The Traumatized Heart
©2000 Linda Marks

When I was sixteen years old a stranger tried to rape and murder me. I was walking home at night past the Brigham's restaurant where I had my second job, as a stranger came out of the shadows and tried to strangle me. I tried to fight him with my physical strength, but he was 6'1' and I was just a 5'6' teenage girl, no matter how physically fit I was. I tried to fight him with my mind, telling him the legal implications of what he was doing and that just got him mad. As he dragged me into an alley and started beating me, I realized I was powerless and prayed to the God I had never been raised to believe in to help me choose my life.

God said to me, "If you are going to live, you must agree to do what I have put you on this earth to do. You must follow the mission you know deep down inside your heart. You must come out of your introverted closet, open your mouth, use what you know and speak." I said yes to God and chose my life. A moment later, a little voice in my heart said, "Tell this man you forgive him." Without any thought or understanding of what forgiveness means, I opened my mouth and spoke from my heart, "I forgive you." This rageful stranger stopped beating me for a moment, almost in shock, and burst into tears.

"I don't want to be doing this," were the first words that emerged from his mouth. I lay there in the alley on my back, naked, present to the moment and in shock myself. I gave him the space to pour out his life story. And what a story he had to tell. He had been in jail before. He had raped and murdered other women. If he was ever caught, he would put a gun to his head and take his life. "This man was so broken-hearted and powerless and in his rage, he seized me not as a person, but as an object for his aggression, and in doing so, could have easily taken my life. My heart asked who was really the victim here.

Just as he was done catharting, he seized his hand into a fist as though he was going to start beating me again. God was with me, and a car came down the alley. The man grabbed his pants and ran away.

My friend Brenda shared an image with me recently of a traumatized little boy sitting at the control panel for a nuclear bomb. The little boy had been briefed fully on the meaning of pressing the button and all the horrible consequences that would come from such an action. He had been told in minute detail why it was important never to push the button. But because of the deadness in his own body and heart, all the words were like raindrops, falling beyond him, of no consequence. So he pushed the button, blew up the world, and even then didn't really understand the magnitude of what he had done.

Defended Against Love: The Tectonic Heart

In fifteen years of clinical practice, I have discovered that there are some people who have experienced such deep and profound emotional and often physical trauma that the heart literally cuts off, numbs out and freezes, becoming essentially dead in relational matters. A person whose heart is so traumatized can be cold, cruel and careless in relating - untouched and untouchable in any lasting way. In the presence of a skilled and devoted lover, s/he may experience an intimate moment briefly, but the moment is soon forgotten and not integrated into their experience. They have no relational memory of the person who touched them. The moment is just that, an isolated moment. They are essentially defended against real, healthy love.

For most of my life I believed love would heal all. I have learned painfully through my own experience that love can only heal when it is felt for what it is. The traumatized heart is like a tectonic plate, protecting its soldier from the energetic experience of love. And so, the person lives in an altered state of consciousness, dissociated from their emotional body and perhaps even dissociated from their soul.

Having worked to build relationships with feral cats and feral humans, and succeeding with many in taking them off the literal and emotional streets, I have found myself often asking why some people don't seem to respond to even the purest, most patient, loving gestures. And why, in fact, do loving gestures feel like threats to people who live with a traumatized heart?

Familiar Is Safe

Rollin McCraty from the HeartMath Institute in California offers scientific data that helps explain the neurophysiology of a person with a traumatized heart. Our fear of change, our resistance to new experience is literally wired into our bodies.

"We can get cut off at the heart, but the loop starts in the perceptual mechanisms in the brain," says Rollin. The amygdala is the part of the brain where our emotional memories are stored {0xe2}{0x80}{0x94} literal patterns, literal circuitry. The amygdala is looking for associations and pattern matches. Certain emotional patterns become familiar, "and therefore comfortable, even if the emotional pattern is a maladaptation. We can become comfortable with being cut off from our feelings or being fearful of having emotional relationships. We can become comfortable with living with anxiety or guilt simply because living with anxiety or guilt is familiar.

"In the case of the traumatized heart, for a person who has been hurt in the past, not being emotionally open has become the familiar pattern. When any new person appears, all external sensory input to the brain, including hearing, sight and touch, is compared to the familiar pattern stored in the amygdala and its related circuitry. A change from the familiar pattern we are used to triggers an emotional response. The brain tries to make changes to get our internal experience back to the familiar. Returning to the stable baseline feels good. If we are not able to return the pattern back to the stable baseline, then it results in anxiety, fear and often projections into the future," says Rollin.

This helps explain why a person offering healthy, present love to a person who has been emotionally traumatized is perceived as a threat rather than a comfort. The unfamiliar experience of the healthy, loving person disturbs the maladaptive status quo that has been established in the traumatized person's neural circuitry. And the traumatized person's circuitry seeks to remove the discomfort of the unfamiliar healthy, loving person, and return to the comfort of its maladaptive but familiar status quo.

Love, Neglect and the Ability to Take in Love

Another window on the traumatized heart is provided by the work of Linda Russek, Ph.D., from the Human Energy Systems Lab at University of Arizona. In the 1950's a Mastery of Stress Study was conducted at Harvard University with its then all-male student population. The study looked at the ability to cope with stress and adapt over time. In conducting 35 and 42 year follow-up studies, Linda Russek and her husband and colleague, Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., wished to explore the relationship between one's perception of parental love or neglect and health later in life.

Bio/psycho/social/spiritual interviews were conducted with study participants. The results were quite conclusive. At the 35 year mark, only 25% of participants with high positive reflections of parental love had illness in contrast to 87% of those with low perceptions of parental love. Results at the 42 year mark were similar. The study concluded that the perception of parental love is an independent risk factor in illness and one that may influence all other risk factors. For instance, the perception of love was independent of family history of disease, the subject's smoking history, the death and/or divorce of parents and the divorce history of the subject himself.

What was equally important was what Linda discovered about the relationship between love and neglect and the ability to take in love. Rollin McCraty from the HeartMath Institute notes that the electromagnetic field of the heart is the strongest field in the human body. "You can literally measure one person's heartbeat in another person's brain waves even when they are not touching. You can measure another person's heartbeat eight feet away from them." Linda and Gary were aware of this fact, and studied "interpersonal heart-brain registration" with their research subjects. They explored the degree to which Linda's electrocardiogram registered in the subject's brain. In simple language, how open were the participants to recognize and receive love? Linda comments, "We discovered that those people, now in mid-life, who perceived their parents as loving, just and fair when in college, were more open to loving energy and were more able to receive my energy. There was more of an energy registration of my electrocardiogram in their brain, because they were not defended against receiving my love. In contrast, those participants who came from backgrounds they perceived as neglectful were more defended against receiving love.

"All disease today has been identified as having a lowered heart rate variability association," notes Linda. "That refers to the beat change in heart rate, particularly as it increases and decreases with each breath. So, people with a high heart rate variability have beat to beat changes that increase with inspiration and decrease with expiration. This is considered healthier. In essence, these people are more engaged in and connected with life. The flexibility of the heart's variability is what is healthy. This directly relates to a person's emotional capacity for love. A healthy heart has a lot of space to feel and process whatever emotion is necessary to be alive and present {0xe2}{0x80}{0x94} to flow through all experience."

People who have a lowered beat to beat ratio, which is connected to most diseases, are less engaged and connected to life. People whose hearts are ill are crippled and limited in their ability to respond to and take in what is offered in life. Before they die they have a heart that beats like a clock, rigidly. That is very dangerous.

A person whose heart is rigid has less space to feel experience in any moment or to process and output emotional experience. Experience or relating hits a wall, and there is a limit to the degree that person can engage in aliveness in themselves or with someone else at any moment in time. The pain and stress of hitting the wall can be life threatening.

While perhaps this is like a chicken or the egg situation, there is certain correlation between heart disease and defenses against love.

Meeting Emotional Needs Influences Our Health

We all have needs and to truly love someone is to meet them where they need to be met. This means meeting a person at their level of experience, which may be different than your concept of what is good in your own mind. Even if someone has a good intent, if their action doesn't actually meet the other at their level of experience, the other person doesn't feel they are getting their need met. So, the other doesn't feel love, and in some ways it doesn't really matter what the intent is. Linda comments, "One person's concept of love may have nothing to do with another person's experience or needs. A mother may feel like she is doing all the right things. She is home for the food and the homework, but when the child wants to talk about feelings that have to do with friends, mother doesn't want to hear it. In our culture we often want to conceive of a child as a "perfect child" without emotional needs.

"In the Harvard Study," Linda continues, "we found that people were economically privileged but not necessarily emotionally privileged. People go to great schools and have all this chance to achieve so much, yet they can be from the most emotionally barren homes in the world. Emotional deprivation runs rampant in the culture. We value a materialistic lifestyle where we are giving people things in place of emotional time. We are living toxic success with more information overload and less time to enjoy and be alive. "To be truly responsive to your children, ask them what they think of you. Ask your children what they need in order to feel loved."

It Takes a Village to Heal a Heart

What I have discovered in working with people suffering with severely traumatized hearts is that a one-on-one relationship is part of the healing process, but it truly takes more than that to heal a heart. People need homeopathic doses of love, receiving little bits often and consistently over time. And they need to receive them from many people and places. Linda Russek comments, "We are all traumatized in our society. We can't trust our doctors and our lawyers. It's all business." As a society, we have forgotten how to stay in relationship. Is someone with you because they really care about you or are they reminding you that in our culture you can't have a relationship without paying for it? In this sense we all suffer from a sense of cultural abandonment. This is often most marked for people who are vulnerable due to financial or health crises, and shows up painfully often for the elderly population in our culture.

It takes a village to contain the traumatized heart. It requires an extended community, an ongoing community with both people and pets. I have found that people who have been traumatized always turn to nature for comfort, safety and salvation. Human beings seem to be the only species that has forgotten the importance of daily connections and unconditional love!

Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced body psychotherapy with individuals, couples and groups for more than twenty years.  She is the founder of the Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network and  is the author of
Healing the War Between the Genders: The Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship (HeartPower Press, 2004) and Living With Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart (Knowledge Systems, Inc, 1989).  She can be reached at, or (617)965-7846.