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Trauma Therapy: The Body Keeps the Score

All my work is trauma informed. That means that whenever I sit with a client I am listening for the possibility of the presence of trauma. Trauma can be many things. The most known form of trauma is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is associated with adult trauma experiences such as war, rape, natural disasters, domestic violence, death of a loved one, etc. Dr Bessel van der Kolk also identifies another form he calls Developmental Trauma Disorder that occurs when there is an event that disrupts the vital stages of development as a child.

Trauma can be many different things, from the obvious sexual/physical/emotional abuse to divorce or parents lacking the skills to properly develop attachment with their child. Both forms of trauma can be the source of many adult illnesses, auto-immune diseases and diagnoses. The good news is that uncovering this trauma is the first step to unraveling many mysteries behind our behaviour and in some cases, miraculous cures from life-long debilitating illnesses.

My go-to source for trauma therapy is based on the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. He is one of the leading specialists on trauma and its effects on our mind, brain and bodies. He has written the most amazing and very influential book The Body Keeps the Score (I am always rereading chapters!) On the youtube clip below, he talks about the necessity for felt sense, embracing the body experience, staying present and nurturing our imaginations as ways to move out of trauma. That means accessing how it feels in our bodies not just in our minds.

Often we speak about being triggered and that means when something happens to trigger a strong emotion based on a memory that we then relive, sometimes extremely vividly. It may be anger, sadness or fear and it can be triggered by almost anything we experience in the present moment like smells, sounds, sights or actions, sometimes even a phrase or a word is enough to trigger past traumas and make them real. When we are triggered it sets off our primitive parts of our brain, the places where emotions and survival instincts like flight, fight or freeze come from.

We experience the trauma as if it is happening right now and that’s because the event was unresolved and has caused damage to our stress receptors (and a myriad of other neural connectors) and therefore has established a neural pathway that repeats the trauma in a loop, over and over again looking for a way out or a resolution. The reason the triggering is so vivid and often very debilitating is because the frontal lobe that gives us language and sense of time and proportion is not firing and we cannot experience it as a memory but as something that is happening right now (evidence of this has been seen in MRI scans of trauma survivors when triggered).

For this reason, traditional talk therapy is less effective because trauma is felt on a deeper more primal level. Dr Richard Levine, another amazing expert in the field of trauma tells us in his book, Waking the Tiger that it is essential to move the body as animals do in the wild to “shake” out the trauma, to activate those instincts of fight or flight through physical movement or imagining running or fighting the cause of trauma. Trauma that is stored in the body can have a severe effect on our health overall and has been linked to such things as ADHD, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic pain, digestive problems etc.

Van der Kolk emphasizes the necessity to awaken our bodies through mindfulness techniques, yoga and theatre games so as to feel what is going on in our bodies. Staying present through these actions wakes the frontal lobe that controls perceptions of time and helps to create a circuit break from the trauma cycle. It also opens up our imaginations to the possibilities of new experiences, very important for trauma survivors who find it hard to move out of the experience and are so re-living that moment over and over again!

Medication is of course useful in blocking these experiences but unfortunately they can also block our capacity to feel, love and imagine, that is why Van der Kolk believes medication should only be used as a temporary stop gap that will allow a therapist and client the opportunity to access the trauma safely and deal with it in ways I have described above so that the medication is only temporary and not a lifelong need.

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