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When people deal with trauma in conventional psychotherapy, they usually focus primarily on telling what has happened in the past. Discussions typically are concerned with how being reminded of old terror can trigger fear, rage, or paralysis in the present. Many people experience relief being able to discuss how seeing certain images, hearing particular sounds, or smelling a specific odor causes them to feel as if the trauma were happening right now. However, reliving trauma-related sensations does not occur only in response to input from our surroundings; it is also triggered by sensations deep within our own bodies: the sensory experiences that are evoked by feeling angry, sexually aroused, or having your period; by feeling tender toward somebody; or by the sensations that accompany feeling rejected and under appreciated.
– Bessel van der Kolk
The most profound legacy of trauma may be this timeless feeling of being battered by unbearable physical sensations: crushing feelings in your chest, agonizing tension in your shoulders, and burning pain in your abdomen, accompanied by the conviction that you are utterly helpless to do anything about it. The body, instead of being an ally in one’s road to recovery, becomes the enemy. Many traumatized people learn to tell a story of what happened, so that friends and relatives can understand why they are so frightened, angry, or out of control, but the real problem is that they do not feel safe inside – their own bodies have become booby-trapped. As a result it is not OK to feel what you feel or know what you know, because your body has become a container of dread and horror. The enemy who started on the outside is transformed into an inner torment.
– Bessel van der Kolk
The answer to this has been written about more completely than I can write here but I will try to identify some important parts of the answer.
Realize that for far too long we, members of the professional mental health community, have underplayed the role of the body in holding trauma and in healing trauma. Find a therapist who is comfortable helping you reconnect to your body and become more aware of its sensations.
Make friends again with your body. Many of us, even without significant trauma history, have a great deal of ambivalence or at least something less than a great “working relationship” with our body.
Breathe. If you pay close attention throughout the day to your movements, you will find there are times when you hold your breath, and other times when you over breathe, not allowing yourself to fully digest the air before expressing it. There are time when it is helpful to be able to hold our breath. Think about it. There are only two bodily functions that are automatic and yet can also be brought under our conscious control: blinking and breathing. Breathing is by far the most interesting one for the purpose of this discussion. As a general rule try to breathe as smoothly and continuously as possible no matter what activity you are involved in. You may also note that there is a natural pause before each inhale and before each exhale. Feel your breathing. Notice the sensations it brings to your body. Allow your self to naturally exhale as you compress your body and then to naturally inhale as you open your body structure, such as when you bend over and then stand back up again. Don’t hold your breath and don’t force either the inhales or exhales – as a general rule.
Move. Let your body twist and reach and stretch and tense and relax. Notice what feels “good” and what movements your body may be wanting to make but for some reason is holding back. Try to find whole body movements that express different emotions. Trauma often involves our bodies being unable to move in the way they needed to move during the trauma, whether that is to retreat, defend, or attack. One way to think about emotions is that they are states of readiness for our body to take certain actions. That is the “motion” apart of emotion.
Read. If you want a more complete understanding of “body memories” I would recommend one of the following authors: Peter Lavine, Pat Ogden, or Bessel van der Kolk for starters. If you want some more challenging and historically significant reading from the early 1900’s you can also read Pierre Janet.