Trauma makes it hard to be in our body and not being in our body, being disembodied, is form of trauma.
Interoception. Def. Sensitivity to, or awareness of stimuli originating inside the body.
It is common to experience detachment from the body or feelings of disembodiment after a traumatic experience. This disconnection from bodily sensations may have been necessary during a period of abuse, threatened abuse, conflict, or war. It may even have kept you alive. But now it could be creating or perpetuating physical pain, numbness, anxiety, or depression.
Humans are adept at unconsciously transferring unpleasant or scary emotions into physical symptoms. It’s almost second nature to tighten muscles in response to stress or create a host of other physical symptoms to armor and protect the body from real or imagined threats. In addition, hyperarousal from seemingly small stresses can add up and create physical symptoms.
The body is a natural reservoir of emotions you have avoided out of necessity in the moment you were traumatized or were scared of impending harm. (Check out my piece on this site on Tension Myositis Syndrome: TMS.)
Before we go on, it’s helpful to understand two basic categories of trauma.
“Big T trauma” refers to war, major illness, rape, natural disasters, etc.
“Little t trauma” is less well known. It refers to constant belittling, criticism, intimidation, threats or sarcasm that come from parents, siblings, or other people close to you during your childhood.
Post-traumatic stress from Big T trauma is well documented and given the respect it is due. What is less well known is how little t trauma creates post-traumatic stress. One hypothesis is little t trauma is usually experienced with people you know and trust, so their hurtful behavior feels like a betrayal; whereas, war, for example, is political and not about you, so you are not likely to take it personally.
Body awareness can be an incredibly useful aspect of treating trauma, addiction and emotional disregulation because it feels more tangible, measurable, and observable as opposed to working exclusively with feelings. Physical symptoms are also a great gateway to unconscious emotional material.
Body work is a discovery process. The key is staying curious when you notice a physical sensation and accessing your inner Sherlock Holmes as you seek out more information from your bodily sensations, like numbness, tingling, pain, tension, shakiness, or anything else that shows up. There are many ways you can gently, slowly, and safely explore your body’s messages. The key thing to remember is to allow and compassionately accept whatever you experience. The tendency most people have is to try to control or master physical sensations that can feel scary, new, or reminiscent of other physical conditions, like IBS, migraines, muscle pain, heart palpitations, etc. The opposite strategy, naming and allowing them, can help them move through you more quickly.
Here are some ways you can practice being more connected to your body:
At various times during the day pay attention to your breath. What is its length and depth? Take a few slow diaphragmatic breaths through your nose.
Ask yourself: Am I feeling anchored in my body now, or not? If not, do a grounding technique, like feeling your body in the chair, or your feet on the floor. Putting a hand, or both hands, on your heart is also grounding and comforting.
If you notice an ache, pain, or discomfort focus your breath into that area and watch what happens.
If you notice an uncomfortable bodily sensation try to think of all the words you might use to describe it. This is not easy, so be extra patient with yourself. (See this piece to get some idea of different words you can use to name sensations: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/your-body-is-a-portal-to-essential-knowledge/
Focus on your breathing and say: “Breathing in” on the inhale and, “breathing out” as you exhale.
Resist the urge to change what you are feeling. Notice and name it as best as you can. When you name a feeling or sensation you activate your pre-frontal cortex which can draw energy away from your amygdala, the anxiety producing part of your brain, and help you feel safer.
There are some great books on what has been called Tension Myositis Syndrome and is now known as Mind-Body Syndrome or psychogenic pain. I am partial to those by David Hanscom, MD and John Sarno, MD.
In addition, the free Insight Timer app has a bounty of body scan meditations that can be very grounding and calming.
Yoga, especially trauma sensitive yoga, can reconnect you with your body in gentle, safe ways while keeping it strong and flexible. You may also want to check out qigong. (Here’s an article on QiGong: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/qigong-for-trauma-stability-strength-flexibility-and-emotional-balance/)
You might also like to try the following Felt Sense exercise from Peter Levine:
Instructions: Sit or lie down in a quiet location where you can comfortably focus. Describe the sensations you notice in your body. Pay attention to more and more subtle sensations and use as many descriptive words you can think of.
Examples of felt sense experiences:
pressure – even, uneven, supportive feeling, crushed feeling, cutting off circulation
air current – gentle, cool, warm, from right, from left, stimulating, rush, like a feather, like mist
tension – solid, dense, warm, cold, inflamed, protective, constricting, angry, sad
pain – ache, sharp, twinge, slight, stabbing
tingling – pricking, vibration, tickling, numb
itch – mild itch, angry itch, irritating itch, moving itch, subtle itch, small itch, large area of itching
temperature – warm, hot, burning, cool, cold, clammy, chills, icy, frozen, like: hearth, oven, fire, sunshine, baked bread, snow, stone, shade
size – small, large
shape – flat, circle, blob, like a mountain 10.
weight – light, heavy
motion – circular, erratic, straight line
speed – fast, slow, still
texture – rough, wood, stone, sandpaper, smooth, silk
element – fire, air, earth, water, wood
color – gray, blue, orange, etc.
mood/emotion – sinking, pulling in, open, closed, uplifting, sunny day, dark cloud, roiling
sound – buzzing, singing
taste – sour, bitter, sweet
smell – pungent, sweet, floral, fruity, like rain, like leaves
absence/nothingness – blank, empty, numb
I know the above is a long list. It can be helpful is to pick a handful, say 5 of them, and ask either/or questions, for example, Does it feel more rough or more smooth? Is it slow or fast? Does it feel heavy or light?
Another useful technique is combining Felt Sense awareness with Tapping, or EFT. Tapping soothes your nervous system and allows you space to explore bodily sensations more safely. (See the piece on Tapping here: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/use-tapping-to-relieve-stress-clear-negative-emotions-feel-safe/)
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang