I remember it vividly. The year was 1982, it was late November and in Havelock North, New Zealand, that meant summer was promising to show up, just around the corner. I was 16 and had finished my second to last year of high school. The gardens of James Cook St were full of spring flowers and as I walked home I was humming the Number 1 pop song of the time ‘Come On Eileen’. I was feeling on top of the world.
You know when you remember a seemingly insignificant event in full and glorious detail – a party that you have a particularly good laugh with someone telling a joke, or maybe a moment receiving an award at school. The memory is full of explicit feelings, words, pictures and facts – the context is full and complete. Maybe even sounds and smells or tastes are included. A smell may remind you straight away of nana’s Sunday lunches. A sound, like a song, of a particular year.
But not all memories are associated with pleasure or happiness. A particular smell of disinfectant can bring about a feeling of fear, panic or even terror, resulting in that person breaking out in a cold sweat and shaking, feeling the need to get away fast. This smell may remind that person of being in a frightening time during the birth of their child. A particular aftershave as that of a time when a person was abused by the person wearing that same fragrance.
The thing is they may not consciously think that ‘that is the smell of the clean hospital where I had my baby’ or ‘dad hit me and was always wearing this aftershave at the time’. And this is because traumatic memory is created and stored very differently than those other everyday memories.
A child who has been abused becomes wired to be ‘on alert for who will hurt me next’ and the wiring on the brain believes that will indeed happen. These thoughts get packed away into the very elementary part of the brain, the primitive part for survival.
When an adult experiences something traumatic, the brain actually becomes overwhelmed, the thalamus part of the brain shuts down, unable to store the entire picture of what happened.
“Instead of forming specific memories of the full event, people who have been traumatised remember images, sights, sounds, and physical sensations without much context.” says Bessel Van der Kolk author of The Body Keeps The Score.
This means that only parts of the whole event get stored and they become triggers. These triggers become an association that the world is not a safe place and they are therefore in immense danger and need to fight, take flight or sometimes all they can do is freeze. This trigger activates an incredibly strong emotion.
Take for example the woman who averted a suicide by ‘catching’ a man in his wheelchair as it tumbled backwards off the lift into the ambulance. Nobody was hurt yet such was her cerebral overload and association to the event that telling her story even a week later meant that she was overcome with emotion, so much so that she was unable to speak or stop shaking. She was plagued by a vivid image of his brain splattered on the concrete – but that was far from what happened. This image was forefront in her mind when she closed her eyes to sleep – she was unable to sleep. Her mind and her body were behaving as if she was right in the middle of that event that had happened a week ago. The lack of sleep was showing up as well.
And this is how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is in people. It is not at all about the past, but about a body that continues to behave as if the experience is happening right now. The feelings, sensations and emotions and thoughts of the past are stirred up in response to the trigger.
After a trauma, a person feels different and certain sensations are experienced differently – that person is changed. These changes result in changes of their behaviour, often creating avoiding type behaviours in order to control their environment to one of safety, being hyperalert and hypervigilant in the process.
“All too often, when people feel traumatised, their bodies can feel like they’re under threat.” Even on a peaceful and beautiful day where there is no danger. Then, after time, this becomes a ‘normal’ way of being, slipping to an unconscious behaviour.
And this constant feeling of threat, where the person is on high alert, hypervigilant, feeling unsafe is constantly eroding their health. Over time, a body that is in a constant state of stress is more likely to become an ill body with pelvic issues, autoimmune problems, gut issues, anxiety and all manner of other problems. This is because of the mind and body connection which is a complete system. Like most systems, tweaking one part will cascade the changes in the other parts as well.
Physiologically an emotion is a powerful stimuli. An emotion is actually an electrical, chemical and hormonal discharge of the neural system which means that they influence not only the function of our organs, the integrity of our immune defences and the workings of the many circulating biological substances that help regulate the physical state of the body. This is called psychoneuroendoimmunology. (PNEI)
Some particular traumas can specifically affect specific parts of the body – sexual abuse and trauma often affecting the pelvis and gut. “Trying to repress trauma and emotion leads to the disarming of the body’s defences against illness as the body is now disorganised and confused and rather than being the protector of our health, our immunity becomes the destroyer of our health”. (Gabor Maté). In other words, stuffing the genie back into the bottle is not going to be effective because the body remembers.
“Trying to separate the mind from the body is like trying to separate the salt from the sea with a fork” Eva M Clark.
For health to happen the body needs to be in a state of peace. During this time, not only the stress hormones are metabolised away but the body is able to direct its energy and blood flow to the internal organs associated with repair, immunity and other vital biochemical processes that, being human, are necessary for a healthy life.
Working with a trauma means that the experience is unlinked to the emotion associated with the event. It then allows the memory to be more distant – stored alongside other distant memories, as it should be, resulting in a feeling of that being in the past and not a reaction of the now.
The result is that the person is able to remember what happened without the geyser of gripping emotion or bodily feelings. They feel free again. And they also maintain a learning from the experience, because there is always something to learn.
This knowledge of the effect of emotions being deeply implicated in the cause of illness/restoration of health has been around for centuries. It has been buried in the literature but ancient teachings are coming to the surface and science is finally catching up and with the insights of PNEI the learnings have yet to penetrate the world of medical practise.
I believe the attainment of great health is possible by utilising the mindbody connection. It can no longer be ignored and in my work I see it time and time again – the problem/symptom is a call for help from a previous trauma, shock, deep grief or conditioned belief. In my work with pelvic health of women, each woman has her story and experience yet the consequences show up as a similar pattern and working from the start of this journey creates a deeper and longer lasting change and understanding.