• Mary Kalbach

Unfolding Traumatic Collapse


For the many years I was living a life of triggers and reactions, one of the aspects that bothered me most was what the trauma had done to my physical form - not so much the aches and pains but more the *shape* of my body. 


As a more or less permanently dissociative child, I remember sharply my mother regularly scolding me for my poor posture. She nagged at me, “Put your shoulders back!” “Stand up straight!” 


Fearing scoliosis, she took me to an orthopedic doctor who could find nothing physically wrong and prescribed a series of exercises which I did faithfully to no avail. 


In desperation, I snuck into my parent’s bedroom one day and rifled through my mom’s drawers until I found a back brace she had been given for lower back support. In secret, as I sat in my room doing homework or reading books, I would wrap the bulky elastic band tightly around my shoulders and velcro it in place, trying desperately to pull my shoulders up and back and situate them in their proper position once and for all. 


You see, as much as my mother felt she needed to scold me, what she didn’t understand was that I wanted to stand up straight far more for myself than she ever wanted it for me. Being stoop-shouldered didn’t feel good - inside or outward appearances. It was frustrating, emotionally tumultuous, painful and embarrassing. 


Many years later I would identify those rounded shoulders as yet another symptom of the traumatic experiences I had throughout my life. As I first started making connections between poor posture and a life lived with trauma, I thought perhaps this was my body’s way of protecting my breasts - folding in around them to protect these vulnerable parts of my body which had always seemed to belong to everyone else and never to me. 


Eventually I completed the picture, connecting poor posture with a weak core. Not only had my shoulders pulled tightly inward, but they were pulling themselves toward the core of my body within my gut - which was nothing more than a black rolling ball of guilt and anger. This explained why physical exercise that strengthened that core had always been emotionally painful for me to endure. I was re-traumatizing myself every time I attempted a sit up or tried to follow the plank craze.

Finally I was able to give this whole inward curling shape of my body a name - Collapse.

Collapse That word describes so perfectly a lifetime of feeling unable to protect myself, feel seen and have anyone hear me out. In the absence of helpful and encouraging people in my life, I had collapsed inside myself - I had unconsciously created a space around my heart that needed my bones and breath to protect it in a tightly wound ball all the way from my neck to my core.

Collapse is a common experience for people living with traumatic memories embedded in their bodies. It’s a term I learned in the study of the psychology of trauma but resolving it for myself has come from the study of the movement of the body through trauma.


For me, the practice of Qigong - Chinese yoga - has been the key to unlocking my posture and helping myself stand proudly and safely up and outward. Tapping and releasing more and more traumatic memories is a good start - that helps to release many of the underlying emotions that are pulling on the strings of that tightly wound ball within. With those strings loosened up to move more freely outward, a steady practice of mindfulness, combined with intentional breath work and slow, controlled movements of my body are giving me the feeling of safety and agency I need to literally stand up tall. 


I am finding the unfolding of this aspect of my traumatic experience to be part of the last leg of my personal healing journey. My core has taken a beating over the years - having not just carried that black rolling ball of fear and guilt, but having also carried and birthed 8 babies. Bearing children has physically and emotionally stretched and stressed my core above and beyond the traumatic collapse. 


If I’ve learned anything in my own journey and in being a guide for others on their journey, it is that journeys set their own pace. We can no more rush the unfolding of our internal traumatized selves than my mother could force me to stand up straight with her constant nagging. 


Be gentle on yourself as you discover what helps you to unfold your body with a new inner sense of safety. You are so very worth it!

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