Trauma and healing in the body
When a person feels like their physical or emotional survival is under threat and they aren’t able to find a way to feel safe, there’s a chance that their body will develop some degree of trauma.
Trauma is a normal, biological response to overwhelming, harmful, or life-threatening experiences. Trauma can happen all at once, or cumulatively over time. And trauma can make living very hard. It can compromise your ability to be present in your life, and to feel connected with yourself and other people. It can damage your mental and physical health, including your immune system.
So this might be a very good time to learn more about how trauma works, and to explore some things that can help strengthen your body’s resistance to traumatic stress, as well as your ability to heal from it if you have it.
Here’s how neuroscientists say that trauma works:
When a person experiences something that feels overwhelmingly harmful or life-threatening, a series of physiological responses can become written into their body as trauma.
This doesn’t mean that the person is weak or unfit, just that a perfect storm of circumstances has overwhelmed their nervous system’s ability to integrate the sensory information coming in—so this sensory information gets stuck, and plays on repeat.
Different people experience potentially traumatic experiences differently, depending partly on inherited traits, conditions before birth, and experiences in early childhood that shape their developing nervous system. Things that create trauma for one person might not create it for someone else.
If you have trauma it’s not your fault, and it doesn’t mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Trauma is a normal biological response, to experiences which your particular nervous system is wired to perceive as life-threatening and overwhelming.
Trauma can make you feel wound up, anxious, angry or hyper-vigilant, with difficulty sleeping… or shut down, numb, depressed or sluggish, with a hard time feeling alert…. Or a strange combination of these and other things.
Trauma can affect your moods, your memory, your appetite, your sense of time, and how (or sometimes whether) you physically see and hear things. It can diminish your ability to accurately feel what’s going on in your body in the present moment, to process information and make decisions, and to stay present and attentive in your life. Again: trauma can compromise your immune system, and your overall health.
You can develop trauma from direct experiences of neglect, abuse, violence, loss, illness, injury, marginalization, oppression, or other experiences of overwhelming harm. Sometimes trauma happens all at once, and sometimes it’s more cumulative, with traumatic stress increasing over time.
And because we’ve evolved to empathize with each other—through mirror neurons in our brains that process the experiences of others in ways very similar to how we process our own experiences— you can develop vicarious trauma from witnessing traumatic things happening to other people. If you have flashbacks from abuse that you once witnessed, from stories of trauma that you’ve heard from other people, or from world events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, mass shootings, or the suffering of people at the center of the Covid 19 crisis, it’s likely that you have experienced some vicarious trauma.
Neuroscientists say that trauma responses probably evolved to make it so that when people are in life-threatening danger, their attention quickly and automatically narrows to perceiving and doing only what is necessary for survival. To allow for this kind of focus, the areas of the brain that intensify feelings of fear and anger become extremely active (particularly the amygdala), even as areas of the brain that integrate memory close down (particularly the hippocampus).
This leaves your nervous system divided and vulnerable: easily flooded with intense and often frightening feelings, with a diminished ability to process and make sense of them.
Brain research shows that some aspects of traumatic experiences may be stored in declarative or explicit memory, allowing you to remember and talk about them as a series of events. Other aspects are stored in implicit memory, as exteroceptive sensations (images, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch) and interoceptive sensations (in trauma these might include physical feelings like fear, pain, hunger, grief, anger, or abandonment).
If trauma happens early in life, the parts of the brain that hold explicit memory may not have developed enough for the experience to be stored there. Instead the loops of traumatic repetition may come entirely in the form of implicit memories of sensations. Even when a person has explicit memories as well, the implicit memories of traumatic sensations can feel unbearable. People with trauma can fall into a whole range of destructive behaviors as they try to cover up or numb those kinds of feelings with something—or anything—that feels different.
The physiological sensations produced by trauma can also intensify cravings and aversions. With an overactive amygdala fewer things in life tend to feel good, and you tend to want them more. Many more things tend to feel bad, and you tend to push them away harder. This may be why researchers have found such a strong correlation between trauma and addiction.
Meanwhile implicit memories create unconscious associations among various aspects of traumatic experiences. Certain sensations, emotions, activities, environments, human interactions, and other things, can become woven together so that when one aspect is experienced or remembered, the others are pulled back into your awareness as well.
Like some of you, I know something about these aspects of trauma from having lived with it for most of my life, and from having moved through a lot of destructive behaviors in my earlier years as I tried not to feel how trauma felt.
I’ve also been able to learn about trauma from trainings and readings on the neurophysiology of trauma and healing, and from spending years working on my own healing. Not everyone has access to these kinds of resources, and often the people who don’t are the ones most assaulted by the kinds of inequities, domination and exploitation that can cause and fuel traumatizing circumstances.
This is one reason why it feels important to me to share information about trauma and trauma healing as openly as possible.
Trauma is essentially about a loss of connection: among different areas of your nervous system, different regions of memory, and different aspects of your identity. In trauma you can lose a sense of connection with your own body, with other people, and with the world.
So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn from trauma researchers that healing happens best when we recreate and strengthen connections, among various parts of the brain and nervous system, and with other people. This kind of integration works most easily if it happens soon after the traumatic experience occurs. In times of crisis it can be especially helpful to start doing things fairly soon to strengthen healthy connections within your body and with others.
Fortunately, in recent years neuroscientists have found convincing evidence that even if you’ve had trauma for decades, as I did, you can still experience quite a lot of reconnection, integration, and healing later on. I’d say that this has been true for me.
Our nervous systems change in response to experience, and the quality that allows for this is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can engrave traumatic memories in the neural pathways of our bodies and brains. Neuroplasticity is also key in healing from trauma: as you practice new habits and abilities, they slowly begin to replace the neural pathways and unconscious habits of trauma with new connections.
As this happens you might find that your life changes in some deeply nourishing ways, even in the hardest times.
Just as each person’s experience of trauma is unique, so is each person’s path into healing. If you’ve lived with trauma, what practices have you found helpful for alleviating or healing it?
For me, talk therapy with really good therapists who were respectful and empathetic has helped in some important ways. Often a key part of trauma healing can come from experiencing respectful human connection, free of dismissiveness, domination, or coercion.
I’ve also felt strongly helped at times by EMDR, a particular therapeutic technique used for healing trauma. Dancing has definitely helped, and spending time in nature, and with animals. Creative expression for sure; and humor. Working with other people to change conditions that cause traumatic harm has been fundamental. Spiritual practices, friends…. and over a very long time, just finding ways to be my own full self in the world.
One core element in my trauma healing has been Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY), developed by David Emerson and Bessel van der Kolk at the Trauma Center in Boston. This is also one of the approaches that I use in working with other people who have trauma.
Here are some of the central practices of TCTSY that I find helpful for trauma healing; you can work with these practices in other ways, too:
—Invitation: being with someone who is inviting you to explore things as you choose, without judgment or pressure.
—Body-centered choice: making conscious choices about how to move your own body, to help strengthen a sense of agency and self-determination that trauma can diminish.
—Interoception: paying attention to sensations in your body connected to what is going on in the present moment, since trauma can compromise your ability to do this.
—Attending to the passage of time, and creating rhythms of movement: to reactivate the parts of the brain that perceive time passing, which are often weakened by trauma; and
—Present-moment mindfulness: to heal the ways that trauma repeatedly takes you out of the present and back into the traumatic past. Studies have found that mindfulness has enormous benefits for physical and mental health more generally as well.
You can incorporate these healing attentional practices into yoga, and also into Tai Chi, dance, meditation, and many other disciplines and activities for your body.
The other approach that I use in working with people who experience anxiety or trauma is the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), developed by Elaine Miller-Karas at the Trauma Resource Institute in California. The six practices of CRM are meant to be accessible, easily practiced, and easily shared with people of all ages. They also work to deepen connection and integration in the nervous system:
—Tracking sensations: learning to feel and distinguish sensations of well-being (resilient zone), activation (high zone) and shut-down (low zone) created in your autonomic nervous system. These zones correspond well with Stephen Porges’ descriptions of the ventral vagal or social engagement response (resilient zone); the sympathetic nervous system response (high zone), and the dorsal vagal response (low zone).
—Resourcing: helping your body return to its resilient zone by recalling memories, visualizations, and other things which for you promote a sense of calm.
—Grounding: bringing your attention to the places where your body is in contact with ground, or with some other form of support that feels steadying for you (feet on the ground; hands pushing against a wall; seat in a chair).
—Gesturing: exploring movements which for you embody feelings of joy, peacefulness, love, and other emotions that tend to strengthen resilience.
—Shift and Stay: using the skills of resourcing, grounding, or gesturing to center your nervous system in its resilient zone, then tracking what you feel as you stay there for awhile. This strengthens neural connectivity to sensations of well-being, which allows you to more easily return to those sensations.
—Help Now: a set of ten simple strategies that can help bring you back into your resilient zone, when practiced with attentiveness to sensations: going for a walk; pushing against a wall; looking attentively at something; counting; drinking water; touching an object, feeling temperature, listening for sounds, touching something in nature, and noticing what you notice in the world around you.
So this is what I have to offer around trauma and healing in our bodies, for now. Maybe one or two of the CRM practices will appeal to you, or maybe some of the practices from TCTSY. I’m currently offering six weeks of free online yoga for trauma resilience and healing, based in the practices of TCTSY; you can register for those sessions here, and attend as many or as few as you like: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwvf-msqjIsHNBzwNKY6oRZlnH2BtrgyRQR.
In any case it’s a good time to be sharing information about trauma and healing, and a good time to be exploring the kinds of things that feel supportive to you, and that can help you to feel well and stay well.
I wish you all the best in making time and space just now to create more balance, connection, and resilience in your life and in the world.
Love and peace to you,
Greenroot Yoga LLC
A Trauma Healing Resource List
Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terrorism, Judith Herman, M.D.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga David Emersom & Elizabeth Hopper, Phd.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga in Therapy David Emerson
Interoception: The eighth sensory system. Kelly Mahler MS. OTR/L (this book is written for people with autism and those who support them–but developing interoceptive awareness can be key to healing from trauma as well, and the book has good ideas for doing this with children)
Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others Laura van Dernoot Lipsky (see Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s excellent Ted Talk on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOzDGrcvmus
How childhood trauma affects health across the lifetime, with Dr. Nadine Burkes: https://www.kvc.org/blog/how-childhood-trauma-affects-health-across-a-lifetime/
Building Resilience to Trauma, by Elaine Miller-Karas A body-centered and skills-based approach to trauma resilience and trauma healing, from the Trauma Resource Institute: https://www.traumaresourceinstitute.com
Treating Trauma Master Series from NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) https:// www.nicabm.com/program/treating-trauma-master/. An excellent online training for learning about the neurophysiology of trauma and healing, and methods for working with people who have complex trauma.
The Mystic Soul Project: POC-centered Mysticism, Activism, and Healing : https://www.mysticsoulproject.com