Our Bodies are Key in Healing Trauma

When I had pyloric stenosis, a stomach obstruction, as an infant, by 26 days old I had lost two and a half pounds–a skin and bones baby. My mother was terrified and frantic, for I was misdiagnosed and the medical professionals were not helping. I was dying. I say this but don’t remember. Guaranteed that my body does.

As  a survivor of infant surgery without anesthesia, I grew up thinking my body was dangerous and untrustworthy. Even though the operation was successful and I had no further physical problems, I feared, unconsciously, that my body could explode. In fact, I hated having a body. Look what it could do to you. It could kill you, put you in the hospital isolated from family, and subject you to a breathing tube shoved down your tiny throat and a scalpel slicing your baby belly without anesthetic or pain control. Notice I wrote it. Better to be a little bit separate.  To admit I had a body meant accepting I was a house built atop a faulty foundation.

Overall, my body is tense, as if my cells are hellbent on holding me together; if they don’t, the whole mess will come tumbling down. Any lapse in vigilance sends Humpty Dumpty to the ground. Each morning in meditation, I am reminded that I am safe and that awareness of my body is key to feeling joy. This daily practice sustains me.

Nowadays, there are therapists out there, for folks like myself and other trauma survivors, who recognize that our bodies are key to healing trauma. In a wonderful article entitled “Putting the Pieces Together: 25 Years of Learning Trauma Treatment” by Dr. Janina Fisher in the May/June 2014 issue of the magazine Psychotherapy Networker, she shows us that therapy for trauma survivors has come a long way since Freud. Talk therapy alone will not heal trauma, according to Fisher. This conclusion is drawn from her training with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a well-known trauma therapist and researcher. It’s not that therapists need to touch the body necessarily, but they do need to read clients’ bodies and bring awareness of their responses into the therapeutic relationship.

Rather than synopsize, here are some quotations that I hope will inspire you to read her article:

“In van der Kolk’s groundbreaking 1994 study, 10 subjects volunteered to remember a traumatic event while undergoing a PET scan of their brain. . . . [T]he scan revealed . . . the cortical areas associated with narrative memory and verbal expression became inactive or inhibited, and instead there was increased activation of the right hemisphere amygdala, a tiny structure in the limbic system thought to be associated with storage of emotional memories without words. These volunteers had begun the scan with a memory they could put into words, but they quickly lost their ability to put language to their intense emotions, body sensations, and movements.”

“. . . [T]alk therapists had to find other approaches, ones that weren’t so dependent on language and narrative and could therefore address the brain and body shutdown demonstrated in van der Kolk’s study.”

“. . . [I]n this new age of trauma treatment, we aim to help our clients find the light–or at least to find their bodies, their resources, and their resilience.”

“The trauma treatment of today focuses survivors not primarily on pain, but on accessing new, more expansive feelings, the kinds of feelings they would have experienced if they’d never been traumatized.”

As trauma survivors, our bodies have stored information that we need in order to understand ourselves and heal. Integrating this knowledge is key to gaining access to a more expansive sense of self. Therapists these days have a lot more tricks up their sleeves, thankfully. Take advantage if you can. At the very least, read Fisher’s article.




Leave a reply