Trauma is often more about a person's response to an event rather than the event itself. We can be resilient to trauma, if we have the opportunity to process it.
If we don't, we may respond in a way to create safety in that moment. But in the long term, this safety often causes disruption and unease.
Someone who experiences trauma may have challenges with interoception. Interoception is our ability to consciously perceive what is going on inside our bodies at any moment.
Trauma can disrupt the mind-body connection. What is remarkable is that this is often done to create safety as a survival mechanism because our bodies and minds are so smart that they know just how much we can handle.
When experiencing trauma, we may dissociate from our bodies, or go blank from our minds, in order to protect us. The trauma can remain frozen in the body, unprocessed.
The problem is that once a threat has passed, we might still be maintaining a mind-body separation, or "dissociation," in order to feel safe. We may only feel sensations that are overwhelming, and lose the ability to tune into subtle sensations.
This is especially the case for developmental or relational based trauma, because similar situations may trigger us into believing that the trauma is still happening or happening again, thus creating a trauma response that overwhelms our nervous system.
What Is Somatic Therapy?
The belief underneath of this type of therapy is that a person gets physiologically stuck in their trauma in a way that traditional psychotherapy can not always access. As a result, emotions become repressed and the trauma is "stuck" in the body.
Psychcentral talks about somatic psychotherapy:
"Somatic therapy is a holistic therapy that studies the relationship between the mind and body in regard to psychological past. The theory behind somatic therapy is that trauma symptoms are the effects of instability of the ANS (autonomic nervous system). Past traumas disrupt the ANS."
One specific type of somatic therapy, developed by Dr. Peter Levine, is called "Somatic Experiencing." This therapy takes away the focus from the traumatic event. Instead, the actual "trauma" is the body becoming overwhelmed by the experience.
In Somatic Experiencing (SE) it is not even necessary to discuss the trauma verbally. A study by Brom et al. (2017) found that SE was effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD and depression. Evidence to support SE is limited but growing.
Yoga for Trauma
Since discussing the trauma is not a requirement for potentially re-establishing the mind-body connection and releasing trauma from the body, yoga is an appropriate alternative to SE.
A study by Price et al. (2017) found that participants experienced a reduction in dissociation symptoms after only a 20-week trauma sensitive yoga program. Many of these participants had been in therapy for years and not experienced that type of shift so quickly or effectively before. The study focussed on individuals with "treatment resistant" PTSD.
The results suggest that part of the reason individuals may be "resistant" to PTSD treatment could be that traditional talk therapies neglect to include the body. Without restoring the mind-body connection, trauma may not be able to be released and properly processed.
"The Body Keeps The Score"
The concept of trauma becoming stored in the body is discussed within the psychology world but, in my opinion as someone who works for a government agency as a mental health clinician, it's not discussed nearly enough.
Dr. Besser van der Kolk wrote a book called The Body Keeps The Score that not only presents the neuroscience behind these claims but helps us look toward the future of trauma healing in a different way.
Sometimes we are left with implicit memories that simply cannot be accessed through the language centers of our brain. It may be because we were young and had not yet developed enough language or maybe we had to shut down the parts of the brain responsible for language in order to survive the incident.
Explicit memories that have a story and language attached to it may benefit from telling the story of the trauma, but that still may not be enough to release the trauma from the body. If "The Body Keeps The Score," then sometimes going back and experiencing or processing the sensations and physiological reactions may be the only way to release it.
Through trauma-sensitive yoga we are relearning a sense of safety in our bodies. We are relearning to feel safe when we are present within and connected to our bodies.
If we came to feel unsafe in our bodies at any time through stress or trauma, it is an opportunity to tune into our sensations and feel safe in doing so. It is an opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the sensations of the body that we may have been cut off from.
This can be helpful when we may find ourselves triggered or in a "trauma flashback." We can reconnect to the present moment and potentially dissipate the sensations that create the uncomfortable feeling when the nervous system is overwhelmed.
It may also help us with understanding and managing our symptoms of anxiety, depression, and obsessiveness that often come with PTSD or traumatic stress. We can tune into the subtle sensations that are present with these reactions as well.
For example, we may be able to truly feel what "scared" feels like in our bodies, and instead of running from it or numbing we can instead allow ourselves to let the sensations move through us. Through this, we may release this energy that has been stored and trapped, sometimes for years.
This requires a safe environment, patience, and often a skilled practitioner or therapist.
The beautiful thing with yoga is that we can learn to trust the process instead of getting stuck in our mind and overanalyzing. Yoga as a somatic therapy for trauma allows us to reclaim our body, at a pace that we intuitively follow.
Just as the trauma may have been an intuitive survival response, we can trust our bodies to heal and release trauma at a pace that is safe for us as well.