So I am not a touchy-feely person. Another wonderful side effect of being a trauma survivor.
My energy is sacred to me & my body is my vessel for that energy. Since it has a history of being violated, I’m extra protective of it. I avoid big crowds where I cannot control people bumping into me. I’m not a hugger. Pretty much unless you’re my mom or the person I’m sleeping with – hands off.
That being said I do believe healthy touch is important. The fact that I still struggle with it, is just one more example of how trauma work is a lifelong journey. I have 25 year’s worth of feelings regarding others encroaching on my physical boundaries. Those feelings have laid some pretty strong neural pathways. My default response to someone approaching is still to clench up and tense my entire body.
This Saturday, I attended my favorite yoga class – a vinyasa flow that used to be a regular part of my weekend routine. It’s taught by the most amazing woman, Emily, who I have always found to be a kindred spirit.
We were winding down our practice with balancing poses, when Emily gave me the most amazing opportunity to do a little in vivo trauma work to rewire these neural pathways.
In Warrior III, she asked us all to outstretch our hands over those next to us and connect in what I’ll call a superman pose.
Here’s the dialogue in my head (all in less than 15 seconds):
- Oh shit!!! I don’t do this. I don’t touch people. Can’t handle it!!
- OMG its going to be so embarrassing if I have to ask to be the person in the room who doesn’t participate…
- Oh I don’t want to be that person.
- Maybe you can do this Jamie.
- Breathe Jamie.
- This is a safe space. You consider this room to be a sanctuary. Do you think there is anyone in here whose energy is not safe?
- Ok you’ve run out of time. Got to participate NOW.
- Whoo this isn’t so bad.
It is only due to my mindfulness practice and years of DBT that I was able to have that conversation with myself. I immediately identified that I was experiencing a wave of anxiety when she suggested touching. As soon as it began, I tuned into my thoughts. My initial urge was still my trauma urge – touch is unsafe, don’t do it. But I was able to check the facts in the moment, and then respond in a way that allowed for new neural connections to be made. Safe touch can occur from strangers in safe environments.
So when we have experienced touch as traumatic how do we begin to let go of that fear? Some of my favorite physical exercises for trauma come from Dr. Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing approach. Since trauma and dissociation are highly correlated, many trauma survivors lack attunement with their own bodies. This approach focuses on retraining your brain around touch by first acclimating you to your own sense of touch.
Somatic Experiencing Exercises:
Grounding: Found in all meditative philosophies, grounding is practice of connecting your body to the physical world.You can practice grounding by sitting, standing (mountain pose) or lying flat. Intentionally balance you weight between the sides of your body, allow your spine to straighten and feel the pull of gravity connecting you to the earth then…
Mindful breathing: Focus on the experience of inhaling and exhaling. Noticing the changes as air fills and expands your lungs. When we take a few seconds to slow down and follow our breath, almost immediately we experience boosts in mental clarity as our brain is receiving more oxygen.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: PMR involves deliberately clenching, holding and releasing the muscles throughout the body. Start at the feet and focus on one muscle group at a time. First clench the top of your foot, hold it in flex for five seconds and then release. Notice the change as your body builds the tension, holds on to it and then lets it go. Notice the difference in muscles groups as some naturally hold more tension than others. There are tons of great guided PMR audio clips that you can download if you prefer to have someone cueing you.
Shower Exercise: Using a hand held nozzle, start with the feet and experience the sensation of the water hitting them. Slowly move up your body, just like in the PMR exercises noticing sensations and emotional reactions. Often when we have trauma we have areas of our body that are “No Go Zones” places that we only associate with the bad stuff. In the safety of your shower, can you allow the old to release and experience the trickle of water as pleasant?
Push/back Exercise: This requires a partner. Start by facing each other and placing one hand out in front of you touching your partner. At the same time, both slowly begin putting pressure in the hand. Notice as your muscles react to the force exerted upon them. Move on to both hands. Then try sitting on the floor back to back. Again beginning in neutral and then slowly applying force, building up and then backing down to neutral.
Many of these exercises involve the push/pull of tension and release. Trauma alters some of our CNS responses. By getting into the physical body and experiencing the control you have over it, you can begin to reset it back to a healthier way of functioning.
What are some techniques you have used to overcome your hangups around touch and trauma? We’d love to hear your helpful experiences!!
Love & Light,
& big shout out to Emily Williams @efwilliams on IG for providing me with this opportunity for growth!!!
P.S. I’m in the back row – my form isn’t great but you know what I PARTICIPATED!!!
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