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Survive, Transform, Soar! - Issue #8
Your Body’s Story:
Healing the Trauma of a Toxic Partner
Article by: Laura Lalita, M.A., in SurviveTransformSoar.com | Friday, April 28, 2017
Our bodies are miraculous organisms that house the sum of our life experiences and can record in great detail any given moment in time as a sensory event. For those who have experienced a long-term toxic relationship, trauma may persist in the body long after the relationship has ended and long after you think you have healed and gone on with your life.

We may not realize it, but our bodies record events not primarily through thought and meaning but rather through a myriad of sensate inputs. The visual experience of colorized objects or a particular quality of light, the warmth or coolness of the body’s temperature, a visceral feeling of raw emotions, a shortness or depth of breath, an awareness of sounds, something moving far or near, a certain scent carried in the air--these all together capture the essence of any given moment.

All of these specific sensory pathways take in a sensate aspect of your experience and send this raw information directly into the nervous system and brain for interpretation. The body knows the story in a more immediate way than the mind ever can…and sometimes the body remembers what the mind wants to forget.

This is why, sometimes years after leaving a toxic partner, you may still be stuck in “survival” and experiencing aftermath symptoms like intrusive thoughts, anxiety or depression, panic attacks, insomnia or health issues like fibromyalgia, substance abuse, heart disease or cancer.

To truly recover from trauma, the body’s story must be given equal importance to the cognitive one pouring through our lips.
So What Is Trauma, Really?
The word trauma can generally be applied when describing a singular experience, series of events or particularly difficult period of life when there is too much sensory information moving too fast through the sensory body and nervous system and usually not enough external and internal support to integrate it properly.

When this happens the instinctive part of the brain goes into states known as fight, flight or freeze to deal with the real or perceived threat. When this happens, a high-level charge of energy and sensory information floods the brain to mobilize against threat.

When these mobilizations are not successfully completed and integrated, your body is not able to organize the event into a meaningful experience nor fully recover into a resting state where the body and mind feel that “all is well, that’s over, we are safe now.”

In these instances some part of us is still processing the event as though it is still happening and often anything that reminds us or feels like that unresolved experience may trigger the same unconscious fight, flight, freeze responses. We see this manifest as dis-regulation in the nervous system such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, vigilance, numbing and dissociation from the body, as well as unhelpful mental perceptions that go along with such states.

Our nervous systems are meant to be fluid so we can move through the full spectrum from joy to panic and come back to feeling secure, engaged and fully present in our bodies with relative ease. Sometimes when enough unresolved fight, flight and freeze responses are held in our body, the nervous system will have difficulty finding that secure baseline and our tolerance for stimulus can get so small that simple everyday stimuli overwhelm us.

This is sometimes the root of autoimmune disorders where the last line of defense against the constant feeling of threat in the body is to react to everything as a threat. In cases of early developmental trauma and attachment issues our nervous system foundation may have been built without ever really having the co-regulation necessary from our caretakers to instill that baseline sense of safety, security and connection.

So we can surmise that every nervous system is completely uniquely different based on the collective of ones’ life experiences and thus we each have our own way to be in the world.

What Can Be Done?
The truly good news is that as scientists are learning more about the neuroplasticity of the brain and nervous system, they are finding that we are wired for connection and wired to heal.
Including the body in healing is the key to finding greater ease of body and mind. When we begin with the body, we are able to catch the pattern of dis-regulation at the level of the body--where it first began--as a visceral experience that we responded to as best we could, both consciously and unconsciously. Often it is the unconscious aspect of experience that we recover and bring into consciousness where it can help reorganize the system and integrate the experience as meaningful and successfully completed. 

So how can we begin to include the body in the conversation for recovery? In short, we do this by healing the sensory input to the brain, wiring from the body to the higher levels of cognition. When the physiology of the body shifts, the way we cognitively perceive and experience ourselves and the world shifts too.

The physiology of our nervous system goes from sending signals to our brain that something terrible is about to happen to sending signals that we are secure, connected and open to fully experience the present moment. You can imagine how this affects the way we are able to be in the world and in relationships with others and ourselves.

The most effective way to begin healing on this level is in the therapeutic relationship. As human beings, we are instinctually wired for connection and relationship with other humans in order to survive. In addition, there are many tools we can utilize as a daily practice to find greater resilience.

TOOLS FOR RECOVERY

Body Awareness
The first method, grounding and centering, involves paying attention to the body as often as you can. Ground and center by first slowing down enough to connect with your body. This means feeling your feet on the ground, your seat in the chair, your spine, your shoulders, wherever feels the most grounded and connected at any given moment.

When you do this, see if you can name the sensations you discover. If you notice your breath deepen, it’s a sign that your body is moving into a more relaxed state. Spend a minute or two with this. You can even set a timer every hour to remind you to do this throughout the day.
Orienting
Depending on your nervous system, this tool can be very stabilizing and some may find it disorganizing. To practice orienting, simply allow your eyes to take in your environment.

Often when we are in an anxiety state, our eyes are darting about, taking in everything so we can find a source for the threat we are feeling in our bodies. When we slow down and allow the imagery to come into our eyes rather than sending our vision outside of us, we begin to shift our physiology.

Allow the eyes to soften and relax, notice the color, the shapes, textures, quality of light, movement and how you feel in your body as you do. Again, you may feel a deeper breath. Your vision may open and widen as you can safely take more into your visual field.

Orienting lights up the part of the brain that makes us recognize we are present, diminishing the hold on more instinctual parts of the brain based on threat response.

Nature Connection
One way to find greater regulation in the body is to spend time in nature. Here you can combine the tools listed above to bring yourself into the present and into connection with your environment.

Nature exists for the most part in a natural baseline of presence, ease and connectivity. When we become a part of that experience we naturally have access to our own baseline of those same qualities. As human beings we are meant to live in a similar state that we observe in nature.

There is a certain rhythm to nature’s baseline that is much slower than the pace we humans tend to move; it is actually how our physiology is inherently built. Taking time to connect to this rhythm in our own bodies can be a great resource for healing the nervous system.

Co-Regulation
Another tool is co-regulation. This goes back to the foundations of our nervous system, which are built on co-regulation between mother and infant. In these early developmental stages our nervous system is completely dependent on our caretakers to attune, calm and help regulate our still developing system. When this goes well enough, we develop an ability to be regulated by others through social engagement, relating and connecting.

Practice inviting your nervous system to regulate when connecting with others. Again, sense and feel your body when in connection with someone you feel comfortable with. See if you can notice the rhythm of their breath and body and how that attunes with your own rhythms. Track inside your body for places that feel secure, relaxed, connected or even just a little bit better.

When in a group, invite yourself to experience yourself as part of a group. Since we are wired for connection as human beings we tend to attune to the nervous systems of others. Look for people in your life who make you feel more relaxed and at ease with yourself when you are in their presence.

These are just some of the ways we can help ourselves to find more resilience and recover our ability to experience the ease and connection of the present moment. May you find the tools and pathways to fluidity and resiliency in your body, mind and spirit.
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