Trauma and the Body

When any of us experience a traumatic event (sometimes leading to PTSD) – even once if it’s great enough – it isn’t something that is only emotional or mental. It’s also physical, because when we’re traumatized, we armor physically.

Resilience is something greatly discussed today, because we know now that some people who experience trauma do not armor as much as others.  The reason lies in how they were supported after the traumatic event; and this support, in turn, helped them reduce their physical, and then mental and emotional armoring.

Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist from the Netherlands, became interested in how to successfully help Viet Nam veterans. As a young practitioner, he was introduced to a vet who was having nightmares; he offered him drugs to help him sleep, and after a few weeks, the vet gave the drugs back to him, saying he preferred to have the nightmares as a living testament to those who suffered the trauma with him. He realized then that trauma sufferers hold that trauma in their hearts, minds and also their bodies.

From his ensuing work with vets, he came to appreciate that traumatized people don’t remember the story. Instead they re-experience the event, as if it was happening right now. The images, sounds, smells – all physical sensations – are as real now as they were at the time of the event.

Yet, for those vets who were able to move on, their stories changed over time, eventually being  integrated into their past. Those vets were able to move on.

From studies in neuropsychology, we know that the Amygdala is involved in registering and holding trauma, by either becoming hypersensitive or shutting down. This means the person experiencing a current event may be hypersensitive to it and react as if it were traumatizing and life-threatening, and at the same time, be insensitive to the consequences of their reactions to those around them.

Trauma, being held, cuts us off from our bodies.

Wilhelm Reich, in the 1950’s recognized this and developed his theory of Character Structures as a result. Others refined his work – Alexander Lowen, Stephen Johnson, Jack Painter, and many others more recently, base their work on this recognition. Much earlier, shamanic traditions recognized this phenomenon and learned to effectively deal with it.

These practitioners, including van der Kolk, prior to working with the traumatized person on integrating their story, help them reconnect with their bodies. Van der Kolk uses yoga; others use different kinds of massage and exercises, similar to yoga. The mind-body movement popular today is, in some part, an effort to reconnect mind and body, recognizing the essential need to be able to feel in a sensual/perceptual way, how an experience impacts a person.

If you’ve experienced trauma and it continues to impact you, then a way to begin to work with it is through some form of exercise that begins the process of de-armoring. This may be through yoga or some other physical activity that stretches and tenses different parts of your body. It may be working with a therapist who can support you as you learn to regain mastery over your physical actions and reactions. It’s my specialty, and that of many others.

Whatever you decide, know that it is possible to live free of trauma, and to regain that part of yourself that was once lost.

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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co 

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