A few years back I attended a meditative healing ceremony to help me work through the terrible anxiety, depression, and alcoholism that plagued my life. I felt like I had so much past trauma and baggage to deal with that I could barely function. Worse yet, I had little understanding of the many ghosts that were haunting me.
I had tried everything from therapy, medication, and even changing my whole life and quitting my job. But I was still going down a dark spiral that I couldn’t free myself from. One of the interesting things about healing ceremonies is that they can help you dig in to your psyche in a way that other therapeutic modalities cannot.
In this particular ceremony, I seemed to have locked into a deeply disturbing memory that opened a flood of emotion I was not prepared for. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was as if the crying had taken me over while waves of sobbing racked my body.
In the days that followed I felt very open and raw and couldn’t stop the emotions from coming. It was rather destabilizing and it took me a long time to recover. As cathartic as it was to unlock emotions, I felt very alone with no ground under me.
I’ve since learned that this state is called abreaction, a psychological term that I learned from Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, a therapist and writer. She says that although crying discharges suppressed and repressed energy that is somatically stuck in the body, this process needs to be handled carefully when serious trauma is present. Without support, a person can be left in a state of abreaction which is an excessive purging of emotions. Heller says that for some people, processing grief and trauma needs to be done in manageable chunks to allow the movement through cycles of intense feeling, grief, and dissociation.
It seems that although crying is very beneficial, as Heller says, it can also be destabiliziing if we have a huge flood of emotion that comes up all at once. This was certainly the case for me. It took several weeks to calm down and get grounded again, which for a time, didn’t exactly help my healing. Instead, I went further into dissociation because I felt so terrified and unstable.
Often, past trauma can give rise to many defense mechanisms to help protect ourselves. One of them is to wall off our emotions in relation to traumatic memories. In a sense, we may logically know what happened to us, but we have blocked the actual emotion that goes with the event. This is because when the trauma happened, we were likely too young and immature to handle the overwhelming emotions of the event. And although this is protective, we lose connection to ourselves in the process.
As adults, we then have to navigate all the defenses we erected to stop these emotions from being felt. In my case, I learned to shut down and dissociate as a child. When I couldn’t continue doing this as a adult, I turned to alcohol to help me block out my feelings. Eventually, the alcohol and all of my defenses began causing more problems than they fixed. So I had to reach out for help.
Often, the biggest reason people don’t get help for the aftermath of trauma is precisely because we are afraid of the locked up emotions inside of us. Instinctively, we all know that they are pressing hard against a carefully constructed wall we’ve built to keep them in. And once we open the doors, we’re afraid of what will come rushing out.
Certainly, abreaction is a risk we take when unlocking the doors to our past. However, as Heller points out, crying is often a turning point in our healing process. Once we allow ourselves to cry, we can provide our damaged nervous systems with a much needed release, so long as we have support.
Crying has always been a part of human behavior. Dr. Ed Ergenzinger, a trained neuroscientist and writer says that crying is often a biological way for humans to elicit care and concern for eachother. In a sense, crying is a built-in signaling system that indicates there is some problem you can’t handle on your own, says Ergenzinger. As we grow up, crying stays with us, likely as a release and an indication for when we feel overwhelmed.
We know that crying is definitely a positive therapeutic move, but what if we didn’t feel safe with our caregivers or in our childhood home? What if we had certain events happen that made us distrust others? Perhaps then, the emotional signaling such as crying may be stifled as we didn’t feel safe to ask for help. In this sense, we likely shut off our feeling states in order to cope.
For those who have experienced intense trauma, it may be very difficult to access emotions. Or we may not know how to process emotions effectively so they become erratic and displaced. In this case, many of us who have experienced trauma may be ripe for abreaction once we actually touch our emotional core.
This is not to say that abreaction is dangerous, rather it requires more support and help from a trained therapist or doctor. As Heller says, we may need to experience our feelings in smaller bits so we can cope with them without everything spilling out all at once.
I’m still grateful for that ceremony and the flood of emotion it brought up in me. I was able to tap into a blockage in my emotional life which eventually helped me heal. However, if I had to do it over again, I would have reached out to a trained therapist to help me work through the initial flood of tears.