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On Trauma and Healing: Part 2

Summer sunset at Mount Bonnell in Austin.

Posted on July 28, 2022 by Jenn Zatopek

Although unprocessed trauma affects us deeply, I can’t help but think about the unexpected gifts that reside there, the burgeoning awareness that this life one lives at the heat and cold of trauma is not the full story but one that has shaped us into who we are. Traumatic memories cry out for us to notice them: they vie for our attention because the body seeks to collaborate with other souls for wholeness. This is why these hard memories come to us unbidden, seeking liberation and learning for you. The fact that you are reading this essay tells me that you are drawn to that which will help you open to healing. 

As you examine the inner workings of your mind and body deeply affected by past pain, consider doing so with a trauma-informed licensed clinician who has the knowledge, training, and expertise to help you navigate the rocky terrains of your past. Resist the urge to believe the harsh guardians of self-criticism but acknowledge them so they can pass. Allow me to share the latest insights from Polyvagal Theory to support you in changing how you talk to yourself, especially as you consider your past.

Our nervous system is shaped on the interactions of three autonomic pathways that intersect through the amazing Vagus nerve, a cluster of nerves that runs bidirectionally from the skull to the digestive system but also throughout the entire body. Think of these autonomic states as a ladder with the safe state of ventral vagal at the top. This state helps you and me connect to others and to the world from a place of ease and peace. If we feel unsafe, our bodies tip us down the ladder into the sympathetic nervous system to fight or flee danger, and if we cannot find safety, we move down to the lowest rung of the ladder into shutdown, known as dorsal vagal collapse.

My work as a trauma-informed EMDR therapist is to help you befriend your nervous system and return to ventral vagal, which is where true transformation can occur. The beautiful thing is that you can reshape your nervous system for peace through intentional practice, including how you speak to yourself.

Consider this: when you practice harsh self-talk, you fight yourself for having understandable feelings associated with your past. Our brains respond to harsh self-talk by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream in our bodies, tipping us into our sympathetic nervous system. Many of you know intimately what it is to live in a chronic state of heightened emotional arousal, how exhausting that is for your body. You want relief, but you cannot imagine life another way.

What if instead of running away from the pain, you enter into it, its wildness drawing your attention with affectionate curiosity rather than cruel self-criticism? Perhaps befriending yourself just as you are is really what you need, now more than ever before.

From a lens of compassion we return to great literature that beckons us towards our true belonging. Rainer Marie Rilke’s poetry offers us a counter lesson in turning towards all our experiences, including our traumatic ones. Rilke, a nineteenth century German writer, is best known for his exquisite love poetry, but his poems from The Book of Hours urge readers to stay open to the sacred currents found in all our moments. In “Go the Limits of Your Longing,” we are urgently reminded that all our experiences in life matter and deserve loving attention:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

Rilke himself was no stranger to sorrow and learned through failed romantic relationships and lingering melancholy that welcoming pain with love is the fullness of life. As you and I notice our pain with kindness, the caregiving circuitry in the brain lights up, allowing us to move up the autonomic ladder and return to a ventral vagal state, our true home. You can do this easily by using a soothing voice to yourself as you notice painful thoughts and feelings arising, “This is so hard to feel right now, and no, I’m not alone. May I be tender with myself right now.” Known as the Self-Compassion Break from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Kristin Neff, validating ourselves using the spoken word activates your left prefrontal cortex (PFC), the top part of the brain which loves to label our experiences. As you name your difficult experience and support yourself using soothing words, the left PFC sends calming neurochemicals from the top part of the brain to the lower regions, helping those primitive areas relax. 

When you simply name your emotions and turn towards yourself with kindness, you open to the hidden sanctuary in the depths of your soul waiting for you. It’s really that simple.

And as you give yourself compassion for your pain, consider using Rilke’s words to open to all your feelings. Lean into the discomfort of noticing and accepting whatever arises as a vital process to awaken you. You are inherently worthy, all your emotions deserving of notice and of care. Recall the essence of Rilke’s message: these terrible events do not define who you are at your deepest core but can move you toward Love which can guide you into the great riches of your life. 

You have reservoirs of goodness within you. It has always been so.

Deep bow to the Light within you and me,

Jenn

Bibliography:

Dana, Deb, and Stephen W. Porges. Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices. W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours Publisher: Riverhead Trade. Later prt., Riverhead Books, 2022.

Image: Sunset at Mount Bonnell, Austin, Jenn Zatopek

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