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The Body and Trauma

While it is a source of pain, it also may be a resource for healing.

Trauma deeply challenges the confidence of most survivors in themselves and their ability to create a meaningful life. So reclaiming personal resources is an important and difficult challenge in moving on from trauma.

Everybody has resources

In my last post, I wrote that the mere fact that a trauma survivor is alive is evidence of resourcefulness. It is true, of course, that trauma causes pain and harm that can never be fully removed. But it is also true that trauma calls forth new resources and new life in survivors.

Everybody has resources, both before and after trauma. A key problem is that the pain of what was lost makes it hard to see anything other than the losses and the fear that it will happen again. A few survivors reconnect to their personal resources without great difficulty, but many feel stuck in the ashes of the past and need help to recognize the resources that still remain or are sprouting to new life.

Resources comes in different shapes and forms

We all carry pain from our own life circumstances. Intertwined with that pain, we also carry a remarkable variety of resources for coping. Although we are often unconscious of it, we draw on determination, creativity, courage, perseverance, and a lot more to stay alive after trauma.

Take this first step to connect to resources

A great way to start connecting to these resources is to make a list of them. Everyone can specify at least one item in the list below. If you cannot connect to any of them in your current life, list those that you remember from the past.

Part of the work of therapy is to connect to these. If you feel you have none, trauma therapy can help you recognize the large unconscious resources that have enabled you to survive since trauma.

  • Beliefs (I trust X, I can do it, etc.)
  • Interests (sports, travel, arts, etc.)
  • Hobbies (gardening, cooking, etc.)
  • Relationships (family, friends, pets, co-workers, community, etc.)
  • Spirituality (community, religion, God, anything that gives you deep meaning.)
  • Purpose (to help others, teach, learn, etc.)
  • Values (Authenticity, autonomy, peace, service, justice, etc.)
  • Abilities (determination, analytical, intelligence, etc.)
  • Talents (public speaking, music, arts, working with hands, etc.)
  • Strengths (flexibility, tolerance, courage, sense of humor, creativity, etc.)
  • Survival Mechanisms (tactics that help one to survive, even pain diversion)

Once you have made this list keep it in a place where you can rework it. Expand it, change it, revisit it until you feel ready for the next stage.

Dr. Odelya Gertel Kraybill Expressive Trauma Integration
Body Mapping
Source: Dr. Odelya Gertel Kraybill Expressive Trauma Integration

The Body Mapping Exercise

In the context of psychosocial support, Body-Mapping originated in 2002 in South Africa as an art therapy method for women living with HIV/AIDS (Devine, 2008; MacGregor, 2009; Weinand, 2006).

The body mapping exercise aims to assist participants to recognize and understand how their life story and HIV have affected their body: within and without. The body is like a museum of one’s life. It records the life story through injuries, scars, birthmarks, illnesses, operations etc. Through a creative and visual process, the Body Mapping exercise aims to let people see how their body is affected by their world. (ASRU Manual in MacGregor 2009, p.88).

While I like the idea of the body as a museum of pain, I think it is equally important, for trauma survivors, to record our life story through our resources as well. Trauma colors worldview. Our perspective on life is changed by the injury and pain we’ve experienced. Addressing these changes is hard to do alone.

So I’ve adapted body-mapping to include a major component of resource discovery. Used in this way it is a powerful tool for providing the safe companionship that most people need in order to reclaim their resources after trauma.

There are many varieties of body-mapping. The following are two examples. They provide an opportunity to reconnect to your body, to develop greater understanding of where you carry pain and where your best resources are located physically, and to do this in a way that is safe and therapeutic.

Beginners’ guidelines:

  • Do not not try this alone.
  • Ideally, work with a therapist in the first trials.
  • If you are dealing with a recent trauma, wait a few months until you feel more safe to incorporate such an activity that involves the body.
  • This is a powerful tool for connecting to different experiences that are stored in your body. You will feel safer to explore whatever you encounter if you have a trusted partner supporting you. This will also reduce the chances of retraumatization.
  • As with all methods new to you, in your first try, don’t use it to connect to sources of pain or vulnerabilities. For the first few times focus on resources.

Body Mapping activity variation one:

With the assistance of someone else, trace your body outline on a large sheet of paper in a position that feels comfortable for you. Enrich your body-map (inside and out) as follows. Choose a color for each of the categories below, and with that color, add things to the map that symbolize it.

  1. Your ability to connect to others (your relationships)
  2. Your sense of self (how you value yourself)
  3. Your strengths
  4. Your vulnerabilities
  5. Your spiritual sense
  6. Any other categories you want to add

You can use or add any available art materials.

Body Mapping activity variation two:

With the assistance of someone else, trace your body outline on a large sheet of paper in a position that feels comfortable for you. Color your body-map (inside and out). Use art materials to mark, trace, and color:

  1. Your vulnerabilities (for at least 30 minutes).
  2. Your strengths (for at least 30 minutes).

When you are done, revisit your list and see if anything has changed or expanded. Also consider what you learned that was surprising, different, etc.

If you are a therapist begin with one or both of the exercises above, and if it is clear the client is finding the experience helpful, expand on what has been uncovered.

Reset activity

If you feel at any moment that an exercise is too much for you, or you feel a sense of of contraction (tightness) dominates and you cannot let it go, try this “reset” exercise: Jump up and down (as fast as you can) 10 times. Then sit down, preferably leaning back on something. Take slow, long in-breaths, each about four seconds long, then held for one-2-3 seconds before releasing. Breathe out long and slow, for about six seconds. Repeat five times.


Devine, C. (2008). The Moon, The Stars and a Scar: Body Mapping Stories of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, Border Crossings (CATIE).

Gastaldo, D., Magalhães, L., Carrasco, C., and Davy, C. (2012). Body-Map Storytelling as Research: Methodological considerations for telling the stories of undocumented workers through body mapping. Retrieved from http://www.

MacGregor, H. N. (2009). Mapping the body: Tracing the personal and the political dimensions of HIV/AIDS in Khayelitsha, South Africa. Anthropology & Medicine, 16(1), 85-95.

Wienand, A. (2006) An evaluation of body mapping as a potential HIV/AIDS educational tool. Centre for Social Science Research, working paper 169, 1-32

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