Healing the mind and body through somatic practices

Trauma has a way of knocking the stuffing out of you.

Trauma has a way of knocking the stuffing out of you.

It’s a gut punch to the solar plexus that shatters the atoms of your spirit and leaves you confused about how to put yourself back together again. Like Humpty Dumpty, you’re knocked off the wall of your life, leaking yolk, with your arms and legs akimbo and a look on your face that says “WTF?”

And when you stand again, you don’t understand that you’re now walking through the world in little pieces, circling the nucleus of what once was you. You just feel off kilter, as though you’ve woken up in an alternate reality where everyone except you knows how to behave and think and feel.

Following a year of excruciating shock and loss, I forgot how to speak to people and how to tolerate being in the presence of another human. I forgot what I liked to do, to eat, to wear.

I couldn’t remember how I usually moved through the day. I’d wake up and think “I know I’m supposed to get up and do something. But what? Do I like coffee? Should I get dressed? Am I supposed to work?”

I wore the clothes that I found next to the bed for days on end, until they were nearly stiff with big muddy stains. Then I reached for the stretchy pants and t-shirt that were most like what I had just taken off.

My family encouraged me to get back into my office, as I wasn’t caring for a dying spouse anymore and needed a regular income. They didn’t understand how trauma had short-circuited my brain, and that I was frozen, like a deer in the headlights.

Executive functioning was not possible. No amount of pep-talking, reality checking, or reminding me that I was bad-ass and had survived other challenging situations, could jump start my pre-frontal cortex and get me thinking sequentially again.

My amygdala, the brain’s center for processing emotions, was stuck in overdrive, and I was functioning on auto-pilot, doing only what my body instinctively knew how to do.

When I was finally able to select clothing that I could reasonably wear in public and venture into town, people who knew my husband would approach and ask, sympathetically, how I was doing.

I didn’t know how to answer that question. I just stared.

Eventually, I would think, “Well, my feet are under me, I’m wearing clothes and I think I ate something in the last 24 hours, so… I’m okay.”

I’m sure I said other things to some people. If I opened my mouth, and found my tongue, sometimes stuff poured out. Some of it was probably more than they really wanted to know. Grief does that.

Those that recognized the vacant look in my eyes, the disheveled clothing and the departure of my personality from its usual positive home, responded kindly with a knowing look and the verbal equivalent of a comforting pat on the back. Some made lovely offers of support — coffee or dinner, garden visits, walks.

Others took the opportunity to comment on my appearance, to ask what plans I now had for the future (plans!?), to offer unsolicited advice or “constructive” criticism about how I was managing in the wake of such shock and loss.

I let it all wash over me, and clung to the kindnesses.

Finally, after a long while of being at the bottom of a very cold barrel, I took two game-changing actions.

First, I found a wonderful therapist on the island.

My skilled therapist worked with me not only on what was going on in my head, but also addressed how the trauma had lodged in my body.

She made me shake it out, throw it out, push it out, yell it out. For weeks.

And as I thrashed and shook and danced and sobbed, something miraculous began to happen.

The stuffing that had been transported to another dimension slowly started to reorganize. I felt space opening in my soma for a new post-traumatic version of myself to materialize.

My eyes learned to focus on what was actually in front of me, not just on what I wanted to see — in myself and the world. I recognized elements of my personality that I wanted to encourage to resurface, and ways of being that I needed to release.

I started to remember what made me feel alive in the world — like physical exercise.

Through the generosity of the owners of the Vashon Athletic Club, I took a second equally important step towards healing — I started to exercise regularly again.

In classes and the weight room, I pushed my body to create natural dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good brain chemicals that counteract the adrenal fatigue and excessive cortisol that circulate in a system ravaged by shock and stress.

I began to become myself again, but different. Not clearly better or worse, just changed. Hopefully more real.

It’s not possible to have trauma move through you and to remain the same on the inside.

Unless we die fast and young, at some point, we will experience loss and grief, pain and shock.

Trauma doesn’t just live in the mind or the heart. Chemical reactions in our brains create physical changes in the body that cause the emotional pain to lodge in our arms and legs, our lungs and bellies, our faces, necks and backs. It affects our digestion, respiration, sleep and circulation.

Intentional movement with skilled professionals can help release the trauma — contemplative dance, somatic therapy, massage and bodywork, as well as physical exercise such as yoga, Zumba and weight lifting.

Also, hugs — lots of full body, arms around each other, “I’m here for you” hugs.

All these things live here on Vashon, waiting to help you heal.

If you, or someone you know is stuck in emotional pain, consider contacting a somatic therapist or bodyworker, or head to the gym. Start moving and opening your body and your spirit will begin to follow. The experience can be life-changing.

In gratitude to my amazing therapist, to the yoga instructor who said “Oh, you have teaching experience? How would you like to teach class today?,” to my many hugging friends, and to the dear one who, by offering friendship, saved my life.

Bless you.

Allyson Hopkins is a licensed massage therapist and yoga instructor. She has an office at Full Circle Wellness and lives on Maury Island.