Trauma—the state an individual is left with after a shock, prolonged danger or distressing event has passed—got put on the map after the Gulf War, when war veterans returned with what came to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
But psychologists have long known that trauma doesn't just stem from major traumatic events but can also result from Adverse Childhood Events (ACE), or indeed any event or experience so overwhelming that we feel we can't cope.
Although the medical world has long viewed trauma as a purely psychological condition, recent research reveals that the victim undergoes a physiological response—a reliving in the current moment of the prior event as well as their state at the time. For those with trauma, this is the only way the more primal, instinctual responses can make sense of the shock.
Trauma tends to be divided into two categories. Shock, or 'discrete trauma,' occurs when a person experiences or witnesses physical abuse, injury or the death of a relative or friend. Vivid and explicit memories usually surround this type of trauma, and it is often discussed more in relation to PTSD.
Developmental trauma, or ACEs, occur during our childhood years, mostly due to the relationship we have with our caregiver. This can include reoccurring painful experiences, including parental criticism, childhood neglect, bullying, or addiction like alcoholism or mental or medical illness in the family.
Whatever the causative route, the mind-body outcome is the same: the individual becomes locked into a protective state where they are continually hypervigilant, or on guard.
Often trauma creates a set of competing strategies, all triggered at once, so that victims alternate between one set of emotions—withdrawal or depression—and another—anxiety or irritation.
Physically, this constant feeling of being 'on guard' can manifest as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, chemical sensitivities, myofascial pain, problems with the temporomandibular joint of the jaw (TMJ), chronic lower back pain, and chronic headaches or migraines.
We experience emotional states such as freezing up or feeling spaced out, overwhelmed or disconnected from reality, when the brain's frontal lobes are disengaged to bypass the executive functioning of the cortex and activate our instinctive survival responses.
As Maryanna Eckberg says in her book Victims of Cruelty: Somatic Psychotherapy and the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (North Atlantic Books, 2000): "Trauma . . . can manifest in our bodies (as) chronically restricted tissue, the shrinking or bracing of the overall structure, a tight diaphragm and shallow breathing . . . and strong tension at the base of the skull and at the bottom of the spine."
To not move is to stay locked in the body, often with a dissociated mind, and to create tight, stuck movement patterns.
Gentle, mindful and attentive movement can help to unlock traumatized body tissues and start to unravel trauma's effects without causing any further harm.
A 2014 paper on mindful movement discusses recent theories that "mental functions such as perception, cognition and motivation cannot be fully understood without reference to the physical body as well as the environment in which they are experienced."1
As Bessel van der Kolk says in
his seminal book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin, 2015), "You can be fully in charge of your life only if you acknowledge the reality of your body in all its visceral dimensions."
Many of the following are grounding exercises. Staying 'grounded' means having a full sense of our physical body in the here and now. When freezing and dissociation tend to take us away from this clarity, grounding provides a tether to come back to.