by Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT, RYT-200
Unhealed trauma is stored in a particular area of the brain and, most prominently, shows up in the body, causing a level of conflict and discord for survivors. This legacy can make us feel like we are at war with our bodies. Trauma healing and recovery is an active process of making peace with the body. At first, it may feel like we have to broker a tentative treaty with our worst enemy. The eventual hope is that we can learn to befriend our bodies, for the path to healing travels through the body, leading us home to the Oneness that we are.
Now take a moment to notice—take a breath and pay attention to how your body is responding or reacting to reading this opening paragraph.
Make peace? Befriend? But I hate my body! How can I put my trust in something that always seems to be letting me down, shutting down on me, or leading me astray?
These protests are common in our culture—especially from women. When women have experienced the pain of spiritual trauma or spiritual/religious abuse, the impact on the body and our relationship with it can be even more profound. The more trauma scholars, researchers, and practitioners learn about the nature of psychological trauma and its effect on the brain, the more we realize how pervasively the impact of unhealed trauma plays out in the body.
In this article, I will first explain what makes the body so susceptible when it comes to traumatic injury of various kinds. I then explore the role of learning messages and how this can keep many of us blocked from embracing what is vital for healing, which includes the need to make peace with the body. Finally, I explore where the teachings of compassionate Christianity can be an ally for women who are seeking to build a healthier relationship with their own bodies as part of their healing journey.
How Brains and Bodies Respond to Trauma
Let’s begin by pulling out a roadmap for understanding the phenomenon being explored in this article and look at a Cliff Notes version of the neuroscience. In human beings, all experiences, seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted, or sensed, get filtered through the limbic brain, sometimes called the midbrain, the emotional brain, or the heart brain. The limbic brain, which contains segments you may have heard of—like the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the nucleus acumbens (responsible for dopamine release)—is the center of emotions and learning. The functions driven by the limbic brain alert us to danger and can set off metaphorical panic buttons that can keep us safe at the time of a traumatic or threatening experience. If you are familiar with the fight-flight response, you are, then, intimately aware of how the limbic brain is designed to work. Yet if our bodies never learn that the danger has passed, we can become stuck in this panic-button condition to some degree or another, depending on whether or not we were given the time, space, and resources we needed to heal from that experience when it happened.
There is an even lower and older part of the brain called the brainstem (which starts at the base of the brain and runs down the spine) that the limbic brain works with when danger or threat abounds. The brainstem is responsible for other functions you may know well, like freezing to submission, fawning, or otherwise shutting down.
Changing the Messages to Move Toward Healing
Think about all the functions named here and consider whether you’ve had a personal experience with them—fight, flight, freeze, fawn, shutting down. Consider dopamine release and how we can use other behavior—like drinking, using drugs, eating, or engaging in behaviors that are not healthy for us—to amplify this dopamine release, especially when attempting to drown out other sensations we may find painful or unpleasant. All these experiences are felt in the body, generally as a protective mechanism.
While these protective mechanisms may have kept us safe at the time of an original traumatic or wounding experience, if our brains continue to go to them as a default in the absence of deeper healing or processing, we can remain stuck in the loop. Moreover, vicious messages may accompany the traumatic experiences we endure that can make this stuck loop feel more like a whirlpool of doom from which we cannot escape. You may relate to receiving messages such as I cannot let it out; I cannot show my emotions; I am bad; No one can be trusted; I cannot trust myself; I am defective; My body is ugly; My body fails me; God will punish me; or I am to blame during a traumatic experience.
If these messages never seemed to pass or you were never permitted to heal the wounds that caused the messages, chances are very high that you are still living with a great deal of limbic-level activation. This activation may be keeping you from living the most adaptive life possible. The very same messages you received at the time of the trauma or series of traumatic experiences may be the scripts that keep you and your body from embracing what it needs to heal.
So why can’t we just get over it, especially if ample evidence abounds that we are good enough, that our bodies are beautiful and worthy of respect, or that any antiquated religious messaging we received about our bodies being sinful, lustful, and not worthy of trust have long been disproven through healthier spiritual experiences?
The answer, once again, rests in understanding how the human brain works. If memories of traumatic experiences remain stored with some level of charge in the limbic brain, any time a reminder or trigger sets off one of the messages connected to the unhealed trauma, the wisdom part of our brain that knows better (called the neocortex or pre-frontal cortex) can go offline to some degree. So even if we’ve learned new things about ourselves rationally, through methods like talk therapy or even new spiritual education and insight, we may not be able to access that new learning or wisdom because all our blood flow is literally going to the limbic brain.
Here’s the key that may unlock so many of the questions you have about why you can’t get unstuck: we cannot work to heal the limbic brain with words, thoughts, and other rational constructs. The limbic brain and brainstem both operate in the realm of emotion, sensation, and experience. Thus, to truly heal the damage from trauma playing out in our body, we must get into our emotions, sensations, and body-level experiences. When we can let our bodies express what they have been holding on to for us and teach ourselves, experientially, that there’s a new way to be in the world, the things that keep us stuck inevitably shift to primary storage in the neocortex, where we can make sense of things long-term. And in the process, we learn to trust our bodies and respect ourselves even more. We can transform those old, unserving messages into new messages that resonate for us at a visceral level.
Healthy Spiritual Practices
When I studied trauma-informed yoga as a student, I learned that the practice of yoga can be both a trigger and a resource for survivors of trauma. From the perspective of a survivor of complex trauma and in my work as an embodied trauma-focused and expressive arts therapist, I’ve realized that we can replace yoga in that statement with a variety of practices—dance can be both a trigger and a resource; bodywork can be both a trigger and a resource; emotionally focused psychotherapy can be both a trigger and a resource; learning new ways to meditate and experience oneself as an embodied spiritual being in the world can be both a trigger and a resource. The list goes on.
For true recovery to happen, we must learn to embrace a practice or series of practices that help us encounter the rawness of emotion and body-level experience. The good news is that you have choices. If dance feels like a little much for you at this point in your healing, consider finding a good, gentle yoga class. Or maybe painting or another expressive arts pathway (all of which work with the body in some way) feels like a better fit. The guidance of a solid therapist or spiritual director who really gets the embodied elements of trauma can help you gently find the pathways that are best for you at any given time in your journey. Starting gently is very important. For instance, learning to turn an evening walk into a meditative experience where you truly learn to listen to your body can be a radical new intervention in your healing journey.
However, also be willing to let yourself be challenged. Something we teach in expressive arts is that the practice you most fear may have the most to teach you in the long-run. As the developer of an expressive arts practice called Dancing Mindfulness, I’ve had the privilege to travel the world and share the practice for the past decade. I’ve learned a great deal about people by observing their relationship with dance and movement. I can see why the English word avoidance includes the word dance! (Go ahead. Chuckle. I do.) So many people are afraid to dance out of fear they will be judged for not looking a certain way. Others will take to dance if they are given specific steps and shown what to do, yet I see many people shut down when I invite them to explore free from movement in their body. I get looks of panic that communicate, “I have a body? And I’m allowed to move it freely?”
Yes you do and yes you are!
Embracing this idea is vital to trauma recovery, and you have a wide range of practices at your disposal that can help you begin exploring this new message. If dance feels like it’s a little much for you right now, more advanced trauma therapies, like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing®, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy®, top a very long list of modalities that, when guided by a qualified therapist, can be of value. More traditional therapeutic practices, like Gestalt therapy, and all of the creative arts therapies, from the fusion of expressive arts to the specific forms like dance/movement, art, or music therapy are proving to be game changers for many survivors. Yoga and meditation are being used in a variety of ways in clinical work, the general community, and ministry. These techniques are being allied to help trauma survivors renegotiate their relationship with their bodies and how their bodies respond to the world around them.
I advise survivors not to make a judgment about yoga, meditation, or, really, any of these practices just by one experience. There are as many different styles of yoga and meditation as there are religious denominations, so if the first experience you try doesn’t seem like the greatest fit, consider giving at least three or four other classes, teachers, or venues a try. Many people prefer exploring these modalities on their own before venturing into a public space with them, and there is no shortage of places you can do that online. I invite you to visit a website I have set up for these purposes at www.traumamadesimple.com if your interest is piqued!
Finally, it is quite possible that healthy spiritual practice itself can be part of the healing solution. When you’ve been wounded by religion or even spirituality in the past, pursuing something different can feel like a daunting task. Yet, in my own experience, seeking out a more nourishing pathway for connecting to the Divine has been vital. As a self-described spiritual person yearning for real connection to something greater than myself, just cutting off spiritual practice, or even religious engagement, has never worked for me. When I’ve tried, the results have been as futile as shutting down the messages of my body. In my journey, I’ve gratefully learned that not everyone out there connects with God, or even the messages of Christ, in a hateful, shameful way. Yet it’s taken some exploring of different ministries, churches, and communities to find them. This summer, it dawned on me that, even though I’m well steeped in Eastern practices as part of my integrated spirituality, the wonder of the Incarnation is the primary reason I’ve not been able to walk away from Christianity altogether. The essence of the Christian messages is that The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us! This teaching that mystifies so many of my friends in different faith traditions is what I love the most about Christianity—that even though the Power of God is formless and timeless, God revealed themselves in form.
The form of the body.
So let’s celebrate the body, embrace it for all its humanity, and allow the body to transform our pain and carry us home to the larger wonder that connects us all. Sometimes when I struggle with my body—its aches, its pains, its imperfections, and the evidence of trauma that still lingers in it—I remember the miracle of the Incarnation, that the form of my body is an expression of the Divine, of the formless. And when I can remember that truth, I not only make peace with my body, I am inspired to lean in and listen. To her wisdom, to her guidance.