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Healing Trauma Through the Body

When you recognize your pain, face what you don't want to face, and move through it, you create more room in your nervous system for flow and build your capacity for growth.

By Resmaa Menakem

Healing trauma involves recognizing, accepting, and moving through pain—clean pain. It often means facing what you don’t want to face—what you have been reflexively avoiding or fleeing. By walking into that pain, experiencing it fully, and moving through it, you metabolize it and put an end to it. In the process, you also grow, create more room in your nervous system for flow and coherence, and build your capacity for further growth.

Clean pain is about choosing integrity over fear. It is about letting go of what is familiar but harmful, finding the best parts of yourself, and making a leap—with no guarantee of safety or praise. This healing does not happen in your head. It happens in your body. And it is more likely to happen in a body that can stay settled in the midst of conflict and uncertainty.

More Room to Move
When you come out the other side of this process, you will experience more than just relief. Your body will feel more settled and present. There will be a little more freedom in it and more room to move. You will experience a sense of flow. You will also have grown up a notch. What will your situation look like when you come out the other side? You don’t know. You can’t know. That’s how the process works. You have to stand in your integrity, accept the discomfort, and move forward into the unknown. 

The alternative paths of avoidance, blame, and denial are paved with dirty pain. When people respond from their most wounded parts and choose dirty pain, they only create more of it, both for themselves and for other people.

Expressions of Dirty Pain
When white supremacists discuss race in America, many of their arguments and positions are expressions of dirty pain and forms of fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Some common examples include talking but not listening; taking over all the energy in the room; denying other people’s lived experience; jumping to statistics (which are often incorrect or misinterpreted); jumping to generalities (that is, fleeing from the body into the head); reframing racialized issues as issues about money or social class; focusing solely on personal responsibility or individualism; reductionism; objectification; false counter-narratives (such as “Black people simply don’t work as hard as white people do”); avoidance; defensiveness; denial; blaming and accusations; and violence. This reflexive divisiveness negatively impacts bodies of every color.

White progressives have their own forms of dirty pain. They include white guilt; white savior complex (“Let me help you” and “I can fix this!”); ugly sympathy (“You poor, poor victims”) and taking over all the energy in the room by freaking out or bursting into tears.

This last action is white progressives’ signature form of white fragility. Many are unable to tolerate even slight discomfort around the complexities of white-body supremacy, trauma, and intersectionality with other forms of exploitation.
Many white progressives imagine they deserve a free pass because they are the “good ones.” But white-body supremacy is itself a form of dirty pain. If you are a white progressive, you benefit as much from the structural inequities of white-body supremacy as a white conservative or a white supremacist.

We African Americans have our own forms of dirty pain. They include self-hate; internalized oppression; a bias favoring light skin over dark; a preference for shopping in white-owned businesses because we believe that “white people’s ice is colder”; a habit of teaching our kids by “whupping” them; and a reflexive denigration of brothers and sisters who have achieved success. You’ll recognize these as forms of traumatic retention.

Law enforcement professionals also have their own forms of dirty pain. Typically, they involve reflexive distrust of authority; suspicion of anyone or anything that looks abnormal; extreme reactivity under stress; and a deep conflict between the desire to protect people and the urge to harm real and potential troublemakers. It often involves silence and inaction in the face of wrongdoings by fellow officers. Because public safety is a profession, not an ethnicity, many police officers routinely experience the dirty pain common to their profession and the dirty pain associated with their ethnic background. This makes one of the most difficult and demanding jobs even more difficult. 

The Five Anchors
The particulars of moving through clean pain are unique to each person and each incident. However, the process can be described—and navigated. The process involves five steps. Each one anchors you in the present and, most importantly, in your body. I refer to them as the five anchors.

  • Anchor 1: Soothe yourself to quiet your mind, calm your heart, and settle your body.
  • Anchor 2: Simply notice the sensations, vibrations, and emotions in your body instead of reacting to them.
  • Anchor 3: Accept the discomfort—and notice when it changes—instead of trying to flee from it.
  • Anchor 4: Stay present in your body as you move through the unfolding experience, with all its ambiguity and uncertainty, and respond from the best parts of yourself.
  • Anchor 5: Safely discharge any energy that remains.

You’ll know you need to practice the five anchors when you sense a conflict building; when that conflict looks and feels as if it will continue to escalate; and when you feel a growing discomfort in your soul nerve. 

The Soul Nerve

The soul nerve is the unifying organ of the entire nervous system. Health and mental health professionals call it the vagus nerve or the wandering nerve, but I call it the soul nerve—a much stickier and more descriptive term.

The soul nerve is not a nerve in the way we typically think of one. It is a highly complex and extraordinarily sensitive organ that communicates through vibes and sensations. This communication occurs, not only between different parts of the body, but also from one person to another. Your soul nerve reaches into most of your body, including your throat, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidney, and gut. It is the largest organ in your body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulates all of your body’s basic functions.

The largest part of your soul nerve goes through your gut, which has about 100 million neurons, more than your spinal cord. This is why we sense so many things in our belly—and why some biologists call the gut our “second brain.” This second brain is where our body senses flow, coherence, and the rightness or wrongness of things.

@ Copyright 2017 by Resmaa Menakem. Adapted from My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).