Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Our plans hit roadblocks, our circumstances are constantly changing, interpersonal conflicts arise, we lose loved ones, and we get injured or sick. Stress can take an unpleasant toll on our bodies and minds. Stress affects us differently when it is acute than when it is prolonged. But, when stress reaches a high level and is experienced as trauma, it can wreak havoc, disrupting our relationships, health, sleep, professional lives, and our sense of self.
What’s the difference between normal stress and trauma?
Trauma is most commonly a response to acute stressors like war and natural disasters, chronic stressors like emotional or physical abuse, or single episode traumas such as a distressing car accident. These stressful events or prolonged stressful circumstances can overwhelm our capacity for healthy coping and really test our resilience. However, trauma is a highly individual experience. Almost any experience can cause trauma to develop when a person’s unique ability to cope is exceeded. Feeling helpless in the presence of a stressor can be the determinant of whether an event becomes a trauma. When our capacity for dealing with stress falters, trauma manifests.
What does trauma look like?
Trauma can manifest emotionally, cognitively, and physically. Although the traumatic event may be long over, someone who is traumatized may continue to experience a physiological stress response. Our brains and bodies get amped up, ready to respond to the trauma-inducing stressor. Even though the event is over, the body cannot return to equilibrium. Without help, the body cannot complete the response needed to escape from, fight against, or otherwise resolve the trauma.
When we have unresolved traumas, emotions can swing rapidly and become intense and overwhelming. These effects are often intensified when trauma develops in response to severe, acute events like war, natural disasters, or interpersonal violence. Feeling afraid, angry, or out of control, when traumatized we may withdraw, cutting off those closest to us.
Our thinking may be affected by a persistent ‘brain fog” or problems with focus and attention and we may develop cognitive challenges. We might become distractible, struggle to concentrate on tasks that once interested us, and may have difficulty remembering things. We might forget the events surrounding the trauma as these memories become inaccessible to our consciousness. Severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms can also include aggressive emotional outbursts, sleep disruption, and self-destructive behaviors.
In the wake of wars that leave scores of veterans suffering from PTSD, the emotional and cognitive effects of trauma are well known and widely discussed in the media. However, we often neglect to acknowledge and properly address the toll of less severe traumas on our bodies and minds. For example, children who are raised with a consistent lack of attunement from their parents, who are repeatedly humiliated or criticized or who are raised with stress and a feeling of helplessness can experience trauma. Whether very mild or pervasive, unresolved trauma is stored in the body and in the brain.
Following the trauma, our bodies may not cease their physiological stress response. Remember that this response was a failed attempt to get out of the threatening experience. A racing pulse, nausea, chronic pain, and muscle tightness can persist or reappear suddenly at inappropriate times long after the environmental trigger for a ‘flight-or-fight’ response is gone. Myriad studies show that trauma affects our whole body – disrupting our immune, endocrine, muscle systems, and setting the stage for diseases like autoimmune conditions to manifest.
How can we heal from trauma?
Perhaps you’ve heard of therapies in which you delve back into your childhood and talk extensively with a therapist, seeking the situational roots of your traumas and any emotional or cognitive symptoms you may be noticing.
Leading trauma experts suggest that another way of dealing with unresolved traumas may be to go right down to the biological root of things – delving deep into the traumatic energy stored in our bodies. Contemporary trauma experts, Dr. Bessel Van der kolk and Dr. Peter Levine have developed highly effective therapeutic approaches to trauma-resolution that go into the physiological roots of our stress response. Dr. Francine Shapiro and Dr. David Grand developed Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting, respectively. These are both eye movement and alternating stimulation techniques which help unlock and resolve stored trauma through sensory and perceptual awareness being linked with the eye movement or eye position. All of these methods are effective alternatives to drug treatment and talk therapies alone.
Drs. Van der kolk and Levine, who have dedicated their careers to exploring how trauma manifests, purport that talk therapy and pharmacologic interventions alone do not go deep enough to get to trauma’s root cause. In fact, Dr. Van der kolk’s work shows that specific brain areas known to mediate our ability to vocalize our thoughts are often shut down in patients reliving trauma. Talk therapy may be inadequate for clients who cannot describe their experience of trauma in words despite continually re-living the distress or experiencing unresolved feelings of helplessness. When patients talk about their unresolved traumatic memories, the emotional part of the brain becomes triggered, the client becomes hyper-aroused and may physiologically feel flooded with emotions again, and the cycle continues.
The body’s natural trauma response
To understand how the key to trauma recovery may lie in “letting our bodies speak,” we first need to understand our physiological response to stress. How do wild animals deal with threats? Animals facing serious, life-threatening danger have three instinctive defense systems for dealing with the threat:
They can develop sudden tonic immobility. Muscles go limp and they are frozen and unable to move.
They can go into fight or flight mode. The sympathetic nervous system pumps out many neurochemicals or hormones readying the animal to attack or flee.
They can seek social engagement to defuse tension and reduce the threat. This support-seeking behavior only occurs in mammals.
Humans share these brain-mediated survival instincts. When confronted with overwhelming or life-endangering stress, we respond like threatened animals – and we cannot talk or reason ourselves out of these instinctual, physiological, and largely unconscious responses.
Our base level of trauma is is held in sensory and perceptual memories, and some researchers and clinicians feel these must be dealt with before emotional healing can occur.
Body-focused trauma recovery
Dr. Peter Levine developed Somatic Experiencing (SE) to help humans tap into the body’s natural release and reset mechanisms. Somatic or body-focused therapies help trauma sufferers go back into their bodies and observe physical sensations as a means of accessing and releasing stored energy from unresolved trauma. Somatic approaches to trauma recovery acknowledge the mind-body connection and are designed to help us re-engage the neurological systems that responded to the trauma to let go of the mental and sensory memories and heal.
The Somatic Experiencing method is based on the natural mechanisms wild animals use to restore their physiological equilibrium after stressful events. Animals have been observed to shake their bodies involuntarily to release stress chemicals and excess energy. Humans sometimes find themselves shaking uncontrollably after stress, but in modern society, we’ve been conditioned to suppress this natural stress response. We may also be distracted from allowing ourselves to ‘shake off’ trauma when we’re forced to deal with the immediate aftermath of traumatic experiences. Somatic-based therapy practitioners use techniques that allow clients to order and to slowly and safely release the harmful, unaddressed energies that are held in their bodies and are negatively affecting their lives.
It is often difficult for talk-therapy alone to address these issues. Working through sensations is often more effective. Traumatized people have often involuntarily repressed emotions and memories too deeply to be able to work with them, and emotions that are dredged up before physiological healing has taken place can be retraumatizing.
If we’ve experienced trauma, we often need guidance in this somatic experiencing process as many memories may have been unconsciously repressed and have caused bodily sensations to be repressed or even numbed for years. Reorienting oneself to the sensations frees the body to finish acting on natural survival instincts as they would play out in a mammal living in their natural environment. Dr van der Kolk developed a yoga protocol with colleagues to enter the sensory experience of resolving trauma through a different modality.
Dr. Levine uses the imagery of a slinky to help clients visualize the effects of Somatic Experiencing. Trauma causes the slinky to to clamp down, storing tremendous unreleased energy. Through SE, clients can allow the energy to release little by little in a controlled environment crying, shaking, or other modes of titrated and gentle release. Without addressing these locked down energies, trauma can be continually re-experienced through physical sensations and emotions that will arise even without conscious awareness of direct memories of the trauma.
Remembering that trauma is stored in the body should remind us to give ourselves the time and access to professional treatment as we would seek to help us recover from any physical symptom which would need time and attention to heal. You can call a professional who specializes in any of the techniques mentioned in this article, or begin by just trying a restorative gentle yoga class without pushing yourself as a good opportunity to listen to what your body has to say. There are so many opportunities to tune in with compassion for ourselves and connect to the wisdom of our bodies even if trauma isn’t what we are needing to resolve. It is another great opportunity to get to know yourself.
Bullard D. ‘Bessel van der Kolk on Trauma, Development, and Healing’ psychotherapy.net: 2014
Levine, Peter. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2010
Psychotherapy.net. ‘Peter Levine on Somatic Experiencing’ psychotherapy.net: 2010
Payne P and others. ‘Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy’ Frontiers in Psychology 2015: volume 6 (viewed on 3 June 2016)
Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Group, New York, 2014