Healing Trauma: R is for Relaxation
Traumatic stress has the impact of locking somatic energy into the sympathetic nervous system. Based on painful past experiences, such as childhood/relational abuse/accident/injury, the body's muscular memory unconsciously perceives threats in our environment.
For example, people with whiplash have no physical damage to the muscle; it is a muscle tissue memory that holds the pattern of the impact due to neurological messages that tell the muscles to brace for impact. Another more elaborate example is a child who experiences parental neglect; his or her needs go unfulfilled. He or she, therefore, feels that the world is an unsafe place to be. His or her energy collapses inwards through the painful overwhelm of unprocessed emotion; this also leaves an unconscious crystallised, protective shell of hardness and tension in the body.
You can see in both these examples that physical tension is the result of trauma. Many trauma survivors spend their lives locked in a hypervigilant state of arousal experienced via the sympathetic nervous system. The stresses and strains of everyday life - a loud noise, a busy office, a person who brushes us in the street can trigger the perceived threat of a traumatic incident. Furthermore, unintegrated trauma can rush up to the surface, which causes people to re-live the experiences of the past.
I share the opinion that anxiety and depression, the world's most common mental health conditions, are mere symptoms of unintegrated trauma. Anxiety is symptomatic of the fear response, based on conditions experienced in the past. Depression is the experience of low mood, based on cumulative moments and life events where we felt overwhelmed and unsafe to process our pain, such as sorrow and anger.
A relaxed muscle body is the place that everyone needs to get to in order to be free of traumatic stress. Many people are not even aware of how the body feels because they have unconsciously suppressed their feelings, too painful to consciously process without the right tools. An essential aspect of healing trauma is relaxation, which allows us to enter into the parasympathetic nervous system 'rest and heal' response. Softening the holding in the muscles, slowing and deepening the breath and calming oneself with self-soothing touch and compassionate thoughts are very important to relaxation.
Many trauma survivors may find getting adequate sleep very difficult. In addition to issues like alcohol/caffeine/cannabis consumption, moonlight, blue electrical lights, high-octane activities/entertainment, and noise disturbances that must be minimised in order to provide good conditions for sleep, it's important to also recognise how to positively create relaxation. For someone who has lived most of their life in a sympathetic nervous system 'trauma response', relaxation may at first feel alien, uncomfortable and even frightening or excruciatingly emotionally painful. Go gently, and you may start to notice in time that relaxation does heal you.
I bear witness to my own trauma recovery and that of many of my clients. Here are some preparations that I find are important to engage in for a good night's rest, which is essential to deep healing:
Be aware of physical tension throughout the day. You may 'arrive home' in your body, sense the calm places in you and let them expand in your awareness. In the beginning, we may find a safe refuge in our bodies by bringing attention to the sensations in the hands and feet, or the hip-bones and base of the spine. As we become more practised we may feel more comfortable to experience our lower belly, the centre of gravity and area where our breath may be felt expanding and contracting.
Awareness of breath is crucial to self-regulation and thereby relaxation. For a trauma survivor, experiencing strong emotions such as fear, anger, sorrow or even sexual excitement may have dissociative effects (where we cut off from feeling our body because it is too intense, and we become 'far out', ungrounded or 'heady'). It's possible to ground our awareness in our bodies again by returning to noticing, slowing and deepening the breath and then consciously releasing muscular tension. Nasal breathing is superior to mouth breathing when it comes to relaxation.
Cognitive restructuring is a very important process in setting up the conditions for relaxation; therapy, reflective and self-compassionate journalling, as well as learning about trauma and discovering techniques, such as mindfulness, to self-regulate are all ways that we can change the nervous energy in our bodies to become aligned with the parasympathetic 'relaxation' response.
A person who experiences traumatic stress feels out-of-control and in chaos, life lacks meaning, and they may struggle to find a sense of direction, purpose and containment for their lives. This can cause extreme low mood and even suicidality. It is essential to make use of structures that can act as a 'soul container' i.e. 'alchemical vessel' for our time on this planet. Therapy/healing/creativity sessions can help, and so can daily rituals and routine; eating and sleeping at set times, planning activities that are nourishing and rewarding as well as recognising the conditions that cue relaxation in our lives. These containers can be a fixed half hour/several hours or even be shifting micro-moments throughout the day; for instance, a gentle walk/feeding the wildlife in the woods each day, or, personally I enjoy flowers and when I look at the flowers I arrange in a vase on my window sill, even for a few seconds, I appreciate their shape, texture and colour and I feel my body relax. Find daily rituals that support who you are and who you want to become.
Re-parenting is important, particularly for adult survivors of child abuse/neglect, and for everyone (as all adults must transition into becoming their own carers and guardians in life as a whole). This self-parenting is essential to relaxation. The body is our inner child, it contains all unconscious memories of childhood, and it experiences all the needs of a child e.g. food/affection/physical safety. It must be loved and nurtured as we would support a child. Soft fabrics, sweet music/humming, calming and warming colours, self-touch, and gentle and digestible, nutritious meals are all helpful, as are positive affirmations. Some examples of positive affirmations (i.e. words said to yourself internally or aloud) are: "I am enough" and "I love you" and "I am here for you, I will take care of you". (It really works to write these power thoughts somewhere visible so you can read them regularly, which re-programmes your thoughts over-time.)
Lastly, there's no need to fret if you find it hard to relax. Sometimes a traumatised body may gradually have to discharge energy. Nervous convulsions, twitching muscles, and unhealed emotions that seem to spring up from our unconscious - such as loneliness, worthlessness, anger and misery are all part of the experience for many. Simply allow for the energy to be there, and gently, guide your attention into relaxing yourself; be present with bodily feelings and expand your awareness to self-kindness and comfort also. When in times of struggle, doubt and difficulty connecting to your happiness, please remember impermanence; no feeling lasts, and all shall pass. Don't be overly strict on yourself; give yourself plenty of permission to 'fail' at relaxing; it is all part of the healing journey and indeed suffering is intrinsic in the human experience. Take naps if you need them, and you may benefit from guided meditations and recorded mindfulness practices for extra support. Suffering is a part of life, with relaxation it is possible to overcome the past and reduce your suffering and even spark joy and ease.
I hope this blog post has been helpful to you, and please if you have any queries about the information I have shared here then you can write to me, firstname.lastname@example.org. I am a wholehearted living coach that means I accept and embrace the whole person, including their well-being and their suffering and I aim to facilitate healing in the most heartfelt and appropriate way to each individual, going at their own pace. I would recommend anyone who has extreme traumatic stress, for instance with black-outs, addiction issues or self-harm, to seek out the support of a helping practitioner. I am not a replacement for a doctor of medicine or psychology. I am trained and psychologically supervised to work with people suffering mild, cumulative and extreme trauma including victims of abuse and can provide referrals and advocacy for systemic interventions/organisational support where needed.