Wouldn’t it be great if there were a primer for moving through the process of healing trauma? How amazing it would be if there were clear cut steps, if the emotional pathway was laid out in black and white, if those around us were readying a celebration for the new you that is being birthed. After all, the journey to wholeness is similar to welcoming a child into the world. In this case however, the child is you and a life of greater resiliency is the gift.
If these words strike a chord, I want you to know how brave you are for exploring this path. When a person suffers trauma there often comes a moment of clarity, a second when they say to themselves “There must be a better way.” I think of this as a divine tap on the shoulder.
Perhaps you choose to view this as a stepping stone on your karmic journey. One crack of sunlight, one moment of sensing that you deserve more is all it can take. If you are nodding your head in agreement, I will offer you thoughts on what might come next and how you can support and nurture yourself along the way.
Before getting into the specifics, let me take a moment to share some basic information about our brains.
There are three parts to this most amazing organ I would like to discuss. The first part is the brain stem and is referred to as the reptilian brain. It is first to be formed and it controls breathing, eating, sleeping, pooping and peeing.
Positioned above the reptilian brain is the limbic system which is the seat of emotion and perception. This part of the brain monitors danger and decides whether an action should be initiated to ensure survival. These two parts of our brain which Bessel van der Kolk, MD calls our emotional brain, are all about survival. This is where we determine, unconsciously, if we should fight, flee or freeze.
The third part of our brain is the frontal cortex. It is where cognitive decisions are made. This area also helps us to modulate emotions, regulate responses and is the seat of empathy and compassion.
Trauma resides in our emotional, unconscious brain. This may help you to understand why the functions of this area are most affected by trauma and are stimulated when we are in our healing journey.
One minute you might feel elated at the thought of finally moving past this old pain. The next minute you may feel weepy. The following morning a sense of heavy depression may take over. Because trauma affects the unconscious parts of the brain and shuts down the analytical cortical area, a narrative story may not exist for what you experienced. What does remain are the imprints left on the cells of the body. Memories are not cohesive story lines but are rather fragments of smells, sounds sights and body sensations. You will invariably stumble upon triggering elements in the course of your current life that return you instantaneously to an emotion experienced long, long ago.
Ayurveda considers trauma a vata imbalance, a disturbance in the ether and air elements. Vata governs movement; the erratic emotional rollercoaster you may be on is indicative of ungrounded movement in a psychological sense.
One way to find more balance is to create a sense of routine in your day. Perhaps you might start with sleep and rising times. Consistently going to bed around 10 and rising between 5 and 6 will help your body reclaim its natural rhythm. Consider eating your meals at the same time each day, dinner being your lightest meal. Limit your choice making as your mind may not be able to nimbly jump from possibility to possibility without creating more distress. How can this be done? Simplify your life. Create one-dish meals of warm cooked root vegetables. Curtail your busy social schedule and share tea with only one or two friends each week. Put off making major decisions until your mind is clearer. Take a break from technology; pouring over a computer screen catching up on everyone’s posts and emails can send you into overload in short order. Allow yourself to rest and to shed what you do not need to handle for now.
Anger stands alone. It is one of those emotions that I used to feel I didn’t experience. Ever so optimistic I walked around for years thinking that I had skirted that red headed monster. The reality is we all experience moments of anger. How we express our anger varies; sometimes we manage anger, sometimes anger manages us. When someone is hurt or traumatized it is reasonable to think that anger at the injustice would come to the surface.
But what if you are a little child when this happens? What if you are an adult who is fearful of the repercussions of voicing your emotions? What if you have been taught that anger is an inappropriate response?
As you open yourself up to healing, this long repressed emotion may rise to the surface. It is old stuff, it is hard stuff and if it is oozing out of you it is likely a necessary purge. Welcome this as a harbinger of more lightness and coolness of spirit.
Ayurveda views anger as a hot Pitta emotion. How can you best manage the physical manifestations of excess heat? Be gentle with yourself. Try not to push too hard, demand too much or set unreasonable goals. Exercise should be moderate to slow and grounding. Appropriate food choices can help tremendously during this time of transition. Caffeine and alcohol, both stimulants and irritants, will not be tolerated well nor will hot spicy foods. Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, green peppers and white potatoes should be minimized. Consider adding coconut oil to your cooking, incorporate turmeric which reduces inflammation and drink aloe vera gel or juice.
This is hard work and it is not for the faint of heart. Recognize that as you begin to work through dense painful emotions and patterns, you are stretching muscles of a different sort. Due to the excess vata dosha, your sleep may be irregular and perhaps more sparse than you desire. This will add to your sense of exhaustion. This is a time to nurture yourself and to lean into those around you who love and support you. When you are tired, rest. Do not feel that you are being slovenly or lazy. You are doing important work so that you may live with less fear, less anxiety and less avoidance. Give your body what it intuitively needs.
Ayurveda offers some ideas for insuring a peaceful night’s sleep. About a half hour before going to bed you might warm a cup of milk with a ½ teaspoon of turmeric and a little bit of maple syrup. Allow the mixture to come to a low boil and then remove it from the heat. If you have access to raw milk this is a wonderfully healing choice. If you are dairy free you can substitute almond or coconut milk. Experiment a bit to find the blend that appeals most to you. A little grated nutmeg on top is particularly yummy and sleep enhancing.
If you like you might also warm up a bit of oil and give yourself a foot massage. Coconut oil is cooling, sesame is warming, and sunflower is balancing for most people. You can add a drop of lavender for its calming effect.
Work the oil all over your feet, pausing if you hit a tender spot and adjusting your pressure accordingly. When you feel complete, put on a pair of cotton socks and slip between the sheets for a restful night’s sleep.
You may find that your digestive system is erratic and that you are prone to constipation. Trauma by nature is constricting. It causes us to be more dry and less elastic. Our digestive tract which is normally plumped up with cells that absorb nutrients and flush out toxins in the forms of urine and feces, is now arid, cells lying flatter against the intestinal walls. If we cannot regularly rid ourselves of toxins because we are constipated, we will feel more sluggish, our brains may be foggy and we can feel bloated and uncomfortable.
Constipation is another vata symptom according to Ayurveda. The colon is the seat of vata and so is often disturbed when trauma is present. Along with constipation or dry stools you may also notice an excess amount of gas which is the air element so prevalent in vata. One simple remedy is to drink one or two mugs of warm or hot water in the morning when you wake up. This will help prime your pump so to speak, adding more moisture to a dry system. Eating warm, cooked foods and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables will also help. Stew an apple or some prunes and have this compote 20 minutes before or after your breakfast. Add a bit of ghee or coconut oil to your diet understanding that this can help to moisten your tissues from the inside out. Incorporate gentle movement into your morning routine. Squats, Goddess, wind relieving pose and belly massage can all help to enhance apana vayu (the downward flow of energy).
The digestive system is often called the second heart, another seat of emotion and so nurturing this area of your body will benefit you in a myriad of ways.
There is no true road map that anyone can provide, no primer to will walk you through your experience. Finding teachers along the way and reading words of inspiration will help you to know that you are not alone. Celebrate the smallest moments of progress and recognize the opportunity that each new day brings. I offer you blessings for your journey.