The girl had a tattoo of a cat on her arm. The lines of it swirled over her fair skin, and some thought the cat moved as muscles were flexed. In her vocation as a bodybuilder, her arms were flexed often.
She had started bodybuilding after the divorce. It might have been a way to exorcise the betrayals, the shouted accusations, the icy nights alone. The midnight fears. She might have read the research stating that trauma is a body memory that does not get processed until the body had been convinced it is safe. She might have been determined to feel safe again.
The cat tattoo had lived in the girl’s arm for several years, even before the end of the marriage. In all those lost days and evenings, in all that empty married time, it had not been flexed. But now the cat tattoo was active, moving when the muscles were flexed and becoming strong. So strong.
Trauma lodges in the body. This is something that I only learned this week, when I had a chance to hear about research by Dutch-born psychologist Bessel van der Kolk (interviewed in the podcast On Being). Often we have these traumas in our lives, perhaps starting in childhood, or from something that happened to us as adult, and our typical response is to try to “get over it,” or to move forward with our lives without being further affected. Yet Van der Kolk explains that memories of trauma are different than “normal” memories – that they tend to be re-lived rather than re-told, and that the re-living keeps them fresh in our minds, keeps the pain fresh and re-experienced, over and over, re-hurting us again and again.
Van der Kolk’s research indicates that, in addition to other therapies and treatments for trauma, it can be helpful to re-connect with the body – e.g., yoga, martial arts, or another physically engaging activity. To feel the muscles and organs and sinews inside your body, your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your eyes blinking.
We tend to separate ourselves from physical feelings during trauma as a way to survive. He talked about the response of survivors in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Hugo, cleaning up, clearing out debris, trying to rebuild, only a few days after the disaster, and how he felt it had helped them to become less traumatized by their losses. (Although this was interrupted by the arrival of FEMA authorities, unfortunately, who instructed them to stop until FEMA had determined what would be paid for and what would not.)
What do you think about physical activity and its effect on difficult memories? Do you find yourself taking walks, building things around the house or in the garden, practicing martial arts or yoga to help reduce stress? Does it help you feel more in tune with your body and how your body feels? Or is it more of an overall feeling of well-being that you get from these activities?