This article should not be taken as psychological advice and is strictly written with the intent to raise awareness, inform, and address an interest in shared human experiences. If you are experiencing distress please reach out to a mental health or medical professional. Resources can be found here: https://www.samhsa.gov/
In the Yoga world the designation of 'trauma-informed' or 'trauma-aware' or 'trauma-sensitive' have become more prevalent in the marketing of classes, programs, and trainings.
Perhaps you're wondering what these words mean and are curious about the type of experience they are trying to convey. If so, it's important to understand why Truama is a body-related experience.
Trauma-informed Yoga is a style of yoga in which the instructor approaches the class with an understanding that life disruptions, crises, and disturbing events may not simply affect someone's psyche. They may also take root in the physical body.
The better understand Trauma-informed Yoga, let's take a look at Trauma itself.
Trauma, in a nutshell, is an adverse experience (or series of experiences) that totally overwhelms the nervous system.
Bessel van der Kolk, the author of the acclaimed book The Body Keeps The Score, explains, “[Trauma] is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body" (Tippet, 2021).
Trauma is an inescapable shock. These may occur as 'big T' or 'little t' occurrences. A traumatic event may be all at once, or systemic over a long period of time. Most notably people may think of veterans of war suffering from PTSD. But those who have experienced a disturbing event which they had little or no control of escaping may experience post-traumatic stress responses that negatively impact their life. Car accidents, domestic abuse, childhood neglect or abuse, sexual violence, significant financial trauma or sustained periods of time without necessary fundamental resources, natural and global disasters, to name a few, may impact a person's ability to cope moving forward.
Trauma, as it is often understood, leaves a person 'stuck' with the event.
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading research on the topic of trauma shares that stories about the event rarely change, even after years and sometimes decades, after the event occurred (Tippet, 2021). The stuck-ness is indicative an otherwise resilient brain's inability to transform or overcome the narrative of the traumatic event. What is unique about Trauma-informed practices is that they often understand the stuck-ness may not respond to a simply a top-down logical or language-based approach. Even if a person logically knows that the event is no longer in process or the circumstances have greatly changed, the may still have adverse physical experiences as a result such as heightened stress responses, irritability, difficulty with touch and closeness, insomnia, nightmares, outbursts, and more.
The reason why stress responses cannot simply be thought or talked through has to do with the way that the layers of our brain connect or don't connect with each other.
In an interview Bessel van der Kolk explained this phenomena, "What we see is that the parts of the brain that help people to think clearly and to observe things clearly really get interfered with by trauma and that the imprint of trauma is in areas of the brain that really have no access to cognition ... The amygdala, of course, which is the smoke detector, alarm bell system of the brain, that’s where the trauma lands, and trauma makes that part of the brain hypersensitive or renders it totally insensitive. So when people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears" (Tippet, 2021).
Developing a logical understanding of the present moment, say a firework on the 4th of July, with instinctual reactiveness to a stimuli (loud bang that reminds a person of a gun shot) may not happen well, or at all, in some cases. Instead, a stimuli may act as a 'trigger' of a traumatic stress response. A person may or may not even be aware of what stimuli evokes their an overreactive stress response. These triggers in and of themselves often are innocuous, and within the right context may provide an opportunity for a person to examine the effect of a stimuli. However, without support stimuli that trigger a significant stress response can be overwhelming and potentially detrimental. Developing post-traumatic wisdom and awareness is a process that takes time, and the support of friends, family, and resources to access mental health professionals, and complementary healing modalities certainly makes a difference.
A curious insight into trauma responses is that time may not reduce a person's physical reactiveness to stimuli, or triggers, that evoke a traumatic stress response. What is most important to a person's resilience around the event may have less to do with how recent the trauma occurred, but rather how in control the person was in being able to escape or survive the incident and the quality of support they have received since the event occurred.
Let's look at why resources and control matter.
Polyvagal Theory, and its pioneering expert Dr. Steven Porges, provide a framework for understanding the three-part brain and why top-down approaches may not be enough to help a person move from feeling stuck in their traumatic narrative (PsychAlive, 2018). Our mammalian brains are social, and relatively new in evolutionary terms. The oldest aspects of our brain are considered our lizard brain and includes our autonomic nervous system which regulates our basic body functions including breathing and heartbeat. The next oldest aspects of the brain are considered our mammal brain governs our emotional responses, memories, habits, and social attachments. The newest parts of the brain, the cortex, are considered the most 'human' aspects of our brain and govern high level cognition such as language, reason, abstract thinking, self-awareness, and rationalization.
So why do we experience a disconnect when we sense danger?
To better understand the relationship, and sometimes the disconnection of our brain systems, we need to have a working knowledge of the autonomic nervous system - or the section of our nervous system that we do not consciously control, and the section that is oldest. Two branches of the autonomic nervous system are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is generally in control of our ability to be alert, mobile ,and take action. Additionally, while not its only job of the SNS, the SNS is also in charge of what is called the 'fight or flight' response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposite. The parasympathetic system is considered the housekeeping system, which governs sleep, digestion, rest, healing, appropriate memory processing and more. The PNS is in charge of what is often call the 'rest and digest' response.
With these systems and their nicknames in mind, it is easy to understand why 'fight or flight' is considered a person's go-to defense responses when their safety is threatened. If we are sensing danger we are not going to stay 'online' at the high level of the cortex. Our mammalian brain is going to relay with the lizard brain to prepare ourselves for defense. Afterall, these connections are older, more instinctual, and have been working well at keeping humans alive for a long-long-long time.
Polyvagal Theory suggests that there is also multiple defensive responses (hence the term 'poly'). Human defense options may not simply be fight or flee, and for good reason.
The human infant is a mammal which means a bond with a caregiver is necessary for survival. More than most animals, including most mammals, the human baby is completely helpless at birth. Total dependence on a caregiver necessitates becoming ultra sensitive to social interactions and attention for care. Human babies have virtually no control over their own wellbeing and are limited to just a few skills for getting what they need: eye contact, bonding with their caregiver, and crying. When a disturbing event occurs is it a human baby's natural response is to look to their caregiver for comfort. This social interaction aspect is an important part of human survival and plays a part in the Polyvagal Theory. When a human senses danger the sympathetic nervous system kicks on to take control in the best ways it knows how: to sound the alarm. For a baby this might be crying. For an adult this might be fighting the threat or running away from the threat. However, if fighting, fleeing, or seeking help are not options, which is often the case in severe traumatic event or periods of intense prolonged stress, Polyvagal Theory suggests that other self-preservation strategic emerges. These strategies include shutdown, black out, faint, and disassociate. In other words, if a person cannot fight back and cannot run away they freeze, immobilize, and hide themselves from pain within their own mind. Staying psychologically far away from the pain may be the only escape possible.
For over 40 years the work of Peter Levine, and his book Waking the Tiger and this Somatic Experiencing technique have helped psychology professionals and their clients make sense of trauma in their bodies. In his book, Peter Levine provides both real-life stories and clinical explanations for why a person's perceived level of control within a traumatic event plays a part in their ability to move forward. In his writing Dr. Levine details stories of those suffering from PTSD stemming from many circumstance, including those who were survivors of kidnap and capture. In these stories he retells many accounts distinguishing those who were able to take action for survival to those who were not able to fight back or could not otherwise take meaningful action in the face of their trauma (Levine, 1997).
Even though the severity and factual events of two survivors may be similar the way their ability to process and move forward may be incredibly different. Age and helplessness also play an important factor in how trauma, abuse, and neglect influence the entirety of person's life. In the book What Happened to You, Dr. Bruce Perry and his co-author Oprah Winfrey, give voice to the stories and science of post-traumatic experiences in the cases of children when neglect and abuse happens before verbal skills and while the brain is still developing. Dr. Bruce Perry's research has shown that a baby when a receives predictable love and attention for the first two months of their lives, it evokes a more powerful influence over their in emotional health than the impact of negative experiences the next 10-12 years of their childhood. In short, before we can talk, we are fully reliant on consistent love, and care. This need for others when we are in a fully vulnerable state influences the entirety of our lives (Perry & Winfrey, 2021).
A perceived or actual level of control to stay safe and escape stressful and harmful experience has a direct impact on how people relate to the memory of adverse events, respond to stimuli perceived as similar, and pattern their responses to threat and danger.
Hope & Human Connection
“Connectedness allows people to heal,” said Dr. Perry at a symposium in New Mexico. “The American Dream has resulted in relational poverty. The independence espoused by the American Dream has resulted in a relationally fragmented society. We’ve lost our connectedness to each other and our connectedness to the natural world.”
Humans spent most of their time until the most recent history in extended family groups with shared responsibilities and resources. More adults took part in rearing children, and the nuclear family was non-existent. Human brains seeking out human connection could easily find it within community groups. The brain evolved for this and responds positively to interaction and intimacy with other people. Stress response systems and the neurobiological networks are involved in forming and maintaining relationships.
In short, positive, safe, and supportive relationships are key in maintaining health, developing creativity, and living a life that feels productive and meaningful.
Supporting Our Healing
Yoga, mind-body therapeutic techniques such as EMDR, spending time in nature, self-regulation techniques such as body scanning and breathwork have been shown to be effective and supportive tools in helping a person reconnect to their body senses.
What all of these tools have in common are the aim to support regulation of the nervous system (i.e. appropriately respond and recover from stress). While doing the work of movement and meditation with a Yoga Teacher, EMDR with a therapist, or even engaging in mind-body practices at a ritual at home it is to be expected that disruptive thoughts and memories will pop-up. The process of becoming aware and regulating of body responses such as breathing or releases tight muscles, remaining in relationship with emotions and sensations throughout the process, and maintaining a sense of the present moment creates a ground for experiencing without becoming overly involved or losing a sense of self when a negative thought or emotion arises.
It seems important to note that safe, and comforting human connection is also paramount. The work of Dr. Bruce Perry underscores how healthy relationships can be some of the most healing and influential aspects of developing post-traumatic wisdom.
Reorienting ourselves to creating better relationships with ourselves, accepting love and support from other people, while also seeking out the support of professionals are ways we all can support our own healing journey.
Body. Mind. Business.
Hi there! You found me. My name is Julia Marie Lopez. For 20 years I have studied meditation and mindful movement as my primary tools for healing. For the past 10 years I have worked as a wellness business owner and I am the Founder of Practice Everywhere.
Since I offer you my experience and perspective, share my writing about life, love and wellness, and offer a bit of unsolicited advice, I think you should also know that I do include affiliate links and promotions in some of blogs. If you make an action (such as sign ups, memberships, or purchases) I might earn a commission. I promise to use this income to support my love of coffee, dogs, yoga, and my family (in no particular order).💜