Trauma recovery takes hard work, which survivors often wish could go faster. A new client recently asked me, “Should I be exercising? Doing yoga? Meditating? What can I be doing physically to help me heal or recover more quickly? What else can I do to get through all of this?” It was a great question, so today, I’m going to address it in case you’ve been wondering too.
Trauma impacts how we think, and how our body responds, and healing can’t be hurried. But understanding trauma’s nature can help the survivor open up to the idea of taking the time needed to resolve its deep impact on the mind and body.
How Trauma Gets Trapped in the Body
As a trauma therapist trained in many treatment modalities including Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP), I see trauma as leaving its imprint on the body—as protective impulses that can get trapped in the nervous system.
When a person’s sense of safety has felt threatened by danger, the body does not forget that feeling. The neural network can become hyper sensitive or hypo sensitive to danger, and remains poised for self-defense or protection. Mind and body activate full-blown fight, flight, or freeze responses at the signs of familiar feelings of danger.
This unfinished urge to fight, flight, or flee can get trapped in the body and mind, remaining in suspense. It seeks expression through bouncing feet, headaches, backaches, clenched jaws, flashbacks, bad dreams, anxious thoughts, and countless other outlets. Using trauma-informed therapy that includes mind-body practices right from the beginning supports the healing process. Healing results when the survivor feels empowered to release the protective urge safely, because the danger feeling that has continued to exist long after the trauma stopped can finally be resolved (to un-trap the trauma).
Trauma’s hold on the mind and body is well described, in the title of the book by Babette Rothschild, The Body Remembers. As Cheryl Eckl says in this article, “Trauma is the un-discharged energy that gets trapped in the body as a result of a shocking and/or life-threatening event in which the victim is unable to either fight back or flee the situation. In other words, our ability to respond is overwhelmed and something in us shuts down.”
A Three Stage Mind-Body Approach
In trauma recovery work, I recommend and incorporate a mind-body approach as it relates to the three stage trauma recovery model (which I’ve discussed specifically in relation to addiction here). For trauma survivors, this allows us to address how trauma manifests in the body, explore ideas to help release the trapped trauma from the body, and ultimately move forward into living a life of growth.
Stage 1: Stabilization/Grounding
Calm the Nervous System Using Yoga and Meditation
In order to stabilize emotional dysregulation, I often suggest clients explore restorative trauma-informed type yoga practices, meditation and guided imagery to support the first stage of trauma-informed treatment. Tools, such as working with the breath and noticing your movements, help calm the nervous system, which is essential.
In trauma survivors especially, the nervous system is prepared for danger and can operate from a constant state of hyperarousal and also hypoarousal. Every time the nervous system’s fire alarm — the amygdala — goes off, the more sensitive it becomes to feeling triggered—which can create a cycle of intense hyperarousal. Research shows that yoga, meditation and guided imagery help to calm the nervous system and bring an individual down from that state of hyperarousal and closer to the window of tolerance and emotional regulation. That’s where the healing can begin.
What About Traditional Exercise?
Hypoarousal can aid in healing from trauma by bringing more energy to the body and that is where more traditional, higher energy exercise, may be very useful to help with bringing the client back up into the window of emotional tolerance, therefore, having more energy.
Accordingly, I do find that people who use physical activity in a healthy way have more success in calming their nervous systems, boosting mood and releasing energy. But I stress healthy parameters and a balanced approach because we don’t want exercise to be used in excess or as an unhealthy means of regulating emotions and avoiding resolution. Since trauma survivors often use things—like food, alcohol, sex, or even exercise—to regulate their emotions, my recommendation of physical activity is very customized and based on each client’s specific situation. For example, even yoga can be used in an unhealthy way if we are not conscious of it. Yoga during the stabilization phase should be restorative and slower-paced.
Stage 2: Processing the Trauma
Incorporating Tools to Resolve the Trauma
Before trauma can be released from the body, it lives there, maybe frozen in a body memory from past trauma. It gets trapped. For some survivors, this can mean back pain, stomach pain, a lump in their throat or physical pain where the trauma happened.
Once someone is ready to move into the processing phase, we are able to incorporate more tools to help release the trauma, like Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (resolving trauma through acts of triumph) or Somatic Experiencing® (which facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses). As a trauma-informed therapist trained in SP, I use these approaches to help clients undo what’s stuck and bring resolution to their trauma.
These therapies can involve physical movements or actions, as well as noticing sensations in the body to release the trauma that has been trapped. It is completely unique to each client. As detailed in Trauma and the Body: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, by Jan Beauregard, “Clinicians are taught to process traumatic memory by targeting repetitive sensory or physical symptoms that recur and get ignited by every day stimuli.” (For more information, watch this video: Tracking the Body to Heal from Trauma.)
Stage 3: Integration
In this stage, self-preservation can co-exist with other experiences, such as self-awareness, self-compassion, healthy relationships and even love. The trauma survivor can focus on growing as a whole, integrated self, understanding the traumatic experience as part of life, but no longer having it take such a dominant role. Healthy exercise, meditation and movement continue to be a means of maintaining emotional regulation, sustaining energy levels and growing as a balanced, integrated individual.
How You Can Get Unstuck
Trauma can be resolved. If you have experienced trauma, you don’t have to live with it in your body or impacting your daily life forever. There is hope. By finding a trauma-informed therapist, and embracing the full scope mind/body healing, you will be guided along the path towards resolving and releasing the trauma and living a life where you no longer feel stuck.
Yoga and the Mind/Body Connection
Mindfulness and Meditation
- For those who are new to meditation, Tara Brach
- Video: Tracking the Body to Heal from Trauma, Pat Ogden
- Book: Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, Janina Fisher
- Article: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: One Method for Processing Traumatic Memory, Pat Ogden and Kekuni Minton
- Video: Nature’s Lessons in Healing Trauma: An Introduction to Somatic Experiencing®, Peter Levine