Healing Trauma through the Body

In the last week I’ve been following, when I can, the online Embodied Trauma conference. This was an essential, ground-breaking initiative that challenges the purely psychotherapeutic model for treating trauma, by delving into the body’s capacity to heal through awareness and experiencing that surpasses mere cognitive or verbal cues and explanations.  It this respect it was a conference full of hope and potential, with many tools and ideas of how we can develop a more meaningful relationship with our bodies.

I would like to share some of the lessons I’ve taken away that feel relevant to me, and perhaps to others reading this too. It feels appropriate to be reflecting on this after my last blog post on my personal experiences of trauma.

Trauma does not, and should not, have a universal definition or response. We cannot isolate a person’s experience from the social conditions they are living in. This was discussed in Resmaa Menakem’s talk on racialised trauma, and in Burton Rogers’ talk about working with victims and perpetrators of gun violence. Their discussions challenged the tendency to reduce all experiences to how it feels for the dominant group – white people; what Resmaa refers to as white body supremacy. However the trauma that is held in my history and ancestry is likely to be very different from that held by a black person; I know for starters that I have not grown up ever fearing that I may be arrested for no apparent reason, beaten up because of my skin colour, or denied a job or education on the basis of how I look or whether my name sounds foreign or unfamiliar. My ancestors may have been through many difficult experiences, but they will not in recent history have been the victims of slavery. Likewise, from my own research on trauma among aid workers I have begun to understand that how this condition is conceived depends not only on what options are available to heal, but also to survive.  A Somali woman who faces the risk of armed attacks on her route to work every day in Mogadishu, where health services are limited, will have a different way of making sense of and responding to her environment than a British woman who flies in to work there for a few days and can seek support back home when she leaves. Recognising the structures that allow or deny us the possibility of making sense of and responding to trauma is an essential component of collective healing.

Healing from trauma needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, a purely individual endeavour. I have seen some wonderful examples of groups coming together to work through really difficult experiences of abuse or oppression – particularly through Process Work and World Work. But collective healing is not easy; we not only have to feel into our own bodies, we also have to be ready to have difficult conversations that bring up the pain and suffering we endure in relationship to others. As white people in particular, we have to be ready to listen to how our privileges cause pain to others; this act of listening will cause us pain too, but we have to learn to move through it rather than – as we often do without realising it – shutting the conversation down. We have to pause, and respond with compassion to what is happening inside of us as well as to the person delivering the words we may not want to hear. We must learn not to push aside the difficulty; by leaning into it gently and intentionally – seeing where our emotional pain arises in our bodies – we shift from the tendency to find rational answers to our problems, to working more closely with our hearts and our shared vulnerability as humans.

Trauma can be destructive in our relationships if we do not fully process it. There was a simple example I found very useful given by Stephen Porges, who developed Polyvagal Theory to describe the physiological conditions of trauma and recovery. He discussed how two lovers may struggle in their connection with each other. Whilst everything on the surface may seem lovely and exciting, they are unable to fully connect intimately but they don’t know why. Porges talked about how this is often how trauma can impact a person in relationship with another. The act of intimacy – a loving look or an affectionate touch from their partner – may bring up something in the traumatised person, a memory or a feeling, that triggers a response associated with experiencing a threat. Their sympathetic nervous system is fired up, triggering the fight or flight response; meaning they want to run away. Or they feel immobilised – frozen –  emotionally or physically. Suddenly the person is no longer fully with their partner; they are elsewhere, trapped in a situation from another moment in their lives when they felt unsafe. The traumatised person thus needs support in activating their parasympathetic nervous system – their rest and digest response – which promotes a feeling of security and safety. Coming back to presence and the bodily experience in that moment is an essential part of this healing process; by tracking what is arising, and also exploring the possibility of feeling safety, belonging, pleasure, joy and other more positive sensations during instances that may previously have felt unsafe.

We can process and release our trauma by going into the body. Bringing ourselves back to the present moment in the way I have described does at times require support – from a body worker or therapist – rather than just trying to do this by ourselves. Indeed, for those with deep trauma I believe that this kind of body work, as well as possibly (but certainly not universally) talking therapy, are essential. In western societies in particular, we live perpetually in mind-body separation; paying little attention to what is happening on the physical level, often denying our pain and pretending it isn’t there, or numbing it through clinical or recreational drugs, or alcohol. When we do seek treatment, there are rarely linkages made between our emotional state and physical symptoms. Body work, which takes many different forms, allows us to develop our relationships with our bodies and this supports a healing process – without us always knowing what the pain or trauma is that we are trying to heal. It can also be less of an individualistic approach as talking therapies. In some of the African communities I’ve worked with, healing from conflict or violence often involves activities that are far from the therapist-client interaction; they include ritual, music and movement with others, and in this sense it is a far more collective experience that brings people together and helps to reinforce social support structures.

I know I am one of those people who finds tuning into feelings and sensations in the body really difficult; it is only in recent years that I have begun to listen to, and trust, the signals coming from my body. For a while I was practising trauma release exercises (TRE), which instigate involuntary trembling in the body similar to how an animal reacts after it has escaped pursuit from a predator – convulsions that may occur in an isolated area, or from the feet all the way up to the head. The purpose is to put us back in touch with these animal instincts that rebalance our nervous system and take us out of fight, flight or freeze mode. More recently, my yoga training has helped to shift what has felt like stuck, negative energy through both movement and breathing techniques. I have also found dance and shaking to be really helpful in getting me out of a disassociated or anxious state. The Embodied Trauma conference included a practice on this, with Bernadette Pleasant. It was interesting for me that she used the help of an African shamanic drummer to guide participants through the process; this is the sort of music that I too am drawn to when I’m dancing with an intention to feel more in my body. It may or may not be a trauma response that I am working with (we don’t always know, and that’s OK), but either way if I move my body – shaking my legs and hips, torso and arms, or dancing in a way that feels natural, flowing and primal, not self-conscious and calculated – then I feel how something is released. I feel lighter afterwards, more centred, more embodied, more present. I can express myself better from my heart, rather than my dominating head.

We don’t always need to find the answers. But we do need to listen to take better care of ourselves. I was really struck by the ways in which the participants at the Embodied Trauma conference – both the presenters and the viewers – described their emotions in terms of what was happening in their bodies. I feel when we do this, it is an act of love towards ourselves. Thinking our way out of our emotional experiences will not fully heal us, nor will denying the emotions altogether. As someone who early on in life learned that being vulnerable, or expressing my emotions fully, wouldn’t be welcomed – that is a story for another time – I am now unlearning those belief patterns and behaviours. It is a process, for all of us, and it takes time; as does recovering from and transforming the structural forces of inequality and abuse that affect us all in multiple and different ways, depending on our positioning in our societies. But by giving attention and love to our experiences, we are developing our understanding of human suffering and of human connection; and in doing so we are not only healing ourselves, but becoming better equipped to offer solidarity and support to others in our pursuit of social change and justice.

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