stress

The Experience of Emotions

There was a point when I felt that no one in the medical system seemed to understand that my intense fears of doctors and pain had become ingrained within me. There was no one to help me through these fears. My emotions had accumulated so many dimensions and layers that they developed an eerie power of their own, making it harder and harder for me to find my own sense of inner power. Was I descending into a nightmare of insanity? Pain is not simply a physical sensation. Over a time period, the unending, debilitating physical pain and traumatic memories slowly metamorphosized into uncontrollable anxiety that terrorized and disabled my mind, body, and spirit. I was truly living in hell. I had to make a choice: to continue creating this hell in which I was living or to find a way out.

Emotions

     I was aware that the emotions I experienced when in the hospital (from surgeries) were still forcibly with me and influenced how I experienced and reacted to present and future situations. These old emotions had never left my psyche after I left the hospital.  During my hospital stays, I subconsciously feared that fully experiencing my emotions meant feeling more physical pain. I had automatically repressed my emotions for protection and mere survival. But this created layers of emotions built one upon another. 

     To better understand my emotions, I needed to acknowledge them. I diligently began acknowledging and truly sensing, feeling, and experiencing all the emotions that surfaced from living in non-stop, severe pain. I appointed several times each week when I knew I would be alone and forced myself to become aware of and feel my emotions and cry them out. The amount of courage and emotional strength this took convinced me that there was still inner strength within me; I had not lost it.

            But was acknowledging and feeling my emotions from the past sufficient?  Perhaps I needed to process them. But how? And what does “to process” even mean? Perhaps it means to understand their evolution, and how my present emotions were influenced by past emotions. For each emotion I felt, I journaled pages upon pages, asking myself:

  1. How, when, and why was a particular emotion constructed?
  2. How had that emotion progressed and influenced my present emotional state?
  3. How had it influenced all aspects of my Self, including my behaviors and outlook on my life?

     Each day I settled myself with pen in hand and wrote, feverously trying to understand the relationships between pain, trauma, emotions, and my sense of self. The more I understood my fears, the less I would fear them. I began analyzing the contents and nature of my dreams and I began self-dialoguing, loading my journal with daily question-and-answer sessions with myself. I also began to evaluate how I interacted with medical professionals and friends, and how I handled specific situations:

  1. What was I thinking before, during, after the event? (i.e. doctor visit, walking and feeling pain increase)
  2. What was the main emotion before, during, after the event? Why?
  3. What did I fear would happen? Why? Was my fear conditioned from past experiences? 
  4. What was my behavioral response towards my thoughts and emotions before, during, after the event? 
  5. Did I act or react? How did my reaction(s) and fear affect the pain?
  6. What really happened during this event?
  7. How was this different from what I had expected?
  8. What can I do next time before, during, and after the event to help me more effectively deal with the event? 

     The above questions helped me to reorganize my thoughts, cognitively piecing things together again, as I began understanding my fears, and how and why they developed. The more I understood my fears, the less I was afraid of them. This led to increasing awareness and control over my thoughts, emotions, and behavioral reactions.

      Increased self-awareness furnished increased sense of control and safety of being in my body. I no longer repressed and fled from my emotions. I began allowing them to come forth. And I slowly began having reasonable, not fearfully outlandish expectations of what would happen when I met with a doctor or experienced heightened pain.  

 

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redwood tree reaching for the sunny sky

Emotional Residue from Trauma

redwood tree reaching for the sunny sky

One day, in my massage class, the teacher asked for a volunteer to demonstrate manual techniques we were learning. Lisa volunteered. She was about my age at the time, mid-20s, fit, and walked with an air of confidence.

While my teacher was demonstrating massage techniques, she found a tight spot. Lisa’s left hip appeared stuck and inflexible, as if it was “frozen”. Attempting to loosen this area, the teacher moved her leg and hip into a specific position. Suddenly, Lisa cowered into a fetal position on the floor, yelling at a man none of us could see. Unable to distinguish the past from the present, she began reliving a past trauma of sexual assault. Lisa was too hyper-aroused and dissociated to comprehend what was occurring and why. 

“Lisa, what image will help you feel strong and powerful?” the teacher asked.

 “A redwood tree,” she said. 

The teacher guided Lisa into feeling as if she was a tree. The class watched as Lisa moved from kneeling on the floor to standing and stretching tall into the air, feeling her feet strongly rooted into the ground, feeling the strength of her trunk and body. Gradually Lisa transformed from a cowering child to a strong woman towering over us.  Using this somatic, experiential technique had decreased Lisa’s fear of being in her body, and in turn, brought her back into her body in present time. 

Feeling empowered, Lisa then began screaming to the (imagined) adult, “You no longer have control over me! I am in control. I am no longer going to suffer from what you did to me!”

“Being a tree” gave Lisa a new sensory experience in her body (and mind) of strength and resilience, which she had not felt as a young child while being molested. This renewed inner strength enabled her to take an active, aggressive stance, and to respond as she previously had wanted as a child, but incapable.

Through this experiential, somatic technique, Lisa reclaimed herself and her power. Levine (1997) characterized this process as her way of renegotiating the trauma: she actively restored a sense of aggression, reclaimed a sense of empowerment, chose and executed her actions, and achieved mastery, successfully dealing with and gaining control over the threat.1 

 

What Happened?  

Unfortunately, what should have been a neutral experience for Lisa during massage class, instead, her brain perceived as a threat. Lisa’s brain compared sensory information of the teacher’s touch and positioning to sensory input from her previous experiences of being sexually assaulted as a child.2  Suddenly residual emotions that had kept hidden (or frozen) in her unconscious were accessed and unlocked.

These are not the only “residue” patterns that could have been stored. Even Lisa’s specific state of arousal could have been perceived by the mind as threatening if it was the same as when she experienced the trauma. Specific physiological, physical, mental, and emotional states that she experienced as a child developed into a protective alarm mechanism that identified future “threats”.

Unable to consciously process through these stuck memories, emotions, and bodily postures, the trauma festered within. Levine (1997) stated that: “…post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear”, and locked in our nervous system.3

Kolk (1994) emphasized that treatment of the body is an important key to recovery. Mere talk cannot organize the resulting disorganized sensations and action patterns that have become imprinted in the brain. While re-experiencing the old trauma, higher cognition is inhibited by emotional and experiential memories.4

The massage teacher incorporated psychological, sensory, and manual techniques to help Lisa release frozen “energies” as she relived her trauma and finally, triumphantly, created her own ending.

Using the Body as a Therapeutic Tool For Pain Management

That day I realized, similar to Lisa, I was still frozen in time. I existed in a mental and physical state of shock and fear from past traumatic physical injuries and medical procedures. Mentally, I remained in fear, on guard, hyper-vigilant, and defensive in order to protect myself from any perceived threat or potential future injury. Physically, my body remained tight and frozen.  

 Massage class taught me a new way to more deeply access my emotions related to pain–through the body.

Placing my hand on the painful area of my back and focusing my attention there suddenly brought more awareness than ever before of all the motions related to the pain and its consequences. By “communicating” with my low back at a specific “activating point”, which consisted of muscle tension and nerve pain, I accessed deep emotional layers of intense anger and victimization that hid behind the physical pain. Previously, these hidden emotional layers I was unable to tap into by merely intellectualizing. Perhaps, I could not have otherwise released them without this technique. 

The technique of imagining myself as a tree also taught me how to feel safe in my body. Often when I felt that the pain was unbearable and I wanted to run away from myself, I would use this technique to feel strong and powerful, and I would imagine my legs as roots running down into the earth, releasing pain down into the earth. This method calmed me and brought me back into my body.

This massage class was the beginning of learning how to interpret the unique langue of my mind and body. 

looking up at large green tree with light shining through the leaves

Tree Imagery Meditation - 11 mins.

Pain often makes us feel unsafe in our body, vulnerable, and powerless. This meditation guides you through imagining, and then, feeling yourself as “being a tree”, feeling strong, grounded, powerful, and energized. You can also imagine your legs and feet as roots, releasing pain into ground, neutralizing it. (Click picture for meditation)

→For more meditations, click here

May you feel the power and strength that lies within, despite chronic pain and illness.

References

1.     Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997, p.122.

2.    Perry, Bruce D. Memories of Fear. Web version of chapter published as “The Memories of States” in Goodwin and R. Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma. New York: Basic Books, pp. 9-38.

3.     Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997, p. 34.

4.. Kolk, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1994, 1(5), 253-265.     

Resources

Recent editions of the referenced books:

Kolk, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. September 8, 2015.

Levine, Peter A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. September 28, 2010

Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Audio CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged Ed. 2016.

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picture of a stuffed brown dog on bed laying down

A Special Gift for Someone in Pain – A Confidant

picture of a stuffed brown dog on bed laying down

Two friends once gave me something I didn’t realize I needed. It was small, brown, and fluffy. Its eyes looked sad and longing, just as I felt that day. 

My friends, Reme and Sara, gave me a special gift, a stuffed animal. I remember them timidly standing at my feet, searching for words to say as they stared at me, weak, disheveled, and semiconscious in my hospital bed. Reme reached her arms out to me and handed me a soft, brown stuffed dog. I took the dog in my arms and then blacked out once again from pain. When I awoke, I saw long, fluffy ears resting on the coarse hospital bed sheets on top of me, and two eyes staring directly at me, silently asking, how are you? I really don’t know, I replied. It’s eyes stared at me as if waiting…expecting for me to divulge each and every word of fear, will power, hope, anxiety, and despair that comes when experiencing chronic pain.

I named my stuffed dog, Jakey, after my friend’s real dog, and it has never left my bed. Jakey is the only one that knows the extent of my physical, and thus, emotional pain throughout the years. He has seen me screaming in pain and blacking out in the hospital; he has allowed me to hold him so tightly he would suffocate if he were real. He spent endless days and nights silently listening to my fears, hopes, laughs, and cries, always looking at me with his big eyes as if saying, tell me more. Jakey, my confidant. I burdened him with all my tumultuous feelings and thoughts as I lay in bed day after day, year after year, in pain. And the nights I needed to be held, I held him.

I never thought such a simple gift could be so profound. What convinced my friends at that time to buy a stuffed animal for me, a 26-year-old, I will never know. I lost touch with them years ago, but their gift is forever with me. Their gift has filled a void within me throughout all my hospital stays and all the years that followed in which I felt misunderstood, angry, scared, confused, alone, and exhausted.

We all need someone–or something–to talk to; someone who listens to us without judgment, and sometimes, without a reaction or response; someone to whom we can tell everything without trying to leave out parts of our story. With Jakey, I never worried what he might think, if  he would suffer hearing my sufferings, or if he would think I complained too much or clung to irrational hopes and desires. Jakey was my journal.

It is 19 years later. I am 46-years-old now. Jakey’s resting place, night and day, is still in my bed. He holds all my memories, my trauma, my pain. He knows my despair. He knows my struggles. He knows my courage and story of recovery, and my flare ups. He knows me better than anyone else. He knows my truths.

My six-year-old daughter knows Jakey. She is thrilled that I share a love for stuffed animals as she does. She giggles and kisses Jakey on the special nights I give him to her, and she gives me one of her stuffed animals to sleep with in return. When she is sick or having a bad day, I tuck Jakey in her arms. Jakey is healing.

 My daughter is too young to understand my experiences with pain and the meaning behind my love for my one, special stuffed dog, but when I see her talk to her stuffed animals, repeatedly hugging them so tightly that the stuffing thins, dragging them everywhere with her until the material starts ripping, and pouting when she can’t take one or two or three into the store with her, I think, perhaps a part of her does understand.

Sometimes the best gift that says “I care” is something as simple as a stuffed animal. It is something that we can cling to knowing that we are never as alone as we may think. Behind that stuffed animal is the person who unexpectedly gave it to us.