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November 9, 2017

Somatic Healing: When Reliving the Past is actually Useful.

Who among us hasn’t had that moment?

You know, the one when we’re forced to fight back tears, or hold back the full expression of our anger for fear of what we might say or do?

I’ve often thought about what these moments might be trying to tell me. Why are we sometimes completely consumed by our emotions, even when it’s completely inappropriate? Why, in these moments, is our rational, decision-making brain forced to take a back seat? It seems to me that our bodies are wanting us to know some truth—perhaps a truth that is buried deep within us.

As human beings, we are all familiar with uncomfortable emotions. In fact, according to trauma specialist Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of the book The Body Keeps The Score, our brains do their best to protect our bodies from feeling uncomfortable emotions. Although the intentions of our brains are all good, this protective mechanism causes a conflict between the feeling body and the rational mind.

And here’s the catch-22. The only way of resolving this mind/body conflict is to allow our bodies to experience the very emotion our brains are trying to avoid. According to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, author of the book, Self Comes To Mind, our emotions are our bodies’ way of understanding our experiences. The body needs to feel emotions in order for the mind to understand what’s happening to us—a prerequisite for peace of mind.

So I asked myself, what if I didn’t simply try to move on after an overwhelmingly emotional episode? What if I were to examine my reaction later, in private, in the safety of my own mind?

Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ve discovered over the years that the reason some moments in my life feel too intense is because they remind my body of past emotions, emotions that never got the chance to become fully realized. I’ve discovered that whenever my body gets emotionally hijacked, it’s because the present situation has triggered my body’s need to feel and hold unprocessed emotional experiences from my past.

Here is an example: once, while I was teaching a yoga class, a student who was struggling to do a headstand snapped at me when I suggested she try a different approach. A barrage of awful, physical sensations followed. I was so taken aback, I could hardly breathe. It was like I was scared, hurt, and angry all at the same time, and since I couldn’t decide which one to go with, I seized up completely. If not for the fact that I felt forced to suppress it all as the instructor, I likely would have broken down into tears. I held it together with as much grace as I could muster, which wasn’t a lot, but I got through it without falling apart.

In the past, I would have likely gone back and forth in my mind with the “whys” and the “should haves” following such an emotionally charged moment. I would imagine scenarios in which I confront the other person in an effort to have my feelings acknowledged. I’d deliberate for hours—even days—depending on the situation. I would occasionally consult with friends and family for advice or reassurance.

But none of these things ever really brought me peace. I realize now that this was because all of these efforts to process the experience had me searching for the answers in my logical mind, when the truth actually resided in feelings held in my body. I’ve come to realize that I will never find the answers to these events without considering my body’s experience.

So this time, I closed my eyes and went back to the moment in order to recreate the sensations in my body.

In the privacy of my own mind, I relived everything—except this time, I no longer had the pressure to respond right away, and instead had the space to remain both present and aware. I asked myself, does this situation “feel” familiar to me? I allowed myself to relive the exact sensations I was having in my body at the time of my student’s outburst, and discovered that the overwhelming hurt and extreme sadness I felt were actually old emotions carried over from prior experiences that desperately wanted to be acknowledged at long last.

As I worked through the unresolved pain of the past, it became clear to me why the moment with my student had been so intense. As children, when we are not given the opportunity to process our emotions, our bodies hold onto that crisis, waiting for an opportunity for resolution. In short, the past, unresolved situation makes it impossible for us to calmly handle the situation in the present. I hated feeling so helpless in that moment with my student, but I let myself feel it anyway because I knew I still needed to work through and make peace with the moment in my past when I was actually helpless.

My continued efforts to reconcile my past through somatic healing have allowed me to live more peacefully in the present. Self-examination always leads to more compassion for both myself and others and a clearer understanding of both past and present. I know now that these “fighting back the tears” or “fighting back the anger” moments are my body’s way of asking my mind to listen to what it knows and to acknowledge these old stories. It’s helped me find inner peace that allows me to engage more peacefully with all things in my life.

In solving our internal conflicts, somatic therapy helps us to make peace within ourselves and in doing so keeps Gandhi’s dream alive—effective ways of healing literally allow us to “be the change we want to see in the world.”

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Relephant:

Unlocking Trauma through Embodied Healing.

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Author: Carla Ardito
Image: With permission from Tareck Raffoul
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis

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Carla Melucci Ardito