Creating a calm, safe space : some reflections on trauma and the pain body

When we have suffered a lot of trauma, our emotional and physical systems have literally been overloaded with input.  It is as though the inner circuit board of our being is endlessly lit up with warning lights flashing, sounds blaring, neurons endlessly firing backwards and forwards in an awful cacophony of inner white noise, electric pain and fury which revolves endlessly around and never seems to stop.

We need to find our own individual circuit breakers to interrupt the endless feedback loop cycle from endlessly refiring within us.  To me this means developing an awareness of what has caused us pain and trauma in the past, amped up our nervous system or triggered us.  It means creating and finding peaceful places within and without which are nourishing for us on every level, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, places of soothing, calm, expansion and warmth within which our hurting, contracted places can release and let go of what limits, restricts and confines in an unhealthy way or endlessly re-traumatises us.

I have been thinking lately a great deal about the pain body, a concept that Eckart Tolle has written and spoken about. All of us carry some degree of pain within us, some people such as myself carry a huge pain body around.  The pain body consists of all the pain from trauma, injuries, hurts and/or losses we have suffered in this life that may affect us unconsciously.  According to Tolle developing awareness of or consciousness into our own pain body as well as the pain body of others, developing some intelligence into the ways in which we react out of the pain body and can retrigger our own and other’s pain is very important to learning to becoming more skilful and happy in our lives.

I started to write a blog this morning about compassionate communication.  It was prompted by a book I started to re-read last night on love. Suffice to say for this blog we are only able to be compassionate towards ourselves and others after we have developed an awareness and acceptance of the fact that some pain is part of life.  We carry pain, others carry pain and the best answer and healing remedy to deal with the pain body in ourselves and others is an attitude of what Pema Chodron calls unconditional friendliness, an open, loose, expansive, state of awareness, acceptance and presence, a radiant field of loving tolerant energy within which pain can be embraced, soothed and de-potentised (Word press isn’t recognising that word but I think its a good one for stepping down the potent charge of a pain body that is firing off and getting magnified and magnetised by a triggering event or state we are encountering within ourselves or in our relationships).

Trauma and pain’s most noticeable impact upon many of us is a state of contraction, a state of pulling in or away as a result of hurt.  We either react, run, hide, avoid or attack, play dead, freeze or spin out.  And it is perfectly natural that we react in this way, from the more primal centres of our brain.   However over time and when these kind of reactions lead our pain to repeat or magnify or get us caught up in a fruitless destructive cycle we may feel the urge to reach for a better way of responding.   Is there a chance we could lean in, take a deep breathe and hold ourselves still in the midst of trauma allowing its vibration to release and have its way its way with us?

Over the past week or so this is the kind of practice I have been attempting to engage in.  I find the Universe often has a tendency to present us with challenges and lessons when we put our hands up in this way.  Today I lost my car keys in the shopping centre where I had gone for a cup of coffee.  I am sure they were in my bag when I went to the discount pharmacy to buy some things, not so sure if they were still there when I visited the library, but by the time I was heading towards the carpark I reached my hands inside my bag to find it void of any keys at all.  I started to feel sick inside as I do in this kind of situation.   (Its a while since this sort of thing has happened to me as I have been much more mindful of my keys after having lost them on at least 6 occasions over the past year or so.)  My first impulse was to freak out and panic after I had checked the concierge desk and customer service in the department store I was in at the time.  It was not possible to check the library as the library closed at 4 pm.

I stopped myself mid panic and said “the keys are lost for now, you need to stay calm and think of how to solve the situation.”  My phone was in another bag in my car in the car park.  I knew I had a spare key at home, taxis stood nearby in the taxi rank so I got into one and told the driver what had happened.   He drove me home and waited while I collected the spare key then returned me to the shopping centre from where I drove home.

I still noticed that I was running a ‘disaster’ script in my head, self judgement over how careless I was to have lost the keys in the first place, a sick feeling thinking I had no idea where they were and may never find them back.  But then calmer voices came into play.  How much of a disaster is it really if I loose those keys?  I don’t have any control over the situation now and making it worse by awfulising things will just end up adding stress that I don’t need. The keys may turn up later, but for now isn’t it just best to let it go, kiddo.   Problem solved.  I did not have to add to the difficulty by amping up things and I just had a chat to a friend about it and we had a huge laugh.

A few days later I went to the library and was told my keys had been found on the floor near the self issue station.  My calmness payed of.  Everything was really okay.  By not freaking out I had stopped more pain for myself.  It took a lot of work and conscious intent and taught me some really practical things about dealing with the pain body.



Embracing our grief

Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom.

How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair.

How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end.

Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement,
foundation and soil and home.


This Rilke poem came to mind this morning after reading a blog about the pain of loss suffered by someone faced with much grief over the death of their father many years ago.  The person was finding their grief too hard and painful to face.  It IS so painful when we lose someone we love.  My own father died when I was 23.  Although I was so very lucky in a way not to have been without a father in earlier years, our relationship had some very painful moments and looking back I wished for so much more from my Dad.  I eventually got a lot of those things from my Godfather who just happened to be my Dad’s best friend from Holland.  But my father’s death from cancer was still very painful and sudden.

I am also aware that in fully facing the pain of losing my father and facing and feeling any hurt and anger through has ultimately been very liberating.  I feel a lot like Rilke in that I feel that our grief and sadness is a place where we can come home most deeply to our souls.  There comes a time when an attitude of acceptance, accepting life on life’s terms, is birthed through the facing of intense pain.  This pain can keep us prisoner as long as we stay trapped in and resist our grief through a lack of deeper surrender and acceptance.

I am contemplating at the moment, and most particularly after reading through a lot more of what Peter Levine writes on finding the healing in and through facing trauma, how much pain can turn to suffering when we go over and over and over our pain or trauma without deeply engaging with it and releasing it.  When we avoid the true healing pain we don’t get the associated gifts which can come; seeing how essential joy is to life, seeing all the love and beauty that remains.

In a way the full nature of our grief show us how deeply we have loved.  If we never loved and lost we would never grieve fully and deeply and we would never be truly in touch or alive in our soul.  We may continue to live in a barricaded place where fear of really opening our heart and soul haunts us and makes our life smaller.  In kneeling into and going towards our suffering, rather than resisting it we go with the flow of the Universe rather than resisting what is.

I also have a very strong belief that any soul that has lived is still there, over the other side, in the spiritual world.  I know from powerful dreams I have had where my Dad visited me at critical times that love never dies.  I could not always feel my father’s love as he was not a demonstrative person.  As a Dutch man born in the 1920s he was quite patriarchal at times and hurt me deeply  with things he did due to ignorance or a lack of awareness and yet I know there was love there, just not a deep capacity to reach beyond his own conditioning.   In my dreams he has come to me and shown me he feels sad about the past, that he does love me and wishes now that I could be free of any suffering caused by his disconnection and ignorance.  I have awoken from several of those dreams crying and feeling deep love in my heart.

I lost my sister two years ago and I often talk to her.  I am sure she can hear me.  If we have unresolved issues with a loved one we can often talk to them even after they have died.  We can find a place in our heart or on paper to express most deeply all that we felt, all the ways in which we have suffered in order to liberate these feelings.

I know from my own experience that grief fully entered and surrendered too is a healing force.  It has the power to dismantle ignorance and disconnection, it reveals to us what is most essential and unchanging and what is most temporary and ultimately unimportant, it puts things in perspective.

Facing my own breast cancer earlier in the year made me see many of the things I was not grateful for and that I was in many ways holding myself back from life with certain excuses and fears.  I was trapped in PTSD too and in PTSD our focus is pulled towards the hurt and pain of past events now long gone but living on inwardly.  My work with a Body Harmony therapist concentrated on putting the focus on beauty in the present moment when powerful trauma imprints started to activate.  We need something to pull us out during these times, because the things we cannot change that hurt us in the past will only hurt us more if we keep our focus there endlessly recycling our hurt and pain.  In this way we open up a place of safety in present time within which past grief or painful sensation can be felt and released.

It was very important for me to find someone who could really hold and contain me in my grief.  For so many years I had nowhere to go to express my pain and the healing for me has come when my grief could be understood and contained within the healing light of someone else’s unconditional presence.   There is a lot of deep resistance and fear tied up in unresolved grief or PTSD both for those of us who suffer and for those who surround us and are helpless in knowing what to do and are incapable of showing us this loving unconditional presence, so finding this kind of support can be difficult.

There is a terror of facing the twisted Gordon’s head of pain, a fear that it has the power to pin us to the spot or paralyse us (and this is what PTSD is all about), the fear is that we will be destroyed by the emotions or sensations or eaten alive.  And yet the reverse is true.  When we face our trauma and grief and feel, open to and observe the nature of the energies and sensations of grief, fear or other trauma, when we identify where we freeze, brace, resist or pull away we have the opportunity in these moments of awareness to reverse our habitual reaction pattern, open up and expand, rather than pull away, resist, contract, constrict and lock down. In doing this we provide a space of openness, containment and acceptance within which our situation can transform.  In this way through embracing our grief we can find the necessary and longed for healing, shedding the tears and pain which keep the locked barricade in place in our hearts and minds.

Grieving the loss of a sense of basic safety


One of the deepest wounds of trauma concerns how it ruptures our sense of safety in the world.  The foundation of a strong sense of self rests on this sense of basic trust and safety being there for us when we are young.  Abandonments at this stage of development impact and leave imprints and in some cases of severe trauma or disconnection mean that stage and needs is never developed or fulfilled, making it more difficult to trust and feel safe later in life.

In my own life I do believe there was a foundation there for me to a degree in childhood and my wounds have not been as deep as some, but when my older sister who was like a surrogate Mum for me got married and moved overseas when I was only 3 it did have an impact.  My own experience of not feeling safe and that the world can be a dangerous place comes more as a result of the accident I had at 17.  In a way this accident occurred due to my Mum’s emotional absence.  It occurred after a night I spent at a friend’s house on Friday due to the fact Mum would work every Friday night and was never home.  My father and I didn’t really connect at all and those Fridays were very lonely for me, especially after my second sister got married when I was 14.  I had asked my father if I could go to boarding school as I wanted to be with kids around my own age.  I was lonely.  Dad wouldn’t let me go.  I then wanted a horse to have something to do and care about after school and on weekends.  Again that was not allowed, neither of my parents wanted to spend the time to drive me to where the horse would have to live.  I then wanted a dog.  A long battle ensued and in time my parents relented and got me a lovely beagle Sasha, but while we were out one day Sasha broke free and was hit by a car.  In time we had to give her away to a family who could be there for her more of the time and help her with the injuries she had.

It wasn’t very long after this I had the car accident and then my older sister who had returned from New Zealand with her husband and family had a stroke one day.  She was in a coma for over a month.  This was when I really started to drink a lot.  Later she was taken away by her husband as he had been having an affair with a woman who both my sister and he had met while my sister ran her interior design business.  In time he had my sister committed to an institution in New Zealand.  He then sent her home with a one way ticket and absconded leaving his two oldest sons to fend for themselves at the ages of 12 and 14.  My sister did not know he had decided to leave her for good and when my parents asked her where her return ticket was, she did not know.  When they tried to contact my brother in law he had disappeared.  My sister was inconsolable.  She had left her four boys behind in New Zealand (not by her own choice).  She was very broken emotionally and tried to take her own life in our family home in 1982 when I was 20 years old.

These critical experiences in my early and late teens obviously taught me that life was a very uncertain place, one in which trauma could hit at any time and effect changes that caused devastation.  I chart the worsening of my addiction to these years and then to more years of trauma that followed with my father’s sudden illness and death and fractured relationships with untrustworthy partners in which I did not have any sense of boundaries or idea of what it was to practice self care.

Today I attended my chiropractic appointment and my therapist said to me.  “You are really getting much stronger in your core.  I can feel that you are really starting to develop more of a sense of safety.”  It felt good to hear that but upon arrival at home I sat down on the couch and burst into tears as I became aware of how much I have lost in life through not having a fully developed sense of safety, and how hard relationships have been when this kind of baggage is unconscious, how difficult it has been to have had little connection to all the complex emotions surrounding these events.

Certainly it is not entirely too late for me.  I am only 54 and I know how important it is to recognise and accept life on life’s terms and be grateful for what I do have, but at the same time it has been a very, very traumatic and at times extremely lonely journey and I know how important mourning all of these losses is to my recovery.

On a positive note too, I am handling the break from my therapist at the moment.  Tuesday is our usual meeting time and today I am two weeks out from seeing Katina again.  I have organised some good self care things this week.  Tomorrow I will go to the yoga class I enjoyed and I have booked in for an oncology massage.  My care for myself is growing and I do hope in time that the sense of safety and trust in life will return for me.

Hypervigilance is such a huge part of having suffered trauma.  I was discussing this issue with a friend at the dog park today whose son in law suffers PTSD.  We are constantly on the look out for what can go wrong and often we can project a sense of unsafety onto things outside of ourselves.  Its a real balance to keep a good boundary of self protection but one that does not close us off from reparative experiences that can undo our old beliefs and scepticism due to disappointment.  Can we feel safe enough again to trust?  Will we let down our guard and open our hearts to new experiences?  Hopefully in time, and when our mourning is less raw we can and will.

Coping with the really tough days.

Today is one of them, the really tough days when my legs and stomach ache from the struggle I go through with my PTSD symptoms and when I sit quietly with my hands on my body in the painful places, grief like an ocean rises up.  My symptoms seem to have flared up after a treatment yesterday with a body worker, it has taken me five hours to get out of bed, have a shower (huge panic attack while in the shower which seems to trigger all my pain), make breakfast, feed the dog, clear up dishes and get dressed.  Its now nearly 2 pm and I woke at 7.15 am.

On these days life seems too hard.  Yesterday I touched base with the feelings of profound sadness, fear, desperation and powerlessness I experienced following the bike accident in 2005 when I went over the handlebars and hit my head open on the iron foundry on a busy Cambridge street.  I didn’t remember the impact, just awoke some hour later with an ambulance officer looming over me and most horrible pain in my head and nausea running all through me.  For the astrologically minded of you it happened when transiting Chiron was conjunct my natal Mars, Saturn, Moon in the 6th house on the first anniversary of my husbands decision to walk away from our marriage.

I had gone back to Cambridge hoping to start a new life there, where we had tried to settle three years before.  I was boarding with a family who would only allow me access to the kitchen and bathroom, not the living areas of their home.  I don’t know why I settled for this arrangement and later when I started to express some of the grief I was undergoing they made it clear such feelings were not acceptable in their home.  Their daughter had lost a best friend to addiction a few years before and they didn’t want her faced with any additional sadness.  It was an old familiar dynamic.  Anyway I ended up having this crash and it was plain to me they were not prepared to offer any support so I took myself off to a retreat in Glastonbury.

Its a far longer story.  I spent a lot of my time in severe disorientation due to my PTSD and I spent a lot of time crying.  I did make some supportive friends and I joined a Five Rhythms dance group where I could express my feelings in free form dance.  I look back at that time and see the pain was precursor to a potentially new life, but I felt too far flung out into space with no safety net, so about 6 months after my accident I made the decision to return to Australia.

What came up for me yesterday were all the feelings of powerlessness, compassion for myself at having been treated with lack of compassion by that family and the compassion of the therapist who shared with me how much she feels for people who suffer a traumatic accident which ruptures the fabric of a person’s physical integrity and leaves huge psychological scars.  I know that if you have not been through trauma its impossible to understand how it affects you.  The loss of continuity, the difficulty feeling real, the sense of profound displacement and the strange impact on the body where the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems get forced into full flung hyper arousal that cant be quietened over time.

This week I have been reading about the neurobiology of trauma in Babette Rothschild’s book The Body Remembers : The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment.  What strikes me is the nightmarish quality of it all and the powerlessness we sufferers experience as the body takes over launching us into a world of painful symptoms which are difficult to understand and manage.  Then the double wound which hurts even more deeply when we as sufferers are faced with the lack of empathy and understanding we meet when others don’t want to be bothered by our pain which is seen as a hindrance and the lack of proper emotional support which leaves us so very isolated and alone.

Profound feelings of rage can be one consequence and I know these led me to abort two previous attempts at body work and trauma healing.  I am now with a body therapist who is able to contain this rage and see that it is a symptoms of powerlessness, not a cause to punish me further.  I have compassion for the pain that underlies it.

Writing this is, I now understand, a way for me to manage the pain I feel on the really tough days.  Speaking about it, even just to a blank page helps.  I long to connect with other sufferers as I know they would understand me and I would understand them.  I feel isolated at times.  I have few friends who are willing to understand.  I have a house to cope with and manage while trying to manage all my symptoms.  Some days I cope but on others like today I find it really hard.

One interesting thing that I have read in Babette’s book is that trauma affects the ability of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps us to make sense of events, in an adverse way.  It can shut the hippocampus down when it is severe while it amps up the limbic system, that part of the brain that has profound control over body function, enervation of nerves and muscles and over emotional reactions.  Healing involves engaging the hippocampus through story telling, therapy, writing and other methods which help us to make sense of the trauma and its impact on our lives.

I am only a short way into the book and will share about it more later as I learn more.  For today I need to go gently on myself, to have compassion for the traumatised self who sometimes judges herself by standards that relate to the non traumatised.  I didn’t choose this and at times it feels like a curse, but I have to live with it.  As the Sun and Mercury have passed in opposition to my natal Chiron in the seventh house which aspects Mars, Saturn and Moon, while conjunct natal Pluto in my first I am reminded that this is part of my destiny.  Chiron was wounded in the ankle by a poison arrow left lying around by Hercules after he had fought the nine headed Hydra in one of his major labours.  The pain of the loss of my husband drove me on a quest and I got injured as a result.  Chiron never healed his wound but he did become a teacher and healer himself with profound insight into the nature of the wound and how to tend it, lovingly.  I take this insight to heart today as I consider the loving thing to do on one of the really tough days.

Also I am questioning today whether it might be advisable to give the body work a break for a time.  After my accident I went to an astrology consultation with the astrologer Melanie Reinhardt who explores the mythology and psychology of Chiron in the lives and stories of people and places.  She advised me at that time that I would gain most by living a quiet, interior and centred life in which I developed compassion and understanding into the nature of my wound.  Melanie also came close to death following an accident (as I did in an early accident at 17) and she explained to me that such a trauma leaves and imprint few, even many therapists fully understand.  She mentioned that one of the dangers of reliving the trauma over was in being stuck there.  Being stuck is such a big part of PTSD anyway, especially as the freeze or immobility state is one of the response to life threatening trauma.

How to come out of freeze?  Firstly to know when we are in that state, feeling trapped, holding our breath, making poor decisions due to trauma.  Going for a walk, even if we don’t feel like it.  Choosing to engage even if may feel dangerous, loving ourselves even when frozen and feeling compassion, may all be ways.  Writing about it, talking about it, understanding it.  Not as something to be ashamed of that makes us less than but something that even in being painful is a form of education of the soul..