Traumatic Fear: Dissociating from our Body

As a child Rosalie had been severely abused by her father. When he was drunk he would try to reach into her underpants or climb into her bed at night and rub his body against hers until he climaxed. When she resisted him he’d hit her and threaten her with worse. If she tried to run away and hide, he would become enraged, chase after her and mercilessly beat her. On two occasions during the year before he and her mother divorced, Rosalie’s father had forced her to have intercourse with him. Such severe trauma has an emotional and physical impact that can endure a lifetime. When Rosalie came to see me, she was thirty-five years old, single and mildly anorexic. She’d already been through several forms of therapy, but was still going on and off starvation diets and suffering from regular anxiety attacks. Her body was thin, rigid and tight; and she was mistrustful of everyone she knew.

Rosalie assumed that anyone who appeared to like her really just wanted to take advantage of her. She told me she thought one person she hung around with was a friend only because she didn’t want to go to parties alone. Another woman, who was attractive and popular with men, must like to be around her because it “boosted her ego.” While Rosalie had no trouble finding dates, intimacy never lasted long. Not wanting to feel the humiliation of being dropped, she usually broke off the relationship at the first signs that things were going downhill. Even with people she’d known for a long time, Rosalie kept her distance. When she was going through one of her regular bouts of anxiety she’d either act as if she “had it all together” or disappear for a while.

Often the only way Rosalie could spend time with people was by getting stoned. Marijuana made everything seem okay for the time being. But, she told me, now she needed to get high every night before bed in order to sleep through the night. If she didn’t smoke a joint or take sleeping pills, she’d wake up in the middle of the night in a fit of terror. The dream was always the same—she was hiding in a small dark place and someone beastly and insane was about to find her.

Neuropsychology tells us that traumatic abuse causes lasting changes by affecting our physiology, nervous system and brain chemistry. In the normal process of forming memories we evaluate each new situation in terms of a cohesive world view we have formulated. With trauma, this cognitive process is short-circuited by the surge of painful and intense stimulation. Instead of “processing the experience” by fitting it into our understanding of how the world works and thereby learning from it, we revert to a more primitive form of encoding—through physical sensations and visual images. The trauma, undigested and locked in our body, randomly breaks through into consciousness. For years after the actual danger is past, a person who has been traumatized may relive an event as if it were continually occurring in the present.

Unprocessed pain keeps our system of self-preservation on permanent alert. In addition to sudden intrusive memories, a wide range of situations, many nonthreatening, may activate the alarmingly levels of pain and fear stored in our body. Our partner may raise her voice in irritation, and the full force of our past wounds—all the terror or rage or hurt that lives in our body—can be unleashed. Whether or not there is any present danger, we feel absolutely at risk and compelled to find a way to get away from this pain.

In order to make it through this severe pain, victims of trauma dissociate from their bodies, numbing their sensitivity to physical sensations. Some people feel “unreal,” as if they have left their body and are experiencing life from a great distance. They do whatever they can to keep from feeling the raw sensations of fear and pain in their body. They might lash out in aggression or freeze in depression or confusion. They might  have suicidal thoughts or drink themselves senseless. They overeat, use drugs and lose themselves in mental obsessions. Yet the pain and fear don’t go away. Rather, they lurk in the background and from time to time suddenly take over.

Dissociation, while protective, creates suffering. When we leave our bodies, we leave home. By rejecting pain and pulling away from the ground of our being, we experience the dis-ease of separation—loneliness, anxiety and shame. Alice Miller tells us that there is no way to avoid what’s in the body. We either pay attention to it, or we suffer the consequences:

The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.

When Rosalie and I started working together, it was clear that her time had come—her body was presenting its bill. During our first few sessions she poured our her life story. While she was very bright and could easily articulate her problems and their causes, it was as if she were talking about someone else’s life. She let me know that when we were talking she wasn’t aware of feelings in her body, yet outside of therapy she was sometimes besieged by panic or rage. At those times these feelings in her body were so intense she wanted to die.

I suggested we might work together to help her gradually feel safer in her body, and let her know that this could make a difference in a way that her previous therapies hadn’t. She readily agreed, and over the next few weeks we laid the groundwork. I wanted to understand Rosalie as deeply as possible, and she needed to feel safe and comfortable with me. When she was ready, I suggested we do a guided journey, parts of her inner life that might lie outside her conscious awareness.

On the day of the journey I invited Rosalie to sit comfortably and close her eyes. I guided her with the hypnotic imagery of slowly descending a long winding staircase that ended facing a closed door. I suggested that with each step she leave behind distracting thoughts and become increasingly relaxed and curious. By the time she had reached the bottom of the stairs, Rosalie’s body was very still, her eyelids flickering, her face slightly flushed. She nodded when I asked if she saw a door, and I suggested that behind it she would discover something important to her healing, some gift from her unconscious mind. I reminded her that no matter what she experienced, she was safe. We were here together, and she could come back whenever she wished. Then I told her she could open the door whenever she was ready.

Rosalie stiffened. “What do you see?” I asked softly. Her voice was barely a whisper. “A little girl. She’s in the closet…hiding.”

When I asked what she was hiding from, Rosalie shook her head slightly. After a few moments I asked how old she was. “She’s seven,” she responded and went on quickly, “It’s her dad. He’s going to find her and hurt her.” I reassured her that the little girl was safe right now, and suggested that by relaxing and just noticed what happened next, she would discover some way this girl might be helped. When I saw her breathing more easily, I asked what the little girl was doing now. “She’s praying. She’s saying it hurts too much, that she can’t take it anymore.”

I waited for a few moments then asked her gently, “Rosalie, what might help that little girl handle all that pain?”

She frowned. “She’s all by herself…there’s no one else there.” Then her words came slowly: “She needs someone to take care of her.”

“Who could best do that?” I asked. Again she paused, intent and focused. Suddenly her face filled with a look of surprise and amazement: “A good fairy! I can see her there with the little girl…she’s with her in the closet.” Rosalie waited for a moment and then reported, “The fairy’s surrounded by a shimmering blue light and she’s waving a magic wand.”

“Rosalie, does the fairy have a message for the little girl, something she wants to say?”

She nodded: “She’s telling her she can do something to help. She can do something that will let her forget for a while about the horrible things going on, so she can grow up and handle it when she’s stronger.”

I paused for a bit and then speaking softly asked how the fairy was going to do that. Rosalie’s tone was calm and deliberate: “She says she is going to touch different parts of her body with her magic wand and they will change and be able to hold all the terrible feelings for her.” She paused, listening inwardly, and then continued, “The good fairy is saying that even though it’s hard to be so bound up, it will be her way to survive, to be quiet and control what is happening inside her.”

After a long silence, I asked Rosalie what had happened. “Well, the fairy put the little girl’s rage and fear into her belly, and then she bound it up so it could stay there. And then she put a magic lock on her pelvis and vagina so her sexual feelings couldn’t get her in any more trouble.” Rosalie took a few shaky breaths, and I gently asked, “What else?”

Tears began rolling down her cheeks as she said, “She told her she’d have to let her rib cage tighten so she wouldn’t feel the pain of her heart breaking.” Rosalie was quiet and then she went on, her voice a little stronger. “She said her neck would be a fortress with very thick walls so that she wouldn’t cry out for help or scream out in anger.” Rosalie fell quiet and I just sat with her in silence.

“You’re doing beautifully.” I told her, and then added gently, “Is there anything else the fairy wants you to know?” Rosalie nodded. “She says someday the little girl will no longer be able to hold all this in, and her body will start unwinding its secrets. She will let go of everything she has been holding for so long…and she will do this because most deeply, she wants to be whole and real.” Rosalie was softly weeping, her shoulders shaking. “She just told the little girl not to worry. She would find people who cared and would hold her as she finds herself again.”

Rosalie sank back into her chair, and I asked what was happening now. “The good fairy is putting her arms around the little girl and taking her to bed.” After a few moments she continued, whispering, “She’s telling her that when she wakes up, she will forget what happened, but she will remember when she’s ready.” Rosalie was quiet and when she continued her voice was tender: “The good fairy just told her, ‘Until then, and for always, I love you.’”

As if she had just finished the last page of a cherished book. Rosalie reached for the shawl I leave on my couch, wrapped it around herself and lay down, curling herself into the cushions. “Is this okay?” she whispered. “I just want to rest for a few minutes.” Her face looked serene, as if these were the first real moments of ease she had touched in a long, long time.

In those weeks that followed her inner journey, Rosalie slowly emerged as if from a cocoon. Even her physical movements were lighter, more fluid. I asked her if she would mind if I shared her “fairy story” in one of my meditation classes. That made her happy—she gladly wished for others the new inner freedom she felt. When I told the story, a number of people cried as they realized how they too had pulled away from their bodies, how they had locked up their energy and were not fully alive. It opened up the possibility of forgiving themselves for not facing their own deep wounds, and it helped them understand that it was natural to seek relief in the face of unbearable pain.

While there are times in our life we might have had no choice but to contract away from unbearable physical or emotional paid, our healing comes from reconnecting with those places in our body where the pain is stored. For Rosalie, as for all of us, moving toward freedom requires meeting with Radical Acceptance that pain that was locked away in fear. No matter how deeply we have been wounded, when we listen to the inner voice that calls us back to our bodies, back to wholeness, we begin our journey.

Tara Brach

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha