Trauma is very common. But despite how common it is, trauma treatment is complicated, and complex trauma, stemming from years of abuse, really impacts the brain in long-lasting ways. So I’m not going to pretend that I can just teach you how to fix it in one short blog post. But we can break trauma treatment down into practical steps. It’s not that hard to learn how to release trauma in the body. So let’s talk about that.
I once worked with a client who I’ll call Mary. Mary grew up in an abusive home. Her biological father was imprisoned for molesting her when she was little, and her stepfather had sexually abused her for years. And from her perspective, her mother’s abuse was the worst. Her mother was emotionally abusive, calling her names and degrading her and telling her she was a slut.
So her childhood was difficult, to say the least. In her twenties, she came to therapy to work on anxiety, self-esteem, and to process through all the old trauma. In this post, we’re going to talk about how trauma showed up in her body and some of the things we worked on to resolve it.
How Trauma Gets Trapped in the Body
Trauma is very common, but despite how common it is, trauma treatment is complicated. And complex trauma stemming from years of abuse really impacts the brain in long-lasting ways. So I’m not going to pretend that I can just teach you how to fix it in one short blog post, but we can break trauma treatment down into practical steps.
It’s not that hard to learn how to release trauma in the body. So let’s talk about that.
But first, just take a few slow breaths. Just like that, you sent a message to your body that it can turn on the parasympathetic response.
Now, in my previous blog post, I talked about how trauma gets trapped in the body. The fight/flight/freeze response gets kicked on over and over again, and it doesn’t get resolved. And eventually it becomes habitual, essentially a muscle memory that turns on that physiological response.
Adrenaline and cortisol flow into the body. The pupils narrow. The muscles tense. The heart and lungs pump faster. The immune system and digestion turn off.
When it comes to trauma, our body is not only reacting to the present-moment sense of danger or safety but the memory of past danger that has basically been stored in our nervous system.
This activated, stressed-out, hypervigilant response becomes habitual. And when it’s chronic, the toxic stress harms your body. It makes it difficult to function mentally and emotionally.
But your beautiful, brilliant body is not designed to just leave you trapped there. It’s designed to heal, to repair, to connect, and to restore its sense of safety.
According to the polyvagal theory, there are three states of the nervous system. Our default mode is this safety-and-connection state. But when faced with a perceived threat, our nervous system kicks on the fight-or-flight response. And this activates you to fight off danger or escape it.
But when a threat seems impossible to escape and there’s no hope in fighting it off, your nervous system enters the freeze state, shutdown mode. You numb out and freeze up.
When treating trauma, our goal is to transition the nervous system from being stuck in fight-or-flight or shutdown to a calm state of safety and connection. The more time we spend in that state, the more we train the body to return to a sense of calm and security. The healthiest people can actually transition between that activated response and the safety response quite quickly.
We don’t have to suppress the fight/flight/freeze response; we just need to add an additional skill to our tool belt. And there’s actually a way to measure your nervous system flexibility. It’s called vagal tone, and you can measure it with heart-rate variability. So you can learn a lot more about that in another video I made.
But you don’t need a machine to tell you what state you’re in. Your body has a built-in monitor. It’s called neuroception. Your brain is constantly monitoring what state you’re in. You can learn to become more aware of the state you’re in. And when you do, you can consciously choose action that helps release this tension.
So this is why therapy is really helpful, because an observant therapist can help you notice what state you’re in and then help you transition back to safety.
And it’s easier to calm the mind by calming the body first. So when I do trauma work, I always start with the body.
How to Move Out of the Shutdown Response
So let’s start by talking about the shutdown response. So the oldest, most primitive response is the dorsal vagal response. This is the freeze-and-immobilization response. When we perceive an overwhelming threat that we can’t fight off or escape, this is what we default into. So an example of this is how animals play dead or freeze when they can’t escape.
When it’s chronic in humans, it looks like feeling exhausted, detached, numb, disconnected, or mentally foggy. This looks a lot like depression too.
So in one session with my client, Mary, she was going through the process of the trial of her stepfather. And she was sitting on my couch, and she was just saying over and over, “I’m so angry at him. I’m just so mad,” but her face was completely flat. Her eyes were downcast. Her body was tense and frozen and rigid. She said she was feeling anger, but her body was responding with immobilization.
And you’ll see this a lot with trauma survivors. They get locked up, they shut down, they get overwhelmed.They collapse into a feeling of helplessness that sometimes gets diagnosed as depression.
So with Mary, I asked her to start patting her hands on her legs. Then I asked her to start stomping her feet. Pretty soon she started loosening up. And as she started to notice her surroundings, I reminded her that she was safe in this room. Her face became more expressive. She started smiling and laughing a little bit. But then she was also able to actually feel her anger, and she was actually mad.
By moving her body around, we were able to shift her from shutdown mode into a more activated state. We also really bugged the therapist in the office next to me. She barged into my session, and she’s like, “Is there a therapist in here?” And me and my client kind of laughed our heads off about it later. Anyways.
You may need to find a quieter place to do that kind of activity, to get out of that freeze response. But movement, just even like shaking your hands out, patting, tapping, touching, or just getting back into connection with your body can help you get out of that freeze-and-shutdown response.
How to Get Out of the FFF State
So the second level of trauma is being stuck in the fight-or-flight state or the sympathetic state. And this can look like anxiety, hyperactivity, hypervigilance, over-sensitivity. So your body is mobilized to manage threats.
So most of the time when Mary came into the office, she was stuck in this mode. Her hands jiggled, her legs jiggled, her hands never stopped moving. She had a hard time concentrating. She was jumpy. She didn’t sleep well.
So in this stage we worked on soothing her nervous system. We practiced tapping, slow breathing, yawning, stretching. Sometimes we danced or yelled. And once she was triggered, she learned to calm down and get centered in her body.
Sometimes she would use a grounding skill or she would hold a heavy object, but each of these activities gradually helped her feel a sense of calm.
The third state is the ventral vagal state. This is the safety-and-connection state. Some people call it rest and digest. Others call it feed and breed.
But this is the state, it’s where your body rests, it heals, but it also gets excited and engaged. You experience joy. Your blood pressure drops, your body relaxes. This is the most flexible state. It can be playful, adaptive, curious. You can connect to others. It’s both active and restful.
As therapy with Mary progressed, she spent more and more time in this state, and she was able to process through and resolve some of her painful memories.
We also started doing some work with Mary and her husband. So he would come in, and they would talk about trauma or some problem in her family. And then if she got upset, Mike would soothe her. He would look her in the eyes and tell her, “It’s going to be okay.” And he would hold her hand or he would hug her.
Now, eye contact and hugs actually change brain chemistry. They release oxytocin, which is one of the attachment hormones. And they send a message to your nervous system that you are safe. Mary and Mike would cry together and they would laugh together, but they were safe together. He treated her well, and they worked that healing process together.
So you really can learn to release trauma from your body by retraining the nervous system to spend more time in that state of safety. And just to overview some of the body-based treatments for each state, here are seven ways to restore a sense of safety to your body. And I’ve got videos on each of these if you want to learn and practice each exercise.
So the first one is perceived safety. You say, “In the present moment, I’m actually safe.” The exercises are all about reorienting to the present and grounding with the five senses.
Number two is connecting with your body: patting your legs, patting your hands, tapping — just reconnecting with your body movement.
Number three is taking the body through its cycles — shaking, dancing, exercise, yoga, laughter. So if you’re feeling tense, let yourself tense. If you’re feeling shaky, exaggerate those shakes. Your body’s trying to tell you something and have you work through and resolve something inside of it.
The next level is to soothe the body, so to go from an activated state to a calming state. You can use your five senses. You can use gentle breathing. You can use progressive muscle relaxation or paced breathing.
And then you can learn to turn on the parasympathetic response. You can try exercises like the yawn, softening your gaze, pelvic-floor relaxation, and deep breaths. And basically any activity that regulates breathing, like swimming or playing a wind instrument, each of these can help turn on that parasympathetic response as well.
And then connect with others who make you feel safe. Eye contact, hugs, listening to the human voice, looking at an expressive face, emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy — these all trigger a chemical change in your body.
And then after we soothe the body, we’re going to engage in cognitive reprocessing of trauma: drawing, talking, writing. When your body’s in a state of calm, you can work through the old, painful memories and sensations and essentially reinterpret them from your new sense of safety.
So for example, “That hurt really bad when I was little. It wasn’t my fault. And now I’m an adult and I’m safe,” etc.
I hope this was helpful. Thank you for reading, and take care.