To Heal Trauma, Work with the Body
It's not all just in your head.
Posted Aug 20, 2017
What do you know about trauma? You probably know that when bad things happen, some people get stuck there and some people don’t. You also probably know the symptoms like nightmares, feeling on edge, flashbacks, keeping others at a distance or not trusting, never being able to fully relax … we could write a book on the symptoms alone (and people have!).
I’m sure some of you have heard people say that those who get stuck are weak.
They are completely wrong.
What if I told you that we could do therapy for years, talk all day, and if we don’t address your body not much will happen for you?
Now that I have your attention, let me tell you why.
When something traumatic happens, the brain functions differently. Under normal circumstances, the brain encodes whatever it needs to encode, sends it down the pathway, it is processed, stored or disposed of, and life goes on, memories intact. This is a completely different process under stress.
Our bodies communicate consistently all day long with all kinds of electrical and chemical impulses. These impulses tell our brain and body what to do. “Process this, dump that, pay attention here, this doesn’t need your attention ...” Under normal circumstances, the only messages are the ones that need attention—you are fully present, encoding the information, and it’s not a big deal. Under stress, all of this goes haywire.
Anytime that we process information, we form explicit memories and implicit memories. Explicit memories are the factual information, general knowledge, and autobiographical information. Implicit memories are the emotional responses and body sensations—this part doesn’t have to do with fact, but feeling. These two types of memories travel in different pathways in the brain and have to be integrated later to form one unified memory.
In a traumatic situation, your “fight or flight” response gets triggered. Your body senses danger and sends out red alert signals in the form of hormones. Your bloodstream is swimming with chemical messengers that tell you to “get out now!” The primary goal under these circumstances isn’t encoding the memory, but getting you to safety. This is the reason that so many trauma victims have gaps in memory: the attention was focused on getting the body to safety. The symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress, and often anxiety itself, are the same signals that the body sends when you are in danger: your heart beats fast and your breathing races to get oxygen to the muscles to run, your body shuts down extra impulses like hunger and needing to use the restroom, your palms sweat, adrenaline fuels your energy so that you can get out- sound familiar? These are normal responses to stress in the short term. The problem is when you get stuck.
When you get stuck, your amygdala—the primary culprit in the fight or flight response—gets really really sensitive. If you’ve ever seen a deer in the wild, you’ve seen the amygdala at work. This part of your brain screams "get out" when It feels that you are in danger. Your brain stops processing and focuses all of its energy on getting you away from danger. The memory doesn’t get fully processed and is fragmented in the brain in chunks of implicit and explicit memories. This is why sometimes a smell, the way a person touches you, or even tone of voice can trigger a trauma victim.
Here’s the problem (and this is important): your body cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional danger. This is the reason that you have this fight or flight response to stimuli, whether it is emotional or physical. Your brain, the very primal part of your brain involved here, thinks that you are in physical danger, which is why you have the physical symptoms.
We need to address the physical in order to solve the problem. So the issue is twofold: we need to bring the body’s response down, calm down the hormonal messengers who are telling you that you are in danger and then we can work on the mental and emotional aspects. Otherwise, we are setting you up for failure.
So, the next time that you are struggling with healing from your trauma, remind yourself that your body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. It is protecting you. You just need a little work on recalibrating the alarm system.
A good psychologist can explain this to you, help you understand, and walk you through helping your body understand that you are no longer in danger. Working together, we can process the trauma so that it is a part of your story and not something that needs avoiding. We just need to work with your body a little.
In the meantime, consider starting the work yourself. The term we use for being present in our bodies is “mindfulness.” You can always google that term and find several coping mechanisms that may work for you. There are also several ways that you can start to bring your body down. Diaphragmatic breathing techniques are wonderful for this because they signal to your body that you’re not actually in danger. There are also several meditation apps on smartphones that help guide you through how to do this. Two favorites are "Calm” and “Stop, Breathe, Think.” It may take a moment to explore different techniques until you find one that works for you.
And if you’re not buying into this whole mind-body connection thing just yet, stay tuned. I’ll be addressing this soon in another blog!