Two Ways To Overcome Stress
Deep work to change how your body feels the good and the bad
Dealing with how the body experiences deep emotion is not easy. But, the benefits of reprograming your body-emotion connection can help you find more joy in your life.
Disclaimer: This is not easy work and you must know your own limits. A few years ago, I read Dr. Mark Epstein’s Trauma of Everyday Life. What it said astounded me.
Buddha was known to teach us that life is suffering but the conventional story is that Siddhartha (aka Buddha) did not know or see suffering until around age 21. At that age, his dad let him out of the castle grounds where he grew up. Outside the walls he saw poverty, terrible sadness and illness — real suffering FOR THE FIRST TIME.
So basically, the story of buddha we are to believe is that buddha discovered that life is suffering from observing another’s pain.
Dr. Epstein says this is b**sh**. And I agree. Epstein reminds us that Siddhartha’s mother died during his child birth and the trauma that Siddhartha/Buddha first knew, was the loss of his mom. This trauma was real but is completely left out of the explanation of Buddha’s spiritual path. Even though Siddhartha was too young to remember the trauma, this real trauma from the loss of his mom lurked right under the surface of his consciousness. Buddha’s suffering, and ours, is transformational because we experience it deeply, personally and even physically.
What I realized though Epstein’s study on Buddha is that trauma is experienced physically. Think about it for a moment, when you think about what really upsets you in life, do you think or do you feel it?
I bet you feel it. But don’t take my word.
Epstein — a psychotherapist and buddhist — argues that until we forgive (and learn to forgive) ourselves of this trauma — he argues — we cannot be free from the result on our behavior, thought and happiness when our trauma is triggered.
I would argue that we actually must take it a step further: to re-narrate our trauma through visualization and physical body work to begin to heal. But I will explain how to do that in a moment.
Let me tell you my own story first…
When I look back at my own life, even though I did not lose my mother in childbirth — thank god — what I found was that some “trauma’s” that I experienced in my young life were never adequately addressed. Of course, new trauma’s occur but let’s stay focused on my earlier traumas for now. These early disappointments, rejections and what I consider my own personal traumas lurked under my surface and interrupt my ability to lead a happy, more joyful life.
*Remember that what I consider my trauma, isn’t not yours. And what you experience deeply, isn’t mine. The important part is that they are wedged deeply into our own bodies.
When I was 14, I chose to go to a new camp. It was very sports driven and I found out quickly, too sports driven. I knew no one at that camp but made a new friend from the neighboring cabin. Billie was a great baseball player, the lead of our camp’s tennis team and knew everyone. He was my best bud and helped me, initially, transition into this new camp completely. One reason for his popularity was that he had been at that camp since he was 7 but also because he was addicted to baseball and a great hitter. Then, almost suddenly, for a reason that was never explained, our friendship ended. I was no longer “on his team.” There was probably a very good reason for our friendship ending — like I sucked at baseball or couldn’t do a basketball layup to save myself but it sucked. I remember walking down the trail at camp alone, feeling sorry for myself. I also remember, that, logic or not, I felt horrible. Physically, I remember feeling like I was kicked in the gut. I felt a real “pain” from how I was treated. I felt nauseous, my throat was sore, my ears clogged. Felt, feel, feeling = all physical.
And when I subsequently felt rejection or not picked for a team or play or even a relationship felt apart, I physically experienced the trauma in exactly the same way. In fact, I still do.
What I learned much later was this childhood trauma was experienced deeply in the body. And to cure myself, I had to work from a physical place first.
Can you conjure up what feeling terrible when a relationship ends, a job doesn’t work out, you get rejected or verbally abused even in a relationship?
Where in your body do you feel the pain? Is it in your throat? Does it wake you up? Do you shake from it?
And whether you know exactly why you feel the pain — if you can actually identify the trauma that lurks under your surface — is the pain deeply physical AND do the same physical symptoms come back when things are not going right?
For the answer was yes and yes.
So, a few years ago I decided that I would no longer accept that I had to live with the symptoms of trauma. I use the word trauma to mean more than mere discomfort but I do not want to diminish anyone who has real physical and emotional scars from abuse.
For me, I needed to come up with an approach for what I experienced in my life. I wanted to share it with you. Maybe it will give you some relief but let me warn you that it is not easy.
Where Do You Hold Your Fear?
First, go deep. Can you close your eyes (after reading this) and starting at your toes. Ask yourself — Is this where I feel my pain when I hurt?
Do a body scan honestly: Scan from your toes, to your ankles, your calves, and knees, to your quads, to your inner loins (you know what I mean), to your your quads, and your hips, to your tummy, and belly button up your ribs, all the way to your solar plexus and breasts, and chest, and heart, and lungs, and clavicle and throat to your neck and jaw, and ears, and your teeth, and your nose, and eyes, forehead, scull. Really ask yourself out load, do I feel it here? Be honest with yourself. No one is listening except you unless you share the discussion.
Go ahead, it is ok.
If you want to really do this work honestly: I want you to think about your worse case scenario in terms of trauma. Go ahead: hear the words of that (current or former) loved one, parent, ex, or boss who spoke to you that way that makes you feel absolutely horrible. Conjure up the feelings of rejection, embarrassment, trauma. (Disclaimer: I urge you to use your judgment here in terms of your emotional/physical safety and not push yourself over your edge).
To really understand how your body “feels” your personal trauma, you must be experiencing the physical symptoms to really do this work accurately. You could of course, work with a partner (ie, someone you trust).
So — now that you feel your physical symptoms of the trauma: What do your parts feel like deeply? Can you visualize what the bone feels like when you feel like crap? How about the muscles? And your skin?
Next time you feel terrible emotionally, pay close attention to the specific places you feel terrible and really watch and examine yourself.
For example, for me, I feel deeply in my left chest right where my ribs start. I often think it is where my heart is. I feel deeply in my throat. I also often feel deeply in my arms and sometimes my arms can shake.
Do it again if you have to but really pay attention to where you feel.
Step two: Then, when you identify your places of pain, I want you to the opposite of re-enacting your trauma. I want you to picture yourself at your most joyful.
Can you visualize your peaceful/happy place? For me it is often outside, with snow, or floating in the ocean.
You may want to read my other article on visualization if you need help accessing your internal happy place or to practice visualization.
When you clearly see your happy place, I want you to ask yourself to describe how your various body parts — the ones that feel your pain the deepest — feel now. Go deep. How do the bones feel? The muscles. Can you even become aware of the skin?
Now, you need to do something that I bet no one on this blog has ever told you — or given you permission to do — massage yourself.
I know — even one of my own teachers hesitated when I mentioned that massage was the next step.
Here is why: We must re-narrate how our body processes trauma. In order to do this, we must combine positive visualization with the precise body area where feel our trauma.
So, to repeat — I am asking you to do two things at once: first visualize your calm, peaceful place and I then I want you to physically connect your hand — to slowly self-massage — the place on your body where you feel the tension.
I want you to close your eyes and go there in full technicolor. Go ahead, you can exhale first. Here, let’s do it together:
Now, using your thumb or your index finger — if soliciting the help of a loved one — place your finger on the place where you feel in your body those deep feelings when things do not feel good. Don’t move your fingers around, just trust where you put your thumb or finger first — say on your right arm right on top of your forearm — if you are me for example — and put your left thumb right into the muscle. Push down like you are pushing out a cigarette as you visualize your happy place.
Or, better yet — have your partner (or someone you trust) so this massage work on you.
This morning, on my run, my mind conjured up some tension and I felt it in my neck. I took my left thumb and index finger and put them right into the muscle under my left jaw and ran the finger tips with pressure, deeply down the muscle in my neck. I did this slowly.
By doing the body work or by having body work done on you, as you get better at visualization, you will re-program and thus re-narrate how your body experiences trauma. For me, the work has begun to change the way I associate the physical symptoms. As I begin to feel the physical symptoms of tight chest, tight throat, my mind has an alternative reality — the reality of my happy, calm place, to go to and I am able to move thru my discomfort more quickly.
I give you tons of credit for trying this work. It will take a while for it to work for you but I urge you to test out whether or not you believe that trauma, your trauma, resides in your body and whether you can move the trauma thru visualization and body work. I hope it brings you some comfort.
Please let me know how you feel after doing this. I hope it begins to bring about change.
Gregory Rutchik is a lawyer and writer who helps business owners, investors and women whose anxiety and panic interrupt their pursuit of a happy productive life. He is the founder of www.thepanicproject.com.
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