Understanding Trauma

Trauma, or the body’s loss of its natural ability to cope, is something that is being experienced by people ever more increasingly these days. Traumatic responses manifest in our bodies when we experience a situation that overwhelms us in such a way that our normal habitual resilience and capacity to cope seem to suddenly desert us.

This sudden loss of coping can result from a myriad of circumstances. It might be a car accident, a burglary in your home or a physical attack on your person.  Equally it might be a fall that robs you of your confidence to leave your home as you had always done as a matter of course.  Other triggers leading to this feeling of overwhelm or the sudden loss of normal functioning might be less tangible and concrete in nature.

These might include a relationship loss, a bereavement, a medical diagnosis or some perceived threat to one’s identity, social standing or image. These traumatic experiences may become trapped deep within the body, in body sensations, feelings, emotions and movements.  This can all too often result in panic attacks, anxiety, loss of concentration and inability to sleep.  We can suddenly lose trust in our own instincts and the simplest task can become a major problem.

A trip to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping can suddenly seem frightening. An invitation to meet a friend for coffee seems to threaten your very existence.  When a person has experienced trauma almost nothing feels safe. This lack of safety becomes their predominant daily experience adversely affecting all aspects of their daily lives including work, relationship and leisure activities.  All joy seems to be syphoned off as our body’s nervous system is hijacked into survival mode leaving us feeling crippled emotionally, mentally, psychologically and sometimes physically.

These distressing symptoms need to be understood in order to be alleviated and possibly dissolved.  I would like to offer some explanation for how these symptoms arise in the body and how we can work with them to help get you back to your old happy self.

Understanding what is going on in your body

When these distressing symptoms arise, your body and your physiology are actually setting up a threat response mode. Our most basic instinct is to survive and anything that threatens our survival will evoke the body’s defence system into action.  The threat can be real (like a physical attack) or imagined (my partner is planning to leave me).  The alarm centre in the brain (the amygdala), especially in people who have experienced a trauma, is poorly equipped to discern a real threat from an imagined one.  A trip to the supermarket does not pose a threat to life and limb, yet our amygdala can experience it as threatening.

Working with the body to release trauma responses

It is important to recognize that the body is the seat of these difficulties.  It is in the body that the emotions, sensations and body movement and posture are experienced.  People may experience sensations like tightness in the chest, a knot in the stomach, palpitations of the heart or a sickening or nauseous feeling in the stomach.  When a person is feeling a loss of safety following a trauma no amount of talking is going to convince them otherwise.  Trauma is something that takes hold deep in the core of our brain and body.  Trauma is held in the body and trauma is released from the body.

Working with the body

It makes sense therefore to include working with the body in any approach that aims to help people find relief and resolution to these distressing symptoms. The beauty of working with a body centred approach is that it does not require you to endlessly recount distressing memories in order to release them.  Indeed there can be a danger in the recounting of distressing memories that the person becomes traumatised all over again.  The body remembers experiences (through memory actually stored in the cells) in a multidimensional way that includes seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and sensations as well as movement.

Our distressing experience is stored in the body as a detailed memory almost like a movie or film and with the distressing storyline or narrative being repeated over and over with the movie memory.  As we repeat this movie we reinforce it.

To date, the body’s innate intelligence is largely an untapped resource in psychotherapy.  However clinicians are increasingly beginning to realise that to omit the body as a target of therapeutic action is an unfortunate oversight that deprives people of a vital awareness of self-knowledge and change.  By working with the innate intelligence of the body, using mindful awareness of posture, sensations, thoughts, emotions, feelings and movement we can activate the body’s own innate healing mechanisms.  This allows a person to begin to reclaim the power of choice that was high jacked by the original trauma.  We lose our resilience when we feel we have run out of options.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which is a body oriented talk therapy, uses a person’s physical, mental and emotional states in order to gently manage and relieve the physical sensations associated with trauma.  It introduces people to straightforward somatic (bodily) interventions like helping clients to become aware of their bodies, to track their body sensations and to implement physical actions that promote empowerment and competency.

In using this method we are using the language the amygdala (alarm centre) understands and can obey.  We must create the conditions in the body where our irritated, activated amygdala can believe it is safe to be calm and relax our vigilance to threat.  We will all surely know it does not understand if we ourselves or another attempt to tell us to ‘get over it’ or ‘pull yourself together’.  This provides no relief and usually makes things worse as we feel misunderstood and isolated.    By honouring the body’s wisdom we reinstate our ability to trust in our own instincts and gut feelings and therefore restore our innate confidence and mastery.

Your happy self awaits.

Margaret Howe-Christie

B.A., H.Dip.Ed., M.Sc. (Psychotherapy)

Advanced Certified Practitioner In Sensorimotor Psychotherapy For The Treatment Of Trauma

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