This is how it happens. You are sitting in a favorite chair, reading poetry or a novel or the comics. It’s Saturday; no work obligations. Before this, you’ve meditated, drawn a picture, finished a crossword puzzle. The morning is unfolding beautifully, and you are relaxed and happy. In the middle of reading a poem, say on by Mary Oliver, “With Thanks to the Field Sparrow, Whose Voice is so Delicate and Humble,” you notice that you are holding your breath and pressing your arm rigidly against your body. Actually, anxiety grips your entire body and it is as if you are frozen. For a moment, you don’t know what to do. Surrendering, you put down your book, take a breath and give way to the tears. You weep and don’t know why, but the reason has something to do with your rigid body. In any case, the placid, idyllic morning is interrupted and you must attend to the changed circumstance.
Do I know exactly why I was holding my body in this manner? Do I know what triggered this frigidity? Am I aware of what I am thinking as I thaw? Will I be able to avoid this type of occurrence in the future? The answer to all these questions is no. I do not know how the blissful reading of poetry turned into the uncomfortable experience of post-traumatic stress (PTS). I do know that it was an unconscious somatic response to something that I was subjected to, and it happened a LONG, LONG time ago. Dr. Bob Murray, a therapist and author of several books, describes PTSD in the article “PTSD and Childhood Trauma” in the following way:
“Generally speaking PTSD is identified by the following three symptoms: 1) re-experiencing traumatic events (i.e., obsessive recollections, flashbacks, nightmares); 2) avoidant symptoms (fear of being with people); and 3) signs of hyperarousal (easily startled, irritable). Traumatized people often suffer from a combination of PTSD, depression and other anxiety disorders.”
What happened to me while innocently reading a poem was PTS. My body went into freeze mode. I was stuck.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Dr. Peter Levine calls this type of behavior freezing—if one can’t run from a life-threatening situation or fight back, one can freeze. Animals often play dead after a dangerous encounter; however, the difference between wild animals and us, according to Dr. Levine, is that animals shake off the tension after the danger subsides and resume to normal somatic functioning—a sort of resetting of the nervous system. The animal trots away and goes about his or her business. I still haven shaken off the tension from the traumatizing event, so somatic stress occurs, and sometimes, often when reading, I find myself overwhelmed by it.
Once I noticed my locked body while reading Oliver’s poem, I allowed breath to fill my belly and the tears came. Again, back to Dr. Murray:
“. . . in treating all victims of traumatic stress, whether the result is depression, anxiety attacks, or PTSD, [be mindful] that the trauma is perpetuated in the body as well as in the brain. It is as if the body of the victim is perpetually on alert for the next blow, critical remark or sexual attack and is therefore held very rigidly.”
What was I guarding myself against? After crying, I sat remembering myself as a traumatized baby and felt a wave of great compassion. A visual image came—me as an infant swaddled in a blanket and held protectively against my body—which gave me relief and comfort. I repeated an affirmation: I am willing to release this pattern in my unconscious that has created this situation. The vise of stress released its grip.
While PTS is scary, working through it in a positive way is empowering, and I hope that those of you reading this entry will have gained some tools and/or understanding about healing from PTSD. In a way, strange as it may sound, PTS is my teacher and the lessons, if completed, promote growth.