, though, I have to work with and through, because ignoring feeling, shutting down, numbing out, strengthens the ingrained patterns of traumatic reflex. Forever I have fought between maintaining my status quo, which has gotten me through fairly well in some ways, which on some levels I like, and the change healing demands.
None of this is to say that my years of practice before I opened to all all this, when I numbed out and so on, were not beneficial on deeply healing levels, much deeper than, say, running around a track. They certainly were. I do believe it was my practice (yoga and meditation) that got me to a place where I could finally trust someone and begin the baby steps toward feeling and integration. That is the thing. While we’d love a one-step fix, healing these types of wounds requires care and effort from all angles: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, cognitive, etc.
Thank you for reading :) Anastasia