What is Trauma?
Trauma isn't defined by a certain event, but rather how we respond to the event itself. The same event could happen to two different people, and one may experience trauma as a result, and the other may not. Trauma isn't an event itself, but rather the dysregulated state that occurs as a result of the event.
What happens to the body in trauma?
This is a very complex issue, but let's start with some basics. If we are in a dangerous situation (say being hunted by a lion), a branch of our autonomic nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system) becomes very active to increase our chance of survival. More stress hormones are released, our hearts beat faster, we sweat. We're ready to out-run or fight the animal to survive - this is known as "fight or flight". Another mode of survival is the "freeze" response. Think of the rabbit freezing so it's predator doesn't see it, or a young child who is being abused and is vulnerable. The body protects itself by "detaching" or "dissociating" in order to survive the horror of the event. The body remains present, but the mind is not.
Unfortunately, if a trauma isn't fully processed, it can get "stuck", having a lasting effect on the nervous system - and the nervous system has direct access to our muscles, tissues, and other parts of our bodily system. We are fully integrated organisms after all.
What are some signs of unprocessed trauma?
Trauma is correlated with chronic pain and migraines among other medical issues, and because it affects the immune system, also puts us at higher risk for auto-immune disease.
Trauma can make the body a difficult place to dwell within, which often leads to "numbing out", sometimes through harmful coping mechanisms (substance abuse, over-eating, self harm, etc.)
Feeling like you are on "high alert". Feeling chronically unsafe. Difficulty feeling calm. Difficulty in connecting with others, especially in the setting of intimacy.
How can I start healing from trauma?
If you suspect you may be suffering from trauma, I would encourage you to start by talking to a therapist who is trained in trauma. One of the best therapy modalities for trauma is Internal Family Systems (or IFS). See link below for more information on this modality, as well as to find an IFS therapist in your area.
A study done by Bessel van der Kolk (expert on trauma and PTSD), showed that Yoga had better results in PTSD than any drug study done to date. Why is this? Yoga helps us to experience ownership of our bodies. It teaches us that we have control. It also teaches us self-regulation. If we have been numbing out and not allowing sensation to be experienced in the body, yoga provides a guided and gentle approach to begin experiencing these sensations in a controlled and safe environment.
Yoga Nidra has also been shown to be very effective in healing trauma. Yoga Nidra is similar to a guided meditation.
When we experience trauma before our language centers have developed, we may not be able to use words to describe what happened to us. Movement can sometimes help us access and express what we can not express through words alone. It is also another modality that helps us feel connected to our bodies, which is something that trauma steals from us. For some, it is also a powerful tool for self expression.
Not only does breath help us connect to our bodies, but certain types of breath can actually regulate our nervous systems. That's right. By manipulating the breath, we can actually activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is the counter point of our sympathetic nervous system. The PNS allows us to feel calm. It slows the heart rate, shunts blood flow to the digestive and reproductive organs, among other functions. Breath work can also help us to feel we have control over our bodies. In Kumbhaka, or breath hold, we slowly learn to tolerate uncomfortable sensations in our body. By learning how to tolerate these sensations in a safe and guided environment, we start to feel more confident tolerating the sensations in our body that we have been numbing out and held fear of experiencing.
In trauma, we can develop energy blockages. In Reiki, we can help release these blockages and help bring balance to the system. One study published in "Military Medicine Journal" found a statistically significant reduction in PTSD symptoms for those receiving Reiki treatments.
Many of these modalities foster connection and physical closeness with the provider which can be healing in itself - especially if trauma has made it difficult for you to feel safe with other people.
Other tools that have been used with success in trauma include: Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE).
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk MD
How to do the Work by Nicole LePera
What Happened to You? by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey
It Didn't Start with You by Mark Wolynn