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How Do We Heal From Trauma?

The Three Boards Model of trauma healing offers a roadmap to carry us through.

Key points

  • Trauma is not a singular event that can be overcome in one sitting; rather, it affects survivors’ lives in almost every way.
  • Trauma impacts the body and brain so strongly that it can actually change how we perceive, experience, and react to the world around us.
  • Because of this, healing from trauma is a complex and personal journey.

This post was written by Annie Rooks and Albert Wong.

What is trauma?

Trauma, in the body, can be understood as the chronic and persistent dysregulation of the nervous system due to overwhelming events or life circumstances. This reaction in the body occurs when an event happens in a way that the brain considers either "too much and too fast" (too much of something bad) or "too little and too late" (not enough of something good).

These events cause the body and brain to go into either a state of hyperarousal, meaning they get stuck in overdrive (fight/flight), or a state of hypoarousal, meaning they get stuck in nervous system shutdown (freeze).

Both hyperarousal and hypoarousal can cause wide and far-ranging mental and physiological side effects. Physical changes in the body due to trauma are known as somatic symptoms and are the basis of the Three Boards Model (Price, 1996).

 Illustration by Quincee Lark, used with permission
Figure 1: The green area represents the "Window of Tolerance," and the red zone represents nervous system overwhelm/hyperarousal.
Source: Illustration by Quincee Lark, used with permission

The framework

To understand the Three Boards Model, it is important to first understand the window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999). The window of tolerance is a frame of reference for what is considered normal in the body and what is considered traumatic. Its purpose is to graph the average arousal-cycle, which will typically look like a bell-curve, with the peak of the curve being the highest point of anxiety and/or stress a person is feeling.

Trauma occurs when the peak of the arousal cycle is above the person’s threshold, meaning that they are no longer within the window of tolerance. When this happens, different aspects of a person’s reality begin to fragment off and disconnect from one another (discussed further in "Why You Can't Think Your Way Out of Trauma").

So how do we fix this? With a model that can be adjusted to suit each individual’s needs and allow them to work at their own pace. This is where the Three Boards Model comes in.

The Three Boards Model

The Three Boards model emerges out of the oral tradition from the Esalen Institute (Price, 1996) and outlines three different approaches to somatic healing, all using some sort of “board” in their practices. Each approach also correlates with a different stage of the trauma healing process and aims to help people better understand their trauma and regain control over their lives.

This framework to understanding trauma and the recovery process is effective because it helps restore a person’s agency, which can be incredibly empowering, and because it also gives them a roadmap on the way to healing. Here is a basic summary of each of the “boards”:

  • “The Surfboard” looks at the graph in the window of tolerance as a wave. This means the person and their surfboard both rise and fall with the wave. However, sometimes the wave is too big, and the person gets thrown off of their surfboard and ends up stuck outside the window of tolerance. This stage is focused on resourcing (finding resources to help get back inside the window of tolerance).
  • “The Keyboard” compares different components of lived experience to different notes on a keyboard. In this framework, there are multiple constituents of experience (sensation, images, behavior, affect and meaning), but they are not always readily available to us (Levine, 2010). The “Keyboard” stage of the work invites us to ask the following questions: How accessible are these different channels of experience? Can they all be “played”? Are some stuck? This stage of the work is focused on examining the constituents of experience and determining what we have access to—and what we don’t.
  • “The Boardroom” reflects the importance of listening to every inner voice and welcoming all thoughts, images, sensations, and feelings. This stage of therapeutic work is focused on letting each part of our experience be heard, seen, valued, and felt, which—with luck—allows us to complete the arousal cycle (come down from the peak of the stress to a place of calm).

In the blog posts to come, we will be exploring each of these “boards” in more depth. Stay tuned.

Annie Rooks is a sophomore psychology major at Chapman University. Currently, she works as an intern at Somatopia, an online educational platform dedicated to creating an embodied world. She plans to attend graduate school and become a child psychologist. Rooks is passionate about making information and resources accessible. She hopes to write children’s books that teach coping methods for mental disorders.

Quincee Lark is a senior psychology major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Aside from pursuing her degree and freelance painting and illustration, Quincee works as an intern at Somatopia under the supervision of Dr. Albert Wong.


Price, C. (1996). Gestalt Awareness Practice. Workshop conducted for Extended Students at the Esalen Institute.

Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

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