When it comes to healing, words will often fail us. I love words. They have, in fact, had a profoundly positive effect on me. But I also know from experience that when it comes to healing, words are a shortcut at best and at worst a shield or subterfuge.
We like to think that words are the key to healing. They are useful. We use them to communicate our symptoms to physicians. We use them to describe how we feel to therapists. Once we’ve done this, we will be on the path to healing, right? Maybe, but not necessarily.
If you’ve ever had the experience of misdiagnosis or no diagnosis for years in spite of multiple attempts to describe your problem to the doctor, you know that your words are not always sufficient to communicate what is happening in your body. If you have lingering wounds from traumatic experiences, you may have no words regarding those wounds. You may have only intense feelings that flood back unexpectedly.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that words can fail us. Think back to some moment of extreme excitement. Were you more likely to say, “I’m excited!”, or to jump up & down and squeal with delight? Think back to a moment of extreme fear. Did you say, “I’m afraid!”, or did you scream, shiver, or freeze? What happened when you felt extreme grief or tenderness? Could you speak around your tears? Deep emotions often find their expression throughout our tissues and our most profound moments often leave us speechless.
But the inability to voice our most deep seated wounds may be a result of the changes trauma makes in our brains. In “The Body Keeps the Score”, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk describes brain scans that show the Broca’s area goes offline when a flashback is triggered (1). That is the area of the brain that allows us to put our thoughts and feelings into words. No wonder we refer to horrific events as unspeakable.
This means that the deeper and more meaningful the healing work, the less likely it is that language will be a sufficient carrier of information. Art and music can help some of us express those things we can’t describe. But perhaps it’s more important to know that we can heal without relying on language.
Sometimes it is the feeling encased in a memory that is more significant than a remembered event or image. Allowing the body to process these feelings without slowing down to describe the process is not always a bad thing. Not only can it reduce anxiety, it can reduce chronic pain, lower blood pressure, and possibly reduce inflammation as well as promoting better sleep quality and reducing the risk for depression.
In an era during which we are reexamining the treatment of chronic pain, it is important to note that according to the Institute for Chronic Pain: “As a group, people with chronic pain tend to report much higher rates of having experienced trauma in their past, when compared to people without chronic pain. It is a common and consistent finding in the research.” They go on to state that at least 90% of women with fibromyalgia syndrome and 60% of those with arthritis report trauma in childhood or adulthood; 76% of patients with chronic low back pain report at least one trauma in their past; and 58% of those with migraines report a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse, or neglect.(2)
As our exposure to violence increases through the myriad outlets for viewing violence, it becomes even more critical that we understand the limitation of using intellect and words to heal from any resulting trauma. Traditional counseling may not be helpful to survivors of a mass shooting, and some psychiatrists have come to view medication as nothing more than a band-aid.
On the other hand, in many circles, talk therapy is still viewed as the most important path to healing from emotional distress. Even in more progressive trauma treatment like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR) and Progressive Counting, participants are asked to describe a memory before the eye movement or counting process begins.
Last year, I was exploring the possibility of traveling for an intensive therapy retreat with the Trauma Institute & Child Trauma Institute. The founder of that institute, Ricky Greenwald, PsyD developed the technique of Progressive Counting. The process of Progressive Counting begins with your earliest traumatic memory. You describe that, then the practitioner begins counting. Once you have resolved that trauma, you move on to the next one you remember. The idea is that clearing the old traumas first will make the more recent ones quicker to heal because the early baggage is gone. The Institute’s website states most clients are able to achieve true healing in a couple of days to a couple of weeks. That sounded appealing.
Then came the reality. Count me on the two week end of the spectrum or more like 3 weeks. After my assessment, I was looking at an estimated 21 days and $20,000+ of treatment. But the depth of my disorder is not the point. The point is that they administered a phone assessment during which I was asked to relate something typical my mother had done that felt traumatic to me.
I could not speak. In fact, I could not think. I was silent on the phone. I moved into a feeling of distress. I couldn’t even find my voice to tell them I could not answer. When I could speak, I was aware I sounded like a crazed person pushing past tears. I also knew I was doing the best I could and they had asked me to do something that wasn’t possible.
The assessor (actually there were two of them on the phone) quickly and deftly moved me away from the past and back to the present. But because they had made a request beyond my ability to perform and I had entered fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode and because this vulnerable state was only acknowledged by quickly moving me away from the moment rather than providing support through it, I felt diminished, dismissed, and distanced — the same feelings that come from neglect.
I have experienced a similar response to freezing from other therapists. I’m not sure whether it’s because the inability to talk is viewed as a voluntary refusal to participate or talk is just valued as the only path to improvement. Whatever the reason, the failure of professionals to provide support in the moment affects my ability/willingness to trust them and the process. Do they not understand what is happening (are they competent and well trained) or do they not care (are they truly compassionate)? Either way, my distrust in this instance was too much to overcome. These women had failed to earn the right to know my most vulnerable parts. Needless to say, I opted out.
That does not mean that Progressive Counting would not be effective for someone else or even for me with a different practitioner. And that experience was the opposite of the experience I had with a Somatic Experiencing Therapy practitioner in which I felt totally supported. In other words, that experience does not mean I was left with no path to heal.
What all of this comes down to is I want you to know that I know how it feels for words to fail you. I understand that if that happens in the presence of a professional who does not respond in an understanding or supportive way, you may view the process as harmful. If so, you can leave that particular opportunity behind. There are other paths.
If you believe that such an experience confirms that you deserve to be harmed, be invisible, or be unsupported (or whatever you tell yourself when bad things happen), that is not my view. You deserve to be treated with respect, have your concerns heard, and never to be dismissed or made to feel less than. If that is not the care with which you are being treated, I am so sorry and it is okay to say no to a particular provider and/or method. You know best what feels appropriate for you.
It is worth repeating that like mindfulness practices, healing is a process you can tailor to your specific personality and experience. If you are at a loss for words, or when they fail you, Somatic Experiencing or Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®) Therapy (also known as trembling) may be appropriate. Yoga or neurogenic yoga may also be helpful in supporting all other therapies.
Even if you struggle to communicate your distress, the body provides a path to healing when words fail. I am grateful for that!
(1) Van der Kolk, B., MD. (2015). Looking into the Brain: The Neuroscience Revolution. In The Body Keeps The Score (pp. 39-44). New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”