Trauma and healing in the body
When a person lives through experiences that endanger their physical or emotional survival, there’s a chance that they will develop trauma: a condition of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in which sensory memories of traumatic events replay again and again, triggering automatic survival responses.
In these times of pandemic, increasing racist violence, and climate crisis, when threats are more noticeable and closer to home than ever before, many people are overwhelmed with feelings of ongoing danger. For those who also have trauma from childhood or from other past experiences, these current conditions can set off additional layers of trauma response–making it especially hard to feel centered, grounded, and able to bring their best to the challenges in their lives.
Trauma also diminishes the functioning of the immune system, and it has long-term impact on overall physical and emotional health. So now when we need our bodies, hearts, and minds to be as capable and resilient as possible, it may be especially important to explore questions like these:
- What is trauma?
- How does it show up in our bodies and in daily living?
- What causes trauma?
- What are some ways to develop resilience to trauma, and to heal from it?
I’ve written this page as support for people who want to learn more about these things. It comes out of my training in Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) with David Emerson; the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) with Elaine Miller-Karas; Trauma Response and Crisis Care for Movements (TRACC) with Teresa Mateus, Vahisha Hasan and others–and additional trauma treatment trainings with people like Bessel van Der Kolk, Janina Fisher, Hala Khouri, Ruth Buczynski, Dan Siegel, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, and Ruth Lanius.
What is trauma?
Trauma is a normal, biological response to experiences that are overwhelming, harmful, or life-threatening–it is your nervous system’s attempt to keep you alive and safe in situations of great danger.
Trauma is an adaptive response of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the nervous system that controls heart rate, breathing, digestion and a number of other body functions. In trauma your ANS has received a powerful message that your survival is at risk. It has adapted by becoming extremely sensitized to stimuli that it experiences as dangerous, and by quickly triggering automatic responses meant to keep you safe.
Having trauma doesn’t mean that a person is weak or unfit in any way. It means that a perfect storm of harmful 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.
Again: trauma is a normal biological response… to experiences which a person’s particular nervous system is adapted to perceive as threatening to their physical or emotional survival.
Brain research shows that some aspects of traumatic experiences may be stored in declarative or explicit memory, which allows you to remember and talk about them as a series of events. However most aspects of trauma are stored in implicit memory, as exteroceptive sensations (images, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch) and interoceptive sensations (physical sensations of feelings like fear, pain, anxiety, hunger, shame, 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 at all. 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, it’s often the implicit memories of traumatic sensations that feel especially 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 nervous system can also create unconscious associations among various aspects of traumatic experiences. Sensations, emotions, activities, environments, human interactions, and other aspects of traumatic experiences can become attached to each other in implicit memory. When one aspect is felt or remembered the others are pulled back into awareness too, triggering deeply ingrained habits of traumatic response.
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) to help you have quick, automatic responses to protect yourself. Meanwhile areas of the brain that integrate memory close down (particularly the hippocampus), as energy and focus are needed elsewhere.
While this response is adaptive and can help you survive in moments of extreme danger, over time this combination can leave your nervous system divided and vulnerable: easily flooded with memories of intense and often frightening sensations meant to compel you to do whatever is needed to survive, along with a diminished ability to make sense of these sensations and integrate them so that you can see clearly and respond to what’s actually going on in the present.
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 one reason why researchers have found such a strong correlation between trauma and addiction.
Healing can include a combination of learning to discern which of your learned automatic responses to danger may be harmful to yourself or others, and practicing new habits of response–while also noticing if there are certain gifts of experience (strengths, perceptions, relational awareness, etc.) that feel more nourishing and sustainable, and that you can strengthen to help yourself and others.
How does trauma show up in our bodies and in daily living?
As your body strives to keep you alert and safe, trauma in your autonomic nervous system can make you feel wound up, anxious, frightened, angry or hyper-vigilant, with difficulty sleeping. This generally means that your ANS is stuck in a sympathetic nervous system response, where your whole body is prepared for fight or flight, hyper-aroused to help keep you alive.
After experiences of overwhelming harm, trauma can also make you feel shut down, numb, depressed or sluggish. These kinds of hypo-arousal come from the dorsal vagal response of the lower parasympathetic nervous system. Neuroscientists say that it probably developed 1) to immobilize your body to keep you safe when danger is very close, and 2) in the case of inescapable harm, to numb the body to diminish suffering.
Sometimes people with trauma experience a disorienting combination of both hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal. They may swing from one extreme to the other, or experience strange combinations where their body feels immobilized while the brain is extremely active, or their brain feels immobilized while the body is extremely active.
Because of how trauma stimulates protective responses throughout your entire body and nervous system, it can affect:
Sense of time
How (or sometimes whether) you physically see and hear things
The ability to accurately feel what’s going on in your body in the present moment
The ability to process information and make decisions
The ability to stay present and attentive in your life
The ability to feel connected with your body, your emotions, with other people, and with the world around you.
What causes trauma?
People can develop trauma from personal experiences of neglect, abuse, violence, loss, bereavement, illness, injury, marginalization, discrimination, and other kinds of ongoing danger or overwhelming harm. Sometimes trauma happens all at once, and sometimes it’s more cumulative, with traumatic stress increasing over time. Some aspects of traumatic response can be inherited as well.
Different people may experience potentially traumatic experiences differently. This can depend in part on the ways that their developing nervous system was shaped by a combination of inherited epigenetic traits, stress experienced by their mother during pregnancy, environmental factors, and relationships in early childhood. All of these things affect the development and function of the nervous system, so that depending on each person’s nervous system, living conditions, and experience, things that create trauma for one person might not create it for someone else.
Psychotherapist Janina Fisher points out that for many white Americans the Covid 19 pandemic may be the first time that they are feeling life threatening danger in an ongoing way, where any foray into the world could bring an experience of fatal harm. Over time this kind of ongoing danger can cause a person’s nervous system to develop patterns of traumatic stress–which may facilitate immediate survival but which can be harmful for their longterm health.
For many people of color in the US the very real threat of fatal harm has been present throughout their lives, and their parents’ and ancestors’ lives as well. Death can come, to themselves or to the people they love, through direct physical violence from police, border patrols, or others. It can come from long-term food and housing insecurity, or inadequate healthcare. It can come through denied access to clean drinking water and other resources necessary for survival. Or from the ways that toxic waste is more likely to be shipped through or stored near their communities. Many of these conditions have worsened with the pandemic, and the stress that they cause makes people more vulnerable to Covid 19 as well.
Although conditioned bias can limit how well we may actually see and imagine each other’s lives, as human beings our brains have evolved to empathize with each other–through mirror neurons that process the experiences we witness in other people’s lives in ways very similar to how we process our own experiences. Because of these mirror neurons a person can develop secondary or 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, school shootings, the suffering of people at the center of the Covid 19 crisis, or videos of George Floyd and other black and brown people being killed by the police–you may have experienced some degree of vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is an adaptive response as well, evolved to make us feel strongly connected to the suffering of others so that we will take action to protect each other and our collective wellbeing. Like primary trauma, it can serve a purpose in the short run, keeping us vigilant and responsive. But over time our bodies pay a heavy price for any form of chronic traumatic stress.
To heal vicarious trauma we can explore those aspects of traumatic response that hinder us (chronic stress from hyper-arousal; dissociation and shut down from hypo-arousal); practice new habits to help us return our nervous systems to a more resilient state; and maybe most importantly, stay connected enough to other people’s experiences that we do in fact take action to support their well being.
What are some ways to develop resilience to trauma, and to heal from it?
At its core, trauma is about a loss of connection: among different areas of the nervous system, different regions of memory, different aspects of identity; connection with our own bodies, 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 body, nervous system and brain; among various parts of our identities; and connections with other people, animals, plants, and life in general. This kind of healing 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, you can still experience quite a lot of reconnection, integration, and healing at any point in life.
Throughout our lives 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.
Like a lot of people, I know something about 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 continue learning from other people where I can, and to share information about trauma and trauma healing as openly and accessibly as possible.
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, 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 with 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 relational and attentional practices that TCTSY uses to support 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 how you are moving it and being in it in the present moment. So much of trauma has to do with body memories from past experiences–so learning to notice and feel what’s going on in your body as you move it in the present can be a key aspect trauma healing.
—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 awareness: to heal the ways that trauma repeatedly takes you out of the present and back into the traumatic past. Studies have found that present-moment mindfulness has enormous benefits for physical and mental health more generally as well.
When combined as they are in TCTSY, these healing attentional practices can support a sense of both sovereignty and solidarity—connection and commitment to oneself, and connection and commitment to others as well. You can incorporate these kinds of 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 in what CRM calls the resilient zone (ventral vagal parasympathetic response); sensations of hyper-arousal in the high zone (sympathetic nervous system response) and sensations of hypo-arousal or shut-down in the low zone (dorsal vagal parasympathetic response). Maryssa Sullivan and other yoga scholars point out correspondence between these three zones of Autonomic Nervous System response, and the Gunas: Sattva (ventral vagal response), Rajas (sympathetic nervous system), and Tamas (dorsal vagal response).
—Resourcing: helping your body return to its resilient zone by bringing to mind memories, images, and other things which for you promote a sense of calm or well being..
—Grounding: bringing your attention to the places where your body is in contact with ground, or in contact 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 to quickly 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.
These are a few of the resources that I can offer related to trauma and healing through our bodies; more are listed below. Maybe some of the CRM practices will appeal to you, or maybe some of the practices from TCTSY; if you’re interested in learning more about complex trauma and body centered healing, you might also check out this set of slideshows exploring these topics, here:
Part 1 What is trauma? / Trauma in the nervous system
Part 2 Neuroplasticity, and trauma in the brain
Part 3 Trauma vulnerability and resilience / Kinds of trauma
Part 4 Body-centered approaches to healing complex trauma
Part 5 Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga, and other healing resources
On Wednesday evenings through the winter and spring of 2021 I’ll also continue to offer free online yoga sessions for stress relief, trauma resilience, and general mental well-being. They are based in the practices of TCTSY, and whether or not you have trauma, you’re welcome to join me if you’d like to give them a try. If you have the Zoom app you can access them through this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88280449664?pwd=QWJuUHBicmVoN2lzekcvbjRQWmlNUT09
Wishing you all the best in creating more connection, affection, well being and freedom, 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