Healing Trauma: R is for Relaxation
Updated: Sep 5
Traumatic stress has the impact of locking energy into split branches of the autonomic 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 and responds by firing up or shutting down, which can create serious life and health problems.
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 abuse from an adult; his or her needs go unfulfilled. He or she, therefore, feels that the world is an unsafe place to be. His or her nervous system struggles with the painful overwhelm of unprocessed emotion, such as anger and fear; this also leaves an unconscious protective shell of hardness and tension in the body, and the mind may race and become anxious.
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, which is a primer to the 'fight' or 'flight' response to fear.
Alternatively, our body may 'flop/freeze' i.e. shut down in fear, operating only at the bare minimum of energy with the parasympathetic dorsal nervous system; this is when we may experience numbness, overwhelm, stuckness or fatigue because our body is caught in this post-traumatic stress response to a serious threat. The body doesn't feel able to fight or flee, so it starts to shut down, reduce its energy and the mind becomes, dormant or vacant and depressed.
To heal from trauma and live a good life, experiencing relaxation which gives us optimal energy and well-being we need to function with the ventral vagus system, which is central to our highly-evolved nervous systems as human beings. It only gets damaged or defaults to another of the three main branches because of traumatic stress from a real or perceived threat.
If we experienced trauma in the past, then any of the stresses and strains of everyday life such as a loud noise, a busy office, a person who brushes us in the street may trigger the perceived threat of a traumatic incident. Furthermore, unintegrated trauma can rush up to the surface, which causes people to internally re-live the experiences of the past, even if they are only in our implicit and not explicit memory, so whether we have memories, flashbacks or just a feelings-based recollection in the body.
I share the opinion that anxiety and depression, the world's most common mental health conditions, are often symptoms of the nervous system's response to unintegrated trauma. Anxiety is symptomatic of the fear response, based on conditions experienced in the past creating negative expectations of the present/future. Depression is the experience of low mood, based on cumulative moments and life events where we felt overwhelmed and unsafe to process pain such as sorrow and anger.
An energised, relaxed muscle body is a 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 ventral vagal nervous system's somatic processes of rest, heal and digest/energise/nourish. Softening the holding in the muscles, slowing and deepening the breath and calming oneself, maintaining good posture with self-soothing touch and compassionate thoughts are very important to relaxation.
Suggestion: please check in with your nervous system now, and see if you're able to tone the ventral vagal system with some calming breaths and a warm, relaxing smile to your inner self.
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 locked in the energies of trauma, approaching relaxation may at first feel hopeless, alien, uncomfortable and even frightening or emotionally painful. Go gently, and you may start to notice that little by little, relaxation does heal you. It helps if you smile to yourself a little bit, and perhaps say or wish something supportive to yourself such as "may I be well, may I feel at ease." Don't be hard on yourself, and do whatever you need to take care of yourself as you work through your trauma, and attune to the energy for well-being available through the ventral vagal nervous system.
I bear witness to my own trauma recovery and that of many of my clients. Here are some ways that you may be able to relax and heal from trauma:
Be aware of breathing and respond to 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 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 experiencing our lower belly, the centre of gravity and the 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, where possible. Though don't force yourself to relax, or to breathe, just ease yourself in and out of the practice as feels comfortable for you.
Relaxation is the ground for healing.
Cognitive restructuring is a very important part of trauma healing; therapy, reflective and self-compassionate journalling, as well as learning about trauma and discovering self-care techniques, such as mindfulness are all ways that we can attune the energy in our bodies to become aligned with the parasympathetic ventral vagal response.
A person who experiences traumatic stress may feel out of control and in chaos, or maybe that life lacks meaning, and they may struggle to find any sense of direction, purpose and containment for their lives. Such distress may cause extreme low moods 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 need to discharge or awaken. 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 and long walks if you can. Suffering is a part of life, however, with self-compassionate relaxation, it is possible to overcome the traumas of the past, reduce fear and even spark joy and ease.
I hope this blog post has been helpful to you, and if you have any queries about the information I have shared here, or wish to seek counselling, then please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.