What is trauma?
Definitively, trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that may overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope.
Trauma is not the event itself, that is referred to as the trauma inducing event. Rather, trauma is the reaction in the bodymind at the time, and thereafter.
Trauma is not only a result of war, violence, abuse or serious physical injury.
Trauma is subjective, and what may be trauma for one, may not be for another. It can depend on myriad contributing factors. For example, how many “protective” factors a person may or may not have in their life such as a safe home and supportive family, or genetic predispositions to mental health issues, or already existing intergenerational trauma. There are so many contributing factors.
Types of trauma
Broadly, we may consider trauma as one of two types:
Big T trauma - this is the overt, extraordinary or significant event, that would typically correlate with the common conception of trauma. That might be a horrific accident, exposure to war, a natural disaster, sexual or physical abuse, a life threatening injury etc.
Little t trauma - this might be considered a more common and subtle kind of trauma. That might look like bullying, repeated criticism from a well intended parent, lack of sufficient nurturing and/or connection with caregivers, loss of a significant relationship, loss of a pet and so on.
Longer term impacts of trauma
Our reactions can become imprinted on the psyche and soma (body) and can often be repeated in situations which are no longer relevant to the original trauma inducing event (or series of events).
The bodymind is an absolute miracle; in a bid to keep us safe, anytime something may trigger that traumatic memory, even years after the trauma inducing event, the nervous system, body and mind adapts its reaction as though the traumatic event is occurring all over again. In that instance, we might feel an intense surge of energy, significant anxiety, an urge to run or leave where we are, or even to fight.
It can continue to drive our thoughts, actions and behaviours unconsciously, including our function of breathing, until we may begin to shine a light on it, or parts of it.
Trauma is not only psychological, there can be a very real cascade of physiological events also occurring. Many people are often unaware of this correlation and that it may also be contributing to how they are feeling physically. We know through the work of Dr Candace Pert, Dr Gabor Mate and Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk that trauma can be linked to various forms of health outcomes, systemic inflammation, physical pain, autoimmune conditions, bodily degeneration, and even disease.
Thankfully, there are so many things we can do to help the bodymind to gently address, process and ultimately release traumatic memory.
How to start to gently address, process + release trauma
As mentioned above, our reactions can become imprinted on the psyche and soma (body), so it's important to understand that while trauma may be a wound of the psyche, there is also a cascade of physiological events occurring within the bodymind.
When trauma occurs, our miraculous nervous systems switch into gear (sympathetic tone of the ANS) in a bid to keep us safe from harm, like an in-built protective mechanism. Any stressor that is too much for a person to handle can overload the nervous system, which in turn can stop the trauma from processing.
This overload can halt the body in its instinctive fight or flight response, causing the traumatic energy to be stored in the surrounding muscles, organs and connective tissue. Whenever we store trauma in our tissue, our brain can disconnect from that part of the body to block the experience, preventing the recall of the traumatic memory.
Any area of our body that our brain is disconnected from won’t be able to stay healthy or heal itself.
Therefore, a combination of talk therapy + bodywork do well to help to gently address, process and release trauma
Below is a non exhaustive list of some of the myriad techniques that can be engaged to help the bodymind process + release trauma.
Magnesium hot water soak 20 mins
Anti inflammatory nutrition - Largely a whole foods focus, minimising of refined sugars, alcohol, processed foods & reduction of dairy.
Daily movement + exercise. Gentle & restorative right through to higher intensity can all be appropriate, depending on the individual.
Journalling (automatic writing)
Talk therapy, in conjunction with physiological practices. Important to address the soma/the body too.
Somatic experiencing, in various formats.
Singing and/or chanting
Shaking and/or dancing
Grounding barefoot in nature
Connect with people you trust and feel safe with
Mindfulness - At the core of recovery is self awareness. And body awareness puts us in touch with our inner world, the landscape of our organism. Mindfulness can put us in touch with the transitory nature of our feelings and perceptions. Practising mindfulness can help to downregulate the ANS.
Breathwork - Gentle functional breathing practices are a beautiful place to start. I chose to become a breathing instructor due to my own lived experience engaging gentle functional breathing practices over the past 5 years. It has been profound, and a significant part of my healing journey (shared briefly below). Safe to say, I am obviously an advocate for the benefits of conscious breathing. The ability for gentle breathing to recalibrate the nervous system, facilitate blood & lymphatic flow in the bodymind, massage the vital organs, alleviate physical & mental tension, provide myriad other physiological health benefits and invite up long held emotions can be incredibly powerful and effective.
Some practices may be triggering. Every individual is unique + should only do what feels right for them.
Keep in mind, it can take time to implement change, especially when turning into face traumatic memory. Go slow, go gently & show yourself compassion and kindness.
Personal context & anecdote
I have previously navigated debilitating anxiety, for what was a little over a decade. Eventually navigating a disease diagnosis which was the evolutionary catalyst that led me to seek change and commence a path of Self healing.
I understand now, this anxiety was the bodymind “stuck” in a state of hypervigilance, a chronic sympathetic tone due to past traumatic events (big T’s and little t’s - like many of us in today’s society). I would perceive regular day to day events as significantly overwhelming and stressful events due to the traumatic memory held within the bodymind.
I struggled to leave the house most days, I found it too overwhelming to go to the grocery store, I did everything possible to avoid people and social situations and I felt significant anxiety deeply within my physical body (primarily in the gut and chest/solar plexus and heart space) almost always.
On the outside though, to most people who didn’t know me well, I was achieving goals and was relatively outgoing. However, internally and in privacy, I was physically tense, I had gut issues, hormone imbalances, breathing dysfunction, systemic inflammation, skin flare ups and so on.
The anxiety, and all of these symptoms I had navigated for years were the body’s messengers that something needed to change. The bodymind was asking for love, Self care and attention in order to heal and feel safe again.
In the months leading up to the disease diagnosis, I was literally thinking to myself, this is rock bottom. My mental health was in a fragile way, to say the least.
After years of unknowingly ignoring all of the bodymind’s messages (I thought it was “normal” to feel the way I did), the disease diagnosis did well to stop me in my tracks, and to very quickly overhaul my lifestyle in every single way.
Through significant health & lifestyle changes, I have been able to alleviate anxiety and bodymind ailments with a holistic & multi pronged approach - through all of the suggestions listed above, combined, consistently over days, months and years. I now feel a beautiful vitality in bodymind.
I am now a registered (trauma informed) counsellor, meditation teacher, a holistic health & lifestyle coach and functional breathing instructor with an unshakeable gratitude to be able to now share information & lived experience with others to assist them along their own journey.
If we may view trauma as a wound of the psyche that, in the same way that a physical wound requires a gentle & tender touch, we nurture it over a period of time until it heals. We navigate wounds of the psyche with an equally gentle & nurturing approach. Compassion, non judgement and allowing the necessary space & time to heal.
May we offer unconditional, non judgemental and loving kindness to Self and others. Let us be curious to our own pain, let us listen to others in the expression of theirs and let us use these experiences to learn and heal, individually and collectively
Trauma travels through family lines, through cultures, until someone (or a group of people) are ready to feel it and heal it in themselves. Healing is hard work, it’s also incredibly important and sacred work. How can we help? Look within. Are we curious, open, loving, compassionate, willing to listen and learn? If not, then that is where our work lies. It starts on the individual level.
If we can better understand trauma, we can often better understand ourselves. When we better understand ourselves, we better understand others. The very act of going within to heal ourselves, is an act of opening, softening, learning to practise self love, self compassion and learning to trust life. When we can do this for ourselves, we can do this for others. When we can do this for others, we are helping others along their own individual healing journey, we are also impacting families, communities, wider society and Mother Earth.