“It’s Safe Now” – Taming Trauma & Anxiety: 5 Pillars to Living a Bigger Life.
My memories from childhood are set in a backdrop of fear and terror; infused with a frozen trauma response to many ‘normal’ life experiences. Whenever I look back, there I am…FROZEN. Although I didn’t know at the time, my body was gripped by a frozen trauma response, and a rigid holding pattern; a defence to the daily humiliation I received from my caregivers. Our nervous system’s ability to respond, particularly to overwhelming experiences, is quite miraculous and fascinating!
As children, we often cannot run or leave, but we do have control over our body… by contracting the soft tissues and organs. And these contractions become strategies to manage the constant overload, and as a way to block or shut out what is coming towards us. This article is distilled from what I have learnt from nearly 20 years of committing to understanding and healing fear and trauma, and working with hundreds of clients, either in person or via Skype. This is what I have discovered. I hope it helps you in your own struggles and explorations.
This is not an easy journey to take. Many people either resort to medication to suppress the body and it’s responses, or don’t believe it’s possible to move beyond the trauma response (this was me for a while). But medication is not a long-term solution, nor a path to self-leadership. For me, the only way, is through. But through is not easy.
Through is not easy.
I say it again, because…
Through is not easy.
It takes a tenacity of commitment…the kind of commitment and a particular attitude that constantly changes and evolves. It is a path, one could say, of a Spiritual Warrior. Though, I must say, I am brought, time and again, to my knees, and am reminded that the kind of warrior I speak of...needs no shield.
I want to begin by informing you that there is nothing wrong with you. You do not need fixing. But I do not want you to underestimate what is involved in this exploration. It literally takes a lifetime and, for me, I spent many, many years gripped by cycles of fear and anxiety, before these patterns began to loosen in me.
The following 5 pillars are rooted in an understanding that you have worked through your psychological material sufficiently enough to have a strong enough sense of self (also known as ego strength) and a certain amount of resilience. Another way of putting this is that you must be free enough of your conditioning and identification with trauma, to allow new and wider perspectives. Love where you are at. You will blossom completely BEAUTIFULLY in just the right time. Relax about this. I strongly suggest that you find the support of a professional to guide you in your unfolding.
I collectively call the pillars, a Transpersonal Somatic perspective.
1. CULTIVATE THE WITNESS
YOU are not your trauma. We tend to get very identified with trauma (identified, meaning you believe the trauma is you)…and there are plenty of therapists that will collude with this position. But, if you are engaging with psychological/spiritual inquiry, a deeper self-reflection about what is possible in this life, beyond the familiar responses, eventually you will arrive at the point I am speaking of. Perhaps you are already engaging with the statement above…”If I am not my trauma, then who or what am I?” Yes, exactly! In order to shift to a new perspective, you need to cultivate a ‘witnessing aspect’; this Witness is able to watch and therefore gain distance from any previous areas of identification (not limited to identifying with trauma).
Firstly what is the Witness? The Witness is like a new channel on the TV, where previously there was only one, the only one being, identifying with whatever thought, feeling or nervous system response is currently happening (and this running on autopilot). So, to cultivate the Witness, we slowly, begin to choose this new channel, instead of the habitual one. The Witness is also a sense of Deep Presence within oneself, deeper than the surface dramas of life, the part of you that is aware of everything — just noticing, watching, not judging, just being present, being here now.
That we can consciously chose to strengthen.
This is Key.
We have to get still enough for this Witnessing place that is deep within, to be available; reason being, the Witness is quiet, whereas the trauma response is LOUD! (loud meaning a lot of bodily symptoms, fear-based thoughts and sensations), but then, you already know that! As I was writing this, I was thinking ‘maybe I can think of a more funky word than Witness, but alas, the word is vital. The Witness, the idea of this, is to eventually have it more 'powerful' than the other channel, that is I would say, almost alongside the habitual (trauma) response. The Witness is the part of you that is awakening, and is actually another level of consciousness. Humans have this unique ability to be in two states of consciousness at once. In any experience — sensory, emotional, or conceptual — there’s the experience, the sensory or emotional or thought data, and there’s your awareness of it. That’s the Witness, the awareness, and you can cultivate that awareness in the garden of your being.
“You will be surprised that if you approach any part of your body, it listens, it follows you – it is your body! With closed eyes, go inside the body from the toe to the head, searching for any place where there is a tension. And then talk to that part as you talk to a friend; let there be a dialogue between you and your body. Tell it to relax, and tell it, ‘There is nothing to fear. Don´t be afraid. I am here to take care; you can relax.’ Slowly, slowly, you will learn the knack of it. Then the body becomes relaxed.” –Osho
Approach your trauma response in a different way…discover how to lean into it, hold it close. It helped you to survive. Continually remind yourself that "It’s Safe Now".
2. YOU ARE NOT YOUR BELIEFS / YOU ARE NOT YOUR HISTORY. (Cultivate Discernment)
Growing up in a traumatic early environment causes us to create what one might call ‘fear based’ beliefs. A belief is a thought which has become static (it is fixed and no longer fluid). They may be conscious or subconscious, but they affect us nonetheless. Nothing can happen without our believing it can. Our beliefs create the way we see and experience the world, and as such are responsible for how we respond to and move through life. They UNDERPIN EVERYTHING. So, it’s really worth investing time and energy into what your fear based beliefs are.
Although it may not seem like it, we actually create, albeit unconsciously, the trauma, the fearful, the anxious response (the responses are actually BELIEFS)…and it becomes a pattern, that continues to repeat, when we encounter a situation that has a similar flavour to a past life experience. We develop psychological defences to keep life ‘out’, and these defenses are largely made of fear, and are bound in our bodies. We are disturbed by our views and attitudes about things. The philosophy of our beliefs drive the feelings that come up in us during the everyday dramas of life.
Let’s take a closer look. True empowerment comes when we start to look deeply at our beliefs. We make general decisions as a result of certain events happening to us, and these beliefs naturally reinforce themselves over time. For example, if you decide that intimacy is dangerous, because you believe you have been rejected, ignored or abused by a parent or loved one, you will develop a belief that you’re rejectable, and that you must protect yourself. (This is the simplest way I can put this for this article, but it is often more complicated, because if someone is our main caregiver, and they are behaving towards us in such a way that we need to protect ourselves, we end up loving them and fearing them at the same time).
Because of this belief you may be afraid of being rejected by your family, friends, employers or a lover, and you might act this out by behaving in a number of ways:
• you might try too hard to please as a compensation, which typically creates a level of unattractiveness and results in your being rejected;
• feel ambivalence in your relationships; you might try to act cool, in control, as if it doesn’t matter at all, which can also be very off-putting and distancing; or
• you might withdraw and isolate, and this actually increases the feeling of being rejected, even though you are the one turning away from connection.
• You might be picking flaky, unavailable people because you are too scared to have real intimacy (so you never get hurt again like your ____ hurt you).
To free yourself from (following) old beliefs (which craftily appear as fear based thoughts), your ability to stay in the witness needs to become finer and more subtle. The fear based beliefs will still appear (until they are released). Now, here is where CULTIVATING DISCERNMENT comes in. Cultivating discernment is knowing when your thoughts are based in fear (False Evidence Appearing Real), and knowing when they are rooted in a deeper place of truth or knowing.
Fear based thoughts are very convincing, our tendency is to identify with them…get to know your favourite ones!!! Just as you were the one to create the belief, as you become conscious of ones you created during times of high stress, you can simply, and powerfully say to yourself, ‘I no longer want this belief. I rescind all power I have invested in this belief.’ Now is the time to invest in a new direction.
3. STAY IN THE BODY
This generally only works before we are experiencing a panic attack, or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The body and our psyches ‘cope’ with overwhelming experiences by literally leaving the body. Basically the emotional brain has been triggered and gone into ‘fight or flight’, feeling that life is a constant threat to survival, whilst bypassing the cognitive mind. So firstly you have to have the experience of feeling safe in your body again. It took me many, many years to cultivate embodiment (living in the internal space of ourselves). Psychotherapist Judith Blackstone, defines three primary qualities of our being: Awareness, Emotion (or love) and Physical Sensation. By cultivating embodiment, what I have experienced, and also in my clients, is a coming together of that that has been separated by ‘trauma’. This ‘coming together’ happens naturally, but it takes a lot of commitment and practice. In my experience, we may never ‘want’ to feel very disturbing emotions and intense sensations as they ripple through the body. But by cultivating a new relationship with them, rather than denying them or seeking their urgent discharge/relief, we are learning to harness our physiological responses during panic and anxiety and we step into a new world.
As trauma is registered in the body, if we are to release the effects of stress and trauma, we must go via the body. The key thing is to be able to go into The Witnessing grounded presence that you are learning to cultivate, so that your body feels a safe place to be, as it is now, and find realistic, creative, solutions rather that going into fight or flight (or freeze)mode. This gives the safe container within which the process of transformation can take place. Feeling safe and grounded is essential for releasing anxiety, depression and trauma. By having the safety of the body container it becomes possible to stay with these uncomfortable feelings in the presence of conscious awareness and then from this position of being the detached observer, space is created for a new response.
To cultivate this bodily connection, get into a healthy habit of taking some moments throughout the day to ask yourself, ‘what am I feeling now?’, if you are anxious, what is happening in your body that tells you so? (maybe a tightness in your throat or belly). If you are sad, or peaceful or excited, how does it feel in your body?
There may be places in your body that feel empty or difficult to feel; without judgement, notice this, and see what happens! The ‘habit’ that we created in the past (when it was too much for our young selves) is to move away from our inner experience, but this practice is the opposite! Notice how it is to keep your consciousness and awareness in a particular place in your body? Just stay there and notice what changes, if anything. You may find that, in being present with yourself in this way, even if it is uncomfortable, it may be enough to change and transform what could be a contracted or activated part of yourself.
For example, if you are feeling anxious, slowing down and feeling the tightening in the chest, may release the constriction, just because you are being present with it, and this allows your nervous system to self-regulate. If this doesn’t happen, perhaps your fight and flight system is activated. In which case, there will be adrenalin pumping through you…This is sometimes what happens with me during take-off when I am flying…fear and all of the ‘juices’ from that, flooding my system. I used to take a Valium, but no more!!! I literally pant like a dog, which processes the fear (and sometimes gets me funny looks from anyone sitting next to me). After the panting, open your mouth, really wide, and do your best to do a few yawns (the jaw tends to clamp shut when fear and anxiety is flooding the system). These practices will begin to regulate your nervous system…but only if you stay present with yourself. There is a very fine line to staying present alongside something that’s activated, or allowing the trauma to follow it’s familiar pathways, and you leave the body.
“Remember as many times as possible to look into the body and see whether you are carrying some tension in the body somewhere – the neck, the head or the legs…. Relax it consciously. Just go to that part of the body, and persuade that part, say to it lovingly ‘Relax!’ Osho
If you find yourself overwhelmed, take your attention to your environment and notice a few things; the sun through a window, the pattern on some fabric, then bring your awareness to your hands and feet, notice their temperature, any sensations? Bring some movement to them by wriggling your fingers and toes…clasp your hands, touch your face…this kind of thing. If you are with someone that you trust, make eye contact with them. Slow down…notice your breath. Become very still…keeping your attention on the breath for a few minutes. Use coming into your hands and feet as an anchor for taming trauma. Couple this with, opening your mouth, relaxing your jaw, and connecting to your breath. It is paying attention to and staying with that directly felt experience instead of forming theories about it, this allows a natural process of growth and change to take place in your life.
4. “IT'S SAFE NOW”. False Evidence Appearing Real & THE
ARMOURED SELF – RECONNECTIVE HEALING
I’m attempting to cover a lot of ground in this one! Those with early trauma tend to have big protection, perhaps subtle, perhaps not. Probably a mixture of the two. If our boundaries were consistently crossed by our caregivers, we needed the protection to survive. However, it’s safe now. And there needs to be a conscious decision, time and again, to no longer protect yourself.
“…See if you can awaken in the battle field, without doing battle” B. Prior
Trauma, and it’s defenses, in the shape of body armouring, are not limited to the soft tissues of the body, they can become part of the personality, the structure of the character, in the shape of aggression, sarcasm, humour, teasing and intellectualising, and their purpose is to keep intimacy out (albeit unconsciously). We believe we are the personality, but the deeper truth is, we are not. It does seem like it though! It is our vulnerability in difficult encounters that touches our protection, triggers the fear based beliefs and causes us to shut down/and or push away. When a relationship brings up old memories and ancient discomforts, we become afraid and harden our hearts. Just at the very moment when the tears come that would soften us, we pull back and do something mean.
Life will beautifully present us with many opportunities on a daily basis to bring the fearful habits or anxious response closer. Closer, as opposed to being a victim to and moving away from, and in the process, discovering more choices to respond to life’s events. But how? Firstly by slowing down…which will put us in touch with the stress response, and we are now endeavouring to ‘be’ with, by engaging the Witness, instead of employing the usual distracting avoidance behaviours…we need to get VERY still to change our fearful patterns, very still and very in the body…AND, as we are no longer suppressing anything with drugs or giving energy to our habitual patterns, the fear that is bound in the body will begin to dissolve…and this can get very ‘loud’ in terms of symptoms in the body. However, once we have cultivated enough of the Witness, the internal observer, this is where it can come in, to remind us that this is ‘just’ old fear, that was bound in our body…dissolving. Real change is happening!
Which brings me to…
Reconnective Healing. Letting your body release and heal… Finding ways to rest and relax the Nervous System - -finding environments that facilitate this…restorative practices. Ways that work for you. Lying with your belly on the earth can be wonderfully comforting, and rests the psoas muscle (which is a large muscle that contracts in the body during fight or flight, gripping mainly the sacrum area). Restorative bodywork practices, such as Yoga, Tantsu, Cranial Sacral, Watsu… Osho’s active meditations, the AUM Meditation, Ecstatic dance. Listen to Solfeggio frequencies (Solfeggio frequencies make up the ancient 6-tone scale thought to have been used in sacred music, including the beautiful and well known Gregorian Chants. The chants and their special tones were believed to impart spiritual blessings when sung in harmony.) Meditation and practices like The Form, that invite new consciousness into the body and the energy field. Energy psychology such as EFT, EMDR, Hypnotherapy and NLP (but I also believe it is only when we are willing to go deeper than mind control techniques, that we truly know we are the power holders). Practices that begin to loosen the tight grip we have on ourselves, such as Bioenergetics and Kundalini shaking. I will be updating this document with some regularity with links, so please return!
By seeking out reconnective, restorative healing environments…you are continually reminding yourself that ‘It’s Safe Now…’
Which leads me to one of the most powerful restorative practices…
5. FREE THE BREATH
The next time you are gripped by anxiety or trauma, notice what happens to your breathing? Most people are not very conscious of how they breath. We tend to shallow breath, and this acts as a strategy to suppress our feelings. Both animals and children breathe deeply down into their “stomach” and thereby utilize the lungs optimally. However, part of the trauma response that we create, often includes a constricted breathing pattern. A drug free method of healing, breathwork is one of the most powerful methods of healing ourselves; gaining more oxygen and a more relaxed nervous system can help you break out of current restrictions and say ‘Yes’ to life.
Breath is life. Breathing is our most primal function. It affects, and is affected by every level of our being. It is totally automatic, yet it is completely within our control. As such it is a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, a force, a tool: for health, growth, and change. When you change your breathing, you change your chemistry. When you improve your breathing, you improve your physiological and psychological functioning.
Birth for most of us was a traumatic event, a life & death struggle, and most of us are suffering from the residual effects of this. Increase your level of consciousness, by cultivating the witness, commit to becoming aware of your breathing, and becoming more present with yourself. Learning to step out of the drama and the trauma, coming home to the present moment, and by focussing on your breathing moment to moment. Then you’re not fixated on your fear based thinking, you’re sensing yourself, you’re feeling feelings, you’re coming awake.
Here is a great way to begin a conscious breath practice. Breathe in to the count of four, pause for two, then exhale for the count of eight, pause for two. After a few breaths, begin to notice the relaxation taking place in your body, shoulders softening, diaphragm lengthening.
The key to relaxation, is in the exhalation. After doing this breath for 4 or more times, you’ll begin to notice your heart rate is lower (breath work is a beautiful way to cultivate a deeper connection with your heart too).
In my experience, it took some years of personal growth before I had loosened enough for breath-work, as it brought up so much fear. The need to be in control of myself was strong, so it was only when this was more loose that I could do breathwork. I’ve seen it in others when I’ve co-facilitated large breathwork groups on longer retreats; if the body is very held, it is unlikely to loosen during breathwork, but will still create a LOT of sensation for the person, and as long as they have a good facilitator supporting them, then this can be such a breakthrough process. One particular young man (who was very held in the body), experienced relief from constant lower back pain, for the first time in years.
In an example from my own life, the first time I experienced rebirthing, (continuous, circular, rhythmic, breathing ) there was a point during which my body, quite literally, took over, I was screaming, crying, bucking around…and even at one point made this snaking movement, as if going down the birth canal. I had tingling and bent fingers, and couldn’t quite believe what had happened! I was supported by several facilitators, who ‘welcomed me’ into this New World.
For me, rebirthing is a dance between fear and surrender. When I guide a person in a one to one session, the breathwork can be done fairly gently, or it can be a rebirthing session - It’s a way to clear up the effects of old suppressed trauma and a way to gain access to your unconscious mind at the level of your body. The ability to breathe fully and freely, and to direct or release the breath, at any time, in any situation, and to soothe an overstimulated nervous system, is extremely empowering.
I was on retreat with a teacher of mine last year, and the topic being touched on was very relevant to me, yet I noticed I was going unconscious and dropping off to sleep. I used my witness to inquire what I was avoiding, and I noticed a holding pattern in my breath. By consciously ‘calling myself back’, this pattern shifted in the present moment.
“The rest you are longing for will never be found in the spinning toward resolution, but in practicing intimacy with the contradictions.” Matt Licata
When you are in intimate, attuned contact with your own trauma response, an inner holding field emerges. Here is an example from my own life, from last week in fact, that beautifully demonstrates the pillars in action:
“I found myself in a situation where fear based thoughts are triggered, and the fight or flight response is activated in my nervous system. The 'situation' is something that to many people is lovely and relaxing; but to me , I feel terror, and want to run (fight or flight! ). The situation is allowing myself to be held, and gently moved, in a warm water pool. As a child, my experiences with water were traumatic for me. And this trauma and fear got bound in my body...The night before my session I become activated, can't sleep can't eat and the morning of my session, it is no exaggeration to say that I feel as if I'm being led to my death! Nice and dramatic! So, whilst all these fear based thoughts, strong bodily responses and sensations are happening, 'the Witness' part of me, recognises what is happening, which gives me just enough space to 1) NOT BELIEVE MY THOUGHTS (WHICH IS CULTIVATING DISCERNMENT AND ENGAGING WITH THE WITNESS), AND 2) USE SOME BREATHING TECHNIQUES to allow my nervous system to begin to regulate, even though the fear based thoughts are present and my fight and flight is activated. My witness can say 'there is fear, but I am not fear';
Reflect on this for a moment. You can experience fear, anxiety, anger, and even panic, without engaging in the activity of fear. I respond much slower – from the here and now, not the there and then - with the trauma response not as an enemy, but as my ally and inner wisdom guide.
In allowing myself to 'face the tiger', and trust the watsu practitioner, the awesome Steve Karle (poetryinwater.com), my nervous system had the capacity to let in a new experience of being held, and a piece of the previous trauma experience dissolves. I know this is the case as I recognise my 'mash potato head' feeling (my technical term for when the familiar reference points of the mind have lost their foothold), a feeling that the ground has fallen away, and there are no longer any reference points from which to make sense of what is happening.“
"While it may appear you are yearning for something outside you, dare to see that you are only ever longing for your own presence." ~Matt Licata
The key is ‘relaxation, Cultivating the embodiment of the 5 pillars, leads to a place where, perhaps for the first time, you begin to truly relax.
What is living a bigger life? The possibilities are endless! If you are no longer walking around with a tight grip of yourself (whether that’s a tight mental grip, or tight bodily contractions), you will be able to feel the world more, and people will be able to feel you.
Kimaya Crolla-Younger, 25th March 2016.