My traumas made me better — Lionesses of Africa

by Kathy Mann

I recently read an excellent book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s about what happens to our brains and bodies as a result of trauma and how to treat it. Even events that seem fairly tame or punishments that parents deem reasonable, can be experienced as a traumatic event by a child. We are changed by these events. Not only in the way we think and behave, but we experience physiological changes. Van der Kolk writes, “trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alternations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant.” 

I work in the domain of stress and I often share the insight that our beliefs drive our behaviour which drives our outcomes. Beliefs are formed by the experiences we have, particularly in childhood. We can develop beliefs like ‘I’m not safe’ or ‘I’m not valuable’ as a consequence of the way we are treated by others. Often, we are not even aware that these beliefs have formed and yet they have dramatic impacts on what we say and do, which influences how life plays out for us. Believing one is not safe results in the failure to step up to new opportunities that emerge. Believing that one is not valuable results in not asking for fair remuneration. It’s worthwhile examining these beliefs to ensure that life is working as we want it to. 

I have been thinking about my childhood traumas and what beliefs might have formed based on what I experienced. I’ve been unpacking why I behave the way I do and what might be driving this behaviour. The book acted as a catalyst to explore my traumas and to find ways to deal with them better. It is possible to relive the trauma through talking about it, so it’s preferable to find other ways to dampen the physical sensations first. For example, I used a technique called expressive writing which is journaling for four consecutive days for fifteen minutes about a traumatic event. James Pennebaker’s research shows that the emotional charge is dampened using this technique. This then allows us to talk about it without having to re-experience the trauma. 

If the trauma is very potent, we can dissociate which means we disconnect our thinking from feeling because it’s just too painful. This is a clever way for the body to cope in the moment but it comes at a price. When we fail to feel pain, we also fail to feel joy. It takes conscious effort to get back into feeling fully and there are a few ways of doing that. Yoga is particularly good as it blends mind and body as well as incorporating deep breathing which can help too. Other forms of body work including martial arts are also excellent ways to address dissociation. 

For years I have felt weakened by the many traumas I’ve experienced in my life, wondering why life has to be such a struggle. This is a limiting belief and it has probably compounded my stress. As I work on integrating these experiences into my life, I’m starting to see that these traumas have made me better. The collection of them when considered with hindsight and less emotion appear to have given me wisdom and compassion. I have more empathy for the suffering of others due to my own experiences. I’m also a more patient and compassionate mother as a result of all I have been through. I can easily spot experiences that can cause trauma for my children and I’m able to use my knowledge and experience to support them as they integrate these events into their lives too. 

It is scary to unlock traumas from our past that we’d rather forget. The truth is, they govern so much of our everyday existence that we have not really locked them away at all. Unpacking them with qualified professionals and working on yourself with whatever tools feel right for you, can empower you to rise above what has happened to you and turn you into the strongest, most compassionate version of yourself possible. 

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