Headaches, Somatic Shaping, and Trauma

An excerpt from The Headache Healer’s Handbook by Jan Mundo, CMSC, CMT

When people who have lived in pain are able to recognize, own, and release what has shaped them, they feel freed, as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. My client Carla’s emotional hurt at five years old was reflected in her tight voice and inability to speak up for herself as an adult. In exploring her armoring, she noticed constriction in her throat, a collapse in her chest, and very shallow breathing. In facing the emotional hurt that resided in her voice and body, Carla released the underlying tension that had held her headaches in place — and started speaking up for herself.

In this chapter, we look at how and why somatic shaping gets created, and how this shaping can affect headaches.

What Shapes Us

Babies are open, sensitive, and full of wonder — they’re the ultimate beginners. They live in a preverbal world where every sight, sound, touch, and mood is amplified. They feel everything that is around them because their filters haven’t yet been set. In each moment they are learning about the world through the open channels of their senses, without thoughts, fears, and judgments getting in the way.

Although we enter the world as blank slates, we are shaped by our experiences — how we are touched, held, talked to, seen, loved, fed, cared for, and socialized — at least from the moment we are born (if not before). Our behavioral patterns are influenced by family, surroundings, society, and culture, from which we are always getting messages and signals. Even seemingly innocuous experiences can have a lasting impact.

As we receive and respond to experiences and messages, we embody what works for us and repeat it like a habit. As with riding a bike, once we’ve thoroughly learned, we do it without thinking. It becomes part of us.

Our somatic shaping is the structure we use to make the world coherent and loving for ourselves; it is a testament to our resilience. We adapt to and do whatever works in our environment to get love, feel safe, and survive, which then forms the construct of how we live in our bodies, think, feel, speak, act, listen, and see ourselves and the world.

The messages we get can literally shape us for a lifetime. For example, what shaping might result from messages like “Sit up straight,” “Shut up,” “Don’t yell,” “Don’t tell,” “Stop crying,” and “Toughen up”? How would you be affected by labels like great, beautiful, smart, wonderful, good, and cute? What about ugly, stupid, slow, retarded, silly, or bad ? Our core self — mind, body, emotions, and spirit — responds to all of this.1

Somatic Shaping and Headaches

Somatic shaping can be based on social as well as personal influences. Perhaps you copied how a favorite friend or relative smiled, laughed, stood, walked, talked, tilted her head, tossed her hair, tightened her jaw, or squinted her eyes. Maybe you wear tight jeans because they’re in style, even though you can barely breathe. We adopt what we see in others because it’s familiar, accepted, or admired.

Somatic shaping can occur over time and/or with one significant event. For example, if you are told once to stop crying, you might tighten your jaw and throat to choke back the tears. This behavior works, so you practice it again and again, and it becomes embodied, automatic. Or someone shames you about your weight, body, or bodily functions, and you learn to hold and contract parts of yourself. Or you are touched in an invasive, inappropriate way, so you tighten your body and shrink back into yourself in protection.

In these examples, the shaping is an instantaneous response, a choice deep down inside us that can be unconscious and imperceptible. When our choice of response restores us to a state of safety, comfort, and love, we continue to deploy it in similar situations. (Why not? It saved us!) This is how shaping can take place in the moment and over time.

Based on everything you’ve learned so far about the mind-body connection, can you see how these automatic behaviors, postures, facial expressions, and clothing choices might be connected to someone’s headaches, or even your own?

Headaches and Trauma

Those original, delicious sensations of energy that once streamed through us as babies and children get squelched in somatic shaping around trauma and stress. We become tight, still, held, and numb, protecting or cut off from ourselves in any number of configurations, and this stagnation can be at the root of our pain. Thus, the source of pain is often beyond the purely physical.

Transformational somatic work that releases trauma is often a core part of reclaiming that part of yourself, healing pain, and moving beyond it. In this process, some clients share their trauma stories upfront. With others, the stories surface during the course of the work.

Whether you remember what originally happened or not, your shaping around trauma might still be influencing your present-day experiences and reactions. Perhaps a person, situation, or power dynamic is a conscious or unconscious reminder, so your survival brain kicks in and you check out, defer, or push back. Your body automatically goes with what it knows because it’s how you’ve survived until now. Despite reality and your best efforts, you’re powerless to respond to who or what is actually in front of you, and you again become that hurt child or rebellious teenager.

The unresolved emotional pain and yearning carried around in your body can be just as hurtful as scrapes and bruises — and often longer-lasting. This pain manifests in the way you hold your body, or ignore those tight shoulders and keep working, or take on too many responsibilities, or don’t allow yourself to breathe and take a break — or always judge yourself, abdicate your best judgment, close yourself off from others, or push too hard. Whatever it is for you, ask yourself the wonder vision question, “How did I shape myself, perhaps to withstand a traumatic event or events, in a way that might be causing or underlying my pain now?”

Jan Mundo is the author of The Headache Healer’s Handbook and has has held headache programs at medical centers, universities, and corporations including Kaiser Permanente, Stanford University, and Apple. She is a certified Master Somatic Coach and massage therapist with advanced training in multiple healing modalities . She lives in New York City and offers in-person and video conference sessions and classes. Find out more about her work at www.theheadachecoach.com.

Excerpted from the book The Headache Healer’s Handbook: A Holistic, Hands-On Somatic Self-Care Program for Headache and Migraine Relief and Prevention. Copyright © 2018 by Jan Mundo. Printed with permission from New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com

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