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When You Don't Remember, Your Body Does

Have you ever been hijacked by your body and unable to control its responses? This is one of the many ways that old traumatic wounds can insidiously interfere with your life. One beautiful Sunday morning in June this happened to me.

image of three human anatomy cross section figures

I was having a difficult discussion with a family member that in hindsight was not that big of a deal; however, my body reacted as if I was in danger. As we talked, I became more and more upset, and my body started disobeying me. My family member asked me a question that at the time seemed important, but I couldn't answer the question. There were words in my head to answer it, words I wanted to share, and words that were important for this family member to hear… but they wouldn't come out!

My throat tightened up, and I couldn't coordinate the movements of my mouth to get an intelligible word or sentence out. I knew I was dysregulated, and I knew I was frozen. I was aware that my body was freezing like it did the time an angry neighbor threw a tire iron through my bedroom window at 2am. But nothing like that was happening now. I felt confused. My family member wasn't a person I was physically afraid of or have ever felt physically threatened by in any way. Yet my body was reacting as if I was in a potentially life-threatening situation.

I tried to speak. My words were jumbled, and they didn't make any sense. Some of my words refused to come out of my mouth. My family member looked at me with irritation and mentioned something about not being able to understand me. Suddenly the room we were in started getting blurry. I couldn’t continue the discussion. I had to get away. I was able to squeak out a few words that let my family member know I needed to take a break and try to talk about this later. It probably sounded something like, “Later talk. I go.”

I left the house and went for a short walk. I tried to calm myself, but that had minimal effect. I began crying, sobbing, uncontrollably. I was aware that my reaction didn't match the context of the situation. Yes, my family member and I were discussing something irritating and frustrating to me, but nothing big enough to warrant this tail-spin. I knew this huge reaction was not just about this conversation or this moment. It was about something else, but I didn't know what.

Walking did not provide the amount of regulation I needed. My throat was still tight, and I still couldn't vocalize an intelligible sentence. But I could walk straight, think clearly, and otherwise function properly. So I went for a drive. Driving helps me to regulate my nervous system. For me, driving provides just the right amount of time by myself and requires me to be attentive, so I cannot completely check out from the world. Driving is rhythmic and soothing, and I can play music that helps me express my emotions in a contained space that feels safe to me.

After getting some relief from the drive, I decided to go to a place where I could get out in nature and go for a hike. Hiking also regulates me because I have to be present enough to pay attention to where I'm going, where I'm stepping and notice what is around me. There is a rhythm to nature that feels predictable and safe to me. There are also dangers, but I know what they are and what my options are for dealing with them. So I went on a hike near a quiet river. But hiking wasn't helping me regulate. I felt like I was floating. I could barely feel the ground underneath me, and all of my senses were muted.

I decided to take a walk on some rougher terrain near the river to try to wake up my senses. But it only worked for little spurts, and I was back to the dull floating feeling. I felt afraid. I knew what was happening, I had entered into a dissociated state, and I couldn't get myself out of it. I hiked for about 3 hours before I called a friend who I knew would understand what I was talking about. I knew that connecting with someone who felt safe and trusted could help me get out of that state. Talking to my friend was helpful for the time we were talking and for a short time after, but the dull floating feeling returned. I needed more regulation. So, I headed to a park where there was a river that ran hard against rock and boulders and made a louder noise. Rolling rapids are very regulating to me. I love the sound and the rhythm and the energy of rapids, so I searched for a spot where I could walk or sit near rapids.

Even the rapids didn't work! None of the things I knew that helped calm my nervous system worked. Nothing I did helped me return to my normal functioning. I returned home and started reaching out to people to get referrals for a therapist. I realized that whatever was going on with me was locked deep in my brain and nervous system. I knew I needed help finding out why my body was reacting the way it was to that situation. Whatever it was that my body was remembering, but that I couldn't remember was interfering with my ability to have a good relationship with this family member. Not having a good relationship wasn't an option for me.

I also felt a strong need to discover what it was about the situation or the person or the conversation that triggered me into this state. I didn't want to be walking around in the world being triggered by the same things. I did not want to live that way, helplessly at the mercy of my surroundings, and not having influence over my own body and mind.

It took a couple of days for the dull floating feeling to subside. Even though I felt better, I went to therapy. In therapy, I uncovered a complex web of unhealed, hidden, seemingly innocuous series of developmentally traumatic events that had little to do with the triggering event I described above. There were some indirect, faint connections to the event but nothing obvious.

My therapist helped me understand why my body reacted as if I was under threat during the conversation with my family member. The combination of unresolved trauma, significant life stress, and the conversation tricked my body into believing that the original trauma was happening again. And even though I couldn't consciously recall any of the situations or consciously understand this perceived threat, my nervous system, and my body remembered. My nervous system and body wouldn't give up this protective stance until I could sooth it by healing those old wounds. Survival-wise, it is an unbelievably intelligent and potent system. Frankly, it is incredible!

The body holds and "remembers" past trauma even when we do not consciously recall it. This is one of the reasons we engage a person's body in TF-EAP work. Horses can draw a person's awareness to areas that haven't healed because horses are responding to what the person's body is conveying. This provides an individual the opportunity to heal old wounds without the pain and fright of their body hijacking them. Working with horses to heal old traumatic wounds can be a powerful experience. Sometimes it can feel safer healing these wounds in the context of a supportive relationship with an equine friend, especially when human interactions can be too overwhelming. If you or someone you care for are being hijacked by your body, contact us to find out if TF-EAP can help.

Photo by Pierre Acobas on Unsplash

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