Trauma and the body: how it can show up in funny ways and how we can help shift it
Trauma is such a vast and complex thing, and it shows up in different ways for different people. Thea Baker, a body-based trauma counsellor, looks into the impact that trauma can have on our minds as well as our bodies.
[Trigger Warning: contains content around trauma]
Trauma is really fascinating. As a body-based trauma counsellor I feel like I can say that!
It is such a vast and complex thing. And it shows up in different ways for different people. Ultimately, what I perceive as traumatic will be unique to me, and how I interpret trauma, process trauma and how trauma affects me and my life, will be entirely different to how it might show up in yours.
And that’s where working with trauma gets funky.
Experiencing trauma can have significant impacts on our mind (thoughts, behaviours, emotions) and it can affect our bodies too. When we experience trauma (even just the threat of a perceived trauma) our stress response system is activated in our brain AND in our body.
Without going into a big neuroscience essay, our stress response system is alerting our body to danger and it gets us physiologically ready to respond – flight, flight or freeze. When our fight / flight system is activated our heart rate increases, our blood pressure increases and our breath becomes more shallow and rapid. In that moment of threat or danger – in the midst of the trauma our body is responding precisely as it is designed to. It is screaming, “get out now!”
Things can get messy though if our trauma isn’t fully processed – if we haven’t found ways to explore what happened and make our world safe again. Once the immediate threat has passed and we carry on living our lives, if we find ourselves responding to events, people or environments with the same bodily responses as we did when we experienced the trauma – racing heart, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, feeling hot and sweaty or shaking – it’s an indication that the trauma processing part of our brain has effectively become stuck on high alert.
If we experience ongoing trauma or there are compounded events throughout our lives our central nervous system responds by dropping us into a freeze response. It’s where we fully disconnect (dissociate) from our experience and we often don’t remember the full extent of the events or miss many of the details. It’s like the fail-safe back-up system.
Oftentimes though, we then see almost a physical imprint of the trauma in the very fascia of our bodies. It’s as if our muscles and tissues encode the trauma. Our brain doesn’t hold the memory but our body does.
For many people who have complex trauma stories one of the most important things we can do is to help them feel safe again in their own bodies. To help them move without restriction or pain. This can affect their capacity to breathe into their abdomen (belly or diaphragmatic breath), postural issues, chronic pain and even autoimmune diseases.
Some of the creative ways of working with trauma in this way is through and with the body. Meditation, mindfulness practices, yoga and even dance have all been shown to reduce PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms. Finding alternative ways of processing trauma, and directly addressing the body-based presentation of the trauma can be some of the most healing paths for many women. Through movement we can learn to trust our bodies again, we can find a very felt sense of power and control over our lives – the very things that traumatic events take away from us.
If you know you need to talk to someone about your own trauma experience I’d love to help. For the month of June 2020, I am offering a 1:1 60-minute online ‘Trauma Debrief’ session for $100. If you would like to explore how I can work with you to heal from your trauma, please click here to email me quoting BODYBB in your email.
Thea is a Women’s Health Counsellor and Somatic Psychotherapist and has a special interest in working with trauma in its various forms, the adjustment to life after traumatic events and how this impacts our relationships with others. She works holistically, finding creative ways to combine physical and mental health.