I am becoming more and more interested in embodied movement as a tool for healing from trauma and negative past experiences. Myself and many others learn and experience life kinesthetically (through movement). Acknowledging this and being unashamed to practice it has been my greatest teacher and healer.
Recently I attended a drum and dance circle in Brockwell Park, London. It reminded me of the many dance events I attended when I was living on The Big Island of Hawaii, and also of the improvisation jams when I was studying at university; it reminded me of the healing power of community, connection, rhythm, music and dance.
I have written two articles on alternative therapies of healing from trauma (both are unpublished but I will provide links as soon as they are), research led to me to a book entitled “The Body Keeps The Score”, by a leading doctor and psychotherapist in the field of trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk.
The book is about the effects of trauma on the human mind and body, and the need for reform throughout the way we understand and treat traumatic stress. What I read both fascinated and terrified me.
This book, combined with the knowledge I hold in my body, learnt through movement, has inspired me to explore movement as a healer from negative experience and trauma.
What is Trauma?
Trauma was first widely recognised after the soldiers returning from the world wars reported intense flashbacks, depression and violent rage attacks as they struggled to cope with the horrors of war that they had experienced on the front line. From this, a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was born, or as Sigmund Freud once said about trauma in 1895: “I think this man is suffering from memories”.
We now know that trauma exists in many different forms. Everything ranging from child abuse, to war, to generational trauma, can hugely affect both the human mind and the human body. Only recently has it been recognised that trauma, in particular that experienced during childhood, can greatly alter our perceptions — the way we view and experience the world around us. You quite literally become stuck in, defined by, and the embodiment of, your past experiences.
Unfortunately, humans have a habit of being able to remember and recall more vividly, the traumatic events that happen in their lives, allowing these to shape their future. If you recall the happiest day of your life, and then the saddest day of your life.. which one do you remember most details about?
Drugs as Medication
The theory that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain is widely accepted by the public, media and medical professionals. This has led the way for the pharmacology industry to explode. Drugs have surpassed therapy and given patients the ability to suppress the physical nature of their problems without ever addressing the underlying emotional issue. Although if used correctly in conjunction with other treatments, drugs can be highly effective, they also have a serious downside in that they deflect the attention from the real issue at hand.
If drugs as medication were as effective as we are led to believe, then anxiety and depression in our society should be declining. However, the opposite is true. Use of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs are steadily increasing and the number of people in America who are being treated for depression has tripled over the past 20 years, and this is not just the case in the adult population.
Now, more children than ever are being given drugs as a way to handle their outbursts — in particular in low income families. In 2008 alone, 19,045 children under the age of 5 were prescribed antipsychotics. Although they are effective at managing children’s aggressive and disruptive behaviour, they also interfere with the child’s ability to play, discover and learn, which are vital habits to assist growing into a happy, healthy and contributing member of society.
The scary truth is, drugs have become so profitable that other (non-drug) treatments are often blanketed as “alternative” and are rarely published by medical journals.
After a traumatic event has occurred, dissociation and depersonalisation are often the norm. This means that the traumatic experience is spilt off from the experience of reality and can be triggered by sounds, thoughts and physical sensations that cause the individual to relive their trauma right there and then in the form of a flashback. In a lot of ways, this can be worse than the trauma itself. It can occur at any time, and leaves the patient feeling completely out of control of their own life, and completely disconnected from their own bodies.
Talking therapies are essentially aimed at bringing the emotions felt during the trauma to the surface in order to ignite the ability to recognise that the danger is no longer happening. However, the patients physical reactions are usually permanently changed by their past; talking about the events can just cause the trauma to be replayed and revisited again and again — reliving trauma actually causes the alarm systems in the brain to react, and the critical brain areas that help us integrate the past to the present go offline — making it extremely difficult for the patient to resolve the trauma.
Another issue with talking therapies is the problem of memory suppression. This occurs when the body shuts down during the trauma and the patient gets through the orderl by completely dissociating the event from oneself. In fact, once they have regained their memories, many survivors of trauma recall the feeling of floating out of their bodies, looking down on what they perceive as ‘someone else’ enduring the suffering. This kind of extreme dissociation renders talking therapies almost useless. Often a more integrating kind of therapy is needed to access the thoughts and feelings that have been buried and ignored.
Yoga, Movement and Meditation
When we experience traumatic stress, our body immediately reverts into our primitive survival mode: fight or flight. If this fails, if we are unable to fight back or to escape, our bodies shutdown and we enter a stage of freeze or collapse.
Trauma is expressed through both of these functions, and when revisited or re-lived, the body either numbs our experience, or we are again heightened into fight or flight mode, constantly fighting off unseen dangers. In a sense, we completely lose our awareness.
One reason why it is so difficult to recover from trauma is because you feel most alive when revisiting your painful memories. Retraining the brain to feel fully alive in the present moment is the road to self-awareness, the road to recovery and the road to life.
In order to fully recover from trauma/negative experience, we have to learn that our body is no longer in danger, we have to repair our defragmented view of reality and learn to integrate our past and our present. A vital part of healing is learning that in the present, the danger has passed. Once you recognise that your current reactions started as a way to save your life, you can start to build the courage to face your inner world.
The practice of yoga, dancing and meditation is the practice of bringing yourself into the present. Through discipline, breath and stillness, you start to become aware of what your body needs and how to take care of those needs. In other words, you begin to cultivate sensory awareness.
Our sensory experience is the very essence of what makes us human, it is held as much in our awareness as our physical experience, however we are essentially blind to it, making it difficult to understand the internal and emotional needs of our bodies.
Focusing on your breathing and on the sensations in your body from moment to moment entices creativity; it teaches you to approach your body with curiosity rather than with fear. Once in this curious state of mind you can explore the natural rise and falls of the sensations inside the body and let go of the nervous anticipation that usually accompanies them.
Community and connection is also an important part of the healing process. Most victims of trauma find comfort in support groups, however these are usually centered around the traumatic experience and rarely provide relief from the past.
In a yoga class, a meditation group, or even a drum and dance circle, you are supported without judgement through the entire process. The healing power of community is often expressed through music, rhythm and dance — reflecting the rhythm and flow state that we all constantly live in. In a yoga class you move and breath to the rhythm of the teachers instructions, in a healing dance practice you move in a dialogical relationship with the musicians, who are both supporting you and are affected by your movements.
Coming into synchronicity with your own body and with those around you ignites a new relationship with your self. It will leave you feeling physically attuned through experiencing connection and joy, allowing you to be fully present in the moment and safely access your sensations and emotions.
In order for our relationship to our bodies and healing to change, first the relationship to how we treat trauma has to change. We must begin to recognise the true cost of trauma, the effects it has on the patients sense of self. With this knowledge we can learn how to help them integrate back into reality — through breathing, through touch, through connection and through movement.