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How body-focused therapies are leading the way in healing trauma

5 May, 2021

Dealing with trauma, PTSD or C-PTSD? Find out how body-focused psychotherapies can help you to find freedom and healing...

Usually when we think of ‘therapy’, we think of a psychotherapist and client sitting across from each other in comfy chairs, talking and listening. And it’s true that from psychodynamic psychotherapy to CBT, ‘the talking cure’ has been the main approach for well over a century. Yet unfortunately, this has created the idea that simply talking about something traumatic is enough to move on from it. And when this doesn’t happen for some individuals, they can be left disappointed and even blame themselves for ‘failing’ at therapy.

This can lead to people managing their trauma symptoms in other ways, for instance, with addiction or social withdrawal. However, these coping strategies won’t actually heal the body’s underlying (and often buried) distress. In the words of author and trauma researcher Bessel Van Der Kolk: ‘Medications, drugs and alcohol can temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings, but the body continues to keep the score.’

Trauma responses can originate from many sources - from childhood abuse to accidents to workplace bullying. And in an era where many people feel traumatised by the stress of the pandemic and/or are experiencing continued unpleasant bodily sensations after having covid, itself a distressing experience for many, the issue of how to heal from it has never been more relevant. However, while a purely talking-based therapy can certainly offer some support to people experiencing responses to trauma, PTSD or C-PTSD, it might not offer lasting, long term relief. Yet if this is the case, then what are the alternatives?

The body’s ‘memory’ of traumatic events

Before looking at what these are, it might be helpful to clarify what ‘trauma’ actually means in a therapeutic sense. In essence we — like all others in the animal kingdom — are 'wired to survive'. This means that there are parts of our brain that respond instinctively to threat in order to keep us safe. So when we go through a distressing or dangerous experience, our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ threat responses become activated in our autonomous nervous system. Usually, once the danger is over, our bodies will return back to a calm and regulated state with no major after-effects. But if a traumatic event is too overwhelming to cope with, then this natural recovery process can become blocked and our nervous system can stay stuck in a survival response indefinitely. It really just means that to our bodies, the event is still not over, so that a single ‘trigger’ can bring feelings of fear, anger and helplessness flooding back. It is also important to note that people with difficult childhoods can carry trauma responses into adulthood without even realising it.

What are the signs of trauma?

The impact of trauma can take over a person’s entire life, causing emotional pain, physical health issues and disconnection from others. For instance, an individual who has experienced something traumatic could find themselves always looking for any signs of threat in their environment, sometimes even decades after the shocking experience took place. Some people aren’t even aware that they are trapped in this state or that the distressing experience was the root cause of it. Others are well aware of their symptoms and find them frightening, confusing or shaming. Either way, experiencing traumatic events can have a huge impact on relationships, wellbeing and mental health.

Trauma related conditions include PTSD and C-PTSD, while post-traumatic symptoms might include flashbacks, mood swings, anxiety, depression, rage, nightmares, jumpiness, addiction, eating disorders, self-harm, feeling emotionally numb or being in a pattern of unhealthy relationships. Trauma has also been linked to physical conditions such as asthma, headaches, digestive issues, back pain, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. As observed by author and therapist Pete Walker in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: ‘Trauma takes its toll on the body in many ways’.

Yet the key question is: how can a person who has experienced something traumatic move from being trapped in a survival response and into feelings of safety, wholeness and wellbeing? If taking medication or talking about what happened can’t free the body from feeling under constant threat, then what can?

The rise of body-focused psychotherapies

Body-focused (somatic) psychotherapies aim to tackle this issue and have been experiencing a surge of popularity over the past decade or so. In essence, these approaches work on actual physical memories of distressing events, helping the body to finally leave ‘fight/flight/freeze’ states. Psychotherapists working in this field believe that talking alone can’t heal trauma, so they use various techniques to release bodily distress so that deeper healing can take place.

Unlike ‘top-down’ therapies like CBT (which aim to address trauma by changing a person’s thinking patterns or behaviour), somatic therapies take a ‘bottom-up’ approach via the older parts of our brains and by exploring the trauma-related sensations stored deeply in the body. In an interview with Psychotherapy Networker, revolutionary trauma therapist Peter Levine summed it up as follows: ‘When we feel overwhelmed by trauma, talk alone isn’t going to do very much. We have to go to the unspoken voice of our bodies…’

Body-focused psychotherapies can take many different forms, such as EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and CRM (Comprehensive Resource Model). All include a talking element, as well as techniques to help people gradually revisit traumatic events and the body’s automatic responses while remaining safely grounded in the present.

In a body-focused session, the therapist might invite you to notice what is happening inside of you when you are speaking, including bodily sensations and emotions. You will be encouraged to be curious about the experiences of your body, so that you can understand the impact of past events and how your whole system responded to survive them. The goal is to process the residue of the traumatic experiences so that you can release them from your body and will no longer be triggered by reminders of them.

Is body-focused psychotherapy right for you?

If you are considering this type of approach, then it might be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you tried a more 'traditional' talking therapy in the past but your symptoms didn’t heal?
  • Did something traumatic happen to you when you were very young — maybe even before you were old enough to speak or remember it fully?
  • Are you experiencing a lot of physical health difficulties that aren’t improving with medical solutions?
  • Do you tend to intellectualise things but find it harder to connect with your feelings and emotions?

If you can relate to any of the above, then you might really benefit from trying a more body-focused approach.

Somatic psychotherapies allow people to finally release distressing experiences, accessing greater feelings of joy, peace and connection as a result. In the words of Steve Haines, author of Trauma Is Really Strange, 'The best way to reset the old parts of the brain is to slowly wake up the body. Healing trauma is not about remembering, it is about self-regulating to turn down intense reactions in the body’.

The body’s ability to store deep memories of traumatic events can affect our lives in many ways, often without us even realising it. Thankfully, body-focused therapies offer a chance to finally heal old wounds and move forward into a much freer future.

Find an accredited body-focused therapist today with MTA, including EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and CRM. Or browse a wide range of other therapy options.

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