Trauma’s Impact on the Body: How Yoga Can Help
Anybody who knows me, knows I have a passion for learning about trauma and more importantly ways to help heal trauma.
When people think about trauma, they often relate it to something catastrophic or harrowing in nature and while it often can be, it can also be less threatening and still as impactful. All traumatic stress reactions are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. Understanding what traumatic stress is and its effects on the body are two important components when it comes to healing and recovery.
There are different types and degrees of trauma and depending on the nature of the trauma, they can fall into two different categories. Big trauma, referred to as big “T” trauma, is commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Big “T” trauma can include life-threatening injury and experiencing natural disaster, war or violence. Even individuals living and working in close proximity to trauma survivors are vulnerable to experiencing vicarious trauma or secondary PTSD.
Little trauma or little “t” traumas refer to highly distressing events that affect individuals on a personal level but aren’t considered big “T” events. These may include non-life-threatening events, emotional abuse, death of a pet or loved one, loss of a relationship or breakup to name a few. While these events may not meet the diagnostic criteria of PTSD, there is now research which concludes repeated exposure to little ”t” traumas can cause more emotional harm than one major big “T” traumatic event.
Regardless of the trauma, it impacts everybody differently. The severity in which someone experiences trauma is dependent upon the individual and their resiliency, their developmental processes, the characteristics of the event, the meaning of the event and sociocultural factors. For example, an individual may experience a car accident and have a difficult time emotionally recovering, and another individual experiencing the same accident may brush it off and have little to no emotional effects.
Trauma and the body:
Trauma is more than psychological, it is physical. The last few years of neuroscience research has proven that trauma is stored in the body on a cellular level. Trauma rewires the nervous system keeping survivors “stuck” in either the fight mode, where they feel anxious, hypervigilant or over reactive to sounds or triggers; or the flight mode which is characterized by emotional numbing, disassociation from their bodies or depression. The amazing thing is that these somatic responses can dominate the body for years after the traumatic event has happened. Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to process trauma is through embodied practices.
Trauma and yoga:
Yoga practitioners use breathwork, mindfulness and physical postures to turn the focus inward and connect the breath, body and mind. Practicing present moment awareness allows individuals to recognize habitual patterns with curiosity and better understand the bodies cues-which are essential elements of healing. Increasing body awareness (interoception) can promote feelings of physical, emotional and psychological safety. It can also facilitate the “rest-and-digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Often times, post-traumatic events cause the brain and nervous system to get “stuck” when trying to process the event. An individual’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response and acts largely unconsciously. A survivor’s post-traumatic ANS creates a narrow “window of tolerance,” which can lead to an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, anxiety and stress in the body. Yoga can help widen the “window of tolerance” by being in the present moment, deep breathing through sensations that arise and befriending the body. While many yoga classes encourage students to move through emotional discomfort, it is important to note that not all yoga classes are good for trauma survivors. In fact, yoga can retraumatize a survivor if triggered. A trauma-based approach to yoga provides a safe, secure, predictable environment. Its focus is less about how a pose is executed and more about the feeling of being within your body. It allows the student to feel safe and make personal choices that support a sense of grounding and help them feel secure and supported.
Yoga helps trauma survivors to:
· Engage in the present moment and tune into their bodies
· Create a gentle, compassionate body-mind relationship
· Learn how to regulate emotions
· Discover tools for processing sensations and emotions
· Release stored trauma memories so brain and nervous system can regulate
· Live safely in their bodies in the present moment
· Gain a sense of personal empowerment over their practice and their body
There are several different types of breathing techniques or pranayama practices that are helpful when feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Pranayama is a yogic practice of focusing on and regulating the breath. In Sanskrit, “prana” means life energy, and “yama” means control. One of my favorite pranayama practices to utilize to help calm the mind and provide instant relief of tension, stress or anxiety is called Bharamari pranayama or “bee breath.”
How to practice Bharamari pranayama:
1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with your eyes gently closed.
2. Place your thumbs on the cartilage of your ear just below your cheek bone and gently press.
3. Place your index fingers gently over closed eyelids, middle fingers on either side of your nose, ring fingers above closed lips and the pinky fingers just below the lips. (Fingers will rest gently on your face and thumbs will keep your ears closed.)
4. Take a deep inhale in through your nose and exhale through your nose. As you exhale, make a humming sound (like a bee).
5. The humming should feel strong enough to feel the vibration but gentle enough to feel the calming effects.
6. Continue for at least 6 cycles of breath.
7. After you release the pranayama technique, take a few moments to sit in silence and allow yourself to breathe naturally.
Note: This breath is not recommended for individuals with extremely high blood pressure, epilepsy or pregnant women. As with anything, if you experience any discomfort please stop and return to the natural rhythm of your breath.
I hope you have found this article informative and helpful. I will be teaching a module on yoga and trauma in the “Divine Spirit Yoga Training” through The Space Wellness Center. You can find me or attend my yoga classes here at The Space or through Carefree Yoga. Please check out my website for all services I offer at Juliebentonyogaplus.com
Love Above All,