Treating Trauma with Compassion


“Settled bodies, settle other bodies,” Resmaa Menakeem of My Grandmother’s Hands reminds us. This is the antidote to what we are globally seeing too much of recently, where “hurt bodies, hurt other bodies.” It is just how we humans seem to function, we express who we are and what we hold within our bodies. We cannot just talk our way out of our pain or for that matter, our joy.

Some of the more commonly named, unconscious, and instinctive responses to the “too muchness” in any experience are the fight, flight, or freeze responses. These are automatic, no-choice, natural survival responses!

Fight responses are energy filled and can include anger, being mistrustful or hypervigilant, controlling of one’s surroundings, or being demanding. This energy tends to manifest as movements directed towards a perceived threat.

Flight responses can include becoming distracted, sleepy, addicted to substances or activities, difficulty making commitments, or thinking of dying. There’s energy in these responses, but the energy is directed towards running away from a perceived threat.

The Freeze responses have an absence of energy, and can include becoming confused, anxious, overwhelmed, stuck, chronically shy, or panicking.

Sometimes a behavior or somatic response can appear with mixed features of fight, flight, and freeze. Less well known are relational traumas and relational trauma responses: the submit and attach responses.

Somewhat similar to freeze, the Submit responses are when the body becomes depleted of energy, depressed, numb, and compliant. There could be feelings of hopelessness and shame. A person may take on caretaking or self-sacrificing positions in relationships.

Finally, there’s the set of responses called Attach responses, where the perceiver of threat learns to survive by connecting in a clinging or adoring way: needing to depend, fearing rejection, abandonment, aloneness, or feeling a need to depend on another. This is more clearly a relational response.

I’ve seen many of us express these reactions in the last year more than ever, as our most unusual pandemic circumstances have pushed us to our limits, prompting our trauma reactions and also our healing potentials.

I implore us to begin to be more curious and compassionate as we explore our own and others’ reactivity to the collective trauma triggers we are experiencing. We are affected very uniquely by what’s happening around us. Our bodies have developed brilliant ways to adapt to life’s challenges. They have carried us through many years so we could be functional and protected. Over time, these trauma responses that look like regular ways of being and behaving become problematic and inhibit health and happiness. We can choose to heal and develop different ways of experiencing and responding more consciously to life events that are potentially traumatic.

Society judges these adaptive responses depending on the situation. Some are viewed with fear or even respect, while others evoke disgust. This further ingrains painful patterns of behavior in all concerned. We can bring awareness to these adaptive responses and rise above the detrimental effects they have on our bodies and relationships. We can allow ourselves to feel gratitude for how these responses protect us, show up in our lives, and with support we can find ways to heal and undo patterns that no longer serve us.

I acknowledge some of the many trauma researchers and trainers in the field who have contributed to the knowledge I name above. They help people in recovering from traumas and getting on track with their wise and resilient selves: Walter B. Cannon, Shirley Turcotte, Bessel van der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Janina Fisher, Thomas Huebl, Richard C. Schwartz, Onno Van der Hart, and Peter Levine.

We will work together on eradicating traces of racial and other systemic evils that have become part of our ways of thinking, feeling, responding, and choosing. We will work within and together, facing that edge of discomfort, one pause, one breath, one event at a time.

*image by Pavel Neznanov

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