I met Kim in August of 2014. I recently went back and read her initial consultation form and my notes from that day. She came to me to work on “anxiety, grief, held trauma, and self-acceptance.” She told me in that session that she had a traumatic childhood with “all types of abuse.” That’s all I knew.
I made notes that she was unsettled and nervous, and that she held excess weight around her middle. As a yoga-based therapist, it was easy for me to diagnose what she needed. Her sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) was overactive and she needed to activate her parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is aroused when survival is threatened. It can be a physical or emotional threat, a real or a perceived threat. Anytime our nervous system detects that we are in danger, the SNS is activated. It is a fear response.
When no danger is detected the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is active. We should be spending most of our time in PNS activation, with SNS activated only during emergencies. But people who have abuse histories are often stuck in SNS and are unable to return to the balanced state of PNS. This is where Kim was.
I created a simple practice for her to address the imbalance.
As we moved through her practice, I noted that she could not breathe into her chest. When I directed her to breathe into the area around her heart, she immediately began crying. It was clear she had a lot of emotion stored in this area.
We worked for several months on this simple practice. Within a week she could do 5 rounds of deep breathing before the crying began. By the end of September she could do the full 10 rounds of deep breathing and had lost 12 pounds (part of SNS arousal is the production of cortisol which is linked to excessive abdominal fat). By November her anxiety had greatly decreased and she was sleeping better. The practice was working. She was shifting out of SNS activation and becoming more balanced. It was exactly what I expected with the work we were doing.
Then the unexpected happened
One day, during our session, Kim began talking. She started telling me about what had really happened to her. She told me that she had been born into a “cult” of sorts and had been trafficked her entire life. That she had been raped daily, often several times a day, her entire childhood. She didn’t give me many details. In the beginning, it was just a phrase. She could only give me a clip, a brief flash of something that had happened. But she couldn’t tell me a whole story.
But over time, as her nervous system became more balanced, she began opening up. As she began feeling safe in her body, she was able to look at memories that had previously overwhelmed her. She started sharing some of her stories. That is when I realized something very important.
We must speak
Something started happening when she began speaking. I didn’t understand why, but I knew something was shifting. And so did she. I would sometimes get a text from her in the afternoon after our morning session saying “how much lighter she felt.” How she didn’t know exactly what had happened, but that she actually felt happy. And she hadn’t felt happy in a very, very long time.
She began healing
I knew we were on to something, so we kept going. She was still doing her yoga practice daily, but we began spending most of our session time just talking. She would tell me about something that had happened and I would just listen. I was simply holding a space of love and acceptance as she shared what had happened to her. She would cry and I would put my arm around her and allow her to express whatever she was feeling. And I instinctively knew that the only thing I needed to say was that I was sorry this had happened to her and that it wasn’t her fault.
So, my engineering mind went to work. What was happening? What is it about speaking our stories that allows us to heal? I started researching. I read books, articles, anything I could get my hands on. Scientific research as well as ancient yogic teachings. And I began to figure it out.
The power of feeling
The first piece was something I was already familiar with through my studies of yoga, tantra, and energy.
Emotions are energy.
Emotions are chemical and neural responses which are created to assist us in sustaining life by prompting adaptive behaviors.
When events happen to us that are highly emotionally charged (like abuse) and we are unable to express those emotions, the chemical/electrical response is created but is not allowed to process or to be discharged. The energy then becomes trapped and stored in the body.1 One of the common places it is stored is in the fat tissue (considered less vital to immediate survival). Another reason Kim was carrying extra weight around her middle. And it will stay there until it is allowed to be expressed.
When we are allowed to express these emotions, the energy is released. Hence Kim’s feeling “lighter” after she began speaking, in addition to the actual weight loss.
But I knew there was another piece. Something related to actually putting language to our trauma.
The power of language
What I learned was that traumatic memories are stored very differently than regular memories. When something happens to us in a heightened state of SNS activation (fear), the chemicals that are produced cause memories to be stored with an emotional charge. In addition, the region of our brain that thinks logically, creates time lines, and processes language, shuts down. Because of this, traumatic experiences are stored in a disorganized fashion. In fragments, rather than in a coherent, logical narrative. And with a high emotional component.
When a traumatic memory is recalled, it is often not integrated into a story, but presents as disjointed emotions, sensations, images, and sounds. And because it was not stored with a time line, it feels very much like it is happening in the present.2
It is overwhelming.
When we are able to tell our story, there is a transformation. We integrate the logical brain and the emotional brain. Rather than fragmented pieces, the brain reorganizes the memory into a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. As soon as the story is told, it changes. It begins to lose its power to control us.
The path out of trauma is paved with words
For nearly 2 years, this is the bulk of the work that Kim and I did together. She simply told me the stories of what had happened to her. And with each story she told, the heavy burden of her past got lighter. Her programming was breaking. In fact, this was the core work we did to break her suicide programming. Hours and hours of her telling her stories.
I never suspected that what we were learning, what I was experiencing with her, would become the path to my healing as well. I had helped her heal from traumas that were unimaginable. I didn’t know I was preparing myself to deal with my own.
After years of work and research in the field of trauma and healing, my system was now prepared to deal with my past, and the memories of my own abuse came forward. Events that had been carefully locked away for many years.
My stories came back
They felt foreign to me at first, yet I knew they were mine. I had always known that I had very few memories between the ages of 6 and 9. Those were the years during and after my parents’ divorce. I had assumed that the divorce had been hard on me and I just “forgot” much of that time period. I was unaware of what had really happened.
That between the ages of 6 and 9, I had been sexually abused. When it started at age six I had tried to speak up. I didn’t know exactly what to say, so I was misunderstood and disregarded.
So I never spoke about it again. When the others began abusing me, they threatened me if I were to tell. So I just stayed quiet. By age ten I was becoming so broken that my system decided it best to take those memories and place them in a safe place, out of my conscious awareness.
When they were unlocked 35 years later, I was prepared. I knew what to do.
I started crying. Not just crying. Sobbing. Heaving. For a day and a half. There were times my knees would buckle and I would just be a heap on the floor, my forehead to the ground, barely able to catch my breath. But I knew this was what needed to happen. I needed to grieve. I needed to cry for that little girl who never got to. I needed to release the energy. And I was not afraid to let go, to let myself fully feel it. I was not afraid I would get lost or stuck or drown in the sadness. Because I had already watched Kim tumble into the deepest, darkest depths of sorrow and make her way out. Many times. I knew I would be ok. And she did for me what I had done for her all those years. She held space and let me cry.
When the crying stopped, I knew I needed to speak. I could feel it, viscerally. Like when you are about to vomit and you try to hold it back. I was choking. But like so many others, I feared judgment. I feared not being believed. So I found safe people who I knew would support me. And I spoke. I told my stories. Not just “I was abused.” I spoke about each of the men, who they were, what they did for a living. How the abuse started, how long it went on. What they did to me, what they made me do to them. How they threatened me if I told.
And I verbalized what it had FELT like. The sinking feeling of self doubt when I was told I was “silly” for saying that I thought a grown man wanted to marry me. The fear of what was going to happen to me if anyone found out. The intense hatred for these men inflicting pain and breaking my body. And the heavy burden of feeling that it was all my fault. I told my stories.
It didn’t take very long to process everything and move forward. I know I moved at an accelerated pace due to what I had learned about trauma and what it takes to heal. I had the map. I knew the way.
The truth is that it doesn’t have to take long. You do not have to stay stuck in your past. But you do have to process it. You have to feel it. And you have to speak.
You have to tell your story.
Have you ever wished you could break the chains of fear and step fully into love? Shanon and Kim share their journey of healing from trauma, abuse, and programming through acceptance and love. Do you want to step out of fear? Subscribe and follow their journey.
1Molecules of Emotion, The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert, Ph.D.
2The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.