How to Heal Trauma: Learning from Animals.
Have you ever tried to become calm and failed? I am talking about the kind of anxiety that causes your body to flip out of itself — and into the chaotic mind.
You may wonder why meditation is so hard for you, why your muscles are in contraction and you have a racing mind. For many of us, this is what trauma does to the human body. Our neural pathways change, our fight-or-flight syndrome is paralyzed, and we feel unsafe in our bodies.
I learnt a life-changing lesson from a book I was recommended: Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine, a groundbreaking researcher into the ways humans fail to mimic animals in their ability to dispel trauma from their bodies in quick time. A quote from this encapsulates the key message:
“Animals in the wild are not traumatized by routine threats to their lives, while humans, on the other hand, are readily overwhelmed and often subject to the traumatic symptoms of hyper arousal, shutdown and dysregulation. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time.
For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness.
The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word — they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.”
I was diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder in 2013. I had classic symptoms: the sudden emergence of repressed memories, panic attacks, extreme anxiety, and an inability to relax, ever.
While the episode was triggered by the loss of someone I loved to cancer, and my confrontation with death and existentialism, I realized that I had been trying to manage this condition through medication and bulimia, exercise addiction, smoking and sometimes drinking. Depression and anxiety, so often experienced, squashed my endless joy.
I thought these states were just natural to me. That I was different. And helpless. Because all the therapy, all the exposure to my fears and being out of control that I tried, the running: none of it alleviated the feeling that something about me was un-fixable and beyond my healing capabilities.
It is irrelevant what caused my trauma all those years ago. It is just important that as a little girl, I experienced something that changed me for life.
When I saw a therapist who suggested that I try techniques which revolved primarily around the release of trauma energy from the body, I felt like I had been sent a direct miracle cure. It was not the sudden fix I thought it would be, but I could finally stop thinking I had to cure the thoughts in my mind, the emotions in my heart and body.
I started reading and gathering information everywhere. I went for body release and came into presence for the first time in years. I stopped night-eating. I went on the right medicine. I learnt to run or walk off-road, on grass, and follow the nature structures, rather than rigid tarmac lines. I overcame my fear of going upside down and started doing handstands.
I also started cutting, but that didn’t last too long, and was a response to such a huge shift in my life, and the need to control something. Blood and wound may seem insane, but, like suppressing food or expressing emotion through vomiting, it was a temporary fix and gave my spinning brain a short-term high.
I stood barefoot on grass, and looked at the strength of trees and their inherent calm. I hugged them sometimes, with no shame. I took this part of the book to heart, and tried to mimic what nature did so easily.
“Resilient strength is the opposite of helplessness. The tree is made strong and resilient by its grounded root system. These roots take nourishment from the ground and grow strong. Grounding also allows the tree to be resilient so that it can yield to the winds of change and not be uprooted.”
And I realized that, actually, I was not superior to animals. The trembling buck, chased by a hungry lion, dispels trauma and flight mode through trembling. I saw that within minutes, after a shake, it was grazing calmly again.
How could a buck, or a hare, have the toolbox of life skills I lacked? It was a lesson in humility and a smack in my intellect face, which thought my brain could fix anything. I became a much softer person as I sank into these realizations, and I felt excited. It wasn’t my fault! I had tried so hard for years — worked so hard — but I just hadn’t hit on the right wisdom. I was not to blame.
So, this is what I have tried, with a few words on how it worked for me or didn’t.
This is what worked for me. We all work our own journeys in life, and our innate wisdom and unique paths guide us to the solutions that we seek. My recipe is not yours, as yours is not mine. How wonderful is that? We are each our own masters, connected to our innate intelligence if we are still enough to listen (or humble, if we can’t be still).
* Meditation. More specifically, the unbelievable courage I mustered up in attending a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat, during which I had no aids to crutch on. No phone, no books, no writing, alcohol, cigarettes or even coffee. There were hours of meditation a day. I couldn’t even comfort myself with my tea habit first thing in the morning. I was stripped.
The learning? After that amount of meditation, my physiology changed and I came into the deepest sense of peace. I still had social anxiety, but I came out of this experience not needing, or even trying not to need, to smoke or drink. I finally slept the night through. But, don’t try this without significant amounts of reading or therapy (whatever your recipe is) or the knowing that this will help you, not break you.
If it feels dangerous, leave. It’s okay. You haven’t failed. Be kind to yourself.
* Body-based therapies, such as craniosacral therapy. Finding a kind therapist, who understood that trauma went deeper than the mind. So, choose the right teacher. The right therapist. If they’re not right, leave them with ease. Try, try and try again.
Don’t think one that will work for someone else will work for you. Your body is unique and special and intelligent. It will resonate and heal when you find the right technique.
* Breath-work. Spending weeks teaching myself to re-breathe. Not higher chest breathing, which is short and adrenaline-infused, but the deeper, stomach-based breathing. I was taught this, and learnt we can transform our states of being through breath.
* Proper diet and taking the right medication. I finally found a psychiatrist (after 13 other attempts) who got it. I went on the right medication, and it was a great support and a huge help.
I came to understand food-fuel was essential to bringing me out of starvation states, and that dieting or sugar/fat-free food was never going to calm my beautiful body and give my mind the medicine it needed to keep me in the right state every day. Medicine is not for everyone, but it has really given me the foundation I need.
* Sharing, after so many years, with a tiny group of people in my life what I was going through. Through this, they came to understand that my social anxiety, and inability to be on time or always honor commitments, was not personal. I experienced compassion and care, and I felt safer to be around people, and less full of secrecy and shame.
I also let go of quite a few people in my life who no longer felt like my community or support system.
There are so many other things that helped me, and so many that didn’t. But this is a small sliver of the healing cake. May it bless you, and help you. As AA says:
“Take what works, and leave the rest.”
Alex O’Donoghue is a South African Irish 30-something. She has just broken through her fear of writing and being judged. In the courage light, she is starting to submit her voice. She loves cats, coffee, learning to be embodied, and community of high-quality people. She has a weird laugh, laughs a lot and can’t click. You could contact her via Miss Muse.