The Physical Side of Trauma

By Shawn Radcliffe


Trauma is more than just a cognitive experience. It resides in the body, mind, heart and brain. Which is why verbal psychotherapy may not always help people who have been traumatized—their experiences lie beyond the cognitive brain and out of reach of language.

In an interview on OnBeing, Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, talks about the physical side of trauma and how embodied therapies like yoga, rolfing and eye movement therapy can help people recover.

Most people have gone through a traumatic experience at some point in their life—whether it was abuse as a child, a car accident, or a hurricane—but not everyone has lingering effects of that event. Kolk told OnBeing’s Krista Tippet that the social context of a trauma can determine how a person responds.

“If we are around people who love us, trust us, take care of us, nurture us when we are down,” said Kolk, “most people do pretty well with even very horrendous events.”

However, if a trauma is caused by someone who is supposed to love you or take care of you, or you aren’t allowed to feel what you are feeling, then “your mind cannot integrate what goes on, and you can get stuck on the situation.”

Integration is a key part of how the brain processes traumatic experiences. Kolk said that normally our memories are transformed into stories, which helps us understand what happened.

This is true for all events in our life, not just traumatic ones. In a way, people create their own realities through their stories. For example, five people will tell five different stories of an event they all went through years before, maybe as children or at university.

With trauma, though, the memories don’t change. For people who have been traumatized, the images, sounds, and physical sensations can be exactly the same years later as they were during the event.

“The nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created,” said Kolk.

These vivid memories of a trauma, though, are not just a cognitive experience.

“This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe,” said Kolk.

These feelings reside not in the rational brain, but in the animal brain, the part that is responsible for sleep, hunger and emotions. Which is why traditional talk psychotherapy may not work, because it doesn’t reach the emotional part of the brain.

Kolk said that in order to cope with a traumatic experience, some people may cut off their relationship to their bodies. They may do this with alcohol or drugs, or by shutting down their emotional awareness of the body.

Embodied activities, such as yoga, can provide a safe way for traumatized people to feel the sensations in their body—and to start having a relationship again with their body. Yoga alone may not be enough, and it isn’t the only activity that can help.

“Something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way—with a lot of attention to breathing in particular—resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma,” said Kolk.

Things like martial arts and qigong can help. As can bodywork such as rolfing and craniosacral therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—which involves moving the eyes from side to side while thinking about distressing memories—has also been shown to be effective for adult-onset trauma, although the reason why it works is not clear.

Kolk said that these kinds of therapies help people recover from trauma by connecting them again with their bodies. They also help people find their stories.

“When we treat people, you see the narrative change, and people start introducing new elements,” said Kolk.

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