SALT LAKE CITY — Secrets are keeping us sick.
Specifically, secrets related to past trauma are wreaking havoc on the bodies and brains of those who have been victimized at some point in life.
To be clear, trauma does not necessarily mean that something horrific had to happen to a person. Traumas can be big, but they can also be less obvious. Examples include feeling neglected, feeling left out, difficult life experiences resulting in negative beliefs about oneself, etc. Regardless of the type of traumas or secrets a person has, they add up over time and start to take a toll on a person if they are not talked about and addressed. Lately, there is more and more evidence to back this up.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., recently published a groundbreaking book “The Body Keeps the Score,” which is about the effects of trauma on the body and brain. Dr. van der Kolk’s findings are solidly backed up by years of research and experience. In short, what he found is that long after a traumatic event ends, the body continues to store the emotions, sensations, and sometimes images and beliefs, and feel as though it is frozen in that moment that the trauma occurred.
This can manifest in several different ways. Some people talk about emotions and body sensations that come out of nowhere and quickly overwhelm them. Some people feel paralyzed and as though they cannot move through life. Others experience physical symptoms of illness, many of which cannot be linked to a medical reason. Additionally, people who are storing unresolved trauma can experience major health problems linked to having an overabundance of stress hormones in the body.
Then there is the "adverse childhood experiences" study that was conducted by Kaiser Permanente (and summed up by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which found that having experienced childhood trauma is a major risk factor in physical illness and death in adulthood. The researchers also found that those who had experienced trauma as children were more likely to have poor life quality.
So what this means, for those who have experienced trauma at some point in life, is that it is important to start talking about it.
Stop the cycle by letting trauma out
As a therapist, I often notice that people want to push away the trauma because it hurts. I get it — who wants to drudge up the past and feel all that pain from before? We naturally want to protect ourselves from pain because pain feels dangerous and threatening. But the brain and body have a natural tendency toward healing.
Even if we push away the pain, trauma and secrets, the brain and body are going to try to bring them up at some point. When this happens, it can be overwhelming and send us into a state of anxiety and panic, or we can shut down. We can sometimes push it away again, but eventually it comes up again. And thus the cycle repeats itself.
The only way to stop the cycle from continuing is to attend to the trauma and let the secrets out. Feeling emotions can hurt, but feeling them will not hurt you. However, based on the mounting body of evidence, not feeling them will hurt your health and well-being.
No, you do not need to shout your secrets from the rooftop for all to hear. You don’t have to make a grand Facebook post spilling out all your past trauma. It is enough to start by talking to someone who is trusted and stable in your life. Since I am a therapist, I am pretty biased toward people getting help in therapy, but other options may be seeking out a spiritual leader, a trusted and stable friend, or a supportive partner.
It is amazing what happens when you give yourself permission to let out what has been festering. It’s like removing a block that has prevented healing, and although it is uncomfortable, letting it out and giving yourself a voice is a great first step in finding eventual relief.
Healing in the mind and body
No, you do not need to shout your secrets from the rooftop for all to hear. You don't have to make a grand Facebook post spilling out all your past trauma. It is enough to start by talking to someone who is trusted and stable in your life.
Healing the mind is no different from the body healing itself. When you have a cut, you do not have to think about healing it. Your body knows what to do. But if there is some sort of barrier that inhibits the healing (like dirt or infection), it will not heal and will continue to cause pain. Starting to talk about the trauma and pain is like removing the dirt and infection from a cut so the body can start the healing process.
To be realistic, healing takes time. It is important to be patient with the process of healing past trauma that remains present in the mind and body. Working with a therapist who is trained specifically in treating trauma can speed up the process, but there are other things that can help the process along.
One of the most important things you can do during the healing process is getting enough sleep. Sleep is the time when the body does a great deal of healing, and this is true for the brain as well. If you are not able to get enough sleep, talk to a physician who specializes in sleep problems.
Eating well is another important practice that will help the body and brain heal more efficiently. This does not mean you have to be perfect in your diet. This can mean more like making sure you are eating enough and eating some foods that are healthy.
Moving your body can also make a positive impact on the healing process and can be significant in moving healing along, according to van der Kolk’s research. This can look like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking around the block, or stretching during a commercial break. Again, it does not have to be a dramatic change, but be sure you bring your attention to the body during movement in order to ensure that this is a mindful process. According to van der Kolk, moving the body seems to help remind the brain of the present moment and can help the body to complete actions that it was unable to complete at the time of a trauma. Movement can also help to start to help heal the relationship between a person and his or her body.
Keep in mind that although the process may be uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful, healing can and does happen once you are willing and able to allow your body and brain to start feeling and healing the past. Allowing yourself to heal can help your health, relationships and quality of life to majorly improve.
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. She is certified in EMDR through EMDRIA. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.