Alter Post: Body Memories, Movement, and Sensory Grounding

*Trigger Warning: This post may contain triggers; read at your own pace*

Grapes and Sensory Information

Grapes are an interesting fruit. As a sensory grounding tool, they can be used with all five senses. Taste, touch, sound (have you ever squished a grape by accident…or maybe on purpose?), smell, and sight. Plus, finding a stock photo of grapes is a lot easier than one about the five (or four) senses. So today’s featured photo is of ripe grapes on a vine.

Personally, all parts of me prefer to use semi-sweet dark chocolate or frozen blueberries for sensory grounding meditation or breathing exercises, but we like grapes, raspberries, apples, tea, and cheese in a pinch. Coffee works great too, but none of us like the taste enough to drink it. And chocolate was easy for me (any version of me) to get as it did dual jobs as comfort food too.

Fruits were not always as easy to get and store for an emergency, middle-of-the-night trigger. Or an “I’m on my way into work on public transit and am having a flashback” type of situation. You get the idea. So I experimented with a lot of different types of food and snacks. Cookies, brownies, cake, pizza, sandwiches, granola bars, and so on. Many of them engaged 3 or more senses, but they were not strong enough to reach through the anxiety and fear blocking out everything.

And so the experiments continued until I discovered dark chocolate (candy, bar, morsels, and hot chocolate drink; but not chocolate milk or ice cream) worked 99% of the time to engage all of my senses and bring me to the present moment. That was actually the beginning of my obsession with finding portable items that worked for panic attacks and flashbacks on-the-go.

But, it was also my introduction to learning how to use sensory information in present time and on purpose instead of instinctively in the background of life (i.e. hyper vigilance or chronic pain).

Body Memories vs Flashbacks – or not?

At the beginning of my recovery I thought flashbacks and body memories were two completely different symptoms of my past trauma. And only flashbacks were “medically approved” as symptoms because they were listed under PTSD and other anxiety disorders in the DSM (IV at the time and V now). So I approached coping techniques and strategies for each symptom separately.

All I ever felt in my body was a) numbness; or b) pain. There was never any in-between. More pain or less pain. Numbness or less pain. I didn’t experience or noticed that I expressed emotions – couldn’t feel them even if my body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions showed something else.

Yes, I was that separated from all parts of myself for over 2 decades.

Traditional psychotherapy and group counseling helped me learn to recognize and cope with my emotions and overwhelming mental states. But did not talk much about body sensations or physical pain.

Never mentioned the connection between emotions and physical body sensations at all.

Not every Physical Sensation is Pain
It's our body's way of communicating with us
How we move and think about moving matters
#movementmatters

That was a not-so-happy accident all parts of me discovered during a series of bad panic attacks – one after the other – while working with the first trauma specialist.

The nightmares and emotional flashbacks were lessening in strength and severity, but the physical panic attacks that left me passed out on my bed for hours after experiencing hot flashes, cold chills, and muscle cramps from my legs to my shoulders got worse. Over the counter medications didn’t help. I refused to try anything else or anything stronger because of my past experiences with drugs and alcohol. Movement was not possible; only made the pain worse.

Meditation practice from Jon Kabat Zinn’s audiobook classes did help me learn the difference between pain sensations and other body sensations. He provided mantras and medication practices that helped promote body awareness and “making friends with pain” instead of rejecting or denying it.

I used the mantras and meditation or breathing for the body memories/physical panic attacks.

Then used sensory grounding and everything else for the flashbacks and emotional panic attacks.

But that was partially effective – as in it reduced the frequency, but not the intensity or length of each panic attack fueled by triggers, flashbacks, or body memories.

And that’s when it clicked – a light bulb kind of moment – that I could use sensory grounding strategies to learn the different sensations moving through my body. Maybe even connect them to different emotions I experience at or around the same time the pain or sensation occurs.

The body memories and flashbacks were not different at all. They were/are two parts of the same symptom – experiencing triggers in my mind (flashbacks) and body (body memories) at the same time.

By working with them together and using integrated coping strategies that address all aspects of the trigger, all parts of me (or I as we) learned how to cope with and reduce the effects of our flashbacks, body memories, and panic attacks.

Chinese Medicine + Sensory Grounding + Spiritual Practice = Energy Healing from the inside out

That was enough to convince me to try acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (includes herbs, energy work, body work/massage, and a holistic approach to health/wellness) again.

And spark my curiosity about energy movement in my body. Why can I short out or freeze electrical and mechanical equipment? Why do I break computers and mobile devices so often? How come credit card machines stop working when I get stressed out?

And yes, all that and more has happened when my internal energy is out of whack.

So I used the lessons from Jon Kabat Zinn and other Buddhist teachers to learn about energy medicine through different meditation and moving meditation (yoga, tai chi, and qigong are popular versions) practices. That gave me a level of awareness that let’s me feel inside my body where and how energy is moving through my body. With my fingers and hands, I can palpate muscle groups and feel where energy is blocked and stuck inside me. During treatments, I can track what the needles or acupuncture tools are doing inside my body – i.e. where they are moving and stirring or drawing and releasing energy as it travels inside me.

Remember back at the beginning when I mentioned that this was all instinctive to me at first? I thought it was my hyper vigilance…

And in past posts I mentioned turning weaknesses or challenges into strengths…

Well this is a coping challenge turned into coping strategy.

I was skeptical at first. I didn’t want to believe in energy healing or energy medicine. That people could sense movement and problems in their bodies or be tuned in to energy of other people. But the more I denied it, the worse the physical pain and panic attacks got.

So I embraced it. Used patience and persistence to find faith that it would end soon. And it did. Each one got progressively shorter with less intense periods of shame spirals afterwards. I did not feel the need to self harm as often either.

That was one more step into embracing my authentic (if distinctly weird and unconventional) self.

Body Remembers – Finally Reveals Trauma and Ready for Healing

These days, my body is starting to trust the rest of me and our practitioners with its secrets. What secrets?

Well, the scars for one thing. And the muscle kinks and puffy places in my body that are not actually fat for another.

Wait, I’ve seen a few of the photos you shared and your skin doesn’t have physical scars. Are you talking about emotional scars? or (gasp) invisible scars?

Like everything else on this blog, the truth surprised me as much as it may surprise you:

Yes I have scars. No they are not often visible to the eyes. I think only one scar is visible all the time. The rest appear as textural differences in my skin or sometimes rashes and blemishes (acne). They show up when they feel like it and then disappear until the next time a trigger brings them to the surface.

As for the textural scars, no one notices those unless they can feel my skin or examine it under a magnifying glass. You can guess how many people get that privilege…

The physical pain in my body is caused by my muscles and tissues being frozen in place or numb for many years as a form of self-protection. The puffiness and “knots” under my skin are the tightened forms the muscles and water retention took on to protect themselves from harm.

Only now, 3.5 years after moving west and 16 years into recovery, is my body starting to reveal its secrets and start physically healing. I have rashes in unusual places, but at the same time less physical pain and less knotted muscle groups. I can feel sensation in parts of my body that I haven’t experienced in decades – yes decades.

My youthful looks are a genetic gift/curse/quirk. But I haven’t felt my lower and middle back muscles move since I was 5 years old – 32 years ago. My shoulders used to lock up every time I started to stretch and do more than lift laundry baskets and groceries until 2019-2020.

So this is all new to me. And exciting too. Because now that I can understand and communicate with my body, all parts of me can start moving more and enjoying more of life.

Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

Thanks for reading.

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