Trauma is stored in the body as a part of the mind-body connection. Join Adam Miezio as we learn about why trauma is stored in the body and how to release it.
Why is trauma stored in the body? Since you’ve gotten this far, it’s safe to assume you already knew that the body stores trauma. In the case that you didn’t know that trauma is stored in the body, well now you know.
A previous blog titled “Discover the Secret to Identifying Trauma Symptoms” introduced the topic of the body storing trauma. Many people aren’t conscious of this, to no fault of their own. We lack trauma awareness and education in our society. It can be a huge revelation when you learn about trauma and its symptoms. Learning that trauma gets stored in the body can be surprising.
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In “Discover the Secret…” it notes:
Many of our physical maladies originate in trauma. In effect, your body becomes a scorecard for all the trauma you’ve accumulated and not healed throughout your life. Your body is like the referee keeping score.
Later on, the blog includes a video titled “The Body Keeps the Score.” The video explains the origin of the body scorekeeping concept and the man who created the concept. This leads us to answer #1.
- Who Knows Best Why Trauma is Stored in the Body?
Bessel van der Kolk does. Bessel van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. He also is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network. In 2014, he published the book The Body Keeps Score; Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Van der Kolk is one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma and its effects on the body.
- Why have I never heard of trauma being stored in the body before?
Even though it’s a relatively new idea in the worlds of psychiatry and psychology and the West at large, shamans and medicine practitioners of cultures worldwide have known about this for millennia.
Ancient Assyrians living in Mesopotamia were the first people to allude to modern day PTSD. Their observations are eerily similar to today’s characteristics. They detailed how soldiers would be haunted by the ghosts of the men they killed, cursed or possessed by them. One man went blind after witnessing his comrade being killed. That was 3,000 years ago.
Thanks to people like van der Kolk, we’re just now coming to a decent understanding of the exact consequences and symptoms of trauma. There’s not an overabundance of research on the physical symptoms resulting from trauma. As you’re about to see, van der Kolk agrees saying, “We forgot about human beings even as we started to be able to treat them maybe a little bit better.”
Since it starts in the brain, this makes trauma a very complex and slippery area of investigation.
- Where can I Learn More about Why Trauma is Stored in the Body?
Please watch van der Kolk’s talk on the subject below.
Van der Kolk’s calm, assured energy pulls you in. He’s not a man to mince words either, while speaking in a more than straightforward manner. What he means by “we forgot about human beings” is the lack of holistic treatment in Western medicine. Looking at a person as a whole, as opposed to laboratory-centric approaches that check off diagnostic criteria and prescribe pills. Van der Kolk is no fan of drugs like SSRIs. He states:
And many of these dimensions have been left out of our oversimplistic stupid diagnostic system that you basically built up to firm up our relationship with the drug companies.
Besides Van der Kolk’s already impressive credentials, he would be the one to speak out on SSRIs. He conducted the first ever studies on Zoloft and Prozac for PTSD. That said, he did not like the results.
- What Happens in the Brain While Trauma is Stored in the Body?
Thanks to advances in brain imaging technology, we’re able to study the brain and the neurology behind trauma in a much better way. The field still has many unknowns, but a little ray of light beamed in.
As van der Kolk explains in the video, neuroimaging studies of the brain now show what happens in the brain as a result of trauma.
When a person recalls their trauma, their entire frontal lobe goes offline. A power outage and blackout for the whole front of your brain. That area of the brain is kind of important.
The frontal lobe tells you what is right and wrong, helps you to figure things out and directs all your thinking. Van der Kolk compares remembering trauma to a stroke, leaving you dumbfounded and struck with speechless terror.
- What are the Physical Effects of Remembering Trauma?
As soon as you recall a trauma, your body re-lives it. Your brain can’t distinguish between the original event, and the stored memory. The brain recalls the stored memory as if it were the exact same as the original event. This is what exacerbates symptoms, as your body repeatedly goes through the trauma, even though it may have only happened once.
Your body continues to feel as if the trauma is happening right now. There is only one way to heal this cognitive failure. The body needs to learn that the danger has passed. Once the body learns the threat is gone, the person healing from the trauma must do 3 things:
- Befriend the body
- Love the body
- Be safe in the body
- How Does Trauma Get Stuck in the Body?
Another prominent leader in the field of trauma is Peter Levine. Peter Levine has doctorates in both medical biophysics from the University of California at Berkeley and psychology from International University. Levine is a faculty member of the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute dedicating his life’s work to his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, and neuroscience among others. In 1997 Levine wrote a book on trauma called Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. It was a bestseller. He’s also the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing and the director of The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute.
Watch Peter share an astounding story about how he healed someone’s trauma on the spot. The man who got healed was Haim Dasburg. Haim’s background makes the experience even more amazing.
Haim got thrown out of a truck onto his back. A traumatic incident by itself, which was then followed by another. Consequently, Haim’s lower right back suffered great pain for decades. In some cases, the trauma gets stored where it originally occurred to the body.
As the video notes explain:
Traumatic memory is unique in the way it can often live on in the physical patterns and the cognitive patterns that a client might develop after a traumatic experience.
This can become a painful paradox because the very response that may have kept our client from harm can now also be keeping them from healing.
- Why is Trauma Stored in the Body Unhealthy?
Because of a Slinky. Wait. What? Yeah, a Slinky. Well not literally; metaphorically speaking. Peter Levine uses a Slinky to explain the adverse effects of the body storing trauma. See for yourself.
As Peter demonstrates with his Slinky in the video, when you’re threatened your energy gets over excited, causing the Slinky to stretch far and wide in rapid succession. Peter goes into further detail:
Now what happens in trauma is that we have this tremendous excitation, and then, boom, we’re overwhelmed. This energy becomes locked- it becomes stuck in our bodies and our nervous systems. When this arousal, this activation, this hyperarousal doesn’t get released it leads to all kinds of symptoms.
The basic symptoms are (chronic) pain and stiffness in the body. Of course there are many more symptoms, including cognitive, psychological and behavioral. Trauma stored in the body all comes down to simple, age old wisdom.
Stress causes sickness.
Trauma is a form of stress. Makes sense now when you read post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Do All Therapists Approach Trauma Stored in the Body the Same Way?
No. Some therapists primarily employ a somatic approach. An approach that emphasizes the primacy of the body. Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine are examples of this approach. In fact, each man’s respective methodology differs.
The somatic therapy that van der Kolk employs is called EDMR or “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.”
Whereas the somatic therapy Levine uses is called “somatic experiencing.”
There are many ways to approach healing trauma, some of which shift away from the somatic focus and into other areas. One example would be psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. It’s quite interesting to note that, even though somatic and psychedelic approaches have distinct differences, they overlap with ease, like old friends.
Without a doubt, psychedelics can have a somatic effect on the body. Ayahuasca is one example. During Ayahuasca ceremonies you can expect to hear all kinds of things that stretch the limits of your imagination. Noises range from the terrifying, to the hilarious, as well as everything in between and beyond. Sometimes participants let out groans of terrifying pain. A shaman may go over to assist, and identify the location of the trapped energy in the body. The shaman might use their feather or some mapacho (tobacco) while singing an icaro (sacred songs of Ayahuasca healers in the Amazon) to escort the bad energy out and away from the body.
Breathing during plant medicine ceremonies becomes a more primary function than it already is. The best way to flow with plant medicine is to breathe. Relax and breathe. Focusing on the breath calms the body and the mind. Usually after the mind and body calm, people will let out an “Ayahuasca sigh.” An expression of cosmic relief. They probably just worked hard on something deep in their psyche and soul. This doesn’t even speak of Ayahuasca ceremonies and “purging.” Purging refers to the common effects of vomiting and diarrhea.
As you can see, there’s a link between psychedelics and somatics. Even in clinical trials similar things happen. Watch this video of a clinical trial done by Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London.
The patient groans, moans, cries, calls out, talks and more. Much like somatic approaches, psychedelic-assisted therapy works trauma out of the body as well.
On a final note, as you dig deeper into the relationship between somatic and psychedelic therapies, you’ll discover another common link – yoga. Frequently therapists will recommend yoga as a way to work through trauma stored in the body. Dr. Gabor Mate is a proponent of using yoga as an addiction and trauma recovery tool.
There are many ways to physically heal trauma and there is no one size fits all approach. Everyone responds differently to various methods. Some people need a mix of tools and approaches.
Yoga is one top option because it’s free and has millennia of satisfied yogis which is all the credibility it needs. It’s hypothesized that yoga was developed as an ancient trauma healing system.
Whether it’s a somatic therapy, a psychedelic-assisted therapy or something like yoga, there’s an approach for everyone and for every trauma that needs healing.