“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.” Susan Pease Banitt
Fact: All humans will experience a trauma of some sort somewhere in their lives.
Psychological stress and trauma on the body have genuine physical manifestations in the body, such as tension, heart palpitations, trembling, and pain—particularly trauma that hasn’t been fully processed or even acknowledged by the person who experienced it. It means our mind and body are intimately intertwined. Is it possible for unprocessed trauma to get “stored” not just in your subconscious mind and memory but also throughout your physical being?
A sex trafficking victim often tells us how she experiences a flashback of past rapes physically – that she is in so much physical pain for hours after a flashback. She says it physically feels as if she had been raped again.
Please note: There are events there are obviously traumatic, like rape and war, macro trauma. But other events can cause trauma, like a family member’s sickness, losing your job, or a relationship that breaks up. These microtraumas can have a cumulative effect and become a macro trauma that affects your life.
What happens in our body during and after trauma?
“The primary response we often have to trauma is fight or flight,” says Gordon. “The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, big muscles get tense and ready to run or fight, and digestion slows down. The other reaction we can have—often when the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, as might be the case with rape or an ongoing abusive relationship—is to freeze or go into a kind of detached state. Dissociative Identity Disorder is usually the outcome of chronic and severe childhood trauma, including physical and sexual abuse, extreme and recurrent terror, repeated medical trauma, and extreme neglect. Examples of dissociative symptoms include the experience of detachment or feeling as if one is outside one’s body and loss of memory or amnesia. Dissociative disorders are frequently associated with previous experiences of trauma.
During these responses, which are mediated by the autonomic nervous system, areas of the brain responsible for fear, anger, and emotion, particularly the amygdala, become much more active. In contrast, areas in the frontal cortex, responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision making, human connection, and compassion, become less active.”
Not everyone becomes stuck in trauma. In many cases, the person experiences that initial stress response and are shaken up. But after about a month, the anxiety and recollections of the event diminish significantly or go away.
After trauma, some people get stuck in this fight, flight, or freeze responses—even when they’re not consciously thinking about the traumatic event. They find themselves in a constant state of hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance.
Note: It is called Suppressed trauma when thoughts of the traumatic event are so upsetting and uncomfortable that they get buried consciously as a self-preservation mechanism, and Repressed trauma when this happens unconsciously.
“When you shut down one emotion and you go into that frozen state, it’s not just that emotion you’re protecting yourself against that gets shut down; your whole emotional life gets limited,” says Gordon.
Can a physical stimulus like touch or movement help release ‘’stored’’ trauma?
The answer is we don’t know, but there have been reports of people who had an emotional outburst during some physical therapy that released a lot of emotion and tension – for example, during an acupuncture session, a yoga session or a massage. Thus, it is believed that certain types of physical movement or therapies that involve a physical stimulus may actually be a helpful addition to trauma counselling therapy. These therapies may help re-balance the autonomic nervous system, which became imbalanced after a traumatic event.
Different types of therapy can be considered to be helpful, in addition to therapy.
- Dance classes
- Deep breathing exercises
- Trauma-focused therapy – Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and somatic experiencing: A therapist guides a patient through guided eye movements while asking them to recall certain events and then shift their thoughts to more pleasant events, which is meant to dampen the power of past trauma.
According to Dr. James S. Gordon, the areas in your brain that relate to people do not function as well anymore when you have been traumatized. Therapies that are relaxing are the opposite of a traumatic experience. It brings a state of calmness and balance.
It is not uncommon the have an emotional release during therapy (for example, massage, acupuncture, or yoga) sessions. If you had such an emotional outburst while having therapy of some sort and you cannot connect it to any incident, it might be beneficial to keep a journal and write down what you experience and the thoughts surrounding it. It might take some time to make the connection.
Where is the best place to release stored trauma?
Depending on the severity of the trauma, a person can have a major release of emotions, which can frighten the therapist and client alike. Having an emotional release in and of itself isn’t necessarily beneficial if you don’t know how to handle these emotions and memories. It should happen in a controlled environment that is a safe space for the client. If you can have a therapeutic conversation about what you experience, it is best. It means that the re-emergence of emotions about an incident is only good if it can be processed in a safe environment.