Below the Words: Working with the Body in Trauma Therapy
My colleague, Jackson Ravenscroft, does such an amazing job explaining why we work with the body in trauma processing. I am excited to share their most recent article here on why “just talking about it” doesn’t work when it comes to healing from trauma.
Jackson is a psychotherapist in Boston, MA specializing in the treatment of trauma and dissociation. They spent the first 6 years of their career at the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline working and learning amongst some of the foremost trauma experts in the country. They are now in private practice.
Over the past several decades there has been growing understanding and acceptance in Western psychology around the ways in which trauma and stress affects the body. Much of this understanding has already existed in different forms in cultures around the world for centuries. It has been reflected in healing processes and interventions working directly with the body, with energy flow and with community-centered healing practices. In recent decades in the United States there has been a shift away from cognitive therapeutic approaches. The shift has moved (at least for some therapists) towards therapy supporting the individual as a survivor, viewing symptoms and struggles as adaptive survival responses to either historical or present moment trauma and stress. This shifts the locus of suffering, struggle and feelings of brokenness away from the person onto perpetrators and the oppressive systems in society that permit abuse and discrimination.
Maybe you have done some forms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and for some of you that may have been helpful. For others, there may be a sense some things just cannot be addressed merely by talking through them, and these approaches have not been helpful. Indeed, in the case of trauma talking about your experiences repeatedly without getting help to process and heal can be damaging and make things worse. As understanding of the impacts of trauma on a person has shifted over time, there has been a profound shift towards seeing how historical, cultural and interpersonal trauma not only affect the body, but in fact are housed in the body, rather than in our thoughts.
The interpersonal and systemic perpetrators of trauma are the brokenness that survivors often internalize. You are not broken, that is outside of you. But you may all the same have been impacted in many different ways by these forces, you have survived and found ways to make it to the present moment. And you hold both the story of your pain and your survival in your body. The personal work is only one piece of healing, it happens on a societal level, in community and in connection, but in individual therapy you can work with your body and the ways in which it holds its pain, history, resilience, and strength.
Body-based approaches to trauma work by understanding how the body holds both its wounding and it’s survival and how to access these wounds and resources. For many survivors not only has the body been impacted by trauma but it may also have been the only place to hide away overwhelming feelings and experiences in order to survive. For some, that means becoming more aware of your body and your feelings can feel scary and overwhelming, and the idea of entering therapy can feel frightening. Trauma therapy should approach this work with deep respect and care and at a manageable pace, working at the edge of increased awareness and insight without overwhelm. Sometimes this means moving at what feels like a very slow pace, but which in fact will be the fastest way to get where you want to go. Most importantly, trauma therapy should not be centered around the trauma but the healing. It is about tapping into your body’s innate capacity for healing and growth and following the path it lays out before you.
Traumatic stress can show up in multiple ways and manifestations. It can be held in sense memory (the sight of something, the sound, the touch), in internal sensations (tension, tightness, clenching, aching), in posture and movement such as hunching over, tense and pulled up shoulders, repeated postures and movements, as well as in thoughts and feelings. This way of understanding how trauma manifests is described and laid out by one approach to treating trauma called Sensorimotor Psychotherapy that was developed by Dr. Pat Ogden (https://sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org/).
When using this or similar approaches the work will be a little different than traditional talk therapy. At a pace that feels right to you, the therapist will support you in becoming mindfully aware of how your body moves, responds and reacts as you speak both about adversity and about survival and growth. For example, you might be invited to notice how one of your shoulders might tense up as you talk about a disagreement with a friend, to sense into that tightening, to notice if there are thoughts or images that arise when noticing the tension. You might be invited to notice if the tension itself can speak or say something to you.
We cannot fully heal, adapt, grow or thrive without working below the level of language. There is an incredible depth of wisdom and insight in the body that can open up when you are ready, to guide you to places of pain that are in need of help and then find its way through to places of healing, strength and power that may have been forgotten. It is all there within you below the words, when you are ready.