Trauma Treatment: What’s Your Body Got to Do with It?

Silhouette at sunsetIf 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

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Layla

    Layla

    May 7th, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    Thanks you so much for pointing out the mind body connection, and how taking care of the body really can help heal and refocus the mind.

    We might like to think that there is no connection there, but you eat right and exercise and even without meaning to you will feel a noticeable difference in how you look and how you feel.

  • craig

    craig

    May 7th, 2015 at 4:01 PM

    Another really quick point about posture is that it says a lot about how others perceive you. If you stand up straight and tall people are naturally going to assume that you are more confident. Portray yourself the way that you wish for others to see you.

  • Donna

    Donna

    September 29th, 2015 at 5:32 PM

    I get the idea of standing tall but I also want to be truthful. Like in really this is who I am. I don’t want to deny who and where I am. I want it all!!

  • Sherry

    Sherry

    May 8th, 2015 at 8:34 AM

    Think how much your whole body starts to hurt when you remain tense. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, and for most of us we can’t even focus on what is right in front of us.

  • Orphan Izzy

    Orphan Izzy

    May 9th, 2015 at 1:46 PM

    So true!! Great information ive shared with friends!

  • Angie

    Angie

    May 8th, 2015 at 8:31 PM

    A wonderful post with helpful ideas. Thank you.

  • Tess

    Tess

    May 9th, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    Whenever you are not living life right, whether you are abusing yourself in some way on a physical or a mental level, the body is going to know it and believe me you are going to know it too. These things can manifest themselves in all sorts of different ways, but when it really kicks ion and you need to do something about it, then you better believe that it is time to listen to the message that your body is trying to give you!

  • Sebern Fisher

    Sebern Fisher

    May 9th, 2015 at 3:28 PM

    I absolutely agree that the experience of the body in trauma is too often overlooked and therapy addressing it perhaps undervalued. I don’t think we can truly heal from developmental trauma without trauma informed body work. I think, however, that this is best done hands on, with trauma informed Rosen or other hands on the body approaches. DT survivors are people who have never been held or touched in a way that nurtures and they hold this neglect in their bodies as much as they do trauma memory. I don’t think any of us can learn to love ourselves without the experience of maternal (therapeutic) love and nurturing touch. Telling DT survivors that they need to love themselves is all too often like standing at the crib of a distressed infant and telling the baby with all the best intention and kindness that she just needs to learn to love herself. I wish it helped. It often confounds and shames.

  • Wisteria Jill.

    Wisteria Jill.

    May 10th, 2015 at 1:16 AM

    I can really identify with what you say Sebern. Thank you.

  • Kadiska

    Kadiska

    May 14th, 2015 at 7:52 AM

    I want, want, WANT to hear and learn more about this!
    I believe that this is actually the secret to me getting well, and I was in Chapters last night for over two hours trying to find some information on this, some books that I can read.
    I have had really bad fibromyalgia for over 20 years, and I now believe that it is actually (for me) trauma that is deeply locked in my muscles and sinews and bones.
    I have explained fibromyalgia to my closest friends as: every beating that I have ever taken, every trauma that I did not allow myself to feel, is now manifesting itself in my body, and it won’t quit until I deal with it.
    (Fibromyalgia is different for everyone, but for me, myself, I think this is what will heal me.)

    Where can I find out more about this? Where can I get more information on exactly what you just talked about??

  • Donna

    Donna

    September 29th, 2015 at 5:26 PM

    The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. The MBSR Workbook by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein PhD’s. In the workbook is DVD…when I first started I was pretty much house bound in fear. Yoga hurts my body cause I have severe scoliosis. I have had lots of luck weight lifting with a personal trainer. Each person that I have been able to build safety with was like building blocks. My world keeps expanding. I also got a great foundation from The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I had fear boundaries but not love. The Course in Miracles helped as I had that fearful God background of Christianity too. I love mindfulness and Eckhart Tolle. Super Soul Sunday is totally uplifting!! Free yourself to dance in this liftime!!

  • Mischa

    Mischa

    November 28th, 2015 at 12:55 PM

    An individualized yoga practice adapted to your body would not hurt & may also be beneficial

  • lydia r

    lydia r

    May 16th, 2015 at 3:54 PM

    So yoga should be the perfect exercise and practice to rid oneself of the pain and stress that trauma can present to the physical body

  • Rose

    Rose

    May 25th, 2015 at 1:32 PM

    Kadiska – Good luck with your journey. I agree that things like yoga would be perfect. There is a form called iRest that you might want to look into. Or something like EMDR might also be a good way to explore and process past trauma or events. I’ve heard good things about EFT, but don’t know much about it. Read about a few different things, talk to a few different people that you might be interested in working with and you’ll know what’s right for you.

  • Monica

    Monica

    May 25th, 2015 at 5:19 PM

    I think that modern movement in psychotherapy ought to include somatic techniques.Not exclude them only to highly certified practitioners. There ought to integration of body mind emotion in one movement not compartmentalization

  • H.W.

    H.W.

    July 18th, 2015 at 5:59 AM

    The problem is that modern therapy is broken into so many different dogmatic camps that they don’t allow for differing conclusions about how individuals can be healed. Is a CBT practitioner going to allow a chink in his therapeutic approach to allow for somatic treatment? A modern psychoanalyst? The real problem is that there is no comprehensive model of the human psyche, only bits and pieces that have been glimpsed by the founders of each school of therapy.

  • Teresa

    Teresa

    July 19th, 2015 at 6:42 AM

    I stretch every morning. It releases the tension in my muscles and starts the day off right. I also stretch when I’m in pain. I just have to remember to not over-stretch because it can put you in more pain and under more stress.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    July 21st, 2015 at 5:00 PM

    Thank you all for your thoughtful contributions! Many of you have shared that movement has been helpful and I agree that for many touch is also a profound aspect of healing, particularly where neglect is concerned. Also, it is helpful when the many different branches of therapy inform and support each other, creating a network of healing that supports each client in defining and walking their personal healing path. Please continue to share your thoughts and this information with those it can help, along with other tools that have proven helpful.

  • Mary Herman

    Mary Herman

    August 6th, 2015 at 1:12 PM

    Great article! Will do my superwoman pose daily! Love your site.

  • Elaine

    Elaine

    September 20th, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    It’s worth researching into Alexander Lowen and bioenergetics his techniques and a very skilled therapist cured me of depression. I’ve no idea why his ideas aren’t discussed regularly in relation to bodywork, to me his ideas are revolutionary.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    November 29th, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    I worked with Mr. Pierrakos in corenergetics back in the 70’s. Helpful in learning to release the rage around trauma so it helped me from not internalizing it so much. And grounding myself, letting the energy flow through me.

  • Donna

    Donna

    September 29th, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    I have had preverbal childhood trauma most of my life frozen in me, unknown. I have been misdiagnosed for most of my life too. Psych meds and oppressed by myself and so called psychiatrists and doctors and psychologist and other professionals. Please keep teaching so we can all wake up to the truth of what trauma does! MBSR helped me along with Bob Stahl’s DVD of qigong and guided meditation. My therapist did teach me qigong by providing a group experience from a physical therapist trained in community qigong and tai chi. To be in a group with my counselor was huge for me. I would feel my fear of large spaces and of what I looked like….but kept my eyes and heart focused on her. She also taught meditation up to twice a week for a long time. She gave me life in many ways. I am grateful that she intentionally helped me and many others. It’s a joy to see such a heart!!
    Great write and I know it works!!

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    November 29th, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    I have had over 30 years of good, bad and awful therapy. Some therapists that took advantage of my crisises and vulnerabilities (sexually abusing me, masterfully & sadisticly screwing with my mind, etc.) It’s sad that when you are in a crisis your discernment goes out the window, and that’s when you need it to find a reputable highly skilled therapist. So important to have a family member, friend or advocate you can trust to help you.
    I have found being able to release trauma on a cellular level in a safe environment can be very healing. There are a number of ways that have helped me. From authentic Native American sweat lodges, halotropic breathwork, somatic work, rebirth & soul retrieval work to name some. Ongoing swimming has been hugely helpful to me….a great release and very comforting & healing.
    Some form of movement that brings healing to your body and soul, like dancing to your favorite music. Yoga and meditation (be it walking meditation or other forms). Spending time in nature.
    Recently, I have been learning tools of practicing mindfulness which is extremely beneficial and grounding.
    May some of this help someone to find comfort and healing. God bless. 💚

  • Hula

    Hula

    January 11th, 2016 at 7:43 AM

    I have found forms of physical therapy and body work to be the most beneficial, as well as creative (art therapy) and mindfulness approaches. Restorative yoga, dance, and touch help me manage trauma and depression symptoms. There is a lot of physical pain that generates from trauma, so balancing out movement and rest becomes essential.

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    April 17th, 2016 at 12:47 PM

    I am very interested in your opinion of Dr. John E. Sarno

  • Michael C.

    Michael C.

    January 6th, 2019 at 10:25 PM

    Great article! Thank you.

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