We know for a fact that animals naturally and instinctively shake off their stress. Whether or not they do it while singing Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off is another matter. We also know for a fact that humans don’t do this consciously. We’re more likely to engage in therapy of the alcohol, retail, or epicurean kind.
That physical shaking is a signal from the brain’s limbic system (responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response) that the threat has passed and the nervous system can return to pre-stress levels. In humans, when the limbic system takes over, the prefrontal cortex can go offline temporarily, making it impossible to think our way out of the situation.
We also know from the Law of Conservation of Energy (also the First Law of Thermodynamics) that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. So that stress energy we feel? It has to go somewhere. And if it isn’t transformed into movement or heat, as in shaking, then it continues to reside in the body.
This is one part of the research that has led us to understand that trauma lives on in the body, both in cellular memory and changes to how cell DNA is read, and in how chronic stress can (and often does) result in medical conditions and illnesses years and even decades later.
For survivors of trauma or anyone who can get triggered (meaning a current situation triggers a past traumatic, terrifying, or overwhelming event), this is especially applicable. We also know from studying trauma that when a person’s past trauma is triggered, their brain (as seen in functional MRI scans) reacts to the trigger and the resulting recall of trauma the same way as if the trauma was occurring in the present moment. Consequently, the limbic system takes over with its fight/flight/freeze response (there is also a fawn response in some situations) to the trigger and doesn’t shake it off when the perceived threat from the trigger has passed.
One of the ways that energy gets stored is in muscle tension. Think about it: trauma survivors are often hypervigilant, waiting for the next threat to come, the next shoe to drop (given that there may be an infinite number of shoes). Repeated and chronic muscle tension can lead to myofascial pain syndrome. And over time, some doctors believe that myofascial pain syndrome may lead to fibromyalgia.
It’s no secret that a very high percentage of people with fibromyalgia are also survivors of some form of trauma, whether abuse or assault by another person or a particularly challenging illness or medical condition. For me, it’s a bit of both: years of abuse and then an especially challenging pregnancy ending in a stillbirth. The pain began sometime during or immediately after the pregnancy and didn’t let up. After a battery of tests and everything else was ruled out, fibromyalgia was the diagnosis.
I’ve noticed in the fourteen years since that diagnosis that my pain is worse, not after physical exertion, but after emotional highs or lows. After stress. Remember too that even exciting and fun events can be interpreted by the body as stress. Stress itself is not the problem. Stress is a part of life. But the combination of triggers, the limbic system takeover, muscle tension, and not shaking off the stress can create a vicious cycle in which the stress response can beget another stress response.
And that’s where I find myself as I write this: nearly a week into a fibromyalgia flare and then I was triggered yesterday. It was a minor trigger, but a trigger all the same. One in which I was back in the past for a brief period, not knowing if I could trust anyone, not really knowing that I could trust the people I was with (because temporary prefrontal cortex shutdown), and then all those original emotions and sensations from the original trauma running free in my body and brain with no place to go. And because I was already in significant pain from the flare, my options for shaking it off were limited.
One of my active triggers is sharing my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, as well as messages from my guides, and then experiencing retribution—immediately or delayed—in the form of verbal abuse, public humiliation, and occasionally physical assault. I grew up with this. As both a child and an adult, I experienced this repeatedly from my nuclear family.
So as I begin to regularly share my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, as well as messages from my guides, is it any wonder that my physical response to posting and commenting is to tense my muscles and wait for what my child parts consider inevitable punishment for speaking out?
And yet, I will continue to share because I know some people need to hear this. And I will continue to find ways to shake off the stress energy and remind myself that the threat is over. Some singing might be involved. Some energy might be transformed into writing articles like this one. In any event, the mistreatment by people I grew up with needs to stay in the past where it belongs.
This begs the question: how can that mistreatment stay in the past where it belongs?
It’s clear to me that a child part of me was what was triggered. That child part is what holds the pain around retribution for my speaking up. (According to Internal Family Systems therapy, we all have parts and it’s a normal, natural part of being human.) And since it is a child part, that part can be reparented. The adult, empowered part of me knows what I needed back then (love, acceptance, value, voice, belonging), and I can give it to this child part.
Back when I was a child, I had precious few resources. My guides were my biggest resource. I knew of no relatives who would believe me over my parents. My parents were active in my school and friends with my teachers and principal. My father was close with law enforcement.
When trauma happens, children are known to do three things: 1) in the absence of clear and specific explanations by authority figures, they believe they are the cause; 2) they make rules about the trauma and apply them throughout their lives (e.g.: “Everyone will react as my parents did.”); and 3) the powerlessness and limited options they experience are stored along with the traumatic memory, such that when the trauma is triggered, the now-adult still feels powerless and with limited options.
Retraining the brain takes practice and repeated, supported experiences under safe conditions to learn that 1) the child is almost never the cause of their trauma; 2) the rules created only applied to that situation and that time; and 3) the adult has far greater resources than the child did. Trauma-informed coaching and/or therapy can significantly help with this, and connection with your own guidance is a priceless and profound resource.
And so I end with this: My voice matters. My experience is that I often help when I speak up or speak out. I was not the cause of the mistreatment from the people I grew up with. I have vast resources now. I have people in my life who support who I am and what I do. People who attack me because of what I say or share are acting out their own issues, which have nothing to do with me. I share how I experience the world in the hopes that it will benefit others. I can and do shake off My experience is my experience and that’s all it needs to be. I too continue to move from silenced and squashed to vocal and free.
I loved your article , helped me see trauma in a easy way. Thanks!