Breaking Free - August 2022

From the editor

Welcome to the August edition of Breaking Free. This month our feature article ‘Experiencing trauma in the body’ demystifies how triggers can evoke a range of feelings and emotions that link back to prior trauma. As we progress through our recovery journey, we can start to learn how to tune into our body and understand our reactions and acquire strategies to better regulate our emotions. Our article outlines some practical strategies for you to try. We also have a useful fact sheet that explains the different ways our body stores memories of trauma.

Our guest contributor ‘Gay’ reflects on her own journey of recovery, looking through her lens as a professional, and the myriad of ways in which the body holds onto, even buries, past trauma and unprocessed emotion. We thank her for such a reflective and powerful piece: Seeking the Harmless Adult Tantrum.

We have also included a powerful poem by Dawna Markova, and we thank her for sharing her inspiring reflections of survival.

There is also an opportunity for you to share your lived experience through an anonymous and confidential international study being conducted by University of Exeter in the UK. The National Mental Health Commission is also looking for people to contribute their voice to the National Peaks Consultation Surveys. These surveys will help the Commission deliver recommendations to government, so your views are very important and are encouraged.

Finally, Blue Knot Day is just around the corner. This year it is on Thursday 27th October. Our annual digital Festival of Healing will follow the theme: Nurturing Mind, Body and Soul – Exploring What You Need. Throughout the day we will be sharing a range of videos, resources and other information which we hope will offer some ideas for you to try. More updates will be shared via our social media and in the next Breaking Free.

Until next time, take care
The Blue Knot Team

Experiencing Trauma in the Body

Improvements in our understanding around complex trauma and its effects have shown us the importance of understanding and tuning in, as much as we safely can, to reactions which we experience in our body related to our trauma experiences. For some people this can be overwhelming at first but these are skills we can develop gradually over time.

As we become more in tune with ourselves, we can start to track sensations in our body and the emotions related to them. This can help us be more aware of our levels of arousal and if we are becoming hyper-or hypo-aroused and outside of our Window of Tolerance – the zone in which we can better tolerate our emotions.

For many survivors, doing this can be challenging and different triggers can cause reactions which automatically throw us into a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. This is to be expected but when it happens, can mean that we are not able to think clearly for a time. This is because this can throw us back into a survival response in which our thinking brain goes offline.  It can be hard to predict what might trigger this reaction but come people do start to identify their triggers and this can help to better manage those reactions. Different people experience different triggers or the same trigger, differently, feeling traumatised or not, and to different degrees. Interestingly people from different cultures will also experience differences in what is potentially traumatising for them.

When people are triggered, they often experience flashbacks. Flashbacks are fragments of memory returning along with strong feelings, such as intense fear and sensations and movements which have been stored since the time of the original trauma and are being re-experienced in the present. Flashbacks can be visual, auditory, olfactory, sensory or gustatory i.e. affect any one of your senses, or several together, as well as experiences of involuntary movements and gestures. They can last for seconds, minutes or at times, hours.

Flashbacks can be so real and vivid that people experiencing them are convinced that the trauma is occurring right now in the present, in the body i.e. somatic flashbacks, alongside strong emotional flashbacks or both.

What can you do?

Be kind and compassionate with yourself. Flashbacks are not your fault. They are the way your mind and body are responding to trauma you experienced in the past.

Although it can be difficult to separate the past from the present during a flashback, do what you can to tell yourself that what is occurring is simply a flashback. It is not happening now

Try to orient yourself in the present, using cues which show you, that e.g. you are older, that you are safe, that it is a different time and place.

Try to ground yourself using whatever tools and resources you have found useful e.g. Use your senses. Use your breathing. Move. Connect in with your senses. Put your feet firmly on the ground. Engage with a rhythm.

The following fact sheet Trauma and Body Memories helps to explain the different types of memory and the ways in which trauma is remembered in the body:

Trauma and Body Memories Fact Sheets

Seeking the Harmless Adult Tantrum

‘Go home and kick into your beanbag, flail your arms around into cushions’.

That’s a simple enough instruction, isn’t it?

For you there, coming in on the tail end of this 15-year long conversation, it might sound a weird prescription for healing. I, however, have come to respect the deep-seated and often hidden connections between body, mind and emotions, since long-buried effects of early childhood abuse began to surface in my mid-life. Even the sceptical, rational part of me that once studied medicine, then switched to Sociology, is now convinced of the myriad ways in which the body holds on to, even buries, past trauma and unprocessed emotion. It can be embedded in the organs, in the muscles, connective tissue, bones and joints. And it almost always effects the way our hormones and neurotransmitters pulse and the connections made, and not made, in the brain and rest of the nervous system.

I digress. For now, as I sit warm and comfy in my home, a few hours after the appointment with the counsellor, the question is:

Why is this simple instruction so difficult to follow?

There’s no one else home, nor expected. The dog is sleeping elsewhere in the sun, not here in the beanbag. I am completely free of external commitments for the next few hours. I am comfortable on the spacious carpeted floor of this room where I have become accustomed to doing zoomed Yoga classes. It’s several years since our daughter, now mid-20s, moved out of this room, taking all but a drawer full of things and memories as she ventured interstate for study and work.  We didn’t follow the advertisement cliché of turning this bedroom into an ensuite, so soft cushions and blankets are strewn around this light-filled space. I know I can relax into myself here. I have experienced being a blubbering bundle in this space, a radiant energy field amazed at what my body can stretch into, a frustrated frump, a willing writer, and an ethereal angel. I can flow into a multitude of states in this space.

The only human noises I can hear are the builders’ nail guns and hammers 3 houses away and the neighbour’s radio she keeps next to her while she gardens. The familiar trees – huge sentinel gums in the distance and, closer in, masses of leafy greens – my soothing friends beyond the windowpanes, flutter in the gentle autumn breeze. I am well practised at letting these rhythms and touches of light settle me in preparedness for meditation or relaxation. I have been doing yoga for 34 years, teaching it for 31. It has been an amazing, often rocky, journey back into my body (I had always felt awkward and uncoordinated but never knew I had lost connection with my body); harnessing my mind (I used to think it worked well … didn’t realise it was often side-tracking me); and bringing clarity to the emotional fog (I never knew it was clouding and confounding my experience of daily life). I’ve gone from a sensible, reliable, defined, competent person that some would have seen as a bit stuck, wooden or two dimensional to a more flowing, rounded, sometimes strong, sometimes vulnerable human being.

Thanks to this challenging but liberating journey towards my whole self through Yoga and trauma-healing, I have come to know my body quite well.  Earlier today, in the counsellor’s room I was exploring one of my recurring flashes of memory (I call them ‘flashbacks’ or ‘floaties’). I didn’t have any difficulty noticing the solid, hard, cylinder of tightness in my core, in front of my spine.  Letting my breath flow as I was guided through various familiar releasing practices, I gradually sensed this tightness reducing to a cord or strip. But it didn’t completely disappear. This cord or rod of tightness persisted.

I was 2-3 years old when the sexual abuse started, at the hands of an authority figure in my extended family. Today, the counsellor and I know that accessing and working with body memory will bring more effective healing than trying to find words. At 2, 3, 4 years old, I didn’t have the vocabulary, cognitive frameworks, or life experience to help me understand, think about, or speak of what was being forced on me. Memories of these overwhelming and confusing experiences couldn’t be stored in any existing context in my budding memory bank.

That’s why flashes of memory fragments that were strangely charged used to pop in randomly, as I went about my ordinary everyday life. This is also why it is only now, 60 odd years later as I explore these seared-in memory flashes, that I come face-to-face, for the first time, with the pulsating terror that can have no name and is the force behind these ‘intrusive memories’.

Trying to think or talk about this pulsating force will quickly confound and overwhelm me into wooden silence. I know not to even try.

What can work is staying with the bodily sensations. What do I want to do with this cold cord of stainless steel in me? It’s not difficult to find words for the intense physical revulsion I am feeling. I want to push it out, push it away, flail my arms around and wipe out everything that it came with. I can’t name ‘it’ though, or form thoughts around any of ‘it’. This morning in the counsellor’s room, which feels such a protected bubble away from my responsible adult world, I kicked my feet, threw my arms around and felt the wonderful power of using my whole body to push away the source of this revulsion. Then, and again now, as I write about it, I feel flashes of pain, discomfort, and unnameable sensations in the soft parts of my body. I feel hints of gagging nausea and the tightness in my throat. It’s like a trapped, squashed, yet solid lump of a scream. I also feel a flicker of pain in my left shoulder. But wow, doesn’t it feel good to have thrown my arms, legs and feet around and to have experienced the healing freedom of letting my body move and push against this terrifying pulsating force!

It worked so well this morning in the counsellor’s space, why does it feel so impossible now, in the safe privacy of my home yoga room?

I am sad to admit, even in my home that I love and co-habit with my partner who doesn’t frighten me, I don’t feel fully safe. I can’t be 100 % sure it’s private:

“What if someone walks in? What if the lady gardening next door happens, for the first time ever, to find something to stand on and look over the fence and into this window? I need to hide this terrible stuff”.

These are deep, shame-filled fears that have been with me for over 60 years. They come from the conditioning of how nice girls should behave, but also from the layers of silencing and pretence that formed the foundations of the extended family I grew up in. The very basis of who I am (or, rather, was) is like a house with metaphorical stumps set in the quagmire of transgenerational trauma – tilted, wobbly floors that concealed subterranean darkness; doors that were barred or set to open only one way (letting in the horrific but not releasing it); signals and emotions banished, ignored or misconstrued (“Don’t ruin everything now by crying”); walls, cracks hidden by wallpaper, that corralled us into narrow, prescribed ways of presenting ourselves to the world.

No wonder I don’t feel safe to be my whole, true self at home. One of the fundamental lessons I learnt at 2 was ‘home does not equal safe’. I chide myself:

“Be in this moment, this is your home, you have consciously created it and feel comfortable in it, especially this room. You have 15 years’ experience of dealing with this trauma as chunks of it surface. You have come so far in making yourself whole and authentic. Surely you can let yourself kick the empty bean bag and thump a couple of cushions.”

My toddler self does as she is told. She goes through the motions of kicking and thumping. But, even with a strong sense of full permission, it feels hollow.

Perhaps it is something that needs to be practiced.

Yes, that is partly it. This terror has been locked away in such tight spots for so long, it’s understandable that it will take practice to let myself embody and express it. I undertake to kick the beanbag and thump the cushions on a regular basis.

There’s something else niggling my peripheral consciousness.

Do I actually need the counsellor here with me to help me get in touch with the emotions? Again, the chiding voice:

“Come on, you see yourself as transformed, as a wise elder. You’ve grown so much in these last 15 years … do you still need outside help? Really! You know the processes that can bring you in touch with deep feelings and you know how to sit with them and trust that the releases and resolutions will flow naturally. You know the healing is always closer than you think”.

Yet, from within the toddler state, there’s a strong sense of needing something. Oh yes, this is close to the heart of it. It’s the same sense of lack I can feel because I have made myself ‘the strong one’ in all of my relationships. I often feel I don’t have anyone I can lean into. I can’t allow myself to be comfortably enveloped or protected by other people. There’s an echo here, in an empty space within my foundations – I had parents who loved me but because of the trauma they held within, they didn’t have the emotional maturity and inner power to guide my unfoldment and fully protect me in my early years. (Note to self, read the book your brother gave you on being a child of emotionally immature parents).

This echo is telling me I deeply need to do this healing work ‘in relationship’. It is something I need to practice with the counsellor.

OK, I give myself permission to keep seeing, to keep needing the counsellor for the time being.

For now, in my own space, perhaps it is enough to feel enthusiastic and inspired by simply the idea of seeking an adult tantrum. A healing tantrum for the limp, insipid toddler who couldn’t even come close to throwing one because she was so tightly controlled. For so long she was constrained by shaky foundations, unreliable tilted floors, ever-threatening oozing darkness, misguided guidance and systems of pretence.

Be patient with her.

This little being holds so much hope, vitality and promise. She IS learning, step by step, to expand into the freedom, colour, exhilaration, power, spaciousness and grounded physicality that is her birth-right on the roller-coaster of life’s emotions.


About the author:

‘Gay’ has worked for over 40 years in different roles with families, children, teenagers and older people.  She has a university degree, is a trained human service professional and currently works with a range of people through alternative wellbeing and trauma-informed, mental health networks. When the effects and memories of early childhood abuse surfaced in her late 40’s Gay thought she was ‘losing it’. She stumbled into a counsellor who understood trauma and she used Yoga practices to stabilise herself as she explored what was happening within. Fifteen years later she feels more alive, wise and liberated than ever but knows the value of being open to even deeper rounds of healing.

Invitation to participate in an exciting new online study designed at the University of Exeter, UK

Researchers from the University of Exeter are conducting an international survey exploring factors around Self and Identity in Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse and would like to invite adults who are interested in taking part. Please click on the link below to find out more about this anonymous and confidential study:

Poem by Dawna Markova

“I will not die and unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,

to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.”

National Peaks Consultation – Your Voice is Needed

The National Mental Health Commission is working to deliver recommendations to Government that will progress the work of establishing national peak body arrangements for mental health consumers, and carers, family and kin.

It’s important that the voice of lived experience underpins the development of these recommendations.

The Commission will be undertaking three phases of consultation with the aim of ensuring all people with lived experience of mental ill-health or caring for someone who experiences mental ill-health, in Australia who would like to share their views, have the opportunity to do so.

We would like to encourage you to get involved and have your say by sharing your views through the online National Peaks Consultation Surveys. More information can be found here.

The surveys are anonymous, but you are welcome to register your interest in receiving progress updates by clicking the orange button marked “Click to get updates” on the right-hand side of the page.

Blue Knot Day – Thursday 27 October 2022

Festival of Healing

Nurturing Mind, Body and Soul – Exploring What You Need

This year Blue Knot Day’s annual Festival of Healing will focus on the theme “Nurturing Mind, Body and Soul – Exploring What You Need”.  We will be delivering a range of resources and information through our social media channels, which will cut through the buzzwords, and provide you with real and practical information that you can implement.

All too often as a survivor, or as someone supporting a survivor, we can neglect our own wellbeing. Nurturing our mind, body and soul is not a one-size-fits-all, and we need to discover what works for us.  Blue Knot Day will explore a range of methods and topics to help you on your wellbeing journey.

We will be providing further information, so please follow our social media channels and look out for our emails as Blue Knot Day approaches.

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