STRESS is an unavoidable part of life. Our plans hit roadblocks, our circumstances change constantly, we have interpersonal conflicts, we lose loved ones and we get hurt. Stress can take a toll on our bodies and minds. But when stress reaches a high level and is experienced as trauma, it can wreak havoc, disrupting our relationships, our health, our sleep, our sense of self and our professional lives.
Leading researchers in the field of trauma research recognize that trauma and stress are stored in the body and not just in the brain. The body is always sending sensory and perceptual messages to the brain, and it’s important to pay attention to those cues.
WHEN STRESS MANIFESTS AS TRAUMA
Trauma is most commonly thought of as a response to acute stressors like war and natural disasters, or chronic stressors like emotional or physical abuse, or single episode traumas such as a car accident. These stressful events or prolonged stressful circumstances can overwhelm our capacity for healthy coping and test our resilience. Almost any experience can cause trauma to develop when a person’s unique ability to cope is exceeded. When our capacity for dealing with stress falters and we feel helpless in the presence of a stressor, we may move into a more extreme response called trauma.
WHAT TRAUMA FEELS LIKE, AND ITS LINGERING EFFECTS
Trauma can be experienced emotionally, cognitively, and physically.
Following a traumatic episode, a racing pulse, nausea, chronic pain, and muscle tightness can persist or reappear suddenly at inappropriate times long after the environmental trigger for a “flight-or-fight” response is gone. Research shows that trauma affects our whole body—disrupting our immune, endocrine, and muscle systems, and setting the stage for conditions such as autoimmune diseases.
When we have unresolved traumas, emotions can swing rapidly and become intense and overwhelming. Feeling afraid, angry, or out of control when traumatized, we may withdraw, cutting off those closest to us. When we are emotionally distressed our cognition is impaired and this may negatively affect memory or attention.
Our thinking may be affected by a persistent “brain fog” or problems with focus and attention, and we may develop cognitive challenges. We might become easily distracted, struggle to concentrate on tasks that once interested us, and have difficulty remembering things. We might even forget the events surrounding the trauma, as these memories become inaccessible to our consciousness. Alternatively, when the trauma stays with us, severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms can arise including aggressive emotional outbursts, sleep disruption, and self-destructive behaviors.
The emotional and cognitive effects of trauma are well known and widely discussed in the media in connection with veterans returning from combat. However, we often neglect to acknowledge and properly address the toll of less severe traumas on our bodies and minds. For example, children who are repeatedly humiliated or criticized, or who are raised with stress and a feeling of helplessness, can experience trauma. Whether mild or pervasive, unresolved trauma is stored in the body and in the brain.
Although the traumatic event may be long over, someone who is traumatized may continue to experience memories of it, along with a physiological stress response. Our brains and bodies get amped up, ready to respond to the trauma-inducing stressor, and the body cannot return to equilibrium. Without help, the body cannot complete the response needed to escape from, fight against, or otherwise resolve the trauma. Traumatic memories might “loop” as cognitive patterns and affect the neurologic circuitry of the brain.
HEALING FROM TRAUMA
Many of us are familiar with therapies in which patients explore childhood experiences and talk extensively with a therapist, seeking the situational roots of their traumas and any emotional or cognitive symptoms they may be experiencing.
Leading trauma experts suggest that another way of dealing with unresolved traumas may be to focus on the physiological experience– delving deep into what they describe as the “traumatic energy” stored in our bodies. Contemporary trauma experts Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and Dr. Peter Levine have developed highly effective therapeutic approaches to trauma resolution that address the physiological roots of our stress response.
Drs. Van der Kolk and Levine, who have dedicated their careers to exploring how trauma manifests, suggest that talk therapy and pharmacologic interventions alone do not go deep enough to get to trauma’s root cause. When patients talk about their unresolved traumatic memories, the emotional part of the brain becomes triggered, the patient becomes hyper-aroused and may physiologically feel flooded with emotions again, and the cycle continues.
THE BODY’S NATURAL TRAUMA RESPONSE
To understand how the key to trauma recovery may lie in “letting our bodies speak,” we first need to understand our physiological response to stress. How do wild animals deal with threats? Animals facing serious, life-threatening danger have three instinctive defense systems for dealing with the threat:
- They can develop sudden tonic immobility where muscles go limp and they are frozen and unable to move.
- They can go into “fight or flight” mode. The sympathetic nervous system pumps out many neurochemicals or hormones readying the animal to attack or flee.
- They can seek social engagement to defuse tension and reduce the threat. Animals are wired to seek safety in numbers and find comfort with others. This support-seeking behavior only occurs in mammals.
Humans share these similar survival instincts. When confronted with overwhelming or life-endangering stress, we respond like threatened animals—and we cannot talk or reason ourselves out of these instinctual, physiological, and largely unconscious responses.
BODY-FOCUSED TRAUMA RECOVERY
Dr. Peter Levine developed Somatic Experiencing (SE) to help patients tap into the body’s natural release and reset mechanisms. Somatic or body-focused approaches to trauma recovery acknowledge the mind-body connection. These approaches are designed to help us recruit the body to work with the brain to release and then integrate mental and sensory memories from the past. Somatic therapies help trauma sufferers pay attention to and observe physical sensations as a means of accessing and releasing stored energy from unresolved trauma.
The Somatic Experiencing method is based on the natural mechanisms wild animals use to restore their physiological equilibrium after stressful events. Animals have been observed to shake their bodies involuntarily to release stress chemicals and excess energy. Humans sometimes find themselves shaking uncontrollably after stress, but in modern society, we’ve been conditioned to suppress this natural stress response. We may also be distracted from allowing ourselves to “shake off” trauma when we’re forced to deal with the immediate aftermath of traumatic experiences. Somatic-based therapy practitioners use techniques that allow clients to slowly and safely release the stuck energies that are held in their bodies and are negatively affecting their lives.
Dr. Levine uses the imagery of a slinky to help clients visualize the effects of Somatic Experiencing. Trauma causes the slinky to clamp down, storing tremendous unreleased energy. Through body-aware psychotherapies, clients can allow the energy to release little by little in a controlled environment: crying, shaking, or other modes of gradual and gentle release. Without addressing these locked-down energies, trauma can be continually re-experienced through physical sensations and emotions that arise even without conscious awareness or direct memories of the trauma.
Acknowledging that trauma is actually “stored” in the body empowers individuals to access professional treatment in the same way they would for any physical symptom or injury that needs time and attention to heal. Remember that when we take care of past traumas, we’re also taking care of our brain health.
WANT MORE INFORMATION?
There are professionals who specialize in the techniques described in this article. In addition, a gentle restorative yoga class also provides the opportunity to connect to the body and listen to what it has to say.
Bullard D. “Bessel van der Kolk on Trauma, Development, and Healing” psychotherapy.net: 2014
Levine, Peter. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2010
Psychotherapy.net. “Peter Levine on Somatic Experiencing” psychotherapy.net: 2010
Payne P and others. “Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy” Frontiers in Psychology 2015: volume 6
Rusk, Ilene. https://www.ilenenaomirusk.com/post/healing-from-trauma-by-focusing-on-the-body
Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Group, New York, 2014
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk is a neuropsychologist and a co-founder of the Brain and Behavior Clinic in Boulder, CO. She has trained in a functional medicine approach to address root causes of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s Disease with Dr. Dale Bredesen. Dr. Rusk’s work focuses on blending personalized integrative healthcare and psychological wellness within a scientist-practitioner model.