Adventures in Somatic Therapy
Even to this day, after all this healing and all this work, I still wake up each and every morning with anxiety that rises as my body does. The severity depends on the day and has little rhyme or reason, as far as I can tell. The physical symptoms of anxiety start their engines the moment my alarm rings; my stomach tightens, my heart and mind race, and a sense of dread washes over me like a heavy, unwelcome wave. And all of it so familiar and so discouraging. It's hard not to be critical of myself when I wake up with the same thought flashing in my mind every morning, "Oh. This again."
Fortunately, my morning meditation and yoga practice successfully quells my anxiety, which feels like a wonderful, miraculous gift every time. Still, this consistent morning anxiety had me stumped and frustrated, and I found myself wanting to know what's happening biologically and how to begin retraining that part of my brain that wakes up ready to survive trauma.
Last week, I asked my therapist about this challenge of morning anxiety. She explained to me that when we wake up in the morning our bodies release adrenaline in order to start warming up our sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our brain that controls what's commonly called the fight or flight response. It's very useful. We need it in order to survive. But the survival mechanism is overactive in some of us, oftentimes because of past trauma which our bodies remember and operate based upon, and some re-training is likely necessary for many of us.
Understanding WHY my body is doing something is important to me. It helps me feel as though I can begin to truly know and feel at home in my body rather than feeling like an alien soul in this human form (thanks, disassociation.)
After my therapist explained the science behind what was going on, we dove right in - per my request - to see if we could find out why my body feels the need to wake up ready to survive. I fall asleep meditating every night, so by the time I drift off I'm in a deeply peaceful state. What happens between the time I fall asleep and the time I wake up? Where does my peace go?
It only took about two seconds of reflecting on it to know my morning anxiety isn't about anything that's currently happening. It's about the past. Of course it's about the past. A good portion of the trauma I experienced during the sexual abuse happened in the middle of the night, and my body learned to be ready for it. I would lie wide awake in my bed for hours every night, barely breathing, waiting for him to come in. During the traumatic acts I would disassociate from my body, but that didn't change what was happening or what my body and brain were experiencing, responding to, and learning from.
The work we did that day in therapy was easily the most emotionally and physically intense formal therapy work I have ever done. I'm still processing it so I'm not exactly sure how to write about it yet. I took some pictures this morning to at least attempt giving some sense of the physical aspect of the work - clutching what belongs to me, pushing away what is not welcome. (The pictures don't do the process justice by any means, but I'm a visual person and it made sense to represent it that way.) The release that happened was raw and terrifying, and we're not done yet. We'll likely be working on this for several sessions.
A past version of myself would be rolling her eyes right now, but it's a fact that our bodies absorb our experiences and are changed by them. Experts in this field are understanding more and more about how our bodies respond to trauma, and there's nothing new-ager or mystical about wanting to better know and care for these bodies we have been gifted with.
I couldn't be more grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge, heal, and release the wounds of the past so that I may be fully present and vibrant in my life.
“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma