How Trauma Gets Trapped in the Body w/ Dr. Aimie Apigian: Understanding Trauma in the Nervous System

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Do you wonder how trauma gets trapped in the body? You’ll learn about it in this post. 

Emma: Okay. I am really excited about today’s guest. We’re talking with Dr. Amy Apigian. She is a leading medical expert on how life experiences get stored in the body and how to restore the body to its best state of health through her method, the Biology of Trauma. So, she’s a double board-certified medical physician in preventative medicine and addiction medicine.

She has a Master’s in Biochemistry and a Master’s in Public Health. And in addition to her medical health, she’s also a certified functional medicine physician and has training and certifications specifically in neuro autoimmunity, nutrition, and genetics for addictions, mental health mood, and behavioral disorders.

She also is certified in somatic experiencing and other trauma-based certifications. And her personal experiences helped her learn how trauma gets trapped in the body and how to release it. So, today we’re gonna be talking about science-based solutions on how to rewire the nervous system and restore your sense of safety.

Super excited to have Dr. Amy on the show today, and please forgive me. I’ve got a little bit of laryngitis today, but I really wanted to talk to her, so she’s gonna do most of the talking. Let’s go.

Everyone real quick. When I think about treating trauma, stress, and anxiety; one of the first skills that I always want people to know is about how their nervous system works and how to understand that flight, flight, freeze response, and your body’s natural calming response to parasympathetic response. So, I have a free course called Grounding Skills for Anxiety. Over 30,000 people have taken this course and it’s got thousands of five-star ratings, and it teaches you about 15 practical skills to learn to soothe anxiety, stress, and trauma in your nervous system. So, if you would like to learn more about how to use grounding skills, and how to calm your nervous system, then take a look at the link in the description.

And now let’s get back to the video. I am really excited to have you and talk about all things trauma, so thank you for being here.

Dr. Amy: Thank you, Emma. It’s, it’s an honor to be here with you.

How Trauma Gets Trapped In The Body

Emma: You are an expert in a lot of areas, but especially in trauma. Can we talk about how trauma gets stored in the body? Can you tell us about that?

Dr. Amy: Yeah, and I’m so glad you’re asking about this, Emma, because as I went through my medical training and even then started on my own process with therapy and you know, trying to work on stuff, it was still always this idea that trauma is in the brain and trauma is something that your brain responds to and is your psychology.

But as I was working with people and I even started noticing more of the patients that I was working with in the hospital and I started to realize like, no, like there’s actually more to this and I’m seeing that trauma is becoming their biology, which then becomes their symptoms, their health conditions, and even their diagnoses.

So what happened to me, I ignored my body long enough that it actually became significant enough that I couldn’t get outta bed for a couple of months and so realizing that there is, there’s the element that the body has a trauma response. And when we understand that the body has a trauma response, then we see that that’s actually where trauma gets stored, and the body will continue to go into a trauma response so that we’re no longer looking at a past event for trauma. We’re looking at, is my body going into a trauma response on a daily basis right now in the present moment. And that really what I look for when I see, does someone have stored trauma in their body, is I’m looking for, what are the patterns that I see? Do I see your body going into that trauma response on a regular basis?

And even developing what I call this biology of trauma that then will become your health illnesses and conditions and diagnoses.

Emma: Yeah. I think that’s so important to understand because I think when people do think of trauma as being just in your brain or in your mind, they think the only treatment is like thought-based work, right?

Oh, you just need to change how you think about that and you’ll be fine. Right?

Dr. Amy: That’s what I was told.

Emma: Yeah, and that’s kind of how, which is strange in the medical community that like a body based. Treatment is not at the top of mind when it comes to treating trauma. And you know, the ACEs study, or I’m sure you’re familiar with the ACEs study, but groundbreaking research showed how, how people who experienced multiple traumatic or stressful events as children have a lot more likelihood of developing physical illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes autoimmune disorders, or other chronic illnesses, right?

Dr. Amy: And you wanna tell me that that’s just because they need to fix their thoughts,

Emma: Right. Yeah. Yeah. It doesn’t make any sense.

Trauma and the Autonomic Nervous System

Dr. Amy: Doesn’t make any sense. And so being able to understand now, no, like, there’s an actual mechanism that we can understand it. It’s not, it doesn’t actually need to be confusing or this mystery of how trauma becomes our health conditions.

We can understand this now, and the keys are all in what we, we call the autonomic nervous system part of the body. So we have the central nervous system, which is the brain, and that’s where all the focus has been for trauma, which is where we then develop like the cognitive behavioral therapies.

And Emma, I will just say that even in my medical school training, which was very holistic compared to medical school trainings, and then even as I am in the sphere of, you know, like, oh, let’s be trauma informed healthcare practitioners, still the idea of being trauma informed was, let’s refer our patients to therapy and to go talk to a therapist.

And this is in the medical field, Emma? And so like here we are people, physicians who have always been known, even as, you know, early as Hippocrates, is like working with the body. And yet somehow we’ve lost that element. And that’s, I think the element that we need to bring back is that actually there is this whole biology component to trauma and that needs to be addressed just as much as therapies and whatever therapies that a person does. I tend to focus on body-based therapies, so somatic work, internal family systems, and actually working with how that’s showing up in the body. But when we bring in the biology piece, whatever modalities we’re working on for the actual therapy, it’s like we can accelerate that process because we’re facilitating how the trauma has changed our biology. And so now, Emma, how that biology keeps us stuck in that trauma response.

Understanding the Body's Trauma Response

Emma: Oh yeah. Yeah. So, tell us about the trauma response for a minute. You’re talking about the autonomic nervous system. What is going on with that trauma response?

Dr. Amy: Yeah, and I’m gonna try to talk as much as possible so that you don’t wear out your voice.

Emma: Appreciate that. You’ll do all the heavy lifting today.

Dr. Amy: So with the autonomic nervous system, and again, there are different branches of our nervous system, this is something that I learned in anatomy, never knowing that I would need to apply this to trauma work. And so we have the central nervous system, which is our brain, and that spinal cord, brainstem, spinal cord. And then we have these nerves that go out into our body from there and they come out, you know, we have these cranial nerves. They come out from our brainstem, and the vagus nerve in particular is one that comes out from that brainstem and it goes to control our heart. It controls our lungs, it controls our diaphragm, and so our breathing, and then it kind of spreads out into our digestive system and controls our digestive system.

And these are all things that happen automatically. They are things that we don’t have to think about, we don’t have to control. We can just live our life and know that our kidneys are filtering our blood and creating urine, right? And then we just need to go pee when we need to pee, right? We don’t have to think about that process.

And so that’s partly why it’s called the autonomic nervous system, is that all these functions of keeping us alive happen automatically. But Emma, there’s this whole deeper component with this autonomic nervous system, which is that it’s not only telling our body to stay alive, but it’s telling it how to stay alive.

Meaning not just telling our heart to beat, but it’s telling it how fast to beat. Or how slow to beat. It’s telling our lungs, how fast do I need to breathe right now? Or We’re gonna shut down and we’re gonna just try to not breathe so that the monster doesn’t even see us or hear us breathing. And so there’s all these elements of the autonomic nervous system that actually guide how our body is being told how to live life.

And in that process, it is where the trauma gets stored. And so when the trauma response happens, it actually happens through a very sequential process. And it always starts with a startle response. And so if you think of, if you’ve been watching a squirrel or a chipmunk out in nature, right? And it’ll be chomping on a nut and then all of a sudden it’ll perk up and you’re like, oh, I heard a noise. Right? That’s the our version of a startle response of I heard something or I see something and it just kind of brings my awareness to there might be a danger and we’re gonna start hyper-focusing our attention on that so that I can assess that danger. And then if it is a danger, we go into the stress response.

And with the stress response, we get adrenaline, we get cortisol a few minutes later, but we get that initial rush of adrenaline, which actually gives us superhuman strength. And so this is where the firefighter will be able to do an amazing rescue of someone, and he’s never been able to do that while he is been working out or exercising.

Or the mom able to lift a car off of her child? Has she ever been able to lift a car? No. Will she ever be able to lift a car again? No. But in that moment, the adrenaline actually moves us to action, and that would be the important thing for people to know about the stress response, is that it moves us to action and the moment we stop taking action the moment that we, it’s called thwarted movement, and there are different reasons for that. There’s two real reasons for us not taking action, and that would be something that feels like it’s happening too much, too fast, or we’ve had too little of something for too long. And our body’s just like, I can’t do this anymore.

I just, I’m done. And we stopped taking action in that moment, even though we have all this adrenaline that’s telling us to move, do something, solve this problem, conquer this problem, climb this mountain, and we’re like, no, and we stop taking action. That’s the moment where our body goes into this trauma response, and it shifts from being a sympathetic control, which if you know your anatomy, you know that the sympathetic nerve chain runs along your spine, and so out of those nerve cells, it sends all these messages of go, go, go, go, go, go.

And then all of a sudden, and this happens in a split of a second where your body senses that I don’t think I can make this. I don’t think I’m big enough. I don’t, I don’t think I’m strong enough. I don’t think I’m smart enough. I don’t think that, for whatever reason, I have enough to face this problem.

And what it does is that it goes into this trauma response, and the trauma response is communicated through the vagus nerve. And there are two different things that the vagus nerve communicates. One would be the ventral vagus nerve, which communicates our social engagement. So, our ability to relate and we communicate that actually through our eyes. A lot of it is through our eyes, some of it through our smile, but actually most of it comes through our eyes and those muscles around our eyes, even our pupil size. But then we have this dorsal vagal communication, and that is how the trauma response is communicated. And in this moment where we say we’re not going to take action, that communication comes down the vagus nerve and literally shuts everything down, Emma. And it shuts our breathing down through to a defect on the diaphragm. It shuts our digestive system down through that enteric nervous system. It shuts down our breathing, our heart rate. It shuts everything down because we now need to conserve energy. So, if people have metabolism problems or they can’t lose weight, this is a sign that their body might be in a chronic trauma response because it literally shuts everything down and says, no, this is not the time to have a fast metabolism.

I don’t care how much you exercise, I. We’re gonna hold onto things because we don’t know how else we’re going to survive. And it causes a lot of downstream problems, including brain inflammation, energy problems, fatigue, mitochondrial issues. It shuts down our detoxification system so that we’re not detoxifying things and then we’re building up toxins and can’t clear those out.

And so there’s all these downstream biological effects of that trauma response, but that is the body’s trauma response. And as you can see, like it really has nothing to do with the thought process in our head as much as it’s just our body responding to an event, an experience, and two people side by side can experience the same event. One is a stress, the other is a trauma because of their internal biology and their internal response to that.

Emma: Ooh, that’s so interesting. I love how concisely you explain that. I get really excited about it when people can explain this trauma response so well, and there’s a couple things that you expressed and I wanted you to clarify for a second.

So, two ways. You said two things that make us go from that alert activated mode, that sympathetic arousal state to the shutdown state. And remind me again what those two were. One of ’em is if the outside stimulus your brain decides is too overwhelming. Is that right?

Overwhelming the Stress Response

Dr. Amy: It is. It’s too much, too fast. This would be like if I were gonna throw you a ball, if I were gonna throw you a tennis ball, and if I throw you one ball, you can catch it. But what if even before you caught that ball, I threw you another one, and then another one, and then another one, and another one and another one. It’s like, whoa!. I could have caught one, maybe two, but now things are just coming at me way too much, too fast.

And that’s many of our modern day lifestyle. Right? Like, it’s just I’m surrounded by things that are constantly bombarding me, whether it’s email or text messages or the news or my kids or my work, or my spouse, like, it’s just too much. And so too much, too fast is one of those triggers for going from the stress response.

And really what’s happening is that the stress response is being overwhelmed so that our body is not able to be in action. And now I’m just gonna let the balls hit me because I can’t even see all of them coming at me at once. So, I’m just gonna stand there and let them hit me. The other way that we could look at this is if we were holding up a rock.

So, if we were holding up a rock or a really heavy ball, if we’re in the gym, maybe, right? We’ve got a heavy weight above us. And as long as we’re holding that up, we are in stress mode. And we’re like, yeah, I got this. You know, like, look at me, I’m strong. And then what happens is the other trigger can be too little for too long.

Yeah. And so how long have you been standing there holding that rock? Has it been decades? Did you have attachment trauma that it’s been your whole entire life and your body just is like, look, I’d love to continue holding this rock up for you. But you haven’t paid attention to me. You haven’t fed me properly.

You haven’t let me have a drink of water. I haven’t had touch. I haven’t had a good connection with someone in a long while. Like I just don’t have what it takes. So, too little for too long will be that other reason. And we go from being able to hold up the rock to having the rock crush us. And that sense that life is crushing us is when a person fills their body going into that trauma response.

Trauma Manifesting as Grief and Anger

Emma: Yeah. That’s so interesting. That’s so interesting.

Dr. Amy: So, isn’t this fascinating, right? Like this is how much people have stored emotions and stored trauma and don’t even realize it. And then we can even talk about how those emotions, right? Especially if you wanna talk about anger. There are specific conditions that are most common with repressed or suppressed anger. And so, and even grief, right? Like, there’s so much, there’s so much disease around grief, holding grief in. I run a whole module just on grief and gut health because grief and gut health are so connected, which means that if you have, if you’re holding onto grief and haven’t been able to move through that, which again, there’s absolutely no judgment because our bodies get stuck in that trauma response and it shuts down with the grief.

But then what happens is that we develop gut problems, and now we’re focused on the gut problems. And we go from this doctor to this doctor, to this doctor for the gut problems. And I will say that as soon as people start to heal their gut, and whether that’s food sensitivities or whether that’s the candida or the small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, whatever their version of digestive issues are, when they start feeling better with their gut health, guess what comes up?

Grief. And so they think that, wait, why? Why is grief coming up now? I don’t understand why grief is coming up right now. And I’m like, well, it’s because you’ve been working through your gut problems and your gut is now feeling safer. And so these are the emotions that that surface when it feels safe, and when you finally have the space to have these emotions surface, it’s fascinating.

Emma: That is so interesting to me. And that is one of the most common, like normal outcomes when someone’s grieving in the short term. So, they lose their appetite and they have a hard time sleeping. Right? But I’m really curious to hear what are some of the physical side effects you see with anger? Like what, how do you see anger show up in the body?

Dr. Amy: This is an interesting one, Emma, because the anger is the activation, right? And so there is this desire, this natural desire to move to action. And so here’s what happens. When we don’t move to action and yet we had that impulse, there’s all this adrenaline that’s running underneath. And we haven’t discharged that because we haven’t moved. Movement is how we discharge the adrenaline, and when we don’t discharge it, it just lingers in our tissues and it causes damage. So, this is where we start to see the fibromyalgia. This is where we start to see the chronic fatigue. This is where we start to see certain cancers. In the Chinese medicine and elements, it’s strongly associated with liver disease, which then is your detoxification system and your gallbladder, and being able to clear things out and have healthy digestion. So, what we see is that so much of this repression of movement and taking action becomes tissue damage that results in fatigue and muscle pain and chronic pain and people feeling chronically tired in their body.

And that is actually one of the ways to recognize that your body goes into this trauma response are these body sensations of my body just feels heavy. It doesn’t feel light. It doesn’t feel like, yeah, like I have lots of energy, like I feel like I have to drink extra caffeine to get through my day, or maybe I find myself snacking to get through my day, or if I don’t get that exercise, if I don’t procrastinate and create stress for myself. Then I’m noticing that I just kind of fall into this lull and so people can actually fight their trauma response or their freeze response by creating stress and adrenaline for themselves through caffeine and procrastination, exercise, food, and it’s all this way of feeling that underlying exhaustion, but trying to stay above it and trying to still push our way through.

Emma: Yeah. That’s so interesting. So in your opinion or maybe you have science behind this, is this because they have this in this drive to act, to take action, to create safety and they’re repressing it and that’s kind of bottled up and stored tension? Or is it more of a burnout like, oh, I’ve bottled up and stored tension so long I’m depleted, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

Dr. Amy: It is gonna be both, Emma. And so when we look at people who are, I mean, by the time they’re in their twenties and their thirties, and that’s where I see people starting to have the effects of that biology of trauma. Finally catch up with them is usually by their thirties. Now, people can have it earlier and one of the trends is that we’re starting to see autoimmune diseases appear earlier in people, even in teenagers now, Emma and autoimmunity is one of those conditions that’s strongly associated with this trauma response. And so we’re starting to see these come in earlier. And I think this is the, perhaps the accumulation, also generational trauma and its effects on our biology.

But we can see that a person will be able to, to push through and tell at a certain point and that certain point reaches because it is too much at that time, but it’s also a chronic depletion. And so as we are developing this biology of trauma, we are becoming depleted in things like magnesium. We’re becoming depleted in things like zinc.

We’re actually creating more oxidative stress, which then consumes so many of our nutrients and our vitamins, and so we’re now living in a state of chronic deficiency. And you can be out running the marathon, but if you’re accumulating that deficiency, it’s only a matter of time before you crash and burn.

So, it gonna be both. It’s going to be, I haven’t taken action. And some of this is the, I wanna say, I’m gonna call it the learned helplessness from attachment trauma, where that the trauma response was actually our main adaptive mechanism to survive that time because we couldn’t run away. We couldn’t walk away.

We couldn’t even crawl away yet. Right? Like, we’re just babies. So, the only way to survive micro misattunements was to disconnect from our body that felt so uncomfortable. And so it started to form this habit and this habit of the disconnect is this habit of going into the trauma response.

And so that becomes this now pattern. It becomes a habit. And so now, in our life when problems arise, guess what? We automatically go to that place of, oh, well I, I definitely can’t solve this problem. I definitely don’t know enough about this or I definitely don’t have enough support. And so it’s the combination of having learned to not take action, that I automatically go to this place, and because I’ve gone to this trauma response and played it out so many times, now it’s accumulated deficiencies in my system and I’m running on fumes.

Emma: Yeah. And, and so you’ll see your body start to break down or you’ll have more fatigue or you’ll develop these autoimmune conditions, right, which we see are so common in people who’ve experienced a lot of trauma, unresolved trauma.

Dr. Amy: All of that. I mean, you’re gonna see the sleep issues, you’re gonna see the digestive issues, you’re gonna see the anxiety, the depression, so you’re gonna see things on the mental health. But yes, you’re going to to start to develop chronic health issues. And those chronic health issues are ones that may not be a diagnosed condition yet. Right? And and that’s our goal. Our is to be able to catch them before they become a diagnosed condition. Because once they are that far, it’s harder to shift that biology around.

And so the earlier that we can catch it, even the earlier that we can catch autoimmunity and being able to know that, hey, you’re at risk of developing an autoimmunity because we can take an assessment of the life experiences that you’ve had. We can take a look at how is your nervous system today?

What’s that pattern that we see? Do we see this chronic functional freeze in this trauma response playing a role that we know that you are kind of set up for something happening, and let’s figure out where that’s leading, that we can get you off that path. Because then again, as we come in and we can support the biology, that’s also when we can help accelerate their trauma healing journey.

And whether for, you know, their trauma healing journey, for people who are coming through my programs, we focus a lot on somatic work, somatic experiencing neuro effective touch. We also then bring in the internal family systems and the parts work. And when we bring those in and act synergistically, we can make so much more happen because when we work on the biology piece and say we, we fill up your tank with magnesium or we decrease that oxidative stress or that brain inflammation and now finally you’re able to think clearly and not having the brain fog and the decision fatigue. Now you’re able to do more ’cause your nervous system is more accessible.

Whereas before, it’s like your window of tolerance becomes so small that it’s like, oh, I can only do a little bit. And then it becomes too much. I can only talk about a little bit and then it becomes too much. I can only do a little bit of somatic work and then it becomes too much and my nervous system gets tired and fatigued. And so there’s so much that that I see, like on the medical side of things, there’s so many more tools that bringing in the biology of trauma can help us actually make a person’s healing journey be more of a flow rather than feeling like they’re trudging through mud and constantly dipping into things that are overwhelming or feel like they’re, you know, climbing over walls to, to get the results that they wanna have.

Three Key Ingredients to Trauma Healing

Emma: Okay. Sounds good. Okay. So, basically, yes, I’m loving everything you’re saying. I think it’s so interesting and all the somatic work so important and I feel like so many practitioners don’t know how to do it, don’t have the training in it. I mean, I didn’t get trained in somatic work at all in my programs, but I did it afterwards in continuing education and workshops and programs and certifications.

But it’s something people can learn and they can, they can do somewhat on their own. So, would you like to talk about, you mentioned there’s three key ingredients to trauma healing. Is that something you can address right now or is that like a topic for an entire nother session?

Dr. Amy: No, I’m happy to. I’m happy to mention them. And they are the ones that I’ve mentioned around the somatic work. And my goal is to bring the focus back to somatic work where we’re working with the actual tissues and the sensations as they show up in the body so that I can create the felt sense of safety, that then the body naturally moves into deeper spontaneous breaths.

And in fact, in my programs, that’s how we measure how we’re working with the nervous system is whether we’re having those deep, spontaneous breaths so that we’re not forcing the breath, but we’re actually inviting the breath based on creating the felt sense of safety and then felt sense of support and then safe expansion.

And so we actually need to work with the body for it to then move into deep body work is is so important and so essential. And some of that is also realizing how long I ignored my body. Not even knowing that I was ignoring my body, Emma, right? Like I was one of those that I, that I’m like, am I disconnected from my body? No, I’m, I’m clearly connected to my body. But just the way that I lived life, I mean, I, as part of going through medical school, right, like you almost have to live in your head so much in order to learn that much and be able to memorize it and then spit it out on tests. And so that’s, that’s all I knew.

And so to actually then move into, yeah, this type of connection with my body where I am allowing the body sensations to tell me things, to communicate with me, and I am being able to respond to them and follow the body’s impulses. That would be the importance of what I call the somatic work.

It’s not just do breath work or meditation or movement meditations, but it’s being able to connect with the body in the way that the body can guide the process. And then we have what I call parts work. And so parts work is where we have different parts of us. And these parts have different stories, they have different narratives, and they will tell us the same thing over and over again because that’s how they know to keep us safe or that’s how they know how to help us.

And so being able to work with those parts, now, the way that I work with parts is that I integrate that with the somatic work. So, that I notice parts as they show up in my body. And I can support them. I can provide them safety. I can work with them as they show up in my body. And that way still be able to do that process of staying connected with my body and not going into my brain and just being back in my brain and disconnected from my body, and then bringing in this biology piece.

So, looking at the three most common biochemical imbalances, for example. For those people who have stored trauma in their body and have kind of gotten stuck there. Looking at your gut health and the downstream effects of trauma and what are the lowest hanging fruits now in your biology that are contributing to your body staying stuck in a trauma response. So, those are the three essential elements and how a person brings in those elements, right? For some people it may be, I’m gonna do somatic experiencing, and another person will be like, well, I’m gonna do neuro effective touch or some other form of somatic work.

But those are the three essential elements that I have found a person needs. Every person needs, every person needs for their trauma healing journey to reach their greatest potential.

Emma: That sounds like on point to me. I love it. And I like how you describe integrating internal family systems or parts work with the somatic work because it’s interesting in therapy kind of how you kind of pendulate between some cognitive work and back to body work, but it’s easy for someone, maybe like you or me, who’s spent a lot of time in academia or maybe likes that part of myself that’s smart and intellectual to get stuck in that intellectualizing and forget about like, using my body, really doing this experiential process.

Dr. Amy:. That takes me back to my days, Emma, where I was so much more comfortable being in my books. Give me something to study, give me something to learn, give me something to read, but don’t give me anything to feel. Right? Like, give me something to study. And that’s actually so many people these days, right? I know that I’m not alone in that.

And so I found that even with meditation, right, like meditation for people who are in a chronic functional freeze can, not always, it depends on the types of meditation, but can actually just further disconnect them and put them all back in their brain. And that’s not what we need to do. The healing process involves the connecting of the mind and the body, and this is what that looks like. And so what I teach now is that, hey, you guys, the education is important. Don’t get me wrong. Education is important. Understanding is important. However, there does come a point when you have understood enough and analyzing it more is not actually gonna help you.

Now, you actually have to experience it. That is what changes us. And I know that you teach this as well, Emma, because I’ve been a huge fan of yours for years. But it’s the experiences that cause the transformation. It’s not the education. We can know something, we can understand something, but that doesn’t change how we react to it.

We still react in the same way. Right? Like we can know that, oh yeah, like I have all these triggers from my childhood and this is why, and we can go up and down all of those triggers. And yet, When we go home for Christmas, what do we see? Like we still see ourselves reacting in the same way that we’ve always done.

It does not change us to know and understand. What changes us is our ability to create a different experience for ourself because our autonomic nervous system adapts to our life experiences, and it got into this trauma place and this biology of trauma place because we had experiences where we felt overwhelmed, we felt alone, and we felt unsupported and unsafe. And how we get out of that is to create experiences of safety, of support, of manageable, of I’m going to stay within my window of tolerance as I expand my capacity. I’m not gonna sit here and do nothing. I am gonna work on expanding my capacity, but the way in which I do it now is very different than the way that I did it before, where I was like, feel the fear and jump anyway. And now I’m like, feel the fear. Lean into it. And titrate that fear.

Emma: Yeah. Yeah. Like going in too fast.

The First Step to Healing Trauma Stored in the Body

Dr. Amy: We can’t do that only by learning about something. There comes a point where we have learned enough and now it’s time to just do, and this is where it’s helpful to have a guide. It’s helpful to have someone who will help us know how to take that first step, how to do that guide.

That’s why you do what you do. That’s what I do. Why I do? Because we are able to be that guide for someone who’s like, well, that sounds great, but I’ve never done this before. I’ve never created this kind of experience for myself before. So, I don’t even know how to do it, even though I know in theory what it looks like and what the benefits will be, but it’s still theory until I actually do it and try it.

The Boulder Exercise

Emma: Yes. Yeah. So speaking of, is there an exercise or two that you could teach to our audience today? So like, you could come up with a scenario if you’d like to. What I have in mind is someone is like, they have some experience or some trigger. They notice something prickly inside of them, something uncomfortable. Maybe they feel a little anxious or they feel a little, you know, angry or something, some emotion that they’re not used to making space for. And they’re, they’re like far enough along in this process. They’re like, oh, look, that’s my, that’s my nervous system activation. And they’re far enough in this process that they’re not like, okay, I must immediately suppress it.

They’re like, I’m curious about this. I. But now what? Can you suggest any, I mean, I know this is like a longer process than we have time for. But can you suggest a small activity or exercise that you could try.

Dr. Amy: Yes, and actually what I’m thinking that I will do is I will share one of my exercises from my 21-Day Journey, because that’s all the types of exercises I put in my 21-Day Journey is very short, simple exercises so that when something is happening in the moment, people can jump to a tool and not have to think about it. They can get out of the story and all of the meaning that they create around why they’re feeling that way, and that’s not helpful. So, what I’m gonna do is, as you were describing the scenario you used the word space, right? And wanting to create space for this emotion or this trigger, or this sensation, whatever it is.

So that’s the exercise that I’ll lead you through, if that’s okay. It’s one that I call creating space. And so it feels like a natural fit. So for me, what I do with this exercise is I make sure that my feet are up against something firm. So if I’m standing, then I’m gonna make sure that my feet are well grounded, because what I’m gonna be doing is I’m gonna be pushing something really heavy.

So again, in order to push something really heavy, I need my feet solid on something. So, if I’m sitting down, I make sure that my feet are either able to touch the floor firmly or I have them up on something so that they can have the full contact as I push something away. Now, what I’m going to imagine, and what I would want you to imagine in those listening is that there’s a huge boulder in front of us, huge.

Emma, this is a huge boulder, much bigger than us, and we’re gonna need to push this away. So, I even want you to like, take a feel of the boulder. Like it’s so tall and big, you can’t even feel the top of it. And it’s thick. Like this is a thick boulder, and you’re like, ooh, I don’t how I’m gonna push this away. But what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna get ready.

So, you’re gonna bring your arms all the way up against your shoulder as close as you can. I can see you getting ready, Emma. This is what we do. We get brace. So even I’ve shuffled my feet a bit, so that one foot is slightly behind the other. So, I am really ready to lean into this boulder and what we do is I’m gonna spread my fingers ’cause I want full contact on this boulder, and I’m gonna start as close to my shoulders as I can.

And now I’m gonna start pushing away. But as I push away, Emma, I am going so slow. It’s probably hard to even notice that I’m moving yet because that’s how slow I’m going. But then that’s how heavy this boulder is. And I can feel all of my muscles in my arms engaged and I’m thinking like, ooh, I should get back to the gym because my arm should be stronger than this, but I’m pushing this boulder away.

And I’m going so, so slow and I’m putting all my strength into it. I can feel my feet engaged ’cause they’re helping in this process of pushing away. And I’m just gonna go until my arms are fully extended. And if you’re doing this and your arms are getting tired, then just go a little faster so that you reach that point of full extension.

And when you reach full extension, I want you to just kinda rest your arms there. Leave them there. All the way up against this boulder until your arms feel ready, they feel complete, and then you can just let them fall into your lap or down by your side. Ugh. And there’s a deep, spontaneous breath for me.

What did you like about it? What are you noticing in your body, emma? Talk to me. Talk to me.

Emma: Yeah. Well, I felt the initial tension and the pressure and then I felt the movement and kind of like a kind of warming up feeling in my arms as they started to engage. And I literally felt like I was kind of resisting my muscles in both directions.

And then I felt it pushed through past my microphone and it felt great to have them all the way out. Like, it felt really nice to have ’em all the way out. And I want it to be like, okay, and like put ’em down. And so you feel that, like, that cycle of like kind of bottle, like a little bit of tension you’re holding that you don’t realize and then activating that tension and then completing it. And releasing it. Yeah.

Dr. Amy: Exactly. Yes. And so, I mean, there’s so much that you said there that’s so important for people to understand, and I know that we don’t have time to go all into the science of this. But there is so much value in completing a response. And this is where most people go wrong, is that we don’t actually complete a response. We don’t complete an activation. We don’t complete a stress response. And that’s when it gets stored in our body. And so just this ability now as I’m doing a simple practice, and I’m like, you know, right here, right now, I can complete this movement and I can go all the way out with that full extension and feel what it’s like to have that sense of completion. And that starts to rewire our nervous system and form pathways that say, I can complete things and I can discharge things, and I can move things, and I can create space for myself, and now I have space to breathe. Now, I have space to think. And what a difference that makes in our life.

Emma: I, I think that’s so, so true. So like, going back to that example that I shared where I made this video where I like had some problem and I felt the emotion and then I took action on it and I was emotional and then things happened. I completed my stress response. I took action and I felt great. But the people watching it only saw the middle part there, and I invited them to take action to complete that stress response. Like, call your senator, like, love your family. Like, go show someone some love and if they didn’t engage in that completion, they got stuck in the moment of my energy right there.

Dr. Amy: Yeah. And stuck in their emotion. Right? And stuck in what came up for them. .

Emma: That’s right. Their emotions.

Dr. Amy: Their emotions. They didn’t know how to complete. And that’s, I think what is the greatest disservice that we’re doing for our younger generations and our kids now is that we’re not modeling. how to complete things. We’re modeling how to be overwhelmed. We’re modeling how to multitask.

Emma: Yes.

Dr. Amy: And be overwhelmed. We’re not modeling how to complete, how to complete things.

Emma: Well, and that’s what’s so interesting to me. I mean, we could go into like kids these days, but the reality of our sociocultural environment, I mean, a hundred years ago there weren’t less traumatic experiences. But people’s problems were more physical. They were more like, oh, I’m gonna be [00:42:00] hungry, so I will go dig in my field. And they were more direct and immediate. So, oh, if I have a problem, it’s right here, right now. And I will, like, there’s a problem in my community. I heard about it from my neighbor. We’re gonna take action to do something about it. And they completed that action. Where now, it’s like, we can hear about any problem around the world and it’s more difficult to do a physical action to help.

And so that worry response, that trauma, that nervous system activation gets stuck. And so many kids these days, this is fascinating to me. I could talk about this all day, but you know, you’ve seen, have you seen these trends where people watch other people mow lawns and they watch other people clean stuff? It’s this surrogate feeling of like completion.

Dr. Amy: Yes. And I think that one of the again, just knowing the human nervous system and our trauma response, [00:43:00] one of the things that has really set us back in culture is tv. Because here we have this tv.? And so what are we doing? We’re sitting, we’re sitting, we’re sitting, watching all of this news, this threat from all over the world, threats from all over the world. And we’re sitting and not being able to take action and move into any kind of a sense of a stress response to complete it. And so the more inaction that we are, the more that these emotions and these experiences and this like, oh my goodness, here’s a threat and I’m not gonna do anything about it because it’s on the other side of the world, but that still gets stored in our body because it created a response in us.

And so we’re just accumulating more trauma at a faster pace now than ever before.

Emma: Mm-hmm. And, and this is is one of the reasons why I have deleted, I’m a social media influencer technically. I don’t have social media on my phone. I’m very intentional about how and when I check [00:44:00] the news, I do stay informed. I wanna be involved and engaged, but I choose to do it very carefully. And if I were to make a news channel, it would be like, okay, here’s a news story and then here’s an action you can take. And I would pair those two because it’s like people feel immobilized. And that’s the trauma response, right? That immobilization, that overwhelm.

It’s not the activation response, the stress response is actually pretty adaptive when we know what to do with it. Right?

Dr. Amy: So, Emma, it sounds like you and I, we need to develop a trauma-informed news channel.

Emma: Right? Let’s do it. Oh, that’d be so hard.

Dr. Amy: It would need to be intermixed with lots of stories of hope and inspiration. People who are doing great things around the world.

Emma: T o be honest, like yes, absolutely. And like some stretching, like my Instagram feedback when I had Instagram on my phone, I made sure to like cut out everything that was [00:45:00] negative and I made sure to follow like, good news and like Newsworthy and Upworthy and like all these like positive stories ’cause otherwise your brain is naturally, is gonna, your brain is naturally gonna notice or highlight threats just to keep you alive, right? That’s our brain’s biology. But there’s a lot more good than there is. Well, there’s good and there’s bad. It all abounds, and we can choose what we wanna focus on and how we respond to it, right?

Dr. Amy: And I think that that’s one of the most important elements as we talk about trauma, is that the trauma response is immobilization. And yet we have so much choice and when we can learn how to complete our responses and start to come back into movement, we get to make more choices. We get to make more choices about our environment and how do we wanna create our environment in a way that supports us and supports our movement and supports our expansion and supports our joy. [00:46:00] And not to be disengaged from the world, but to be intentional about how we’re engaging so that we’re not overwhelmed by it, but we can stay in movement and in flow with it.

Because being in that place of immobilization, it doesn’t matter the reason it can be because we’re standing there flipping through social media and watching, you know, Instagram reels or whatever it is. But being in that state of immobilization is what is really harboring that trauma response in our body, keeping us stuck there.

And as we move, as we move, we move into finding that we actually have more choices about being the architect of our future, of our present, of our environment. And this is where I will add in terms of the biology of trauma, our internal environment, not just our external environment, but creating the safety of our internal environment, creating the biology of safety so that even on our insides, our biology, our autonomic nervous system is being informed.

We’re safe, [00:47:00] we’re good, which means that you have the energy and the space to do great things. To go into your creativeness because we’re not having to worry about daily survival.

Emma: Yes. I love it. I believe it. I’ve seen it, and it’s been so fascinating to talk with you.

Dr. Amy: Oh my goodness. There’s so much, so much rich richness there.

Emma: Awesome. Okay, and can you tell people where they can find you a little bit about your 21-Day Program?

Dr. Amy: Yeah, so they can find me over They can find more information about the body’s trauma response and what these exact steps are so they can be more educated. And so for those coming through my 21-Day Journey, they experience a 26% decrease in daily physical pain, 28% decrease in GI symptoms and sleep issues. The 30% decrease in anxiety and depression. This is why I bring in somatic work because it actually starts to change our biology. So, that’s the 21-Day Journey, 21 [00:48:00] days of walking them through this essential sequence of a felt sense of safety, felt sense of support, and then expansion, teaching them the somatic exercises that they can do on their own in their home.

And there is a live component to this course. So, there is live classes where I’m guiding them, but also their daily video exercises where they do that. In the comfort of their home every day.

Emma: Sounds amazing. Okay. We’ll make sure the link is in the description or in the show notes so people can find that.

And yeah, thank you. Thank you so much for being here. It’s so fascinating. I just wanna ask you like a hundred more questions, so hopefully we can do this again sometime.

Dr. Amy: Sounds great, Emma. Thank you so much.

Emma: Yep. Okay. Have a good one.

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