Life is hard!
Life is meant to come with bad days and rough people. Life is also meant to come with opportunities to connect with the right people and work out how those bad days and rough people make you feel.
Anything more than rough is wrong.
Modern life is faster, more impatient, and overstimulating than at any time in history. As obvious as that is, it is meant to bring up the context of adaptability. Every living being is limited by its ability to adapt to its environment.
All animals, humans included, are born with a nervous system full of physical and social instincts. All animals grow up with parents to show them the finer details of behavior. Specifically, physical behaviors like how to fight, flee, and freeze, as well as social instinctual behaviors like how to tend, befriend, and cower.
If you have ever been through a physically overwhelming experience like a rock-climbing accident or survived a war zone, or if you have lived through ritualized physical and/or sexual violence, then that part of your nervous system is in trauma. That does not mean you are broken; it means it is now time to find opportunities to connect with the right people and relearn how to release the embodied memories and work out the ways those days and people are still inhabiting your nervous system.
If you grew up in an environment that was physically or emotionally dangerous, unavailable, or manipulative, your instinctual Polyvagal social nervous system is in trauma. That does not mean you are broken; it means it is time to create opportunities to connect with the right people and relearn how to read body language and open to how it feels to belong.
There are many potential environments that can push people beyond their adaptability. The trauma that needs to be attended to after has four deep and life-changing wounds.
The Four Wounds of Trauma
The first wound is a focus on any and all danger. When you experience something traumatic, like a car accident, the way your instinctual nervous system remembers the experience can change the world. The world now has that kind of danger in it – always. If you have a chance to release the nervous system trauma, you will still be hypervigilant in those environments, like driving a car, but it should not impact the rest of your life.
If you cannot find the support to release the profound instinctual aversion to certain environments or people, your nervous system will hold onto your spine and limbs with invisible white-knuckled fists. This inner tension will gradually shift your stress hormones and immune system out of balance. Unresolved trauma is a factor in many chronic illnesses and the underlying cause of most addiction.
The second wound is the need to control stress, symptoms, pain, and inner turmoil. When an animal survives a life-or-death encounter, they shake, pant, yawn, and then take a nap. Your nervous system has evolved to store intense survival experiences for later and then release the nervous system distress from the first wound. When you are safe and have the support you need you will naturally release the trauma through some form of self-expression.
Often, when I am giving someone an Acupuncture treatment, they begin to shake and then have a huge emotional release. Often, they have no memory of why their body needed to do that and sometimes I have the honor to witness a person coming to terms with deeply buried Somato-Emotional memories of trauma.
It is almost always the next day when many of their symptoms begin to improve. Life is beautiful that way.
If you cannot find a way to release the ‘energy’ from the trauma, your present sense of danger will be more intense. Over time, your sense of instinctual adaptability will diminish. At a certain point, most people do what they can to control their symptoms. The second wound, controlling stress and pain, can consume some people’s lives.
The Third wound of trauma is called Somato-Social Disorientation. This wound is very complex, so I will just ‘drive by’ the details. A part of your Fight, Flight, and Freeze nervous system works through your Polyvagal System. This VERY ancient part of your nervous system also exhibits a Tend, Befriend, and Cower response.
The fight, flight, freeze responses are instinctual and are at the core of the first two wounds. The other adaptive responses (tend, befriend, or cower) are a visceral, social survival strategy to belong or at least ‘fit in’ to your tribe or group in some way. Or, in any way that keeps you from being left behind or banished. For 98% of human history that usually meant you were going to die, especially if you are a child.
Fitting in is not an instinct, it is a strategy. Belonging is an instinct.
Your Polyvagal system is always subconsciously listening to other people’s tone of voice, evaluating their facial expressions and your overall sense of personal connection and bonding. If you have been traumatized by a person who was meant to keep you safe, you will naturally and instinctually become very careful about who you can trust and how to make sure you are getting along with those around you.
For many people who were abused as children, social connection is the opposite of easy. In fact, it can get downright awkward and lead to lying, being promiscuous and other manipulative behaviors – or, it can leave you feeling the most comfortable alone, or completely left out, left behind and alone.
This social disorientation keeps proving that your instincts are right. People are dangerous and untrustworthy, and you have to stay in control of how you fit (or don’t fit) into the world or you will probably experience even more trauma.
I have seen many patients with chronic illness or chronic pain, as well as people recovering from addiction, go through similar social disorientations. Your Polyvagal system is not just about survival. It has another role in being the gatekeeper of releasing tension through connection, especially physical touch, hugging, play, and making love. This need is one of the reasons Yoga and Qi Gong are practiced around the world. Reconnecting with your embodied experience, shaking off the tension, releasing somatic trauma, breathing with awareness and intention, are all pathways home to your birthright of physical and social ease.
The third wound of trauma can take years to heal, but you need to risk losing control in front of other people who also feel trapped in a similar. Healing circles have been around since language for a reason.
The fourth wound is simple and yet the most destructive and crippling in the long term.
In the worst moments of your life, who let you down the most?
If you were mistreated so badly by the people you instinctually believe are there to help you learn, feel safe, and grow, what does that imply about you?
What is the reason that explains why these things happened and why you could not do anything about it?
The fourth wound is a belief, a life-altering and self-limiting belief that there is something fundamentally missing or wrong about you. If you have some mysterious flaw that keeps you from being able to be in control of your world or connect to others in a safe way, can you really and truly trust yourself?
A loss of your innate self-trust, adaptability, and belief that you are less than anyone is heartbreaking. I have heard this wound as a disconnection for the wisdom, love, and aliveness of your soul.
If you feel this wound has stolen your life – that is exactly how it feels. It is like being in a low-grade state of shock. ALL THE TIME!
If you have experienced all of these wounds in your life, there is hope. In my experience as a clinician and a patient, the Somatic forms of counseling have the most benefit.
Most spiritual practices are centered around regaining your autonomy, adaptability, coherence, and sense of belonging. These ancient traditions and skills from around the world seem to agree that the point of life is to be your authentic self. They seem to believe that the default setting for sane and healthy humans is respect and reciprocity, kindness and generosity.
I have come to the humbling and almost humorous understanding that these traditions came into being because people have sought solace from the effects of the four wounds of trauma for thousands and thousands of years.
If you ignore this part of your life, especially when your body is sending you all kinds of emergency messages, unresolved trauma will become the most destructive and relentless force behind the progress of your illness or addiction.
We all need environments and social opportunities that are safe and meaningful.
We all need practices and support to literally or figuratively shake off the wounds of the past.
We all need social environments that are predictable and collaborative enough to bond and find belonging.
We all need to trust ourselves, or our lives become a comedy of errors or a tragedy of lies.
Each of the four wounds of trauma is experienced as unconscious pain and as personal suffering. Yes, there is a difference. I believe the Buddha once implied something close to this quote.
“If you can bring compassion to your suffering you will meet your pain. If you bring compassion to your pain, you will be free from suffering.”
It is your birthright to feel fit, flexible, adaptable and playful!
The fastest and most enjoyable way to celebrate and heal your mind and body is a daily practice.
20 minutes a day of Qi Gong, Embodied Awareness, Breathwork, and/or Meditation can change your life.
Qi Gong is an ancient form of exercise, healing, and prayer, developed by the Indigenous people of Asia.
Famous for its fluid dance-like gestures, Qi Gong focuses on deep relaxation, a balance of strength and flexibility, breathwork, somatic (embodied) awareness, and emotional intelligence.
Somatic Mindfulness is a form of Trauma Release Therapy and a form of daily personal practice. This healing process involves instinctual movement and awareness, transformational breathwork, guided meditation, bodywork, Qi Gong and Shamanic Journeying.