Safety, Trauma and Intimacy

Our capacity to feel safe in the world, to feel deep emotional intimacy, is a direct consequence of our capacity to feel safe in our bodies and to feel a deep intimacy with our self, with our body. If my body holds trauma (physical, emotional, spiritual) I will have parts in me that does not feel safe. And those parts will “speak” by telling me “this is not safe” even if there is nothing in that specific moment that is truly unsafe.

As I am in the process of writing a book on trauma, exploring the physiological, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of it, I wanted to share with you some of my findings and views on Trauma. My personal experience of revealing my sexual trauma has been a beautiful doorway into allowing me to express from an embodied experience what trauma feels like and what is the way through it, into healing.

Trauma is the Greek word for "wound". Although the Greeks used the term only for physical injuries, nowadays trauma is just as likely to refer to emotional wounds. We now know that a traumatic event can leave psychological symptoms long after any physical injuries have healed.

The psychological reaction to emotional trauma now has an established name: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It usually occurs after an extremely stressful event, such as wartime combat, a natural disaster, or sexual or physical abuse; its symptoms include depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and recurring nightmares. But the symptoms can also extend to much more blurred/unseen territories like: lack of boundaries, lack of confidence, victim and abuser symptoms, anger, violence, numbness in body sensations, lack of pleasure, etc.

It is important to mention than once anchored in the body the trauma will stay there as long as it is not addressed. Often when trauma happened in early childhood it is also not consciously easy to connect symptoms with the original trauma unless a therapeutic approach is engaged by the individual who carry the trauma (I have personally carried sexual trauma for over 30 years without having any conscious memory of it, and therefor was unable to connect specific behaviors to that specific trauma). 

There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.
—  Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral's Kiss.

While many types of situations can be considered traumatic, it is important to note that each person will react differently to comparable events (is the person prepared for such event? how resilient is that person emotionally? does the person has strong emotional support around? etc.). In the case of physical trauma, the depth of the physical damage is not also directly related to the potential depth of the trauma symptoms.

The same situation will leave very little trauma to some and very deep trauma to others. Therefor the traumatic event in itself can rarely tell you how traumatized a person can be or will be.

As a veterinarian by training, and having work with patient with trauma in my shamanic and healing practice, I have always been interested to understand why animal seems to not have the same depth and frequency of PTSD or trauma symptoms as humans. I want first to be cautious on what I am sharing here as there is not a day that pass that keeps proving that even trees & plants are experiencing “feelings” and have a capacity for memory of a past experience.

One of the common accepted fact and research is that yes most animal experience trauma but they are able to come back to homeostasis much quicker than humans. Another important fact is that today’s modern world provide much more stress to humans and therefor put constant pressure on the nervous system and activate more frequently our dorsal vagus nerve branch than most animal. It seems that our cities and way of life create more un-safety to us than the jungle or savanna do to wild animals, very telling!

When observing wild animals, Dr. Peter Levine realized that after a gazelle was chased by a lion, and escape it’s death, the gazelle would start shaking its body for a few minutes. In the same way as the TRE technic, it seems that is one-way animal “shake off” the traumatic energy from their body.

In response to threat and injury, animals, including humans, execute biologically based, non-conscious action patterns that prepare them to meet the threat and defend themselves. The very structure of trauma, including activation, dissociation and freezing are based on the evolution of survival behaviors. When threatened or injured, all animals draw from a “library” of possible responses. We orient, dodge, duck, stiffen, brace, retract, fight, flee, freeze, collapse, etc. All of these coordinated responses are somatically based- they are things that the body does to protect and defend itself. It is when these orienting and defending responses are overwhelmed that we see trauma. The bodies of traumatized people portray “snapshots” of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word- they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.
— Peter A. Levine

The animal also often immediately returns to its group and the group stayed often calm and peaceful. Also, because the trauma response (fight or flight) is highly consuming of energy, it is a very poor behavior to keep engaging it as it will prevent the capacity for the system to fight & flee if another threat comes back. It seems to me in the case of wild animal that there is a higher innate wisdom here in their behavior.

So, this led into feeling safe or not after a traumatic experience. When I shared a few days ago about my Sexual Trauma, I have felt for 48 hours waves of shaking in my body and also some deep feeling of shame, and of being “unsafe”. I could see how my system was still holding some trauma. My willingness to feel, and to hold myself, paired with the support of dear friends, helped me to be able to create safety and to reengaged my nervous system into its safe mode. This is basically reprogramming my body into its healthy balance.

Safety led me into deeper territories of intimacy. Intimacy with myself. Intimacy with others. And in that process, I also realize how essential it is to communicate not only my feelings, but also my needs to others. It is very hard for someone who has not experience physical trauma (or reconnect with its trauma) to really feel what a person with PTSD world looks like. But for sure holding a space of “listening” without judging nor giving advice, has been the most healing space I have received from the friends who have been holding me when going through my trauma healing process. A compassionate non-judgmental Heart, filled with unconditional love, is the medicine needed to hold that space.

I will keep sharing. And I will keep listening and learning. As all the gems I am discovering in that process are giving me great tools for my practice with my clients, and for my life, gems that I am excited to share in the book I am writing.

So, thank you. To my trauma. To my body. To my teachers. To my partner. To my friends. And to all of you. For walking this with me.

Shawinigan Ungaia

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Guillaume Gauthereau