TRAUMA AND THE BODY

Let me first start by saying Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a brilliant, brilliant man. He’s an author who has dedicated tons of his research towards PTSD. You may have heard of his book, The Body Keeps The Score. After reading this book a while back and listening to many interviews with him, I was not surprised when I found out his approach to treating trauma is done through bodywork, such as yoga. In fact, yoga addressed many trauma wounds that talk therapy was not able to reach or heal.

 Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talked about the two most common therapies that are used in a New York Times Magazine post: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. He stated that the purpose of this therapy is to “desensitize” the patient to the fear, which isn’t effective therapy for trauma because desensitization is not the same thing as healing. The other therapy commonly used, CBT,  is where the patient will look at their thoughts and see the illusions with a rational perspective. However, again, he pointed out that this is another ineffective therapy for trauma because “Trauma has nothing to do with cognition, it has to do with your body being reset to not interpret the world as a dangerous place.” Trauma needs to be reset in the primitive parts of the brain, which talk therapy, or CBT, cannot reach.

Most therapy uses the “top-down” approach, which addresses the “evolved” part of the brain, otherwise known as the neocortex. This is where you’ll talk and learn to observe your emotions and thoughts. Now, of course, this is helpful, but trauma is stored in the body through sensory. You cannot rationalize with that part of you that goes into “fight or flight”. This is why therapies such as EDMR, brain spotting, somatic therapy, yoga, and hypnosis really help propel one’s recovery from sexual abuse.

This is also why addiction is hard to break when it is just approached by addressing emotions. We must understand that aside from emotions and genetic factors, the limbic system in the body is highly activated. You cannot rationalize with surfacing addiction urges, just like you cannot rationalize with PTSD triggers. This is why this “bottom-up” therapy approach can help with addiction, especially if trauma related. I talked in my podcast (Episode 2) this past week about how to deal with this part of the brain, which is the limbic system.

I thought that by avoiding certain people, places, sounds, or experiences would prevent me from being triggered. Yet, after trauma your entire nervous system is still on high alert, meaning your body is still acting as if you are still in the trauma. If you are someone, or know someone that experiences frequent flashbacks, nightmares, or can’t seem to be brought down to earth, then here are some suggestions that have helped me, and still to this day continue to. The “bottom-up” approach to healing trauma is essential. It really gave me a glimmer of hope when I felt like I was failing talk therapy that I had been going to for years.

Types of Therapies That Address The Body:

-Trauma Sensitive Yoga

-EDMR

-Somatic Therapy

-Brain Spotting

-Neurotherapy

-Hypnosis

-EFT (tapping)

-Accupressure

-Massage

-Acupuncture

Books, Videos, and Resources:

The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté

Episode 2: Breaking Away From Old Thought Patterns, Behaviors, and Addiction.

Gentle & Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Sequence for Grounding and Upper Body Release (Video)

Coming Back To The Body

“The next morning, I pulled off my clothes and slid into the lukewarm water. I sat there smoking a cigarette with the window open. A light swish of air came sweeping through the white tiled bathroom. For as long as I can remember, I hated taking baths. I felt like they made you sink to the bottom of yourself, all the way down to the basement of your body where all the clutter you refuse to look at resides from childhood. But, my habits soothed the discomfort. So even if I had sunken down past the floorboards of my surface self, I wouldn’t have been conscious enough to feel or recognize it. Last night’s dream kept replaying like a tape. The feelings began crawling into the corners of by body, as I felt it over again. Quickly jolting out of it, I noticed the ripples of water began to smooth. The bathtub water became a clear surface, reminding me of the calm after the nightmares. Climbing out of the pools of memories and into a white towel, I squeezed the excess water out of my hair. Through the foggy mirror, I saw my freckles magnified by my streaming tears. I splashed cool water on my face and opened the door. I knew what was coming.” 

-excerpt from “The Pavement” by Fiona McHugh 

After the sexual assault, there’s a sense of extreme discomfort when living in one’s skin. Sometimes it feels easier to leave your body abandoned. Addictions such as drinking, eating disorders, smoking, OCD rituals, all sorts of drugs, self-harm, sex (which may not make sense, but I’ll talk about this one in a future post) are often ways one escapes the present discomfort of living in the body. Some survivors have attempted to/have taken their lives because of the many overwhelming effects of the trauma that feel impossible to escape. I’ve personally been there, when the flashbacks happened constantly throughout the day and night- I lived in terror more than the present moment.

Abandoning the body is a form of self-protection, it is a natural human response to trauma. I don’t know about you, but I used to (and still do sometimes) feel like I’m floating above myself rather than living in my skin. At first, any type of action that was grounding terrified me. Breathwork, putting lotion on my body, baths, being held or hugged, seated meditation or savasana, all freaked me the fuck out. All of these actions brought me out of my head and awakened my physical senses. Almost every time, I’d go into fight or flight mode and find the nearest escape exit from the situation.

As someone who had an incredibly difficult time sitting still in one’s skin, I learned that going from being dissociated to grounded is an overwhelming feeling and oftentimes left me going into panic rather than a sense of calm. The trick is to ease yourself back into your body, and not to rush the process.

For example, instead of doing a cross-legged breathing mediation, try going on a long walk while doing breathwork or doing a vinyasa flow while repeating a mantra/affirmation. Or if putting lotion or coconut oil all over your body is too overwhelming, try your arms and then next time, another part of your body. If baths freak you out, try sitting in one for the length of a song.

This may sound ridiculous or absurd to someone that hasn’t gone through trauma. Like, taking baths??? Putting on lotion?? Even a freaking hug?? If someone has been dissociated and detached from feeling the sensations in their body, actions like this can trigger an overwhelming sense of fear because it draws oneself back to their body.

The first steps to take are to remind yourself that your body is safe to live in. I’m not saying you have to claim that you love your body right now or that you feel confident and 100% safe being in it. The trick is to do small things that bring you closer to feeling safe in your skin. And even in moments when you don’t, (because, hey, I still have moments like that) you know that you have the power and ability to decide to leave the situation.

So, some practices that can help you come back to your body are:

  1. Walking barefoot on the grass, soil, or along the beach.
  2. Focus on how your body feels while doing sun salutations.
  3. Hold onto a crystal or stone and focus on how it feels when holding it in your hands.
  4. Plant your feet on the floor, (or even stomp) to bring you back to your present surroundings. Or jump up and down while focusing on the balls of your feet.
  5. Clench your muscles in a certain part of your body, count down to three, and release. This is called the Muscle Relaxation Technique.
  6. Be intentional about the clothes you wear, or your hair and makeup if you are into that. (This act is a reminder to oneself on how to act gently towards the body and taking care of it.)
  7. Splash your face with cool water.
  8. Paint your nails
  9. Dance
  10. Sing or chant
  11. Try going to get a massage, fitness class, or acupuncture session.
  12. YOGA
  13. Write a list of the good things that would come if you stopped the abandoning/self-harm habits.

Like I said above, small steps. I know how overwhelming it feels to dive deep into a grounding practice. When you slowly start doing small things to bring yourself back to your body, you are teaching it that it can trust in you- and it can. This wasn’t your fault, and I want you to know you are safe and your body still loves you. It has done everything to keep you alive and is more than willing to trust you.

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