How mindful movement helps you heal from traumatic events
“...Traumatic stress reactions are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.”
~Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Service NCBI
Trauma comes about in moments of intense pain, struggle for survival, or in close proximity to death or violence. It can also come from sustained pressure from external forces that are existentially threatening. Whatever the cause, the effect is that our nervous system locks down causing us to feel physical pain or frozen, different, alienated, and can lead to self-harming coping habits and substance abuse.
As I write, we are entering the fifth month of a national pandemic that is wrecking our economy and disrupting millions of lives. We are all under unusual, sustained pressure. Things are coming up in our social groups, in our families, in our heads, and it’s all getting stirred up as we race into an unknown future with feelings of general consternation.
Everyone has their own way of coping with trauma and it will change throughout your life. According to the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), it isn’t necessary to “process” traumatic events to move on in your life — but to move on, without spiraling into unhealthy coping habits, you have to get moving.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe in their bodies; the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort…”
~ Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
If you are experiencing sustained or ongoing traumatic events, you will have to make constant efforts to bring yourself back to your body — over and over again. If the trauma is something from your past, you may have to work through self-harming coping habits that you are leaning on.
To help yourself unfreeze, start by opening your senses.
What are you sitting or standing on? What sounds are happening right now?
Does the air around you smell in any way?
What do you see around you, how far can you see around you?
Your skin is your largest organ — what is the temperature against your skin? Is there a breeze? What about the fabric rubbing against you?
Do you have a taste in your mouth or on your lips?
Can you feel the pulse of your blood in your chest? In your hands? In your stomach? In your legs or feet?
Now just wriggle your hips, ripple your spine, flex and point your feet, shrug your shoulders, lift your arms, turn your head. Do them all or just a few. Let ripples of movement run through your body. Proprioception is sometimes called the sixth sense. It is your physical awareness of movement.
As you perform these motions, let your breath follow your movement. There is no wrong way to breathe! Breathe into your skin like you are a sponge, soak in the oxygen and let yourself sway. Big or small, ebb and flow.
Notice that I am saying movement and not exercise? This is because a lot of “fitness exercise” continues to excite your already over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system. You don’t need to run from a burning building right now. Instead, let yourself enjoy movement for its own sake. For your own sake.
There are ways to get exercise that lights up your parasympathetic nervous system and which helps bring your mind and body into harmony, sort of like moving meditations. Some popular forms of exercise that have this benefit are; Gyrotonic, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Yoga. Also, Dancing, Pilates, and Animal Flow — which are my personal favorites. The goal isn’t to remove stress but to release yourself from a constant stress reaction.
During times of acute stress, its easy to lock yourself down. When that happens its tempting to turn to harmful coping habits. To truly move on in your life, keep returning to your presence. Open your senses like tiny gifts and give yourself small tides of movements that have no meaning except your own enjoyment.