Trauma is not just about the things that happened to us that should not have happened. These might include physical, sexual or emotional abuse; witnessing violence in the home; substance abuse or mental illness in family members; parental separation or divorce; a family member being imprisoned; a natural disaster or serious accident.
Trauma also includes what didn’t happen to us that should have happened. We may have been neglected physically or emotionally because our parents were unavailable, preoccupied, or chronically stressed. We may have missed out on childhood experiences because we were expected to shoulder too much responsibility at a young age.
Childhood trauma is the root of much mental illness. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, distinguishes between a single incident trauma, such as surviving an earthquake, and chronic repeated trauma, such as repeated physical or sexual abuse. She coined the term “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” to describe those individuals who were affected by chronic recurrent trauma. Mental health diagnoses that often accompany this disorder include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality, agoraphobia and social phobia.
Symptoms of Trauma
The experience of traumatic events can result in a cruel sentence – the past replays itself, constantly hijacking one’s capacity to enjoy the present. If you’ve experienced trauma, it’s lingering effects are such that you may have a variety of symptoms which can include:
Common physical responses to trauma:
- aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches
- sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)
- changes in sleep patterns, appetite, interest in sex
- constipation or diarrhea
- easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
- more susceptible to colds and illnesses
- increased use of alcohol or drugs, addictive behaviours and/or overeating
Common emotional reactions to trauma:
- shock and disbelief
- fear and/or anxiety
- denial or minimizing the experience
- hyper-alertness or hypervigilance
- irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage
- emotional swings – i.e. crying and then laughing
- worrying or ruminating – intrusive thoughts of the trauma
- flashbacks – feeling like the trauma is happening now
- unpleasant past memories resurfacing
- feelings of helplessness, panic, feeling out of control
- increased need to control everyday experiences
- attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma
- tendency to isolate oneself
- feelings of detachment
- concern over burdening others with problems
- emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings
- difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal
- difficulty concentrating or remembering
- feelings of self-blame and/or survivor guilt shame
- diminished interest in everyday activities or depression
- loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future
- difficulty regulating your emotions and impulses
Judith Herman identified a three-step process to heal trauma:
The first stage involves regaining a sense of safety, either through work with a therapist, through relaxation, being in a supportive environment, or using medication. This stage includes finding safety and stability in one’s body, relationships and environment as well as tapping into inner and outer resources for healing. An important part of this stage is to learn how to regulate one’s emotions and manage triggers and symptoms that are upsetting or make one feel unsafe.
As we develop skills to manage painful experiences, we also decrease the severity and frequency of unhelpful responses to those experiences. One of the most accessible and effective ways to discover safety and stability in one’s body is through breathing exercises and yoga. Conscious slow breathing, when the breath is slowed down to less than 5 breaths per minute, has been proven to calm the body, and decrease anxiety and panic attacks. Left nostril breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system further to bring greater calm.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, an international trauma expert and author of The Body Keeps the Score, focuses on breathing practices with every new client. Yoga can bring practitioners back into their bodies in a safe way, contrasting with a common reaction to escape from uncomfortable sensations or pain by dissociating from the body. The relaxation practice (sivasana) occurring at the end of most yoga classes, facilitates body awareness and a release of accumulated tension that is prevalent in those who’ve experienced trauma. The skill, developed through yoga and meditation, of witnessing sensations (comfortable or uncomfortable) without identifying with those sensations, can be extremely helpful for individuals to release the impact of traumatic memories from the body.
The second phase involves actively working through the anger, fear and grief about unwanted or abusive experiences, and the negative effects these have had on one’s life. The traumatized individual may also benefit from expressing grief around the experiences that were denied them – such as having an extended family, supportive social network, someone to talk to, holidays, or fun and play in childhood.
This second stage might include therapeutic techniques such as EMDR, Brainspotting, Emotional Freedom Technique, Neurofeedback, Hypnosis or kundalini yoga to decrease the emotional intensity of traumatic memories.
There are several kundalini yoga sets included in the Trauma Transformation and Integration course and Beyond Addiction: The Yogic Path to Recovery that help to release the emotional charge from a traumatic event, without having to talk about the event. The incident is processed through the body using specific movements that improve communication between the hemispheres of the brain.
Specific kundalini yoga sets, breathing exercises and meditations can be practiced to release anger, fear and grief. Many participants in Trauma, Transformation and Integration and the Beyond Addiction program have experienced tremendous relief from these long-standing difficult emotions by practicing one of these yoga sets daily for 40 days.
The third stage of trauma recovery involves connecting with people, meaningful activities and other aspects of life. It is our loss of connection to ourselves and others that is the real trauma, not the incident itself. Gabor Maté has said, The essence of trauma is that, as a result of the overt abuse or neglect, or because of the relational trauma, we lose the connection to our essence. That’s what the trauma is. The trauma is not what happened; the trauma is not that I was raped, the trauma is not that I was abandoned, the trauma is not that I was hit, the trauma is not that my parents didn’t know how to listen to me.
That’s not the trauma; the trauma is that, as a result of that, I lost the connection to myself. Hence, I lost the connection to my essential qualities: my joy, my vitality, my clarity, my wisdom, my power, my strength, my courage. That’s the trauma!
The good news is, THAT can be healed, because if the trauma is the loss of connection to myself then that loss of connection to myself can be healed. What happened 50 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 15 years ago, or 3 years ago can’t be healed. If you were raped when you were five years old by your grandfather, that’s never going to change. But if the effect of that was that you lost the connection to yourself, that can be changed.
Connection to oneself is a natural outcome of the regular practice of breathing exercises, yoga and meditation. Connection to others occurs when we share our vulnerability and authentic voice, express our feelings and needs, and when we eat, pray, sing, chant, move together and serve one another.
Dancing, yoga, team sports, and martial arts are effective means of connecting through the body. Discovering what gives you meaning, passion and joy and feeling supported to follow through with that maintains your connection to self and others throughout a lifetime.
Regardless of your trauma history, breathing exercises, yoga and meditation can be an important component of your recovery.
For upcoming Beyond Addiction programs to help with healing trauma, click here.