“The next morning, I pulled off my clothes and slid into the lukewarm water. I sat there smoking a cigarette with the window open. A light swish of air came sweeping through the white tiled bathroom. For as long as I can remember, I hated taking baths. I felt like they made you sink to the bottom of yourself, all the way down to the basement of your body where all the clutter you refuse to look at resides from childhood. But, my habits soothed the discomfort. So even if I had sunken down past the floorboards of my surface self, I wouldn’t have been conscious enough to feel or recognize it. Last night’s dream kept replaying like a tape. The feelings began crawling into the corners of by body, as I felt it over again. Quickly jolting out of it, I noticed the ripples of water began to smooth. The bathtub water became a clear surface, reminding me of the calm after the nightmares. Climbing out of the pools of memories and into a white towel, I squeezed the excess water out of my hair. Through the foggy mirror, I saw my freckles magnified by my streaming tears. I splashed cool water on my face and opened the door. I knew what was coming.”
-excerpt from “The Pavement” by Fiona McHugh
After the sexual assault, there’s a sense of extreme discomfort when living in one’s skin. Sometimes it feels easier to leave your body abandoned. Addictions such as drinking, eating disorders, smoking, OCD rituals, all sorts of drugs, self-harm, sex (which may not make sense, but I’ll talk about this one in a future post) are often ways one escapes the present discomfort of living in the body. Some survivors have attempted to/have taken their lives because of the many overwhelming effects of the trauma that feel impossible to escape. I’ve personally been there, when the flashbacks happened constantly throughout the day and night- I lived in terror more than the present moment.
Abandoning the body is a form of self-protection, it is a natural human response to trauma. I don’t know about you, but I used to (and still do sometimes) feel like I’m floating above myself rather than living in my skin. At first, any type of action that was grounding terrified me. Breathwork, putting lotion on my body, baths, being held or hugged, seated meditation or savasana, all freaked me the fuck out. All of these actions brought me out of my head and awakened my physical senses. Almost every time, I’d go into fight or flight mode and find the nearest escape exit from the situation.
As someone who had an incredibly difficult time sitting still in one’s skin, I learned that going from being dissociated to grounded is an overwhelming feeling and oftentimes left me going into panic rather than a sense of calm. The trick is to ease yourself back into your body, and not to rush the process.
For example, instead of doing a cross-legged breathing mediation, try going on a long walk while doing breathwork or doing a vinyasa flow while repeating a mantra/affirmation. Or if putting lotion or coconut oil all over your body is too overwhelming, try your arms and then next time, another part of your body. If baths freak you out, try sitting in one for the length of a song.
This may sound ridiculous or absurd to someone that hasn’t gone through trauma. Like, taking baths??? Putting on lotion?? Even a freaking hug?? If someone has been dissociated and detached from feeling the sensations in their body, actions like this can trigger an overwhelming sense of fear because it draws oneself back to their body.
The first steps to take are to remind yourself that your body is safe to live in. I’m not saying you have to claim that you love your body right now or that you feel confident and 100% safe being in it. The trick is to do small things that bring you closer to feeling safe in your skin. And even in moments when you don’t, (because, hey, I still have moments like that) you know that you have the power and ability to decide to leave the situation.
So, some practices that can help you come back to your body are:
- Walking barefoot on the grass, soil, or along the beach.
- Focus on how your body feels while doing sun salutations.
- Hold onto a crystal or stone and focus on how it feels when holding it in your hands.
- Plant your feet on the floor, (or even stomp) to bring you back to your present surroundings. Or jump up and down while focusing on the balls of your feet.
- Clench your muscles in a certain part of your body, count down to three, and release. This is called the Muscle Relaxation Technique.
- Be intentional about the clothes you wear, or your hair and makeup if you are into that. (This act is a reminder to oneself on how to act gently towards the body and taking care of it.)
- Splash your face with cool water.
- Paint your nails
- Sing or chant
- Try going to get a massage, fitness class, or acupuncture session.
- Write a list of the good things that would come if you stopped the abandoning/self-harm habits.
Like I said above, small steps. I know how overwhelming it feels to dive deep into a grounding practice. When you slowly start doing small things to bring yourself back to your body, you are teaching it that it can trust in you- and it can. This wasn’t your fault, and I want you to know you are safe and your body still loves you. It has done everything to keep you alive and is more than willing to trust you.