Excerpted from Feel to Heal: Releasing Trauma Through Body Awareness and Breathwork Practice
By Giten Tonkov
Trauma usually results when your fight-or-flight is engaged, but there’s nowhere to run. In everyday life, “nowhere to run” might mean any one of a million things. Maybe it’s literally that you cannot physically or emotionally escape danger; it might mean that something difficult asks too much of your current ability to cope. Trauma also might remain if you could have coped, but didn’t have the opportunity to, or shut yourself down.
It’s easy to empathize with those who live through a devastating earthquake or terror attack. We all can imagine the aftermath of being mugged or freezing up in a television interview. Isolated incidents at any level of intensity can leave lasting impressions in the body—but chronic stressors are potentially as debilitating. As our societies have become less predator-and-prey and more industrial-and-technological, we might not be familiar with being attacked—but we are used to constant worry.
In the long term, humans are not built to sustain high energetic levels of fight-or-flight activation. Our auto-pilot fight-or-flight response was designed as a short-term survival tool. Just think for a moment about how society “manages” an emergency. Choose just about any significant public event. Begin with one that didn’t even happen to you personally, and think about being glued to a screen, playing and replaying the video clips, absorbing the anxiety, alarm, fear, and devastation of those affected. As observers, our minds become infected by the social activation, the seemingly endless discussion about hypothetical outcomes. On the other hand, when we experience a personal event, such as the death of a loved one, we often launch into action. We push aside obligations that just yesterday were paramount; we buy last-minute plane tickets, organize events, and “run on empty.” Because of our overwhelmed state, friends bring food for us, and take care of the cat.
Now imagine living like that for years—in the “state of emergency” that is intended to last a few days or weeks. People do it all the time. Perhaps they’re experiencing a chronic medical problem, a legal difficulty, or financial strain. Perhaps they’re worrying about global warming or big problems they “can’t change”—such as the plight of refugees, indigenous populations, or endangered animals. In these circumstances, people become used to “putting aside” the day-to-day matters of life. They focus on distress. They feel miserable, and accommodate feeling miserable. Then they become used to it, and even build their lives around it.
The kind of chronic stress that changes lives like this can come in limitless forms, and it causes a wide variety of physical and mental ailments. The good news is that we are amazingly resilient. When in doubt, consider the countless examples of people who have survived—and thrived—after unimaginable hardship. If they can do it, then the average person who wants to “feel better” can change his or her relationship with stress.
“Stress relief” is now a household term. More and more people are aware of practices like getting enough sleep, or spending time with family. Practices like “mindfulness” have filtered into the mainstream lexicon, and meditation is no longer just for gurus and hippies. Now, with trauma release, we can literally—physically, at the cellular level—change what’s happening in our bodies. The process is natural, and relatively easy. It allows us to let the misery and discomfort fall away—so that we can live our actual lives.
It’s important to note that all people do not respond to stress in the same way. Even when two people find themselves sharing an experience, they might react very differently—because the resiliency of everyone’s nervous system is unique. Any person’s level of resulting trauma is therefore completely individualized, and begins in our physiology. Although the development of somatic trauma relief practices was deeply informed by PTSD, it’s clear that anyone can experience stress and trauma. How well we manage both has to do with the balance within the nervous system—and everyone has one of those. That means that everyone has hope, PTSD or no PTSD, and no matter how he or she might be feeling today.