Fear of Feeling

Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist, author and educator. He is one of the most widely known trauma researchers of our time. His best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is brilliantly written, filled with research and wonderful descriptions about neuroscience and trauma.

One of his descriptions about the impact of trauma provides some essential information for anyone who either has experienced trauma or is trying to help someone else who does.

He shares the following: “At the core of recovery is self-awareness… Traumatized people live with seemingly unbearable sensations: they feel heartbroken and suffer from intolerable sensations in the pit of their stomach or tightness in their chest. Yet avoiding feeling the sensations in our bodies creates our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.”

He describes how important it is to be in touch with sensations. “Body awareness puts us in touch with our inner world, the landscape of our organism. Simply noticing our annoyance, nervousness or anxiety immediately helps us to shift our perspective and opens up new options other than our automatic, habitual reactions… When we pay focused attention to our bodily sensations, we can recognize the ebb and flow of our emotions and, with that, increase our control over them.

This is not only important information for people who are helping someone with unresolved trauma, it can be helpful for everyone to pause and notice the sensations they are experiencing. As the title of his book suggests, sometimes it is helpful to pause to see where in the body something is being remembered from the past. This both allows a person to become more in touch with the connection between their body, their emotions and their thoughts and it provides an opportunity to allow a healthy expression of the traumatic energy reflected in the sensations being experienced.

Here’s what I think captures part of the essence of understanding the nature of trauma and how it can impact a person. Dr. van der Kolk states the following: “Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that are now the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations to make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities. Their sensory world is largely off limits.”

PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - White Word on Red Puzzles on White Background. 3D Render.

When triggered, the person impacted by trauma can be terrified of how they almost relive the trauma all over again. The traumatic memories that are stored within them are activated and it is as if they are transported instantly back in time when the trauma first happened. They can feel desperate to avoid reliving experiences and therefore learn to shut down all feelings in order to be self-protective.

3d Illustration depicting a set of cut out printed letters arranged to form the word baggage.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why a trauma-impacted person behaves a certain way. They seemingly can’t snap out of it, or struggle being socially appropriate, or they’re unable to be relationally intact. Sometimes this person can seem unfeeling, disinterested, lacking in compassion or empathy. It can be easy to be critical when a person behaves in these ways because they can appear to be arrogant, haughty, even downright rude. The drive to be self-protective has to be as big as the pain of unresolved trauma and the connected sensory memories that so easily can resurface and repeat these patterns of pain.

It can be very helpful for those who wish to support the trauma-impacted person to express an acceptance and appreciation for their need to be basically emotionally shut-down. Or they can show gentle compassion and willingness to give the trauma-impacted person all the space they need.

Knowing you have the potential to be suddenly triggered is like knowing you are prone to epileptic attacks. You may not be able to predict exactly when they are going to happen. You dread knowing your body will suddenly feel out of control. You do everything in your power to try to maintain sufficient inner calmness to stave off an attack.

Trauma at its heart is about the traumatic imprints and memories created in moments of fear, terror, feeling trapped, wounded or abandoned. A gift one can give to a person with unresolved trauma is the gift of loving acceptance, permission to shut down whenever necessary and the understanding that the person could still be a victim of their own inner world.

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. If you have family members or friends with some kind of trauma history, have you ever noticed how they can become very shut down at times, socially inept, seem disengaged or only able to relate in a superficial level? Is it helpful to realize that these often are symptoms of somebody struggling to avoid being triggered so as to prevent the onslaught of extremely uncomfortable sensations that are part of their traumatic memory system?
  2. What are some specific ways you can communicate appreciation, understanding, respect and tolerance when a trauma-impacted person behaves in these ways?
  3. If you are someone with unresolved trauma, does it help to explain why you sometimes are unfeeling, shut down, disengaged from interactions with others? Can you be tolerant and self-forgiving if any of this is true for you?  

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute