I am a wounded healer. I remember a professor in graduate school telling our class that most counselors are wounded healers. As human beings, we gravitate toward what we know. As counselors, many of us are attracted to this work because of our difficult life experiences. These events in our lives often include trauma.
Trauma is woven into the tapestry of my life. My hope in sharing my story is to continue the discussion around personal and vicarious trauma for counselors to remind others that they are not alone. I also wish to provide tools and strategies to assist counselors and their clients in moving through and releasing the trauma that is stored in their bodies and hearts.
At age 17, I was sexually assaulted at a New Year’s Eve party. My life and my perception of the world instantly altered in that moment. Before the assault, I was the captain of my varsity field hockey team and was taking Advanced Placement courses to pursue my dream of going to an Ivy League school. My primary focus at the time was finding a date to the senior prom, but after that night, I lost all direction and shut down.
From that point on, I went to school and then went straight home each afternoon. I started avoiding my family and friends because I feared the questions they would ask and the suffering my responses would reveal. I slept a lot and found myself drifting off in the majority of my classes. Sleep was one of the few activities that allowed me to escape my thoughts and emotions, so I found refuge in the silence as often as possible. I isolated myself by spending most of my time alone in my bedroom, which was one of the only places where I felt physically and emotionally safe.
When sleep wasn’t enough, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Substance use issues run in my family, so drinking was modeled for me at a young age as a way to release and relax. When I was crumbling on the inside, drinking allowed me to appear stronger on the outside. In social situations, drinking helped replace my anxiety and insecurity with confidence and courage. I was aware that drinking offered only a short-term fix, but at the time, it was the only way I knew to cope with my discomfort and pain.
I managed to finish my senior year of high school and go off to college. I thought I would reinvent myself in college and leave behind my past experiences, but the drinking and my desire to numb myself followed me to this next stage of life. I would stay up late drinking with friends and subsequently miss most of my morning classes, even though attendance counted for a large portion of the grade.
I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was barely keeping my head above water. My grades suffered, and I ended my first semester of college with a C average. School had always been a grounding force in my life when everything else felt like it was floating away, so I knew that something had to change.
As a high school athlete, I had used sports and exercise to move through and release difficult emotions, so I once again began exercising and taking longer walks on an almost daily basis. Still, I felt that something was missing. My college was located in a rural town in southwest Virginia, but I managed to find a yoga studio to try out the practice, telling myself that it would serve as a beneficial cross-training exercise to my running. The prospect of cross-training was what brought me to my mat, but it was not what kept me there.
I still remember my first class. It was a hot yoga series with a set sequence of 26 standing and seated poses in a room heated to 92 degrees. I recall the teacher saying that if we needed to take breaks during the class, we could sit on our mats in Hero pose. Hero pose (see photos in Counseling Today‘s print magazine) is a kneeling pose, which also makes it a vulnerable posture. Although it is a grounding and surrendering pose, it is also a strengthening and activating pose.
About halfway through that first class, I felt dizzy and nauseated from the heat and the movements. I had believed I was in good shape at the time, but yoga challenged both my mind and my body in ways that I wasn’t accustomed to. My pride told me to continue to stand and attempt the series of poses, but my heart told me to sit down and take a break. I decided to listen to my heart instead of my mind for one of the first times since my childhood. I knelt down in Hero pose, stared at myself in the mirror and began to cry. I had been avoiding the metaphorical mirrors in my life for so long after the assault that I did not recognize the person looking back at me.
In that moment, I allowed myself to feel the pain I had been avoiding for the past year. I felt safe and comforted on my mat in that space. The class continued to go on around me while I closed my eyes and breathed in the pose. “I’m here for you,” I said silently to myself. “I’m not going anywhere. You’re safe now.”
Initially, I attended yoga once a week, but that eventually turned into two and three times a week. Each time I stepped on my mat, I felt a little piece of myself coming back and healing where it had been broken apart. Gradually, my heart also began to open again. I was able to begin getting out of my head and into my heart, which had been a struggle for me much of my life. At first, I gravitated toward yoga for the physical practice, but what kept me coming back was the spiritual and heart connection that it continually fostered.
In college, I began learning and experimenting with pranayama, or breathwork, practices in yoga to try to manage my overwhelming emotions with something other than alcohol. My connection to my mind was powerful and familiar, but my connection to my body and breath felt feeble and foreign.
I knew it would take time to nurture this new relationship with my breath. I kept going to yoga even when I wanted to give up and choose the quick fix. I continued to show up to experience the sporadic moments of quiet I achieved each time in my practice. Even if that happened for only 10 seconds at a time, those 10 seconds were more of a reprieve from my thoughts than I had experienced at any other point in my life.
I soon discovered that feelings influence breath and breath influences feelings. I used breathwork to move through a variety of emotions in college, including stress, anxiety, frustration and exhaustion. Prana is translated as “life force,” and yama is translated as “control,” so pranayama means to control the life force within. When I felt like so many things were out of control in my life, it was empowering to have one area in which I could temporarily regain my sense of power and control. With each breath I took in yoga, I felt like I was coming back to life again.
My breathwork practice started with basic diaphragmatic breathing, in which you place one hand over your heart and one hand over your stomach while breathing deeply into the belly. Diaphragmatic breathing is still a touchstone in my practice when I am struggling to connect with my breath.
Early on, I also learned kapalabhati, or “breath of fire,” in which you place one or both hands on your stomach and use forced exhalations through your nose to move your stomach and increase fire or energy in your body. Through practice, I discovered I could use breath to activate or energize myself (kapalabhati), and I could also use breath to deactivate and calm myself (diaphragmatic breathing).
My interest in breathwork eventually evolved into a meditation practice. I attended a mindfulness-based stress reduction intensive in graduate school to strengthen my meditation practice. I remember learning about walking meditation and practicing this form of grounding for an hour outside in nature. I had moved from 10 seconds of stillness in my mind to minutes of stillness during this walking practice.
I began to use walking meditation while moving around campus during my internship. I noticed that I felt more present, relaxed and grounded in sessions with students. When I was in a rush and forgot about my meditation practice, I felt irritable, worried and distracted in meetings.
My meditation practice has changed over time, but I always come back to walking meditation and the basic breathing techniques I learned in college and graduate school. I typically meditate for at least 20 minutes each day during the evening. This allows me to quiet my mind before bed and to release anything I am holding on to from the day that is no longer serving me.
Recently, I started beginning my meditation practice with a mantra statement. Mantra is translated as a “mind tool.” A mantra I use often in my practice is “Ham-sah,” which is Sanskrit for “I am that.” I am divine. I am light. I am love. I breathe in “ham” and breathe out “sah.” I use a mala, a string of 108 beads, to recite the mantra. The mind is like a puppy; the mantra serves as a toy for the puppy to play with and explore while settling into your meditation practice.
I also use mudras, which I call yoga for the hands. We have thousands of nerve endings in our fingers that are linked to various organs and other parts of our bodies. When we place our hands in specific positions, this activates certain sensations in the mind and body.
One of my favorite mudras to teach to clients and students is Auspicious mudra, in which you place one hand over your heart and then the other hand, while intentionally sending your breath to the space around and through your heart. I use this mudra to nurture and show compassion to my heart and body.
After the assault, I blamed my body for what had happened, and I wanted to punish it. Because of this, I disconnected from my body through alcohol and other means. Yoga helped me come back to my body and feel safe in my body again. It allowed me to reclaim my relationship with my body that I had severed a connection with out of fear and shame. The poses and postures reduced the negative thoughts I carried about my body and encouraged me to open up to the beauty and wonder it had to show me.
One definition of yoga is a practice to “calm the thought waves.” Yoga asks us to move out of our heads and gently into our bodies. Yoga encourages us to push ourselves to our edges and sit with the sensations but to back off when we experience pain. Yoga reminds us that we can be uncomfortable in a moment but that, eventually, the discomfort will pass. Yoga connects us to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. Yoga invites us to play, explore and discover the magic of our minds, bodies and souls.
As with my breathwork and meditation practices, my yoga practice has evolved over time. My movement usually reflects what is going on with me internally. When I need calm and peace in my life, I turn to restorative or yin postures, which are cooling and relaxing. When I need strength and power in my life, I seek out vinyasa or hatha poses, which are heating and energizing.
One pose that I return to each day in my practice, both personally and professionally, is Tree pose. Tree pose is a balancing pose. Balancing poses are particularly helpful in bringing ourselves into the present moment rather than focusing on the past or the future. It is difficult to stand tall and securely in a balancing posture when our minds are wandering or drifting out of the present moment. To not fall in a balance pose, we have to be fully in the here and now.
To begin, stand in Tadasana, or Mountain pose, with your shoulders stacked over your hips, knees and ankles. Inhale to lengthen up through the spine and the crown of the head, and exhale to ground and release into the feet. Feet are hips-width distance apart and parallel. Arms can gently rest by the sides with the palms facing up.
With an inhale, bring the right foot to rest on the left ankle or calf like a kickstand. Exhale to root into the left foot and then move the gaze to a wall or object 3 to 6 feet in front of the eyes. Inhale and bring the hands to heart center in Anjali mudra, or Prayer pose. Exhale to release the shoulders down the back. Inhale to lengthen in the pose, and exhale to settle in the pose. Remain in Tree pose for five additional breaths, then switch sides and repeat.
I am a survivor. At one point in my life, I was only surviving, just trying to get through each minute and hour of the day. Now I can confidently say that I am truly thriving.
We deserve to thrive rather than just merely survive in our lives. Yoga, breathwork and meditation have helped me to survive and also thrive in my life. The yoga text, the Bhagavad Gita, reads, “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” When I lost my way, breath and movement led me back home to my true self.
Jessica Smith is a licensed professional counselor, licensed addiction counselor, yoga teacher and owner of Radiance Counseling in Denver. She believes self-care is an act of self-love, and she is passionate about spreading this message to her fellow healers and clients. She is currently writing a collaborative memoir with a former client in the justice system and a memoir on healing from burnout. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.