Trauma Treatment: Healing Through the Body

When we think of trauma, we often imagine events including physical or sexual abuse, childhood abandonment, violence, war, injuries and illnesses, natural disasters and loss of loved ones. However, Levine (2008) talks about trauma as a “loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us” (p. 9). Levine explains, “We become traumatized when our ability to respond to a perceived threat is in some way overwhelmed either in an obvious or subtle way” (p. 9). Thus trauma is more of a continuum from life’s catastrophic events to small traumas that we experience in our everyday life including minor car accidents, medical procedures, falls, sudden startles, and being left alone as a child.

In response to traumatic events we carry out fixed action patterns: fight, resisting and overcoming the threat; flight, avoiding and running away from the threat; freeze, physiologically holding the memory of trauma based on the evolution of survival behaviors. The memory of trauma then resurfaces in our life in a variety of symptoms: hyper vigilance, mood swings, sleep disturbance, flashbacks, social withdrawal, addictive behavior, shame, depression, numbing, that become chronic over time (Levine, 2008).

Since trauma is stored in the body, healing occurs when we access and shift the body’s memory that is fused, distorted, or dissociated. Somatic Transformation (ST) utilizes strategies to link or differentiate intense experience of complex trauma (Mortimore & Kingsbury, 2010) through helping regulate intense emotions and integrating the traumatic disconnected implicit memories in these four clinical processes:

  1. Therapist uses his/her own attuned, regulated body to connect and help co-regulate the client creating an empathic bond.
  2. Therapist tracks the shifts in the body occurring in the present moment representing fixed action patterns.
  3. Therapist uses intervention including inquiry of body sensations, working with gestures, tics and thwarted movements, imagery, metaphors, symbolism, oscillating between the fixed action patterns and resourced states. This process allows for regulation and integration of complex trauma.
  4. Therapist assists the client in reflecting on new meaning emerging from the experience that creates a new healthy narrative.

In separating the implicit memory of the trauma from the present moment experience and reintegrating it in the body the therapist assists the client’s healing process (Stanley, 2011).

References

Levine, P. A. (2008). Healing Trauma. Bolder: Sounds True.

Mortimore, L. & Kingsbury, M. (2010). Somatic transformation: Linking neuroscience, the body and the therapeutic relationship. Insight into Clinical Counselling, 4, 6-7.

Stanley, S. A. (2011). Somatic transformation: Healing trauma in and through relationship. Two year program: Victoria, Canada (Unpublished curriculum).

Working with Emotions: Embodied Presence

When our natural and authentic aspects are not recognized as children, these aspects become disconnected (Van der Hart, 2006). We begin to develop an apparently normal part that understands reality and reason for emotions but does not feel them directly. These emotions are generally projected into the world. The disconnected aspects or emotional parts hold the intense emotions of the past and are not open to current perception of the world. They are focused on defending from feeling the ‘endless’ emotional anguish.

The apparently normal part is always worried about the emotional parts that contain the energy of anger and rage. As we develop a relationship with the emotional parts and the apparently normal part we begin to embody multiple parts into one embodied presence. This process shows us how we open these emotional parts and bring them into integration in the body (Stanley, 2012).

When our mind is elsewhere—thinking about the past or the future—while our body moves along in the present, our motions are jerky and disconnected. Mindfulness practice opens the doorway to experience both body and mind in the same time, or the same moment. This meeting can only occur when both are present right this very moment. This integrated state of being—embodied presence—is both stable and stead as well as open and vulnerable. We are fully present physically, emotionally and mentally all together at once (Ferguson, 2010).

Working with emotions is the key to integration. This process allow us to develop an unconditional sense of wellbeing, a deep sense of joy in being alive as mind, body and emotions come together into one embodied presence.

References

Ferguson, G. (2010). Natural Wakefulness. Boston: Shambhala

Stanley, S. (2012). Complex Trauma and Dissociated Self-State. [PowerPoint slides]. Lecture series presented at Sleeping Dog Farm, Victoria, BC

Van der Hart O., Nijenhuis, E., & Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: Norton.

Coming Home

Mindfulness brings the mind and body together in the present moment. The body is always present; however, we are not always aware of every sensation, feeling, emotion and movement.

Sometimes our body goes ‘off-line’ in response to threats and challenges and remains in that state for a long time, never recovering.  We begin to experience our body through layers of thoughts and emotions instead of experiencing it directly.

By bringing our attention to the body through mindfulness we begin to ground it and anchor it the here-now. This process helps us reconnect to how experiencing our body moment to moment, in an open, non-judgmental way.
Eckhart Tolle says:

When the body and mind are in sync, we are naturally relaxed, alert, open, and aware, and we experience ourselves and the world in a direct, unmediated way, without conceptual filters. It is this direct experience of the fullness, vitality, and splendor of life that is the gift of meditation.

Mindfulness practice is the key that unlocks the door for us to find our way back home.

Bringing Acceptance into our Lives

When we feel overwhelmed or shut down we are usually caught in habitual patterns, behavior and stories that separate us from our lives. It’s as if we were in a bird in a cage.

The way out of our cage begins with accepting everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. […] It means feeling pain and sorrow without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it (Brach, 2003)

This process starts with becoming aware of the sensations in our bodies. By paying attention to unpleasant sensations we eventually come to realize how we hold on to stories and behavior that perpetuate our suffering.

When we meet these sensations and accept them for what they are, they begin to loosen. Instead of resisting or avoiding the unpleasant sensations we can open up to them, letting them be and allowing them to shift. This way we free ourselves from the stories and separation and experience what is like to be fully present and connected in the present moment.

Listening to the Body

As we bring our attention to the body we will find that stored tension begins to communicate with us. The body can become our teacher, speaking through sensations, feelings, images and somatic memories. By exploring the tension we begin to unravel layers of self-concept and invite release.

In working with the body we may discover a pattern of personal investment that maintains and reinforces the tension. By recognizing our responsibility for the tension, we can enter into it consciously and let go.

Reggie Rays describes the process of letting go as follows:

It is as if at first we are on the outside, looking at the holding. Next, as we look more closely, we can feel a boundary between us and the holding. Then we find that boundary dissolving, and as this occurs, our awareness begins to dissolve into the tension itself, so that, in a manner of speaking, we find ourselves inside it, discovering that it is actually we who are holding on. There is, at this point, a sudden, though often quite subtle somatic fear, almost a panic, that arises—there is a trembling, a shaky, unstable feeling. For a moment, we are both holding on and releasing. We oscillate back and forth. On one hand, we cannot seem to let go, but at the same time, we feel we have to let go—to open, relax, and surrender. We hover on this edge for some time, and then—as long as we don’t back off and run away—we find ourselves somehow moving through it and releasing.

Maria’s Blog

Our emotions, attitudes, feelings, and our experiences find expression in our body. They take shape in our posture and our movements. Pain can limit our sense of aliveness and restrict our range of motion and emotion. Joyful emotions open our heart to be fully alive. Let’s continue this discussion in this blog.

Water Reflection