healing from trauma with the body + experiential therapy

In my last post, I wrote about ritual and sacred objects as powerful tools for helping us internalize life experiences at a deeper level. This could mean instilling positive moments more permanently in your memory and neural networks, or fully connecting to the emotions of a painful experience in order to move through it rather than stay stuck in it at the cognitive level. These tools are available to anyone at any time, since they can be as simple as a morning ritual of prayer or journaling, or a rock or crystal that acts as a touchstone for grounding in an anxious situation. Exploring ritual and sacred objects at a deeper, more personalized level is also something I highly recommend, as you can go far beyond the basic examples above and use these tools as a powerful means of connecting to your core, divine humanity.

I want to continue this discussion with how the same principles apply in the clinical context of therapy or treatment. While we psychologically hold a tight grip on day-to-day negative experiences (as I wrote about in the previous post), the brain often goes into overdrive when it comes to traumatic experiences by compartmentalizing them away since they are too much to handle. This is not innately bad; in fact, it's an important survival skill, and many of my clients may not have made it to adulthood if not for this psychological protection. The problem lies in the fact that even if the brain disconnects and is able to suppress the memory or tell the story of the traumatic event like it’s the plot of a Lifetime original movie, the experience is still imprinted in the body. Ultimately, this emotional disconnect makes it very difficult to fully process the experience and release it from the body. 

Peter Levine is one of the world’s foremost experts in trauma and traumatic healing and developer of the Somatic Experiencing treatment model. Levine was one of the first in the field to propose the importance of the body in healing from trauma, rather than just talking about the experience. He writes,

In short, trauma is about loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognize, because it doesn’t happen all at once. It can happen slowly, over time, and we adapt to these subtle changes sometimes without even noticing them… because the overwhelm and the fight-or-flight are things that happen in the body, what I would say is the golden route [for clinicians] is to be able to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness.    {Peter Lavine}

In Levine’s prolific research and writings, he asserts that the best way for therapists to empower clients to heal from trauma is to facilitate the client allowing her body to release the frozen energy that it has stored from the original trauma. This does not require them to retell or relive the traumatic event, but rather encourages clients to reconnect with and release that excess “survival energy” and gently guiding them to "develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions."

Sometimes, a new client will acknowledge to me that she simply has not felt able or ready yet to deal with her traumatic experiences, saying, “I’ve just numbed it with ________" (alcohol, drugs, eating disorder, sex, shopping, you name it.) In these instances, we first need to work on building her internal strengths and resources and helping her learn and practice emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills so that she has sufficient affect regulation capability to work more deeply on her trauma issues. Otherwise, it’s like walking into a fire without any protective gear or clothing on. Other times, I’ll meet with a new client who tells me that she has had therapy before and says, “I thought I’d already worked through that stuff. How is it going to help me to keep going back into the past?” When I inquire more about what her experience of trauma work was like, the client often says that she “talked a lot about it.” 

I’m definitely not one to put down talk therapy as a whole. There is tremendous value in a person sharing his/her story and feeling seen, heard, and accepted by a therapist or group, especially if they haven’t yet shared their story or haven’t been accepted for it in the past. Putting experiences and feelings into words is a critical part of the healing process. However, for many people and most victims of serious trauma, talk therapy alone is not enough. As I mentioned before, trauma is stored in the body. Therefore, healing has to also occur in the body. While there are many different methods of trauma treatment, the common denominator of the most successful treatments is that they go beyond talking to help a client reconnect emotionally to the trauma, and since emotions are felt in the body, engaging the body is often the surest and fastest way in.

I am proud to be a therapist at The Ranch, a residential facility known internationally for our trauma treatment, as we employ a wide variety of experiential therapy methods with our clients. We are often the place that people come to after they have been in treatment several times before at other places (often working on just the surface-level behavioral issues like alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorder, etc.), and they’ve continued to relapse because they have not truly gotten to the “core” issues. (Some people are lucky and find their way to us sooner!) While some of our therapists are trained in particular models like EMDR, Brainspotting, Equine Therapy, Psychodrama, Somatic Experiencing, ACT for trauma, etc., what we all have in common is a philosophy and dedication to helping our clients reconnect with their bodies in order to more fully heal.

“Experiential therapy” is the umbrella term for any method that gets a client out of her head and into her body, and in the past few years of training and working with highly skilled clinicians at The Ranch, I have found this to be the single most important factor, regardless of the specific method used. I have numerous "sacred objects" that I use as props in experiential therapy, like my rainbow of scarves pictured above that I can use in a thousand different ways in groups and 1on1 sessions. Adding sacred objects and ritual into clinical work are some of the best ways to transform humdrum therapy into experiential therapy that facilitates lasting change. We do a lot of "ashes work" involving fire (and what rises from the flames? That's right -- the Phoenix), guided visualizations, adventure therapy outdoors, and much more. And cliché or not, the power of the empty chair is irrefutable. 

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing women make this leap from knowing something cognitively to knowing it in their bodies, in their bones. A woman can say, flatly, over and over again, “I know it wasn’t really my fault,” but when I see her stand up and scream, “It’s NOT my fault, and I’m TAKING my body back!” — and mean it from the depth of her being — something magical happens. A reclaiming of body, soul, and life. 

If you or a loved one have struggled with trauma and felt like it has kept you from living your fullest life — please, please know that this does not have to be your “normal.” The right kind of trained professional can empower you to heal. And trauma does not have to mean “big T Trauma” like physical or sexual abuse or a major event. Many times, trauma is more a series of small events that occurred repeatedly ("cluster wounds"), and we may not notice the impact of them until much later. Psychiatrist and Mark Epstein wrote a whole book on this topic in 2013, The Trauma of Everyday Life, and an Op-Ed for the New York Timeson the same topic.

Whether you feel you have experienced trauma or not, the same rules of biochemistry, energy, and psychology apply to all of us humans:

Listen to your body. It is your ally, and it holds much more wisdom than you might think. Pay close attention to the messages it sends you {build your muscles of intuition}, and respond with care. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.