Trauma can be a gut-wrenching experience.
In order to survive, we may push down hard-to-digest memories, relegating them to the subconscious underworld of body fibres, muscles and bones. When we are unable to give the healing process the time and space it requires, we disconnect from our physical selves. The more we seek to escape an unpleasant reality, the less in touch we are with our lived experience. This is the body in trauma.
‘The Category is Body’*
A modern understanding of trauma defines it as the body’s response, not the events that surround it. Childhood bullying or a car accident, for example, are not explicitly trauma. The body’s experience of hypervigilance, anxiety or an upset stomach afterwards is. This explanation is based on Polyvagal theory, a somatic-based (i.e. relating to the physical body) psychological model created by Dr. Stephen Porges, which links the way we react to the world with our internal, physiological state. By expanding our definition of trauma, we create space for a more compassionate and open-minded approach to treatment, recognising that each person’s body responds differently to distress. If we can facilitate a sense of safety, control and internal regulation, we are better able to integrate traumatic experiences, moving through them with grace, rather than falling into despair.
Your Brain On Trauma
Trauma changes the chemistry of our brain. For starters, the threat-detecting centre for emotions, the amygdala, is sent into overdrive. This tells our brain to secrete stress hormones that impair the function of the hippocampus, responsible for memory and learning. As a result, traumatic memories can remain more vivid, explaining why you might remember that embarrassing moment from high school but not what you ate for breakfast. It also affects the abilities of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), your brain’s internal CEO, charged with forward planning, cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation. A stressed-out PFC isn’t able to effectively balance hormonal systems, contributing to a greater sense of anxiety and a stress response that extends far beyond the traumatic event. These neurological phenomena manifest physically, affecting the function and flow of our entire body.
Whether heartbreak or an emotional ‘slap in the face’, traumatic experiences can feel like a part of our DNA. When we raise awareness of somatic sensations, we begin to trust our inner experience, decreasing the reactivity of the amygdala and increasing feelings of safety, control and peace. This knowledge has empowered a new generation of research into trauma treatment.
- The power of yoga: A recent experimental study showed that mindfulness-based yoga significantly reduced traumatic stress symptomatology by over 30%. This has wide-reaching implications for the yogis in the room – more flow, less ‘Oh no’.
- Not just asana: Any movement that encourages mindful awareness and breath/body coordination helps regulate our inner world. This extends beyond yoga and into martial arts, Qi Gong, self-massage and a practice called Rolfing, created by Ida Rolf, involving deep fascial movement to demobilize the stress response and soften mental and physical rigidity.
- Breathwork: Polyvagal theory emphasises the importance of down-regulating i.e. actively placing our bodies in a calm and balanced state. This can be achieved through conscious breathwork, such as extending the exhale or pranayamic techniques like Nadi Shodana or Moon Breath.
- Creativity is key: Celebration, creation and dance have been facets of Indigenous culture for millennia. When we tap into ‘creative flow’, whether it be singing, dancing, making art, music or love, we activate the positive pathways in the brain, helping our body bounce back into a regulated state.
- Professional help: As always, professional help is paramount. This may look like trauma-informed, evidence-based therapy (tapping, EMDR, the emerging science of psychedelics) with a trusted practitioner or somatic interventions with your healer of choice.
If the body keeps the score, our gut plays the ref.
When we experience trauma, our brain sends signals of distress to the digestive system. This can manifest immediately, say, a turbulent tummy, or over a prolonged period of time, disrupting the microbiome and our resulting stress response. The gut-brain axis is an integral part of our inner workings, and a connection we’re rather fond of at Fun Girl. Restore the integrity of the gut, mind and spirit via our latest and greatest.
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. For the TL;DR, check out Onbeing.
- Trauma and the Body by Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton & Claire Pain
- Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
- The Safe & Sound Protocol by Dr. Stephen Porges
* Tysm Megan Thee Stallion.