In recognition of PTSD Awareness Month and PTSD Awareness Day on June 27th, learn how body language can help heal trauma!
Would you like to know a secret most don’t know about me?
I’m a certified instructor through the Body Language Institute (BLI), an organization started by a world-renowned, human lie detector. Through my training at BLI, I learned to notice when a person’s behavior deviates from baseline. There are certain body movements, facial expressions, eye movements, and other signs and signals a person will unknowingly and unwillingly display when they are out of alignment with themselves.
As a trauma specialist, I don’t find myself in the company of the same clientele, if you will, as the expert interrogators who trained me. I find myself sitting across from clients who are not sure how to navigate the chaos and confusion they feel inside themselves, and oftentimes they don’t know where those feelings began. In other words, my clients are dealing with trauma.
The trauma I’m speaking of is not an event, like a natural disaster, a car accident, or combat.
Rather, trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you. The definition of trauma I reference is anything that limits or restricts your ability to respond to future events or situations. Trauma is insidious, and we find ourselves locked-in to a limited response without realizing it. Let me give you an example.
When I was 5, my father asked where I’d like to eat, and I chose Long John Silvers. The heat lamps made the chicken planks dry and chewy. This angered my father. He refused to eat his food, calling it slop and making a scene. This incident quickly became my fault because I chose the restaurant. He ranted about my stupidity and selfishness the whole weekend. That was horrible to experience, so my body remembered that feeling, and behaviorally, I adapted to avoid experiencing that feeling ever again.
As a result, I developed coping behaviors, also known as limited responses.
Fast forward to adulthood when friends often ask me where I’d like to meet for lunch. My go-to response became, “I’m not really hungry for anything in particular. What sounds good to you?” or “I’m not familiar with restaurants on your side of town. What do you suggest?” I became a master at deflecting and being considerate, both at the same time. The story I created was that I was a considerate, kind person. The truth is, that was a lie.
My “consideration” was born out of an event that imprinted trauma in me, and it was how I tried to hide my shame. That’s what many of us do—we turn our childhood traumas into great stories as a way of avoiding our subconscious fears of re-experiencing the original pain. I believed I could keep others from seeing my shame by hiding behind a mask of consideration and kindness.
My BLI training brought to my attention my own incongruency, and boy was it eye-opening! I knew I wasn’t intentionally lying. For decades, I believed that lie. It was observing myself that led me down the path to authentic healing.
The day I became aware of my pattern, a friend and I were discussing where to meet for dinner.
Here’s what I noticed:
- I talked a little faster and I stammered.
- I made excuses, not choices.
- I couldn’t give a direct answer.
- The pitch of my voice went up.
- I used convincing and conveying language.
- I couldn’t maintain eye contact.
- I pretended to multi-task to camouflage my nervousness.
What happened? She chose a sushi restaurant, and I don’t eat fish. I sat through that meal, pretending I liked sushi and eating foods I normally wouldn’t touch. Sounds silly, and yet, this is the reality of how trauma subtly and stealthily rears its ugly head in our daily lives.
Now, I apply what I learned at BLI to trauma. I’ve discovered that the body language of someone who is lying is the same as someone who is traumatized. The difference is one person is consciously suppressing information and the other is subconsciously repressing it.
Body language and statement analysis didn’t teach me to read minds.
For example, crossed arms doesn’t automatically mean closed-off and unapproachable. It could mean I’m cold or I’m focused intently on something. It taught me to ask the right questions and gather more information until I get to the truth, which always lies beyond the story.
If you or someone you know is experiencing signs and symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress, these mundane experiences may sound familiar to you. We have a tendency to ignore the subtle ways in which trauma shows-up, paying attention only to the bigger signs and symptoms, such as nightmares/insomnia, flashbacks, or chronic pain.
Pay attention the small stuff, too! By becoming aware of and exploring these subtle patterns, it’s possible to get to the bottom of the issue much faster than addressing a larger issue, such as a panic attack. Addressing a panic attack is like applying a first aid. It helps in that moment, but it never addresses one’s proneness to accidents nor will it alert you to future incidents. Addressing these subtle patterns that show-up in the minutia of everyday life will allow you to begin an authentic healing process.
You don’t have to study body language to gain this awareness.
A lot of what is taught in Body Language classes is what we call intuition, gut feelings, or your Spidey sense. You don’t have to know the details to recognize something feels off.
If you have similar, subtle patterns, pay attention! Noticing those patterns early can prevent more severe symptoms down the road, and they hold the key to your authentic healing.
If this resonates with your experience or if you notice similar patterns in someone you love, consider finding a somatic-based therapist who can help you re-negotiate the imprint left in your cellular memory and your nervous system.
There is help!
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Jennifer Whitacre is an Empowerment Strategist, host of the Yes, And… Podcast, and an author who helps her clients find their unique Life GPS System. It’s her mission to educate & inspire people so they can shift their focus, get unstuck, and move forward in life.