I have been working with a particular middle-aged woman for some time now. We'll call her Brenda. She has been suffering from poor digestive health, multiple sclerosis, and unrelenting back pain for more than 7 years now. Always on edge, she feels categorically unable to relax her body, especially her back.
Upon my asking, she felt the last time she was able to feel fully relaxed was when she was just 8 years old, playing with her stuffed animals in her room. She had some trauma with her parents around that age that persisted for years afterwards and she hasn't been able to feel relaxed since. Imagine living 45 years and never feeling relaxed in your own body.
One doesn't have to think very hard to figure out how physiologically costly such prolonged stress and dysregulation is on the body. Yet many people live such an existence given the tremendously high amount of adverse childhood experiences in this country.
How does this happen?
Moment by moment, your mind is trying to determine how much danger is in your environment. If you have experienced bad things in your life, your brain is constantly trying to determine how likely this thing will happen again in the future.
It will search and search for any clues, both inside your body and out, for confirmation that you are indeed under threat. The more you seek, the more you will find. This creates a low level, persistent stress because your body and mind are behaving as if the life you inhabit is permanently dangerous.
What does your body do when you constantly feel under threat? It creates behaviors designed to motivate a change and protect you: pain, fear, worrying, , muscular tension, chronic inflammation and immune dysregulation, even shut down and detachment.
These outputs of your nervous system float into your awareness and most of the time you either try to deal with them by going to the doctor, seeing a PT, taking some medication or by just ignoring them or "toughening up" because the feelings are just too intense.
But until you are able to effectively deal with your past memories creating current dangers, these symptoms linger. Stress hormones stay elevated. Nerves become more sensitive and your brain more reactive to their signals. Blood pressure stays up. Your heart beats like a metronome. You can't digest your food. And you become fatigued from constantly being on-edge. Unable to regulate your emotions, relationships become stressful themselves, adding to your insecurity.
For many of us, understanding this is hard. Because it FEELS like your back pain really is the problem. The only problem. And if you just fixed that, life would be good again. But if that were true why do so many surgeries, procedures, and rehabilitation techniques not fix the problem?
Because if we look deeper, we find that the back pain started right around the time you were really stressed - dealing with a job you didn't like, a parent who wasn't there for you or a spouse who didn't support you, or perhaps a car accident.
Many times pain is part of a grander response to stress rather than the cause of it. And when you are vulnerable from all the little cuts that modern life inflicts, pain becomes a giant pulsing signal.
So back to Brenda:
What did we do? We found body positions that she felt safe in - typically by me giving her pressure on the soles of her feet or on the top of her shoulders to help her feel more physically secure and stable. We used visualizations of when she felt relaxed and I asked her to feel that in the current moment as she learned to move her pelvis and low back without so much tension.
Whenever the attention drifted back to negativity, as it so often does in traumatized folks, I instructed her to notice it and bring it back to her body as it softens and relaxes. Starting small and gradually expanding her field of awareness.
The response was tremendous. A feeling of safety and peace she hasn't felt in decades. She felt quieter in her mind and noticed that she felt taller and more in control. And the back pain and tension was completely gone. There's more work to be done but…
To feel safe is transformative.