One of the most difficult groups to get together is a group of those suffering from PTSD. There is a tendency to want to share what we have in common, to retell stories of trauma, and to legitimize, speak words to the horror in some way in hopes that it heals us. It may look like it is not adversely affecting the story teller in the moment, but what happens to the internal body is another story altogether.
Last week I watched a series of events take place in a very short period of time. Two combat Veterans talking about images they had seen while overseas in war torn nations. On the outside, it seemed almost easy for the Veterans to share, but as a practiced observer I watched the body tell the story. Their bodies started responding to memories of war in ways that told me their bodies were being taxed in some way. The more I saw a physiological response in the veterans, the more I knew about what was being harbored in the body and what the nervous system in each individual had still not completely processed. The body had not resolved trapped energy from the moment of trauma.
Is it any surprise?
To fully process the immense amount of energy that flows through the body at a time of trauma takes time, gentleness, allowance, self compassion, and rest. In a time of combat, when shit hits the fan, there is no time, gentleness, self compassion, rest or allowing the body to dictate what needs to happen next. At times like this it is mind over matter…so they say. So, as a result, military men and women keep moving which results in a massive body surge of energy that is now trapped in the body. Is it any wonder that there is so much chronic pain and mental health symptoms?
I watched these two Veterans as natural breath became labored, shortened and shallow. I watched as one seemed to stop breathing all together. One Vet’s shoulders slowly ramped up towards his ears, the rest of his body stiffening. The other Veteran’s pulse changed, witnessed by the vein in his neck, also shown by his foot shifting from stillness to rapid tapping and shifting back and forth. He was bracing, fists clenched and color leaving his knuckles. I watched as the other Vet’s face whitened, and eyes stilled to a stare straight ahead and now moving far away.
The moment had gone far enough. As they had welcomed me into their discussions before, I introduced myself into their conversation when I saw one of the Veterans reach over and rest his hand on the other’s arm. That was the cue, the body cue for the need to feel care, and comfort. The movement was organic and did not come consciously from either Vet. He did not move in order to comfort his compatriot, but to receive a level of comfort that consciously he was not aware that he needed. However, his body was well aware. I watched how his body shifted down a gear after he unconciously met the subconcious of the other, neither was aware of what just happened. The body, in this instant, acquired what it needed in that moment, and it came organically. For the biology of the body, it was just enough to help it come down a notch. I watched as he moved away from contact, not even noticing what had occurred.
I stopped them both and brought a gentle awareness to the subtle and physical exchange that had just occurred between them both. We slowed down together and took account of what had happened. Recognizing the system knows what it needs and will get it regardless of our mind’s push to make it happen. Also, regardless of what the ego will allow us to show or not. We talked about the organic nature of the physical movement and what was witnessed by the outside observer. Almost as if the response was of someone or something else it was so unconscious. Because it just happened and attention was brought to the movement, we were able to allow that to sink in just a little more. Space was created for the nervous system to move, to offset some of that energy and for the organism, the Vet to feel supported. The space that was created in that moment is no light feat. Doing this creates new nuero-pathways in the brain that allows this type of interaction to be a process that takes place in the future.
What was I looking for at this point? As the two Veterans sat before me, time was introduced into the scene. This time was enough for the nervous system to respond appropriately. Helping the Veterans to orient and notice what was around them. There was nothing there to hurt them and space afforded the organism allowed it to see that they were safe and okay. Then, I asked them to tell me what sensation came about. Was there heaviness, spaciousness, tightness, a release; was there a color or shape to the sensation. This is very different from trying to report a feeling, but rather a sensation that moves and changes frequently. Mindfulness into what the experience was, not the feeling and not the scenario, but simple expression of sensation. This means no labels and no packaged feelings about any one label we give the moment. Not anxious, not anger, but sensation.
Tears fell into the lap of one, but not those that come when there is a ramp up towards more debilitation, but tears that are exquisite, fresh, and new. Exquisite in that they are clearly those of relief and of a cycle shifting down into a realm where nervous system processing can occur. Time for tears, and then smiles, more hugs and a huge breath of air that reached far into the gut. That is when you know some good stuff just took place.
Eva M. Belanger, M.A., MFT
Warriors Live On