Trauma and the Body
By: Christa Sperry RMP, RYT-200
Trauma is becoming a word that more and more people are hearing dropped in everyday conversations, the news, and social media. There are many fascinating (and some misleading) books and articles being written about it more frequently than ever. And yet, for some of us, trauma may still seem like a distant concept. For others, it is a blaring reality being lived with daily.
Trauma is subjective and non-hierarchical. This means that what can be traumatic for one individual is not necessarily perceived as such by another, and that one cannot look at another’s lived traumatic experience and say that it was not impactful enough to be traumatizing. Another point to be made about trauma is that even though some call it a disorder it is more of an injury that is not solely psychological, it lives in the body as well. Let’s explore these ideas deeper and find out how various forms of bodywork have been proven to be of benefit in helping individuals cope with various traumas.
Trauma can occur over a wide array of circumstances: accidents, loss or separation from a loved one, childbirth, war, natural disasters, divorce, injury, medical procedures, addiction, and of course through any sort of psychological, physical, spiritual, or emotional distress inflicted upon us by another human being. With such a vast landscape of possibilities where trauma can occur it becomes easy to see how it’s felt experience is deeply personal and subjective. We all view life through our own lens of past experiences. Therefore, the car accident that one person can brush off is the same event that causes deep distress for another. Each person's viewpoint is valid.
Many scholars, authors, doctors, professors, and trauma victims have come to the same conclusion: trauma lives in the body, not just in the mind.
Dr. Peter A. Levine, PhD is an American clinical psychologist and author of several books on trauma including, “Waking the Tiger”, who writes:
“The bodies of traumatized people portray "snapshots" of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word- they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.”
In other words, trauma is not only a psychological response, it is a full body reaction including the central nervous system, hormones, and muscles. This is why body-based therapies such as massage and yoga have been proven to help those affected by trauma to begin to work through it. Professional and compassionate touch can provide relief from physical, emotional, and mental stress by decreasing the levels of depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Traumatized individuals often suffer from hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance. When someone is constantly living in this state, their muscles may be constricted, and the body floods with cortisol, (the stress hormone). Massage therapy decreases cortisol levels while increasing serotonin and dopamine - the hormones associated with elevated mood (Field, Hernandez-Reif, Diego, Schanberg, & Kuhn, 2005). It also increases circulation, aids in some physical pain relief and the relaxation of tensed muscles.
When massage therapy by a compassionate, trauma informed practitioner is added as a tool alongside any other therapies one may be seeking, the result can be a whole body reclamation. Allowing the individual to find groundedness, and the letting go of living in a constant state of fight or flight.