Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. — Mary Oliver
Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, reminds me of how strongly both my physical and mental condition have been shaped by trauma. Spinal arthritis, abdominal pain, chronic muscle aches, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and many other problems combine to form an inner ledger of the abuse, bereavement, and neglect of my childhood and the uproar, frustration, and terror of my adult experience.
Why should this be? Why should trauma have such profound effects on body and mind?
It’s useful to remember what it means to live as a human organism. There are many ways to explore this, but let’s try an outside-in approach.
- Skin: Our bodies are covered with a protective surface that is highly sensitive and easily injured. The skin registers both loving caress and brutal blows. It is multilayered, with a relatively dry outer layer and a most inner layer, rich with blood vessels and nerves. It’s an exquisite interface, but also the one that suffers much under the hardship of life. And every message the skin receives travels throughout the human form, like ripples on a pond. Affectionate touch can build confidence, while violation instills shame.
- Sense organs: Eyes, ears, nose, and tongue provide animals with vital information about the environment. The eyes register facial expression; they narrow slightly when we laugh among amusing friends, and they broaden in terror when a fist swings toward the face, or a car spins on a freeway, or a loved one suffers a bad fall, or an abuser stares at us with sadistic contempt. The ears are sensitive to volume, pitch, and cadence. The coo of a lover’s voice softens the heart, while the threats and insults of a cruel caregiver freeze us in states of lonely shame. Many animals can smell rage and fear, and perhaps we can too. The nostrils flare when we feel unsafe. What’s more, the scents associated with a terrible history remain imprinted forever. Long after we’re adults, the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath might transport us instantly back to the awful past.
- Muscles: Think of how much tension gets stored in the muscles of the face, jaw, neck, upper back, lumbar region, and pelvis. Wilhelm Reich called the layer of tight musculature “armor,” and the word fits. In a vain attempt to protect itself, the body builds a wall. The safety the armor promises is an illusion, but the way it cuts us off from feeling spontaneous and affectionate is all-too-real.
- Bone: The bone is our innermost strength. It stores some of the deepest physical scars as thickened areas where fractures have healed. It gradually thins with age, as hormonal shifts change the balance of buildup and breakdown. It also holds the imprint of our habitual posture. How many of us develop chronic slumps in the shoulders and upper backs, the stamp of chronic defensiveness and lack of confidence? How many of us feel ready to stand tall every moment of our lives? In this age of epidemic trauma, it doesn’t help that our lifestyles encourage collapse, as we hunch over LED screens. Our skeletons become maps of withdrawal and insecurity.
- Lungs: In Chinese Medicine, the lungs are viewed as the reservoirs of sorrow. Depression and grief are reflected in breathing patterns, which become shallow and choppy. The lungs connect us most intimately, and also most vulnerably, with our environment. They open a vast surface to the atmosphere (about the size of a basketball court in every person), so that each breath is as intimate as lovemaking. How sad that our atmosphere is so often polluted, or that we feel so stressed we find comfort in inhaling the toxic fumes of cigarettes and vaporizers.
- Digestive Organs: We are what we eat. We know this, and yet in the aftermath of a harrowing upbringing, or after a stressful day in a difficult job, we find ourselves swallowing oily, salty, sugary, and ugly junk food. Our stomach and intestines dutifully break down whatever we ingest, but potato chips and candy bars send shock waves through the blood stream, so that many of us suffer with high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes. How much healthier to fill the inner channel with what it craves: good, wholesome food that isn’t laced with pesticides, preservatives, and empty calories. Yet how difficult that can be!
- Nervous System: The brain sits at the top of the spinal cord, like a king surveying his realm. Nerves come in from every inch of the skin, from the matrix of bone, the airway linings, the digestive organs, and everything else. It registers and remembers the sensations and–most importantly–their associations. Does a touch on the arm evoke the caress of a gentle mother or the groping of a drunk molester? Does the scent of detergent remind us of laundry drying in the sun or institutional cruelties? The nervous system can remain on high alert for decades, storms ever gathering on the mental horizon. Or, it can slowly settle down, it can find ease and safety despite the uncertainty of life. The nervous system elaborates our consciousness in all of its complexity, and it can create either a hell or a heaven, depending on our experiences and our responses.
- Reproductive Organs: How confused our feelings become around these structures we all possess! Pathways of passion and ecstasy can so easily become coils of confusion. Does sex feel safe or threatening? Do others desire our bodies or ignore them? Does desire come with affection or is it nothing but narcissistic lust? Do our memories of early sexual awareness feel pleasantly nostalgic or sickeningly shameful? These sweet systems that carry life through time have become such hotbeds of unhappiness, it is truly sad. But we can imagine a better way, we can work to build a culture that celebrates sexuality without obsessing about it. One that views sex and reproduction with curious awe, rather than prurience and contempt.
- The Heart: She is the queen of the body, sitting in her palace in the body’s core. The first organ to become functional, and the one that pulses with vitality from a few weeks after conception until the moment of death. She is hopeful but can become discouraged, radiant with affection at baseline but cold with terror or indifference when overwhelmed. The heart truly keeps the score, but in a way that remains optimistic. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for us to reawaken the heart to its natural state of wonder. We just need to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. Of course, to do that we have to learn what our bodies feel, to quit turning away from the discomfort within. This is a key task of trauma recovery, and in The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk points out that yoga, for instance, is a great way of moving through resistance to meet the body where it stands.
We tend to look at the body as a dumb beast or worse, as a machine. Modern medicine has convinced us it’s a mere mechanism. True, we can now replace hip bones with metal contraptions, and this is a boon to many. But that doesn’t mean the body is no different from the artifacts with which we repair it. The body is alive in every one of its cells. Each is a life form in its own right, just as every honeybee is an individual even as the hive is the unit that reproduces. The body is a society, with its cells, tissues, and organs each playing important roles in the drama of human life.
Trauma disrupts the body by obstructing the smooth communication and subtle rhythms that characterize life. We become disconnected and irregular, robbed of our birthright of intimacy and resonance.
And yet, the body’s reactions are its best effort to keep life moving. Armor is designed to shield us. Flashbacks are meant to keep us vigilant. Disconnection is meant to isolate us from danger. The intelligence of the body is doing its best, moment-by-moment. Trauma recovery depends on reeducating the organism, so it can respond to our situation as it is now and not as it was then. With slow and careful work, we can grow more accepting of our bodies. We can become more vibrant: appropriately protective when necessary and beautifully permeable when appropriate.