One of the main effects of trauma is dissociation: disconnection from the body and the present moment. Trauma healing involves slow, patient reconnection with our bodies, our environment, and other people. Those are all part of nature.
Dissociation allows us to survive when our experiences and emotions are too overwhelming to tolerate. It can range from mild numbness to catatonic freeze when death is imminent. When the emergency is over, kind attention from other people helps us thaw and process what happened in a manageable way. When that kindness is missing, dissociation persists. A part of us stays frozen.
If we experienced a lot of trauma as a child, dissociation might become our default way of coping with difficult situations, even though we have more strengths, resources, and options than we did before. Dissociation sneaks up on us silently, removing us from the present moment before we know it.
Over time, we can learn to detect our individual signs of being dissociated. One client shared, “When I am waiting for something to be over, then I know I’m frozen.” You might feel vague, floaty, spacey, numb, or cold. You might feel nothing at all. You might drop things, walk into doorframes, or forget what you were doing. You might notice the slight shock of reconnection when you return to yourself.
You are part of nature
When we are divided from our bodies, we are also divided from nature. Even though many non-Indigenous cultures put humans and nature in opposition, we are creatures interwoven with our natural environment. The sun warms us. The earth supports us. Plants and animals nourish us. The air and water keep life in our bodies. Humans are part of nature.
Nature can also be dangerous and overwhelming. Hurricanes, extreme heat, ice storms, and wildfires can threaten and disrupt our lives. Human violence is horrible but not unnatural. Being an abuse survivor or a war veteran can feel like a separation from both humanity and nature when we believe the narrative that trauma is not “normal.” Sadly, abuse and war are inhumane, but not inhuman.
Contact with nature can steady your nervous system and counter a sense of isolation and unreality. The outside world is real, solid, immediate. It touches your senses with sights, sounds, smells, and air against your skin. You are part of it and belong with it, even when you feel separate and alienated.
Barriers to going outside
It is our birthright as creatures to spend time outdoors, and yet many of us face barriers, including long hours working indoors, polluted air, too many cars, not enough open space, and lack of accessibility for people with physical disabilities.
Some people cannot afford to buy rain gear and warm shoes, or cannot tolerate the cold or heat even with appropriate gear. In the US, people who live in lower income and historically Black neighborhoods have fewer trees and green spaces near their homes.
Many women do not feel safe to be out alone because of our culture of victim-blaming rather than holding people accountable for committing assault. Black people risk being shot simply for existing in public. If going outside feels unsafe or unpleasant, perhaps you can bring nature to you by opening a window or getting a house plant. Gently ask inside about what specifically feels unsafe, and how much of it is past or present. Does your adult self have the resources to walk or roll out the front door?
Pets can bring some of the benefits of nature indoors, giving us warm interaction with another creature. Dogs also encourage us to get outdoors regularly for walks.
Arrive into your body
If you have access to the outdoors, breathe in air that a tree has recently breathed out. Take a walk in your neighborhood, or visit an arboretum or garden. The Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland is peaceful and welcoming any time of year, not just when the rhododendrons bloom in spring.
While you are outside, pause for a breath. Can you feel your feet? Can you sense the air on your face? Do you feel calm, or agitated, or numb?
The natural world invites you to arrive into your body and sense your current experience. You might feel a sense of disconnection at first because that is what your body has been feeling. You might feel agitation if people in the surrounding area are agitated.
Invite your attention to widen. Let your eyes rest on a more open vista. Sense yourself as part of the world around you. Allow the world around you to sense you.
The opposite of trauma is connection. Connection with other humans can feel too dangerous and difficult if people have been an ongoing source of harm. In addition, the Covid pandemic has interrupted many of our interactions with other people. As part of nature, we need connection with animals and plants and landscapes. What step could you take toward associating with nature?
- In US cities, historically Black neighborhoods have fewer trees and green spaces. “How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering” by Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich, New York Times, Aug. 24, 2020.
- Indigenous people remember that we are all part of nature. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s novel Noopiming is a mosaic of viewpoints showing how Native people in a Canadian city might hold onto their traditions.
- Photo by Sonia Connolly, Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, fall 2021