We are Committed to Destigmatizing the Word "Trauma"

At BodyWise Foundation, we receive a lot of questions:

  • What is trauma?

  • How does trauma occur?

  • How can I heal trauma?

  • Is trauma in my body? What are trauma symptoms?

  • Are there different kinds of trauma?

  • What is  trauma-informed yoga? How does it work?

  • Can I heal?

This page strives to answer some of these important questions. 

 
 
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We are Committed to Destigmatizing the Word "Trauma"

At BodyWise Foundation, we receive a lot of questions:

  • What is trauma?

  • How does trauma occur?

  • How can I heal trauma?

  • Is trauma in my body? What are trauma symptoms?

  • Are there different kinds of trauma?

  • What is  trauma-informed yoga? How does it work?

  • Can I heal?

This page strives to answer some of these important questions. 

 

Why is trauma stigmatized?  

Trauma is commonly defined as “physical or psychological damage from a distressing event”. 

In our culture we have little acceptance, or understanding, of emotional vulnerability. Trauma’s association with the word damage has caused the word to become stigmatized. Many feel embarrassed or ashamed when trauma is incurred. 

Later, we will discuss why the ways that the body responds during an overwhelming or traumatic event is normal. The body is biologically wired to respond to stress and trauma to ensure survival.

 

What is trauma, and how does it happen? 

Most people think that trauma occurs during an act of violence, extreme danger, a natural disaster, or in an accident. Whilst those events often do cause trauma, other less intense experiences can also be traumatic.

At BodyWise Foundation, we define trauma as any experience that is overwhelming for the body, or that the body does not have the resources or time to integrate. Trauma is incredibly common; everyone has experienced it in their own unique way. 

Our bodies are equipped to handle everyday stress. 

When we experience a perceived "threat", like a car slamming on its breaks, our nervous system is activated and responds. Ideally, one would respond by also slowing their car. Their nervous system would then de-escalate from a state of heightened arousal and return to a baseline or relaxed state relatively quickly.

When we experience consistent stress, however, our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and cannot return to its normal, relaxed state. Some call these experiences micro traumas.

Other incidences, like an act of violence, accident, or natural disaster are considered larger traumas.

Both kinds of experiences dysregulate the nervous system. This dysregulation is what eventually leads to trauma symptoms.
When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight system) activates. Internally, a biological cascade occurs - neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine and dopamine are released. Resources are mobilized so that we can respond (by fighting or fleeing): our heart rate increases, our adrenal glands pump out cortisol (stress hormone), our respiration quickens, our pupils dilatate, blood shunts from the organs and moves into our legs so that we can run, etc. This is sometimes called the stress response.

However, we often do not respond to the internal impulse to run or fight. When we are driving, we slow our car and recollect our composure. When our boss yells at us we take a deep breath, and perhaps clench our fist under the desk. We have learned how to manage our impulses and exist within the expectations of our society.

This means that mobilized energy is still present internally. You can think of it as though the gas and the brake pedal are being pressed at the same time. This conflict is what begins to dysregulate the nervous system.

Until the activation is released, or the impulse to fight or flight is completed, the body still believes it is under threat.

 

What are trauma symptoms? 

Sometimes, trauma symptoms occur years after the traumatic incident. Trauma symptoms are not caused by the event itself but by the biological response to the event.

Remember that during a traumatic or stressful experience the body is activated to respond, and that we often control the activation; that internally there is a brake and gas pedal being pushed at the same time; and this internal conflicting energy begins to dysregulate the nervous system. In a robust or healthy nervous system, the body can withstand internal dysregulation for years before the body presents trauma symptoms. 

The part of our nervous system and brain that determines if we are in fight or flight (sympathetic), or rest and digest (parasympathetic), is also the part of the brain that controls all autonomic functions. Our autonomic (or automatic) functions are faculties like breathing, digestion, heart rate, sleep, temperature regulation, reproductive/sexual impulses and mood.

When this area becomes dysregulated it is a rich ground for traumatic symptoms. We often see:

  • Anorexia, binge eating, or other disordered eating

  • Lethargy

  • Anxiety

  • Anger and reactivity

  • Extensive sleeping or the inability to sleep

  • Gastro-intestinal issues

  • Promiscuous behavior or a lowered sex drive

At BodyWise, we strive to de-pathologize and normalize trauma symptoms. We understand that this is the body’s way of attempting to cope with the dysregulation, and that the trauma “symptoms” can be thought of as a release valve.  

We do not say the student is anorexic, instead we acknowledge that they are displaying anorexic behavior.  

Other presentations of trauma include:

  • Numbness

  • Dissociation 

  • Cognitive decline

  • Intruding memories

  • Guilt

  • Self-destructive thoughts 

  • Impulsive behavior 

  • Addiction

  • Extreme physicality (ie. workouts)

  • Avoidance

  • Isolation 

  • Inability to maintain close relationships

  • Experiencing the world as an unsafe place

  • Mistrust of others motives 

Remember that until the activation is released, the body still believes it is under threat.

Whilst there is still a lot we do not understand about trauma, we do know that the impact is far reaching and not always easily perceived. Self image, attitude and worldview can be radically shifted. Bones, heart, organs, brain tissue, muscles, ligaments, blood and fascia are affected.

 


What kinds of trauma are there? 

  • Soft trauma- prolonged stress and ongoing abuses: sexual, physical, emotional, domestic

  • Hard trauma- a single incident like a car accident, assault, surgery, or natural disaster

  • Vicarious trauma- trauma workers, nurses, social workers often “burn out” or begin to experience trauma symptoms

One theory is that constant exposure to another’s trauma story can activate mirror neurons in the trauma worker’s brain (a part of the brain that activates the same way when you do a forward fold or watch someone do a forward fold)

  • Transgenerational trauma- trauma that is passed from one generation to the next

  • Developmental, complex and attachment trauma- these forms of trauma occur in children and are linked to diminished health outcomes across a lifetime. Survivors of childhood trauma are statistically more likely to experience trauma as adults:

    • Developmental trauma occurs during a fundamental developmental stage in childhood

    • Complex trauma is when there are multiple experiences of developmental trauma

    • Attachment trauma occurs when a child does not have a secure attachment with a primary care giver who is responsive, attuned and timely

  • Cultural trauma- when members of a collective group have experienced a trauma. Sometimes this occurs during a natural disaster, or in a zip code experiencing violence. The traumatic event or continuous stressful events often change the group behavior and identity.

  • Repeated stress- some survivors find themselves trapped in environments that consistently re-traumatize their systems. 

For example, a survivor may live in a country and be under constant threat of arrest, or a domestic abuse survivor may live in a home under constant fear of abuse. This is classified as Continuous Traumatic Stress (CTS).


Learn More About Overcoming Trauma Through The Body

Clinical research studies reveal how trauma, and its resulting stress, impacts individuals body and brain. Fortunately, these studies are also demonstrating how to treat trauma using body-based modalities.

Trauma-Informed Yoga Classes Lead
To Significant Decreases in PTSD Symptoms

Trauma-informed yoga provides tools
for people to deal with emotional scars

How childhood trauma affects
health across a lifetime

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How does trauma-informed yoga work? How can I heal?

The traumatic event isn’t what caused the trauma - it is the body’s response to the perceived (and actual) threat that causes the psychological, physiological and neurological damage. The best way to work with these effects is through rebalancing the nervous system.

Trauma-informed yoga is very helpful for regulating the nervous system. 

“When a student takes a yoga shape, we do not care what it looks like on the outside. We care how it feels on the inside.” -Eleanor Bramwell

 

Interoception- Body Scanning

Experiencing our inner space. A sensation like bladder being full, feeling hungry, the breeze on our skin, the temperature inside, a “gut feeling”.

Body scanning, or mindfulness mediation, has been shown to:

  • Harmonize brain hemispheres

  • Increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory, which goes offline during trauma)

  • Decrease activity in the amygdala (associated with fear and anxiety, which is often overactive after trauma) 

  • Decrease activity in the default mode network (associated with chronic pain, depression, and negative self -eferential thoughts)

  • Increase grey matter in the brain

  • Support the trauma in survivor staying present (there is a tendency to dissociate or zone out)

  • Gives trauma survivor the tools to feel safe in their own body and experience sensations
    ***These outcomes have been proved by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, Hopkins, UCLA and the University of Massachusetts. 

 

HRV- Heart Rate Variability

Heart Rate Variability is the amount of space between each heartbeat. As we grow older, this becomes more static.

The more difference in the space between heart beats, the greater the HRV.

HRV is the marker of resilience, or capacity to come back to baseline after stress. 

 

Breath

Modifying the breath increases HRV. Each time we take a breath, our heart beats, and we can speed up or slow down our heart rate. 

Modifying the breath has been shown to: 

  • Harmonize brain hemispheres

  • Bring the hippocampus back online (disturbed during trauma)

  • Down regulate the nervous system (longer exhales engage parasympathetic dominance)

Other benefits of trauma-informed yoga are:

  • Promoting curiosity 

  • Increasing window of tolerance

  • Encouraging self agency

  • Improving self-esteem and concentration 

  • Learning to create internal containment

  • Strengthens impulse control

This has great psychological and physical effects on an individual.

Trauma is also, paradoxically, a potential gift if framed as an opportunity to learn about ourselves, practice forgiveness and strengthen our resilience. Difficult circumstances have the potential to transform us. It can be challenging to see trauma in this light, yet creating the space for this possibility can be a step toward integration and healing.

Softening the shame and blame that often gnaws at us, depleting our inner reserves and lowering our self-esteem allows the stigma, or the thought/feeling that “something is wrong with me” to fade.

“Trauma is a fact of life but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”
-Peter Levine, PhD

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