I was in my mid-20’s when the accumulated stress of my experiences of childhood trauma finally broke through and nearly broke me. Along with the classic PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, emotional avoidance and heightened vigilance, I started to have a host of physical issues like migraines, digestive problems, and muscle pain. As you’ll discover on this #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, the connection between traumatic experiences and our bodies helps to explain not only the outcomes of trauma but also the potential treatments for it.
Effects of Trauma on the Body
Aside from any physical injury or illness that results directly from traumatic events, these experiences can also leave their marks on our body when we develop conditions like PTSD. Several areas of the brain, including those used for reasoning, memory and emotional processing, can malfunction after trauma. People with PTSD also often experience disruptions in their stress hormones, which can lead to either reacting to minor triggers or failing to react to major issues.
Trauma, even a single event, can negatively affect almost every body system, including how our hearts work, how we digest food, how our reproductive system works, how much pain we can tolerate and how well we are able to fight off infections. Facts like these leave me frustrated when I hear people telling trauma survivors to “leave the past in the past” and “just let it go.” Although we can heal, recover and move onto healthier and happier lives, these experiences are etched in our bodies and minds.
Given the extent to which trauma can affect the body, it’s no surprise that treatment of PTSD and related conditions in survivors of trauma has expanded to include techniques that focus on the survivor’s relationship with his or her body. Mindfulness meditation, which can include awareness of body states in the present moment, has been used to reduce PTSD symptoms in a veteran population. Somatic experiencing therapies, which help the person work through blocked reactions to trauma, have limited but promising research.
Alternative healing practices such as yoga, acupuncture, massage and Reiki are used by many individuals recovering from a trauma history as an adjunct to psychotherapy and as a way to reconnect with their bodies. For instance, I’ve found that receiving a massage, especially from a practitioner skilled in bodywork, has released unexpected emotions and helped me process aspects of my experiences. I’ve also found that using hot stones during massage gives me focal points that help me stay grounded in my body. For these types of approaches, don’t be shy in letting the person with whom you are working know what you need.
Incorporating Spirituality Into Healing
There has been some research on incorporating spiritual practice into the treatment of the effects of trauma, but, overall, I think this potential healing resource has been under-utilized. A search of Google Scholar revealed an especially parse landscape in the way of Goddess Spirituality and trauma treatment, although I did find a kickass dissertation by Karen Grijalva about including this type of spirituality in working with rape survivors. Those who center their spirituality on Goddess often focus on embodied spiritual practices that many, including myself, have found to be healing. I would love to see more researchers acknowledge the role Goddess Spirituality plays in the lives of some trauma survivors, in order to develop programs that tailor interventions to this population.
Our bodies can be affected both physically and mentally by traumatic experiences, sometimes with devastating consequences. There are both traditional psychotherapeutic as well as complementary approaches which focus on the body that can help with the healing process. More investigation is needed to determine the specific effects practicing Goddess Spirituality can have for trauma survivors in terms of their mental health functioning.