“The category is body.”
As put by Megan Thee Stallion in her latest album, this statement couldn’t be more true. Our bodies are one of the greatest mysteries of our existence. To embody a human body means to contain roughly 7 octillion atoms, 37.2 trillion cells and enough DNA that, if elongated linearly, would extend over 10 billion miles. The bodies we belong to construct our consciousness, which builds and sustains our entire earthly existence.
Our body identity, as described by somatic counselor Dr. Christine M. Caldwell, “is our core identity, out of which other identities are built. It is generated, preserved, and enacted by the body via our explicit and implicit relationship to sensation, movement, physiological processes, relationships, interactions and bodily awareness of emotion.” But as a growing body of research has confirmed over the past few decades, the experience of trauma manifests itself in namely the physiological body — rather than solely the neurological brain — rendering it difficult for the body to function. As Caldwell and co-author Lucia Bennet Leighton assert in their book, Oppression in the Body, single-incident or complex traumas and the traumas of oppression all have the capacity to prompt a disconnection to our body as well as constriction within our body movements and foster hypervigilance, all while altering our neurobiological chemistry. And when the harm that is done to us hangs on for the long run, we must learn to take the steps necessary to heal.
Distinguished neuroscientist Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory categorizes the autonomic nervous system into three physiological states determined by our level of safety, which consist of social engagement, fight-or-flight and freeze-or-collapse. In social engagement, we seek support from those around us in the face of a perceived threat. If there is no support, we enter fight-or-flight, in which we take on active means to defend ourselves by either fighting back or fleeing. If this does not work, we enter freeze-or-collapse where our body, in an attempt at self-preservation, disengages. In his book, The Body Keeps The Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk posits that severe trauma prompts the body to remain lingering in the latter two states of “fight-or-flight” or “freeze-or-collapse.” In(habitating) a constant state of survival, trauma increases the secretion of stress hormones and impairs the subcortical systems of our brain which regulate our body’s digestion, breathing, immune system and cardiovascular system. Immobilization in the body, which van der Kolk cites as being “at the root of most trauma,” causes shallow breathing and disassociation and forces us to lose touch with ourselves and our surroundings. The physical stress of trauma adversely impacts how we relate to one another socially and emotionally — when we feel unsafe, we’re unable to reciprocate and connect with others. Our being thrives on intimacy, kinship and love for one another. Trauma prompts us to isolate ourselves, resulting in an enormous amount of pain and — as we know a year and a half into a pandemic — the pain of social isolation emerges in the physical as well. Caldwell claims that “physical, emotional, and mental pains are all related, often interwoven.”
In his book, Care of the Soul, author Thomas Moore recognizes the inherent poetics of illness in the body. He claims that the human body functions as “soul presented in its most rich, expressive form” (in terms of gesture, shape, physiognomy, temperature, skin, etc.), and that in examining the afflictions of the body we can find deeper meaning in the emblematic nature of the illness, which paves the path towards a better understanding of how to heal. As Moore puts it, “the body is always speaking silently.” Traumatic stress, according to Van der Kolk, entails “timeless relieving” (the re-experiencing of sensory details) and “dissociation” (inability to distinguish between the past and present). In other words, trauma makes it so that the body feels as if it is literally and figuratively stuck in the past.
This is especially true when thinking about epigenetics and the transgenerational impacts of trauma. Biological anthropology professor Grazyna Jasienska claims in her study on the intersection of race, epigenetics and slavery that “intergenerational information about environmental quality can be passed to next generations by changing gene expression.” In this vein, the intense psychological stress in tandem with the extreme physical abuse endured by those in the past materializes in the present. As the traumas of oppression persist in the present, the cyclical ramifications will continue on and on.
Today, the body as an entity remains marginalized. Our Western society, in its increasing domestication, alienation from the natural world, and consumerist modes of thought, prompts us to dissociate from our own bodies. We lose our true essence. We stop seeing ourselves as sacred manifestations of the divine, pristine presentations of the universe — and instead, we see our bodies as machines, mastered by our minds in bondage to a conditioned brain. Western civilization’s control of the body, from the subjugation of the Black body through racialized oppression to the objectification and hyper-sexualization of women, has caused us to see our bodies as tools for labor, production and exploitation. Caldwell states that “making the perceived body (as opposed to the body experienced from within) conform to rigid, arbitrary, and abusive norms created by those in dominant social groups is likely a factor in eating disorders, poor body image, the objectification and commodification of the body, obsessive interest in a particular appearance, persecution of the ‘differently abled,’ violence against the gender nonconforming, deligitimization of people of color, and subjugation of woman.” We’ve been socialized to place value judgments on bodies based on their adherence to mere aesthetics, implicitly devaluing that which lies in the peripheral. We become fearful of inhabiting a body that transgresses the norm.
Caldwell cites the demand for Black people to simulate whiteness as a means of white supremacy, further complicating the experience of being in a Black body. She claims that navigating racist systems requires an alteration of paralinguistic traits such as accent, inflection, volume and articulation as well as an alteration of bodily movements such as our posture and gestures. All must be modified at the whim of the white power structure.
As philosophy scholar Seunghyun Song writes, “The stylization of racialized bodies self-audit their bodily existences in anticipation of the punitive norms, so that the ‘white’ standards become ingrained as a panoptic presence in the Black individual’s consciousness.” Black bodies serve as sustaining sites of oppression, in perpetual anticipation of punishment. But how can we mitigate the harm done by trauma in all forms, and move toward healing?
Thinking back to Moore’s notion of the body’s illnesses being poetic, if we see traumatized bodies as having been thrown out of sync, any healing practices should be geared towards getting ourselves back in sync. Beyond seeking professional psychotherapeutic treatment (which is certainly an indispensable method for healing that remains inaccessible for many), there’s a lot we can do personally on our own, starting with increasing our capacity to self-regulate by becoming aware of visceral sensations. In his book, The Body, author Bill Bryson asserts that our breath(ing) is one of the only autonomous functions of the body which we can control (to some extent). Deep, controlled breaths signal to the brain that we are safe. The practices of mindfulness and bodyfulness allow us to relax our bodies through the process of continuous deep breathing. Deep breathing allows us to remain present and in the moment, giving us the ability to develop a stronger sense of self-awareness. According to van der Kolk, cultivating a self awareness of our physical sensations and how they shift with our circumstances also gives us a better understanding of what our body is trying to say to us.
We can also get back in sync by stepping out of sync with exploitative systems of oppression. Rejecting the sadistic, sleep-depriving and soul-crushing demands of academia and the professional world’s individualistic grind culture by prioritizing rest and well-being is what Black artist and community healer Tricia Hersey’s liberation practice entails. Hersey recognizes resting as a spiritual activity which embodies a strong connection to our ancestral heritage. When we’re sleeping and well-rested we’re more in touch with ourselves, thus allowing us to be more in touch with the divine.
Another way we can get back in sync with ourselves is by being in sync with others. Van der Kolk claims that “a good support network is the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized.” He posits that being touched or hugged in an affirmative, mindful manner allows us to relax and identify areas of tension within ourselves. Porges’ polyvagal theory infers that it is our natural tendency to be in a state of defensiveness. To be in sync with others, however, requires a temporal dismantling of our defenses so community can form. Similarly, Caldwell ascribes being in community with those of the same socioeconomic and social identities as us playing a pivotal role in reducing the influence oppression has on us. When thinking about community care and communities as sites for healing, van der Kolk cites the visceral experience of choral singing in its reciprocity as having strong healing potential. Similarly, much like meditation, the rhythm of dance has the potential to harmonize both sides of our brain. We engage in a rhythmic, artistically expressive activity (whether through singing, rapping, dancing, acting, improvising, playing an instrument or playing a sport) with others and help put ourselves back in sync in more ways than one. This isn’t to say that our trauma can be solved by one tap of the foot, but it is to say that the expressive arts pave a tremendous path towards the healing of our harm. When our lives are thrown out of sync, we can rely on our innate sense of rhythm and reciprocity to bring us back. When Megan said, “Look at how I bodied that, ate it up, and gave it back,” we all felt that.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org