If you were to join me at a trauma conference, you would hear a lot of talk about the body. While the fields of psychology and mental health have focused primarily on the mind, emotions, and psyche, the body has been part of the conversation for many years, and it has become a more central focus in recent years. There is momentum building in support of incorporating physical aspects of healing into trauma recovery.
We can look as far back to Pierre Janet’s work in the late 1800s to find references to what we now call somatic psychotherapy, a therapy that incorporates, and looks to, the wisdom of the body. Recent leaders in the field include Babette Rothschild, Pat Ogden, and Peter Levine. More recent research by social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues at Harvard University confirms some of what trauma therapists have been saying in recent years—“the issues are in the tissues,” or at least that the position of our tissues can affect our experiences.
Cuddy and her team, in research on posture and what they have come to call “power poses,” found that holding a position that expands the body (standing with arms outstretched or hands on hips, sitting while leaning back with arms outstretched) significantly shifted measures of important hormones related to stress. Sitting in small postures that close of the front of the body (hunched over, arms and legs crossed) had the opposite effect.
We can learn ways to bring about deeper healing from this resurgence of interest and research on the body. Here are three important ways to incorporate your body into your healing process:
1. Invest in Your Overall Health
Often when a person in therapy describes a particularly symptomatic episode, he or she will offer seemingly unrelated information such as “I hadn’t eaten all day” or “maybe I had too much coffee.” While, of course, we do not want to reduce mental health challenges to lack of food or dehydration, the body and brain function on these and other straightforward physical aspects of life. A balanced diet gives you vitamins, minerals—the macro- and micronutrients you need to support the function of all your systems.
Consider how your habits of eating, drinking, exercising, and sleeping can impact your experience of stress and other challenging symptoms.
2. Use Posture to Change Your Mood
I like to call this the “Charlie Brown effect” after a wonderful Peanuts cartoon that shows Charlie standing in his “depressed stance.” He says, “The worst thing you can do is straighten up and lift your head high because then you’ll start to feel better.” It’s a great comic, and it speaks to the truth of recent research findings. As Cuddy and her colleagues point out, in as few as two minutes we can change our hormones, reduce stress, and increase our felt sense of power.
Since trauma can be such a disempowering experience, I highly encourage you to try these power poses.
- If you can, stand up. Stretch out your arms and legs so you feel bigger. If you can’t fully stretch your arms, consider putting your hands on your hips and adopting a Wonder Woman-like stance. Lift your chest!
- Hold this position for two to three minutes.
Notice how you feel. Notice any changes in your thoughts, mood, or breathing. Try this anytime you need a little pick-me-up. Continue to observe how your posture can impact your feeling of being powerful or powerless. Simply noticing when you are curling up into yourself can give you the opportunity to stretch out and feel powerful!
3. The Body Keeps the Score
Also the name of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s recent book on trauma (an excellent read), this phrase reminds us that our bodies go through everything with us, and that cellular memory can remain after the experience has passed. What can you do about this? Consider going to yoga, trying tai chi, or doing some movement therapy with your therapist. Ask yourself: What can you do to listen to your body, to hear what it is holding, recalling, trying to express?
One principle of many somatic methods is to send love and empathy to the areas that are in pain, caring for yourself as you would care for a small child. Give yourself all the empathy, respect, and care you can muster, and rest when you need to rest. This may involve redefining some boundaries in your career and relationships. It may mean asking for help or scaling back, which can big a huge challenge. Remember that it is always more cost effective to prevent an illness—be it mental, emotional, or physical—than to treat it. Invest in yourself; it will benefit you and those around you.
Hopefully, this will help you to understand and appreciate the role of the body in trauma treatment. If you have been feeling stuck in your trauma work and have not incorporated the body, consider this your invitation to do so. Remember, slow and steady wins the race—and it’s not even a race. It’s better to do a little and warm your body up to this idea than to try to process too much at once.
I wish you well as you kindly explore these physical aspects of healing!
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, MEd, LMFT, E-RYT, therapist in Oakland, California
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