Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD – How I Found My Rhythm Back After Trauma

Free as a bird

In the family of my childhood, music, dancing and laughter were coping mechanisms for our many difficulties.

I danced ballet for several years as a child and still carry a wonderful memory in my core of how centered I felt when I was dancing. At the time, I was barely aware of this – in fact, I often fought going to dancing class. But when the class actually started, and after a few minutes into warm-up, I felt free as a bird, released from the heavy emotional weight I carried most of the time.

The financial difficulties of my family ended dancing class when I was twelve, but I kept on dancing whenever I could. By then dancing was so much a part of me that I took for granted the easy connection I felt to rhythm and how alive and connected to libidinal energies I felt when I danced. I often danced alone and from the age of 15 until 25 I had a strong sense of my own rhythm and dance.

There was a major dissonance between the way I felt when I was dancing and how I felt in almost every other waking moment. The debris of trauma I carried accumulated over the years and got heavier and heavier. I see now that – without being aware of it at the time – I was listening to my body, which called me to connect to a sense of life through dancing.   Without knowing it, I was engaging in powerful self-care.

The frozen moment that changed it all

“A Distressed Damsel” by Tran Nguyen
“A Distressed Damsel” by Tran Nguyen

A tragedy took place in which I lost even this lifeline. When I was 25, my eldest brother, a pillar in our family due to previous losses, died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was with my parents that morning when my mother got the phone call telling her what had happened. I heard a loud scream, “Nooooooooooo…” I froze and was unable to move for a few seconds. This moment remains engraved into my memory at multiple levels. Finally I ran to my mother and everything began moving in a dream-like way of living that began for me on that tragic day and continued for many years afterwards I didn’t know it at the time, but in that moment of frozenness I lost my rhythm.

It took over a year before I even tried to dance again. I went to a wedding and for the first time in my life dancing felt awkward. I couldn’t feel the rhythm of sound in my body. I had lost all sense of connection to the rhythmic inner compass that I had always taken for granted.

I didn’t give up. I tried belly dancing for a year and felt envious when my teacher moved her body so naturally. I remembered being able to move so comfortably in my body myself, but now I felt only awkwardness. If I closed my eyes I could remember the physical sense of my body being connected to the rhythm that I had once felt. But when I returned to my present surrounding, the memory was was gone.

Trying to find back my rhythm

Years passed. I tried many different methods, techniques and therapies. I managed to get to a better place emotionally. I worked on a number of traumas and became a therapist myself. Yet I still couldn’t re-establish the connection I once felt to rhythm.

I learned everything I could about trauma and its impacts on all levels: emotional, physical, biologically, spiritual. I came to accept that there were parts of my being that had been broken and in some cases re-broken, and that the marks of this would never really go away. Someone with a badly injured limb does not grow a new one or get rid of what remains. Similarly, trauma integration eventually means finding ways to live with the whole, including the missing pieces.

All this took time but it was progress. Little by little I learned to enjoy music again and sometimes I thought maybe I liked dancing again. Still, I could feel that rhythm the way I used to experience it was gone.

Out of stress appeared rhythm

A few months ago, circumstances changed unexpectedly. My husband and I realized that we needed to move again (to another country), and sooner than we had expected. This was pretty stressful.

This time my body, again, reminded me – mostly by complaining in ways I couldn’t ignore – that I needed to take care of myself and maintain a strict self-care routine. I felt too crappy to do many of the things I used for self-care in the past. I reminded myself that I was doing the best I could in difficult circumstances and left it at that.

One evening, I went with friends to a goodbye outing. The music was loud and emotions were high. Without quite noticing, I started dancing. Less awkwardness, less frozenness, just dancing as if no one was looking, not minding that I was older, heavier and less fit than ever. I enjoyed every minute.

I was so much into the experience that I didn’t really notice until the following day that my body felt lighter and more responsive to music I was playing. This seemed so wonderful that I went dancing again a few days later, just to make sure it was not a momentary event.

Embodiment of words – a technique for unfreezing frozen moments

I’ve experimented with a technique for ten years that has helped me a lot in this long journey. There are many similar tools out there; this is the variation I’ve worked out and I call it embodiment of words.

Beginners’ guideline: Do not try this alone. Ideally, work with a therapist in the first few sessions, especially if you are working on major trauma, since this work is a powerful tool for connecting to different experiences that are stored in your body. You will feel safer to explore whatever you encounter if you have a trusted partner supporting you and you will also reduce the chances of re-traumatization.

Keep the session short – less than a minute perhaps for the first ten times you try it. With practice you will get to know your body, and feel connected to these embodied words.

• To begin, think of a word, taking the first one that comes to your head.

• Then stand in whatever way is comfortable and try to feel where this word resonates in your body.

• Take a few breaths, close your eyes, and let the word move around your body, allowing your body to follow or respond in any way it wants.

• Pay attention to how your body wants to move. It could be a tiny movement or a large gesture. Follow whatever call to movement you sense that seems to facilitate melting of the sense of frozenness.

• Stay where you feel comfortable and where you sense expansion. If you feel contraction, continue moving until you find a sense of expansion.

• Finish the exercise when you are able to sense expansion.

• If the sense of contraction dominates and you feel you cannot let it go, try this “reset” exercise: Jump up and down (as fast as you can) 10 times, than take 5 long breaths in and out (standing up or sitting down). This will “reset” your sensations.

When you are listening for words to embody, accept the words that come to you. Do not grasp for words you think are right or better. I learned that if, instead of simply allowing a word to come to me, I try to pick a positive word, I sometimes felt worse afterwards. If the body isn’t ready for the word I am trying to impose on it, the exercise doesn’t help. In addition, I feel a sense of failure. So even if the word that comes to mind does not seem like what you want, it is better to stay with it. Begin with this word for now and then choose another the following day until you feel expansion. And of course you can always use the “reset” exercise if you feel this is too much for now.

This is a slow but powerful tool that operates at several levels to connect you to your body and experience micro-sensations in places of stagnation. Like other kinds of mindful work, it slows down the “fire alarm” part of the brain and thus allows integration of several aspects of the mind and body.

Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD

Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD, has worked as a consultant, trauma specialist and expressive therapist for the UN and NGOs in the US, Europe, Middle-East, Africa and Asia. Her dissertation research evaluated the efficacy of experiencial training for reducing secondary stress in caregivers working with traumatized populations.   

Odelya has recently resided in the Philippines where she assisted the Department of Health to develop a trauma response module.  She also trained groups of caregivers in the Philippines, Japan, China, and S. Korea in expressive psychosocial support, and provided expressive eTherapy to a clientele of development workers from around the world.  

Interested in Dance Therapy? Check out Alternative Therapists Directory