Many trauma survivors are learning how to listen to their bodies in ways that create new confidence and self-trust and a deeper understanding of their needs.
Trauma experts also use techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), breathwork, and mindfulness exercises to engage the body in the healing process. Studies have found that body-focused treatments such as yoga can be a more effective treatment for PTSD than medication or forms of talk therapy.
We interviewed Eden Himidian, MA, LCSW, RYT — a psychotherapist at Wildflower Center for Emotional Health about the role of the body in healing from trauma. Eden is also a yoga instructor with training in Trauma Sensitive Yoga Therapy and Yoga Informed Psychotherapy.
What’s one piece of advice or reminder that you often offer to folks that are working on their relationship with their body after trauma?
That everybody and every body is different and it will probably take time to re-learn yours. Events change us and change the relationship we have with our body, I encourage people to be mindful of that and approach their healing with as much compassion and as little judgment as possible, there is no right or wrong way to do this work. I often remind people at the conclusion of a Trauma Sensitive Yoga practice that we are exactly where we need to be, doing exactly what we need to do, and invite them to allow themselves a few moments to simply be here and breathe.
What are common messages the body sends that folks often miss regarding fears, triggers, desires or needs — even folks that are accustomed to listening to their body?
After trauma, the body often tells us that we are in danger even when we are not. Dr. Daniel Siegel coined the term Window of Tolerance to describe how we operate when we are regulated versus when our sympathetic branch is in overdrive (pedal to the metal) or our parasympathetic branch is stuck on (brakes). We all have a Window of Tolerance and our life events affect how wide that window is opened. After someone experiences a traumatic event or series of events, their Window of Tolerance closes some amount, making their nervous system susceptible to experiences of hyper or hypo arousal. After the initial experience, it is easier to get triggered in or out of the WOT and much harder to get back in. Subsequently, that person might begin to engage in behaviors in an effort to re-regulate, or get back in the window, that actually make it smaller, such as substance use, avoidance, self-injurious behaviors, etc. It makes complete sense one might turn anywhere they can for comfort, and it also makes sense that over time they will recognize this backfires by increasing suffering. Essentially, when you are responding to outdated cues, your body might tell you need to seek comfort, hide, push people away, or turn to maladaptive coping skills to regulate. And while that might take away the short-term pain, it reinforces the trauma story and keeps the suffering going in the long run.
For folks that have been actively engaging the body in trauma work, are there any new treatments or insights they should know about?
There is always something new out there! I am a big fan Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. This website for survivors of complex trauma also offers wonderful resources.
For folks that already have a yoga practice, how can they find community or other support of folks that are knowledgeable about the relationship between trauma and yoga?
This has certainly been harder during the pandemic, but it’s possible. When looking at yoga studios, I encourage people to take a look at the schedule and go to the studio for a trial class to get a sense of the atmosphere and community. I recommend looking for options that include “Restorative Yoga,” “Gentle Yoga,” or “Hatha Yoga” on the schedule and if those aren’t there, that might be a sign it is not the right fit for this kind of practice. And when you go in to take a look at the studio, check that there are no mirrors in the studios, look at how things are set up (where are the props, where are the exits, how many people in a class, etc). If anything feels unsafe to you, know that you are not obligated to stay for the class and it might not be a good fit. I recommend a few studios, including Room to Breathe and Namaskar. There are also online yoga resources, including doyogawithme.com which offers different levels, styles, and lengths of classes with both free and membership options.
Our histories of trauma or violence often affect one’s intimate relationships and can be a source of tension, guilt or shame. How can we better use these relationships to heal on a physical level?
Notice what your body is telling you when you are in relationship with someone. We often override or ignore cues that our body is sending and dismiss them without awareness that we are doing so. This might look like ignoring your quickening heart rate when your partner makes a comment that feels critical. What happens over time is that we begin to invalidate our own inner wisdom and stop trusting ourselves. And when these moments build up, they erode our sense of self in relationships and can lead to emotional eruptions that seem to come out of nowhere. If you begin a practice of mindful awareness of your body, attuning to yourself and your needs, and giving yourself permission to attend to these sensations (e.g. giving yourself a break, setting a boundary, or verbalizing your needs), it will lead to powerfully reparative moments in relationships. This can create a sense of safety that might have felt impossible before and start to rework old narratives based in trauma.
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