Trauma happens when you cannot rebound from an overwhelming experience. In your mind and heart, this experience is usually perceived to be life-threatening.
When we are overwhelmed by a threat, and cannot fight back or get away, we can become traumatized. This is the definition of trauma. It isn’t defined by the incident but from the perspective of how we internalized and experienced the event(s).
In the past, we used to think of trauma as something that happens to soldiers in combat when they are “shell-shocked”. Now we know that people, especially children, are vulnerable and can even be overwhelmed by seemingly everyday events.
People react very differently to difficult experiences. Things like age, past trauma, and genetics play a part. But no matter what causes trauma, it results in a serious rupture of our inner world, often making it difficult to connect with family and friends and to the world around us.
We now know that trauma is stored in the body.
The feeling of being in danger can continue to permeate everyday events. You might have an exaggerated startle response to things like a loud noise, yelling or quick movements.
Our response to a threat, whether a physical or a verbal assault, is instinctual and automatic. This initial instinctual response comes from the reptilian brain and includes symptoms of increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, tingling and muscle tension. Sometimes your body feels paralyzed like you are powerless to act.
But, traumatic responses are not only limited to fight, flight or flee actions. Because we are whole beings, trauma can infiltrate our entire being.
Other places you may want to consider when asking where trauma is stored in the body:
- Trembling and shaking
- Hot flashes and cold chills
- Numbness and tingling
- Nausea or a sick feeling in your stomach
- Pressure in your chest
- A pounding heart
- Cold sweats
- Shortness of breath
- A lump in your throat
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Feeling like you’re “out of your body”
- Feeling like you’re dying
These initial symptoms are felt in the body and happen in the instinctive reptilian part of the brain. In order to heal trauma, you must help your reptilian brain work together with the emotional limbic brain and the rational neocortex, or thinking, part of the brain.
Trauma disconnects you from your body, so part of healing trauma includes recognizing these instinctive responses. Then you can allow the instinctive responses to help you fight or escape the threat. This helps you discharge the fight or flight energy and complete the instinctive response.
These responses include running (escaping), fighting back such as kicking, biting, pushing, and screaming, and also grounding, settling and centering. Completing the instinctive response involves helping you realize what you wish you could have done but were not able to do at the time. Then the energy begins to discharge and the symptoms of trauma can begin to diminish.
Trauma happens when our instincts are thwarted. There are various exercises I can do with you to help you discharge the fight or flight energy stuck in your body in the form of trauma. These exercises come from Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine, 1997.
I offer this example exercise so that you can get an idea of what it’s like to finally resolve trauma in your body. But, I encourage you to do this with a trained professional, and not by yourself. Healing goes much quicker and easier when you are with a safe, empathic observer who can help you through.
A good escape, or flight, exercise is to sit on a comfy chair with both feet flat on the floor. You can also place a pillow under your feet. Close your eyes and imagine that you are running away from a wolf that is chasing you. Move your feet as if you were running and notice what that feels like in your body. Feel your feet moving up and down on the pillow or floor. You might feel your heart rate increase, get short of breath, or start sweating.
Then, imagine that you reach a safe place, like a cabin, and you run inside and close the door. Notice how you feel in your body as you realize that you’ve escaped. Sit down and allow yourself to relax and settle down. Notice how it feels to center yourself as the wolf loses interest and goes away. You might shake or tremble or cry, and this is all a perfectly normal reaction, so just let that happen.
If you think that somatic experiencing body therapy might help you heal, or you just want to explore the possibilities for treatment, please reach out to me. Call me on my confidential voicemail 310-314-6933 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a private session where we can discuss your experiences and how to heal.