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Stories from the Well

Sit, Breathe, Connect: Integrating Mind, Body, and Soul to Heal Trauma

Posted on 09/22/21 by in Stories from The Well

By: Mary Curran Hackett

Most of us live in dark caves of our own making. Not intentionally. It happens imperceptibly over time. We carve out a nice groove for ourselves, rubbing and smoothing it out like we do a worry stone. Even the tiniest trickle of water can hew away the mightiest of mountains over the eons. Before we know it, we’re stuck in an old, but a familiar and comforting pattern—even if we loathe to admit it. Never leaving the house. Reading constantly. Binge-watching TV endlessly. Slowly watching our friendships slip away, along with our impetus to move, seek out new adventures, and try new things. (And that’s not just during a global pandemic. Although, in truth, that didn’t help much either!) Some of us opt for different patterns—drinking too much, going out too much, sleeping too much, shopping too much, eating too much or too little, collecting surface relationships like old tchotchkes from a flea market so that they never have to dig too deep, care too much, or love at all. Some work too much and others avoid it altogether, along with the prospect of finding deep purpose and fulfillment in the process. Over time, these patterns don’t just affect the way we think or behave, they affect our bodies too…how we sit, stand, walk, talk, engage, and even experience the world. They can even cause serious illness. When we dig deeper into these patterns, we see a lot is going on beneath the surface.

This “stuck” state is a sign of trauma or a dysregulated nervous system. After all, we’re all just muddling through here on Earth’s surface, trying to figure this life thing out. And this living thing can be difficult if we don’t have the necessary tools and information to help us out. But living can also be beautiful, enriching, peaceful, and dare I say joyful. Over the years as a visitor to this planet in this container we call “a body,” I, like most people, have had moments of deep sorrow, pain, suffering, loss, unexpected and dramatic changes, and physical and emotional blows. I have been both victim and survivor, the aggrieved and the heartbreaker, the forgiving one and the forgiven, the abandoned and the abandoner. The “them” and “the other.” And throughout it all my “soma” or in layman terms, “how I experience the body” has reacted differently to each experience.

There was a long period where I was not even aware of this body, or how I felt in it, or what boundaries if any, it had. I didn’t even know how to breathe. (Yes, of course, I was breathing, but I didn’t know the power I had within me to access it and use it to regulate myself). I didn’t understand the power of my thoughts and the stories I was telling myself and others. I didn’t know where I ended and others began because I was incapable of creating boundaries. I didn’t understand my nervous system, how it worked, what regulated it, and in contrast, what dysregulated it. I didn’t understand how fundamental a regulated nervous system was to my health—and not just my physical anatomy, but to my emotional health as well and how I functioned in and responded to living in a world filled with other people.

Like all people who are going “through it,” I didn’t seek change until I was sick of my own bullsh*t. Nothing anyone else could say or do (or do for me) was going to help me. I had to want to help me. I had to want to feel better in my own skin. Over the past 20 plus years, I sought out therapies—cognitive-behavioral, gestalt, and other types of psychologists. I saw life coaches, hypnotists, ayurvedic healers, went on retreats from various traditions. I took up yoga—trying various teachers and methods, before finding a teacher and school where I felt I belonged. I was also reading everything I could get my hands on in the “self-help” section of the bookstore. I was journaling (and journaling and journaling) and writing until my hands cramped—novels, memoirs, articles, and even books for others. Before there was Eat, Pray, Love. I was unwittingly practicing Read, Write, and Repeat, thinking I could intellectually (and with sheer will alone) break through my physical and emotional pain.

It wasn’t until I read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score several years ago that I fully began to understand what was going on inside me. For the first time, I understood how the “brain is on trauma.” Yes, I envision the “this is your brain on drugs” commercials from the 80s too when I say that out loud. But this analogy of a fried egg is inchoate. The brain on trauma is less of a fried egg, and more like an unhatched, fertilized one. There is so much going on in the brain underneath its delicate shell. It’s a complicated process. And with care and attention, what is going on inside can transform and ultimately have a breakthrough. There is a way out of trauma. It is not a fixed, permanent, or terminal state. No one has to live with trauma without hope of real and lasting change. Van Der Kolk writes:

"The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.

When we ignore these quintessential dimensions of humanity, we deprive people of ways to heal from trauma and restore their autonomy. Being a patient, rather than a participant in one’s healing process, separates suffering people from their community and alienates them from an inner sense of self."
Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Reading Van Der Kolk was the first time I had any hope that I might be able to change. When I reread it with Stacy and the Mindful Embodiment Masterclass, I was able to integrate all of my learning—from various therapies, yoga, body movement classes, spiritual and cultural traditions and his work—and see how it all fit together. In other words: reading it along with the work we did together as a class integrated several frameworks into one cohesive whole. In this book, he destigmatizes trauma and explains that trauma isn’t something that can be “talked away.” It’s also not something reserved for war, abuse, and rape survivors. Trauma is something we all live with. It lives in the body and needs to be processed through the body through various exercises like the one’s Stacy with the True Body Project does—namely, ground, center, orient, connect, and nourish the nervous system so people can enter flow, connection, and life more fully together.

Working with Stacy over the years, from the first time she asked me to sit with her in one of her many City Silence meditation circles to the various True Body Projects she offered online, most recently the Mindful Embodiment Masterclass, I have been introduced to a wealth of knowledge and expertise from her and other trauma and somatic healing experts. The books and concepts she introduced us through this training program were life-changing, each adding a new layer to the bedrock of my understanding. So much so, that proverbial self-inflicted cave I had been living in, filled up so much, it compelled me out into the world and into the light. I went from the entrenched habits of Read, Write, Repeat to the freedom and restorative power of Sit, Breathe, and Connect.

Books Worth Reading If You Feel Stuck

If you’re at all interested in diving deeper into healing your trauma (and understanding how it affects the body, mind, and soul), there are several books that Stacy recommends. In addition to the must-read The Body Keeps the Score, the books below are the ones I found particularly impactful and give a great foundation to understanding trauma.

In addition to Van Der Kolk’s groundbreaking work, the following books will deepen your understanding of your body, your mind, and soul, and how they all work together to protect you. I recommend starting with these foundational works:

Thomas Hanna’s Somatics: Reawakening the Minds Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health gave practical steps and movements that can retrain the body accustomed to habitual actions. He offers a five-minute routine you can do to help maintain the body and escape physically debilitating pain.

Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies is an insightful inclusive take on the societal implications of dysregulated nervous systems—especially as it relates to racial unrest and injustice. One of my favorite takeaways from this book is the “Settled bodies settle bodies.” Or as Resmaa writes, “A calm, settled body is the foundation for health, for healing, for helping others, and changing the world.” He takes the trauma out of the “individual” and places it in the larger cultural and societal context. One of the most fundamental and transformational things we can do to change, he argues, is “not only for ourselves but also for our children and grandchildren—is to metabolize our pain and heal our trauma. When we heal and make more room for growth in our nervous systems, we have a better chance of spreading our emotional health to our descendants, via health DNA expression.”

Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma breaks down trauma and reminds us of it’s not what happens to us, but how the body reacts and remembers. He offers a deep understanding of the inner workings of our bodies and minds. He also offers hope and solutions. We do not have to keep repeating (reenactment) of our personal, familial, and cultural traumas, but we can learn to process trauma of instead of holding it in our bodies and live more harmoniously with ourselves and each other. He writes, “In the process of healing trauma we integrate our triune brains. The transformation that occurs when we do this fulfills our revolutionary destiny. We become completely human animals, capable of the totality, of our natural abilities. We are fierce warriors, gentle nurturers and everything in between.”