As a psychotherapy intern working within the justice system I constantly encouraged my highly traumatized clients to tune-in to their bodies. “What is your body saying? What sensations are you noticing?” I would ask them. I would have to ask often, because this was a practice that was highly resisted by those who had experienced incredible violence and sorrow in their lives. More often than not, they would only be able to report sensations in a very restricted sense, say, in one arm or only in their head (One client reported having a glass shelf at her neck beneath which she felt nothing). Sometimes clients would to drift into sleep or launch into a volley of words, all in the effort to not feel what was in their bodies. Why?
All good therapists understand what trauma specialist Babette Rothschild put forward in her seminal book, “The Body Remembers.” Unprocessed, overwhelming experiences are stored in the body. Actually, a better way to put it is this: all violence happens to persons with a body. “The Body Keeps the Score” so to speak. This happens to be the book title of another key trauma researcher Bessel Van der Kalk, M.D. There is a good reason these experts placed the word BODY prominently into the titles of their books. Trauma happens to embodied beings. Violence happens to a body. The easiest way to escape the actual experience of trauma is to “forget” by disassociating from the body. It is kind of like shooting the messenger or exiling the scapegoat. Reactive, yes. Brutal, yes. But in the short term, highly effective and usually necessary. Our amazing nervous system is able to snip the information connection and effectively numb us out of awareness. We stop feeling and, presto, we can function. For now, anyway.
I am not going to go into the complicated neurophysiology of all the ways our nervous system enables us to survive real, or perceived, life-threatening experiences. (But if you are curious, I highly recommend exploring the extraordinary work of Stephen W. Porges.) The point here is to answer the question, “Why can’t I feel my body?” If you are attempting a body-based practice and having a hard time accessing feelings and sensations within the body, it is highly likely there is an unprocessed disturbing “something” in there that is resisting being felt. Does this mean your body houses a dire secret? Possibly, but not necessarily.
It is now known that our “memories” go back even to the womb via right-brain implicit processes. It is also now known that we sense what our mothers were experiencing while we were gestating, effectively making her experiences our experiences. For instance, if she was experiencing intense anxiety while pregnant, you may have felt traumatically impacted while gestating. More than that, research also shows that trauma causes changes to the DNA that are passed down generationally, leading to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders for descendants of trauma. What you are resisting may not have an origin you can access with logical processes. Meaning, you likely won’t be able to remember a darn thing. Does this mean you are doomed? Not at all.
Embodiment practices that access implicitly stored information via internal sensory exploring are shown to be powerfully healing. From simple solo body awareness practices to more complicated trauma resolution techniques, there is a wide range from which to choose. What all embodied healing practices have in common is the understanding that connecting to a stored body memory through our awareness enables that memory to metabolize and move. And, this is always experienced energetically. Something that is experienced as dense and stuck will literally begin to unravel, move, shake, and disperse. The ways in which energy can move, speak and heal once we give it our attention is extraordinary. And necessary. We need energy moving and flowing within our system in order to feel truly alive.
Disassociation in the short term is a tremendous gift. In the long term there is a high price to be paid. The organism called a human being pulls for wholeness. It does not feel well if it does feel whole, and eventually there will be a strong pull for healing. This will feel like a disturbance in the system. Disturbance is a sign of healing. It is our very wise body’s way of calling us to investigate and set right what was once wrong. Trauma often happens to us when we are not developed enough to cope. Once we have the resources, our systems remarkably seem to “know” and they set us to work. If you are feeling disturbed because you cannot quite feel your body, know that your healing moment has come. Investigate these resources and seek out skilled support. And you will begin to feel, literally, much better.
Peter A. Levine is the visionary behind Somatic Experiencing. He has a series of penetrating books on healing trauma through listening to the body. “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” is only one of them. Check out Peter Levine's authors page at Amazon for a full list.
Babette Rothschild "The Body Remembers." An excellent primer on the neurophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment, for those who need to know.
Bessel Van der Kalk "The Body Keeps the Score." A potent and readable tale of this important clinician’s journey to unlock the mysteries of trauma and help his clients.
Stephen W. Porges: Search: “Polyvagel Theory” on YouTube and enjoy. Here is a link to his website: stephenporges.com
Diane Poole Heller. If you are looking for more than information and wish therapeutic support, I highly recommend the work of this important therapist and researcher. She has synthesized a treatment protocol for healing stubborn trauma symptoms that is highly effective. Her work is known as DARE. Check her out at Diane Poole Heller.com
This site lists therapists trained in this modality by region.