I have spent most of the week immersed in trauma. Fortunately not my own, nor the people around me, nor even the people I work with (for a change – we are currently having a break between groups). I have been instead been studying it and experiencing a fascinating way of working with trauma that by-passes cognition and works directly with the intelligence of the body. More on that later.
So what exactly is trauma? On the training course I was on (TRE: Trauma/Tension Releasing Exercises Level I, led by Steve Haines and a fantastic team of assistants), it was described as something that hijacks the body’s ability to function. Concise and eloquent. There is a paradoxical element to trauma: although it can totally overwhelm our sense of ourselves and the world around us, it can also force us to understand and see the world in different ways. This is the idea of post-traumatic growth and can only occur if the conditions we find ourselves in are conducive to this process occurring.
It is an interesting concept and takes the idea of recovery from trauma one stage, and a significant stage, further. The idea of recovery from trauma means ‘recovering’ back to the place where you were before the trauma occurred and in some ways tries to ignore that the trauma ever happened. History cannot be forgotten. On the other hand, post traumatic growth implies that a new sense of meaning and purpose is found, that the process is integrated into ones life and that it thereby forms part of the evolution of a person’s life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Yes, but only if you are able to process and integrate the experience!
I witness post-traumatic growth a great deal – both in terms of people in my personal life (and myself actually) and the ones I work with who have more often than not suffered horrendous trauma but are in the process of self development and healing. I see how traumatic experiences completely shake up the world view that people have been programmed to have, turning such world views, usually culturally determined ones (such as “I must get married to fulfill my purpose as a woman!”) into something more realistic, appropriate, and even spiritual (“the most important thing in my life is for me to be happy”). The same thing has happened on much larger scales throughout history – one of the biggest I can think of being the impact of World War II on the resurgence of existential thought: “If God did really exist, how the hell did He allow the Holocaust to happen?”. Cue Jean Paul Satre.
There is something in the new world view that post traumatic growth can facilitate that can be incredibly profound: perhaps it is not possible to appreciate the glory of life until you have experienced the darkness of it.
At the heart of TRE is the idea that all trauma affects the physical body and that the body must be involved in the healing process, rather than solely relying on ‘talking therapy’ for instance. Traumatic events have an impact on the nervous system which records and stores particular patterns within it, resulting in muscular contractions (such as tightening up of the psoas muscles to curl the body into a foetal position, thereby protecting it from harm). Part of the training I was on involved watching videos of animals shaking and tremoring – a mechanism evoked by the nervous system designed to literally shake out and discharge the muscular tension and help the body return to its natural state. When this is suppressed (by psychological defense mechanisms or medication for instance), the trauma stays locked in the body and can result in ever increasing tightness in the muscles, particularly the hip flexors, leading to tightness, discomfort and pain in the lower back and pelvic area and chronic patterns of stiffness throughout.
Despite the practice or doing of TRE seeming relatively simple, the theory and science behind it is unexpectedly dense. The ability to work with the reptilian and mammalian brain and by passing the neo-cortex (the most recent part of the brain in evolutionary terms, responsible for cognition) is ingenious since the cognitive element of our brains usually gets in our way the most through the stories and narratives we create (“I’m like this because…”). Cognitions are more often than not very distorted. TRE involves a set of exercises that induce tremors in the body, allowing energy to be freed up, a concept I seem to continually keep returning to, allowing the body to function more efficiently and streamlined. It’s almost as though the tremors themselves begin to dislodge the brain’s attachment to narrative, weakening the bonds that attach us to our stories. This helps to re-embody people, reinforces the importance of being in our bodies and learning to trust the incredible intelligence within.
After my three days of tremoring (we did roughly 40 min a day for three days), I already felt an incredible difference of lightness within my practice – it literally felt as though the heaviness-causing tension that can sometimes be there, particularly if I haven’t slept well or enough, was gone. I have ‘tremored’ a couple of times since the end of the training and want to continue with it. All I can say so far is that someone that was quite skeptical going into the training has come out massively curious and inspired. Watch this space!