Healing the Trauma That’s Trapped in Our Cells
“The body keeps the score.”
February 7, 2020
“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.” — Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist & trauma researcher
For decades, scientists and therapists assumed that post-traumatic stress responses were all in our minds. Flashbacks and triggers, nightmares and panic attacks in the aftermath of a trauma were just the ripple effects of the event itself, and took place entirely in our brains.
Now, a growing body of evidence supports the theory that the traumas we experience become encoded in our bodies.
Patterns of stress exhaust our systems
Dr. Andrea Roberts, a research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has studied the direct biological effects that the human body experiences when exposed to extreme stress. She explains that when a person experiences trauma, their body’s stress response activates, which means adrenaline floods the system, the heart races, and other physical symptoms that prime the body to react quickly are kicked into high gear. A person who has experienced ongoing trauma, especially in childhood, is apt to have stronger surges of adrenaline and experience them more frequently than someone who hasn’t dealt with high stress and trauma. Roberts likens this to constantly revving a car engine, or using it to race when it’s not built for such purposes; the system gets worn out, and fast. Frequent adrenaline floods, panicked responses, and triggered fears create physical wear and tear on the body.
Unfortunately, that wear and tear leads to more problems. Roberts and her team have found that “… chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body, and inflammation has been associated with a broad range of illness, including cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases.”
And as if that weren’t enough bad news, stress and trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk reports that this cycle of reactions leads to a constant state of unhealthy hypervigilance. He explains that the parts of our brains that wired to monitor for danger remain overactivated all the time, which means that any threat, real or imagined, can catalyze an acute stress response in the body and mind. In many cases, these responses aren’t just adrenaline floods but also the vivid revival of overwhelming physical sensations and upsetting emotions. These understandable but extreme reactions make it difficult for trauma survivors to feel close to other people, since trauma is inevitably enacted by someone else. Trust has been so badly broken that closeness often triggers the sense of danger. According to van der Kolk, closeness with other people is absolutely crucial to healing from trauma. If we aren’t able to feel safe with other people, it will be almost impossible to release the fear and move on.
Hope for trauma survivors in movement and body work
Now for the good news: since trauma gets lodged in our bodies, doing body work can help us cope. Although Harvard researchers recommend yoga, tai chi, meditation, and regular exercise as ways to practice vital self-care, there are more active methods for releasing trauma.
The Feldenkrais Method® is a form of learning about physical and mental patterns that uses gentle movement and directed attention to help people become more self-aware and emotionally grounded. Sessions with a trained practitioner often challenge people to utilize their kinesthetic sense; the sense of bodily position, weight, movement and other physical sensations. It’s a bit like a question-and-answer session between brain and body. Is this comfortable? Can I do this? How does this position or movement make me feel?
Trauma survivors often choose to abandon their natural kinesthetic sense. Especially if someone has been physically abused, they may dissociate from their body to protect themselves. Feldenkrais work can be difficult at first, since this type of activity, gentle and mindful as it is, reconnects the mind and physical self which may trigger a flood of painful memories or flashbacks. Nevertheless, Feldenkrais can help survivors get out of their heads and back into their bodies, so they feel more prepared to interact with the world. Peg Shippert, a licensed professional counsellor who has studied with Dr. van der Kolk, has found this method helpful to her clients.
“I think learning to pay detailed attention to our sensations in a safe way … is an important component of healing from trauma,” Shippert explains. “When we can’t do that, we can’t tune in to our emotional reactions to things. We end up missing a lot of clues about what is going on in a lot of areas of our life. It’s hard to make a lot of headway in feeling more psychologically and emotionally whole and healthy if we can’t pick up those clues by noticing sensations and responses.”
Another related practice is craniosacral therapy (CST), a gentle hands-on technique that helps release tensions deep within the body to relieve pain, dysfunction, and stored emotion from our cells. It involves working with a physiological body system called the craniosacral system, which is comprised of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. A trained practitioner gently manipulates the skull and sacrum using just their hands, and detects changes in the movement of energy and fluid throughout the craniosacral system.
Naturopathic researcher and clinician Dr. Lisa M. Chavez, who conducted a CST study of 38 Tibetan ex-political prisoners in exile, has found that the treatment is effective in relieving both physical and emotional pain.
“I think this therapy works so well for body mind conditions because it induces the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, or as it is commonly called the ‘rest and digest’ state,” Chavez explains. “This allows the entire body to enter a state of restoration, unlike psychoactive drugs that just dampen the sympathetic response.”
This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.