“It felt as if I was numb and couldn’t really feel you properly…I’ve been so sensitive to you in so many other ways that I don’t understand how I couldn’t feel you inside me. It’s not something I have ever experienced before with a lover and I’m at a loss to explain why it felt that way.”
(from Letters to a Lost Lover)
With the widespread availability of various forms of bodywork and psychotherapy, along with countless published volumes by the likes of Reich, Lowen and others intrigued by how the body reflects the mind and the emotions, it’s perhaps a little strange that there isn’t more mainstream awareness of body armoring—with the fact that the body can, and does, hold memory and trauma in a very physical way.
It’s almost impossible to live through the highly-scheduled, fast-paced, de-naturized, and often emotionally bereft, lifestyles that are generally considered to be normal, without inevitably having some amount of body armoring. In the words of Conger,
“…the body…contains the tragic history of how the spontaneous surging of life energy is murdered and rejected in a hundred ways until the body becomes a deadened object. The victory of an overrrationalized life is promoted at the expense of the more more primitive and natural vitality.”
(from Jung & Reich: The Body as Shadow, by John P. Conger)
While the words above mainly refer to the body holding our shadow (aspects of character that have been repressed), the body also holds other aspects of ourselves that we haven’t been able to fully process for a variety of reasons.
Abuse, periods of overwhelming emotion, experiences we weren’t ready to deal with, all leave their mark on the body. It’s just how we process things. If we’re not able to allow energy to flow through us—whether it’s the energy of emotion, psychic energy or a physical injury—then the body stores it away.
Over the long term, this stored energy shows up in the body as areas of rigidity, numbness or abnormality, places where the body has built up a protective shield around old pain or vulnerabilities.
But when does it happen, and why does it matter? As I mentioned above, it’s almost impossible to live as we do without holding some element of repressed emotion and memory in the body. Sometimes it’s because we experience something before we have the mental or emotional capability to deal with it—trauma or abuse during early childhood, or simply a period of intensity that we have no context for.
Other times, we repress an aspect of ourselves—rage, sexual desire, even part of our personality—because we feel it is unacceptable to others or to ourselves. Or we can just be overwhelmed by life, unable to take the time out to fully feel what we feel because of the pressure to keep going and to keep things together.
In the short term, it’s our natural way of getting through difficult times. We (deliberately or unconsciously) tough it out. And that would be fine if it was just for short periods of time, followed by natural periods where we could discharge the energy we’ve held back.
Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t normally happen and we end up with decades of stiffness eventually leading to bodies that ache, are inflexible or unfeeling, and injury-prone. And the irony of it is that it takes energy to keep energy held in the body, so we lose part of our vital life force in these protective holding patterns. We lose what can be our natural birth-right—bodies that are highly sensitive and responsive, vibrant with life and able to flex and heal themselves. And while hardness is sometimes seen as a sign as strength, we shouldn’t confuse rigidity with resilience and stamina.
Physical, mental and emotional resilience—the ability to flex and stand strong as required—is what helps us cope best with the natural cycles of life rather than solid walls and defensive structures. A strong back is one that is supple, self-supporting and healthily curved rather than rigidly straight and unyielding—and when a part of the body is unfeeling, it is unable to respond appropriately to the environment or even to its own inner messages and more likely to suffer further injury (the same is true of emotional numbness) .
Where and how body armoring shows up is very individual, but there are also generalities. The hips and lower back are particularly vulnerable—perhaps partly because modern sedentary lifestyles don’t encourage much hip movement which would at least get some fresh energy flowing in the area. But it’s also because many of us have lost our grounding with the over-emphasis on mental activity and the lack of a physical connection with the earth.
Our energy needs to be earthed as much as any electrical appliance does—and having direct contact between our bodies and the ground helps to draw the energy down the body and to earth any excess.
I would also speculate that the heart is a common site for body armoring but have yet to read any evidence of this so I only have my own direct experience to work with—experience of tangibly physical sensations of well-being in the heart muscle when it is allowed to love openly and freely. Whether the level of heart disease so prevalent in modern societies could be partly due to a lack of unconditional love and emotional openness rather than just down to poor diet and lifestyle is something I can only propose for others to investigate.
But one common site for body armoring, which is perhaps the least dealt with, is the genitals. With mixed emotions about our sexuality and bodily functions, and a history of less than satisfying sexual encounters, not to mention the prevalence of abuse, the tissues of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and surrounding areas tend to carry a significant amount of repressed emotion and memory.
As one of the most sensitive places in the body, when the genitals are fully alive, they pulse with vitality, responding beautifully and easily even to the lightest of touches.
Manual and oral sex, rather than being mechanical processes of stimulation and release, can become the tools with which to release any bound energy in the cells of a lover’s most intimate zones—the sensitive tissues of the fingertips, tongue and lips being perfectly suited to delivering the softest and least-threatening form of touch.
“When we bring loving attention and presence to our physical intimacy, we breathe fresh life into parts of the body that may not have experienced such energy…As we touch our partner with full intent, and they touch us, our cells respond to the connection by expanding and vibrating faster. If they have been holding trauma, this starts to release as the cells come to life once more. It can come out as waves of emotion, but also possibly as uncontrolled trembling, shaking, quivering or sudden movements that allow the body to release the energy that has been trapped…
When I touch someone in this way, I hold in my head and heart a silent communication with the cells… ‘It’s okay to be here now, ‘ I silently say. ‘You are loved and safe now to open, to receive again.’ My intention is to transmit as much love as I can through my touch to the body I’m connecting with, with the same solid reassurance you might use with a shy child…”
(from Sexy Spirit, by Freya Watson)
My experience is that the more resistance we feel, either in our own bodies or from a loved one, the lighter we need to go. Rather than battering through the tension with heavy force—and reinforcing the unconscious impression that it’s not a safe world—we use the lightest and most loving touch to bring the body back to life again.
Simply spending time stroking and tracing over areas of tension or numbness can be immensely healing if you able to remain fully present, stopping whenever you sense a resistance and only moving on when it has eased again. It’s much more about the quality of touch and about following intuition than it is about the technique.
The body is usually more than willing to open and reveal its secrets to one who is can ‘listen’ and hold a safe space for it.
(Originally published on Elephant Journal in 2013)