The Trauma Survivors Guide To Yoga: Why You Keep Getting Stuck & How To Empower Change

The problem with the “Law of Attraction” thinking — a ‘like attracts like’ mentality that suggests what we focus on becomes our reality — is that you can’t think your way through an emotional problem.

Simply thinking about being happy and peaceful doesn’t automatically make it so.

To transform the mind isn’t enough.

For a peaceful and calm individual, self-reflection and inner awareness are practiced to see what needs changing, then the action to make those changes follows.

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For a trauma survivor this is more challenging. The communication and self-awareness centers of the brain are disrupted, making for a difficult inner conversation.

And, because the physiological organism of the body responds to trauma with fight, flight or freeze, fear and anger are trapped there, placing a roadblock in the middle of transformation. 

Frozen In Trauma 

Just like our animal kin, when threatened, our first physical response is to flee. The inability to take action —whether against abusive primary caregivers, being pinned in a car during an accident or avoiding enemy fire — becomes frozen in our nervous systems.

Inaction, and the inability to discharge this pent up stress response, is what binds our physiology in the loop of panic and fear. Even though we know, rationally, (once we calm down again) certain behaviors are not serving us, our physiologic response may keep us stuck in the unhealthy patterns we so desperately want to change.

Change cannot happen in the mind, alone —the body must be addressed, too.

But first we have to get unstuck.

This means addressing the history of fear-based paralysis and the backlog of rage accompanied by its underlying sorrow and loneliness. Not fun, I know… But necessary for change to happen, and below, there are tips to make it a tiny bit easier.

Getting Unstuck

Avoiding the feelings of being trapped and frozen keeps those feelings stuck in our physiology. Without a physiologic change, transforming our own behaviors is almost impossible.

Facing these feelings, however, risks the fear of being panicked all over again.

It also elicits fear of our own rage and violence towards the circumstance we were thrust into.

Without an outlet, trauma survivors often turn this rage on themselves in the forms of self-hatred, self-harm, depression and shame.

So first, we must set up a safe environment, grounded and centered in the present, so we can approach these intense feelings without re-triggering the body’s stress response.

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Here are some ways to feel safe and get grounded:

  • Sit quietly in a beautiful, calm place, or meditate there.
  • Feel the connection your body is making to the support beneath or behind you, this can be done anywhere, anytime.
  • Draw your awareness down into the lower half of your body —it tends to get pulled up towards the head when not at ease.
  • Allow your eyes to move naturally, taking in the sights where you are; this helps you orient to the present moment.
  • Feel the natural flow of your breath, especially the exhale, which activates a calming effect.
  • Retreat to a quiet environment.
  • Play a musical instrument, paint or draw.
  • See a therapist who specializes in trauma recovery, ideally someone who can take a somatic approach, such as Somatic Experiencing (SE), Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Taking Action

Once unstuck, we need action to move the stuck stress and pent up rage. Remember, we can’t think our way through an emotional problem, no matter how positive, hopeful or well-aligned our thinking may be.

The key is that action must be taken in small steps, so as not to overwhelm the sensitive nervous system.

Practice doing a little at a time, and moving back and forth between the intensity of action and the calming exercises (as above) that help you remain present.

Here are some actions that might help move stuck stress and pent up rage from the body:

  • Tai-chi or Qi Gong – in a group or class setting
  • Gentle yoga asana – in a group or class setting
  • Lion’s Breath
  • Dancing
  • Singing out loud
  • Flicking the wrists and hands, as if shaking off water
  • TRE
  • Get a massage from a licensed and trusted practitioner
  • Receive Reiki or Healing Touch

Moving Forward

Anything that helps us be mindful, present and self-aware will help reset our limbic systems and make a safe space for moving forward.

Anything that brings us back to our own innate power—particularly if it’s similar to what robbed us of it in the first place—will help us rewire our brains into a new way of being that moves beyond our history and takes us into the life we’ve dreamed for ourselves.

We can face our fears, a little at a time, so we can unfreeze the physical immobility held in the body and make steps forward in transformation and change.

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We can cultivate feelings of worthiness —otherwise we risk going back to the old ways, the old patterns, the toxic relationships, just to alleviate tension.

The memories and experiences we’ve had cannot be changed. But as we get unstuck and take action, the weight of them upon us is lightened. Our experiences become memories, placed appropriately in time past, rather than something living and breathing in every moment of the present.

And then, we can move forward.