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How to Make Friends With Your Body After Trauma

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

Reconnecting with the body can be an important part of healing

Article by Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. in Psychology today.

Trauma has a way of distancing us from our bodies. If the traumatic event involved a physical attack such as an assault, the body can be a continual reminder of the horrifying event. As a result, we might avoid really feeling our bodies, in a conscious or unconscious effort to suppress the trauma memory.

The body is also home to post-traumatic stress responses, like shallow breathing and a racing heart. Those physical indicators often serve as trauma reminders, providing more incentive to disconnect from our bodies. However, separating from our bodies can interfere with recovery after trauma, since part of trauma is stored in the body.

The process of healing often involves reconnecting with our bodies, as James Gordon described in the Think Act Be podcast. “We have to reinvest ourselves in our bodies,” he said. “For too many of us, the body is something to just get us from here to there, or to get in good shape, or to be ashamed of, or to not pay too much attention to because it’s causing us trouble in one way or another.”

While it’s understandable that we’ve learned to relate with our bodies in these ways, he suggests a different relationship. “We need to reclaim the simple pleasure of just being in the body,” said Gordon. Your body is yours, and reconnecting with it is an essential part of realizing your wholeness.

This guidance resonates with what I experienced myself after two traumatic events. The first was a random assault a couple of years ago, followed a year later by discovering the dead body of someone I knew and trying unsuccessfully to resuscitate him. Both of these experiences in very different ways left a trace in my body; practices like yoga that joined mind, body, and spirit were so helpful as I healed.

Here are five ways to rebuild connection with your body.

Bathe. Gordon recommends “taking a bath or a nice long shower, feeling the water on your body, and just enjoying the processing of washing yourself.” Instead of rushing to get on to the next thing, take your time. “You don’t have to hurry in and out,” he said, “Just feel your body and what’s going on with it.”

Breathe. Trauma has predictable effects on the breath, leading to rapid shallow breathing. That style of breath then feeds back into the nervous system, causing further tension and stress. Gordon recommends an exercise called “soft belly breathing” to soothe the nervous system and move out of fight-or-flight mode. I’ve done a lot of breathing practices myself and used various approaches in my clinical work, and I found Soft Belly to be particularly calming. Here is a link to Gordon leading you through the exercise.

Move. “Find a physical activity you enjoy doing,” recommends Gordon. The enjoyment part is crucial, so you’re not fighting against the body as you do it. “And do it in a way that’s a bit more relaxed and meditative,” he continued. “One of my patients did mindful weightlifting, just doing it slowly and easily and enjoying every inch of movement.” Feel your way into the body, noticing even subtle sensations like the adjustments your body makes to maintain balance as you move.

Open. Our automatic reaction to stress or tension is to brace ourselves against it, or otherwise try to escape it. But that reaction signals our bodies and brains that we’re in danger, and heightens the fight-or-flight response. Gordon recommends we do the opposite. “If we’re experiencing discomfort,” he said, “a simple thing to begin with is to breathe deeply and relax instead of tensing ourselves against the discomfort.” This practice works well when paired with a calming breath practice like soft belly. “So many of us carry tension in our shoulders,” said Gordon. “As we’re doing soft belly breathing, we can allow the shoulders to relax, and feel the breath going into the shoulders and relaxing us even more.

Listen. Finally, Gordon described a fascinating process of listening for the wisdom of the body, using a version of the body scan. “Essentially it’s a guided tour through your body to get accustomed to it,” he said. It begins with directing attention to each area of the body. “Then I suggest you go to a part of your body that’s calling to you,” he said. “Imagine you’re in that place inside your body. And you simply ask, Why am I here? What do you have to teach me?

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