As I wrapped up a particularly emotional mediation recently, I urged my clients to take good care of themselves and to make an effort to heal and restore in the subsequent weeks. This is more than an encouraging platitude at the end of a tough session. I often say this to people in the course of separation or intense co-parenting disputes because their circumstances are traumatic. Literally. Intense fighting, being left by the person you have built a trusting relationship with, losing daily contact with your children, or financial and legal anxieties create trauma that gets stored in the body. And that can come back to haunt us individually and in our co-parenting relationship for years if we don’t address it.
What happens when we experience trauma
When we experience trauma, we often get a hair trigger for fear and anger, setting us up for a downward spiral. We may fly off the handle at our children when they ask too many questions or get into a fight with a colleague who we perceive is threatening our work. People in trauma are likely to either become desensitized and numb or experience heightened sensitivity. Neither are conducive to good decision making, parenting or self care.
How to move forward
I encourage my clients to address this stress directly and not let it make their situation worse. But when I say “take good care of yourself,” or “treat yourself well” clients often nod their heads and look blankly at me while they flip through their internal catalog of possible activities that might help calm their nerves. A massage? No time or money for that. A glass of wine or a beer with a friend? Probably just going to turn into a gripe session. A hot bath? A movie? Shopping? How could any of those things actually help me deal with the very real problem of losing a partner, not having enough money or having to parent alone?
Taking care of yourself
It occurred to me that it might be helpful to break down what I mean when I say “take good care of yourself.” It doesn’t have to be a big expenditure of time or money, but it does take some practice. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Our brains are not great at working through trauma. Brains play tricks on us. In an effort to gain perspective, compassion or just to vent, we’re likely to tell and re-tell our story about how we were wronged in the first place to ourselves or to others. Since our bodies can’t always distinguish between an imagined experience and a real experience (that’s why we salivate when we think of yummy food or get sweaty-palmed when we think about missing a plane), we end up re-traumatizing ourselves. Our minds also keep us attached to a version of the story that has us playing the helpless role of victim.
- Instead of lamenting about our woes or trying to suppress our feelings, we’re best served by fully acknowledging them. Sitting quietly and noticing how our body feels and naming the emotions allows us to be present and not caught up in the merry-go-round of the story. This takes practice. The mind wants to return to why we are justified in being angry. But simply noticing and naming “this is sadness” or “I am angry” normalizes the emotion and keeps us from being overly identified with the story or our reaction. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it:
“In us, there is a river of feelings, in which every drop of water is a different feeling, and each feeling relies on all the others for its existence. To observe it, we just sit on the bank of the river and identify each feeling as it surfaces, flows by, and disappears.”
I’ve also learned that trauma is stored in our body. In order to release it, we need to go where it is stored. Physical action that combine movement with breath, such as yoga or hiking and those that allow us to shake or tremble are ideal. Massage and other body treatments are more than relaxation tools or indulgences. These therapies help re-sensitizing us to our body awareness and keep the trauma from getting lodged. And of course nature is always healing.
Get out and breathe.