Trauma Survivor? Why Body-Based Therapy Is Essential

By Dominica

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Last Updated: January 19, 2021

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When many people think of “trauma survivors”, they think of combat veterans, victims of abuse, sexual violence, physical injury, or those who have survived life-threatening circumstances. These kinds of experiences are also most commonly associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These are sometimes referred to as “Big T” traumas.

However, there are actually many more “trauma survivors” that fall into the “little t” trauma category. Essentially, “little t” trauma would be any distressing experience or event that one considers “traumatic”, such as:

  • Living in a chronic stressful environment, feeling unsafe
  • An injury (not life-threatening, but still traumatic)
  • Being bullied
  • Experiencing loss (people and pets)
  • Witnessing something traumatic (can happen to policemen, firemen, paramedics)
  • Job loss
  • Relationship breakup/divorce
  • Other personal stressors

As the understanding of trauma advances, more and more professionals are refusing to overlook the reality that multiple “little t” traumas accumulated over time can lead to PTSD, leaving people with subpar emotional functioning.

In fact, the newer sciences are addressing it nicely.

Are You A Trauma Survivor?

Most people admit to experiencing a series of “little t” traumas over the span of their lives. Others have experienced both big and little traumas. I think it’s safe to say we are all “trauma survivors” on some level. Of course, the severity, duration, and type of trauma comes into play when it comes to how we navigate life mentally, emotionally, socially, behaviorally, and more.

For the sake of this article, let’s just assume that most people have dealt with “little t” trauma, some have dealt with “Big T” trauma, and some have experienced both.

What Is Body-Based Therapy?

Traditional therapy is well-known among the public, and many people seek out a counselor when they’re going through a rough patch in life.  One of the most common therapies offered is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

It’s truly a wonderful healing modality.

CBT can help patients learn to identify thoughts, belief patterns, or behaviors that haven’t been serving them well. Then, they can work on changing those to more positive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Essentially, it follows the “what you think and feel influences your behavior” model.

But for trauma survivors (especially Big T), CBT doesn’t usually go deep enough to heal the patient at the body or emotional levels.

You see, when you experience something traumatic, it doesn’t just affect your thoughts. It also affects you at the body (or energetic) level.

Body-based therapies work with you at the body or emotional level, helping you release any “stored trauma”.

How Does Trauma Affect The Body?

Dr. Peter Levine, who first introduced Somatic (Body) Experiencing, says that when humans experience something traumatic (big T and little t), the nervous system puts you in “fight, flight, or freeze” survival mode.

It wants you to survive.

For example, let’s say you’re in the woods and come across a perceived poisonous snake on the path that is moving your way. Your nervous system is on it, immediately causing you to go into survival mode signaling you to fight, flee, or freeze. (Freezing gives you a few moments to decide your best action for survival)

At the same time, your body is releasing a cocktail of stress hormones to assist you no matter what you decide to do, such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

Let’s say you run away and get to a safe space.

Shew. You dodged a snake bite.

You take a deep breath and your body starts to calm down.  It automatically knows how to release that burst of energy that was needed to get away. Oftentimes, after something threatening happens, the body will cause you to shake, cry, yawn, etc. to release any excess energy.

Trapped Trauma Energy

But what about trauma that doesn’t get released? What happens then?

It’s stored in your body, and down the road it can lead to mental, emotional, or physical issues.

This is why body-based therapies for trauma survivors are  so important.

Many times, when we are experiencing something traumatic, we don’t “release” that energy or emotions. We repress, reject, numb out, disconnect, or shut down those emotions. This is especially true for babies, toddlers, and children whose nervous systems just aren’t strong enough to fully process and release trauma. Or, those who grow up in homes that are volatile, unsafe, or abusive.

The children essentially live in chronic survival mode with a dysregulated nervous system, and though they may be functioning alright day to day, that “stored trauma” doesn’t just go away. It will progressively lead them to feeling mental, emotional, or physical pain until that stored trauma is released.

Body-Based Therapies

Hopefully, you’re more curious about body-based therapies for healing trauma or symptoms of PTSD. You see, at the brain level, we are always processing information, forming what are called “implicit” and “explicit” memories.

Explicit memories are the facts and are typically processed and filed away nicely. Implicit memories are body sensations and emotional responses. (Our feelings)

Both types of memories must be integrated for healthy processing and optimal living. However, under stress, the brain isn’t concerned with helping you process and file your feelings. It’s not caring much about “remembering” things at that time.

Rather, it sends you right into “survival mode”, providing you with energy to fight, flee, or freeze.

And when that happens, the memory goes without getting processed (Which is why many trauma survivors have gaps in memory).

But the emotions are still there, stored in your physical body – and they don’t want to stay there. If you can release that energy at that time, great. But if you can’t for whatever reason, that energy can get stuck.

Body-based therapies are a branch of somatic psychology. Essentially, the concept is that we all experience life through thoughts and emotions, but at the same time, the body too.

Exploring these experiential types of therapy can help you discover what’s going on at the body or emotional level. A therapist can help you see if you’ve gotten stuck in the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, and help you release stored trauma energy.

The result?

  • You’ll experience fewer negative emotions, like anxiety, depression, fear, etc.
  • You will learn how to better regulate your nervous system.
  • You’ll learn to feel your emotions without freaking out, rather than stay disconnected, shut down, frozen, repress, etc.
  • You’ll learn how to listen to your body.
  • You’ll learn to become more mindful, being fully present
  • And much more.

Examples of body-based therapies include:

  • Somatic Experiencing
  • EMDR
  • Accelerated Experience Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)
  • Gestalt Therapy
  • Expressive Arts Therapy
  • Dance Therapy
  • Neurofeedback

We Are All Survivors

No doubt we are all survivors of trauma in some form or fashion. However, if you’re struggling with things like depression, anxiety, intense fear, shame, dysfunctional relationships, etc., get to know your options when it comes to therapy.

Talk therapy is wonderful, but so are the body-based therapy modalities. If you are a trauma survivor interested in exploring body-based therapy, do some more research on the topic. If you’re actively seeking a somatic therapist, look for a licensed mental health professional that has advanced training in body-based, somatic therapy techniques.

May you continue to heal and grow mind, body, and spirit.

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

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11 comments on “Trauma Survivor? Why Body-Based Therapy Is Essential”

  1. My trauma
    One week after retiring at the end of October, I took a fall. I suffered through a lot of pain and emotional uncertainty. Today I have been out of pain for only a little over a week. It has been hard and dealing with the fact that I live by myself and have to take care of myself without help. The sadness of not having anyone here to even check on me or help me was difficult. I also suffered physically from the sadness. But I did have determination to get through it on my own and it made me stronger. However, the realization that I haven’t got the support of others has took its toll on me physically and emotionally. It has motivated me to grow stronger even more.

  2. PTSD
    I am a survivor but I never applied for asylum. I feel comfortable in the sprawling port city of Karachi, the financial hub of a beautiful country called Pakistan.

  3. Processing the healing
    I call it this because of what's been done to me by others (family, friends and coworkers, and people of positions) I have a lot of traumas and dysfunctional stuff in my past and some now. Everybody deals with it in different ways, I think. I can speak and talk with people I know who don't like me for whatever reason. That's my way of continuing myself without them being part of it. I don't like when people try to hurt others on purpose just to see the look on your face and your reactions. I go back in past a lot and always have a lot to say about it. This is how I process my healing. I recognize and state my opinion about it or make a joke out of it. This is me. I got to live with it. I just wonder what it would feel like to have my life back. I have God on my side for sure, but I need to feel like I am living again too.

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