Out of fear into the present moment
The cycle to work was heavenly. Warm, filled with the scent of newly mown grass and umpteen flowers and the inevitable exhaust fumes from a city commute.
Walking onto wards I was greeted with clouds of talcum powder and many other unaccustomed smells. My olfactory system, my lungs, my whole being was being assaulted all day long with new stuff! It was my first ever job as a qualified physiotherapist and I was also struggling to breath!
I had been working in various NHS settings for the last three years as a student physiotherapist so much of the hospital smells would not have been that new, but somehow it was affecting me differently.
One morning when I was in the hospital elevator going up to the ward with a colleague a brief monologue occurred. I remember it very clearly. Unusually we were alone in the elevator. My colleague randomly came out with: “I know what’s wrong with your breathing! You have hyperventilation syndrome.”
I didn’t respond. I was so scared of saying anything wrong, and I desperately wanted to fit in. Even if I had engaged in conversation I wasn’t ready to hear the message about my breathing.
I do remember my reaction to the comment. I didn’t say anything out loud, I did respond in my head! I told her she didn’t know what she was talking about. She didn’t know me at all and didn’t know what all my symptoms were so she couldn’t have a clue what was wrong with me. I felt sure I was developing asthma, which all the rest of my birth family had too. Why it was emerging at the age of 33 was a bit of a mystery, at the time.
Before, during and after my physiotherapy training there had been a steady accumulation of losses. Most of them were life changing on their own. The one I “parked” and ignored most was the grief over the death of my dad in my first year. I was consciously aware it was beginning to emerge again, along with all the other suppressed feelings about the many losses. I didn’t realise my body was beginning to reflect those losses too.
“traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played on inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” p96-97 The Body keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk
I knew the basics of hyperventilation syndrome from my training. I knew it involved breathing in excess of what my body needed. I knew it could be caused by physical issues but also psychological issues. Back then I didn’t appreciate those things cannot be separated. I felt sure I wouldn’t manifest a psychological problem in a physical way and I believed my colleague was inferring that. I did not attribute any of my symptoms to the losses or stress of the new post and certainly didn’t link it to my childhood.
Now I know the body-mind are inseparable and that trauma can have a huge impact on the whole system, it makes perfect sense that the grief, locked away inside, came out as asthma.
I also now know traumatic childhoods often result in having a system that learns to see all events as stressful. More often than not, emotional issues manifest as a physical symptom. They aren’t imagined. They are real symptoms. Mine have come in many forms: pain, high blood pressure, IBS, palpitations and asthma. Yes, I did have it, and I was hyperventilating.
“Traumatized children have fifty times the rate of asthma as their nontraumatized peers. Studies have shown that many children and adults with fatal asthma attacks were not aware of having breathing problems before the attacks.” P. 97-98 The Body keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk
Often talking therapies don’t help traumatised people, they need something to reconnect them to their body such as Yoga, Feldenkrais, Drama/dance therapy, Meditation, t’ai-chi. My route involved these elements but it was the Alexander technique that helped most. I needed a very gentle, safe, stable and nurturing environment to begin to become a more whole, feeling, human being. I learned where my joints where, my limbs and trunk, how things move, how to do life with less effort, breath calmly, more peace, fully alive in the present moment. I felt safe in my own skin and the non-judgemental support and gentle touch of the teacher helped with that. It also involves a thinking process that underpins it all. I felt much more in control. Engaging my parasympathetic system (rest and repose) rather than the sympathetic system (fight, flight or freeze). It was a significant influence.
“…it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.” P. 53 The Body keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk
If you think you might have been affected by trauma, but do not feel like you want to engage in talking therapy, you might find the Alexander Technique helps in unimaginable ways. You may be having physical symptoms like IBS or pain but your GP can’t find a cause for it and you want to find a way to help- yourself. Contact me or phone me (01759 307282) if you want to try a lesson or know more.