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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Hoekstra, PsyD, LP DBSM

The Somatic Shadow: How Trauma Resides in the Body

ART, EMDR, trauma

Trauma is powerful. Traumatic experiences leave their mark not just on our minds, but also stamped within our bodies. This post is to discuss the concept of trauma stored in the body, its impact on our well-being, and the therapeutic approaches that bridge the mind-body divide to allow for healing.

The human body is wired for survival. When confronted with danger, our autonomic nervous system triggers a fight-or-flight response. This is an essential survival mechanism - our heart rate quickens, muscles tense, and the body prepares for immediate action. This immediate action might be running away, fighting for our survival, or freezing so we aren't detected by a threat. However, when a traumatic experience overwhelms this protective mechanism, the system can become stuck. Unprocessed stress hormones linger, and the body remains trapped in a state of high alert. This chronic activation results in a cascade of physical symptoms, including chronic pain, fatigue, digestive issues, and sleep disturbances. These physical manifestations become a cryptic language, the body's way of communicating the emotional distress it struggles to articulate.

Beyond physiological responses, trauma can have a profound impact on the way memories are stored. Unlike linear, narrative memory, traumatic memories are often fragmented, lacking the context and details of everyday experiences. Instead, the body imprints the emotional charge of the event such as terror, anger, depression, or helplessness throughout the body. A loud noise, a specific smell, or even a physical sensation like an unexpected touch or movement can trigger a flood of emotions and physical reactions associated with the trauma, even if the conscious mind doesn't recall the specific event. This phenomenon, described by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in his seminal work "The Body Keeps the Score," highlights the profound link between trauma and the body's implicit memory system.

The concept of "somatization" describes this conversion of emotional distress into physical symptoms. Trauma survivors might experience chronic tightness in their chest, mirroring the feeling of suffocation during the traumatic event. Headaches or stomach aches can become stand-ins for the overwhelming emotions associated with the trauma. These physical symptoms serve as a cry for help, a language the body uses to communicate unresolved emotional pain.

Traditional talk therapy, while helpful in certain circumstances, is unlikely to fully address the body's role in processing trauma. This is where body-based therapies come in. Therapy approaches such as ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) utilize techniques that connect physical sensations, emotional experiences, and narratives associated with experienced trauma. By simultaneous activation of these bodily cues in a safe, controlled space for their release, these therapies can help the mind rewrite the body's narrative of the traumatic experience. Successful treatment frequently results in her ability to recall the traumatic experience without emotional distress or physical upset becoming triggered.

Valuing and prioritizing focus on the mind-body connection in trauma treatment is a paradigm shift. It empowers individuals to understand their emotional responses and acknowledge the physical manifestations of their experiences so they can be released. This allows trauma survivors to not just think differently about their experiences but also feel differently within their bodies post-treatment. The journey toward healing thus becomes one of reclaiming not just the mind, but the body as well.

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