The following is an excerpt from Peter Levines’ book In An Unspoken Voice : How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness which speaks about the necessity of developing an awareness of our body sensations and feelings as children. But it also addresses how this process goes awry under trauma and what is needed to set the balance right.
“Under ordinary circumstances, physical sensations are signals for action: to fight or flee when threatened, to chase down a wild turkey or open the fridge and make a sandwich when hungry, to go to the bathroom when the urge presses, to make love when aroused by passion, to sleep when tired, to break into song when the mood strikes or to plant your feet and raise your voice in anger and assertiveness when your boundaries are violated. In all these instances, the body initiates and the mind follows.
Having an intimate relationship with and understanding of, your physical sensations is critical because they, in signalling action, guide you through the experiences and nuances of your life. If one has been traumatised, however, one’s sensations can become signals not for effective action but rather, for fearful paralysis, helpeessness or misdirected rage. When some of one’s bodily signals become harbingers of fear, helplessness, impotent rage and defeat, he or she is typically avoided like the plague at a dear cost mentally, emotionally and physically. While attemptiong to shut down distressing senstations, one pays the price of losing the capacity to appreciate the subtle physical shifts that denote comfort, satisfaction or warning of clear and present danger. Sadly, as a result, the capacity for feeling pleasure, garnering relevant meaning and accessing self protective reflexes also shuts down. You can’t have it both ways; when feelings of dread are kept at bay, so are feelings of joy.
The good news is the human being are generally flexible and resilient: we are ordinarily able to learn from and integrate a variety of life experiences. These experiences, whether uplifting or down beat, flow easily through our body/mind stream of consciousness as long as we are no chronically over or under aroused. The body/mind keeps flowing through new encounters with vitality, bouncing back into the stream of things unless there is a significant disruption. In this case, the person is knocked off that normal course whether it is from a single episode, such as a disaster, an accident, surgery or rape, or from a chronic stressor, such as abuse or marital stress. When such disruptions fail to be fully integrated, the components of that experience become fragmented into isolated sensations, images and emotions. This kind of splitting apart occurs when the enormity,intensity, suddenness or duration of what happened cannot be defended against coped with or digested. Personal vulnerability, such as age, genetics and gender also account for this psychic implosion. The result of this inability for the body/mind to integrate is trauma, or at the very minimum, disorientation, a loss of agency and/or lack of direction.
Trapped between feeling too much (overwhelmed or flooded) or feeling too little (shut down and numb) and unable to trust their sensations, traumatised people can lose their way. They don’t feel like themselves anymore; loss of sensation equals a loss of a sense of self. As a substitute for genuine feelings, trauma sufferers may see experiences that keep them out of touch – such as sexual titillation or succumbing to compulsions, addictions and miscellaneous distractions that prevent one from facing a now dark and threatening inner life. In this situation, one cannot discover the transitory nature of despair, terror, rage or helplessness, and that the body is designed to cycle in and out of these extremes.
Helping clients cultivate and regulate the capacity for tolerating extreme sensations through reflective self awareness, while supporting self acceptance, allow them to modulate their uncomfortable sensations and feelings. They can now touch into intense sensations and emotions for longer periods of time as they learn how to control their arousal. Once a client has the experience of ‘going within and coming back out’ without falling apart, his or her window of tolerance builds upon itself. This happens through achieving a subtle interplay between sensations, feelings, perceptions and thoughts. I believe that the people who are most resilient, and find the greatest peace in their lives, have learned to tolerate extreme sensations while gaining the capacity for reflective self-awareness. Although this capacity develops normally when we very young, one can learn it at any time in life, thankfully.
Children gradually learn to interpret the message their bodies give them Indeed, it is by learning to coordinate movement (behaviours) and sensations into a coherent whole that a child learns who he or she is. By remembering actions that have proven to be effective, and discarding those that are not, children lean how to anticipate what the most appropriate response is and how to time its execution for maximum effect. In this way, they experience agency, satisfaction and pleasure. When a child is overwhelmed by trauma or thwarted by neglect, this developmental sequence is aborted or, if already developed, breaks down, and negative emotions come to dominate his or her existence.”