TRAUMA AND THE BODY
Trauma is not a mind or memory issue, as is commonly thought, but a body issue.
Trauma affects the development and function of the right hemisphere of the brain including the precuneus, which together is the area of the brain that maps self-awareness, awareness of the inner states of the body. Trauma is not a mind or memory issue (as is commonly thought) but a body issue.
There is a significant amount of emotional energy that is aroused during a traumatic experience and ‘The function of emotions is to take physical action’ (1). However in trauma, the body has not been able to ‘follow through’ on the necessary action. As a consequence, traumatised individuals are automatically continuing the action, or rather the attempt at taking action, which began in the trauma situation, in an endlessly repeating loop. But this cannot result in protective interaction so meaning is lost and the person loses their place in the world (1). If stopped or stuck like this the limbic system’s fear, fight, flight response turns the only way it can go, inward, and an inner state of panic or hyper-arousal is maintained; the only change or sense of control that is left is that of our inner biology.
The Postures of Trauma
Our body has an impact on our emotions: the way we hold or move our body will help to suppress or express emotions. In trauma survivors the negative emotions – fear, anger, shame – massively overpower and suppress the positive emotions – curiosity, joy, gratitude etc. Typical trauma ‘postures’ and associated emotional states I have seen include:
Crumple – the collapse response. They have given in – this is the final action of the fear-flight-flight-freeze response; when nothing else has worked, give up. Shame, sadness or guilt is the predominant emotion. Shoulders rounded, chest collapsed inward, head looking down to the floor, sighing. The person may be more stuck on the exhale.
Spacey – off balance emotionally or mentally and/or somatic dissociation. Hardly breathing at all, they are out of their bodies. Posture may look somehow disjointed, they will be disconnected in other ways i.e regularly go off on a tangent in their train of thought, or be preoccupied/distracted, there may be a spacey or childlike quality to their voice. These people will be uncoordinated, and will find it hard to be aware of the sensations and feelings in their bodies.
Brace – everything tightens up, hands, arms, neck, shoulders will look tense. Their face and jaw will be tight. They perhaps look ready for attack or defence – the emotion is fear or perhaps anger/rage. There is very little movement in the neck, which is perhaps pulled into the head/spine, shortened somehow, chin draw in, they may look at you from underneath their eyebrows. Breathing is frozen, with little movement because of the brace response.
Armour – the body is bulked up as a defence against the damaged ego underneath, through muscular development or even obesity, this is like the body is a protective armour for someone who vows not to let the world penetrate him again or ‘never will I be hurt like that again’. Breathing may be reversed breathing, the chest is puffed up to ‘man up’ for the attack. Anger is near the surface, as anger, rage or passive-aggressive forms of anger.
Startle – predominant emotions of panic, anxiety and tension are very near the surface. Here the damaged ego is vulnerable and exposed. Breath is high, fast and shallow – hyperventilation. Eyes are wide open, frame often slight gazelle-ish, movement and speech fast.
Shutdown – numbing or dissociation/depersonalisation. Presents as listlessness, apathy, anhedonia (inability to enjoy things), lacking of energy, focused on the negative and whining or moaning. May present as distracting, and cynical or overly logical and questioning everything, body will be quite rigid and uncoordinated.
There is particular interest in the muscles of the neck in trauma. The sternocleidomastoid muscle is the ‘muscle of curiosity’, it enables the neck to move to express the emotion or state of curiosity – stretched forward, listening, alert. So the way people move, or don’t move, their neck says a lot about trauma. In the emotion of curiosity the brain region of the hippocampus is active , which is another key area along with the amygdala involved in processing traumatic events . The hippocampus is called the ‘gateway’ to the limbic system , it is involved in the processing and integration of memory and emotion, giving space and context to an event and putting it in proper perspective. Hippocampal activity is suppressed in trauma, so that this ‘filing’ process can’t happen.
The Role of the Autonomic Nervous System
In trauma, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) remains in a state of high arousal or mobilisation. The other aspect of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is involved in the trauma response is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is well-known by yoga teachers that the PNS influences the relaxation response and has a calming effect on mind and body, but Porges’ (2) work elaborates on this, talking about the importance of ‘vagal regulation’ or the ‘vagal brake’ which is the effect that the (myelinated branch) of the PNS has on slowing the heart rate and reducing metabolic demands. This slowing or brake affects the respiratory sinus arrhythmia of the heart (RSA) – which is the tendency of the heart rate to slow down on the out-breath (i.e. relaxation takes place on the exhale) – and heart rate variability (HRV) which is the key measure of physiological coherence.
In trauma survivors the regulatory capacity of the PNS and the vagal brake is severely compromised and is likely to contribute to the problems that affect regulation and lack of responsiveness to interpersonal comfort in traumatised individuals. Poor vagal tone plays a significant role in the symptoms of PTSD and post-traumatic stress. And in order to come to terms with the past, it seems to be essential for the trauma sufferer to learn to regulate their physiological arousal and retune their autonomic regulation. In other words, to move from a fight-or-flight state, to a physiological state associated with relaxation, safety and social engagement. Therefore, whilst perhaps yoga alone is often not enough to heal trauma, it is absolutely essential in helping the client shift to a calmer, physiological state from which he or she can access the psychological and somatic mechanisms and processes that are the foundations of healing trauma in body-centred psychotherapy. In contrast, the psychological mechanisms and processes involved in the more traditional psychotherapies (talking therapy) will have little impact on trauma sufferers.
- Van Der Kolk. Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD. New York Academy of
Sciences Annals. 2006. 1071 pp 277-293
- Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions,
Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.
Find out more about how body-based psychotherapy can help heal trauma.