Responding to security threats
Why you may struggle to be present
Dear fellow trauma survivor,
A few weeks ago I wrote on Instagram about embodiment. In so doing, I took another giant step forward in my healing.
The thoughts were triggered by a series of posts I noticed around “deconstruction gram.” The loose para-community of souls unpacking their religious trauma and faith traditions hits on a few beats, the topics snowballing into trends and talking points. But one of them wasn’t sitting well with me.
In an effort to embrace body positivity and healing, there’s a recommendation to refer to our bodies as “She.” Show her love. Show her gratitude. See all she’s been through and protected you from. Put your hands on her and treat her kindly. Refuse to hate your body and see her for the beautiful gift she is.
At first, this rang like inner child work. A modal of trauma work is to look within, at our inner child, the person we were at the time of the traumatic memories. This version of ourself had thoughts, feelings, and experiences that weren’t honored and inner child work offers a chance to go back and reconnect (with them.)
Sometimes externalizing an experience helps us turn it over in our hands and think about it more objectively. It can be very powerful to step back and see the wider perspective, to feel something less personally. I’ve spent years in this place, taking memories and holding them out and away to examine, often with a therapist, often walking alongside various versions of myself, reparenting, befriending, and rescuing myself.
After fourteen years of intense trauma therapy, I was hitting a plateau. There are plenty of areas I still want to work on and reclaim, dysfunctions I struggle with in relationships primarily, because we don’t heal in isolation and other people will inevitably mirror back where we need to work.
A peek at those:
reactivity when feeling unfairly criticized
benevolent controlling tendencies
freeze-mode when boundaries were crossed (a temptation to ghost, rather than respond)
holding the boundary line
speaking with clarity into hard situations
fawn-mode when walking on eggshells
dissociating during a trigger
That last one…it’s a doozy.
Dissociation is first and foremost a method of protection of danger and threats to our psychological and physical safety. It’s our brain’s way of detaching from our environment because there’s too much pain to stay present, and it results in protective amnesia and alternate realities.
The ability to dissociate was helpful while I was in the middle of active trauma. As I wrote on Instagram, I had good reasons to develop a tendency to detach from my surroundings. Rape. Pain. Verbal and psychological abuse. Gaslighting. Rejection. Overwhelm. Without the dissociation protecting my brain from those experiences, my trauma would’ve only intensified.
Trauma is our response to an action, not the action itself. It’s when something happens to us that is too big to process. It’s too much, too fast, too intense. We can’t “Feel our feelings” in the midst of trauma: it’s a waterhose and a waterfall. Our brain needs us to catch our breath. It helps us register what we can, shields us from what we can’t, and sets it aside for later. This is why two people can experience the same event and have very different trauma responses.
Later, there’s a reckoning. In the form of triggers, PTSD and Complex PTSD, the memories are stored in our bodies, shielding and bracing for anything that feels familiar to the original event.
But those events are no longer happening. Replaying and inappropriately bracing for impact is exhausting. Security threats still come up but I’m more equipped to handle them now, and I felt ready for the next step towards healing. I just didn’t know what it was.
After some extremely valuable reading (book recommendations below), I learned that two things were missing in my therapeutic healing: integration and embodiment. And that’s why referring to my body in the third person was making me itchy.
I want a first-person life.
My body IS me. If I want to be healed and whole, I can not separate HER from soul, spirit, or mind. Of course, I have a body the way I have a mind. It’s a noun, a thing. My brain and body both could sit on a shelf as inanimate objects and not be “me.” But alive…quickened and full of soul? I am all of these together. I am here.
Six-year-old me and nine-year-old me are here, within me. My body is here and I live within in. If I’m cut I’d feel it. She wouldn’t feel it….I would feel it. Nerves and muscle, skin, bone, fat, feelings, memory, consciousness…my goal is wholeness and presence in the present. Fully here. Fully in the now.
If this is too painful for you to imagine, and externalizing and bifurcating your consciousness and body is helpful, that’s okay. It’s part of the process. Just, I’d urge you, don’t stay there forever. Find out what’s going on.
Unifying your body, thought, emotion and action is to be an integrated self. It’s the evidence of significant behavioral work and healing. A fully-functioning person is able to set and maintain boundaries, participate fully in the life they’ve been granted, feel their feelings and let them flow accordingly, and nurture healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships.
I often say trauma, specially religious trauma and domestic violence, has taken enough of my life away. It doesn’t get to have my future too.
How to practice embodiment:
My favorite is to sit on the ground, preferably the earth, and breathe.
Tap into the senses: what do you see? hear? smell? feel? taste? (If you taste metallic adrenalin, you might be in fight/flight/fawn/freeze and this is helpful information)
Check in with yourself, especially in regard to basic needs. Do you need to pee? Are you thirsty? Are you clenching anywhere?
Make a noise through an overt action. Tap the table, snap your fingers, drop a ball…anything that proves you are here.
Name your feeling. Without shaming or explaining, simply state how you are feeling this very minute. Then, inquire.
“I feel anxious right now.”
Why? “Because I have a lot to do today and not enough hours.”
What’s the worst that can happen? “I’ll have more to do when I get back from my trip.”
Who will disapprove of that? “Um… (goes through a checklist)… me.”
Why are you being so hard on yourself? “I don’t want to let anyone down.”
Ah. People-pleasing and self-abandonment. You know what to do. (And I do, because I work on co-dependency. Identifying the root of my anxiety immediately helps my stomach settle. I ground and embody my feeling, integrated and empowered to do something about it.)
Set boundaries around distractions or hobbies that trigger you to check out of one reality into another. This includes social media, gaming and even reading.
Take up space. Yoga is great for this: movement on a mat, movement within your domain. My favorite embodiment pose in yoga is any variation of a starfish..arms out, legs out, taking up as much room as I can. I am here.
Try a mindfulness practice that grounds you into awareness of when you feel good or happy. I did this with 100 Happy Days on Instagram. Today is Day 100! Through this experience, I identify “I’m feeling happy right now,” and take a photo with a timer. It’s documentary-style, intended to “catch” me in the act of feeling happy. This is the second time I’ve done it and one of my favorite take-aways is how many flavors of happiness there are, and how it’s possible to care for myself and my feelings even during seasons of great overwhelm and stress.
When you wait for happiness, trusting it will come, life becomes full of surprises.
Two books that helped me: (affiliate links)
How to Be an Adult This is one of the most profound and impactful reads in my entire library of trauma work, and one that brings together all the threads of therapeutic work. I can’t recommend it enough.
The Body Keeps the Score This is a must-have for anyone who’s experienced trauma. Your memories are not only in your mind: they are in your body. Discovering how your body interprets situations is a key to freedom.
If this post helped you or could help someone you know, please share.