Movement to help your body naturally move through trauma
The term trauma is used to describe the state an individual is left with after a shock or prolonged danger or distressing event has passed. Its prevalence in society has grown from the recognition of the symptoms war veterans were experiencing in the 1980s with the diagnosable condition Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This has also opened up to recognise that trauma does not just stem from large, traumatic events but can be as a result of Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) and the definition extended to anything that overwhelms to the point where we can’t cope, on an individual basis.
The medical world has long viewed trauma as a purely psychological issue, although recent research shows it to be a full physiological response; a reliving in this moment of an event or felt state that came before. For those with trauma, this is the only way more primal, instinctual responses can make sense of the continual.
Trauma tends to be set into two categories. Shock or‘discrete trauma’ often written as Trauma, which is highly identifiable and related to a catastrophic event like physical abuse, injury or witnessing those, also the death of a relative or friend. Vivid and explicit memories usually surround this type and it is often discussed more in relation to PTSD.
Developmental trauma (ACEs) happens as part of the landscape that we grow up in or due to the relationship we have with our caregiver. This can be reoccurring painful situations or experiences including parental criticism, childhood neglect, being bullied or teased or experiencing alcoholism or another addiction or mental or medical illness in the family. There has been much discussion on the links here to healthy attachment in the crucial, sensitive first years of life.
Whatever the causative route(s), the mind-body outcome is the same; the individual becomes locked into living from a protective ‘not safe’ internal landscape, where they are continually on guard and hypervigilant. Often trauma is a set of competing strategies, all triggered at once and we can bounce between expressions from freeze and tuning out to angry, withdrawn to anxiety, lost and depressed towards irritation.
Trauma can manifest in the form of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, chemical sensitivities, myofascial pain, problems with the temporomandibular joint of the jaw (TMJ), chronic lower back pain, and chronic headaches or migraines. The states of freezing, flooding and dissociation are common where the frontal lobes are disengaged to bypass the executive functioning of the cortex (front brain) and activate our instinctual survival responses. These are experienced as being spaced-out, overwhelmed or disconnected from reality.
Gentle, mindful and attentive movement can help to unlock traumatised body tissues and start to unravel its effects without retraumatisation. As Maryanna Eckberg says in her book Victims of Cruelty: Somatic Psychotherapy and the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; “Trauma …can manifest in our bodies (as) chronically restricted tissue, the shrinking or bracing of the overall structure, a tight diaphragm and shallow breathing… and strong tension at the base of the skull and at the bottom of the spine.”
To not move is to stay locked-in to the body, often with a dissociated mind. A 2014 paper (Front Hum Neurosci., 2014;8:205) on mindful movement, discusses the recent postulations that “that mental functions such as perception, cognition and motivation, cannot be fully understood without reference to the physical body as well as the environment in which they are experienced”. This reflects both many ancient traditions such as yoga, T’ai Chi and Chi Gong, as well as modern Somatics and Feldenkrais. As Bessel van der Kolk says in his seminal book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score; “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you acknowledge the reality of your body in all its visceral dimensions.”
Constructive Rest Position (CRP) – psoas release
Trauma is a persistent state of stress, where the heartbeat is raised, the gut tightened and muscles constricted ready for fight, flight or freeze. The psoas muscle – connecting our legs to the spine – initiates the curl response, flexes our legs into chest to protect our vulnerable groin, belly and throat. In trauma or chronic stress, the psoas can become tight, short and dry from this constant engagement.
CRP is a neutral psoas position, which if we stay in for 15 minutes, can send the signal that we are safe to ‘let go’ in this deep, visceral region of the body. Release here means intercepting the continual “unsafe!” message being sent back up to the brain. You may need to build up slowly to 15 minutes, pushing in any longer than you are able to feel safe can be counterproductive.
- Laying on a comfortable surface, with your head supported if your chin tends to lift, place the feet hip-width apart, legs about 90 degrees bent. If your lower back feels compressed, you can place the balls of your feet onto a cushion or a low support underneath the back. Find the position where you are neither working in the legs nor pulling in the back to be able to stay.
- Place a blanket over you if you need to feel cocooned and safe. Focus on feeling the support of the ground and the weight of your feet there. This is a good place to listen to a meditation or if being still and quiet is too vulnerable, listening to an audio book or the radio.
Attention to the breath
In mindful practices, attention on the breath is used as an anchor into the present moment. The breath is a constant inner rhythm that is a (mostly) neutral experience and as such can guide us back whenever our attention wanders to fear created in the past or survival anxiety about the future. Those with trauma tend to a continual stress response with emphasis on the energising inhalation, which can lead to shallow breathing (even hyperventilation) and tightness in the diaphragm.
CRP is the perfect platform for conscious breathing, where the belly and diaphragm can most easily relax and regain the movement in breath that is more difficult standing up from gravity. Releasing the jaw here also help relieve constriction around the head that keeps up the stress response.
Staying ‘grounded’ means to have a full sense of our physical body in the here and now. When freeze and dissociation tend to take us away from this clarity, embodiment provides a tether to come back to. Some need movement to feel the proprioception (the position and existence of the body) and interoception (gut feelings and our internal landscape) that can be disrupted by trauma. Whatever feels right needs to be listened to as a route to safety.
Safety of the foetal position
After CRP, drawing knees in towards the chest can feel both nurturing as we curl into the foetal position where we protect our soft front body. It can also create some length in the lower back for those who tend to compression there. You can also lie on your side in this position or do seated on the ground with arms wrapped around your legs any time you need.
Grounding on all-fours
Coming on to all-fours (see above) allows free movement of the spine with the safe feeling of being rooted to the ground. It also offers support for movement in the shoulders and hips that allows exploration of the ‘fluid body’ in the abdomen and viscera, where trauma is embedded. Between each movement below, you can drop down into the foetal child poseor safety and recovery.
- Rotate the pelvis as if belly dancing, imagining the tip of the tailbone as a pencil and draw large circles. Start in just the pelvis until looseness travels up the spine to include shoulders, neck and head however feels right; change direction.
- From all-fours, exhale the right knee in towards the head as you curl in. On the inhalation, lengthen out the right leg, neck lengthening away from the back heel. Repeat this motion 5-10 times to feel the back body opening as you breath out, the front as you breathe in. Repeat other side.
Standing poses for strong legs
Standing movements are often recommended for those with trauma as they create a natural grounding up through the feet. They also strengthen legs, which assists the safety of knowing we can stand our ground or get away as we need to protect ourselves.
The first movement shown here is to create elasticity through the psoas muscle and a spring up from the ground that creates more opening through the front body, which can tend to get shut down in trauma.
- With feet hip-width apart and parallel, step into a lunge with the back knee bent. The opposite arm to the front leg is raised, the other hanging down. Bounce here a little to get the feel for movement, drawing up through the belly to support the lower back.
- Use a bounce on the back foot and leg to then draw the back leg up in towards the chest, with the arms helping the movement by swinging to the opposite one up, other still down. Repeat this motion in the pace that doesn’t feel overwhelming or agitating, starting with five repetitions each side and moving on as suits you energy.
Warrior 2 pose in yoga is a classic ‘power pose’ where we feel fully embodied and strong within our personal space. Step the feet out to a wide stride, with the back foot and hip turned in 45 degrees and the front foot parallel to the mat. Inhale the arms up above the head (legs to straight) and then exhale down the centre line to reach the arms out equally from the chest and bend the front knee in the direction of the foot. Follow this breath pattern – inhaling up, exhaling down – before settling into holding the breath and breathing fully to feel you can hold strength without this being a stressful event. Repeat on the other side.
Forward bends to soothe the mind-body
Forward bending, like the foetal position, draws us inwards and soothes an agitated nervous system. Coming to a chair – whether legs crossed or wide-legged – also provides a platform, where the seat can support the weight of the head and we can breathe space across the lower back where much tension can be felt. A little pressure on the forehead (on the seat or to folded arms) activates the trigeminal nerve there, which is linked to the vagus nerve and we can feel as a soothing massage.
Rest with inversion
Raising the legs above the head and hips is highly soothing for the nervous system, as the hearts doesn’t need to pump blood up from the bottom body, but can rely on gravity instead. For trauma-related lower back issues, this legs-up on a chair position can also relieve any pain from compression there and can be an alternative to CRP. You may need a folded blanket under your head to avoid lifting the chin and therefore creating the space we need at the base of the skull for good vagal tone. This lift needs to be no more than 1.5 inches or can create more tension in the back of the neck from overstretching.
You can also bring your hands onto your belly for reassurance and to tune into full awareness of your body on the ground, fully supported and safe.
Take a look at Charlotte’s Schedule for Yoga Teachers here.