The Key to Healing Trauma and Releasing Traumatic Pain
Written for the August 2017 edition of Natural Awakenings Magazine
An abusive childhood, relationship or other traumatic experiences may be in the distant past but the traumas remain deeply held in the body-mind. Even if the events are locked deeply away, trauma imprints our minds, beliefs, and bodies in ways that often create dysfunction, pain, and disease. The good news is that healing is within reach. Author and highly respected trauma specialist Dr. Peter Levine has said, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”
The landmark ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study conducted by Kaiser and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) correlated a direct, but not surprising, the relationship between traumas and depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. What was surprising was that trauma is implicated in a whole host of chronic illnesses and diseases like fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, auto-immune diseases and more. To simplify how this happens, the body-mind’s healthy, adaptive reaction to trauma can get stuck in a state of high alert. Over time, the brain becomes wired for fear and the chronic elevation of stress hormones create inflammation and disease in the body. What was most alarming about the ACE Study results was the finding that six or more adverse events shortened life by up to twenty years. The results sound a loud call to action.
Healing is not only important in the long-term to prevent disease and/or a shortened lifespan but also to manage everyday quality of life stressors. The fear, memory impairment, anxiety and low self-esteem arising from abuse often lock people in a cycle that keeps people stuck and robs them of happiness and vitality. Many trauma survivors abuse alcohol and/or take drugs to numb the psychic and chronic physical pain associated with trauma. Others fear rejection or lack the ability to create healthy boundaries and thereby attract more abuse. Still, others become over-achieving workaholics to medicate low self-esteem. Most don’t realize that the behaviors are the body-mind’s way of coping with unprocessed trauma because the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are so dynamically enmeshed. Bessell van der Kolk, M.D, a pioneer in PTSD research and author of “The Body Keeps the Score” sums it up, “Trauma is not the story of something awful that happened in the past, but a residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves...Most people need some form of bodywork to regain a sense of safety in their bodies.”
The main goals of trauma recovery are to teach techniques to soothe the overly amped up nervous system, to release held trauma, reset the brain and empower with self-soothing and coping skills. Having studied PTSD since the 1970’s Dr. van der Kolk has become a proponent of yoga’s body and breathwork to help soothe and regulate the arousal system and teach people how to be safe in their bodies. In 2011 Dr. Dr. van der Kolk, MD, and colleagues reported the results of research to evaluate yoga’s benefits in trauma recovery. The study, “Efficacy of Yoga for Treatment-Resistant Posttraumatic Stress” demonstrated that ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the trauma symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment. In fact, more than fifty percent of the participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD. This tells us that we need not suffer for years when even those who had failed all other treatments found relief in only ten weeks.
Trauma survivors don’t always have to ‘go back there’ to heal. Current research has demonstrated the limitations of talk therapy in trauma recovery and The National Institute for Clinical and Behavioral Medicine has included the need for bodywork and meditation as key. Today there are many methods for healing trauma that don’t require being touched or talking about traumatic events.
Where trauma is concerned the adage of the good, the bad and the ugly is seen in the reverse. The ugly truth is that the trauma happened and pretending it didn’t happen cannot spare us; the body does indeed, keep the score. The bad is how trauma’s unhealed scars can create a prison of negative beliefs, behaviors, chronic illnesses, and diseases. But the good is very, very good; we can free ourselves from trauma’s shackles and live to our longest lifespan and highest potential.
Devpreet Kaur is a PTSD survivor and compassionate teacher dedicated to treating trauma and chronic pain using various body-mind modalities.