Releasing old pain by dealing with grief, caring for your body, making art, and getting dirty.
by Heather Jo Flores
Sometimes it seems like everybody has some version of Post-Traumatic Stress.
If you’re at all aware of the world outside of yourself, if you live in modern society, if you spend any time on social media, chances are you’ve got trauma lodged up all in you. And I don't know if what I am sharing here will work for you, I'm just telling you what worked for me.
For many years of my life, I thought I had depression. I would spend days at a time crying, eating, sleeping and hating myself for having no control over the process. I sabotaged relationships and hated my family and the world for what had been done to me. I tried different kinds of therapy but held a general disdain for it. I never tried pharmaceuticals, but I dabbled in many forms of self medication.
And then a few years ago, I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a disorder that comes about from constant exposure to a long term trauma that often involves repeated abuse and/or abandonment throughout childhood often from a caregiver.
The type of PTSD that is usually discussed occurs after a more specific event and results in different symptoms. Due to the long term trauma Complex PTSD ends up affecting a person’s basic identity. One ends up seeing themselves in a constant negative light.
I realized that I wasn’t suffering because of a chemical imbalance in my brain, I was creating the chemical imbalance through denial, negative thought patterns, and self-abuse (weed, binge-eating, bad boys).
When I finally identified the cause, deeply rooted in a failure to properly grieve several traumatic losses, I was able to begin a healing process. A big part of that process was about learning how to let go and how to grieve. My grief wasn’t associated with the death of a loved one.
It was associated with the loss of other things:
These things, compounded by my years spent as an environmental activist and the direct trauma that comes from witnessing firsthand the devastation of the planet (and the brutalization of the people trying to stop that devastation) had sent me into a downward spiral of grief, and I had never taken the time to really deal with it.
And so, since I had just started grad school when these realizations occurred, I focused most of my MFA on using art, music and movement to overcome trauma associated with loss. I learned a lot of amazing stuff! I’m doing a ton of writing and teaching on these topics now, but this article is just a teaser.
The main point here is that it helps a TON to learn about the grieving process and look at your patterns. See if you might be stuck somewhere, like I was.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Since then these stages have become widely accepted as a path that we can move through to cope with loss and put it behind us.
The stages of grief are:
Anger, Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Reconstruction, and finally, Acceptance.
I would add another stage to this: Sovereignty. Liberation. A freedom from the pull of the lost relationship.
If you find yourself stuck in one of these places, see if you can keep moving forward. Like climbing a mountain, it won’t be easy and parts of it will suck really bad. But when you reach the summit, you will feel triumphant at having persevered.
There is so much juice in this topic and I could write on it for days! But for now, I’ve assembled a little toolbox of stuff that can be super helpful for navigating the grieving process and reconnecting to whoever you might have been before the trauma messed you up.
Learn how to let go (tools to help you get through the grieving process)
If you can talk yourself into it, see a professional therapist who specializes in grief and trauma. I know I said I have a disdain for therapy, but I eventually found the right therapist to help me work it all out. I only saw her a few times but I don’t know how I could have done it without her. Most cities offer free and low-cost options, and if you do have to spend some money, what could be more worth it than your own healing and happiness?
However, this is not to say I want you to develop a co-dependent relationship on some expensive therapist or life coach. Nor do I want you to end up on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that are probably causing more harm than good. All I am saying here is that sometimes, somebody who is trained in grief-therapy and/or treating Complex PTSD could really help you snap out of a dark pattern.
And if you do find yourself in a dark hole, please: don’t let Facebook and people who know you personally be your only therapy. They are not qualified. Find a well-recommended professional, and GO talk to them! Or, just treat yourself to a massage and some good vigorous exercise classes. These will seriously help. This brings me to my next point:
Diet and Exercise.
You already know this. Moving your body releases endorphins that help you feel happier. Getting in shape helps you feel better about yourself. Avoiding toxins like corn syrup, sugar and too much cholesterol gives your liver a chance to process the good food you are eating and give you energy instead of making you feel sluggish and depressed. For me, I found that certain types of exercise, namely dance and yoga (and the breathwork that comes with yoga) were especially helpful to my healing process.
Any movement practice helps to not feel stuck and blocked. Horrible events that happen to us leave a residue of sorts behind and exercise can help clear that out. At worse you’ll end up feeling healthier. I really started to change how I felt when I began doing yoga on a regular basis. I was cynical about it at first, but it works and has for thousands of years. I doubt you will find anyone who says they regret starting a yoga practice.
There are many ways to go about finding the right sort of yoga for you. There’s a lot of yoga online or you can most likely find a local class that you like. Some places even offer trauma informed classes. Yoga can give you a sense of awareness and control of your body that had been lost. Commit to a program and stick it out for at least four months. Think about all the time you have spent feeling bad, and try to strike a balance by spending that much time exercising and preparing healthy food.
As for food, the most important part of that puzzle is to make sure that you get some sort of natural protein in your face within a half hour of waking up. Not a breakfast person? I don’t care. Eat a handful of nuts and get on with your morning. Protein feeds the new neurons that are forming in your brain just after you wake up, and you need those new neurons to form the fresh pathways that you are trying to create with your healing process. No protein, no new pathways. That’s just scientific fact.
Yoga lead me to the practice of pranayama which is loosely translated to mean breath control. It has been the single most important healing technique for me. It has been proven that controlled breathing calms the nervous system. A regular practice of even just conscious deep breathing can reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. There are many other simple breathing techniques that can be used. Find a couple that work for you.
Drugs, sugar, alcohol: these coping mechanisms are only making things worse. They are taxing your liver, hijacking your digestive system, and literally messing with your head. Brain and body chemistry are a big part of this, so be diligent and I promise you, you will see results.
It can be helpful to make a list of different coping mechanisms that you use. Take note of which are healthy and which ones are destructive. For instance, exercise would be a healthy coping mechanism while getting wasted would be a destructive one. Save your healthy coping mechanisms on cards or on a list and pick one to use the next time you need help coping with your emotions or a bad situation.
I’m not saying you have to be stone sober your whole life! Just that, while you’re dealing with the grief, consider keeping a clear head.
We are so wrapped up in sight and sound that it is easy to lose track of our other senses. One of these is our “felt sense.” It’s our gut feeling, our intuition, and our deeper emotional response connected to our tangible feelings. Being in touch with these feelings places you more in your body. Our “destiny” is linked to who we are in our bodies moment to moment. It puts you more in touch with the ever elusive moment of NOW and opens you up to the moments of happenstance that could have easily been missed. Go exploring. Notice what’s around you with all of your senses. Stop and write. Noticing ourselves with all of our senses and immersing ourselves in the moment can counteract the feelings of disconnection that arise from Complex PTSD.
Getting your hands in the soil has been scientifically proven to make you happier. Go out and plant something. If you don’t have a garden, go help a friend. Caring for plants on any level is nourishing. Even growing a few flowers in some pots will give you a positive experience. Focusing on the needs of others, be they people, plants or animals is another great way to overcome grief and loss. Gardening covers all of these bases, and also connects to better nutrition and exercise habits. It is much harder to live a self-actualized life without a relationship to plants. If your life is not how you want it to be there is a high likelihood you are not spending enough time barefoot in the dirt.
Whatever approach you take, I wish you luck on your healing path! Remember that self-care (I prefer to think of it as self-love) is activism. Don’t let anyone tell you different. I was an activist for many years and then my mental health put me out of the game for a long time. Now, after learning all of these techniques, my community work is stronger, more meaningful and more effective than ever. And, it’s emotionally sustainable.
Channel all of that passionate, if dark, energy into something productive. Learn an instrument, take some dance classes. Make pottery. Paint big creepy pictures of that proverbial monster under your bed. Whatever feels right, do it. Don’t let all that power go to waste. And when you have turned those horrific feelings into something beautiful, you will feel better. Even if you fill your room with the worst art and poetry that was ever made, you will still feel better.
My entire Decolonize Yourself Creative Immersion, a 60-class intensive that teaches you how to heal yourself, find your purpose, and manifest your best work, is built around an acronym of the word “CREATE.” Because creating, expressing, and manifesting new things is the very best way to let go of that crusty old trauma. (And it's priced on a sliding scale, starting at only $1 per class!)
The last thing I want to say (for now) is something that took me a long time to accept:
There is no short cut.
Emotional trauma is a lot like physical trauma. It takes time to heal. Imagine if you broke your femur. If you didn’t set the bone right, if you didn’t get help and give it the healing time it deserved, it could cripple you for life. But if you take the time to heal it right, you’ll eventually be right back on your feet, and stronger for the experience. It’s never too late to start healing, and I’m here to tell you: you CAN be happy. Without drugs and without going through years of expensive therapy that doesn't feel like it's working.
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