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Chapter 4: Embodied Recovery

© 2021 Dori Digenti. All rights reserved

 

“Without this body, without this tongue or these ears, you could neither speak nor hear another’s voice. Nor could you have anything to speak about, or even to reflect on, or to think, since without any contact, any encounter, without any glimmer of sensory experience, there could be nothing to question or to know. The living body is thus the very possibility of contact, not just with others but with oneself — the very possibility of reflection, of thought, of knowledge.” – David Abram

 

Those seeking to recover from addiction need the self-nurturing habits that will create vitality and arouse their interest in life. To have a body is nature’s most precious gift. As we spark our own and others’ intention to notice, cherish, and care for the body, then one foot is firmly set or re-set on the path of recovery. This is the bottom-up, bootstrapping approach that trauma-informed practices give us. And cultivating gratitude for the body creates the virtuous cycle of further self-care and healing.

 

The first step to embody recovery is to rekindle the visceral sense of what it means to be at home in our body, to be “embodied.” Many relatively young people in their 20s – 40s who are in rehabilitation and recovery centers have chronic back, joint, or other pain conditions. These very disconnections in their bodies may be what led them to prescriptions, self-medication, or addiction to begin with. Many have undergone numerous surgeries and as a consequence have limited ranges of motion. Part of our recovery process is to recover the power, strength, and beauty of the body and its amazing ability to heal.

 

As we know, addictions often become habitual in the teenage years. The age of first drug or alcohol use is a known risk factor, along with ACE scores, for lifelong addiction challenges.[i] The stories we hear of “the first time I drank X or took X” differ in their details but are surprisingly similar in their effects. People who struggle with substance abuse can experience their own body as “other.” Their bodies become a phantom limb of daily survival. Their bodies become something they must try to protect, but their addiction has removed many of the tools and skills to do so. By returning to the body, we can start the journey to health and recovery. What are the components that lead to having a sense of presence in the body? One way to approach this question is to explore proprioception (location of my body in space) and interoception (the internal sensations felt in the body).

 

Proprioception & Interoception

Proprioception involves both movement and balance. Yoga, especially poses that move out into the limbs, can help us to move with efficiency and lack of pain. We can feel our body in space through paying attention to alignment and positioning. We begin to move and inhabit the body in a more holistic and intuitive way that can lead to reduced pain and better balance. [ii]

As you work with the feeling or your body moving in space, there is a companion awareness you can develop, known as interoception, which is feeling the body as a whole. Interoception, or body sensation, is defined as the “process of receiving, accessing and appraising internal bodily signals.”[iii]

 

It is well-known that if you have experienced trauma, you may experience some or constant “numbing out” to all or certain parts of your body. The mindful, intentional movement of your body with breath in yoga can relieve that numbing and re-awaken bodily sensations. As feeling returns to the body, you may experience a release of energy, which could take the shape of flowing, pulsing, radiating out, or other sensations. Many who are stuck in a numb state experience stress release, reduction of anxiety, pain relief, or an enlivening of spirit in yoga practice. Some say after yoga practice that they feel “tired.” This may be a way to express the unusual sensation of relaxing into calmness after holding a constant state of vigilance. Another way to express the release of vigilance is known as downregulation the nervous system.

 

To build skills in downregulating the nervous system, you can familiarize yourself with body-sensing cues that bring awareness to sensations in the body. In a trauma-sensitive yoga class, these cues can help you to actually feel the sensations as they are, and to experience them free from memory or past trauma.

 

Pat Ogden[iv] and her colleagues have devised lists of sensation vocabulary. They range from temperature sensations, such as sweaty, warm, cool, hot, clammy, moist, shivery, chills; to internal nervous system sensations, such as electric, buzzy, quaking, quivery, trembling, twitchy, pins and needles; to muscular sensations like tense, burning, tight, weak, stiff, paralyzed, and many more. When you develop a vocabulary of body-sensing words, this keeps your attention directed to sensation, without the need to analyze and “make sense” of the experience. By naming the sensation simply, you can return yourself to the direct experience, in the moment, and release fear and anxiety about feelings in the body. As you gain experience with yoga and with safe activation and release, you can gradually hold poses longer, and work more with the stronger sensations that arise.

 

When we speak of physical feelings in the body as separate from the thoughts or emotions that we associate with those feelings, we are speaking the language of sensation. Visceral sensations–our subtle sensory, body-based feelings–comprise a complex mixture of deep and subtle (noticing shifts in the position of an organ or joint), and simple and evident (feelings of heat or cold).

 

It goes without saying that is it impossible to fully isolate the sensations that are felt internally from the environment we find ourselves in. We need to develop the ability to slow down and tease apart emotional feelings from sensory feelings. As we continually increase our understanding of mind/body interplay, it’s clear that emotions can cause bodily sensations, and bodily sensations can activate an emotional response.

 

Put in a broader frame, we are developing a language of sensation to move away from responses of fear, frozenness, and hyper-activatio, by learning mindfulness and expanding our curiosity about our physiological responses. As we leave behind the dampening and life-numbing effects of trauma and addiction, we use the language of sensation to move more fully into our present moment experience.

 

Vagal Tone & Self-Regulation

“Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body. Without it you to rely on external regulation – from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others” – Bessel Van Der Kolk

 

In Chapter 2, we explored the role of the Vagus nerve in regulating the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. As we become familiar and friendly with these two aspects of our nervous system, we develop vagal tone – a healthy ability to access and engage either the active and/or the resting autonomic nervous systems and move between the two modes according to what is actually happening in real time.[v] Another way to say this is that vagal tone or self-regulation would include both “pressing on the gas pedal” – upregulating – when we need to activate the nervous system for get-up-and-go; or “putting on the brakes” – downregulating – when we need to calm and quiet the nervous system for restoration and rest.

 

We who have experienced trauma can get stuck in upregulated (presenting as fight/flight) or downregulated (presenting as freeze/immobilization) responses, and have difficulty balancing the nervous system. We may also vacillate between the two states precipitously, or simultaneously apply the gas and brake pedals (so freaked out, so shut down). Result: Chaos!

 

This is where mindfulness, yoga, martial arts, and/or body-based trauma therapies can help us to strengthen vagal tone, to consciously release the stress hormones that become trapped in the body following crisis or trauma. As we gain balance, we are more able to address stressful situations in life in successful ways, rather than over-react, collapse into overwhelm, or run to distraction through substances or other harmful habits.

 

 

Brain In Your Gut

 

We know that the vagus nerve, in its self-regulatory function, extends from the brain to the gut, and creates a highly active communication pathway between what some have characterized as the “two brains” – the Brain in your Head (BIYH), and the Brain in your Gut (BIYG). Our first source of connection and nutrition is through the umbilical cord, the vestige of which is the navel. It is our fundamental “root” to life. Add to this what we now know about the Gut Brain. What is newly known is that 80% of the fibers that comprise the Vagus nerve carry information from the Gut to the Brain, with a smaller ratio of signals flowing Brain to Gut.

 

The Brain In Your Gut (BIYG) is located at the lower end of the Vagus nerve branches. As scientists learn more about this area, the idea is gaining traction that it’s a center of independent, intuitive decision-making and a generator of mood and emotional color.

 

The intelligence in the lower abdomen is not limited to hormones, nerve impulses, or philosophical belief, though. The gut also teams with life. Within us is contained an entire habitat for millions of bacterial organisms that experience our belly as “home.” The gut microbiota influences the body’s level of the potent neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates feelings of happiness. The gut has been shown to be the repository of 95% of the serotonin in the body.[vi] Some of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. for treating anxiety and depression, like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, work by modulating levels of serotonin. And serotonin is likely just one of a numerous biochemical messengers that dictate our mood and behavior and that the microbiota impacts. Why does a good meal elevate our mood? It’s possible that the digestive system releases serotonin to the system, resulting in that post-meal happiness.

 

There is mounting evidence that the gut biome affects mental health directly. While we hold the belief that the Brain in your Head (BIYH) is running the show, the BIYG is actively directing important aspects of our being. Also, from the excellent “Gut Thinking” article by Grace Lucas, we learn that “Research into the gut microbiome has started to unsettle the narrow focus for mental health above the neckline. The observed links between disturbance of the gut microbiome (dysbiosis) and stress, anxiety, and depression [known comorbidities of addiction] have shifted the research ground for mental disorder.” [vii]

 

Internal to our physical self, then, we find microscopic beings forming a world within us. From one perspective, we live as both predator and prey – micro-organisms support our health and can also sicken us. They play host and guest within our own skin. Microorganisms nurture and inhabit the food that we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. We ingest so that we may live, and we eliminate to complete this complex, connected web of elements, micro-organisms, and chemicals.

 

Our Biofield of Energy-Awareness

 

The world internal to our body is defined by habit and reinforced by the belief that our skin defines the boundary between “me” and other. Yet, Both science and traditional knowledge speak of a field of energy that surrounds the physical body. Traditional knowledge describes energy nodes or centers that are associated with the organs and their emotional/psychic expression in the body. These nodes are called the Meridians in the Chinese Taoist and Five-Elements traditions, or the Chakras in the Indian Yoga tradition. The flow of energy in the body in these systems is called chi or prana, respectively, or simply “life force energy.” Until recently, life force energy was considered to exist in the realm of “Subtle Energy,” a non-material, mystical vital force that connects all of existence and is affected by consciousness. Philosophers and yogis thought that these subtle energies could be felt and manipulated, but not measured or material in the way science addresses forces. However, the divide between traditional knowledge and science is now merging.

 

“Biofields” are a new frontier in understanding balance and healing. Scientists describe the biofield as a “multilevel organizational concept in which information flows within and between the various levels of the organism. A wealth of information exchange …  the “whispering” between cells and other units of life… is critical to sustaining life and promoting healing.” [viii] The focus of biofield research is the interplay of biological, chemical, electromagnetic, and mechanical forces in the body. Biofield research is part of the move toward integrative or energy medicine, a view that supports a systems view that moves beyond seeing aspects of the body – genetics, organ function, structural components, emotional/mental functions – in isolation. In other words, the research is leading to a view of our own bodies, not as a “sack of bones” protecting a fixed mechanical system of hydraulics and chemistry and contained strickly within the confines of the skin, but rather as a dynamic, self-healing, self-balancing system, teeming with life and complex brain-nervous system-body-environmental reactions, mediated by a complex network throughout and surrounding the body.

 

Many traditional forms or what we could term energy medicine exist – acupuncture, massage, Reiki and others. Derivative and new forms of energy work have arisen as well, including myofascial release, Rolfing, acupressure and others, which focus on nodes and meridians, and especially on the fascia – connective tissue that wraps around every part of the body. Emerging knowledge tells us that the fascial tissue lend structuring, sheathing and interconnection to our circulatory system, nervous system, muscular-skeletal system, digestive track, organs and cells; in short, the fascia are an energetic communication system. Most of the connective tissue in the body is liquid crystalline in nature and can conduct energy in the same way that wire conducts electricity. Connective tissue may also able to send, receive, store and amplify these energy signals.[ix] It’s possible that the fascial network is a conduit of intelligent energy to every part of the body and beyond.

 

Similarly, the use of electrical or magnetic forces to affect mental health is well-known, less known is why these treatments work. The most familiar treatment in this area is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT or “shock therapy”) to help those with severe depression and other disorders. ECT fell into disuse but was later revived with improvements. Less well-known treatments–TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and a newer treatment, transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)[x]—support the view that the body is an energy field that can be positively brought back to balance through altering energy and electrical patterns. In each of these treatments, the exact reason why some patients have a positive result is not well known. It is possible that, from the biofield perspective, balance in the energetic system is being restored.

 

What the traditional energy systems and scientific biofield discoveries point to is simple: we can perceive, understand, and seek to self-regulate the flow of energies in the body to promote balance and healing, and rid ourselves of harmful addictions.  

 

Embodied in Summary

 

Through the interwoven connections of interoception, vagal tone, and the Enteric (gut brain), we can understand embodied as an awareness and a tuning in to internal processes and perceptions in the body/mind system. Embodied practices, such as yoga, Taichi, Qigong, and others, attune the practitioner to the ability to “go within,” and to experience balance within the complex communications networks – and this fundamentally is what the internal systems are, intelligent, communicating systems that sustain and return us to balance. This is a key to restoring well-being, and healing the urgent seeking of substances or habitual behavior to find a way back to balance.

 

Our understanding is expanding, however, and we also learn that knowing where and how our bodies move in space, proprioception, is key to connecting with our environment. The emerging data on biofields once again links traditional and scientific knowledge in bringing forth the concept that our health is sustained in community. Our biofield, or flow of Reiki or prana outside the body, interacts with our world. Health and healing are found in community, and we have known this for a long time through group therapy and 12-step groups. However, the communication of subtle energy between us – the reason why we seek out a yoga class, for example – has a multiplier healing effect which can act as a cornerstone in our recovery path.

[i] Potee, Ruth M.D. Lecture at the Northwest District Attorney’s office, Northampton, MA. February 9, 2018.

[ii]  Cupida, Carla Dr. Yoga and Developing Proprioception. April 6, 2008. https://www.gaia.com/article/yoga-and-developing-proprioception/ .

 

[iii] Farb, Norman & Daubenmier, Jennifer & Price, Cynthia & Gard, Tim & Kerr, Catherine & Dunn, Barnaby & Klein, Anne & Paulus, Martin & Mehling, Wolf. (2015). Interoception, Contemplative Practice, and Health. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763/full/.

 

[iv] Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology. Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. W W Norton & Co.

[v] Bell, Andrea L. The Biology of Calm: How Downregulation Promotes Well-Being. October 27, 2016. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/biology-of-calm-how-downregulation-promotes-well-being-1027164/ .

[vi] ‘Gut touch?’ Mayo Clinic researchers discover important trigger for serotonin release. Mayo Clinic Advancing the Science. August 21, 2018.  https://advancingthescience.mayo.edu/2018/08/21/gut-touch-mayo-clinic-researchers-discover-important-trigger-for-serotonin-release .

[vii] Lucas, Grace. “Gut thinking: the gut microbiome and mental health beyond the head.” Microbial ecology in health and disease 29, no. 2 (2018): 1548250.

[viii] Jain S, Ives J, Jonas W, et al. Biofield Science and Healing: An Emerging Frontier in Medicine. Global Advances in Health and Medicine. 2015;4(Suppl):5-7.

 

 

[x] Boothby, Suzanne. Study Finds Electrical Stimulation Is as Effective as Drugs for Treating Depression. Healthline. February 7, 2013. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/electrical-stimulation-to-treat-major-depression-020713#1/.