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Releasing to Heal

Somatic Approach to Healing Trauma


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Photo: Media from Wix

Trauma is often associated with extreme events like accidents, acts of violence, or natural disasters. But, trauma can also be brought on by seemingly routine life events depending on how intensely you experience them. The truth is, very few of us go through life without experiencing some kind of trauma.


What is trauma anyway?


Trauma is an emotional response to a deeply frightening or distressing event. It’s caused by an event that creates intense feelings of helplessness, fear, dissociation, or confusion that are left unresolved. These unresolved emotions can stay stuck in our bodies and can cause illnesses or unexplained physical ailments.


Our body stores the memory of negative associations connected with the traumatic event. The work to heal focuses on slowly accessing this locked energy, learning to tolerate the associated emotions and sensations without being controlled by them.

Understanding our trauma response


When in the face of danger our brain’s alarm system automatically engages the primitive parts of the brain that are pre-programmed to help ensure our survival. When these parts of the brain take over, our higher brain function (conscience brain) is temporarily shut down and our bodies instinctively respond to the threat by running, hiding, or in some cases, freezing. This process is so quick, it's not unusual to find that our bodies may already be on the move by the time we become fully aware of the situation.


During this process, our sympathetic nervous system goes to work and releases stress hormones into our body to give us the strength and endurance we need to respond to the extreme conditions brought on by the threat. This is where we respond with fight, flight, or freeze actions and discharge the survival energy that was built up to protect itself.


If through our response of fight, flight, or freeze we've successfully escaped the danger and discharged a majority of the built up survival energy, we can slowly recover and gradually regain our senses. This process of recovery is effectively activating our parasympathetic nervous system and returning our bodies to normal functioning.


Locked energy, a disrupted recovery process


If the process of recovery is blocked and we’re prevented from taking effective action to escape the threat, the body is triggered to defend itself and the energy built up to protect itself stays trapped in the body. Without a means to discharge the survival energy, the brain and effectively, the body, remains stuck in survival mode.


This undischarged energy stays locked in our nervous systems. Unable to turn off the brain’s emergency response, the brain stays in a state of vigilance and continues to send signals to the body to escape a threat even long after the threat has passed. Our life, whether we’re conscious of it or not, becomes focused on finding ways to cope with our trauma energy rather than release them.


Healing from trauma


To heal, it isn't always helpful to revisit the traumatic experience. We remember traumatic experiences not through logical sequences of events, but rather through fragmented recollections of images, sensations, and emotions. Getting an accurate account of the event or understanding what happened isn’t the focus of healing.


Instead, to heal we have to learn to get in touch with the process of our trauma response. Our body stores the memory of negative associations connected with the traumatic event. The work to heal focuses on slowly accessing this locked energy, learning to tolerate the associated emotions and sensations without being controlled by them.


Somatic approaches to healing


Somatic relates to the body. The mind and the body work in tandem. Where talk therapy can help you heal in the mind, somatic approaches help you heal in the body. Somatic approaches provide tools to help you process the emotions associated with your trauma without the need to revisit or even name the event that caused the traumatic response.


If the process of recovery is blocked and we’re prevented from taking effective action to escape the threat, the body is triggered to defend itself and the energy built up to protect itself stays trapped in the body. Without a means to discharge the survival energy, the brain and effectively, the body, remains stuck in survival mode.

Release the energy and regain flow


Through somatic approaches, you're healing from a place of presence and noticing. Yoga, physical movement, breathing techniques, and meditations are mindful practices to help us learn to notice.


These mindfulness practices can help to ground us and allow us to notice long help tensions that we’ve grown accustomed to that we were no longer aware of. When our emotions are bound up, we become physically restricted. This is illustrated every time you find yourself particularly stressed or panicked, your breath shallows and your muscles tense up without much conscious awareness.


Somatic exercises help you release the intense emotions caused by your traumatic responses by first becoming aware of them, feeling them fully, then releasing them with acceptance and compassion.


When engaging in somatic practices, enlisting the support of a trained professional specializing in somatic psychology and trauma resolution can be beneficial. Their expertise can help you navigate the process of healing trauma and regaining your body's natural flow of energy.


If you need support getting started, connect with a Lotus Theory therapist today.

 

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York, Penguin Books.


Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books.


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