Healing the Whole Body for Abuse and Trauma Survivors

Healing the Whole Body Abuse survivors

Far too often healing the  body is is the last consideration when healing from abuse and trauma. Today, as part of our continued outreach for our films Boys and Men Healing and The Healing Years, we’re grateful for this insightful guest blog by Don St. John, Ph.D., a somatic-relational psychotherapist and Continuum Movement teacher and author of Healing the Wounds of Childhood: A psychologist’s journey and discoveries from wretched beginnings to a thriving life.  More information can be found at his website, Paths of Connection.

“I have been saying that our childhood wounds affect the entire organism. I have stated that what must be addressed in the process of healing is the entire organism, the whole living body. We can no longer afford to overlook the structure of the body—its muscular system and its connective tissue and fluid systems. It is fabulous that scientists have included the brain and even the autonomic nervous system in their areas of investigation. Let’s not stop there. There is another whole universe to explore….. – Don St. John, Ph.D

Welcome Don st. John as he shares both personal journey and expertise!

Don St. John

His prognosis was guarded at best. Perhaps the only optimistic sign was this patient was only 21 years old, and he knew he needed help. Everything he disclosed pointed to what now would be called complex post-traumatic stress disorder; however, back in 1964, the diagnosis might have been schizoid personality disorder with possible borderline and paranoid features. In simpler words, this young man was a mess. Tender emotions seemed to elude him. His affect was usually quite flat and there was a fragmented and defeated look to his countenance. There were episodic outbursts of rage associated with alcoholic binges. Genuine emotional connections did not exist—he didn’t even know their meaning. Three marriages would come and go over the next 20 years. The loneliness and sense of isolation were bone chilling.

He came by these symptoms honestly. His conception was unplanned and unwanted, and he nearly died from strangulation– a cord wrapped around his throat at birth. Physical beatings by his mother began in infancy and occurred almost daily for fifteen years. They were always accompanied by humiliating epithets. His father was emotionally absent and rarely spoke to him. When those rare verbalizations did occur they usually consisted of even more humiliating invectives—a prime example being, “When you do something right, I’m going to cut off my ear.” Listening to his history brought his therapist to the verge of tears. No, the prognosis for this young man was not very encouraging.

Fast forward fifty years. We find the patient in a marriage of 31 years. It’s a marriage characterized by deepening friendship, rich, intimate communication, non-flinching honesty, and a sexual relationship that continues to nourish as they approach their mid-seventies. This patient is now a psychotherapist whose style depends on deep emotional connection. He is a fluid movement meditation teacher (Continuum Movement) and a part-time minister in his church. Once frozen in terror at the thought of speaking to a group, he now relishes the opportunity.

Of course, you guessed it. I was that patient. From the inside it feels as if I am now a different biological organism. The changes in feeling quality, relationship quality, peace replacing anxiety and despair, fluid movement instead of a fragmented disconnected sense of a physical self, have been radical. What I want to share with you is the essence of what I learned over those fifty years, and what we all should keep in mind as we look at what David Brooks of the New York Times called “an epidemic of isolation, addiction and trauma” in the country we now inhabit.

One very important thing I learned is there is no single panacea that provides everything that is necessary to arrive at a level of fulfillment, engagement, participation, peace and deeply connected positive emotional experiences, especially when one has a very difficult childhood. Both good psychotherapy, support groups and personal development seminars can help bring to light the core limiting beliefs that so many wounded people harbor. Beliefs such as “No matter what I do, I’ll never be loved;” “I can’t depend on anyone really, so I’ll have to do it all myself;” “If they really saw who I am, they would see I am deficient, not enough….” These are some of the myriad filters through which wounded people perceive the world. It doesn’t take a childhood as abusive as mine to acquire such beliefs. Many individuals reared in “normal” households harbor them. The most common and pervasive wounds occur when any aspect of a child’s normal development is not met with “presence” and support. For example, if a parent consistently withdraws or disapproves when a toddler begins to self-assert, the child will conclude there is something wrong with her. Obviously, the wounds go deeper with emotional neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

The emotion associated with these beliefs is shame. Shame is the most pernicious of emotions because its basic message is that at our core we are bad, defective, or just not good enough. When we feel shame all we want to do is hide so that no one can see how awful we really are.

Of course, since we all crave being truly seen and known, it is a horrible dilemma to deeply want what we can’t or won’t allow to happen. Shame prevents love from reaching us, so no matter how loving someone feels towards us, shame keeps it from clearly reaching our hearts. Thus, we continue living with some level of love-deprivation. Psychotherapy that is deeply relational to counter these emotional tendencies is essential, and support groups can also be very helpful. However, all these–as important as they are–still are not enough to bring about the degree of healing that I know is possible.

The wounds, the traumas of childhood affect our brains, nervous system, physical structure, and the very quality of our physical tissues as well. The freedom to move and the freedom “to be” are correlated. We tend to lock into rigid identities, and we tend to lock up in our physical structure. We lose the ability to feel sensation and to enjoy movement. The psychological world is just beginning to recognize that the body must be involved in healing. However, it is not yet fully aware of all the resources that are available to help achieve the freedom we desire. For me it was of utmost importance to engage a movement practice and pursue a long course of structural bodywork (the work of Ida Rolf, sometimes known as Rolfing, or Structural Integration or Hellerwork Structural Integration).Yoga is currently the most popular movement practice, but there are many more. Continuum Movement is mine. It is based on the premise that since the body is about 70% water, the natural human movements should in some way look and feel like water moving. In other words, wave motion is considered a fundamental human motion. Continuum Movement is a very deep meditative movement practice, which I have engaged for twenty years.

What most psychotherapists don’t yet understand is that wounds and traumas become embedded in the tissues and structured in the body. If you picture someone with the childhood I described, as if you were a casting director seeking an actor to play the part, you obviously would select someone who looked beaten down, sunken chest, shoulders drooped in defeat or elevated in fear. These constrictions can be very hard to reverse unless they are directly addressed. Talk therapy, even those that have an awareness of trauma and focus attention on the body, is not enough. To help an individual come close to what is possible, their physical structure and movement also need to be addressed. Still, there is one more dimension to consider.

As Dr. Lisa Miller, Director of the Clinical Psychology Training Program at Columbia University points out, we are spiritual beings. We are born with the capacity to have a personal relationship with a higher power that is both loving and guiding. We are born with the capacity to have a sense of connection to life itself. This capacity can be nurtured either within or without a religious context; however, severe psychological wounds—even the lack of support to our spiritual nature– can sever any sense of that connection. Its absence is a serious loss to our wholeness. By the grace of God, I met a spiritual teacher early on in my journey. A light bulb turned on, and a quest began.

With a spiritual awakening, one can begin to hold both the horror and the perfection of a childhood like mine. It was brutal! On the other hand my childhood motivated me to stay the course on a journey that has brought me much farther than what we consider to be “normal.” Healing became my personal and professional journey, and gratitude the feeling I practice each and every day.

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