Trauma occurs when normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by helplessness and/or terror. The Fight or Flight survival response is engaged without resolution. There is an ignition of the response (chemical/neurological) (fight/flight/freeze) but when it fails to avert the danger and the body does not discharge/complete the cycle, the reaction is unresolved and sits stagnant in the body, ready to be reignited by other ‘triggers’ – similar experiences (or what we even perceive as similar). This is a survival/protective response. But when it fails to avert danger, the crisis becomes a trauma.

The body treats physical and emotional traumatic events the same way. The body/mind reacts – the body reacts – the physiological and neurological systems respond – the fight or flight – adrenaline response. But many other things are happening in the brain (most importantly, the most primitive area, the limbic system). The amygdala and hippocampus are overstimulated, which can result in memories that aren’t processed correctly – and can look like flashbacks, nightmares, etc.

As ‘civilized’ humans, we have overridden the animal behavior which can help us process and complete this experience. Hence, the chemical residue from the event (adrenaline, etc.) remains in our body, trapping with it the energy that would be expelled if we allowed the cycle to complete. Imagine you’re in a dangerous situation and you were prevented from fleeing or defending yourself. The movements of escape or defense – which your nervous system has prepared for – need to be completed. This energy needs a way out. Common body signals of this holding are restlessness, clenching, pulling away, bouncing feet, and twitching.

If you were in a situation where you had not been able to escape, the body’s defense is to ‘freeze’ (play dead) - which deceives the predator. When the body awakens from the ‘freeze’, it shakes. We have inhibited this mechanism as well.

Although trauma arouses strong emotions, many of its lingering effects are physical: sleep problems, hypervigilance and/or high startle response, numbness or hypersensitivity to touch, etc.

We continue to react even when the event(s) has passed because of ‘triggers’ (i.e., sounds, similar events/circumstances, smells, lights, voices, etc.,) and the cycle reignites in our bodies, retraumatizing us, because the cycle hasn’t completed the first time.

Traumatized people tend to overinterpret in the direction of threat and fear, hence their physical bodies react, not just their minds. Their nervous system tends to stay on alert all the time after a while, even when they are not in danger. (The sympathetic nervous system as opposed to the parasympathetic nervous system.) They are always on the ‘accelerator’, there are no brakes. Their body seems stuck in the traumatic response and physical experience and they become disconnected from real life.

Unhealed trauma can generate conditions such as ‘repetition compulsion’ where the person engages in similar behavior to the traumatic event. Why? The body continues to seek a discharge from the overstimulation of chemicals and lack of release so the mind unconsciously reproduces situations similar to the original traumatic event. It is the mind’s attempt to replay the scenario to complete it and get it right and no longer be the victim.

People are physically organized to respond to things that happen to themselves with actions that change the situation, but when they’re traumatized and can’t do anything to stop, reverse or correct the situation (helpless), they freeze, explode or engage in irrelevant actions. Then, to tame their disorganized, chaotic physiological systems, they start drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in violence.
When there is excessive energy trapped in the body the emotional and rational parts of the brain translate this into either intense emotions such as hatred, rage, shame, etc., or ideas of revenge, distrust or negative ideology.

How Can We Help?

Educate! Normalize the experience. Explain what is happening. Yes, it will still hurt and still be a painful experience, but it does not have to be a fearful, confusing experience.

Work with the body! Since trauma affects the body, the healing of trauma begins in the body. The body holds the memories and the scars of trauma. Traditional psychological counseling puts emphasis on the mind, when the body, the physical, is bearing much of the burden. ‘Something’s missing’ if you just focus on the mind.

Talking is not always effective because the imprint of trauma doesn’t sit in the verbal understanding part of the brain. It sits in the limbic system and brain stem – where somatic (physical) memory lies.

No ‘stories’ are told or asked for. The work is done slowly, releasing a bit at a time so it is not overwhelming. We can reteach the body/mind to process events/thoughts properly.

Safety is the first step in releasing this trapped energy. A therapist trained in body-centered therapy knows how to control what comes up and what they’re looking at. We help build trust and security, build healthy boundaries, reduce potency of triggers, build new management skills (‘traumatic brakes’), and build awareness.

There is no ‘stigma’ attached to working with the physical body.

‘Bodywork’ (therapeutic touching or manipulation of the body by using specialized techniques) deals with somatic issues. Many people are not comfortable talking about their problems.

You remain clothed at all times.

Author's Bio: 

Ruth Rogers,certified Trauma Touch Therapist, Licensed Massage Therapist and Certified Shiatsu Practitioner, practices a body-centered therapy for people suffering from all types of trauma - physical, emotional, sexual. She also has a New York University International Trauma Studies Program certification and worked at New York/Presbyterian Hospital for 4 years in the Columbia Integrative Medicine Program (under Dr. Mehmet Oz), working with patients following open-heart surgery and other surgical patients. She has a private practice and has done volunteer work with members of the FDNY for several years, in Israel with surviving victims of suicide bombings, and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a lawyer.
New York, NY